Archaeological project to reveal hidden medieval religion
02 November 2023
A new £1m project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council is set to transform understanding of everyday religion in the English Middle Ages, which has largely been unrecorded by written sources.
The Medieval Ritual Landscape Project (MeRit) will bring together archaeologists and historians from the University of Reading and the British Museum to analyse archaeological artefacts from regional, national and international perspectives (c. 1000 – 1600 CE).
The project will reveal how ordinary people practised religion in their daily lives and in response to major social upheavals such as the Black Death and the Reformation.
Researchers will combine archaeological, historical and digital humanities approaches to uncover how the practice of religion affected medieval people’s experiences of gender, family and community.
By using items recorded in the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS), the project will unlock the potential of public finds data. It will compare religious objects, such as pilgrim badges, papal bullae, book fittings, dress accessories and objects with sacred inscriptions, recovered as public finds (PAS) with those excavated from archaeological contexts in three case study regions (Kent, Norfolk, North Yorkshire, including York).
The Portable Antiquities Scheme database holds information on over 1,670,000 items all freely accessible to the public. Most of these finds were found by metal-detectorists. The British Museum supports a responsible approach to searching for finds as outlined in the Code of Practice for Responsible Metal-detecting in England and Wales that helps protect archaeology and advance our knowledge of the past.
The PAS records archaeological finds discovered by the public to advance knowledge, tell the stories of past communities and further public interest in the past. It is a partnership project, managed by the British Museum in England and through Amgueddfa Cymru (Museum Wales) in Wales, working with almost 100 national and local organisations, and delivered through its network of locally based Finds Liaison Officers and supported by key staff at the British Museum and Amgueddfa Cymru, as well as the Welsh Archaeological Trusts, National Finds Advisers, Finds Liaison Assistants, interns and community volunteers.
Roberta Gilchrist, Professor of Archaeology at the University of Reading, said: “It is fantastic to be working with the British Museum and PAS on this project; by utilising a wealth of untapped public finds data, we will be able to highlight the beliefs and religious agency of ordinary people at regional, national and international scales.”
Michael Lewis, Co-investigator and Head of the Portable Antiquities Scheme, British Museum said: “Reporting medieval finds is incredibly important for improving our understanding of medieval religion and how it operated outside the church. Through the MeRit project, we hope to improve how medieval religious finds are recorded and understood.”
By working with similar portable antiquities schemes that have been set up in Denmark and Netherlands to record objects found by the public, the project will compare religious finds from medieval England with those from north-west Europe to pinpoint common religious objects and ritual practices.
The project will also work with citizen scientists and local museums to produce finds recording guides and creative approaches to object biographies for use by the public, the heritage industry, and museums.
Research outputs will be shared through conference sessions at the European Archaeological Association Conference and Leeds International Medieval Congress, Open Access publications and a publicly accessible database. There will also be public lectures, local talks, blogs, podcasts and magazine articles to share new insights to everyday religion in the Middle Ages and the importance of reporting medieval finds.
Find out more on the Medieval Ritual Landscape Project website.