: Collections & Research

A day in Archaeology - Prehistoric stone tools

Chloe Ward, 1 May 2024

by Sam, Mark, Hannah and Caitlin Amguedfa Cymru-Museum Wales volunteers

We are four volunteers who answered the volunteering opportunity advert on the Amgueddfa Cymru – Museum Wales website, organised by Elizabeth Walker, Principal Curator at the Museum. The opportunity was to help sort through and catalogue a collection of prehistoric stone tools.

The tools are from the substantial collection made by Henry Stopes, a private collector, in the late 19th Century. There are estimated to be between 50,000 to 70,000 artefacts, with half a million years of history, mostly British, but the collection also contains some mysterious overseas objects.

Each Thursday, with Elizabeth, we spend three hours sorting through the boxes, numbering and categorising each item. It is exciting work and is often stopped when someone finds something so unusual, they want to share it with the group. Such as a Neolithic polished axe head, broken and then clearly recycled or even a Neolithic carved ball. Elizabeth will always help us identify and assist with interesting facts about the stone tools. As we work we also hold interesting discussions which have so far ranged from Beyonce to Boer War; Neanderthals to Korean horror films! Who knows what next weeks’ topics will be.

We, as volunteers, feel fortunate to have this opportunity to be involved in this hands-on museum work, to offer our time and to be part of the recording of the Henry Stopes collection which will help with future stone tool research. Not only is this opportunity an interesting way to see how the behind the scenes works at a museum, the knowledge gained is incredibly useful to our future careers in archaeology. The amount we have all learned from just 3 hours a week is much larger than we would have thought.

So far we have sorted, repackaged and documented 4,659 tools and entered 2,265 new entries into the collection database. 

Secret Messages of Love: Archaeological Finds of an Amorous Kind

Elena Johnston, 14 February 2024

Last year, 77 finds from across Wales, all over 300 years old, were reported as treasure. My favourite treasure cases are the ones that include jewellery, especially rings. Yes, they are beautiful little objects, but they are also very personal items each with a story to tell.

I often wonder how these prized possessions end up in buried in the ground. Perhaps lost on a countryside stroll, the owner only realising with a jolt of panic once they have returned home. An argument between lovers perhaps, resulting in a ring being thrown across fields in a fit of rage. Or the remembering of a loved one with the private placing of the ring at a shared special place.

Love, in one form or another, is the common theme here, so to celebrate Valentine’s Day let’s take a closer look at some of the rings recently declared treasure in Wales.


A gold posy-ring dating from the late 1600s to early 1700s (treasure case 21.26 from Esclusham Community, Wrexham). The inscription inside reads ‘Gods providence is our inheritance’.

Gold Posy-ring.

Posy rings were used to communicate secret messages of love, faith and friendship between the giver and the recipient. The wearing of hidden words against the skin offering a poignant, intimate connection.



A medieval gold fede or betrothal ring, decorated with engraved leaves and flower heads (treasure case 21.14 from Bronington Community, Wrexham).

Gold Fede or Betrothal Ring. 

The inscription on the outer surface reads ‘de bon cuer’ which means ‘of good heart’. The ring forms part of a hoard of coins and finger-rings dating to the Wars of the Roses during the later 15th century.



A gold finger ring, dated 1712, (treasure case 19.41 from Llanbradach and Pwll y Pant Community, Caerphilly).

gold finger ring.

The initials A. D. and E. P. are inscribed either side of two joined hearts, representing the names of the couple betrothed or married.



Remember to keep an eye on our social channels for new treasure declarations and please do check out our website to find out more.




I’ll finish with a few FAQs about Treasure - everyone has heard of it, but what does it mean?


How is Amgueddfa Cymru – Museum Wales involved in Treasure declarations? 
Curators based at Amgueddfa Cymru provide expert advice and make recommendations to Coroners on cases of reported treasure from Wales. They compare finds with the legal definition of treasure, as set out in the Treasure Act 1996 and the Treasure Act 1996: Code of Practice (3rd Revision) of 2023. We also have Portable Antiquities Scheme Finds Officers based at our museums, who work with finders, often metal-detectorists, who show their treasure and non-treasure archaeological finds, enabling them to be recorded and reported.


