The Gundestrup Cauldron: Largest and Most Exquisite Iron Age Silver Work in Europe
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, while the other argues that the vessel is actually of Thracian origin.
Discovering the Gundestrup Cauldron
On May 28, 1891, the Gundestrup Cauldron was discovered while peat cutting was being carried out at Raevenose, a small peat bog located near the village of Gundestrup, in the Aars parish of 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.
The round plate was assumed to be the base of the cauldron; hence it is also known as the ‘base plate’. The five longer plates were placed on the internal side of the cauldron, with a space of 2 cm (0.79 inches) between each of them, while 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 (27.17 inches) in diameter, and 42 cm (16.54 inches) in height.
The central medallion of the base plate, from a replica (CC BY-SA 3.0)
New Insights on the Gundestrup Cauldron’s Creation Date
It is generally accepted that the Gundestrup Cauldron was made at some point of time during the 2nd or 1st century BC. Based on palaeobotanical investigation of the surrounding peat, it was suggested that when the cauldron was deposited, the land had been dry and the peat bog formed gradually around it 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.
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More recently, Martin Sweatman has reported his findings regarding the date of the Gundestrup Cauldron based on the zodiacal symbols present on the artifact. The figures he notes on the Cauldron are: “the bull, stag, lion, and fish, which correspond to Capricornus, Aquarius or Gemini, Cancer or Leo, and Pisces respectively.” Sweatman explains:
“I have chosen Capricornus instead of Taurus here for the bull because we know from the Pictish symbols that at this time and in this region the bull still represented Capricornus. Likewise, from Pictish symbols we know the fish is used to represent Pisces at this time […] However, the earliest date for Pisces as the spring equinox is around 100 BC, and the latest date for Capricornus as the winter solstice is around 0 AD. So we have already narrowed down the date to around 100 BC to 0 AD, which agrees perfectly with the conventional date for the Cauldron.”
Some of the figures on the inside of the Gundestrup Cauldron. (mararie/CC BY SA 2.0)
Which leads Sweatman to conclude, “Ultimately, it seems that the zodiacal date of the Gundestrup Cauldron is 100 BC, to within 100 years.”
Where was the Gundestrup Cauldron Made?
The Gundestrup Cauldron origin is a 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.
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. Such motifs are also commonly found in Celtic art that have been discovered in different parts of Europe.
The carnyx players. (CC BY SA 3.0)
Some have even identified the horned figure, and thus provided 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.
“Celtic deity” on the Gundestrup Cauldron. (mararie/CC BY SA 2.0)
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, tracers, and partial gilding, were not used in the ‘Celtic’ world during the time when the vessel is thought to have been produced.
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There are also other questions regarding the Gundestrup Cauldron that have yet been answered. For example, it is still unknown how the vessel found its way to Denmark. Some, for instance, have suggested that the cauldron was a gift to a chief, others say it was a trade object, and still others claim it was war booty.
The Gundestrup cauldron. (British Museum)
Top Image: The famous horned figure on the Gundestrup Cauldron. Source: Nationalmuseet/CC BY SA 3.0
By Wu Mingren
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