Lost in Norwich 900 years ago

PUBLISHED: 12:30 25 April 2020 | UPDATED: 10:28 27 April 2020

Walrus ivory bobbin found in Norwich Castle Keep  Picture: Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery

Walrus ivory bobbin found in Norwich Castle Keep Picture: Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery

Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery

Every month one of Norwich Castle’s expert curators tells us about a favourite exhibit. This beautifully carved piece of walrus tusk could once have starred in a great Norman sewing bee

A new project celebrating Norwich Castle, its past and the ongoing project to transform the Castle Keep is launching in the Eastern Daily Press and Norwich Evening NewsA new project celebrating Norwich Castle, its past and the ongoing project to transform the Castle Keep is launching in the Eastern Daily Press and Norwich Evening News

The great keep of Norwich Castle is a remarkable fortress-palace of the early 12th century. The scale and quality of its construction speaks clearly of its significant position at the heart of the emerging urban community of Norwich under the Anglo-Norman kings. Like a modern home, the status and prestige of a castle was revealed not only in its architecture but also in its furnishings. Almost all the early 12th century furnishings of Norwich castle have been lost, but they would have included a large collection of wall-hangings, chests, furniture and household objects. One such object from the castle does survive.

It was found in October 1972, when problems with the castle’s drains led to a brief excavation in the basement. More than a foot below the present floor level the excavation team discovered a small object together with an oyster shell and some 12th and 13th century pottery fragments. Nothing conveys the elegant living and luxury enjoyed in the Anglo-Norman castle better than this remarkable find.

The object itself is just 65mm long, the length of small teaspoon handle. At its top is the head of a young person, with neatly-parted hair, large and protruding eyes, prominent eyelids, and deep irises. At its bottom is the head of a fearsome monster, possibly a dragon, with gaping mouth and wild mane. Such captivating human and monstrous faces are familiar motifs in Romanesque art. Between the two heads runs a narrow stem.

The object is made from the tusk of a walrus - which might have been hunted as far away as Iceland or Greenland. The trade in walrus ivory was one of the great luxury trades of the early middle ages and beyond. Walrus ivory was carved into book covers, reliquary caskets, private seals, and gaming pieces. The famous Lewis Chessmen, probably the product of a workshop in Trondheim in the final third of the 12th century, were carved from walrus ivory.

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The physical features of the Norwich object would suggest that it was made earlier in the 12th century than the Lewis Chessmen, probably in the first two decades. But determining what function it served is more difficult. It is possible, and this is the suggestion of one of the leading scholars of ivory carving, that the object is a bobbin. Embroidery thread would have been wrapped around a bobbin and there are fine circular lines on the stem, which might be the impression made by gold or silk thread. If the object was a bobbin, we can only guess at what luxury items it helped create - perhaps an elegant cloak worn by one of the knights of the sheriff, perhaps a handsome wall-hanging to decorate the great hall, perhaps an embroidery to rival the Bayeux Tapestry.

No less elusive are the origins and earliest owners of the object. It is possible that it was the product of a workshop associated with the great Benedictine abbey of St Albans in Hertfordshire. Some of the products of this workshop are now on display at the V&A and the British Museum. But it is equally possible that our object was carved elsewhere, perhaps at the abbey of Bury St Edmunds, perhaps (as one 12th century source records) by a travelling artisan who specialised in ivory carving. We can only guess at the earliest owners of our object, but its discovery in Norwich Castle surely speaks of a connection to the household of one of the 12th century sheriffs of Norfolk who lived in the castle. It is tempting to associate our object with the remarkable Robert fitz Walter, who served as sheriff in the 1120s, and his equally remarkable wife, Sybilla. (They prayed to St Faith after being kidnapped in France and founded Horsham St Faith priory, north of Norwich, in gratitude for their release.)

What is not in doubt is the evocative power of this small, silent but captivating object - in its design and shape, a unique survival from Anglo-Norman England. It serves as a striking reminder of the richness of the castle’s furnishings in the earliest phase of its existence.

This object, and many others, are available to adopt at to help return the Norwich Castle keep to its glory days as a royal Norman palace.

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