17th c. mourning ring declared treasure

A mourning ring discovered by a metal detectorist in a field in Pennard, Swansea, Wales, was officially declared treasure by a Swansea Coroners Court on Monday. According to the terms of the 1996 Treasure Act, any artifact that is at least 10% precious metal by weight and at least 300 years old is treasure and thus property of the Crown. The ring is 81% gold and 9% silver, and although experts were unable to give it a precise date, the decoration strongly suggests it’s from the 17th century. The outside of the ring in engraved with a cross-hatch or trellis pattern inlaid with black enamel. The inside is inscribed “prepared bee to follow me,” a common expression in 17th century mourning jewelry. The double-e spelling of “bee” is characteristic of the second half of the 1600s.

The finder is 71-year-old Ron Pitman who unearthed the ring in October of 2010 in a field used to grow corn. All the farming activity on the field left the ring just five inches below the surface. Now that the piece has been declared treasure, Pitman and the landowners (the Layton family) will split a finder’s fee in the amount of its market value as determined by a committee of experts at the National Museum in Cardiff. A local museum will be given the first opportunity to pay the fee and keep the ring. The Swansea Museum has already expressed interest.

The late 17th century saw a great boom in mourning jewelry thanks to the Great Plague of London (1665-6). Indeed, one of the rings experts used as a comparison in their assessment because of its nearly identical inscription — “Prepared bee to followe me” — dates to 1667. It would see a whole new surge in popularity 1861, inspired by Queen Victoria’s perpetual mourning for her husband Prince Albert. In the 19th century mourning jewelry would expand from the slender blackened rings of the 1600s to a wide variety of pieces — brooches, lockets, pendants, miniatures, rings with glass or gemstone windows in which a lock of hair of the deceased could be kept and much more.

If you’re at all interested in the history of mourning jewelry and art, run, don’t walk, to Hayden Peters’ exceptional blog The Art of Mourning. He’s a jewelry historian with an extensive collection of mourning pieces that he writes about, using the jewels and art as a prism through which to explore personal and societal approaches to loss and grief. His blog is a consistently fascinating, touching and beautiful read. Phenomenal pictures, too.

6 thoughts on “17th c. mourning ring declared treasure

  1. This evening after I read this article, I put myself in the mind and life of the 71 year old Mr. Ron Pitman, who it says found it a little over 5 years ago. I do not know if it took that long for them to declare it treasure, or whether he or the land owner head on to it for while, but given his age, and his chosen profession of metal detectors, and assuming he turned in the coin upon finding it, that means for 5 long years he waited. 5 years of thinking about it. I can only imagine that during that time he experienced an extremely wide range of thoughts and feelings about that little ring, and the only true peace he would ever find in regards to finding it is that he would find out its fate on day, and thus had to let go of it and go back to his normal life.

    What trust he had, especially at his age, to have had to deliver that ring into the hands of his government. For myself, it would have been rather hard to do. It is such a beautiful ring, and my little response here does not even touch on the power that holding a ring like that would bring into the heart of those who beheld it.

    Just for fun, I wish the someone would report that they found Sauron’s Ring, and go one, as the pattern of these types of discoveries are, to describe that it has some ancient writing on the outside of the ring that was discovered during its research. I am pretty sure, irregardless of what it actually was, that they would considered its ownership to the crown. Can you imagine how spicy history might become if Queen Elizabeth decided to don such a ring? Now that would be a Queen to remember!

  2. I have seen plenty of examples of mourning jewellery, photography and other keepsakes from Victorian times, as you mentioned. Pared down, but beautiful and deeply meaningful.

    So how much more interesting would be mourning jewellery from the Great Plague of London era (1665-6). I don’t think we are going to find many 17th century examples however. People didn’t have enough money to feed and look after their surviving family, let alone spend money on precious metals.

  3. Thank you, Tom, for pointing out the 21st century human aspects of this story that I had just skimmed over. It would be a beautiful setup for a novelist: the elderly treasure hunter, perhaps mourning a beloved wife of his own – or a termagant, as that “prepared bee” is a trifle harsh – finding the exquisite little mourning ring. (Just as Queen E with a ring of power is a great setup for a fantasy writer.) I can imagine it as one of those novels that go back and forth in time between the original circumstances of the ring and the present day.

    Peace & joy to you — I was delighted to see your name in the comments once more.

  4. There’s a lovely small exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum right now, Death Becomes Her, of mourning attire from 1815-1915. It includes some nice examples of mourning jewelry.

  5. Ron Pitman is my father and I can shed a little information on this, he reported the find the day after finding the ring as it was found on a Sunday. He is a retired carpenter who has always had metal detecting as a hobby. When he found this ring his words were ‘ I would prefer it to be in a place where people can see it rather than hidden away in a private collection’. He doesn’t do the hobby for profit but merely for the excitement of what he could find.

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