Of the Wearing of Rings in Ancient Times


Prehistoric Native American Rings

Rings are interesting things.  Although I have gone through certain phases of my life wearing rings or not wearing any rings at all, the reasons folks have had for wearing rings throughout prehistory and history is a fairly new interest.  I suppose it started when I noticed that a Canadian couple I met in England wear their wedding rings on the ring fingers of their right hands, instead of the more common American practice of wearing them on the ring fingers of the left hand.  An interesting discussion of such things can be found on this blog :

Shopping in an Atlanta charity shop recently, this lately dormant interest was reawakened by a serendipitous find.  What is evidently one of the classic works on rings is now happily in my possession, and is an amazing introduction to the history of rings up to that time.  Rings for the Finger: From the Earliest Known Times to the Present, with Full Descriptions of the Origin, Early Making, Materials, the Archaeology,  History, For Affection,  For Love, For Engagement, For Wedding, Commemorative, Mourning, Etc. (1917) by George Frederick Kunz is nothing if not an in depth treatise on the myriad mysteries of rings!


Early Finger Rings

It seems that among the men of ancient Rome only senators were allowed to wear gold rings until later in the Empire when the cohesion holding together the social fabric began to melt and it became all the rage among all classes.  Also, prehistoric peoples of the  southwestern Native American tribes wore rings made of shell, some being incised with natural images like lightning and clouds.  Pre-columbian copper rings have also been unearthed in Indian mounds in Ohio, and a few stone rings, which I must presume were made of soapstone (steatite) have also been excavated in Kentucky, Tennessee, and other states.



Kunz thought that the custom of wearing rings in the Occidental world derived ultimately from the Orient or from the  Egyptians, who reduced seals of rank worn about the neck or arm to rings for the finger.  From Egypt the practice spread to Greece and to the Etruscans, from whom the Romans adopted it.  There are even mythological tales of ring-wearing, such as the one in which Zeus freed Prometheus but commanded him to wear a ring made of one of the links of his Caucasian chain set with a tiny piece of the rock to which he had been chained.  In this manner his 30,000 year punishment could continue in a manner more healthy to his liver.  Yes, Prometheus had his own beast of burden, and it had nothing to do with alcohol!


“Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them,
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.”

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, 1937

Categories: Archaeology, Art, Artifacts, Cemeteries, Love, Museums | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

How to Dine like a Gentleman or a Lady on your Remote Archaeological Expedition

Howard Carter and field team dining in Egypt at the Valley of the Kings in a tomb near King Tutankhamen's.  Photo taken by Lord Carnarvon

Howard Carter and field team dining in Egypt at the Valley of the Kings in a tomb near King Tutankhamen’s. Photo taken by Lord Carnarvon

In late 2014 a colleague and I went to a lecture at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England on what can only be called “How to live like a gentleman whilst exploring the remotest corners of the world.” The talk was by the archivist from Fortnum and Mason’s, the elite London store catering to the culinary needs and wishes of aristocrats, gentlemen, and ladies the world over. F & M is especially known for its gift hampers full of chocolates, teas, wines, and jams, and it is definitely a thrilling experience to be on the receiving end of one of these hampers! Lord Carnarvon had crates of food and wines routinely delivered via ship from F & M while he and Carter were in Egypt searching for King Tut’s tomb. Today archaeologists and explorers can still get this kind of delivery on their expeditions no matter where they are in the world. One day I shall have to partake of this excellent service, though it would help immensely if I had a patron of that ilk!

