Jet Industry in Roman York


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'Jet Industry in Roman York', An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in City of York, Volume 1: Eburacum, Roman York (1962), pp. 141-144. URL: Date accessed: 17 April 2014. Add to my bookshelf


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Jet is a substance which occurs in sporadic lenticular masses in the bituminous shales of the Upper Lias, particularly at the sea coast near Whitby, some 45 miles N.E. of York. In origin it is probably decomposed driftwood that has been subjected to heat and pressure, since it retains a cellular structure, even if in crushed and contorted condition. Jet is dense in texture, deep black, easily cut and capable of a high polish. Like amber, it becomes electric when rubbed, and hence acquired in antiquity an aura of magic which enhanced its value and endowed it with medicinal and fabulous properties. It can be ignited by water and quenched by oil, says Pliny (Nat. Hist., XXXVI, 141), and this fable is repeated by Solinus, the 3rd-century schoolmaster, with reference to British jet (Collectanea rerum memorabilium, 22, 11: 'gagates hic plurimus optimusque est lapis: si decorem requiras, nigrogemmeus: si naturam, aqua ardet, oleo restinguitur: si potestatem, attritu salefactus adplicita detinet atque sucinum'), but it is interesting that Pliny appreciated (loc. cit.) its woody nature. The Romans probably collected the raw material from the beaches, without mining, as in Pamphylia, since the supply of jet eroded by the sea from underwater outcrops and washed ashore was exhausted only quite recently. Substitutes of Kimmeridge shale from Dorset or of cannel coal were sometimes used.

Jet had been used in Britain since Neolithic times, but there is no evidence of continuity between native and Roman industry. The material was already known to the Roman world from Lycia and Pamphylia and the products of EBVRACVM are of Roman design without native features.

Whitby is the natural source of jet in quantity, but jet jewellery is found throughout Britain; and it is not clear whether the finished products were carved at York, and thence traded across the country, or whether the raw material went for working and distribution to other centres. Nor has it yet been determined whether jet objects found abroad, for example in the Rhineland, were British made, since jet does occur in Spain (Aragon and Asturia) and Southern France (Aude). But the British jet tended to be of better quality, as was recognised by Solinus (loc. cit.), and may well have been exported to the Continent, rough or worked: the more so since the Rhineland, where jet objects are common, was in direct seacommunication with eastern Britain, and British jet is most like that used for Rhineland pieces.

The evidence for manufacture of jet jewellery at York is most directly attested (see Monument 48) by the discovery during the Railway excavations of 1873 of 'several blocks of jet in the rough, and some pieces partially prepared for pins' (H. 113. YMH, 127, q). The inference is that a workshop occupied the site before the cemetery, though it was one in which pins alone are recorded to have been made. But the making of bangles also at York is suggested by a fragment in the Museum (un-numbered), which was broken and discarded before completion of the decoration, and a second from The Mount (YAJ, XXXIV (1958), 306), which is now at St. John's College. Again, some of the rough pieces of jet recorded above are unsuited to making pins, but could have been used for rings or beads (Plate 70); while a large piece, from York but without further provenance, destined for a casket or tray, was broken and discarded before the inside had been completely smoothed out. There is thus suggestive evidence for the more general production of jet objects at York, which the proximity of the Whitby supplies of raw material would facilitate. It may, however, be remarked that the circular wasters, known as 'coal money', which are a feature of the Kimmeridge industry and are in fact the cores of lathe-turned bangles, are conspicuously absent from York. But this may be explained by the greater value of jet, of which cores would not have been wasted but reused for smaller rings and beads. A disc in the Yorkshire Museum (un-numbered) is probably from such a core; it is 11/8 ins. in diameter, 1/8 in. thick, polished and decorated with concentric circles for use as a counter; three perforations in it made before the polishing and decoration are unexplained.

The date of the industry is uncertain. The bulk of its products come from inhumation graves in the Railway Station cemetery, which mostly belong to the 3rd and 4th centuries. This is the age of the few dated grave groups associated with jet objects, from Walmgate, St. Mary's, Sycamore Terrace (H. 321, H. 319, H. 5–12 in the Yorkshire Museum) and Bootham (J. 93.735–6 in the Sheffield Museum) (see Burials, I Region, (c), i; III Region, (b), i, iii, v). But the industry was clearly well established by the time of Solinus, and the workshop on the Railway Station site preceding the main use of the cemetery implies such an earlier dating.

