Medieval London

Bone Pin

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A straight bone pin from the 15th century with a head in the form of a diamond knop and no flanges (grooves), probably used to fasten clothing (Museum of London Collections, ID 16993, dated 15th century).

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A 15thcentury townswoman with headgear held in place by pins (Robert Campin, "A Woman," in the National Gallery, NG653.2, Room 63, dated 1430).

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Detail of Lady Jeunesse presenting the author to Lord Bel Accueil and Lady Plaisance and their court. A pin is located on Lady Plaisance’s dress by her shoulder. (British Library, Royal MS. 16 F.ii, f. 1r, dated 1483).

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Profile of a 15thcentury woman with a hairpin in the back of her head (Unknown artist, Lombardy, Victoria & Albert Museum Collections, Medieval & Renaissance, Room 64, The Wolfson Gallery, case EXP, shelf above, dated 1500).

The main function of this fifteenth-century bone pin in women’s fashion was to fasten  clothing and headgear. Measured at an approximate length of 113mm and width of 5mm, Museum of London records the bone pin as straight with a diamond-shaped knop.[1] However, not all pins had diamond knops; decorative heads of pins could be globular, coral, or acorn.[2] Bone pins recovered from burials are often red or green in color because of contact with copper alloys during the burial process.[3]

Research on bone pins excavated in London is ongoing as both bone and wire pints from different periods are being discovered. For example, the excavation of the London Thames waterfront between 1974 and 1984 have presented fifteen Roman bone pins in its silts.[4]It is also difficult to date pins because their form and style changed so little over time. Further research is required to better differentiate fifteenth-century London bone pins from the bone pins in the previous Roman and Anglo-Saxon periods.[5] However, pins that can be firmly dated to earlier centuries provide general insights for bone pins in later periods

A material culture approach to pins provides insights into their use and values.[6]The bone pin was considered a functional feminine object, a personal dress accessory for a variety of social classes and ages. Pins could be used in a woman's hair or headgear. Fifteenth-century London categorized hair of young adult women in relation to their chaste virginity. No pins meant they were available and waiting for marriage. Married women in fifteenth-century London were required to cover their hair. Pins could thus represent the marital status of a woman in London. Women fixed their hair under headdresses with shorter pins, whereas longer pins fastened clothes.[7]Children also used pins to fasten clothes, but it was not uncommon to see children wearing headgear. In fact, an eight-year-old female was excavated in Wharram Percy with a headdress pin, proving that pins were available to women of all ages for functional use.

Pins could also fasten together clothes, serving as a substitute for brooches.[8]In fact, an Anglo-Saxon young female skeleton in Wakerley Grave presented two bone pins of different sizes, suggesting she either did not have the money to own similar-sized pins or she used them for varied purposes – headgear or clothing fastening. Pins did not directly correlate to low status, as another young girl of seemingly greater wealth in Grave 22 Oakington, Cambridgeshire had two bone pins of dissimilar sizes, as well as a silver-plated brooch, the most expensive object in the cemetery. From the early medieval to late medieval centuries, pins seemed to play a function role more than acte as a symbol of wealth. 

Although archeologists have associted bone pins with women, it is possible that men also saw their value in replacing a brooch. For instance, a bone pin was found at the left shoulder of a male skeleton at Lowbury, Reading, suggesting a brooch substitute to for cloaks or securing clasps.

Many bone pins were simple, straight, and produced for functional use. The simple dress pin could be made from a pig fibula by cutting the bone, and therefore it was not a highly valued item.[9] Pins could also be made from the limbs of large ungulates, such as horses and cattle, but again little precision was required for the cutting for a quick solution to fasten clothing or dress accessories. The simple bone hairpins suggest in-home, domestic manufacture using the groove and splinter process.[10] By cutting grooves into a bone, the bone sectioned off and splintered; these splinters could then be fashioned into pins. Animal bone from the butcher was slender and easy to cut with a knife, so making bone pins took little professional skill. From the bones of dead animals, pins represented the beginning or birth of a new artefact and ever-changing function, which would then end with the breaking of the bone pin, which could be fragile.

