Bronze Age beauty from western Norfolk

What can the first Bronze Age gold torc to be found in Norfolk for 25 years tell us about the influence of the region’s population 3,000 years ago?

The Great Dunham torc. Dating to c.1300-1100 BC, the great Dunham Hoard was recently acquired by Norfolk Museums Service.
Dating to c.1300-1100 BC, the Great Dunham torc was recently acquired by Norfolk Museums Service. [Image credit: Norfolk County Council]

The Iron Age Snettisham Treasure, a hoard of ornate 1st-century BC neck rings known as ‘torcs’ (see CA 126 and 135), is one of the most celebrated archaeological discoveries made in Norfolk. This form of adornment belongs to a rather longer tradition, however – the gold torc that has just been acquired by the county’s Museums Service is over 1,000 years older.

Found at Great Dunham during gas pipe-laying works in 2017, this ostentatious artefact belongs to the Middle Bronze Age (c.1300-1100 BC). Gold objects are rare finds for all phases of the Bronze Age throughout Britain, and while they do seem to be more common in East Anglia, this is nevertheless the first gold torc of this date to be found in Norfolk for a quarter of a century.

The torc (which has just been acquired by Norfolk Museums Service following a successful fundraising campaign) had been buried a long way from the likely origin of its raw material; during the Middle Bronze Age the main sources for gold seem to have been in Wales and Ireland, with evidence for prehistoric extraction also seen in Cornwall and the Leadhills area of Scotland. The Great Dunham find’s presence in Norfolk, hundreds of miles from any of these places, offers tantalising hints of the wealth and power enjoyed by at least the upper levels of the area’s Bronze Age population, who evidently boasted far-reaching trade connections and social contacts that allowed them to acquire such a spectacular object.

This discovery adds to an already intriguing picture of Norfolk’s Middle Bronze Age wealth being apparently concentrated in the western half of the region; while finds of other kinds of metalwork from this period are scattered fairly evenly across the county, if you single out Bronze Age torcs you find a distinctive bias towards the west. The reason behind this distribution remains something of a conundrum – particularly given that it is the eastern part of the county that has the more fertile land. Equally enigmatic is the lack of settlement evidence for this period in Norfolk; it appears that despite such communities’ apparent influence, they still lived in temporary structures.

Side view of the Great Dunham torc.
Side view of the Great Dunham torc. [Image credit: Norfolk County Council]

The reason for the torc’s burial is also a mystery; Dr Tim Pestell, Senior Curator of Archaeology at Norfolk Museums Service wonders if it could have been an ostentatious votive offering. Alternatively there may have been more practical impulses at work, he suggests – perhaps the torc was consigned to the ground for safekeeping, or to restrict its use and maintain the rarity of its material.

Tim said: ‘The discovery and purchase of the Great Dunham torc is an important development in our understanding of Bronze Age East Anglia. This region is especially rich in Bronze Age gold and as such preserving examples of artefacts which illustrate this wealth and cultural achievement is really important.’

The torc was acquired thanks to grants totalling £23,000 from Arts Council England/V&A Purchase Grant Fund, Art Fund, the Friends of the Norwich Museums and The Headley Trust. It is currently on display at Colchester Castle as part of their ongoing exhibition Adorn (which runs until 16 February 2020 and charts 4,000 years of the history of jewellery – see for more information, and watch out for our review in CA 356!), but will return home to Norfolk when the exhibition closes.

Tim said: ‘We are incredibly grateful to all the funders who have made this acquisition possible – their generosity means this valuable find can enter a museum collection, enabling the public to engage with this fascinating story as well as becoming available to researchers. We look forward to displaying the Great Dunham torc in the Boudica gallery at Norwich Castle on its return from Colchester Castle’s Adorn exhibition.’

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