Exhibit of the Week: Jet belt slider, Malton Museum

The jet belt slider which is currently on display at Malton Museum.
The jet belt slider which is currently on display at Malton Museum.

Malton Museum has for many years now been the natural place for the finds made in archaeological digs in the area to be stored – and sometimes exhibited.

Amongst the many objects that have accumulated since the museum was founded in the 1930s are some real treasures. They include things from the remote past, things that are themselves objects of beauty, and things that tell a story of trade and ways of life long ago. Today’s Exhibit of the Week from the museum scores on all these fronts.

It’s a jet belt slider. It was found by famous local archaeologist TCM Brewster in 1968 during his dig on a Neolithic round barrow (an ancient burial mound) at Whitegrounds near Burythorpe, about four miles south of Malton, and it dates from the Middle Neolithic, the New Stone Age, about 4,500 years ago.

Brewster excavated the entire barrow. It began life as a communal burial cairn built of cobbles and silt, with a long passage inside leading to the burials of three people, all interred about 3000 BC, and the scattered remains of at least five others.

About 500 years later, sometime about 2,500BC, a new burial, of a man in a crouched position, was made in a pit dug into the already ancient mound, the mound was then enlarged and heightened, and surrounded by a kerb of stones.

The jet belt slider was found with this new burial. He also had with him a beautifully worked waisted polished stone axe, a typical tool or weapon of the Middle Neolithic period, also in the Malton Museum collection, and below him there was a pit with pig and calf bones, perhaps the remains of food for his journey to a future life.

The jet belt slider, found near his waist, is beautifully carved and polished from the black jet that still today is associated with Whitby, where, weathering out of the cliffs, it is still a prized material for carving into useful or decorative – and often very beautiful objects. Clearly this wonderful local material was known to prehistoric man, and in the Middle Stone Age was often used to make belt sliders like this one. Presumably people must have worn clothes – probably already woven textiles at this time that needed to be gathered round the waist, and we probably must imagine them wearing belts or textile ties that were held taut and in position by the sliders.

Evidently, Yorkshire jet belt sliders were very desirable items in the Middle Stone Age.

Examples have been found at archaeological digs as far away as Orkney and the east end of London, and they are quite frequently found at archaeological sites in the North of England and the South of Scotland.

A little earlier in the Stone Age, but evidently when the qualities of Yorkshire jet were already known and prized, people seem to have valued enormous jet beads, which, too, have been found over large areas of the North and East – demonstrating either a vibrant trade network based in North East Yorkshire – or some kind of exchange mechanism of particularly prized goods.

The Whitegrounds jet belt slider – a modest if beautiful little item, only 6cm in length in the Malton Museum collection – represents a hugely interesting and exciting story of life in the Malton region nearly 5,000 years ago.

l You can see the jet belt slider in the museum which is open Thursday-Saturday 10am – 4pm and is free entry.

The museum was founded in the 1930s and after a period of closure in 2013 it reopened its doors in February 2014 based in the Subscription Rooms in Yorkersgate with the support from Ryedale District Council, Fitzwilliam Estate, and the Milton Rooms.

The museum collection contains archaeological material and social history, including items of national significance. Its most popular pieces are a jet bear found in Malton, a Roman roof tile containing a child’s footprint, and boots and saddle from horse trainer and breeder Sir Guy Cunard.

The museum attracts a broad range of visitors 
from its locality to visitors from as far as Australia, USA, New Zealand and across Europe.