British Museum blog

How do you put on a torc?

Julia Farley, Curator, European Iron Age collection, British Museum

As curator of the Celts exhibition, I get to spend a lot of time showing people wonderful Iron Age treasures. Some of my favourites are the big metal neck rings called torcs that were worn across much of Europe (and beyond) around 2000 years ago. One of the things I get asked most often is, ‘But how did you put them on?!’ It’s a very good question, seeing as they often look like solid metal rings with nowhere near enough space to squeeze your neck through.

Many British torcs are a bit like this one:

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The Snettisham Great Torc. Found in Snettisham, UK. Electrum, 150 BC–50 BC. Diam. 19.9 cm. British Museum 1951,0402.2. (Photo: (c) The Trustees of the British Museum)

Although this is one of the most famous examples, the form is typical: open at the front, with a flexible neck-ring made of coiled or twisted wires. This type of torc is put on and taken off by being bent out of shape. You can see that one of the terminals of this torc has been pulled slightly forward compared to the other one. This is the result of it being repeatedly pulled open to be slipped on. A re-enactor friend of mine has told me that he often puts a torc on from the front, and then twists it round to bring the terminals to the front. I’ve tried with replicas, and I tend to slip mine on from the back, so there are different ways of doing it.

This constant flexing caused a lot of stress to the metal neck rings of the torc. When you bend metal in this way, it tends to harden and become brittle. You may have experienced this first hand if you have ever wanted to break off a piece of wire for hanging a picture or working in the garden and did this by bending it back and forth until it broke. The same thing happened to some torcs. We have many examples of truly beautiful neck-rings which were worn to destruction – taken on and off so many times that they broke at the back. They have often been somewhat clumsily repaired, as in this case:

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(Photo: (c) The Trustees of the British Museum)

The break is covered with a thin sheet of gold foil, but X-radiography of the torc shows that all the wires have snapped! Torcs were quite fragile objects, and they were frequently broken and then repaired in this way. This is curious, because there was an easy way to avoid the problem. If you anneal the metal – heat it up to cherry-red temperature, around 600-700 degrees centigrade – it re-softens. This would have been a simple matter with the technology available. So why were so many torcs allowed to break? And why do the repairs often look like shoddy afterthoughts? I wonder if being the proud owner of a ‘vintage’ torc (old enough to be in need of flamboyant repairs) might have been something to be proud of. Rather than an unfortunate accident, breakage could have been part of the natural lifecycle of a torc. The repaired torc pictured above was buried in a hoard with many other, much newer, ones. By the time it went into the ground, it was probably an heirloom object, perhaps as much as 100 years old. It would have been possible to carry out much more subtle repairs, but perhaps they were supposed to be obvious? Being a member of a family with such a long history of wealth and power was probably a source of great pride, and the repairs might have emphasised the age of the object, and reminded people of the many stories attached to it.

I had a go at making a torc myself, closely based on this one:

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Although the wires are thick, it’s actually much easier to bend open than you’d think. I made my version a couple of years ago, and have used it regularly for teaching and outreach sessions, where it has been much manhandled, bent and stretched. The metal is just getting to the point where it is too stiff to allow this, and so I plan to anneal it soon to soften it up (I don’t fancy breaking my own!). So the process of wear-hardening (especially on softer metals like gold and silver) probably took quite a long time.

On the Continent, there are other types of torc, which sometimes have clever hidden clasps, hinges, or removable sections such as these ones:

ml.1621&Ml.1714

(Photo: (c) The Trustees of the British Museum)

When worn they would have given the impression of a solid ring of metal, but in fact they were relatively easy to put on and take off.

The idea of a hinge was taken up in later British neck-rings found in south-western Britain. They have a discreet hinge at the back, and a clasp at the front that was hidden when the terminals were closed.

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(Photo: (c) The Trustees of the British Museum)

From these kinds of evidence, I strongly suspect that torcs were put on and taken off quite regularly, rather than being intended to be worn for very long periods of time. The most decorative were probably worn for special occasions, and some of the simpler designs may have been for everyday wear. But we have so little evidence for what constituted ‘day-to-day wear’ in the Iron Age that it’s hard to be sure.

