Friday, February 12, 2010

Symbols of Love

A ring has long been a token of love and affection and this week we showcase an artifact type that exemplifies this symbol of love, the Jesuit heart ring. The Jesuits were French missionaries who traveled throughout the area know as New France (the Great Lakes region) during the fur trade (16th – 18th centuries). Trade objects were often used as currency when negotiating with native peoples and in an attempt to persuade them to Christianity Jesuits would often give “…glass beads, rings, awls, small pocket knives…” which were popular trade items. Jesuit rings have been found at many contact sites in the Great Lakes to the lower Mississippi Valley and many were found here in Pennsylvania at several of the Washington Boro sites.

Jesuit rings have been described by Charles Cleland (1972) as falling into one of three major prototypes; the L-Heart Series, the double M Series and the IHS Series. These prototypes give way to style drift over time which is attributed to the proliferation of rings as trade items. Because these rings start out being used as rewards for ‘learning ones prayers’ and are therefore tokens of Christianity, it is not safe to assume that the abundance of these artifacts on a given site should be interpreted as a change in religious beliefs. The rings were not typically worn as rings on native sites but more as ornaments, so not necessarily being used as wedding bands or symbols of the adoption of the Christian faith. On European sites they seem to be evidence of a cottage industry to produce trade goods. This substantiates the idea that style drift is caused by the increased production of a lesser product; the early rings being of better quality than those found at later sites.

The Pennsylvania and Historical Museum Commission (PHMC) excavations at Conestoga Town (36La52) in Lancaster County produced a total of 272 rings. Most of these rings (188) are described as plain wedding band types (Kent 1984). Some of the heart rings from this collection are comparable to the L-Heart Series described by Charles Cleland (1972) but many do not fall into that classification. Fewer rings were recovered from the Strickler Site (36La3) but those found were more representative of the L-Heart Series. More common to the PHMC collection of heart rings are the ‘Fede’ or Faith Rings which are derived from an early roman design. This design may be more familiar to some of our viewers as a precursor to the popular Claddagh Ring. Both the Claddagh and the Fede rings are still used today as wedding bands.

What better symbol of the eternal betrothal of love to celebrate Valentines Day!

1972 Cleland, Charles
From Sacred to Profane: Style Drift in the Decoration of Jesuit Finger Rings
American Antiquity, Volume 37, Number 2

1982 Hauser, Judith
Jesuit Rings from Fort Michilimackinac And Other European Contact Sites
Archaeological Completion report Series Number 5, Mackinac Island State Park Commission

1984 Kent, Barry
Susquehanna’s Indians
Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Anthropological Series Number 6

For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .

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