By Eleanor Breen / Project Manager, Archaeological Collections Online
Here at Mount Vernon Mystery Midden Headquarters, we have an important case on our hands – that of a mystery artifact. Originally, I identified this small copper alloy, cone-shaped artifact as an aglet, or the covering of the end of laces or strings (think: the plastic covers on the ends of your Nike shoelaces, or on Usain Bolt’s if your running shoes are retired like mine). However, we have a definitive aglet in the collection. The form of this aglet is simple with unfinished ends and sides folded inwards. It is made of copper alloy and measures 16mm in length.
Compare it to the mystery artifact – 18mm long, opposing holes on the sides, a blunt, covered end, and incised lines encircling the cone above and below the holes. It looks very different from the true aglet.
With a discovery in the Artifacts of the Spanish Colonies by Kathleen Deagan, the trail got hot again! Deagan includes a picture of an artifact identified as a pin holder or sheath (which looks and measures almost exactly like ours!) used to cover the pointed end of a pin and reduce accidental pricking. The pin end went into the cone and it was sewn onto clothing by running thread through the holes.
Evidence mounted as we found a similar discussion of this artifact type in Mary Beaudry’s book Findings. Beaudry writes, “to date, no such items have to my knowledge been indentified from French, English, or Dutch sites in the Americas.” Could ours be the first identified pin sheath? A quick email to Beaudry raised some doubt about our artifact’s function, which was then confirmed by archaeologist Carolyn White. They assert that objects of a similar form have been identified as parasol or umbrella tips – tiny copper alloy anchors that attached the fabric cover to the ribs.
Is the evidence trail of the pin sheath getting cold? Parasols did exist in the late eighteenth century (the mystery artifact comes from the 1775-1800 phase of the midden) and were used by ladies to protect their fair skin, a sign of status and gentility, from the sun’s harsh rays. By the nineteenth century, the parasol became a favorite prop of artists in their paintings of women.
Right now, our detectives are investigating parasols in museum collections to see if the metal ends match ours in size and shape. We’ll keep you posted as we get closer to solving the case!