Old Ways

The Role of Horn in the Rural History

All the way back to the early ages of humanity, horn has proved to be a valuable material.

Carved and crafted into everything from trinkets and amulets to weaponry and drinking vessels, horn has been instrumental in the history of societies around the world. 

Horn is made from the base component of the protein keratin, and when heat and pressure are applied by a skilled craftsman, horn can be manipulated and moulded. This versatile material has even historically been used to create reliefs and other artwork. As well as being moulded with the use of heat, horn has also been carved to create a large range of useful objects.


The versatility of horn and the ability to manipulate it into a range of different shapes for a variety of purposes has led to comparisons being made between horn and plastic.

Throughout history horn has been a material that was crafted into everyday objects used around the home, as well as objects and artefacts with special significance and meaning.

 horn snuff box
A Victorian silver mounted, rough cut horn snuff box with a hinged lid JW Birmingham 1881

Horn beakers and lanterns would have been commonplace fixtures in historic Britain, as would horn based handles on knives and weaponry.

Drenching horns were used in early veterinary practices, while buttons, hair accessories and musical instruments were also likely to incorporate horn components. Horn artefacts can even tell fascinating tales of trade and migration from early history. The Horn of Ulf, dating from the eleventh century is a horn wind instrument carved from an elephant tusk.

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It is thought that the horn was initially carved in Italy and ended up belonging to a Viking nobleman called Ulf. Ulf ruled over estates in Yorkshire and the horn became representative of land deeds in the area.  

Spoons, Lanterns and Learning 

Horn formed a material that was used in everyday life of people across the British countryside. Those at all levels of society in historic Britain often had access to horn and used it to make a variety of products to make their everyday life easier.

Spoons and beakers, particularly for poorer communities, were often made from horn and artefacts constructed from horn have been found on dig sites in England dating all the way back to the sixth century. 

Horn lantern, lanthorn
Horn lantern from the 1700s. RuralHistoria Collection

Horn was such a significant material that it has even been posited that it gave rise to the word ‘lantern’. Before glass was widely used and available, thin and translucent panes of horn were used as candle shields.

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Referred to as ‘lanthorn’ in the sixteenth century, the word eventually morphed into the term lantern that is still in use today. These thin sheets of translucent horn may well have also been used when glass was unavailable or too expensive in other settings, such as for use in windows.

The use of horn in lieu of glass can be viewed in York’s Barley Hall, in which a window with restored lanthorn leaf panes can be seen. 

Horn spoon
Credit: ProhibitionGems

In the mid-sixteenth century all the way up to the nineteenth century, horn also found a place in the schoolroom. Books made from a sheet displaying the alphabet and the Lord’s Prayer were mounted on wood and covered by a thin and transparent sheet of horn for protection. Known as horn books, these became a common tool created for the education of children in Britain

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Bracelets, Buttons, and Boxes

Horn was used as a practical and aesthetically pleasing material for the construction of jewellery, elements of clothing and cosmetic tools. Buttons made from horn have been a prominent part of the clothing industry throughout history, persisting into the modern fashion era.

Horn Buttons
Collection of Genuine Horn Buttons, approx. 290 in total.

Horn from animals such as buffalo, cows, and sheep were common for making buttons.  It was also used as combs throughout history, however have been largely replaced by plastic combs in modern times.

It was also used to create hairpins and hair clips, as well as jewellery including bracelets, necklaces, bangles and brooches. As well as items of personal adornment, horn has been used to create items to decorate the home.

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Elements of strength and durability, alongside being easy to manipulate and polish has made horn a popular material for creating small decorations and carvings. Similarly, horn has been crafted into needle boxes and snuff boxes.

Horn strips were inlaid into wood and used to decorate furniture. The material has also been implemented in the construction and decoration of walking sticks and game pieces such as dice. 

A Horn to Drink From 

Drinking horns are an easily recognisable historic use of horn. Evidence of horns as drinking vessels dates all the way back to at least 480BC.

Horn drinking vessels were used in a number of ancient societies and civilisations, some of these vessels were highly decorated, reserved for the aristocracy or holding an important place in cultural and religious ceremonies.

