Urnfield Vase Reveals 3,300 Year Old Lunar and Metaphysical Encoding
A vase dating back to Bronze Age Europe has strange symbols and abstract markings. Examination of the pottery has revealed a prehistoric mathematical approach to sacred numbers, as well as a moon veneration central to the beliefs of the proto-Celtic Urnfield culture. Was this ancient encoding used as a metaphysical tool?
The remarkably significant ancient vase was purchased in April 2015 from Hixenbaugh Ancient Art in New York by Lewis Hales, owner of the Celtic Collection Program, Inc., a non-profit historical corporation located in Georgia, America. According to archaeologist Randall Hixenbaugh, owner and curator of the business, the vase’s origin comes from the Late Bronze Age, proto-Celtic Urnfield Civilization (1300 BC -700 BC) and was used for food preparation purposes.
Made by one of the earliest European ancestors, the vase was likely excavated in Germany. It was first located in a private German collection during the 1960s then bought from the Munich based Herman-Historia auction by Mr. Hixenbaugh on April 25, 2005.
The “Urnfield culture emerged as the dominant society of central Europe,” states historian Agnus Konstam. “These people were seen as the predecessors of the Celts and their society has therefore been described as proto-Celtic. The only difference between these people and the Celts of the Hallstatt era is that the later developed the ability to produce iron.” The society got their name because their dead were cremated then placed in Urns at designated non-mound sites, according to Konstam.
When the vase arrived in May, it was immediately placed on exhibition at the Thomaston-Upson Archives, Thomaston, Georgia, where it was viewed for two months. According to Penny Cliff, then archives director, “It was an incredible opportunity to have the Celtic vase on display at the Archives. Having this vase with its ancient symbolism for the public to view was a definite asset to the Archives and enjoyed by all of the visitors who came to the Archives, many who came especially to see the display.” After the exhibition, the vase was taken to several specialists for evaluation.
Photograph taken by Lewis Hales May, 2015, at the Thomaston-Upson Archives of former Archives Director Penny Cliff inspects the vase.
The vase weighs two pounds and 10 ounces (one kilogram) and is 6 3/8 inches (16 centimeters) high and nine inches (22.8 centimeters) wide There are 13 fingerprint indentures around the handles different from the design shapes.
Jim Weber, a pottery craftsman and instructor who has been making pottery for 45 years, examined the vase and stated it had been coil built and pit fired. Due to the small and delicate thumb and fingernail indentures around its handles on both the inside and outside of the vase, it is likely that “a woman with middle level pottery skills” made it. The vase was intended to be “a functioning pot to be proud to have.”
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Sacred Numbers and Lunar Symbolism
Perhaps the vase’s most important attributes are the two sets of designs that surround its shoulder, body and base. The primary design consists of 339 shapes that strongly resemble lunar images in various phases, including Full Moon, Waxing Crescent, Waxing Gibbous, First Quarter and Waning Crescent. These images are in the form of five and a half separate interconnected lines that circle around the body to the base. The half-circle features several barely visible Full Moon-type symbols forming a crescent pattern around half the base.
Phases of the moon as depicted on the Bronze Age vessel. © Lewis Hales
A significant factor is that the design is not the clay pushed to the side of the indentures, but the indentures themselves.
The first five rings are comparable to how the astronomical images are arranged around the four gold hat artifacts, and the Eberswalde Hoard ornate bowls of Berlin from the same timeline and culture. There are no wheels or X images, which are commonly associated with ancient Celtic sun symbolism.
The secondary design consists of five enhanced or abstract oblong shapes around the vase’s shoulder. The number five had special meaning in ancient Celtic symbolism. I have found this numerical encoding on many an artifact, and have evaluated and observed it on ancient structures, such as Stonehenge’s five trilithons.
A trilithon in Stonehenge. (Creative Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)
Five was an enhanced version of three, which was regarded as the most sacred of all numbers by the Urnfield society. It was a simple mathematical approach to showcasing three as the central number from both sides of any five-set. Placing five abstract circles around the shoulder of the vase identified the overall design as sacred and was a veneration of the moon and its journey, which was a central spiritual belief throughout the culture.
