23 April 2024 The Future is the Product of the Past

A beautiful Medieval key discovered in Claverham village, UK

Earlier this year the Kemble fieldwork team from Cotswold Archaeology undertook a small excavation for Newland Homes on the edge of the village of Claverham in North Somerset, UK. And the field team crowned their excavations with this beautiful medieval key with a unique design.

The excavation area was situated immediately adjacent to the 19th-century manor house of Court De Wyck, with the intention of uncovering evidence for the former medieval manor of the same name.

During the fieldwork teams uncovered a series of walls related to the original building and its subsequent iterations. The key, which is likely late medieval (c. 1300–1539), was discovered in association with a Post-medieval wall, which followed the same alignment as the medieval boundary wall for the manor house.

It’s been identified as a rotary key, which is so named as they fit into a lock and rotate in order to lift tumblers or levers, or to push springs, so that the lock can be opened.

First developed around 6000 years ago in ancient Babylon and Egypt, the first locks and keys were made of wood. However, wood is not a very sturdy material, and with a small amount of force can easily be broken – not very helpful as a security device! Also, the wooden keys were heavy and cumbersome.

During the Roman period, the designs were greatly improved via the use of metals which created much sturdier locks. Additionally, the introduction of wards (obstructions which prevent the lock from opening without the correct key) improved their security further. Roman keys and locks were also much smaller, making the key far easier to keep on your person. Wealthy Romans even wore elaborate keys as jewellery items, symbolising their affluence.

Medieval key from Court De Wyck. Photo: Cotswold Archaeology
Medieval key from Court De Wyck. Photo: Cotswold Archaeology

Elaborate or ornate keys were produced from the Roman period to the present day, and the key from Claverham is no exception. The key is copper alloy and has a decorated bow, or key handle, depicting a quatrefoil or ‘four-leaf clover’ with a perforation in each petal and an additional one in the center. It has three sub-rectangular mouldings at the junction between the stem and the bow, which form a bulbous collar. The stem is circular and hollow, and the bit (which goes into the lock) is sub-rectangular in shape with at least one groove or channel at the exterior end.

The key was likely used for a door or a chest and is similar to a common type of medieval key referred to as ‘London type VI’. These keys were large copper alloy keys with chunky proportions, typically measuring 80–100mm long. They had fully or partially hollow stems and large, complex bits.

Though key has similar characteristics to these keys, it is much smaller. Consequently, the key recovered from Claverham is likely a less common form of medieval key, which was similar in design, but much smaller (typically 50–70mm), which had simple bits.

Although a possible date for the key has been determined, the question of what the key opens remains valid.

Cotswold Archaeology

Cover Photo: Cotswold Archaeology

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