Saturday, 28 December 2013

Goblin's Gold

I managed to pick up a copy of Dixon's 'Bryophytes of the Pleistocene' yesterday for £15. I know very little about mosses, but while looking through it for information relevant to East Anglia I came across an intriguing reference. A few fragments of the moss Schistostega pennata had been found stuffed into the socket of a late Bronze Age spear head at Aylsham, Norfolk, about 1969. The find was part of a hoard thought to be the cache of an itinerant bronzesmith.

Socketed spearhead with leaf-shaped blade, as found 
at Aylsham. Source: 'Bronze Age Metalwork in Norwich 
Castle Museum'; Norfolk Museums Service, 1977; fig.36

The author raises his bryological eyebrows: "This discovery is of outstanding interest...  Schistostega is a minute species with a unique habitat. It grows in areas which never receive direct sunlight, and where light intensity is very low, such as caves, mine shafts and deep fissures". He quotes the excavator's report, which discusses the possible ways by which fragments of this rare moss may have entered the socket. He concludes: "There remains the possibility that Schistostega had magical significance. Another record in a similar context is greatly to be desired".

I was keen to find out more about this moss with magical overtones. Dixon says its only known East Anglian locality was Wolferton, west Norfolk. A Google search brought up interesting facts. Schistostega is adapted to live in dim, shady places, particularly on acidic bedrock such as sandstone. It has clear, lens-like spherical cells that are able to concentrate light onto a cluster of chloroplasts; they also reflect this incident light, creating a greenish glow. It is a plant with interesting cultural associations. It is called drakguldmossa, 'dragon's gold moss' in Sweden; 'light moss' in Norway and Germany (lysmose and leuchtmoos); musco luminoso, 'luminous moss' in Spain; 'goblin's gold' in England.  

Image source:

As we peer into the dark recess of some rocky crevice, the moss is seen to glimmer enchantingly. With a slight change of the viewer's position the effect is lost, and the scene reverts to dull obscurity. Small wonder the ancient imagination embroidered tantalising tales of fairy gold shining underground.

As the Rev. M. Berkeley put it in his 'Handbook of British mosses' (1863): "A most lovely little moss, sometimes illuminating the caves where it grows with a golden light".

From: Berkeley, Rev. M. (1863): Handbook of British mosses; comprising all that
are known to be natives of the British Isles
; Lovell Reeve & Co, London. Fig. 14.
Image courtesy

The excavator of the hoard concluded that a few strands of the moss may have found their way into the spear's socket when it was perhaps "concealed within an environment suitable for the moss". There are no sandstone crevices around Aylsham; the closest suitable geological context would be the Lower Cretaceous sandstones in west Norfolk. My friend Robin Stevenson (West Norfolk Moss Recorder) tells me that there is only one know site for Schistostega in Norfolk, and this is in a deep cleft in a sandstone rock face at Wolferton, near Sandringham. He suspects it was introduced from elsewhere in Britain by birds.

Photo courtesy CR Stevenson

The Aylsham specimen is most likely to have been brought to Norfolk by our itinerant bronzesmith along with his scrap metalwork. Perhaps he had travelled from the acidic bedrock districts of the West Midlands, Cornwall or Wales, as shown in the current UK distribution map for this species. We note that Cornwall was an important source of bronze in prehistoric times.

"There remains the possibility that Schistostega had magical significance", says Dixon.

Imagine the wonder-working smiths and miners of the Bronze Age, delving tin and copper ore from underground, transmuting it with fire, shaping into powerful tools. We are told that the father of the Celtic smith god was the sun god Belenos. The moss may have been magically associated with solar wealth found underground.

Imagine that, three thousand years ago, copper miners noticed it shining in the shadows of their tunnel entrances.

Perhaps imagine that somebody looking into a rocky crevice caught sight of a cached hoard of bronze metalwork. Around it glowed the uncanny light of Schistostega pennata. The golden bronze was lightly patinated with verdigris; the moss was glowing like pale green fire.

Tall stories and sacred myths may be embroidered from associations such as these.

Goblin's gold.

A sandstone outcrop in the Sandringham Sand Formation
at Wolferton, Norfolk.


For more information about Goblin's Gold:

For the archaeological report on the Aylsham Hoard:

  • Clough, T. H. M. (1971): A Hoard of Late Bronze Age Metalwork from Aylsham, Norfolk; Norfolk Archaeology. Vol XXXV Pt II, pp 159-169.

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