When Northamptonshire finds liaison officer Julie Cassidy attended an archaeological finds surgery she was both surprised and delighted to discover an exceptionally rare Elizabethan ‘visard mask’ that had been concealed within the walls of a 16th century building.
Ms Cassidy, working for the Portable Antiquities Scheme, revealed that the mask was discovered during the renovation of an inner wall of a stone building near Daventry, Northamptonshire, in the UK. The wall of the property was approximately four foot thick and the mask was found concealed within the inner hard core, which consisted of soil, straw and horsehair. “This was without doubt the reason why the mask has survived,” said Ms Cassidy.
The mask, which was found folded in half lengthways and placed within a small rectangular niche behind the face of the wall, would have almost certainly have been worn by a gentlewoman to protect her face from the sun.
An exerpt from Phillip Stubbes Anatomie of Abuses, published in 1583, says: “When they use to ride abrod, they have invisories, or masks, visors made of velvet, wherwith they cover all their faces, having holes made in them against their eyes, whereout they look. So that if a man, that knew not their guise before, should chaunce to meet one of them, he would think hee met a monster or a devil; for face hee can see none, but two brode holes against her eyes with glasses in them.”
An extract from the 17th century diary of Samuel Pepys explains their changing function through time, “Masks were commonly used by ladies in the reign of Elizabeth, and when their use was revived at the Restoration for respectable women attending the theatre, they became general. They soon, however, became the mark of loose women, and their use was discontinued by women of repute.”
The outer fabric of the mask is black velvet and the lining is silk. The inside is strengthened by a pressed-paper inner with the three layers stitched together by a black cotton thread. On the silk lining, just below the centre of the mouth, is a loose thread of white cotton which would have held a black glass bead (found in association with the mask). With a lack of holes to allow string or elastic to be put around the head, the mask would have instead been held in place by the wearer holding the black bead in her mouth.
These masks rarely survive. One parallel can be found at the Victoria and Albert Museum in the form of a 17th century doll’s mask
Ms Cassidy, who has researched 16th century masks, said, “These masks rarely survive. One parallel can be found at the Victoria and Albert Museum in the form of a 17th century doll’s mask belonging to the collection of Lady Chapman. This example is almost identical to our mask. Another is held at Norwich Museum, although their example is more crudely made than the Daventry mask.”
With regard to the mask’s deposition within the walls of the building, the Textile Conservation Centre, now based at the University of Glasgow (previously the University of Southampton), is conducting a research project on such concealed items. The practise of placing a shoe was common in 16th and 17th century house building, along with concealing elaborate artefacts, or multiple associated artefacts, as ‘witch deposits’.
The website of the Textile Conservation Centre says, “These objects may have been concealed as a protective device to ward off evil and other maleficent forces, or they may have been used as counter-magic to deflect a curse or other negative circumstance, such as illness or economic blight considered to be the consequence of malevolent spirits or witches, e.g. the use of witch bottles, charms and curses. The objects may also have been viewed as ‘lucky things’, perhaps heirlooms from an ancestor or from another person considered to be spiritually powerful and so they were perceived as lucky for the household. Or did builders constructing or altering a building, or the householders themselves, just want to leave their ‘mark’?”
The Daventry mask has now been returned to the owner of the house but its discovery – and importance – reinforces the need to record chance finds with the Portable Antiquities Scheme.
The Portable Antiquities Scheme is a voluntary scheme to record archaeological objects found by members of the public in England and Wales. Every year tens of thousands of objects are discovered, many of these by metal-detector users, but also by people whilst out walking, gardening or going about their daily work. Such discoveries offer an important source for understanding our past. The scheme currently operates in England and Wales, with Finds Liaison Officers spread throughout the regions, to find you closest one – view the Scheme Contacts List