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

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Filed under: Archaeology, Chiseldon cauldrons, Conservation, ,

Putting the Chiseldon Cauldrons in context

Jody Joy, British Museum

I am the curator responsible for the European Iron Age collection at the British Museum, and will be working with Alexandra Baldwin and Jamie Hood on the Chiseldon Cauldrons project throughout the next year.

At the moment I am taking a back seat in the project, to support Alex and Jamie as far as I can in their conservation work. But once the conservation and scientific analysis is completed it is up to me to work out why so many cauldrons were placed together in a large pit alongside two cattle skulls sometime between 200-50 BC.

In the meantime I have begun to research cauldrons and other metal vessels.

The Battersea cauldron, an example of an Iron Age cauldron on display in the British Museum

Cauldrons are a very well-known type of Iron Age artefact but surprisingly little is known about them. We think they were used to boil meat and/or to serve alcoholic beverages such as beer or mead. They are substantial artefacts and quite rare so we think they were used for feasting.

A hook from about 1050-900 BC, possibly used to cook meat over a cauldron

Part of the problem is that many cauldrons were discovered in rivers or bogs during the nineteenth-century so we have very little evidence to work with other than the artefacts themselves. This is why the Chiseldon discovery is so exciting. Because the objects were well-excavated we have a detailed record of how they were deposited. We also have up to 13 vessels to compare and contrast.

The discovery has certainly sparked a lot of interest among fellow archaeologists and I have already given a number of public lectures to various universities and archaeological societies.

Late last year I gave a lecture at Leicester University and there was a fantastic turnout. Usually one of the students bakes a cake or biscuits; however, in honour of the cauldrons we were treated to a steaming vat of punch served in a miniature cauldron!

I am extremely excited by what Alex and Jamie have discovered so far. One of the major questions we have is whether the cauldrons were made especially for deposition.

I think we can already suggest that they weren’t. The cauldrons that have been excavated so far are very different and look to have been made by different people using different techniques. Some also show possible evidence of repair and past use.

This is giving us a fantastic insight into Iron Age technology and methods of artefact manufacture. It also opens up further questions.

If cauldrons are rare artefacts and the examples we have were not all made at the same time, can we suggest that different communities brought their own vessels to a large feast at Chiseldon?

If so what was the purpose of the gathering and why were the artefacts placed in a pit at the end of the feast? We may not ultimately be able to answer these questions but I can’t wait to see what further discoveries Alex and Jamie make so we can at least try.

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, , ,

Cauldrons on the move

Jamie Hood, British Museum

Conservator Jamie Hood labelling one of the cauldrons for transportation

As I wasn’t at the excavation of the Chiseldon cauldrons it was difficult to imagine that the nine or so blocks of soil sitting in plastic crates and wrapped in plaster bandages really contained Iron Age cauldrons. But a few weeks ago when Alex and I visited the Museum’s off-site store, I knelt down and looked at the closest crate and spotted the edges of metal sheet and part of an iron handle sticking out of the soil.

Conservator Alexandra Baldwin at the British Museum store

It’s at moments like this that you start to think about the step by step process of conserving the object to bring it back to life (and also quickly calculate how many hours it might take… literally hundreds).

But before we could start work we had to move the cauldrons from storage to the Museum itself.

The Museum’s off-site store is vast with hundreds of crates and many rows of racking which all hold evidence of Britain’s past. While it was easy for us to jump on the tube to get to the store, transporting the cauldrons was a little bit trickier.

We picked two of them – discovered next to each other in the burial pit, and corroded together – and packed them safely in big boxes. It’s always nerve-racking transporting fragile objects, so to protect them we surrounded them with rolled-up tissue paper, foam and bubble wrap.

Conservator Jamie Hood transporting one of the cauldrons at the British Museum

Once safely at the Museum we moved the crates to the metals conservation lab and carefully unpacked the cauldrons.

The first step is to record the soil blocks and fragments of cauldrons by taking pictures, making detailed drawings and examining the surface through a microscope. In preparation for the next stage, when conservation really begins, you can then begin to start removing some of the soil with small hand tools and brushes.

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, , , , ,

Digging up – and preserving – the Iron Age

Alexandra Baldwin, British Museum

Alexandra Baldwin excavating the cauldrons

Five years ago I, and my colleague Simon Dove in the department of Conservation and Scientific Research at the British Museum, joined a team from Wessex Archaeology in a field in Wiltshire to excavate what we thought were three small bowls. Two weeks later, in baking sun and torrential rain, we had lifted 10 – or 12 – rather large cauldrons.

Brilliant! 10 Cauldrons! Being extremely rare, this was an exciting find.

One would have been fantastic. Three would have been amazing. But 10-12, on the other hand, was a huge challenge. First, we had to excavate them. Then we had to store them and finally conserve them so we can learn from them and perhaps even put them on display.

With such a huge find, and with the conservation project alone estimated to take two of us two years, Jody Joy, British Museum curator of Iron Age Britain, and I decided to apply for funding to study the cauldrons properly and conserve them so that we could understand their wider significance and give them the attention they deserve.

An illustration of how the cauldrons may have looked when first buried

Now we have the funding, work has started and over the next two years myself and a colleague, and Jody, along with scientists and other British Museum staff, will be unravelling the evidence of life in the Iron Age the cauldrons can provide us with.

In the coming months I’ll be writing regular posts – as will Jody, and my colleague in the conservation team Jamie Hood – documenting the journey through the project and describing what goes on behind the scenes at the British Museum, revealing discoveries as we find them… and not to mention the challenges we face.

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, , , , , ,

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