Why does a Coroner make the decision on Treasure cases? 
The role of Coroners in treasure cases arose from the Medieval duty of the Coroner as a protector of the property of the Crown belonging to the king or queen of the day. In Middle English, the word ‘coroner’ referred to an officer of the Crown, derived from the Latin corona, meaning ‘crown’.


What happens to ‘Treasure’? 
When treasure finds are declared treasure by Coroners, they legally become the property of the Crown. Finders and landowners are entitled to rewards, usually each receiving 50% of the independent commercial value placed on the treasure find. The Treasure Valuation Committee, an appointed group of experts representing the antiquities trade, museums and finder groups, commissions and agrees the values placed on treasure. Interested accredited museums may acquire treasure for their collections and for wider public benefit, by paying the agreed valuation sum placed on a find.  

Tokens of Love

Fflur Morse, 23 January 2024

Carved cow’s horn, 1758

Today in Wales we celebrate Santes Dwynwen, the patron saint of friendship and love.

With Valentine’s Day also on the horizon, what better time than now to explore some of the objects in our collection which were given as tokens and symbols of love. Most of us are familiar with the concept of love spoons and their significance to Wales, and you can learn more about their history and designs here.

But in this blog, I would like to focus on some of the lesser-known objects related to love in the collection, starting with the Knitting Sheath.

Knitting needle sheaths were often carved as love tokens. Sheaths were worn by knitters to hold one of their needles while they worked. This allowed them to use their free hand to manipulate the yarn. The sheath was either tucked into the knitter’s waistband or tied around their waist.

This knitting sheath is inscribed with the date 1802, with the name ‘Thomas Smith’. It was probably made as a present and love token, like several others in our collection. It is decorated with a flower, heart, and fish motif.

Top: Carved knitting needle sheath, 1802 Bottom: Carved knitting needle sheath, 1754

The example below it is of an earlier date and was made in 1754.

Like many of the lovespoons in the collection at St Fagans, both sheaths feature balls carved within a cage – this was commonly thought to represent the number of children desired by the carver.

Another popular love token was the Staybusk. This was a piece of wood which was inserted into the front of a woman’s stays to keep the torso upright. They were usually made from whalebone, wood or bone. A busk was often given to a woman as a love token from a suitor because they were positioned close to the heart. Many were carved or painted with inscriptions and motifs, such as hearts, initials and flowers.

Below is a carved wooden staybusk from Llanwrtyd, Powys. It is inscribed with the initials RM and IM.

Carved wooden staybusk from Llanwrtyd

The symbol of the wheel features heavily on this staybust, and it was said that this represented a vow by the carver to work hard, and to guide a loved one through life.

Tokens such as knitting sheaths, staybusts and lovespoons were available to people of all classes. Made with affordable materials that were readily available, each token was completely unique and driven by the emotion and passion of the carver.

Carved love tokens encompassed a wide variety of styles and designs, and came in all shapes and sizes, such as this cow horn, beautifully carved in 1758 in the Aberystwyth area, as a gift by Edward Davis for his sweetheart Mary.

Carved cow’s horn, 1758

These tokens shed a unique light on the emotional experiences of the receiver, and those who loved them. They were cherished objects belonging to ordinary people, whose stories are so often hidden from history. Through the beautifully carved symbols and motifs on the love tokens, we can learn a little about their hopes and desires and gain a glimpse into their very own love stories.

Summary of an archaeology work placement, 2022-23

David Hughes (Student Work Placement), 13 November 2023

There is often some competition from people interested in archaeology to participate in Amgueddfa Cymru – Museum Wales’ student work placements, and I was delighted to secure a placement to help the museum assess and catalogue human remains. 