Fortnum & Mason Christmas Hamper

Fortnum & Mason Christmas Hamper

“In the 1920s, Fortnum and Mason was the only store (oddly enough) to have a department that functioned solely to service ‘Expeditions’. This way, true English gentlemen could make their great discoveries in the far corners of the earth whilst never relinquishing the essentials of butter knives and foie gras. Fortnum and Mason not only supplied hampers to Howard Carter’s 1922 expedition, but thereafter empty wine boxes were employed to store and catalogue the finds. The intrepid amongst us will be happy to know that Fortnum and Mason still sponser expeditions, ensuring that no matter how far into the unknown one ventures, marmalade and fudge are not far behind. Unfortunately it would appear that the more recently catered adventures are those instigated by the children of the board.” Quoted from…/underthevaults/…/25/week4/

Categories: Archaeology, England, Exploration, Food & Drink, Museums | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

Georgia Spear Points in an English Museum

Georgia Prehistoric Projectile Points in England

Georgia Prehistoric Projectile Points in England

I was simply delighted the first time I noticed these four projectile points from Georgia on display in the Weapons section of the Pitt Rivers Museum at the University of Oxford in England. They are incorrectly identified, of course, since not one of the four are “arrowheads.” This is a common mistake even in America, though, since only the smallest triangular points identified by Whatley (2002) as Late Woodland Triangulars and Mississippian Triangulars are thought to have actually been shot from bows and to have been actually used as arrow “heads.” Furthermore, the bow and arrow are thought to have come into use amongst North American Indians around 1500 years ago, though this date may get pushed back a little further at some point based on future archaeological discoveries.

The four points at the Pitt Rivers are actually all spear points from Southeastern North America’s Prehistoric Period, and would have been hafted to spears, or to shafts for re-loading into the ends of spears, or used as knives. All of them would have been projected simply with the arm or with the atlatl, the North American version of the spear-thrower, a tool once in use all over the world. I would identify them, from left to right on the top row, as 1) an Hernando, 2) a Lost Lake, and 3) another Hernando point. All three of these appear to be made of Coastal Plain chert, which is naturally occurring below Georgia’s Fall Line, running across the center of the state from Columbus to Macon to Augusta. Hernando points are from the Middle Woodland sub-period, and date from about 2500 to 2000 years ago (Whatley 2002:51). Lost Lake points are from the Early Archaic sub-period, and date from around 9250 to 9000 years ago (Whatley 2002:73). The quartz spear point on the bottom row appears to be a Yadkin. This type straddles the Early to Middle Woodland sub-periods, and dates from about 2500 to 1500 years ago (Whatley 2002:127).

There are actually other Georgia spear points held in the collections of the Pitt Rivers, as well as points from adjacent Southern states. Although the four discussed here are the only ones currently on display, perhaps I will have time to analyze and discuss the other Georgia specimen in the future.

Work Cited:

Whatley, John S.
2002 “An Overview of Georgia Projectile Points and Selected Cutting Tools.” Early Georgia 30 (1).

Categories: Archaeology, Museums | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Stonehenge vs. Stonehenge: Two Pilgrimages Compared and Contrasted

Storm Over Stonehenge

Storm Over Stonehenge

My most recent visit to Stonehenge was quite different from my first one. Judging by their accents and license plates, thousands of tourists from all over Europe and North America were on hand the second time. Despite the mob, which did become a bit tedious after a while for this sometime studious archaeologist, I was able to look carefully at most of the artifacts and displays. The new museum had unfortunately been closed on my first pilgrimage to this important site, which is located in the rolling hills of Wiltshire in south-central England.

This Burial is on display in the new museum

This Burial is on display in the new museum

Artifacts on display in the Museum

Artifacts on display in the Museum

My feeling at the time was that the vast majority of tourists that afternoon were just checking something off their list. Most of them rushed through the museum, lingered much longer in the crammed gift shop, and then packed onto the buses to be driven over to the site itself. There a few were thoughtful, engaging in conversation about various aspects of the stone configuration. However, most were just posing for selfies and were soon on their way back to the buses that would take them to their cars (or back to the outrageously expensive gift shop).

My first pilgrimage to Stonehenge was quite different! A dear French friend and I left at midnight from where we were staying in the New Forest in order to arrive well before dawn, since we both wanted to experience the legendary summer solstice event involving a very different type of visitor – or perhaps communicant is the better word. As a picture is commonly supposed to be able to “paint a thousand words,” here is my painting of that visit.

