What does a spectacular, recently found gold object add to our understanding of Bronze Age artistry, and can it help to solve a nearly 250 year-old mystery? Carly Hilts spoke to Peter Reavill, Neil Wilkin, Duncan Hook, and Dan O’Flynn to find out more.
In 1772, an exquisitely worked gold object was dredged from the waters of the River Irwell during works to widen a section of the Manchester Ship Canal. It was a stunning find: a D-shaped pendant etched with complex geometric designs and topped with a narrow tube through which a string might be passed so that it could be worn. An illustration in Edward Baines’ 19th-century History of Lancashire eloquently shows how fine its decorations were, depicting concentric curves of lines alternating with patterns of tessellating triangles. Yet by the time this image – labelled ‘Roman bulla of gold’ – was published, the artefact had vanished.
We know from 18th-century accounts like John Whitaker’s History of Manchester that soon after its discovery the bulla (an antiquarian term, Latin for ‘bubble’, derived from a type of rounded Etruscan pendant) was acquired by Sir Ashton Lever’s museum in Alkrington. But in 1806, the entire Leverian collection was sold at auction and dispersed. According to a handwritten note in the margin of the auction catalogue, the bulla was sold for £2 4s 4d, reportedly to a man called ‘Carrudas’ – but beyond that, nothing more is known of its whereabouts.
Over a century after the artefact’s disappearance, this mystery was still being mulled over by scholars, including Joseph Phelps, who wrote an article about the object in the 1915 Transactions of the Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society. Phelps was no clearer on what had happened to the bulla, but one thing he did know: this was no Roman object. Rather, he asserted, it reminded him of ‘those prehistoric gold ornaments found in such profusion in Ireland.’
Phelps was onto something. On the island of Ireland we find a group of six gold bullae that all date to the later Bronze Age (c.1200-700 BC). Most of these were also antiquarian finds, though the most recent addition to their number, a metal-detector find from Co. Down, was only discovered in 2008. These objects share striking similarities with the lost Irwell example: they too are pendants made of finely worked, delicate gold sheet, with a distinctive ‘tube’ at the top. Some, notably the Bog of Allen bulla (the largest and most famous of the group, found in Co. Kildare c.1750) are also adorned with tantalisingly similar decorative motifs, including the distinctive pattern of interlocked triangles seen on the Irwell find.
Yet there is one key difference: while the Irwell artefact is a D-shaped wedge, every one of the examples found across the Irish Sea is heartshaped in form. For years, the English bulla remained an enigmatic anomaly – unlike any other known find, and with no way to examine it more closely – but a chance metal-detector find changed everything.
Shropshire Finds Liaison Officer Peter Reavill had worked with the detectorist in question for 15 years, regularly recording his finds, but he knew that something out of the ordinary had happened when the man (who has asked to remain anonymous) telephoned, ‘almost too excited to speak’. Photographs soon followed, and Peter found himself looking at a D-shaped gold pendant incised with delicate geometric decorations. With his research interests lying squarely in the Bronze Age, Peter’s first thought was that the lost Irwell bulla had miraculously come to light once more in the Shropshire Marches – but comparison with images of the artefact in Phelps’ 1915 article quickly revealed an even more intriguing situation. While the decorations on one side of the new find were near-identical to those depicted by Phelps, the other side was markedly different. This was not the missing pendant, but its sibling.
At last, archaeologists had the opportunity to examine this rare kind of bulla with their own eyes, and using modern scientific techniques. The Shropshire example has undergone its coroner’s inquest and was declared Treasure in mid-February. In recent months it has resided at the British Museum, where it has been pored over by the institution’s Scientific Research team and Neil Wilkin, curator of the European Bronze Age; CA visited the artefact there to find out more.
Seen up close, the workmanship of the pendant is breathtaking. Its patterns of tiny triangles are filled with a texture of diagonal lines etched in alternating directions so that, as the light plays over its surface, different elements stand out in an almost rippling effect. ‘If you imagine this being worn in bright daylight, or in flickering firelight, it would have had a great impact: a solid object that seems to be constantly moving,’ Peter said.
These radiating patterns of triangles are known as ‘solar’ imagery – motifs that feature on diverse objects spanning a broad swathe of the Bronze Age, some of which are over 1,000 years older than the bulla. These include the ornate, paper-thin crescents known as lunulae, which were made in the early Bronze Age, and a 3,500-year-old copper-alloy ‘solar disc’ that was found in Ireland and recently rediscovered in the stores of the British Museum (see CA 345; a similar object is also known from Denmark). When etched into gleaming gold, the sun-like effect of these markings is enhanced tenfold.
The fact that the English bullae are apparently ‘reversible’ artefacts with different designs on each side is also intriguing – the same is true for some of the Irish material, such as the Bog of Allen bulla, but others are plain on the back. Might different sides have been displayed on different occasions? Could the relatively less busy side have represented ‘night’, contrasting with the solar designs opposite? Or did the bulla symbolize the changing of the seasons? The possibilities are extensive and intriguing, though entirely speculative. One thing that is clear, however, is the skill of the object’s maker. ‘The geometric designs covering every surface are very precise – it is amazing to think that they were all drawn by eye. It raises questions about whether the maker was using some kind of guide or compasses,’ Neil Wilkin said.