Gundestrup Cauldron

The Gundestrup  Cauldron (w/out flash), Copenhagen, Denmark

This is what the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen which currently holds the original has to say:

“In 1891 a costly silver cauldron appeared during peat-digging in the bog Rævemosen in Himmerland, Jutland. The cauldron had been placed out in the bog – a valuable sacrifice to the powers above. Its images draw the observer into an alien universe far from that of the people who placed it out in the North Jutland bog. Elephants, lions and several gods represented in a foreign style show that the cauldron had its origin in remote areas to the south or south east. Exactly where it was made is an open question. Perhaps it was a gift to the great chieftain, perhaps it was war booty. The cauldron may have been used as a vessel in ritual drinking feasts.”

Think we can probably give you a little more information than that, for starters it’s a unique piece. There’s nothing even remotely like it anywhere else in the world.

The Gundestrup cauldron is a richly decorated silver vessel, thought to date to the 1st century BC, placing it into the late La Tène period. It was found in 1891 in a peat bog near the hamlet of Gundestrup, in the Aars parish in Himmerland, Denmark.   It is now housed at the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen (with a replica in the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin.)  The cauldron was found in a dismantled state, with five long rectangular plates, seven short ones, one round plate (normally termed the ‘base plate’) and two fragments of tubing stacked inside the curved base. Palaeobotanical investigation of the surrounding peat showed that the land had been dry when the cauldron was deposited, and the peat had since gradually grown over it. The manner of stacking suggests an attempt to make the cauldron inconspicuous and well-hidden.

The original ordering of the outer and inner rectangular plates is uncertain, although in two places a sharp object has apparently pierced through both an outer and an inner plate, which can thus be aligned with some certainty. The plates retain traces of solder, but since they seem to have been separated by 2 cm strips of metal (now missing), rather than soldered directly together, these traces do not help in matching adjacent plates. One of the eight original outer plates is missing. The circular ‘base plate’ originated as a phalera, or horse’s bridle decoration, and it is commonly thought to have resided in the bottom of the bowl as a late addition, soldered in to repair a hole.

Gundestrup Cauldron Base Plate

Gundestrup Cauldron Base Plate

By an alternative theory, this phalera was not initially part of the bowl, but instead formed part of the decorations of a wooden cover. The cauldron has been repaired, and possibly even dismantled and reassembled, multiple times, and the repair quality is inferior to the original craftmanship.  Using scanning electron microscopy Benner Larson has identified 15 different punches used on the plates, falling into three distinct groups. No individual plate has marks from more than one of these groups, and this fits with previous attempts at stylistic attribution, which identify at least three different silversmiths.  The plates show wear and buckling, mostly consistent with having been forcibly torn apart at the seams. Some of the wear may, however, hint at an even earlier arrangement of the plates and subsequent reconstruction.

There are 12 plates which have been recovered, the seven short plates have their designs facing outwards, and the five long plates face inwards.  Broadly speaking, scholars understand the imagery from the cauldron to depict people and deities from Celtic mythology.  The most famous image from the cauldron is that depicting the celtic Horned God, one of the five rectangular long inner plates,  as below:

Gundestrup Cernunnos

Gundestrup Cernunnos

Have a good peeky at the image above, it’s mostly identified as Cernunnos, The Horned God, but if you look closely: he has shoelaces. Also the two lions fighting on the right look distinctly un-celtic in style.  Don’t fret, it’ll be important later…

Also, as a point of interest, he looks remarkably similar to this chap from the Pashupati seal found in Mohenjo-Daro, in the Indus Valley:

Pashupati Seal figure

Pashupati Seal figure

Another of the long inner plates shows a figure which has been identified as Taranis, or Dagda, due to the presence of a broken chariot wheel (sadly only a piece of the full plate as I can’t find a good image of the whole thing):   The wheel’s spokes are rendered asymmetrical, but judging from the lower half, the wheel may have had twelve spokes, which has been compared with celtic chariot burials excavated in East Yorkshire.