Stonehenge at Dawn on the Summer Solstice, photographed from inside the Stone Circle

Stonehenge at Dawn on the Summer Solstice, photographed from inside the Stone Circle

Revelers at Stonehenge on the Summer Solstice

Revelers at Stonehenge on the Summer Solstice

Morning Breaks on Stonehenge on the Summer Solstice

Morning Breaks on Stonehenge on the Summer Solstice

Interviewing a Stonehenge “Druid”

Morning at Stonehenge on the Summer Solstice, as the crowd was breaking up

Morning at Stonehenge on the Summer Solstice, as the crowd was breaking up

I must draw attention to the wide contrast between the management of this World Heritage Site on the summer and winter solstices versus every other day of the year. Almost every imaginable kind of bacchanalian behavior is allowed on those two days, including but not limited to permitting crowds of more than 35,000 people (I was told about 10,000 of these packed themselves into the small space between the stones) to gather, party, chant, sing, dance, bellow, blow horns, etc. For these two days only, visitors are allowed to touch and even sit on the stones! By morning’s end some had clandestinely even drawn graffiti on some stones, and the scattered trash, rubbish, beer cans, cigarette butts, and paper and plastic bags left for others to clean up was both astounding and disgraceful. While there was a police presence, the general English attitude at present is not to intervene no matter how rowdy a crowd becomes unless someone is flagrantly breaking the law. This more enlightened view has evidently evolved since the 1985 Battle of the Beanfield, though(

Comparing and contrasting my two visits, I must admit that I find it incongruous, and even somewhat illogical and self-defeating, for English Heritage to have such strict rules governing the behavior of Stonehenge’s visitors for all the rest of the year, but to allow virtually any behavior on the two solstices. For instance, on my second visit there was a rope encircling the entire site and preventing any of the tourists from getting within 50 yards of the stone circle. And next to the rope there were even signs saying “No Smoking” even though the site is in a giant open field in a rural area. I would imagine that generations of the Neolithic people who built and lived at Stonehenge could smoke pipes if they had them and wanted to, the same as generations of local English farmers and tourists must have done up until this non-sensical rule was created. But perhaps I am just annoyed that I was not allowed to join with them in spirit, and smoke mine!

No Smoking at Stonehenge!

No Smoking at Stonehenge!

As an archaeologist involved in the theory and practice of site preservation and interpretation, I must admit to having grave doubts that allowing such a massive, fun-loving but largely uncontrollable crowd to descend on the site twice a year, while forbidding anyone from touching or even approaching (much less smoking their pipe around) the stones for the other 360+ days a year is really the best way to allow for the fullest possible experience for visitors, or to preserve Stonehenge down through the wide vistas of the future. My understanding, from asking some of the veteran New Age revelers around me, and from discussing it later with some well-informed English archaeologists, is that the current situation is a temporary compromise come up with by English Heritage, the organization that runs the site. Most of those archaeologists have little sympathy for the neo-pagans who visit in such large numbers twice a year, and find them comically ignorant of the site’s actual nature. The “Druids,” on the other hand, are very proud of what they perceive as a partial victory in their struggle to gain access to the site, and remain defiant towards anyone or anything that would seek to limit their hard-fought gains. It is certainly in interesting situation, I warrant you!

I definitely enjoyed my visit to Stonehenge on the Summer Solstice, despite almost being crushed to death on a sarsen stone on several occasions by the sheer volume of human beings each time someone decided to push their way through the crowd. That would have made an interesting epitaph for an archaeologist! However, having survived, it was priceless on my second visit with a veritable English rose (see below) to see my sons so excited about visiting Stonehenge and learning about the prehistory of this part of England. Travelling of this kind, especially in a foreign country, is truly an education in and of itself, and nothing learned in any school, college, or university, however illustrious, can ever hope to equal it.


Example of the Beautiful Local Flora & Fauna at Stonehenge


American Boys at Stonehenge - Oh My!

American Boys at Stonehenge – Oh My!

