snail man
© Yorkshire Archaeology Advisory Service/PA
The snail-man has been described as a kind of 'medieval meme'.
Delicately crafted using silver-gilt, it shows a praying knight emerging from a snail on the back of a goat and may be an example of 13th-century Yorkshire satire. Precisely what the joke was may never be known.

"It is very unusual," said Beverley Nenk, the curator of later medieval collections at the British Museum, which announced its discovery on Monday. "It is such a funny little thing ... I haven't seen anything like it."

The "snail-man" object, just over 2cm long, was discovered by a metal detectorist in a field near Pontefract, West Yorkshire, in September last year.

The best guess is that its owner commissioned it and wore it as a badge, or attached it to a leather belt or strap.

Nenk said snails were often depicted in the margins of medieval illuminated manuscripts, thought to symbolise cowardice. That could mean it is "a satirical reference to cowardly or non-chivalric behaviour of opponents in battle, or as a parody of the upper or knightly classes".

Nenk said satire was often found in medieval material culture, with one of the most popular visual gags being a monkey, in place of a doctor, examining a flask of urine for its clarity and colour - the go-to method for diagnosing medieval ailments.

That at least is graspable for modern audiences. Less so are the comic intricacies of a male knight wearing a Norman-style helmet, apparently praying, with one leg lunging forward as he steps from a snail on a goat. The museum called it a form of "medieval meme".

"What it meant to the owner, or what went through the mind of the maker ... I just don't know," said Nenk. She said she was open to suggestions.

The British Museum revealed some of the more unusual 2020 finds, mostly by amateurs with metal detectors, as it published the latest annual treasure report covering objects found in 2018.

Other unusual 2020 finds include various iron age objects, dating from 80BC-AD100, found near Kensworth, Bedfordshire. They include an uncommonly decorated mirror and tweezers that highlight the care and attention to personal appearance that people took in late iron age Britain.

Another is a gold medieval seal matrix, dating from 1250-1350, found in the parish of East Walton, Norfolk. It would have been used to seal letters or documents and is unusual in that it depicts an elephant carrying a castle - or howdah - on its back.

Nenk said few people in medieval England would have seen a live elephant. There was one, however, in the royal menagerie of Henry III at the Tower of London between 1255-57, a gift from Louis IX of France. Or the image may have been based on reports of such exotic creatures from travellers or pilgrims returning from the east, or the Crusades.

The newly published report reveals that 1,094 cases were reported as treasure in 2018, consisting of more than 20,906 individual artefacts. Of these, 347 were acquired by 108 different museums. Preliminary treasure figures for more recent years are 1,311 for 2019 and 1,077 for 2020.

Hartwig Fischer, the director of the British Museum, said: "Every year I am delighted that archaeological objects uncovering pieces of our history are still being discovered, which all contribute to our understanding of the past.

"It is pleasing to see that once again a significant number of treasure finds are to be acquired by museums near to the find spot, retaining the local context that is often so important for these objects."