Joining a small group of individuals on placement, some of whom are students from Cardiff’s Archaeological Science course, we worked alongside the Curator to assess skeletons from the early medieval cemetery at Llandough, near Cardiff.  The excavations in the early 1990s produced in excess of a thousand skeletons, which have remained in Amgueddfa Cymru’s archive awaiting full examination. 

We learnt how the skeletons must be stored and handled in accordance with ethical standards for dealing with human remains.  Each skeleton is individually assessed for completeness, and sometimes it is possible to identify the sex and observe evidence of age and disease.  This information is recorded for entry into the Amgueddfa Cymru catalogue and will be useful in future research of human remains and the Llandough site, and contribute to the study of medieval archaeology more generally. 

Examining human remains provokes reflection on the lives of medieval people and, whilst it may not be for everyone, it does bring us closer to the past in a special way.  The work placement was an excellent learning experience.  The Curator, Adelle was very patient with all the questions raised by the student placements and generous in sharing her knowledge and skills.  It is a great way for Amgueddfa Cymru to engage with the public, and I am grateful for the opportunity to see behind the scenes and contribute to the work of the museum.  I hope Amgueddfa Cymru will continue to offer such opportunities for those who would like to get involved.


For more information on work placements for students, visit the 'Get Involved' pages of the website. It is possible to sign up to a mailing list to hear about any placements when they are advertised.

Jessie Knight - The Lady Tattoo Artist

Dr Bethan Jones, 1 November 2023

I was appointed an Honorary Research Fellow at Amgueddfa Cymru – Museum Wales earlier this year and I've finally made it down to see the collection I'll be working with!


I'm doing work on Jessie Knight, considered one of the UK's first female tattoo artists, and it was amazing seeing her machines, flash, art and photos. There are about 1000 items in the archive and I only looked at two boxes so I'm really excited to get stuck in and see what I can find. I'll be working with the collection for two years and am planning some community events as well as participatory research.


I got my first tattoo aged 19. A piece of flash chosen from the walls of a studio in Bath, inked on by a tattooist who I can’t remember anything about except he wore black gloves. Over twenty years later and I’ve got many more, mostly custom designs inked over multiple sessions, the latest by a woman whose mother I used to work with. Tattoos have, even since I got my first one, become more mainstream, more acceptable. And female tattoo artists are becoming more common - a far cry from the early 20th century when Jessie Knight began work.


Jessie, born in Croydon in 1904, is widely considered to be the UK’s first female tattoo artist. She began working at her father’s studio in Barry when she was 18, and after moving around the UK returned to Barry in the 1960s. After her death in 1992 her collection of photographs, artwork, tattoo machines and designs passed to her great nephew Neil Hopkin-Thomas and was acquired by Amgueddfa Cymru, with the help of art historian and tattoo academic Dr Matt Lodder, in 2023. 


But why on earth should a tattooist’s archive be acquired by a museum, or put on display? As someone who has, and researches, tattoos the collection is a fascinating piece of subcultural history. And subcultures – like punk and hip-hop – have increasingly become the subject of exhibitions at museums and galleries. Tattoos reflect the hopes, loves and identities of the people who have them – as the tattoo of the highland fling that won Jessie second place in the 1955 Champion Tattoo Artist of All England competition attests – and give us an insight into the lives of people through the ages. 


But the Knight collection also tells us about the cultural and societal norms of the time. It’s estimated that there were only five other female tattoos in the US and Europe working at the same time as Jessie. This was an incredibly tough industry for a woman and we can see some of the behaviour Jessie would have had to put up with in the signs she displayed – preserved within the collection. Her great-nephew has told stories about how Jessie’s shop was broken into and her designs taken, and how she would sit on a big trunk that held her designs while she was tattooing so no one could get to them.


The designs in the collection also tell us about the trends of the day, and while some of these are intensely problematic and need to be addressed sensitively, we can also see how Jessie moved away from the more stereotypical representation of women as sex objects to create a more realistic depiction of women. This was unusual at the time, but then Jessie herself was also unusual – and blazed a trail for female tattoo artists working today.