British Museum blog

Manufacture, wear and repair of the Chiseldon Iron Age cauldrons


Jamie Hood and Alexandra Baldwin, British Museum

With the Iron Age Chiseldon cauldrons excavated and cleaned to expose the metal surface we are beginning to see interesting technological features and evidence of manufacture revealing them to be sophisticated and high status objects.

Tool marks on the surface from the original manufacture

Tool marks on the surface from the original manufacture

Although they’re over 2,000 years old, different tool marks from shaping and thinning the copper alloy are preserved on the surface of the metal. These suggest the careful and deliberate use of specific tools for different jobs, indicating that the objects were made by a craft specialist skilled at working sheet metal.

Faint incised lines marking-out the position of rivets

Faint incised lines marking-out the position of rivets

Other features likely to relate to construction are the lines, faintly incised into the surface of the sheet copper-alloy and only visible in raking light. These appear to mark the overlap of plates making up the sections of the cauldron, and the regular distribution and position of rivets indicating that the cauldrons were carefully designed and made.

Examination is also showing that, while the 12 cauldrons are broadly similar in their design, there are variations in their size, shape and construction. We have already identified three different types of rim construction. These differences are extremely intriguing and suggest that the cauldrons were made by different makers and/or at different times.

Multiple repair patches on the cauldron base

Multiple repair patches on the cauldron base

Another intriguing feature we are encountering is a high number of patched repairs. Some repairs appear to have been applied at the time of construction and placed over fatigue cracks caused by raising the metal. Others quite clearly cover areas of damage caused during the useful lifetime of the cauldrons, indicating that they were used and repaired over a period of time and were already old and well-loved items at the time of their burial.

Preserved details like this mean that while the cauldrons are in relatively poor condition there are minute pieces of evidence that allow us to build up a wider picture of how the cauldrons were designed and made, and really bring the objects to life by allowing us to see the craftsman’s thought process and the practical application of their art.

The Chiseldon cauldrons research project is supported by the Leverhulme Trust

Find out more about this research project

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Most Greek sculpture that survives from antiquity is carved from white marble, of which the Mediterranean has many natural sources. A relationship has often been assumed between the pure white of freshly cut marble and the idealism of Greek art. In fact, the opposite is true. Colour was intrinsic to ancient ideas of beauty. For centuries this has been a subject of fascination and controversy. The great Italian Renaissance sculptor Michelangelo revived the Greek idea of the human body but denied the use of colour. This was partly due to negative associations with the painted saints of the medieval period. During the European Enlightenment of the 1750s onwards, and increasingly into our own time, the preferred aesthetic was a truth to materials. Painting and gilding were seen as unnecessary and undesirable.

Sculpture in antiquity was often adorned not only with colour but also with different materials. The Greek marble statue of an archer reconstructed here was drilled and fitted with metal attachments. The figure originally held a bronze bow and arrow and a quiver was fixed to his left hip by a metal dowel. Individual locks of hair were made of lead. The colourful design of the man’s knitted all-in-one garment, often worn by peoples from the east, is clearly seen weathered into the marble surface under controlled lighting.

You can see this wonderful object in our exhibition #DefiningBeauty, until 5 July 2015.
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In 1997, the library departments left the Museum to be re-housed at the new British Library in St Pancras.
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© 2003 The Natural History Museum @natural_history_museum 
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