The examples of jet jewellery with known or probable York provenance here described illustrate the products of the industry. The H. references refer to objects in the Yorkshire Museum.


Four Gorgon pendants have been found (H. 2443, H. 321.14, H. 320.1. Plate 68). The first, found in 1841, is also the best. The Gorgon, very well carved in relief, occupies the whole field of an upright oval 1¾ ins. by 1½ ins., perforations for suspension being hidden in the hair (YMH, 125, j iii). The second, from the Walmgate grave group, was found with the beads from a necklace to which all belonged (see Burials, I Region, (c), i); it is an upright oval, 1½ ins. by 1¼ ins., carved in relief, with a perforation in a tubular projection at the top, but lacks the vigour and character of the first. The third, very worn, found with three beads from its necklace in 1890 on the N. side of the Railway Station, is a smaller version of the Walmgate pendant (see Burials, IV Region, (e), iii). The fourth, listed in the Museum index, has been mislaid.

Three pendants forming portrait medallions, imitative of metropolitan family portrait-groups in painted glass on gold leaf (Arch. Journ., CIII (1946), 79), come from unrecorded sites in York (H. 1028, H. 2442, H. 2444. Plate 68). Each has a lug at the top perforated for suspension. The first, a horizontal oval pendant, 1 15/16 ins. by 7/8 in., exhibits centrally on a flat ground a draped female bust in relief with hair arranged in a double parting on either side of a central chignon or cap (YMH, 125, j iv). The second, an upright oval with plain rim, 2¼ ins. by 17/8 ins., contains two facing busts of husband and wife, carved in relief and represented three-quarter face, with shoulders draped in richly bordered garments. The man has short-cropped hair in the style of the Tetrarchy, the woman's hair is parted in the middle, braided at the front and looped or bagged behind (YMH, 125, j iv). The third, a roundel, 2 5/16 ins. in diameter, exhibits busts in relief of a husband, wife, and curly-headed boy, all cloaked, with penannular brooches on their right shoulders. Though possibly of jet, this piece has cracked in the manner of shale, and an association with 'coal money' from Dorset recorded for it (YMH (1869), 85, item 7**), may seem to tip the balance in favour of the latter material.

Pendants shaped as animals or birds also occur. A jet bear (Plate 70), 7/8 in. by 5/8 in., standing at bay on a flat base, that perhaps began as a toy but is pierced for suspension, was found at Bootham in 1845 together with a bead, a Castor ware beaker and a coin of Constantine (see Burials, III Region, (b), iii). This grave group, of c. 320 A.D., is now in the Sheffield Museum (J.93.735. Ant. Journ., XXVIII (1948), 174). A jet bird from a brooch or pendant, found at York and exhibited by R. Cook (BAAJ, VI (1851), 156, pl. XIX, 3), is now lost. A scarab from York, described as of jet, is in fact carved in soft green stone (YMH, 126, j viii), while a coiled snake pendant, found on the Railway Station site in 1874, is probably not Roman but Viking (YMH, 125, j iv; Archaeologia, XCVII (1959), 94, fig. 21).

Pendants of miscellaneous form include most of a flat notched wheel, 1¼ ins. by 1 in. by 1/8 in., perforated for hanging (YMH (1869), 84, no. 14), and an oval loop or buckle for attachment to the end of a necklace or chain, 15/16 in. by 15/8 ins., with a long flattened panel perforated at either end.


Beads for necklaces or bracelets take many forms. Particularly interesting are those cut with ingenuity and great skill to form segments of articulated pieces.

From Walmgate (see Burials, I Region, (c), i) come 250 disc beads, ½ in. in diameter, delicately decorated with cheverons, which form a long snake-like necklace. This has two long lathe-turned cylinder terminals, perforated lengthways, with serrated ends fitting the adjacent disc beads (H. 321.1). From the same group comes a complete necklace composed of delicate cylinder beads, decorated according to length with two, three or four incised segments, and fitted so closely that it is difficult to distinguish gaps from grooves (H. 321.4).

