Notwithstanding the second-hand Greek and Roman sources that emerged towards the later Iron Age, objects from the collection represent the only direct evidence of the beliefs of those who created them. Within these societies, knowledge was passed through oral traditions, whilst “art” as we understand it was a tool used to express cultural norms and an understanding of the natural and supernatural world.
The collection can essentially be split into two parts: items for personal adornment and beautification and tools and weaponry. All are objects of status. Metalwork, both in bronze and gold, was a luxury that lent prestige and authority to the personages who wielded it. Even seemingly utilitarian objects such as the cast axeheads featured in lots 92, 93 & 94 would have been highly prized. The tradition of simple bronze cast bladed items dates to the very earliest era of European metallurgy. Though the present pieces date to well over 1000 years after the first examples emerged, it is widely believed that elite groups continued to control the circulation of bronze items during this period, restricting their use among the wider population. Of mould-made construction, each is cast with a hollow socket allowing it to attach it firmly to the wooden haft with which it was wielded. As well as their use in life, the numerous hoards containing such objects suggest that they functioned as ritual offerings deposited during burials. Such burials remained undisturbed because as gifts to the gods, they had gone beyond the land of the living. The ritual and spiritual importance of bronze axeheads is highlighted by the fact that they appear to have continued to be carried as prestige items and offered up in hoards well after bronze had been supplanted by iron.
It was during the Late Bronze Age (1300 – 800 B.C.) that bronzeworking technology was refined to its peak. The bronzesmith of this era had complete mastery over his material, his skills honed by the elite’s demand for objects of dazzling display. Of particular popularity was the spiral motif, this type of ornament emerged in Central Europe and spread across Europe, notably in the late Tumulus, Urnfield and Hallstatt cultures. The spiral motif is ubiquitous in Bronze Age art, decorating jewellery intended for personal ornamentation, but also ceramics and metal vessels. Examples from the collection include lots 98, 99, 103 & 104. The use of the spiral is so widespread that it is hard to avoid the conclusion that its significance was religious. Some have suggested that the spiral refers to a solar deity. Certainly, there is no doubt that many Bronze Age communities of Western and Central Europe were organised around the procession of time and the seasons, the movements of the sun and moon. Many stone circles and henges constructed during this period as religious sites aligned were aligned on heavenly bodies and the rising sun at midsummer and the setting sun at the winter solstice.
The Late Bronze Age was marked by a warrior culture described most vividly by Homer in the Iliad and Odyssey but clearly also present as far as the western fringes of preliterate Europe. This is attested by grave goods profuse with weaponry and armour, plastic art and rock carvings of conflict. In this context, spiral bracelets such as lot 100 have in the past been viewed as possible warriors’ attire, intended to offer physical protection. However, there is little evidence to prove that this type of object was worn in combat, especially given that its construction would offer limited protection. Rather with its strong talismanic symbology, it may have been intended to offer its wearer spiritual protection from forces both physical and metaphysical.
The importance placed on personal adornment and display continued into the Iron Age. This point is no better illustrated than by the magnificent late 1st millennium “Celtic” torc, lot 112. The piece is a superb example of the type and would have been the preserve of the highest echelons of society. At the beginning of the Late Bronze Age, complex twisting techniques as seen in this torc replaced sheet goldwork. Indeed, the term torc descends from the Latin torqueo, to twist. The dazzling ornamentation worn by the Celtic peoples impressed foreign contemporary commentators, with the Roman historian Diodorus Siculus writing the following around 50 B.C. “[the Celts] gather gold that is used for ornaments not only for women but men as well, for they wear bracelets on their arms and wrists and also massive solid-gold collars around their necks.” The Dying Gaul (based on a Hellenistic original dating to the 3rd – 1st century B.C., contemporary with the present piece) shows the fallen warrior nude, with the exception of the torc around the neck. In ancient times, as today, the torc is arguably the most iconic artwork of the ancient peoples of western and central Europe.
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