Archaeologists find connection between metalwork and Iron Age feasting rituals

Archaeologists with the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom unearthed a unique collection of Iron Age metal artifacts, which sheds new light on feasting rituals among prehistoric communities.

Found during an excavation at Glenfield Park, Leicestershire, the collection is unprecedented in terms of the overall mix of findings. Among the objects extracted from the site are eleven complete, or near complete, cauldrons, fine ring-headed dress pins, an involuted brooch and a cast copper alloy object known as a ‘horn-cap,’ which may have been part of a ceremonial staff.

“It is the metalwork assemblage that really sets this settlement apart. The quantity and quality of the finds far outshine most of the other contemporary assemblages from the area, and its composition is almost unparalleled. The cauldron assemblage, in particular, makes this a nationally important discovery. They represent the most northerly discovery of such objects on mainland Britain and the only find of this type of cauldron in the East Midlands,” John Thomas, director of the excavation, said in a press release.

Most of the cauldrons appear to have been deliberately laid in a large circular enclosure ditch that surrounded a building. They are of different sizes and have a combined capacity of approximately 550 litres, which illustrates their potential to provide for large groups of people that may have gathered at the settlement from the wider, well-established community in the area.

Cauldron bowl attached to iron band. Photo by University of Leicester.

“Due to their large capacity it is thought that Iron Age cauldrons were reserved for special occasions and would have been important social objects, forming the centrepiece of major feasts, perhaps in association with large gatherings and events,” Thomas added.

The vessels are made from several separate parts, comprising iron rims and upper bands, hemispherical copper alloy bowls, and two iron ring handles attached to the upper band. CT scanning has shown that some of them had decorations, such as a raised stem and leaf motifs on the iron band, close to the handle locations, which are similar to the so-called ‘Vegetal Style’ of Celtic art, generally dated to the 4th century BC.

“The importance of cauldrons as symbolic objects is reflected in their frequent appearance in early medieval Irish and Welsh literature, which has been drawn upon in studies of Iron Age society. They are rarely found in large numbers and, with the exception of a discovery in Chiseldon, where 17 cauldrons were found in a pit, there have been few excavated examples in recent years,” the lead researcher in the Leicester project said.

Thomas’ fieldwork took place over the winter of 2013/14, but results will be available by December 6, 2017, in the print edition of British Archaeology.