But there are some torcs which I don’t think could be opened up, such as this one from Trichtingen in Germany, also in the Celts exhibition:

trichtingen_m000068

Torc. Silver, iron, 200–50 BC. Trichtingen, Germany. Diam. 29.5 cm. (Photo: P. Frankenstein/H. Zweitasch; (c) Landesmuseum Wurttemberg, Stuttgart 2015)

The gap isn’t wide enough to squeeze your head in, and there is a solid iron core under the silver, so it couldn’t have been bent. It also weighs nearly seven kilos! And if you did wear it, which way up would it go? It seems designed to be viewed upright, like in the picture. But with the terminals at the back the bulls would have been hidden, and with the terminals at the front their heads would be upside down, not to mention how uncomfortable those horns would be, sticking into your collar bone…

I think it’s most likely that torcs such as the one above weren’t worn at all. They might have been symbols of status to be brandished aloft, rather than worn around the neck, just like the way that the antlered god on this plaque from the Gundestrup cauldron hefts a torc into the air, terminals upright.

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Cauldron. Silver, partially gilded, 100 BC–AD 1. Gundestrup, Denmark. Diam. 69 cm; H. 42 cm. (c) The National Museum of Denmark.

However it was used, the torc was obviously a powerful symbol.

LAST CHANCE: Celts: art and identity is at the British Museum until 31 January 2016.
Organised with National Museums Scotland

Supported by
In memory of Melvin R Seiden
Sheila M Streek
Stephen and Julie Fitzgerald
Fund for the Future donors

The accompanying book is available from the British Museum shop online

Filed under: Celts: art and identity, Exhibitions, Uncategorized, , , ,

Discovering hidden Celtic creatures

Jane Findlay, Head of Schools and Young Audiences Education and Emilia McKenzie, Education Manager: Digital Content, British Museum

Our newly-opened special exhibition Celts: art and identity has been developed with visitors of all ages in mind, and we’ve enjoyed discovering the animals hidden in the designs of many of the objects. If you’ve visited the exhibition already, you’ll know that the more you look at Celtic art, the more strange and wonderful creatures seem to appear!

2,000 years ago, people across much of Europe shared an art style that today we call ‘Celtic art’. Their fascination with animals is one of the common artistic traits that links them together. For the Celts, animals were more than just subjects for art, they played a key role in these people’s lives: as pets, livestock, mythical creatures and symbols of power.

Take this boar. We don’t know exactly what this fierce little pig would have been used for, but it would have been proudly displayed; perhaps on top of a helmet. Perhaps people wanted to evoke the qualities associated with boars – strength and courage – to make them feel brave and look ferocious going into battle.

An Iron-Age boar figurine found in Ashmanhaugh, Norfolk (Photo: © Norwich Castle)

An Iron-Age boar figurine, 100 BC–AD 100. Found in Ashmanhaugh, Norfolk. Copper alloy. L. 8.7 cm (Photo: © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery)

We liked this boar so much we even used him as the mascot for our family labels. You’ll find these dotted throughout the exhibition, full of fun tips and ideas to help families unlock the stories behind the objects together.

Some animals are more obvious than others in the exhibition. For example, take a look at this image of the dazzling Gundestrup cauldron – how many different creatures can you spot? You might want to challenge others in your family too.

Cauldron. Silver, partially gilded, 100 BC–AD 1. Gundestrup, Denmark. Diam. 69 cm; H. 42 cm. (c) The National Museum of Denmark.

Cauldron. Silver, partially gilded. Gundestrup, Denmark, 100 BC–AD 1. Diam. 69 cm; H. 42 cm. (Photo: (c) The National Museum of Denmark)

How did you get on? Some animals look familiar, while others are strange and mysterious. Did you notice the man riding the fish? What about the horned man in the middle, holding a snake? We think he might be a god.

Other objects demand even closer inspection to unpick their secrets. Take the shield pictured below, from near Lincoln. Look closely at the patterns at the top and bottom – what do you see? Can you make out the long-faced bull or cow? Why do you think the artist might have chosen to include this on the shield? Perhaps it was meant to give protection to the shield’s owner, or maybe it was a symbol of their family or tribe, a bit like a coat of arms.

Witham shield. River Witham, Lincolnshire, England, Iron Age, around 300–200 BC. L. 110 cm. British Museum 1872,1213.1

Shield, with detail shown on the right. River Witham, Lincolnshire, England. Iron Age, around 300–200 BC. L. 110 cm. British Museum 1872,1213.1

Visit the Celts: art and identity exhibition with your family to decipher more secrets and find out what else you can discover when you look a little closer at the objects. Don’t forget – if you’re planning a trip in October half term you can also immerse yourself in a Celtic world with free family activities taking place in the Great Court. Add your own creatures to our cauldron art installation, try your hand at Celtic crafts (you can take yours home!) and listen to some Celtic music. You’ll find something to enjoy no matter how old you are!

