Just occasionally, archaeologists enjoy a real glimpse of a specific moment in time. The Snettisham hoard excavations in Norfolk have provided exactly that: a rare opportunity to witness a communal act by Iron Age people at a crucial moment in the history of Britain. Last week we were very fortunate to have Dr Julia Farley, curator of British and European Iron Age collections at the British Museum visit Durham University as part of our Research Seminar Series. Julia told the story of the discovery and subsequent recovery of the Snettisham Hoards, and then described her own experience trying to make a torc, before revealing some of the work that goes on behind the scenes in staging an event like the incredible Celts: Art and Identity exhibition at the British Museum in 2015-16. [For an excellent intro to torcs and how to wear them, see Julia’s blog ]
Two questions came to mind in relation to the IA&RH project: how might this impressive evidence of Iron Age wealth, artistry, and technology fit with public understanding of pre-Roman Iron Age people in Britain, and what responses did the exhibition provoke? Sadly, I missed the exhibition, but I have manged to dig up a couple of commentaries that provide some insight. First, though, some background…
The Snettisham Hoards
Since the first piece of metal was discovered in 1948, a total weight of 30kg has been recovered—including 175 torcs of gold, silver, and bronze. Also found were 234 Gallo-Belgic coins, dated to around 70 BC, challenging earlier assumptions that the hoards were buried by refugees fleeing from Caesar in 55/54 BC. Julia explained how each discrete hoard had a different character, some comprising groups of complete or broken torcs, others fragments of metal, coins, and ingots. The objects were placed in a specific order with the most precious torc always at the top, suggesting careful placement—as opposed to panicked concealment—following a protocol that respected items with long associations, possibly passed through several generations. In both the number of hoards and the number of torcs, Snettisham is unique. The site itself has provided few clues is no trace of any contemporary settlement, but a magnetometer survey detected a later ditch enclosing 20 acres, dated to the 1st century AD. [For details and photographs see I. M. Stead, 1991. The Snettisham Treasure: excavations in 1990, Antiquity 65: 447-64]
Technology, artistry and connections: ‘cut-throat’ Celts or ‘creative, connected and clever’ Celts?
Julia explained the processes involved in marking torcs and showed some of the intricate detail and decoration. She’s even had a go herself! [See her video here] The skills and techniques involved were significant, as were the evident links with Celtic groups across the Continent. In October 2015, Alice Roberts visited the British Museum to see the hoard, as described in her blog for the Guardian. She comments:
‘When we read Greek and Roman accounts of the Celts, we come away with a caricature of uncouth barbarians who wear trousers and drink undiluted wine, who go naked into battle and who are terrified by an eclipse. But archaeology reveals a different story and we glimpse the Celts’ love of art and design, where exquisite jewellery symbolised power and where horse-riding warriors carried beautifully decorated swords and scabbards. We also discover how the Celtic-speaking tribes inhabiting the islands in the far north-west corner of Europe were culturally and technologically linked to their neighbours on the continent: Iron Age Britain was far from being a backwater.’
So how were these messages portrayed and received by the public in the Celts: Art and Identity exhibition? Julia was closely involved in this incredible display and has very kindly agreed to be interviewed as part of the IA&RH project so I am very much looking forward to visiting her in London soon, when I can find out more. During her talk in Durham she gave a fascinating insight into the detailed planning involved in staging the exhibition—from developing the overall design of the exhibition space with curving lines inspired by Celtic art, to choosing the colours that best presented the items, to carefully arranging the hoard pieces to appear randomly ‘scattered’.
If, like me, you missed the exhibition, you can still take a brief virtual trip round the exhibits in the company of musician and Modern Antiquarian, Julian Cope, who visited on behalf of Guardian Culture. To quote the ‘Arch Drude’ himself:
‘We come from a generous culture; a very inclusive culture. This is an exhibition about what we were and what we were about to become. We are always in the process of ‘becoming’ in this country. It is part of our democracy’.
The end of an era
Could this process of change explain what prompted the Snettisham torc-wearers to come together and bury their wealth, heritage and identity in this place at this moment? Although it was around 15 years before Caesar’s first forays across the Channel, word of Roman expansion and reports of slave capture would have reached Britain via extensive trade networks with Continental Europe. Did the folk of Snettisham feel threatened? Or are we seeing the outcome of a much more local disagreements and rivalries, perhaps requiring pre-emptive measures to protect the tribal treasury, or to appease local gods? Whatever prompted the burial of the Snettisham hoards (and subsequently prevented their retrieval) the communities of Iron Age East Anglia survived to proudly wear their (newly made) torcs once more: this was land of the Iceni and, five generations later, was home to that most famous of all torc-wearers, Queen Boudicca.
I just finished writing this blog and turned to the BBC News website – to find that another new hoard was making the headlines! The four Leekfrith Torcs, discovered by detectorists in a Staffordshire field, are thought to date from 400-250 BC—probably the earliest Iron Age gold work ever found in Britain.