Afternoon at Stonehenge

Afternoon at Stonehenge

Categories: Archaeology, Exploration, Museums | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

A Continental Divide Over Displaying the Dead: Celtic and American Indian Burial Exhibits

Maiden Castle, Dorset, England

Maiden Castle, Dorset, England

Maiden Castle was a Celtic Iron Age earthen enclosure and fort begun about 600 B.C. and expanded in the following several centuries.  It was attacked and taken by Legio II Augusta (the second Augustan legion), which was commanded by Roman general Vespasian, who later became emperor.  The photo above shows the Romano-British temple on the hilltop, and the surrounding landscape of Dorset – a truly beautiful county on the south coast of England.  Excavations recovered locally-produced pottery, projectile points, and skeletons of Celtic warriors killed in the battle, including one (below, left) with a Roman ballista bolt in his vertebrae.  Artifacts from the excavations, including several burials, are on display today in the Dorset County Museum in Dorchester.


Celtic Warriors Buried at Maiden Castle, Dorset, and now on display at the Dorset County Museum in Dorchester

It is interesting to note the relaxed manner British museums in general have toward exhibiting the remains of what are seen as the ancestors of modern-day Britons.  This can be compared and contrasted in an interesting fashion to American museums, which rarely exhibit burials or grave goods anymore due to a relatively new-found sensitivity over displaying the remains of Native Americans.  Such is the case partly because the indigenous peoples of North America are not normally seen as being the ancestors of the average American, and partly due to reaction against the complete and utter lack of such sympathy in the past.  Interestingly, many Americans today might be surprised to learn that their DNA exhibits some amount of admixture of Native American ancestry – particularly if one is from the American South where contact between Europeans and American Indians began almost 500 years ago.  Additionally, the DNA of most modern American Indians – no matter where they live – contains quite a bit of European ancestry.  More information on DNA studies of Southeastern Native Americans can be found in articles by Bolnick and Smith (2003) and Bolnick, Bolnick, and Smith (2006). Another highly interesting study into British DNA, showing that Celtic bloodlines are quite prevalent in today’s Brit, was recently performed by professors at the University of Oxford –

“But thou shalt not die unknown…my bards are many, O Carthon! their songs descend to future times. The children of years to come shall hear the fame of Carthon, when they sit round the burning oak, and the night is spent in songs of old.  The hunter, sitting in the heath, shall hear the rustling blast, and raising his eyes, behold the rock where Carthon fell….Three days they mourned above Carthon; on the fourth his father died. In the narrow plain of the rock they lie; a dim ghost defends their tomb.  There lovely Moina is often seen when the sunbeam darts on the rock and all around is dark. There she is seen, Malvina; but not like the daughters of the hill.  Her robes are from the stranger’s land, and she is still alone!

James Macpherson, excerpted from Carthon in The Works of Ossian, 1765

Categories: Archaeology, Museums | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Visiting with the Ancestors: The Blackfoot Shirts Project, Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, UK

Visiting with the Ancestors: The Blackfoot Shirts Project, Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, UK

This is an amazing new exhibit in England that I just happened to walk by when I was at the Pitt Rivers recently. These shirts date to around 1850, when they were given to British officials operating near the U.S.-Canadian border (Montana/Alberta), and they eventually found their way across the pond. The Blackfoot themselves seem to have had no knowledge of them until a few years ago, when some dignitaries were invited to inspect them and help contextualize them for the museum. It was immediately apparent that these were sacred items that should be shown to the Blackfoot people at large, so the five shirts (three of which are currently on display in Oxford) were loaned out to local museums in the U.S. and Canada so this could happen. The impact was tremendous, as Blackfoot men, women, and children responded powerfully to these shirts their ancestors had made by hand and generously given away. It is another outstanding example of Native American heritage abroad that I have been overjoyed to run across thousands of miles from home here in the UK!

Blackfoot Shirt

Blackfoot Shirt

Side of Shirt

Side of Shirt

Shirt Detail showing bows and musket

Shirt Detail showing bows and musket

Painting Depicting One Shirt

Painting Depicting One Shirt

Blackfoot Shirt

Blackfoot Shirt


“A little while and I will be gone from among you, when I cannot tell. From nowhere we came, into nowhere we go. What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime. It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.”

Chief Crowfoot of the Blackfoot, Deathbed Speech, 1890

Categories: Archaeology, Museums | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

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