Celts: art and identity is at the British Museum until 31 January 2016.
Organised with National Museums Scotland

Supported by
In memory of Melvin R Seiden
Sheila M Streek
Stephen and Julie Fitzgerald
Fund for the Future donors

The accompanying book is available from the British Museum shop online

Filed under: Celts: art and identity, Exhibitions, , , , , , ,

Who were the Celts?

Julia Farley, Curator, European Iron Age collection, British Museum

As lead curator of the project, I am extremely excited that the exhibition Celts: art and identity at the British Museum is now open. Organised in partnership with National Museums Scotland, this is the first major exhibition to explore the full history of Celtic art and identity – but who were the Celts?

Classical authors conjure up a fantastical picture of a strange people, unfamiliar to the civilised inhabitants of Greece and Rome. The Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, writing in the first century BC, tells us that they were prone to arrogance and overindulgence – addicted to wine and frequently drinking so much that they fell into a stupor. The men grew their moustaches so long that when they were drinking, it was as if the liquid passed through ‘a kind of strainer’. They dressed ostentatiously in brightly coloured shirts and trousers, and striped or checked coats. They were hospitable hosts, welcoming strangers to their feasts, but they were fierce warriors, and quick to take offence at the smallest provocation. In battle, some charged into the fray naked, while others wore elaborate horned or animal-crested helmets, perhaps like the example below, dredged from the River Thames near Waterloo. Yet Diodorus also remarks that, for all their warlike swagger and boastfulness, these were not an uneducated people. He writes that they spoke in riddles, hinting darkly at their meaning and using one word to stand for another. Among their number were poets, and philosophers who could foretell the future and were so well respected that they could halt an army in full charge.

Horned helmet. Bronze, glass, c.150–50 BC. Found near Waterloo, along the River Thames, London. W. (between horns) 42.5 cm. British Museum 1988,1004.1

Horned helmet. Bronze, glass, c.150–50 BC. Found near Waterloo, along the River Thames, London. W. (between horns) 42.5 cm. British Museum 1988,1004.1

This is an immediate and engaging picture, but it leaves us with more questions than answers. These ancient descriptions might be very rich, but they are varied, and very few are based on first-hand evidence, so the real people behind these stereotypes continue to elude us. Sources vary on where and when these people lived. There are few objects to show us how the Celts represented themselves, although the extraordinary silver cauldron from Gundestrup in Denmark (pictured below) shows people wearing and using Celtic objects, and coins made in the Celtic world reveal a complex and varied iconography. The Celts left no written records of their own to tell us about their society, or whether indeed they were a unified group. It is much more likely that their lives revolved around smaller tribal, ethnic or family units. Much of their world is lost to us, but archaeology is gradually filling in the details of how these peoples lived.

Cauldron. Silver, partially gilded, 100 BC–AD 1. Gudestrup, Denmark. Diam. 69 cm; H. 42 cm. (c) The National Museum of Denmark.

Cauldron. Silver, partially gilded, 100 BC–AD 1. Gundestrup, Denmark. Diam. 69 cm; H. 42 cm. (c) The National Museum of Denmark.

Celts: art and identity tells the story of the Celts through the incredible objects they made. Shortly after 500 BC, around the time the Parthenon was being erected in Athens, a very different art was taking shape north of the Alps. In contrast to the clean, naturalistic lines of Greek art, the peoples that Greek writers would come to call the Celts were inventing their own way of representing the world. Theirs was an abstract, shapeshifting art, which writhes and transforms in the eye of the beholder. From one angle a sinuous line might resemble leafy tendrils, from another perspective it resolves into a hidden beast or bird. On close inspection, the swirling plant-like decoration on the circular shield boss from Wandsworth (pictured below) becomes two waterbirds, rearing back with wings outstretched, each with a single webbed foot curling down in front of its hooked beak. Like the riddling speech alluded to by Diodorus, the simple lines and curving forms of this Celtic art hint at complex meanings which could only be decoded by those familiar with its mysteries, a knowledge now long forgotten.

Shield boss. Copper-alloy, 350–150 BC. Found in Wandsworth, on the bed of the River Thames, London. Diam. 32.8 cm. British Museum 1858,1116.2

Shield boss. Copper-alloy, 350–150 BC. Found in Wandsworth, on the bed of the River Thames, London. Diam. 32.8 cm. British Museum 1858,1116.2

By around 300 BC, versions of this art style had spread across Europe, from the Atlantic to the Black Sea. Although Britain and Ireland were never explicitly referred to as Celtic by the Greeks and Romans, they were part of this world of shared art, values and beliefs. Where the Greeks, and later the Romans, saw a single people, archaeology reveals a mosaic of communities, connected but also locally distinct.

