Finding My Peeps! (Sorry I Couldn’t Resist!)

In between some of my longer blog series I often like to do a blog about something that I think might be helpful to folks who are doing specific research. I was recently contacted by a person who was interested in finding out more information about Bohemia. She said that she was of Bohemian ancestry and was having problems finding good information on the area.

I admit, my knowledge of the old Soviet Bloc nations is considerably less than western Europe and other areas. So I looked it up online, and found myself immediately comparing a bunch of obscure and annoying maps of the general area. Many of the maps had no modern city names on them, and the use of different names for the same geographical locations made it more of a challenge. I found myself using the Baltic, Mediterranean and Black Seas as major landmarks. What I realized after a few moments of fumbling was that I had studied portions of the general area, but that I had approached it from a different angle than she was. I did not look for Bohemians, I looked for information on Slavs. I was aware that this was a tribal area, which probably had a much greater sense of “tribe” than Slav or Bohemian.

The tribes inhabiting the Baltic Sea VIII-IX c...

The tribes inhabiting the Baltic Sea VIII-IX century (Slavs, Balts.) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The research that I had found previously pointed me to Moravia and the Moravian Empire, and a rereading of the original request for help did mention an interest in the Slavs. Checking the dates associated with the area showed that Moravia existed between the time of the great Slavic Migration, which occurred between 450 and 550 AD and the annexation of the area by the Bohemian Empire in AD 973. And that explained everything! Most of the previous requests for information and temple rings that I had had were for earlier Slavic materials. Most of my later Slavic research (13th through 16th century) has been in the areas of Kiev and Novgorod. Then I went looking for information on the exact dates for the creation of Bohemia. Well, I found several sources that agreed that the Duchy of Bohemia was created in 870, but the contradictions between sources about the exact progression of political entities in the area reminded me that this was really NOT something that I was interested in, and had nothing to do with the point of this blog.

If  you are interested in a particular group of people, figure out what the name of their ethnic group is, and skip as much of the later political designations as possible. When archaeologists study groups, they look at their ethnicity, not what country they lived in, and that is how their material will generally be catalogued. If you are looking for archaeological information you can then search for the nearest large museum online, and see if there is any information available. National Museums often have pages available in English, just look for the British Flag at the top of the page.

If you need a basic class in online research, I have an eleven part blog series on my website, called “Researching on the Cheap”. Just go to and choose Nov 2014 in the drop down “Blog Archives” menu in the right column. You can easily reach all eleven episodes from there!

Thimbles Part 2

Last time we asked: But what sort of things do people make thimbles from?

Well, modernly thimbles are made of all sorts of metal, ceramics, glass, plastic, leather, wood, ivory and bone, and combinations of all of the above. Eliminating the obviously non-historically accurate items like plastic takes us back to looking for something practical, available and affordable.

When I started making fibulae in quantity I needed something to protect my thumb from the wire. I grabbed a piece of thick leather and some duct tape, and essentially made a large thimble. Modernly there are still some types of thimbles that are made of leather. Doing a web search for leather thimbles will bring up dozens of different types, some of which include a small metal plate for even more protection. The big problem with leather thimbles is that they wear out much more quickly than metal ones and the chance that they will survive archaeologically in damp climates is slim.

Wood and bone thimbles would have been almost equally easy to make as leather ones, and just as easily lost in the archaeological record.

And this was where I hit a very annoying research wall. I own three books devoted completely to thimbles, one to sewing equipment, and one to The Medieval Household (MOL), and then there are also a couple of websites. I was recently pouring through my books on thimbles, trying to see if I could gather any sort of consensus from them. And I found a picture that made me cringe. It was a picture of “Leather thimbles from Mongolia”. Now I suppose if your definition of a thimble is “anything used to protect a finger” then it would be OK (remember this would include gloves). But the picture showed leather thumb rings that are used for shooting archery. The rest of the book was all sewing related thimbles. Sigh.

And then I went looking for a picture of the Han Dynasty thimble that I see widely reported, but with no pictures. I found one picture of a “thimble” that was found in Turkey that is supposed to “look just like” the Han Dynasty thimble. It was an archer’s thumb ring. So now I am questioning the whole assessment of some of the early thimbles. The websites and the books almost all use identical words. They seem to all suffer from what I would call “academic incest”. Someone wrote something, and everyone else just copied it, without checking to see if it was correct or not.

To say that I was annoyed, was an understatement. SOMEONE out there must have done a creditable job of studying thimbles! And then I remembered that I have one other book – “Findings – The Material Culture of Needlework and Sewing” by Mary C. Beaudry. Is it perfect? No. A lot of the comments were a bit ethnocentric for my taste, but the archaeology is solid, and that is what I needed.

So let’s go back to the reason for thimbles: Needles. The first steel needles were invented by the Chinese, for sewing fine silk, and these needles arrived in the Middle East in about the first century BC. Archaeology tells us that the Chinese were using metal needle rings by at least the second century AD. Most of these “rings” were made in the flat, and not soldered. This made them easily adjustable to any size of finger (think of the expandable rings that you can buy at flea markets).

Next time: Thimble Rings

English: A group of thimbles on display in Bed...

English: A group of thimbles on display in Bedford Museum. In the middle of the group is a thimble box with its lid. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Choosing Which Metal To Use: Part 3

Last week we asked if there were any other issues with metal that we should consider. Well, two things come to mind immediately: metals other than bronze and lead, and knowing your metal source.

Metals were not carefully assayed in the past they way they can be today. The people who created the various pure metals and alloys were knowledgeable, and there is a considerable amount of pre-1600 written material about creating various alloys, but metal purity could not be tested with the same level of precision that we have modernly. Many alchemy texts have information on metallurgy.

When you are reading museum data base entries, the actual metal content of a piece is rarely listed. “Copper alloy” is often used to refer to any sort of bronze metal and the actually purity of precious metals is rarely noted. Until recently it has been much too expensive to test each piece to determine exactly the metal content. Larger organizations, like the British Museum, will sometimes reevaluate pieces as they clean them, and they sometimes test the metal content. Testing content has helped to reveal frauds, and modifications of artifacts, many of which were done in antiquity.

For anyone who has ever followed the types of silver that are available modernly, the two most common would be Sterling Silver (also designated as .925) and Fine Silver (.999).  Those numbers simply indicate the percentage of silver that is included in the alloy. There are other designations, including coin silver (which varies in silver content depending on the date of manufacture and the country), and Argentium Silver (which is a tarnish resistant form of Sterling Silver with special properties). The terms Bali Silver, Thai Silver, and Mexican Silver may be used in a retail setting, but have no legal meanings. Nickel Silver, or German Silver is silver colored, and does not actually contain any silver at all. It is a copper alloy.

There were an assortment of silver alloys that were used in period that are not usually used modernly. Billon has been used since at least ancient Greece. It is a silver colored alloy which usually contains silver and other metals (usually copper), and may sometimes contain mercury. It was commonly used for making coins and medals. Electrum is a naturally occurring alloy of silver and gold, which has been used since at least 3,000BC by the ancient Egyptians. It was used widely in coinage and jewelry manufacture by cultures as varied as the Egyptians and the Vikings. There are major deposits of natural electrum in Anatolia (Turkey).

All of the silver pieces that I currently make for sale in my shop is classified as Sterling Silver. My cast pieces are solid sterling, and the wire and plate that I use in my toiletry sets, needles cases and chains (both knit and link) are all solid Sterling Silver.  I do not currently work with Argentium silver. Sterling Silver alloy was used during Medieval times.

Next time: What about silver plate, silver filled, vermeil, and gold filled metals, and sources of metal?