Three beads remaining from the necklace with Gorgon pendant (H. 320.1) from the Railway Station site (p. 84b) probably exemplify the make-up of the whole. One is a terminal bead devised as a tapered cylinder 12/5 ins. long, with decorative incised lines, the second is a baluster-shaped bead 9/10 in. long, the third octagonal in section and slightly bulbous 3/5 in. long (H. 320.2–4. YMH, 125, j iv). Two other cylinder beads, 1 15/16 ins. and 2 ins. long, in the Museum collection (unnumbered) are probably terminals from similar necklaces, while a disc bead (un-numbered), ¾ in. diameter, also from a necklace, has a central perforation and alternating U-shaped nicks round the rim to give an undulating effect.

Two almost complete articulated bracelets are now in the Museum. The first (H. 108. Plate 70), from Blossom Street, found in 1852 (see Burials, IV Region, (k), vi) is composed of forty-three narrow, flat, wedge-shaped beads, graduated in size in order to concentrate the weight at the front. The inner side is plain, the outer and visible side is carved with lozenge-shaped facets (YMH, 126, j vi). The second (un-numbered. Plate 70), from The Mount (see Burials, IV Region, (n), iv) is represented by fourteen beads, similar to those of the first except that they have longitudinal grooves, not facets; one is broken and not strung with the rest (YMH, 126, j vii). A bead found with the jet bear in the Bootham grave group of c. 320 A.D. (Sheffield Museum, J. 93.736) was from a similar piece (Plate 70). There are also two saucer-shaped disc beads, 11/8 ins. and 15/16 in. in diameter, in the Yorkshire Museum (unnumbered); the perforation is central and the convex surface of one bead fits the concavity of the next, with a graduation in size to thicken the bracelet at the front.

Finally, simpler, almost spherical beads with single perforation include twelve, now strung as a bracelet (Plate 70), found in 1840 in a stone coffin during the Railway Excavations outside the Bar Walls (see Burials, IV Region, (b), ix) and forming part of a grave group (H. 106) containing jet pins, a decorated bracelet, and a finger-ring with a carved bezel (YMH, 126, j ix).

Jet Pins

Workshop rejects, showing how jet pins were made, were found on the Railway Station site (Monument 48). A roughly squared block, from 2 ins. to 3 ins. long, was pared to cylindrical or polygonal shape, according to the kind of head required, and the shaft was then turned on a lathe. Broken fragments exist with cylindrical shaft and a block left rough for the head. When the head was carved and the shaft sharpened, the whole was polished, and the finished products were used as hairpins. The normal shaft is 2 ins. to 3 ins. long, round in section and slightly bulbous. The main variations are in the shape and decoration of the heads, which on occasion were carved separately and fixed upon bone shafts (Plate 71).

The faceted head was produced by cutting off the corners of a cube, producing triangular and diamond-shaped facets. The Yorkshire Museum contains thirty-two pins of this type (e.g. H. 314.3, H. 2446, H. 2447. Plate 69). One, from the Walmgate grave group (H. 321.12), has a longer head, cut so ingeniously as to provide no less than twenty-nine facets. Another (H. 104.3), found in the Railway cemetery in 1876 (see Burials, IV Region, (d), xii), has a filigree faceted head made by hollowing the centre of each facet. A third, belonging to a group of ten pins (H. 105), also from the Railway cemetery, has a dot and a circle incised on each larger facet (Plate 69).

Fourteen pins, also in the Yorkshire Museum, have spherical or ovoid heads. Nine (H. 106.1–9. Plate 70) belong to a single grave group, found in 1840 in a coffin in the Railway Cemetery (see Burials, IV Region (b), ix). Of the other five, one (H. 134.8) has a jet head fixed to a bone shaft, while two (H. 1032 and an un-numbered fragment) have long thin stems, like matchsticks.

There are thirteen cantharus-headed pins in the Yorkshire Museum. Nine are from a grave group (H. 105. Plate 69) containing the faceted pin already mentioned. Two still secure the head of woman's hair surviving from the Railway Station cemetery (see Burials, IV Region, (d), i). They vary from the perfectly shaped cup, with perforated handles, to others with mere lugs and one which is little more than a cross-hatched cylinder.

The disc-headed type of pin comprises a small, perforated jet disc into which a bone shaft is fixed (Plate 71). Three such pins in the Museum (H. 134.6–8) exhibit a top surface decorated with concentric circles: a socketed disc (un-numbered), with slightly convex upper surface, is probably the head of a fourth.