The torc (a kind of metal neck-ring) is one example of how our understanding has changed. To the ancient Greeks and Romans, torcs were a universal symbol of Celtic identity, but in fact it was not an exclusively Celtic phenomenon. Men and women across Europe and beyond wore torcs to display their power and status. Even within the Celtic world, the shape, design and decoration of these neck-rings varied from region to region, and it is likely that they were used to express local identities, rather than a universal ‘Celtic’ one. A stunning example (pictured below), a silver torc from Trichtingen in Germany on loan from the Württembergisches Landesmuseum in Stuttgart, weighs over 6 kg. The terminals are made in the shape of cow or bull heads, each wearing a tiny torc of its own.

Torc. Silver, iron, 200–50 BC. Trichtingen, Germany. Diam. 29.5 cm. (Photo: P. Frankenstein/H. Zweitasch; (c) Landesmuseum Wurttemberg, Stuttgart 2015)

By around 50 BC, life across much of Europe was changing. From around 200 BC, Roman control had gradually expanded to create an empire that extended from Spain to Syria and across North Africa. After the conquest of Britain in AD 43, the lives of the local inhabitants were dramatically transformed, both within the Roman province of Britannia and beyond its frontiers. In the south, the Roman army led the construction of forts, towns and cities with new facilities like amphitheatres and bathhouses. Local people mixed with invaders and settlers from around the empire, creating a cosmopolitan world where Roman and indigenous ways of life combined to create a unique Romano-British culture. Ireland and northern Scotland were never conquered, but people were still affected by the impact of Rome. Communities here found themselves the neighbours of a powerful empire, and responded by creating objects that reflected their independent, non-Roman identities. One such example is the massive armlet (the technical archaeological name!) from Belhelvie, on loan from the National Museum of Scotland. It was made in Scotland while southern Britain lay under Roman rule, and is decorated with a distinctive local style of art that echoes earlier Iron Age motifs.

Massive armlet. Copper-alloy, AD 50–150. Belhelvie, Aberdeenshire, Scotland. H. 11.5 cm. National Museums Scotland, Edinburgh.

Massive armlet. Copper-alloy, AD 50–150. Belhelvie, Aberdeenshire, Scotland. H. 11.5 cm. National Museums Scotland, Edinburgh.

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, a distinctive form of Christianity emerged in Ireland, Scotland and western Britain, regions which were outside the old heartlands of Roman control. Monasteries in these areas stood out as European centres of art and learning. Although connected to wider Christian communities across Europe, they continued to develop their own local traditions, and their languages, art and religious practices set them apart.

The name ‘Celts’ had fallen out of use after the Roman period, but it was rediscovered during the Renaissance, when people became more interested in understanding their own local histories. From the 16th century, ‘Celts’ was used as shorthand for the pre-Roman peoples of western Europe. In the early 1700s, the languages of Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall, Brittany and the Isle of Man were given the name ‘Celtic’ to reflect their pre-Roman origins. In the context of a continually shifting political and religious landscape, ‘Celtic’ acquired a new significance as the peoples of these Atlantic regions sought to affirm their difference and independence from their French and English neighbours, drawing on long histories of distinctive local identities. Over the following centuries, a Celtic revival movement led to the creation of a rich, reimagined and romanticised Celtic past, expressed in art and literature.

Although the Celts are not a single people, a distinct race or genetic group that can be traced through time, the idea of a Celtic identity still resonates powerfully today, all the more so because it has been continually redefined to echo contemporary concerns over politics, power and religion. The word Celtic continues to strike a chord, both nationally and globally. For most people, it has now come to stand for the distinctive local histories, traditions, music and languages of the modern Celtic nations: Brittany, Cornwall, Ireland, the Isle of Man, Scotland and Wales, and for people around the world who trace their ancestry back to these regions. ‘Celtic’ is still a word that creates a sense of difference, but what began as a label applied to outsiders by the ancient Greeks has now been proudly embraced to express a sense of shared heritage and belonging, reflecting a long history of regional difference and independence.

Celts: art and identity is at the British Museum until 31 January 2016.
Organised with National Museums Scotland

Supported by
In memory of Melvin R Seiden
Sheila M Streek
Stephen and Julie Fitzgerald
Fund for the Future donors

The accompanying book is available from the British Museum shop online

Filed under: Celts: art and identity, Exhibitions, , , , , , , ,

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