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Buried in time – the Basing Cup


The existence of this ivory beaker was first recorded in 1853. It was found in fields close to Basing House and , not surprisingly, has been associated with that place. It must be said, however, that the circumstances of its discovery are not clear. Considerable areas were disturbed by the digging of the canal and building of the railway in the late 18th, early 19th centuries, as well as the usual farming activities, but an exact provenance is elusive.

The cup is currently displayed at Basing House, where Sir William Paulet built his imposing Tudor mansion between the 1530s and the 1560s. He was created Marquess of Winchester in 1551 and died in 1572 at the probable age of ninety seven.  It was his great-great-grandson, John Paulet, the fifth Marquess, who valiantly defended the besieged House during the English Civil War, but in October 1645 it fell to the Parliamentarian forces.

The fall of Basing House - painting by Mike Codd.

The fall of Basing House – painting by Mike Codd.

Within a matter of hours the valuable contents were plundered (an estimated haul of £200,000 then – £13m today) including jewels, porcelain and many other treasures which were loaded into carts and trundled away. ‘The Soldier’s account of the fall’ (Adair 1981) describes the prizes taken, which involved looting ‘the rooms and chambers in both houses completely furnished, which afforded the soldiers gallant pillage…A bed in one room cost £1500, great store of popish books, with copes and such utensils, silver plate valued at £5000 (£1/3m) some cabinets of jewels and other treasures…’. Following this, the ‘country’ (people) carried away what was left and Parliament ensured that Basing would be thoroughly destroyed, by encouraging local inhabitants to use the site as a quarry and take away brick and stone.

The cup motifs - drawn by Nick Griffiths.

The cup motifs – drawn by Nick Griffiths.

The ivory cup is carved from an elephant’s tusk: it is decorated in low relief with stylised zoomorphic designs. It comprises a cylindrical container standing on a circular base decorated with small open cylinders, a characteristic it shares with a number of similar objects held in other museums. Through its style, form and iconography, its place of manufacture can be identified as Owo, a city state of the Yoruba kingdoms in Nigeria. The exact date of its creation is uncertain, but is most probably the 17th or 18th century.  It is just possible therefore, that the cup may have reached Basing before the Civil War, and its battered condition would be appropriate if it was present at the storming of the House. There is no clear evidence, however, that any of the similar vessels found their way to Europe before the 19th century. Considering the uncertainty surrounding the provenance and dating of the beaker, we cannot say for definite that it was in the House at the time of the siege.

With regard to the manufacture of ivory goods generally, after the European navigators arrived on the shores of West Africa in the 15th century, Portuguese sailors brought back souvenirs of carved items which found their way into the “curiosity cabinets” especially popular among the European aristocracy.  Any carved ivory object from West Africa which had been acquired by the first Marquess would have been produced by the Edo carvers at the court of Benin who made such items up until the mid-16th century, a period significantly earlier than date of manufacture of the Basing beaker.

Sculptural fragement - Basing House

Sculptural fragement – Basing House

In this respect, the Paulet’s Elizabethan trade links were extensive, with imported Chinese porcelain and Italian and Dutch maiolica among the surviving fragments at the site. It would not be at all surprising if materials were arriving from the newest trade routes, and there is one small piece of carving with intriguingly African features but, as with the cup, the true story behind this piece may never be known.


WOC 3049.

Adair, J (1981) They saw it happen; contemporary accounts of the siege of Basing House. HCC

Series by Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, Peter Stone, with help from Stacie Elliot.