Sutton Hoo, The High Hall Exhibition: Replica drinking horn holding two litres
Sutton Hoo, Replica drinking horn holding two litres

However, simpler horn drinking vessels were also likely used as an everyday tool for the wider population. The concept of using horns as a drinking implement was so ingrained in ancient populations that drinking vessels made from glass and bronze have even been found that have been crafted to resemble their horn counterparts. 

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Drinking horns are prominent in literature and art from the medieval period in Britain, with drinking horns referenced in Authurian tales and the romance King Horn, a tale dating back to the mid thirteenth century.

Imagery of drinking horns can even be seen in the famous Bayeux Tapestry. Cambridge University has an example of a drinking horn created from the horn of an auroch that is believed to predate the fourteenth century. 

Horn beakers
Horn beakers from the 1600s and 1700s. RuralHistoria Collection

The drinking horn at the university is still used during special events. Drinking horns became such an important part of both cultural practices and everyday life, that a distinct type of drinking horn developed in Scotland in the 17th and 18th centuries.

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Use of the vessel involved a practice in which the drinker had to turn their mouth towards their right shoulder when drinking and they were expected to drink all the liquid contained in the horn.


This particular drinking horn was only used in the company of guests and a preserved example still exists on the Isle of Skye in Dunvegan Castle. A pair of drinking horns were found among grave goods discovered in a burial mound thought to date from the early medieval period.

Pair of drinking horns, Anglo-Saxon, late 6th century AD. From the princely burial at Taplow, Buckinghamshire. Made from Aurochs horns with silver-gilt mounts

Found in the Taplow Barrow in Buckinghamshire, the drinking horns had gilded silver mounts, and were made from auroch horns. The barrow dates from when the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were undergoing a period of Christianisation, making the construction of the barrow as a burial practice an increasingly rare occurrence.

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When it was discovered the barrow was considered the most lavish Anglo-Saxon burial discovery to have been found. The grave goods, including the drinking horns and mounts are thought to represent the high social standing of the individual who had died. Cups constructed from horn were also found within the barrow.

Horn in Weaponry 

Horns have always been utilised in the production and use of weaponry. One of the most recognisable examples of this is the use of horn in the creation of knife handles. Sheep horn and buffalo horn are two common examples of horn types that have been implemented to create knife handles throughout history.

An Early 19th Century Powder Horn, of polished striated cow horn, with oak base plate, twin brass suspension rings

However horn from a wide variety of animals, notably as well as antlers from deer species, has been implemented in weapon handle creation. 

 A horn has traditionally been used in the construction of composite bows for generations. As horn can store a greater level of energy than wood when compressed, a thin layer of horn was glued onto the belly of the bow. Traditionally the horns of buffalos as well as species of cattle were used in the construction of these bows. 

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As guns became a more established form of weaponry, horn was still a valuable material for weapon construction. There are noted examples of gun hand scales constructed from horn, while, perhaps unsurprisingly, horn was used to create powder horns.

Often created from the horns of cattle, oxen or buffalo, powder horns were used to store and transport gunpowder.

These products were often polished to make the horn somewhat translucent so that soldiers could see the amount of powder remaining in the horn. Powder horns also generally had a stopper on the end to prevent powder spilling. Naturally waterproof and hollow, horns proved a useful tool for the storage of gunpowder. 

Using Horn Today 

Unfortunately, as horn is a natural and biodegradable material, many of the horn artefacts created throughout history have since been lost. However, even to this day, horn is still used for a wide variety of purposes.

horn shepherds crocks
Last but not least – the iconic shepherds crook

Jewellery, cutlery, cups, knife handles and other items are still made of horn, however these are now often in a specialist capacity, rather than as a material that is used to create standard items for everyday use.

In many cases, in modern times products that once would have once been made of horn have been replaced with plastic products. 

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Horn has been used to create tools and decorative items, it was a stand-in for glass in lanterns and windows and was found in everything from school books to snuff boxes to spoons. While today, horn has been overtaken by other materials, notably plastic, specialty and folk products are still crafted from horn in the modern era.

Depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry, found in the grave goods of medieval barrows, and used to make items in the modern era, horn has been an invaluable material throughout the pages of history.