Metal pins had longer-lasting life cycles, and their durability was reflected in the skills of trained guild workers. Bone pins had to compete with wound wire-headed and copper alloy pins, made by attaching the head by wrapping wire around the shank and soldering on to form a collar.[11]Metal pins were often made by craft guilds such as the pinners and wire-drawers of London and came in a variety of styles and lengths that made them more a marker of status than simple bone pins. Documentary records on the sale of metal pins indicate women of status as customers, including the Duchess of Orleans who purchased thousands from a Parisian pinner named Jehon de Areconmer.[12] In an effort to protect the domestic pin industry, King Edward IV enacted import controls in the fifteenth century to restrict the import of foreign pins, especially from the Low Countries.

The cheap cost, easy manufacture, and fragility of bone pins means they do often do not receive full discussion when found in fifteenth-century London archeological contexts. The pins in the late medieval market were mainly provided by the emerging wire pinners’ guilds and by foreign imports. 

--Emily Dwelle

[1] “Pin,” Museum of London Collections Online.

[2] Gilchrist, “Medieval Life Archaeology and the Life Course,” 85.

[3] Johns, The Jewellery of Roman Britain, 144.

[4] Schofield, John, et al., London’s Waterfront 1100-1666,” 35.

[5] Egan and Forsyth, “Wound Wire and Silver Gilt: Changing Fashions in Dress Accessories c.1400-1600,” 222.

[6] Hinton, Gold and Gilt, Pots and Pins, 92.

[7] Gilchrist, “Medieval Life Archaeology and the Life Course,” 85.

[8] Owen-Crocker, Dress in Anglo-Saxon England, 46, 109.

[9] MacGregor, Bone, Antler, Ivory and Horn, 44, 115.

[10] Grant, Gorin, and Fleming, Archeological Coursebook, 411.

[11] Caple,The Detection and Definition of an Industry: The English Medieval and Post Medieval Pin Industry, 242-243.

[12] Ibid.

Works Cited

“A Woman,” The National Gallery Collections Online,, accessed Oct. 15, 2020.

Caple, C. “The Detection and Definition of an Industry: The English Medieval and Post Medieval Pin Industry.” Archaeological Journal 148, no. 1 (1991): 241–55.

“Court of Love,” The British Library Collections Online. and, accessed Oct. 15, 2020.

Egan, Geoff and Forsyth, Hazel. “Wound Wire and Silver Gilt: Changing Fashions in Dress Accessories C.1400-1600” In The Age of Transition: The Archaeology of English Culture 1400-1600, 215–38. Oxford: Oxford/Oxbow Books, 1997. 

Gilchrist, Roberta. “Clothing the Body: Age, Sexuality and Transitional Rites” In Medieval Life Archeology and the Life Course. 68-107. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2012.

Grant, Jim, Sam Gorin, and Neil Fleming. The Archaeology Coursebook: An Introduction to Themes, Sites, Methods and Skills. 3rd ed. London: Routledge, 2008. 

Hinton, David A. Gold and Gilt, Pots and Pins. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Johns, Catherine.The Jewellery of Roman Britain: Celtic and Classical Traditions. London: Routledge, 1996. 

MacGregor, Arthur. Bone, Antler, Ivory and Horn: The Technology of Skeletal Materials Since the Roman Period. London: Routledge, 1985.

Owen-Crocker, Gale. Dress in Anglo-Saxon England. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 1986. 

 “Pin,” Museum of London Collections Online., accessed Oct. 14, 2020. 

“Profile Bust of a Lady Facing Left,” Victoria & Albert Museum Collections Online., accessed Oct. 16, 2020. 

Schofield, John, Lyn Blackmore, Jacqui Pearce, and Tony Dyson. London’s Waterfront 1100-1666: Excavations in Thames Street, London 1974-84.Summertown: Archaeopress Publishing, 2018.

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