Blog by Gillian Hovell, The Muddy Archaeologist www.muddyarchaeologist.co.uk
The discovery of three marvellous gold torcs (twisted collars) and a bracelet found in Staffordshire have hit the news today (28th Feb 2017). They have been dated to about 2,500 years ago (c.500 BC). That means that they were made in the Iron Age.
It’s not that unusual to find gold torcs (though all are rare enough to be very special finds) but it’s very unusual to find them from the middle of the Iron Age. They were more common in the previous era, the late Bronze Age, when they arrived in Britain as a new fashion c.1,400 BC. They might be thin ribbon like, rounded or twisted and did not have ‘terminals’ ending the open hoop – those were a later Iron Age adornment. Instead, they tended to be ‘hooked’ together at the ends instead. They were often worn around the neck, but there were also smaller versions which would have been bracelets or anklets.
In November last year, 2016 a truly huge gold torc was discovered in Cambridgeshire. It was so large that it is thought to have protected a pregnant woman. It dates back to before 1,000 BC and was found c.50 miles from the recently discovered Must Farm Bronze Age settlement of roughly the same date.
Gold items from the Bronze Age are not unknown. Some gold items were buried with the dead; gold cups such as the Ringlemere and Rillaton Cups dating from 1,700-1,500 BC, and items like the Mold Gold cape from Wales which dates from c.1,900-c.1,600 BC, were made to impress and they accompanied the important dead in round mounds (tumuli) which contained just one VIP; this was very unlike previous Neolithic burials where whole communities shared long barrows, with the long dead neatly heaped together into long bones and skulls, all at one with the ancestors. This was a materialistic society where pomp and show followed you into the grave.
The burial of such items in a barrow would have been a big investment in conspicuous consumption and extravagance or in the value placed on the need of the dead to have their own items with them as they passed into eternity.
However, Bronze Age gold torcs aren’t found with the dead; they are not burial grave goods. They seem to belong firmly in the land of the living.
Then the fashion for gold torcs ceased, as far as we can tell, for hundreds of years.
Come the Iron Age, torcs of iron or bronze have been found in Celtic sites in Europe and Britain and they make a cultural link between their locations. They even have Scythian or Illyrian links. Such torcs are commonly found on sites belonging to the culture known by archaeologists as the La Tene culture They are often heavy items and had to be twisted slightly to open the gap in order to put them on the wearer.
Iron Age torcs made of gold HAVE been found. But these torcs were made much later than the newly reported torcs. The Snettisham Treasure that was found in Norfolk in 1948 included ‘The Great Torc’ an impressive chunky gold torc from the Iron Age. But it was dated from the first century BC, about 400 years later than the recent Staffordshire torcs. This is roughly the same age as the images of the Gundestrup Cauldron from Denmark.
However, these newly discovered gold torcs date from much further bank in time to c.400-250 BC. That makes them the oldest gold torcs of the Iron Age found so far in Britain. This means they are a potential link to cultures from beyond Britain at the time; the general assessment so far is that these torcs belonged to women of great status in Britain but that they may have come from Europe. For elaborate gold torcs have been found in Europe, for example those dating to 400 BC in Germany and a lady’s burial in Vix in France dates back to 500 BC.
Nearer to home, gold torcs dating from 300-100 BC were found in a hoard buried in the ground in Perthshire. Now in the National Museum of Scotland, they include two fragments of ‘tube’ torcs which were more common in South West France. This design was far from home.
The fashion of gold torcs began abroad – maybe the women who wore these new torcs were also from abroad and maybe they were some of the first to bring the new fashion with them. Maybe they brought other aspects of their culture with them. Perhaps there are more clues out there.
Because gold Celtic torcs have been found associated with Iron Age burials of women. I sincerely hope that professional archaeologists are called or have been called to check the field where the sites were found in a scientific and systematic method. The context of these gold ornaments are vital to giving the full story of these items.
Gold was a rich metal over 2,000 years ago, just as it is today. The torcs’ value is so much more than its monetary worth; they can provide us with another piece of our ancient history and they can forge the links of our heritage that spread across Europe.