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Shakespeare in 100 objects: Horn Cores

Object 90 - Although we don't know what they were actually used for, these mysterious horns were found during an archaeological dig of the Hall's Croft garden.

Jamie Weisz

Jamie Weisz is a third year undergraduate student in History at the University of Birmingham. This post follows a visit he made to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Properties as part of his course, ‘A History of the Tudors in 100 Objects’.

Dr John and Susanna Hall, as wealthy, well-to-do inhabitants of the town of Stratford-upon-Avon, would have filled their home at Hall’s Croft with incredible things. From the elaborate utensils which line the kitchen and parlour walls, to the extravagant furniture which they relaxed and entertained on, we can tell how a typical home belonging to members of the seventeenth-century middle class may have been furnished. But it is not one of these items which attracted my interest when visiting.

During structural repairs to Hall’s Croft in 2012, a number of test pits were dug and excavated just outside of the house in the garden. In one of these pits, the archaeologists discovered several horn cores – partially preserved but unmistakeable – possibly dating back to the early seventeenth century. On display in Hall’s Croft were three of these horns, displayed alongside some of the other objects found in the pits.

Horn Cores found in a pit just outside of Hall's Croft in the garden.
Horn Cores found in a pit just outside of Hall's Croft in the garden

It would be the task of a biologist or a zoologist (or even a doctor – a modern Dr John) to explain the construction and composition of the horns. Presumably these horns once belonged to cattle – they are six inches in length and two in diameter. Whole chunks of each horn are missing at both ends, and the centuries of being buried in earth have not been kind to any of them; their appearance is worn, their form decayed, and the colours of each range from (what presumably was) cream, to an orange-y hue, to black.

Although she doesn’t discuss animal remains, Roberta Gilchrist does devote a significant section of her book, Medieval Life, to the value of analysing human remains. Osteobiography, the study of human skeletons to illustrate the composite lives of a society, gives us the opportunity to “provide a bridge between the osteological study of individual skeletons and site-based populations, and broader social questions concerning the life course.”[1]  We can learn many things from study of a skeleton: the diet and age of the person, their lifestyle choices, even how they died. We could certainly gain a lot of knowledge about the cow to whom the horns belonged if we were to apply similar techniques, something which Philip Armitage has done on cattle horn cores excavated from a site in Chichester.[2]

The physical state of the horns can tell us a lot about their original purpose. Indeed, the horns at Hall’s Croft are accompanied by a description:

“Horn, cores, possibly used by Dr. Hall for medicinal purposes. Alternatively, they could be butchery waste, as large animals were part of a typical diet of the early 1600s.”

This is what makes these horns particularly unusual when considered alongside many of the other objects inside Hall’s Croft. The way the house is presented to visitors today tells us about the type of equipment that would have been used by Dr Hall and the range of objects which might have furnished his house. But this only tells us half the story of how a typical early modern household functioned. Like litter, the horns have simply been discarded, left to rot in a pit and forgotten for centuries. We require careful consideration of objects like the horns, and not just of the objects that were designed to last, if we are to fully understand a typical seventeenth-century lifestyle.

But this is not to say that these horns before being discarded did not first serve a great purpose to the owner, and as the description within the display suggests, there are two potential (though not necessarily mutually exclusive) uses of the horns.

On the one hand, the horns could have been used by Dr Hall to treat the people of Stratford-upon-Avon. How they were understood to function in this way would require further investigation.

On the other hand, horns might indicate what people ate: cows were part of a staple diet of people living in the era. From here, the possibilities for research could lead us down many avenues: the trade and movement of cattle in Early Modern England; cooking habits; diet and health etc. Claire Burns’ article, ‘The Tanning Industry of Medieval Britain’, suggests that the presence of numerous horns together is an indicator of butchery. Horns were left over from either the tanning or butchery process and either sold on to horn workers or dumped on site.[3]  My guess is that the horns at Hall’s Croft experienced a similar fate, as waste materials left over from food preparation.

There is, of course, another original aspect of these horns which is not explicit in the display. We consider the functional applications in the human world of all the objects in Hall’s Croft, but these cattle horns are not a construction of the human world. They once belonged to a cow, and presumably served a defensive purpose, or for attracting a mate (again, you would have to consult a zoologist). But possibly these natural functions informed how they were then understood and used by early modern people.

A humble horn core may, therefore, have the most complicated biography among all the objects within Hall’s Croft – a product of the natural world, removed from it for human use, thrown away, rediscovered and reinterpreted as an artefact in a museum context. The horn cores now sit proudly in a protective glass cabinet, and are thus treated with special regard amongst the crafted treasures on display at the property.

[1] Gilchrist, R., Medieval Life: Archaeology and the Life Course (Woodbridge, 2012), p. 43.

[2] Armitage, P., ‘Post-medieval cattle horn cores from the Greyfriars site, Chichester, West Sussex, England’, Circaea, 7:2 (1990), pp. 89-90.

[3] Burns, C., ‘The Tanning Industry of Medieval Britain’, The Collegiate Journal of Anthropology, (2012), accessed on 20/11/2013 <>.