The Gundestrup Cauldron: Largest and Most Exquisite Iron Age Silver Work in Europe

The Gundestrup Cauldron: Largest and Most Exquisite Iron Age Silver Work in Europe

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The Gundestrup Cauldron is an ancient silver vessel that was discovered in a peat bog in Denmark. This cauldron is notable for being the largest known piece of European Iron Age silver work. Thus, much attention has been paid by scholars to this vessel. This is especially true with regards to its high quality workmanship and complex iconography, which have fueled debate about the origins of this object. At present, there are two main camps in the debate, one arguing that the cauldron is of Gaulish origin, whilst the other arguing that the vessel is actually of Thracian origin.   

On the 28 th of May, 1891, the Gundestrup Cauldron was discovered whilst peat cutting was being carried out at Raevenose, a small peat bog located near the village of Gundestrup, in the Aars parish, Himmerland, Jutland. When the Gundestrup Cauldron was discovered, it was in a dismantled state, with five long rectangular plates, seven shorter ones, a round plate, and two fragments of tubing. These pieces were reconstructed into its present form in the following year by Sophus Müller, a Danish archaeologist.

Photo of Sophus Müller

Photo of Sophus Müller ( Public Domain )

The round plate was assumed to be the base of the cauldron, hence it is known also as the ‘base plate’. The five longer plates were placed on the internal side of the cauldron, with a space of 2 cm between each of them, whilst the seven shorter ones (it has been suggested that there had originally been eight of them) were positioned on the external side of the vessel. The reconstructed cauldron has been measured to be 69 cm in diameter, and 42 cm in height.

The central medallion of the base plate, from a replica

The central medallion of the base plate, from a replica ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

It is generally accepted that the Gundestrup Cauldron was made at some point of time during the 2 nd or 1 st century BC. It has been discovered, based on palaeobotanical investigation of the surrounding peat, that when the cauldron was deposited, the land had been dry, and that the peat bog formed gradually formed over time. It has also been suggested that, based on the way the pieces were stacked together, an attempt had been made to conceal it.

Whilst the age of the Gundestrup Cauldron is generally agreed upon, its origin is a more debatable matter. It has been established that the cauldron was not made locally, and that it was brought to the area from somewhere abroad. There are two main theories regarding where this ‘somewhere abroad’ actually is. The first of these is that the cauldron is of Gaulish origin, and that it came from somewhere in the ‘Celtic’ world.

Interior plate C

Interior plate C ( Public Domain )

Proponents of this theory argue that the iconography of the cauldron points towards its origin. The images depicted on the cauldron include torques, carnyx (a type of ancient musical instrument), and a horned figure. It has been pointed out that such motifs are also commonly found in ‘Celtic’ art that have been discovered in different parts of Europe. Some have even identified the horned figure, and thus provide a more specific location the cauldron’s origin. There are those, for instance, who have identified the horned figure as Cernunnos, a ‘Celtic’ deity. Based on this, it has been asserted that the cauldron is from northern Gaul, as such depictions have also been found in that area.

The carnyx players

The carnyx players ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The second theory is that the Gundestrup Cauldron is of Thracian origin, and was made somewhere in the Lower Danube in southeastern Europe. This argument is said to be supported by the style and workmanship of the vessel. For example, it has been asserted that certain silver-smithing techniques that were used to make the Gundestrup Cauldron, including high repoussé, pattern punches and tracers, partial gilding, were not used in the ‘Celtic’ world during the time when the vessel is thought to have been produced.

There are also other questions regarding the Gundestrup Cauldron that have yet been answered. For example, it is still unknown as to how the vessel found its way to Denmark. Some, for instance, have suggested that the cauldron was a gift to a chief, others as a trade object, and still others as war booty.

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