Detectorist’s 2018 Unicorn Ring Sold, But Provenance Questions Remain
A 400-year-old gold signet unicorn ring has just sold at auction for 26,470 dollars (23,550 euros). Everyone is talking about the ring’s value and its association with a noble family linked to medieval England and Scotland. However, the news, unfortunately, is not reporting on the artifact's ancient Celtic symbolism in relation to the history of Scotland.
Weighing more than 20 grams (0.7 ounces) the 17th-century gold signet unicorn ring was unearthed by a metal detectorist in 2018 on farmland at Thornton, in Buckinghamshire, England. Now, having been lost in time for 400 years, on December 9, Derbyshire-based Hansons Auctioneers sold the artifact for 26,470 dollars (23,550 euros), which is substantially higher than the pre-auction estimate of 15,880 dollars (14,130 euros). Charles Hanson, the auction house owner, described the high selling price an “exceptional result for an exceptional find.”
A Mysteriously Well-Travelled Gold Unicorn Ring
The gold signet unicorn ring has a two-sided bezel meaning the center barrel swivels around revealing two symbolic images: an engraved unicorn’s head and a family coat of arms. The latter features a shield with a tiny crescent moon, which led researchers to Thomas Curwen, the second son of Sir Henry Curwen MP.
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The engravings on the unicorn ring indicate it belonged to the noble Curwen family. (Hanson Auctioneers)
Thomas Curwen was born in 1602 AD and according to The Independent the Curwen family were from Workington in Cumbria, some 270 miles from where the ring was excavated. Thomas had inherited the family estate in 1664 AD, which included the 15th century Workington Hall (or Curwen Hall) where Mary Queen of Scots famously hid from her rival, Queen Elizabeth I. The unicorn appearing behind the family crest reveals the Curwen family’s traditional links to Galloway in Scotland.
Charles Hanson said Thomas Curwen died in February 1672 AD during the reign of King Charles II. Curwen was buried at Workington. And this is why Mr. Hanson said the ring had travelled far from the family’s ancestral home. Hanson says not only is the discovery “a stunning item of jewelry,” but it’s “an important family heirloom and a fascinating piece of Cumbria’s local history.” Sadly perhaps, Hanson pointed out that we will never know how and why the ring was found so far from Workington.
Evidence clearly indicates that the ownership of the gold unicorn ring was related to Thomas Curwen, whose family long owned Workington Hall (or Curwen Hall), where Mary Queen of Scots famously hid from her rival, Queen Elizabeth. (Visit Cumbria)
The Power of the Unicorn: Scotland’s National Creature
In most of the articles you will read about this discovery this is where the story stops, but you know we here at Ancient Origins like to ask prying questions. When we investigate a little further into the symbols on this gold ring, a whole untapped universe of cultural knowledge is revealed.
Visit Scotland’s website explains that in Celtic mythology the unicorn was a symbol of purity and innocence, as well as masculinity and power. The creature's dominance was often associated with chivalry, and thus, the unicorn became Scotland’s national creature.
The mythical unicorn has existed in the human imagination for over 2,500 years. In 400 BC, the Greek historian Ctesias first documented the animal as living in India. Later, however, Aristotle, Pliny the Elder, and even Julius Caesar claimed that unicorns could be found in the vast and ancient Hercynian Forest of Germany.
The unicorn first appeared on King William I of Scotland’s royal coat of arms in the 12th century, and in the 15th century King James III minted gold coins with the unicorn on them. The Scottish Royal Arms became two unicorns supporting a shield, when in 1606 AD Scotland and England unified under the reign of James VI of Scotland. Upon becoming James I of England and Ireland the monarch replaced the unicorn with the lion, which was the national animal of England. But what about that chain?
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Supporters of Scottish independence will tell you that the unicorn representing Scotland is always depicted bound by a chain to represent England’s control over Scotland and its people. But in reality it means quite the opposite. According to Britannia the unicorn was regarded as the strongest of all animals. Because it was wild and untamed the apparent chain of entrapment symbolized “the power of the Scottish kings - they were strong enough to tame even a unicorn.”
Top image: The unicorn ring found by a metal detectorist in 2018 near Thornton, Buckinghamshire, England. Source: Hanson Auctioneers
By Ashley Cowie