Guest blogger Rebecca Plumbe, University of Lincoln Masters student
Objects can be very deceptive. Like people, most of them have secrets which stay hidden until you start questioning them. As a conservator, I am a nosey parker by nature. If I could, I would sit an object down under a blinding spotlight and interrogate it with endless questions: How old are you? What are you? What are you made from? And what were you used for? But I suppose that’s what I do when I conserve an object. Inanimate material things will not tell you anything and it is their silence which is the conservator’s challenge. What can I find out about this object to further our shared understanding of its purpose and its history? For the past three months, I have spent my time doing just this with an intriguing archaeological find excavated by Allen Archaeology that arrived disguised in the form of another object. But how can an object be misleading? Well, pull up a chair at the interrogation table as I reveal my findings . . . .
The object in question resembled a Medieval mirror case and had been found on a site close to a deserted medieval village. These kinds of mirrors were believed to be carried by Pilgrims, who thought that catching the reflection of a Saint would imbibe the mirror with their attributes. Initial observations and comparisons with other mirror cases from the period on the Portable Antiquities Scheme database revealed some striking similarities such as the circular recessed shape and the traces of a reflective metal inlay.
But all was not what it seemed! Underneath the layers of corrosion product hid a very different object all together. And one that was at least 900 years younger than was first thought!
Analysis using XRF (X-ray Fluorescence) determined that the object was composed of a metal alloy (brass) as both copper and zinc were identified, the thinner, shinier metal inlay was nickel. But the real surprise came during the mechanical removal of corrosion product from the surface. Slowly but surely, small incised markings began to appear upon the nickel inlay, followed by a distinct horse-shoe shape bearing the letters ‘B_E_ A_ U_ C_ O’ stamped onto the main brass body.
Markings such as these act as clues and allow us to do a little detective work. Although the lettering around the horseshoe was partially lost, due to the effects of corrosion, there was enough evidence to tie it to a French watch-makers, Pierre, Fritz and Louis Japy who manufactured under the name of ‘Beaucourt’. Time had finally caught up with the object’s true identity!
Beaucourt was the French town in which Japy Fréres (Japy Brothers) pioneered the mechanisation of time-piece manufacture, bringing the watch making process under one roof for the first time. Although Japy Fréres started making watches in 1770, the stamp located on this casing dates to around 1890-1900. Japy Fréres prided themselves on making time-pieces for ‘the common man’, so this particular pocket watch could be purchased at a reasonable price. The smaller incised markings appear to refer to the date at which the pocket watch was once repaired. The pocket-watch was nickel plated, which explained the presence of these thinner metal remnants along the lip of the casing.
So my time spent with a scalpel, dental tool pick and microscope was time well spent, as was the case (quite literally!) with this archaeological find. With the metal now stabilised and the maker’s marks once again visible, it can tell its true story. I like to think of objects as suspects: question everything until you discover the truth. Despite being inanimate, they can still pack a surprise or two!
Antique Horology, undated),Trademarks, Stamps & Signatures, [online] Available from http://www.antique-horology.org/Trademarks/default.asp [Accessed 1 March 2017].
Artclock, 2017, Japy Freres: Biography, History + Markings, Year, [online] Available from http://www.artclock.nl/horloges-pagina-2-info/11-japy-freres-history-marking-year-11a-kopie [Accessed 1 March 2017]
Artclock, 2017, Japy Freres: History + Mark, Year, Design Index, [online] Available from http://www.artclock.nl/11-japy-freres [Accessed 1 March 2017]
Hinds, K, 2010, WILT-F04EB6: A MEDIEVAL MIRROR CASE. [online] Available from https://finds.org.uk/database/artefacts/record/id/384545 [Accessed 17 Feb 2017].
Stephen-Smith, M, 2006, The Emergence of Modern Business Enterprise in France, 1800-1930. 1st edition, USA: Harvard University Press