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Sunday 20 April 2014

Iron Age Oddities

If I can’t think of anything else to write about, I can always dig into my collection of photographs taken in various museums. I’ll start with two that show very similar-looking objects. The one on the left was taken in the British Museum last week; the one on the right was taken a few years ago in Lyme Regis Museum. They look so similar they might even be the same object... and in a sense they are.
The object in the British Museum is a bronze mirror that was unearthed during excavations at the Roman villa at Holcombe, a few miles from Lyme Regis. Although it was discovered at a Roman site, it actually dates from around 50 BC, about a century before the Roman invasion. That period of British history is referred to as the “Iron Age”, which makes it sound primitive and unsophisticated – but it clearly wasn’t, if they had fancy decorated mirrors like this. The mirror is displayed face down, to show the intricate engraving on the back – the other side would have been polished smooth to produce a reflective surface.

The mirror on display in Lyme Regis is simply a modern replica of the one in the British Museum. It looks a completely different colour, but at least part of this may be due to the different lighting conditions. Apart from that, however, the replica is astonishingly accurate. If you open the image full size, you can see that not only has the fine engraving been reproduced exactly, but so has the seemingly random pattern of corrosion on the metal!

Actually, I’d be more interested to see a replica of what the mirror looked like when it was new. One of the reasons people insist on thinking of archaeological history as “primitive” is because objects are in such a poor state when they’re dug out of the ground. I’m sure the mirror’s original owner would have thrown it out of the house if she’d seen it in this condition!

Bronze mirrors were popular high-status items in a number of ancient cultures, and dozens of other examples have been found at Iron Age sites around Britain. But there’s another object on display in the same room at the British Museum which is virtually unique. It’s the horned helmet shown below. This was found near Waterloo Bridge in London and it dates from the same period as the Holcombe mirror, or possibly even earlier.

I have to admit I’d never heard of the Waterloo helmet until I saw it last week, although I see now that it’s important enough to have its own Wikipedia page. Like most people I tend to associate horned helmets with the Vikings (even though the Vikings didn’t really use them that much)... but with an estimated date of 150 to 50 BC, this one predates the Vikings by a thousand years. Its purpose was almost certainly purely ceremonial – the thin bronze wouldn’t have given the wearer much protection against a heavy iron sword!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That's really neat. I would be very interested to see what relics have been unearthed at the USA's iron age sites in New England/New Hampshire and Mass. I visiteed a site there some 20 years ago but apart from the building structures I didn't get to see any relics as such.