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Small silver snail artifact may be a medieval ‘meme’

They may not have had the internet, but medieval people still liked to share a joke — as the discovery of what archaeologists are dubbing a historic “meme” found in northern England suggests.

A “quirky and unique” mount depicting a man emerging from a snail’s shell on the back of a goat was discovered in a field in Pontefract, West Yorkshire, last year.

The piece dates from 1200-1350 A.D. and experts at the British Museum believe the unusual artifact may have been a form of “medieval meme.”

Memes have become an every day part of 21st century life, as people around the world share amusing or entertaining images, videos or other items online — especially via social media.

The artifact shows a male knight wearing a Norman-style helmet with a long-sleeved tunic. He has one leg lunging forward, suggesting he is stepping out from the shell. His hands are pressed together as if in prayer, implying religious connotations.

Armed knights fighting snails are common in manuscripts from this period, according to the museum. Snails were often used to symbolize cowardice with a knight’s victory suggesting a win for good over evil.

But this theory does not explain “the mount’s more comical fusion of snail and man,” experts say.

“This could suggest that the original ‘good versus evil’ meaning has mutated to satirical connotations, a cultural phenomenon that means we can see this mount as an early meme,” the museum said in a press release Monday.

“The image of the praying knight emerging from a snail shell atop a goat implies an element of parody or satire,” Beverley Nenk, curator of Late Medieval Collections at the museum, said in the release.

“The mount may be a satirical reference to cowardly or non-chivalric behaviour of opponents in battle, or as a parody of the upper or knightly classes. As such, it demonstrates the humour often found in medieval material culture” Nenk added.

The silver mount, which measures 21.7 millimeters long and 16.8 millimeters wide, could have been worn as a badge or elsewhere on the owner’s clothing.

The discovery was revealed in the latest Treasure Annual Report, released by the UK government and the museum Monday.

It showcases 1,094 examples of reported treasure in 2018, consisting of more than 20,906 individual artifacts — 96% of which were uncovered by metal detectorists.

Among the other finds detailed in the report are Iron Age grave goods, including an uncommonly decorated mirror and tweezers, a Bronze Age hoard with unusual rapier and bracelet and a medieval seal matrix depicting an elephant.

The discoveries detailed in the report are to be acquired by museums across Britain, many close to the place in which they were found.

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