For centuries regalia manufacturers have adopted elaborate designs for belt buckles, some of which were often imbued with symbolic meaning. One such design is the symbolic depiction of a serpent on belt clasps. Over the centuries this design has proven to be very popular, and is considered to typically represent the dual expression of good and evil (Skinner 2001). As shown in Figure 1, one example of such a clasp was recovered from excavations at the Boralga Native Mounted Police camp on the banks of the Laura River in Cape York Peninsula.
Military snake clasps, similar to the one found at the Boralga NMP camp, are moulded, S-shaped brass or copper alloy buckles, comprising of a snake’s head on both ends. Even though manufacturers who produced this style of clasp sometimes adopted a swan rather than snake head design, these buckles are still commonly referred to by collectors as ‘military snake buckles’.
The initial design date of the double headed snake clasp is uncertain, but this serpentine form may have existed as far back as medieval times (Caulkins 1979:57). For centuries it has been utilised worldwide within a variety of vocations, such as on the belts of British school uniforms, prison wardens, police, the RAF, firemen, and the Freemasons, and so perhaps is not a surprising discovery on a NMP site.
Unfortunately, literature on the topic of such belt clasps is scant, with the majority of information imparted by history experts on discussion forums. The general consensus is that snake buckles were worn on sword belts by soldiers from former British colonies, being adopted in Australia, America, Canada, New Zealand, India and Hong Kong. For example, snake clasps were worn by the Naval Brigade in 1871 on their O/R pattern waist belt, and used on the post-1901 Royal Horse Artillery Officers Field Rank Uniform. The Oliver pattern was popular amongst members of the Canadian troops during the Boer War, and also during the American Civil War. Snake clasps were also worn by the Hong Kong Police, members of the Belgian fire brigade as well as by British and Australian soldiers in WWI.
We know that officers of the NMP wore such buckles – as shown in Figure 2 below, a photograph exists of Constable William Loney taken in 1891 showing him wearing such a clasp on his belt. Likewise, Figure 3 shows Lieutenant John Murray wearing one on his non-uniform belt as well and Figure 4 shows Sub-Inspector Thomas Coward in 1871 with one on his dress uniform. The question that now arises is whether it was common for Aboriginal troopers to also wear such decorative rather than merely functional accoutrements. Further excavations and analysis of other NMP sites may yield information to this end.
Calkins, R.G. 1997 Monuments of Medieval Art. New York: Cornell University Press.
Skinner, C.A. 2001 Serpent symbols and salvation in the Ancient Near East and the Book of Mormon. Journal of Book of Morman Studies 10(2):42-55, 70-71.