The Breathtaking Caherduggan Belt: Rubicon’s Best Ever Find?

Some readers may recall one of last year’s posts about a find from our excavations for Cork County Council at Caherduggan Castle, Co. Cork. A medieval well produced a seemingly complete leather belt with what we thought were ‘metal studs’ along its length. Now conserved, these ‘metal studs’ have been revealed as heraldic shields, placed on what must surely rank as one of the greatest surviving secular medieval leather objects from medieval Ireland.

The leather belt following its discovery by Hubert Ficner in the Caherduggan Castle Well

The leather belt following its discovery by Hubert Ficner in the Caherduggan Castle Well

When Susannah Kelly of UCD completed the belts conservation she passed it to leather specialist John Nicholl who is currently analysing it. The condition and quality of the belt has surpassed all our wildest expectations, and it truly ranks as a ‘Museum Piece.’ John has kindly allowed us to share some of his photographs of the item with our readers; these shots were taken yesterday as he continues his work on the analysis. You will note that the hinged Heraldic shields appear to carry a Lion Rampant as a motif!

A detail shot showing the stunning condition of the belt, replete with hinged heraldic motifs (Photo: John Nicholl)

A detail shot showing the stunning condition of the belt, replete with hinged heraldic motifs (Photo: John Nicholl)

John’s initial thoughts are that it may be a scabbard belt of possible 14th or 15th century date, though analysis is at a very early stage so this interpretation may change. The buckles have been cut down and reused on the object, which would undoubtedly have been a valuable item when it was discarded. It is unclear if the heraldic symbols represent a nobility affiliation or if they serve a purely decorative function, but it is hoped heraldic analysis will clarify some of these issues.

One side of the Caherduggan belt showing the buckle and Heraldic motifs (Photo: John Nicholl)

One side of the Caherduggan belt showing the buckle and Heraldic motifs (Photo: John Nicholl)

The excitement in the Rubicon office today is palpable, as everyone waits with bated breath to find out more about this exquisite find. It certainly ranks as one of the greatest archaeological objects we have ever encountered, and as we learn more about its remarkable story we will be sure share that with you ‘as it happens’ on the blog.

The other side of the belt with the second buckle and full view of the hinged Heraldic motifs (Photo: John Nicholl)

The other side of the belt with the second buckle and full view of the hinged Heraldic motifs (Photo: John Nicholl)

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21 Responses to The Breathtaking Caherduggan Belt: Rubicon’s Best Ever Find?

  1. heathermnt June 28, 2012 at 11:19 am #

    I remember this , stunning find and fantastic conservation work!

  2. Hannah June 28, 2012 at 11:40 am #

    Wow, that is breath-taking!

  3. Mary Beth June 28, 2012 at 1:50 pm #

    Is that stitching on the edges? It looks so evenly done, almost too precise to be hand worked. I’d love to know more about it!

  4. Josef P Melech June 28, 2012 at 5:06 pm #

    I can’t wait for more. especially dimensions, metallurgy analysis and construction details. would love to replicate this belt

  5. John Reuter June 28, 2012 at 6:12 pm #

    Nice piece. The reusing of smaller buckles is odd. The evidence of stitch holes looks like the same type seen on today’s western style belts but much finer. The use of stitching was to reinforce and keep it from stretching. The Tower of London has belts with stitching that resemble this style.

  6. Nan June 28, 2012 at 6:47 pm #

    With a buckle at end, I want to say it’s not a belt, but part of a horse’s trappings. Either way..wow.

    • Nan June 28, 2012 at 6:48 pm #

      That should read “a buckle at both ends”

  7. Anne Nicholls June 28, 2012 at 9:11 pm #

    This is the breast collar for a medieval horse harness, with harness pendants. The buckles would have attached it to the saddle.
    http://www.amazon.com/Medieval-Armorial-Furniture-Norfolk-Archaeology/dp/0905594347
    http://www.ukdfd.co.uk/ceejays_site/pages/medieval_harness_pendants.htm

    What’s stunning is that it is almost complete and the leather is intact. Usually only pieces of the metal mounts are found, many without their pendants.

    Given the simple treatment of the leather and the rough cuts near the right buckle, it may have been covered with decorative fabric with the metal mounts applied over the fabric.

    Any guess on the metal? Brass?

    Amazing, extremely important piece and should definitely be in a museum! Do you have more pictures? Dimensions?

  8. Doug Grove June 28, 2012 at 9:57 pm #

    There can be little doubt that this is equestrian, and one of the finest examples ever discovered. See http://ilaria.veltri.tripod.com/overviewbards.html for some excellent images, in particular the one attributed to be Robert, Earl of Glouster.