Front of vase and the five circles. © Lewis Hales
In July 2015, Dr. Robert Parks, an astronomer working for Georgia State University in Atlanta, examined the vase and provided some remarkable impressions. He stated that, “The images are certainly in the realm of the possibility of an astronomical origin. They are not regular and are reminiscent of lunar phases. It would have been possible to place a number of symbols equal to an integer multiple of the Moon's cycle within any circle. Along this train of thought, the 22 indentures at the bottom do not completely circumnavigate the pot”.
Dr. Parks indicated that the primary design appeared to be complete and it does not look like the artist ran out of room when applying it. This idea is supported by a few images that are clustered especially close together at intervals, giving the impression that the artist intended to fit a specific number of them together. “It is clear the artisan had more room to continue adding these markings and chose to stop. If the indentures do represent the Moon as it changes phase, this stoppage could indicate a desired time had been reached,” according to Dr. Parks.
He pointed out that the vase’s artwork is somewhat crude and was applied by an amateur artist, who wanted to imitate, to a certain degree, an astronomer’s design on a high level ceremonial item designed to venerate lunar and solar occurrences. Dr. Parks suggested that the primary design had been applied with instruments, which is consistent with an assessment by George Weldon, an 18-year pottery maker, who examined the vase’s design technique and stated that it took “more than one instrument to make the different images.”
Fortunes Revealed through Ancient Astrology and Astronomy
Dr. Parks added that because ancient astronomy and astrology were often combined in ancient times, the number of symbols may have served as some type of metaphysical or “fortune telling tool.”
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This perspective is comparable with the evaluation of historian Sherri Ellington, who has specialized in Celtic mythology for 20 years. She has worked for the Celtic Collection Program Inc., for 15 years and has made remarkable contributions to the interpretation of the corporation’s artifacts which have been published, exhibited and featured on television news specials. According to Ms. Ellington the Urnfield/Halstatt lunar vase was made by someone who was perhaps learning the basics of astronomy with the soft clay vase being used as a tool for education before it was set in the kiln by the potter. A possibility is that the person who decorated the vase was simply practicing how to make different types of moon symbols.
In ancient times, astronomy and astrology went hand in hand and are considered by some scholars as having been one and the same. The metaphysical uses were combined and often cast together to interpret events and seasons. The lunar symbols inscribed here may have been used for just such a purpose.
The sequencing of the 339 lunar symbols, an amplification of the sacred number three, is highly suggestive of an intended ritual use. What that ritual use was is unknown and will likely remain that way, since it was meaningful only to the makers. It is possible that the vase maker used a shorthand form of the lunar symbols, numbering the amplified, metaphysical number 339 to form a code that would facilitate future fortune, harvest, fertility, and safety for the family.
Based on the consultant summaries, this beautiful Urnfield vase was likely made by a young female with better than average pottery skills and it was basically used for regular household purposes. Both design sets seem to consist of both lunar phases combined with astrological-metaphysical encodings known only to the person who applied them. Because the lunar symbols were put on in an amateur fashion, yet arranged to resemble the high ritual sun and moon designs of the day, and featuring a sacred encoding of 339 images, this strongly indicates it may have been an educational training project for her. Although she placed her personal ritualistic symbols of fortune on the vase, which was reasonably venerated by her and her family, it probably was not an item that was used at high level tribal ceremonial functions.
The vase will continue to be exhibited at educational facilities in Georgia and shared in the classes I teach on Celtic symbolism.
Featured image: Bronze Age pot of the proto-Celtic Urnfield culture, sporting ritualistic symbols and mathematical markings. © Lewis Hales
Photos by the author, Lewis Hales, M.A.,M.A.
By Lewis Hales
dhwty. (2015, June 26). The Eberswalde Hoard: Golden Treasure Trove of the Bronze Age. Ancient Origins. Retrieved September 20, 2015 [Online] Available here.
Konstam, A. (2001). Celtic Origins. In Historical Atlas of the Celtic World (p. 14). New York, New York: Thalamus Publishing.
Reese, M. (2015, February 1). The Mystery of the Four Golden Hats of the Bronze Age. Ancient Origins. Retrieved September 20, 2015 [Online] Available here.