Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Stories from The Collection #4 - 'Romano-British snake bracelet terminal' and 'Chinese hell banknote'

This is the fourth in a series of posts about recent acquisitions to the collections of The Collection: Art and Archaeology in Lincolnshire.

This article was published in the Summer 2012 issue of ‘Lincolnshire Past and Present’ magazine, published by the Society for Lincolnshire History and Archaeology.

For this issue's journey into the museum's recent acquisitions we will be looking at two objects with connections to religious belief, but from quite different periods in history and from different sides of the globe.

Romano-British snake bracelet terminal from Marton, near Gainsborough

This small gold item is the broken terminal from a bracelet, in the form of a snake's head.  The semi-naturalistic head is oval in plan and is very flat, with the details of the head marked out in low relief.  A cross hatched section of the body gives some indication of the decorative pattern on the remainder of the bracelet, which would have wound around the wearer's arms a number of times.

Snake motifs occupy an interesting position in Romano-British jewellery, with the design known mainly on rings and bracelets.  In classical antiquity, the snake did not carry the same negative association with evil and deceit that it would later adopt in Christian mythology, and was instead seen as a creature connected with healing, regeneration and rebirth.  The slender image of the snake associated with the healing deity Asclepius may form the basis for the jewellery we find in Britain.  It has been suggested that bracelets such as this were worn by pregnant women as protective charms.

Such bracelets are usually found in bronze or silver, and this gold example is the first of its type recorded in Lincolnshire.  The Collection has another, complete, bronze example from Ancaster in its collections.  Bracelets such as these were a cultural import of the 1st Century AD, but this example could date to any time between the 1st and 3rd Centuries.

The Collection would like to take this opportunity to thank both the finder and the landowner for waiving their right to a reward and donating the terminal to the museum.

Chinese 'Hell' Banknote

The Collection's numismatic collections contain many examples of rare and important coins and tokens from Britain and across the world, from the Iron Age to the modern day.

The collections are more than simply examples of legal tender, however, and aim to demonstrate the ways in which the concept of money has been used by different cultures right up to the present day.  This Chinese banknote is not legal tender and was made only very recently.  It is, however, indicative of Chinese beliefs surrounding the afterlife, and a central element of important annual festivals.

The banknote was collected in Chengdu, in China's south-western Sichuan province, and is made of joss paper.  Notes such as this are burned by families at their ancestor's gravesides throughout the year, but particularly at the festivals of 'Ching Ming' ('Festival of Pure Brightness') and 'Gui Jie' ('Festival of Hungry Ghosts').  The Chinese belief is that spirits go to a form of limbo, but where money is still required to purchase goods.  In order to ensure that the ancestors are being provided for, the banknotes are burned, often in large quantities, while saying the names of items that could be purchased with them.

The banknote is based on a Hong Kong note, and displays noticeably western imagery.  The figure on the right is the 'Jade Emperor', the supreme deity with responsibility for the afterlife.  The concept of 'hell' does not translate directly into Chinese belief, but the word became associated with the afterlife after Christian missionaries arrived in China in the 18th and 19th centuries.

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