My favourite artefact recovered during last year’s excavations at Binchester is a jet pin with a faceted cuboid head, Crummy type 2 (Crummy 1983). The reason I like the pin so much is because it allows us a brief snapshot into the beliefs and fashions of the people living at Binchester during the later Roman period, while also allowing us to consider the wider aspect of the socio-economic trends at the time.
The lower shaft and tip of the pin were unfortunately broken off in antiquity, giving a surviving length of 71.7mm and maximum shaft diameter of 4.6mm. The head of the pin is well made with 4 lozenge and 8 triangular shaped facets. It is these attributes that allow us to date the pin to the late 3rd to 4th centuries AD.
Jet pins had multiple functions and may have been used to secure an elaborate hair style or to secure a loosely woven cloak. The manufacture of jet into both jewellery and other portable artefacts became popular from the 3rd century AD in Britain. During the second half of the 4th century AD however, there was a major change in women’s fashion, including an increase in the wearing of black rather than coloured jewellery.
The Romans viewed jet as a ‘magical’ material especially when discussed as jewellery or personal adornment. It was often used in the manufacture of amulets and pendants due to its supposed protective qualities that aided the journey to the underworld, as well as its abilities as a magical material to deflect the gaze of the evil eye.
Jet is a fossil produced when the wood of a Jurassic period Monkey Puzzle Tree decays under extreme pressure for millions of years. The necessary ingredients and chemical processes required for this transformation from tree to gemstone were present along the north-east coast of Great Britain 180 million years ago around present-day Whitby, Yorkshire. Collected by beachcombing, jet was used to produce decorative objects, beads and jewellery. It was popular in the manufacture of jewellery from the 3rd century AD onwards however, there is no evidence of jet working during the Roman period at Whitby. Instead unworked jet is known to have been transferred to Eboracum (modern York), where evidence of jet production has been identified.