During the excavation process we identified a big dark area behind the moat. Through careful excavation we realized this originally served as a well and was excavated down below the water table. Wet or waterlogged soils allow for preservation of materials which normally decay in a dry environment. This is due to the lack of air or ‘anaerobic’ condition. Once we got to the lower levels of the well the soil was extremely wet and lots of wood and a few scraps of leather were retrieved by the archaeologists.
Yesterday afternoon we found something really special near the bottom of the well– a complete leather belt which still retained its buckle and numerous metal studs along its length. This has been sent for conservation today in order to guarantee its preservation, but we will have more photos of it shortly once it has been cleaned up.
John’s initial thoughts are that it may be a scabbard belt of possible 14th or 15th century date, though analysis is at a very early stage so this interpretation may change. The buckles have been cut down and reused on the object, which would undoubtedly have been a valuable item when it was discarded. It is unclear if the heraldic symbols represent a nobility affiliation or if they serve a purely decorative function, but it is hoped heraldic analysis will clarify some of these issues.
The first images of the newly conserved material proved extremely exciting, and it became immediately apparent that the leather strip was an artefact of extreme importance. It transpired that this object, which is a nearly 1m in length, in fact holds 36 surviving gilt, hinged, copper-alloy suspension-mounts and pendants, each of which portrayed a shield with a lion, counter-rampant, in relief. Each end of the leather strap retains gilt, copper-alloy buckles, suggesting it was designed to be attached to other leather fittings at either end. Each pendant was connected by a hinge to a fixed suspension-mount which also bore a lion counter-rampant; the hinge allowed the pendant to swing forward and back when in motion.
Leather specialist John Nicholl is currently in the midst of analysing this object, which he has identified as part of a horse harness, a probable chest-girth or breast-collar for a horse which was known as a Peytrel. Such collars could be of one-piece or, as is most likely in this case given its relatively short length, two pieces which connected to a breast plate on the horse’s chest. The decoration of horse furniture such as this with heraldic symbols was particularly popular in the 13th and 14th centuries, a date which is supported by the other finds from the well.
Damian Shiels, a Company Director with Rubicon Heritage described reaction to the discovery:
“This is a truly breathtaking find, perhaps the most impressive we have come across in over ten years of archaeological excavation across hundreds of sites. The remarkable preservation of the object may be unparalleled in Ireland and Britain- as such it offers us a unique window into both medieval horsemanship and the use of heraldic symbols.”
Although thousands of individual pendants from medieval horse harnesses have been discovered across the UK and Ireland, this is the first occasion where a piece of harness has been found intact, with pendants still attached to the original leather surface. This would suggest that the Caherduggan find is extremely important for the furthering of our knowledge of both medieval horse furniture and heraldic