  9. Dawn Ratz June 28, 2012 at 10:01 pm #

    By the looks of it- many in my Medieval Equestrian re-enactment circles think this is actually a horse breast collar. Having 2 buckles- it would strap to the saddle. Plaques are common on breast plates for horses- and the fact they are hinged would allow it to move with the horse and be “flashy”. Looking closer- it was stitched on the top and bottom of the leather- and the leather edges are unfinished. This then would say to me that it was covered in some sort of fabric. Were any fabric fibers found where the plaques attach?

  10. studioloperyn June 28, 2012 at 10:15 pm #

    Absolutely amazing horse breast collar! http://finds.org.uk/database/publications/publication/id/771

  11. studioloperyn June 28, 2012 at 10:39 pm #

    It’s the breast piece for a medieval horse harness.

    The buckles on each end would attach it to the saddle. Practically, it keeps the saddle from sliding backwards.

    http://finds.org.uk/database/publications/publication/id/771
    http://www.theinterestingshop.com/pages/heraldicpendants.html
    http://www.ukdfd.co.uk/ceejays_site/pages/medieval_harness_pendants.htm
    http://www.time-lines.co.uk/medieval-heraldic-pendants-958-0.html

    The metal hardware is usually the only part that survives. It’s less common to see the pendant still attached to the mount. I can’t think of a surviving example with the leather, and it’s in such wonderful, almost complete condition!
    This is a stunning discovery and should definitely be in a museum. There are many historical researchers that will be interested in this.
    Is the metal brass? What are the dimensions of the brass, the leather, the buckles?
    Given the simple treatment of the leather and the rough cuts near the right side buckle, I speculate that the leather would have been covered with fabric, with the metal mounts on top. Can you tell if the marks at the top and bottom of the leather are holes and/or indents from a sewn thread?
    There appears to be a small piece of metal on the left end below the buckle, but there is not one of the right side. The indented leather around it suggests it is original to the piece. Is it a rivet (like the ones on the metal mounts)?

    Thank you for posting the pictures! Could you post one of the reverse side? I’m curious to see how they kept it smooth to not chafe the horse’s skin. I’m guessing the mount back is indented into the leather?

  12. Charles Neeley June 29, 2012 at 12:08 am #

    If its a scabbard belt, was a remnant of a sword also found in the well? Perhaps since the leather of this belt obviously survived the scabbard would have to…

  13. AJ June 29, 2012 at 2:34 am #

    Damian,
    Any chance there are pictures of the back of this? I am pretty sure this is a horse breast strap/collar. It was modified at some point either by moving or adding the buckles. Pictures of the back would help immensely.
    Thanks,
    AJ

  14. AJ June 29, 2012 at 2:44 am #

    Just to follow up Damian. I think it was a horse breast strap that was damaged or broken at some point and modified for reuse. I base this on the crude way the leather was hacked and the buckles put on. The bit of metal on the lower edge in the first picture is in my opinion a rivet used to prevent the stitching which must have been there (to hold a backing maybe to prevent the breast collar from chafing the horses neck) from unraveling where the cut was done. Very neat and exciting find – but I don’t think it is a scabbard belt.
    AJ

  15. Damian Shiels June 29, 2012 at 8:53 am #

    Hi All,

    Thanks for all your excellent comments- I am sold on the horse harness id, John has been thinking this was a possibility as well. I will try to get more details and photographs to post up on the blog as soon as I can so you can see what you think!

    Kind Regards,

    Damian.

    • Jezz Smith July 16, 2012 at 5:38 am #

      What a fantastic find Damian .No doubt its a horse breast plate from the 14th century .
      The rough end is evidence of either a shortening, to fit a smaller horse than it was originally made for ,or a repair to reattach the buckle .Probably done by the owner .
      Cheers
      Jezz Smith (jouster )

      • Jezz Smith July 16, 2012 at 5:42 am #

        P.S. i forgot to say that its quite common to line the breast plate with Sheep skin (hair on)this is why it has stitching along the edges 🙂

  16. Michael Hurley July 30, 2012 at 10:53 pm #

    I wonder if it isn’t too early to assume the marks on the edges are the remains of stitching. I don’t have the MoL “The Medieval Horse and its Equipment”, but certainly in “Dress Accessories”, “Knives and Scabbards”, and “Shoes and Pattens” as well as Goubitz’s “Purses in Pieces” and “Stepping Through Time” decorative awl-work is shown to be common on other Medieval leather goods. This could be nothing but similar decoration. It could indeed be stitching as well. Is there any sign of fibre caught in either the awl holes or under the fittings?

  17. Joanna August 1, 2012 at 1:44 pm #

    What an excellent find! Congrats!

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