Mystery object

Mysterious timepiece under the hammer

With its unusual markings, it looks like something that JK Rowling might have dreamt up to feature in a Harry Potter novel.
But while there might not be anything magical about this object – which goes under the hammer in Norwich later this month – there is certainly a large amount of mystery surrounding it.
The bronze device, marked with what appears to be a 24 hour clock and compass directions, measures 3.7cm in diameter and was designed to be portable but no one has been able to reveal what it was originally used for.
Dated from the late 14th century, this unique timepiece was discovered by a metal detecting enthusiast near Shotesham.
The Norfolk man was returning home after a day out metal detecting more than 15 years ago.
“I’d had a pretty normal day, I hadn’t found much. I was walking along a footpath and I’d kept my metal detector on – I always worry I’ll miss something if I switch it off and then it suddenly started bleeping,” the 44-year-old said.
“I dug down and discovered this small metal disc covered in mud and when I brushed the mud off I saw some inscriptions, which looked a bit strange but I put it in my bag and left it. The next time I was getting ready to go out metal detecting it fell out of my bag and I decided to wash it properly and that’s when I started to become really intrigued. It was bronze and had a wonderful patina and I knew that meant it had some age to it.
“The mystery of it as good as the finding of it. It is Harry Potter material. The workmanship is incredible. I’m now in my forties and I’ve been metal detecting since I was about 8 or 9 and I have never found an object which is so intriguing.”
Two years after finding it, and following a house move, the man decided to take the bronze disc to Gressenhall Museum to see if they could tell him any more about the piece.
The museum decided to pass it on to the British Museum where it was seen by the world renowned Curator of European Scientific Instruments, Silke Ackermann.
In his report he said: “The face-markings make little sense for use as a sundial, or a nocturnal (a device for telling the time by the orientation of the stars) early versions of which were coming into use in the 14th century. The object remains largely mysterious.”
Auctioneers, Bonhams, estimate the usual object, which is included in their East Anglian View sale on October 25, will sell for £3,000 – £5,000.
James Glennie, from Bonhams’ Norfolk office, said: “This is a very unusual find and it even seems to have perplexed the experts. The Norfolk gentleman who discovered it brought it into us after hearing about another rare early medieval scientific instrument which Bonhams also sold this year.”
It will be on view at the Assembly House on October 23.

Update 26th October 2007

….the oldest and oddest item in the sale – a bronze circular disc found at Shotesham, with strange medieval markings suggesting a late 14th century timepiece – failed to fire the imaginations of collectors. It went unsold.

Man dies after Time Team accident

A man has died after a splinter of wood entered his eye during a mock jousting for Channel 4 series Time Team.

The fight re-enactor was taking part in an episode being filmed at Rockingham Castle, Northamptonshire, last month.

On impact with his shield, a splinter from a balsa wood lance entered the eye-slit of the man’s helmet and went into his eye socket, Channel 4 said.

The unnamed man, in his late 40s, died a week later in hospital. The Health and Safety Executive is investigating.

A Channel 4 spokeswoman said the man was part of a professional group which regularly re-enacts fights.

“We have been shocked and deeply saddened by this tragic accident,” she said.

“The professional company of historical enactors has an excellent safety record and took all the appropriate and necessary precautions and it does sadly appear this was a tragic, freak, accident.”

The popular history series follows archaeological digs and is presented by ex-Blackadder star Tony Robinson.

The jousting was filmed on 13 September as part of an episode focusing on Edward III’s Round Table at Windsor Castle.

The Channel 4 spokeswoman said the re-enactment would no longer feature in the episode. It will be broadcast next year with a dedication to the man at the end of the programme.

However re-enactments are likely to remain part of the series, she added.


2 comments on “Mystery object

  1. nelsie says:

    Your metal plate is much like an astrological chart, except that it has 16 ‘houses’ rather than 12, and they seem to repeat. Because constellations are around the side, as in a horoscope (Taurus appears to be repeated) and it is set up somewhat like a sundial, I think there’s a good chance it was a portable sundial with adjustments taken into account for the time of year so as to gain a more accurate time.

  2. saesferd says:

    Thank you for your comment, nelsie. There certainly were pocket sun-dials in mediaeval times. They date back to quite ancient times.
    From a sailor’s point of view, 16 divisions suggests to me a compass dial. The dry box compass was coming into use in Europe c.1400. The nocturnal, as mentioned in the article, looks like a fascinating piece of medieval technology and there are websites that still provide them!

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