Mirror, mirror (not) on the wall: another look at a find from Burwell…

For archaeologists, the re-appraisal and re-interpretation of finds, features and sites are key elements of post-excavation. In our web article from February the 14th this year, we featured what we thought at the time was a medieval love-amulet. Found during our 2021 excavations at Burwell, Cambridgeshire, this unusual object bears both apotropaic and love-themed inscriptions.

Figure 1: the amulet from Burwell
The inscribed mirror case from Burwell

However, since publishing that article we received some very welcome further information on this find. Based on this, we can re-identify it as most likely representing part of a lead-alloy medieval mirror case, dating from the late 13th or 14th century.

Two plainly-decorated mirror cases are shown, open and showing their circular shapes
Copper alloy mirror case from Clapton-in-Gordano, Somerset, with simple decoration (PAS GLO-6BCA62, image courtesy PAS/Bristol City Council)

The entire object originally comprised two circular, dished, halves that hinged open and shut from one edge – reflective glass discs attached via adhesive to either one, or both, of their inner faces. A catch would likely have been present on the opposing side to hold the case shut, possibly combined with a suspension loop.

Folding metal mirror cases are relatively common finds in Britain, with over 250 recorded by the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) as of 2023. The vast majority are mass-produced copper alloy examples clearly owned by ordinary people. Where decoration occurs it is usually simple, comprising engraved, linear patterns. However, more ornate examples utilising decorative mounts and imitation gems also exist.

Mirror cases of lead-alloy are known, but more rarely. A number have been found in London, often having intricate, moulded decoration variously depicting plants, wildlife, people and religious scenes. Although mirror cases were functional, evidence suggests they played specific social roles as gifts of love or affection. The existence of high-status ivory examples manufactured on the Continent and frequently decorated with romantic scenes, seems to support this theory.

Ivory mirror case depicting a couple holding hands
14th century French ivory mirror case depicting a couple holding hands, accompanied by a servant girl and dog (mage courtesy BM online collection)

This is relevant when we reconsider the inscriptions present on the Burwell mirror case, as detailed in our original article. They take on a new significance, suggesting it served both practical and symbolic functions. The protective ‘AGLA’ charm was doubtless intended to ward the owner against fever or disease, the metaphor of the mirror protecting its owner just as the mirror case protects the glass within perhaps being appropriate here. Similarly, the love-themed ‘CRAS DABOR NON HODIE SU DRU’ (I will not be given away, neither today nor tomorrow. I am a gift of love) breathes life into the object and gives it a voice. Addressing the reader/owner directly, it explicitly states its identity and purpose – I am a gift of love.

Given what we have already said about the high status ivory mirror cases, this find adds compelling weight to the theory that at least some were romantic gifts. In contrast to the mass produced copper alloy examples, the Burwell mirror case is highly unusual and may well be a personalised, one-off commission. As a final thought, the presence of inscriptions may indirectly suggest that the owner was able to appreciate their complex sentiments – perhaps indicating they were literate.

Thanks are given to Dan Towse of Bespoke Pewter for his thoughts on this object, and Dr Malcolm Jones for assisting with interpreting the inscriptions.

Alex Bliss
(Finds Officer)

If you’re interested in learning more about the Burwell site and its finds, come to our open day event on Saturday 22nd July.

Details of an open day event on July 22nd at Mandeville Hall, camrbidgeshire
Come to the Burwell open event!
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