Monday, 15 October 2012

Bucket Mounts — Miniature Masterpieces of Iron Age Britain

A long time ago I acquired in a swap of some importance to me, an Iron Age bucket mount. The trade was for some bellarmine masks that I'd found down the years on the Thames Foreshore. The deal include two other Iron Age items — a broken bridle bit and a half of a bronze bracelet — and all were found in the same general area in a town near Norwich.

I did rather well, I thought. I hadn't imagined the little handle mount would turn out to be the most interesting of the pieces, thinking the bridle bit more of what I would call 'a find' at the time, however, it has come through in latter years and taken its place in my most treasured items list and forms part of a small collection of Iron Age art.

This little mount is of a deer or stag and its rather beautiful in its treatment of form which manages to suggest every feature a deer must have — the long neck, refined snout, those sharp wary eyes and the antlers too — with remarkable artistic economy of means. It's just a few well judged strokes of the modeling knife that makes the head complete, but nothing is missing and nothing else is required for it to be utterly convincing. Anything more or less would simply ruin it.

Many years later, I was out working one of my Roman sites turning up the occasional brooch or perhaps one of the site's fine bronze or silver coins and doing just as well as I'd usually do there, when I decided to walk a line that would take me well outside the productive zones to explore an area I'd never given very much attention.

It was quiet and very few finds were made, but I continued anyhow because I'd found with this particular site that small areas that were productive could be located in many places well outside the main areas of the house, buildings and gardens. They were worth finding too, because often a few things would crop up of much earlier date than the main site's usual second and third century mainstay.

At one point I began working along the very edge of the ploughed ground up against the grassy track at the headland. I wasn't getting anything much, but a loud signal right in the side of the last slice and in  un-ploughed sod, stopped me in my tracks. What turned up in that clod of soil blew my mind, because it was instantly recognisable right there and then as another Iron Age bucket mount.

It was one of those earth shattering moments in a detecting career when you are brought face to face with the art of a long lost people and that's almost akin to meeting them in person because you have in your hand not something they merely used, such as a brooch or buckle, but something they actually created in the image of their own beliefs.

This was an animal that I didn't even recognise in the field, it was so otherworldly. I then thought it to be a ewe because its silver-coloured metal (see footnote) strange elongated snout, open mouth, and sad eyes made me think of Shari Lewis' Lamb Chop glove puppet! To be honest I still see it that way, and even though I am led to 'think' it must be an extremely exaggerated but artful bovine by sheer weight number of examples that are, I have to say that after viewing just about every bull mount in the British Isles, I still cannot see any bull in it at all.

Soay sheep — the ancient breed that was kept in Iron Age Britain

It's a shame that its lost its horns and only a half of one remains. The thing is, that stub of the horn curls backwards and not forwards as it should with a bovine, and if it were to have curled around on itself when complete then there'd be no doubt about the animal it represents. And what about that sheeplike forehead or the finely made and delicate mouth? Compared to the soay sheep above, I really cannot see anything but its resemblance — nothing so delicate and refined could ever be a bull, surely?

It's certainly a poser, but whatever animal it is, it's still a great piece and a credit to its ancient maker. Its lentoid eyes are typical in the Celtic artist's repertoire of treatments for facial features and are almost a defining characteristic of sculptural work that is pre-conquest. However, things are not quite so certain as that because these bucket mounts come in a wide range of forms representing both animal and human and they persist in usage well into the Roman period.

Timeline of artistic degeneration in bovine forms of bucket handle mount. First three are pre-conquest and the very first is an excellent example of beautiful early form, but the next three are likely to be Roman and the very last is also the very end of the artistic tradition with only its general outline the faint echo of what once was.

This is especially true of the bovine forms, and though the earlier examples are distinctly Celtic in origin and really couldn't be mistaken for anything else, as the years pass by they degenerate in style rapidly and eventually end up as mere triangles of metal with nothing marking them out as bulls except their general outline. In effect the equation function + artistic invention = form became merely function = form and all artistic value was lost in the process.

