British Museum blog

A unique form of decoration

Jamie Hood, British Museum

As work on the Chiseldon Iron Age cauldrons progresses we are constantly making discoveries. Possibly the most exciting feature we have found so far is a decorated handle.

The decorated handle and section of rim came from a cauldron that had broken into several pieces during burial due to the weight of the overlying soil. Although we had used X-radiography to examine the handle fragment in its soil block before we began conservation, it was difficult to make out the surface due to the dense soil and corroded condition of the metal. This meant that when I was removing the soil I had to progress extremely slowly. However, it made discovering the decoration below especially exciting.

X-radiograph of the handle before conservation

X-radiograph of the handle before conservation

The decoration consists of three curved plates that have been riveted below the rim on either side of and directly beneath the handle. The additional plates were carefully made and are likely not only to have been decorative, but also served to strengthen the point where the handle is attached.

Decorated handle after conservation.

Decorated handle after conservation.

While the plates could represent abstract decoration they strongly resemble a cow’s head, with the side-plates representing ears, the central plate a muzzle and the handle taking the form of boldly curved horns. Stylised decoration inspired by the shape of animals was not uncommon in the Iron Age and its association with feasting in this context is particularly relevant. However, decoration on cauldrons is extremely rare and this is a significant and exciting discovery.

Three-dimensional image of the handle

Three-dimensional image of the handle

To help with the interpretation Stephen Crummy, an illustrator from the Department of Prehistory and Europe at the British Museum, has been scanning the decorated handle with a laser to make a three-dimensional image which will show its shape far more accurately and aid in creating a virtual reconstruction of the vessel.

The Chiseldon cauldrons research project is supported by the Leverhulme Trust

Find out more about this research project

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Archaeology, Chiseldon cauldrons, Conservation, ,

3 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. epipla says:

    of which year it comes from?


    • Jamie Hood says:

      Work on the Chiseldon cauldrons is still in progress but the best guess so far is that they date from the late (European) Iron Age, possibly to between 200 BC – 50 BC. This date may change with further discoveries and analysis, such as carbon 14 dating, and it is a strong possibility that at least some of the cauldrons may already have been of some age when they were deposited in the ground.


  2. Nigel Lees says:

    What a fascinating project and how wonderful our modern information technology is in allowing us to share in the BM’s progress on this project.

    I was very suprised at the sophistication of the handle decoration and its functionality. To my untrained eye, it would pass for early victorian style of utilitarian decoration!

    I wonder at what point in history such metal working skills were lost and at what time in more recent past it re-emerged?


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