Gundestrup Broken Wheel

Gundestrup Broken Wheel

There is one other image from the cauldron which firmly identifies it as Celtic subject matter:

 

Gundestrup Warriors

Gundestrup Warriors

It’s a bit difficult to make out, but the panel splits into two: at the top are horsemen facing right and the bottom are warriors facing left with distinctive oval shields, akin to the shield found in the Thames at Battersea.  In the bottom right hand corner are three figures holding Carnyx, a type of upright battle horn.  You might have noticed the big figure on the left, about to dunk a smaller one in a cup or cauldron.  Some interpretations have this imagery as an initiation scene, a scene showing the rebirthing powers of Dagda’s Cauldron, or a sacrifice to the celtic war-god by drowning.

But there are some bits which are distinctly not celtic: those shoelaces and fighting lions for one, (or two).  There is no tradition for this type of metalwork in the celtic style, the method of flat plates being curved and relief scenes created with details formed using punches and dies, comes from Thrace (modern-day Bulgaria).  Sadly the metal itself cannot be traced back to an individual mine, as a judicial bit of recycling was occurring, but it can be identified as being silver from coins, specifically Persian coins.  One clever bod has even been able to identify which type by analysing the weight: a total weight of 9445 grams was reconstructed for the entire cauldron, and 4255 grams for the bowl alone, and these were found to be nearly precise integer multiples of the weight of the Persian siglos, a coin weighing 5.67 grams. By this calculation 1,666 coins were used in total, 750 of them in the bowl. This supports an origin in Thrace, where Persian weights were in common use.

Bergquist and Taylor propose manufacture by a Thracian craftsman, possibly commissioned by the Celtic Scordisci and fallen into the hands of the Cimbri who invaded the Middle lower Danube in 120 BC. Olmsted interprets the iconography as a prototype of the Irish myth of the Táin Bó Cuailnge, associating the horned figure with Cú Chulainn rather than with Cernunnos.  Timothy Taylor theorises that Thracian silverworkers were an itinerant class (who he compares to present-day Romani people) who were valued for magical and ritual services as well as for their metalworking (itself an important ritual occupation), and who, though living in southeastern Europe, would not have considered themselves Thracian. He suggests they may have been a feminised caste of men fulfilling functions of priesthood and seership, like the Enarees of Scythia (Biologically male but dressed as women, the Enarees interpreted omens and settled disputes for the Scythian aristocracy. Such specialists are attested across Eurasia in the Iron Age, not just the shamans of Scythia and the yogis of India, but the seers of Thrace, the druids of Gaul, and a few centuries later, the bards of Ireland. In Ireland the biologically male bard who praised the king in song was described as female, in opposition to the ruler’s maleness)and similar groups attested across Eurasia in the Iron Age. The figure on the cauldron typically identified with Cernunnos is unbearded, in contrast with all the other male figures, and the similar Mohenjo-Daro figure, though having male genitalia, is dressed in female clothes, his posture resembling a yogic posture for channeling sexual energy still used by a caste of Indian sorcerers. Taylor speculates that the “Cernunnos” figure, of ambiguous gender, may have been a deity of particular importance to the Thracian silverworking caste, part of a magical tradition common across Eurasia and still surviving in tantric yoga and Siberian shamanism.

Further reading:

Bergquist, A. K. & Taylor, T. F. (1987) “The origin of the Gundestrup Cauldron” in Antiquity Vol. 61, 1987. pp. 10-24.

Klindt-Jensen, O., The Gundestrup Bowl — a reassessment, Antiquity, vol. 33, pp. 161–9.

Olmsted, G.S., The Gundestrup version of Táin Bó Cuailnge, Antiquity, vol. 50, pp. 95–103.

Taylor, Timothy (1992) “The Gundestrup Cauldron” in Scientific American March 1992, pp. 66-71.

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