Now having two of these miniature works of Celtic art is one thing, but having three would be asking too much, surely? Well, I wasn't in the market for buying them in, no-one in their right mind would swap one for a bellarmine mask by that time, and I never even considered the idea that I would turn up another and so went about my detecting untroubled by ambition. They are such rarely found things in any case that most people will never find one in a lifetime of detecting, let alone two, so I was fully satisfied that that was that on the bucket mount front for the rest of my own lifetime..

Some way outside the limits of the Roman site was another field that had never shown signs of ever having had any activity of any date other than Medieval take place upon it, and even that was only in one small corner, the rest seeming quite barren. I was working this 'Medieval area' when a brown item that I thought was a stone fell out of the handful of soil I'd picked from the surface with the signal in it. I scanned the handful but the signal was gone. I scanned the area below and saw that the brown item was the source. I picked it up and turned it about in my hand, failed to see what it was while my brain calculated what it wasn't, and then right way up and right way round, the penny suddenly dropped... I'd found another bucket mount!

There was no confusion about this one though, the animal it represented was as clear as day for it was a boar and its head was just like those of the free-standing figurines of boars that were found in a group of three in Hounslow. In the back of its head was a socket where the bucket handle would once have pivoted and the front part below the head where the rivet that fixed it to the bucket would have been was broken off. The head though, was in good condition, radically simplified to essential elements as with the deer mount with even the ears doubling as eyes but nothing essential that a boar needs to be a boar was wanting.

This ability of Celtic artists to simplify form to its stark fundamentals is a trait displayed in much of their artwork. The free-standing figurines from Hounslow are exemplary in this regard, their makers doing away with anything unnecessarily fussy and getting down to the core of the matter. What they achieved by doing so was monumentality. In the picture above all are splendid examples of these rare figurines but the smallest of all with its crest of bristling hackles and radical simplification of features is boar deified and made a godlike being.

They aren't playthings these objects. The Celts revered the boar above all creatures and powerful men were often buried along with their precious earthly possessions and a whole boar too. Boar were admired for their ferocity, prized for their meat and deeply mytholigised. It remains fact that in the Celtic regions of Britain the mytholigies built about them run so deep and are so persistent that their essence remains unchanged to this very day. Boar were not to be be messed with and objects made in their image were undoubtedly saturated with the animal's physical and spiritual energies so far as the people who made and used them were concerned.

They are certainly saturated with meaning for me. Both stag and boar are associated with the Celtic deity Cernunnos and are shown as his attendants on the Gundestrup Cauldron, so I handle them with great care and due respect. Having found one of those attendants myself and come into possession of the other by a lucky deal, I must!

But I doubt very much I'll ever find another of these miniature masterpieces of Iron Age art because the chances are far too remote for that to be possible. I've been very fortunate to have acquired and found what I have. Deer or stag though well known from central Europe are almost unheard of from the UK, the bull/sheep is rather beautiful in its solemnity and is finely wrought and if sheep after all may be a picture of the early soay breed, and as for the boar, well it may be the only bucket mount known that is in the form of one.

They are all rare things and I treasure them equally so I suppose my collection is complete and sufficient. However, that doesn't mean I can't collect pictures for further study and contemplation, so here's my collection of Iron Age Bucket Mounts & Figurines for your enjoyment and future reference, and, should you be lucky enough find a bucket mount of your own then I'd very much like to hear about it.

1. Bucket handle mount in the form of a deer or stag, bronze. 30.5mm. South Norfolk District, Norfolk.
2. Bucket handle mount in the form of a bovine or sheep, bronze coated with white bronze? 41.5mm. Epping Forest District, Essex.
3. Bucket handle mount in the form of a boar, bronze. 35mm. Epping Forest District, Essex.

*As a matter of interest the Hounslow boars do seem to be made of the same silver-coloured bronze as my bull/sheep mount and have pitted in similar ways suggesting a plating or metal coating process. However, the colour may only be a patination effect. But, if some Iron Age metalwork was of a silver colour then that also suggests a silver-coloured bucket, which may counter and challenge our accepted idea of everything metallic in the Celtic world being golden-hued.

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