Extraordinary medieval knife from Bristol

In 2017 and 2018 Cotswold Archaeology, with our Joint Venture partners Oxford Archaeology, undertook excavations ahead of redevelopment at Redcliff Quarter in Bristol. Within the metalwork assemblage are several stand-out objects, notable not only for their craftsmanship but also their level of preservation.

One such artefact was found amongst the tenement occupation debris and is a small iron whittle-tang knife, complete with a decorative bone handle. Stylistically it is of late 12th to early 13th century date, making it medieval. The anthropomorphic terminal of the handle is in the form of a king’s head – the eyes are large and bulbous below a prominent monobrow that extends into a straight nose; the mouth has curved lips between two incised lines, with the hint of a beard below; two bands of diagonal lines in opposing directions represent what could be a swept-back hairstyle. His crown has been represented by a series of crenelations above a horizontal band surmounting the forehead.  

This is a really unusual find – few handles with comparable ‘king’ terminals are known, the closest example being from Westbury, a deserted medieval village in Milton Keynes. However, the use of king’s head imagery is not unknown in other groups of artefacts – it’s reminiscent of the chessmen from Lewis, Scotland, of mid to late 12th century date; and it’s seen later, from c. 1200 – 1450, on copper alloy clasps and belt mounts.

Medieval bone knife-handles were occasionally carved into figural or architectural forms but, reflecting the limitations of the raw material used as well as the skills of the craftsman, the designs are often simple. From the 13th and 14th centuries the designs evolved into fully three-dimensional depictions of knights, and even courtly ladies holding falcons!

It is believed that the handles of more elaborate design belonged to members of the higher classes and our excavations demonstrated that, from the 12th century onwards, Redcliffe was a thriving commercial suburb. Drawing on that, it’s probable that the king’s head knife belonged to a wealthy individual living in the vicinity; an individual with perhaps a rather satirical outlook towards the social structure of the day, for when the knife is held for use the King’s face would be looking towards the ground, perhaps an intended insult to amuse the holder without retribution!

Ruth Beveridge

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