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Mystery objects

The collections we hold at Guildford Heritage Service have been collected over a century. We look after more than 100,000 objects covering archaeology, social history, art and textiles. The objects have come to us through donations, purchases or excavations. A number are on long term loan from Surrey Archaeological Society and from individuals. Together the collections tell the story of life in the past in Guildford and Surrey.

We have four objects that we have chosen to be our mystery objects. Can you guess what they are?

Look at the objects first, try and guess what you think the objects might be, before scrolling down and finding out more about them. Don't forget to watch the videos of our colleagues handling the mystery objects. See what they thought the objects were.

How close did you get?

Round, basket like structure. Strands of straw coiled up on top of each other. Held together by darker, interwoven strands of straw. To magnify click now
Curling irons

Pancake iron
rushlight holder

Bee skep

Our bee skep is from the rural village of Thursley. It is an early form of a beehive woven from straw. Skeps were cheaper and easier to make than modern wooden hives. However, getting honey from them was more difficult and sometimes harmful to the bees.

We only have the top half of the bee skeps, the lid. Lids were used to make accessing the honey easier. A missing base may include a hole. Our skep is quite small and wouldn't fit many bees inside. Find out more about our Bee skep.

Image of the bee keepers making bee skeps

Image of the bee keepers making bee skeps: British bee journal and bee keepers adviser (1893). Wikimedia Commons

Skeps may have been introduced around 410 AD with the arrival of the Saxons. They were the main type of artificial beehives in north western Europe. Other cultures would have made their hives from materials such as clay or mud. People prized honey as a source of sweetness. At the time, there was no access to crops such as sugar cane, nor the refined sugars that could be produced from them.

The modern wooden beehive was developed in the 19th century. It allowed the beekeeper to remove the honey without harming the bees. Skeps are no longer used as hives, but as rustic baskets like the picture above. Sometimes skeps are used to gather summer swarms but not to house bees all year round.

Curling irons

It is not clear who invented hair tongs, although the Romans were thought to have used a form of tongs, known as calamistrum, which have been found at Pompeii. Later on Marcel Grateau developed the curling iron, which led to a popular hairstyle called the Marcell Wave in 1872.

mage of a hair-dresser accidentally severing a woman's locks with his curling tongs.
Curling irons (for hair) are believed to have been used from mid to late 19th century. Curling irons were quite labour-intensive so would have been owned by a wealthy family with a servant to do the curling for them.

Tongs had two hinged pieces of iron, with handles at one end and cylindrical blades at the other. They were heated over a flame and sections of hair were curled around them. Each section of hair was folded first into a length of curl paper to prevent the hair from scorching. In spite of this, there are many tales of burnt and scorched hair.

Image of a hair-dresser accidentally severing a woman's locks with his curling tongs. Coloured lithograph. Wellcome Images. Wikimedia Commons.

Pancake iron

During the Neolithic Age batter was cooked on hot rocks; these were like small pancakes, cooked one side then flipped over. The Iron Age introduced the idea of using iron tools to cook the batter.

The Greeks also used tongs, two heated rods of iron, connected like scissors, with flat plates on the end, to speed up cooking. The batter was poured between the two plates and clamped together. These were called obelios and flavoured with cheese and herbs.

This method of cooking was used in the Middle Ages across Europe by the Obloyeurs, who made oublies (from the Greek word). The oublie became the waffle in the 1200s with plates using honeycomb patterns.

Other early waffle irons designs include landscapes, coats of arms and religious symbols. This is due to people getting inventive, and finding new ways to sell products. 

Waffles served all sections of society, from the poor who ate and made them from water and bad flour in famines, to the rich who added honey and sweet treats to them. 'Dutch' waffles went over to USA around 1600 with the pilgrims. In 1789, Thomas Jefferson returned from the USA to France, bringing a long-handled waffle iron. Waffles grew in popularity after that. The waffle iron in our collection seems to be early 19th century.

Rushlight holder

Rushlights were a cheap alternative to candles. They were made from a rush dipped in grease, or a burning splinter of wood. These were held pinched in nip like pliers or tongs on a stand. Nips were also called nippers or a pair of nips. They could be combined with a candle-holder for people who used both kinds of light.

In summer children and adults picked rushes and put them to soak in water until they could be peeled. Skilful peeling left one narrow strip of the covering to help the rushes keep their shape. After the peeled rushes were dried, they were dipped in leftover kitchen fat. 

The burning rushlight was normally held by metal clips (nips) at an angle of about 45 degrees. If the rush was held vertically it had a dimmer flame, but if held horizontally it may have burnt too quickly. Rushlight holders were used to keep the rush in position. Antique rushlight holders are now collectors' items. They were made by local craftsmen and blacksmiths.

Image of the rush light holders
Gertrude Jekyll photographed the equipment for making rushlights in Surrey, around 1900. Her information came from a 90-year-old "cottage friend" who peeled rushes for her, and explained how to dip a dozen or so at a time, "keeping 'em well under".  She used mutton fat when possible, as it set harder than other grease, and said her mother had always laid the dipped rushes on a piece of bark to dry.

Jekyll commented in her book 'Old West Surrey, 1904' that the oldest rushlight holders in her part of the world all had upright nips. Horizontal nips and candle-sockets were signs of a newer holder.

Image of the rush light holders: Old West Surrey (1904) Rushlight holders. Jekyll, Gertrude / Public domain

Blog post by Dajana Topczewski.