Article review: ‘An Ivory Knife Handle from the High Street, Perth, Scotland’

This week I’m reviewing a really fascinating and influential article that actually came out in 2001, but which, I think, is so useful that I wanted to give it a bit of attention. Many of you may already be familiar with this article as it’s quite often cited – while the knife handle may not be relevant to your work, the use of one object to explore a period and lifestyle is carried out so neatly that it gets cited in a variety of sources. For the other museum enthusiasts out there, it makes me think about how much cannot be communicated to an audience for one object. No one will spend this long looking at one object or reading about it, even though a similar approach could be taken for pretty much any object out there.

The article’s full details are:

HALL, M. A. 2001. An Ivory Knife Handle from the High Street, Perth, Scotland: Consuming Ritual in a Medieval Burgh. Medieval Archaeology, 45, 169-188.

Hall’s article is all about a medieval ivory knife handle found in Perth, Scotland, during the course of excavations in the 1970s. The ivory handle was one of several thousand objects found during the excavations and was part of an assemblage of skeletal-material objects possibly from a 14th century metalworker’s workshop.

The paper challenges the existing interpretation of the knife handle as being a depiction of a ‘Green Man’ and instead places the object within the context of May festival figures because of iconographic evidence from the handle itself and because of the history and significance of May festivities in medieval Perth.

In this article, Hall is presenting a contextual approach to medieval material culture. In his work on modern archaeological approaches, Ian Hodder (2003: 188) noted that a contextual approach cannot study an object on its own, but must draw upon the ‘relevant environment’, where ‘relevant’ refers to something which has a relationship with the object. Hall treats the knife handle as one aspect of the data (per Hodder). He uses the relevant environment of the ivory knife handle by examining the relationship between the artefact and the May festival tradition in Perth, possible comparators and the economy in medieval Perth as these have a significant relationship with the handle. Using this approach, Hall ‘decodes’ the meaning of the ivory knife handle and uses it to peek into the mindset of a medieval person.

The knife handle

Page 171 of the article, drawings of the ivory knife handle
Page 171 of the article, drawings of the ivory knife handle

The handle is 20.5 mm long, 22.6 mm width and is 14.5 mm thick, and weighs about 37g. It’s made from walrus ivory, and the carving of the figure is described by Hall as:

The carefully executed carving represents a laughing or grinning male face whose open mouth displays 8 upper teeth. It has wide eyes, with the pupils defined by pits, with lids and brows, smiling checks, a slightly flattened nose – in part caused by wear, which has removed the lefl nostril; the right nostril remains clear – and a pronounced chin. Tight, well-defined curls of hair (a prominent one over the forehead is slightly damaged) frame the face. The curly hair also laps over the edge of the hood that is pulled tightly around the head and under the chin. The cloak of the hood then appears to fall away in a series ofloose folds down the length of the handle, clearly defined at the socket-end with a possible collar arrangement… (Hall 2001: 172)

The bottom of the handle has a decidedly phallic appearance which is difficult to deny. The handle curves because of the natural curve of the ivory, and the tooth’s pulp cavity has been used as the socket for the blade. He notes that the handle is made of walrus ivory, which had stopped being used for secular carvings before the time of its manufacture. Instead, elephant ivory had begun to be used for secular carvings in Britain. This raises questions about how the walrus-ivory knife handle came to be in medieval Perth and the author notes that rather than being an indicator of trade with Scandinavian nations, the walrus ivory could have come from a stranded walrus or could have been carved by a travelling skilled craftsman.

The Green Man

There are many pubs called Green Man (photo credit: Google image)
There are many pubs called Green Man (photo credit: Google image)

Hall’s intention with regard to the article is to challenge the interpretation of the ivory knife handle as a depiction of a ‘Green Man’, and he describes the development of the term Green Man in order to discredit its attribution to foliate heads, Jack-in-the-Green figures and to the knife handle. Apparently, a 1931 publication misinterpreted late-medieval foliate heads and erroneously connected them with a much later May Day procession called the Jack-in-the-Green (Hutton 1996: 241).

Hall uses the history of the Green Man classification and its inherent misappropriation of iconography to discredit its application to the knife handle. His argument also rests upon the distinct visual differences between the foliate head on the handle and the foliate heads found in late-medieval churches.

Some imagery of the Green Man (photo credit: Google image)
Some imagery of the Green Man (photo credit: Google image)

Hall cites Kathleen Basford’s (1978) suggestion that foliate heads were not likely to have been associated with May festivities, further distancing the ivory knife handle with the foliate heads known under the term Green Man.

Hall’s argument that the knife handle is associated with May festivities is supported by his identification of the leaves depicted as representing new growth, whether they are hawthorn, hornbeam or rowan. Written records referring to May festivities across Britain are noted, as is the significant role of the guilds in staging the festivities and participating in medieval culture through the staging of public celebratory events. This aspect highlights the wider economic landscape of medieval Perth, helps to place the handle within its socio-economic context and emphasises the role of dramatic pageantry and ritual celebration in medieval Perth.

Should I read this article?

The article is an interesting and compelling reinterpretation of an object of significant social and cultural value, which challenges its existing classification as a Green Man, and places it within its true historical and cultural context. Hall’s use of evidence from the object itself, such as the raw materials and workmanship, and from supporting textual sources combine to produce a well-put and reasonable argument that the object is a secular depiction of a May reveller. He also deals with wider issues such as the cultural context for the handle, its iconography and reference to seasonal festivities in medieval Perth.

Hall concludes that medieval Perth was a rich and culturally vibrant community which possessed the ability and capacity to produce an item of such skill and aesthetic value.

So, yes, read the article, or read any of the articles which cite it. I thought it was really interesting and a great way to explore object agency and object biography, as well as setting some records straight.

Works cited:

BASFORD, K. 1978. The Green Man, Ipswich, D. S. Brewer.

HALL, M. A. 2001. An Ivory Knife Handle from the High Street, Perth, Scotland: Consuming Ritual in a Medieval Burgh. Medieval Archaeology, 45, 169-188.

HUTTON, R. 1996. The stations of the sun : a history of the ritual year in Britain, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

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