Three jet pins with highly individual heads may close the list. The first (H. 2445), with a flattened bulbous shaft, has a rectangular flat head with a clownish face carved in relief on each side (Plate 69). The second (un-numbered) has a cylindrical head, with an ovolo in relief. The third (un-numbered) comprises the head of a large pin, with flat elliptical section, and is carved in the form of a crown ½ in. high.


Three objects, too large and thick for pins, may be identified as distaffs. The first (H. 1098), 6¼ ins. long, has an octagonal tapering shaft and simple cubical head. The second (H. 314.1. Plate 69), 72/5 ins. long but now without its lower end, has an octagonal shaft ½ in. thick with a delicate cable-mould along each angle, a longitudinal perforation towards the point and a faceted head (YMH, 126, k i); it came from the Railway Station cemetery (IV Region, (c), ix). The third (H. 314.2. Plate 69), 53/5 ins. long, has a spiral shaft and faceted head but also lacks its lower end (YMH, 126, k ii).


Most of the plain and decorated jet circles are bracelets or anklets, but some, too small to encircle wrist or ankle and too large for finger-rings, may be hair-rings. Internal diameters run in three sizes, from 2½ ins. to 3 ins., from 1¾ ins. to 2 ins., and under 1½ ins. The normal circle is about ¼ in. gauge. The more elegant may have a gauge as fine as 1/8 in. The section is usually D-shaped or square with rounded corners, but octagonal and round sections occur. The Yorkshire Museum contains at least forty-two separate plain bangles, complete or fragmentary, and a brief general account is sufficient to indicate the range. Nearly all are from graves in the Railway, The Mount or Bootham cemeteries (see, for example, H. 9 from the Sycamore Terrace grave group, Fig. 58); many were found still on the arms or ankles of the corpses. Five are oval and of these three are shaped to be thicker at the front, one having an average gauge of ¾ in. and D-shaped section.

The same Museum contains nineteen decorated pieces. The most common motif is of lozenge-shaped facets formed by opposing V-shaped cuts on each side of a flat ring some 1/8 in. thick and ½ in. to ¾ in. wide. Sometimes these cuts are continued as decoration on the wide upper and lower sides. Again, a bangle (H. 106.13. Plate 70) from the grave group found in 1840 (see Burials, IV Region, (b), ix) has a bar-and-lozenge decoration along the edge repeated in a band on the upper and lower faces. In one example the facets are emphasised by hollowing, while a fragmentary piece exhibits facets of a double-axe shape. Three bangles have an undulating decoration produced by cutting alternately on either side. Four bangles, of round 1/8 in. section, have spiral ribbing, and many variations of linear decoration are found.


There are eleven finger-rings in the Yorkshire Museum; seven of these are delicately worked and pleasing and have bezels, square, oval, rectangular or lozenge-shaped, two of which are enriched. One (H. 106.12), from the grave group found in 1840 in the Railway Station cemetery (Plate 70), has a large square bezel, on which is engraved a four-pointed leaf set diagonally in a hatched field (see Burials, IV Region, (b), ix); the bezel of the other (H. 216) exhibits an incised rectangular ansate panel containing the letters IMA, while the inscription IVLIA MAMAEA AVGVSTA has been carved in relief round the ring. These inscriptions, the one intended to explain the other, are certainly spurious, and the piece itself is labelled as 'said to be York' but is probably in origin a genuine uninscribed ring, on which the letters were engraved in modern times. A third ring (un-numbered. Plate 70) has a plain oval bezel flanked by decorative diagonal crosses. A fourth (C. 1030. Plate 70) is completely plain. The four rings without bezels comprise two (un-numbered and H. 2440.8) completely plain, of flat and D-shaped section, 3/8 in. and ¼ in. thick, respectively, another cylindrical, ¾ in. high, and the fourth (H. 2440.11), a clumsy flat ring with scored decoration, which would project ½ in. from the finger. Finally, a completely plain ring, of 5/8 in. internal diameter and 1/8 in. gauge, has a neck to which a feature in bronze has been fastened, perhaps the hook or stem of an ear-ring.

Miscellaneous objects

The following varied jet objects are of interest: a fragment, 3¼ ins. wide and 1¼ ins. high, from the middle of a rectangular tray or box, with an external moulding at the base, but unfinished inside and probably broken in manufacture; a knife handle decorated with diagonal scored lines; a jet counter, ½ in. in diameter, decorated with concentric circles, and a jet dice with spots on its several sides, numbering from one to six as on modern dice, each spot being an incised circle with a central dot.

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