British Museum blog

A vehicle of the soul?

The Pegsdon mirror. © Luton CultureJody Joy, curator, British Museum

Today we are so used to seeing images of ourselves in mirrors and photographs it is difficult to imagine a world without reflections. But just try.

Imagine a world in which you don’t really know what you look like, where the only way to see your own reflection is in a pool of still water. Using a mirror like the one found in Pegsdon, Bedfordshire, and featured in the ITV series Britain’s Secret Treasures, meant that for the first time Iron Age people, about 2,500 years ago, were no longer reliant on others to tell them how they looked.

The Pegsdon mirror. © Luton Culture

The Pegsdon mirror. © Luton Culture

Today the mirror is part of our everyday routine but cheap, mass-produced mirrors are a product of the past few centuries. Before that mirrors were rare and expensive social objects allowing people to monitor physical appearance and apply cosmetics. Their reflective surfaces were also perceived in different ways, taking on religious, medical and artistic functions. For example, a mirror allows you to see behind as well as in front, extending the realms of ‘normal’ human physical experience.

In the Greco-Roman world looking backwards was linked to looking into the future or the past and the reflection from a mirror was used in divination – attempts to predict events, or peoples fate. Mirrors were lowered into water and the reflections ‘read’. Alternatively mirrors were used to evoke light or the vehicle of the soul.

It is impossible to determine the true significance of the Pegsdon mirror. The fact that it is so beautifully made and decorated and that it was carefully placed in someone’s grave indicates it was a valued and treasured object. The association between mirrors and cosmetic sets in other Iron Age graves links them to the main function of mirrors today, as a means to monitor appearance.

However, there is no reason why mirrors did not also have other kinds of significance in Iron Age society. For example, even today we still see breaking a mirror as bad luck.

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

Britain’s Secret Treasures is broadcast on ITV 1 Thursdays at 20.30, 17 October – 5 December 2013

Filed under: Archaeology, Portable Antiquities and Treasure, ,

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 11,508 other followers

Categories

Follow @britishmuseum on Twitter

British Museum on Instagram

Robert Burns was born #onthisday in 1759. Will you be addressing a haggis this #BurnsNight? Born #onthisday in AD 76: Roman emperor Hadrian. This marble bust was found near Tivoli, outside Rome
#history #sculpture Edouard Manet, sometimes called the first Modernist and last Old Master, was born #onthisday in 1832. 
This print, Les Courses ('The Races'), shows Manet's drawing at its most vigorous. The viewpoint is dramatic; the observer is placed in the centre of the racetrack awaiting the horses' imminent stampede. The railing slopes away at an unnerving angle. The lower right-hand corner dissolves into furious scribbling, with the lithographic crayon used on its side as well as its point.

Manet was a keen racegoer, often attending with his fellow artist Degas, whom he met while Degas was copying Velazquez' Infanta Maria Margarita in the @museelouvre 
#artist #Manet #history The exhibition #IndigenousAustralia will celebrate the cultural strength and resilience of both Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders, exploring the remarkable story of how an ancient civilisation has endured and whose story is still unfolding today. This spectacular turtle-shell mask is from the Torres Strait Islands and is used in ceremonies. 
Tickets are now on sale for #IndigenousAustralia – our new major exhibition opening 23 April britishmuseum.org/indigenousaustralia We're delighted to announce a new special exhibition: #IndigenousAustralia. Opening 23 April, this will be the first major exhibition in the UK to present a history of Indigenous Australia, drawing on remarkable objects to highlight 60,000 years of continuous culture
#exhibition This object will feature in our next major exhibition, to be announced tomorrow! Can you guess where it is from?
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 11,508 other followers

%d bloggers like this: