HESH-43148A: Bronze Age: Bulla

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BULLA

Unique ID: HESH-43148A

Object type certainty: Certain
Workflow status: Published Find published

DRAFT Report on Potential Treasure for H.M. Coroner

2018 T343: A Late Bronze Age Gold 'Bulla' from the 'Shropshire Marches'

HM Coroner: Mr. John Ellery

District: Shropshire

Date: Late Bronze Age, (c.1000-750 BC)

Findspot: To be known as 'Shropshire Marches'

Date of discovery: 12th May 2018

Circumstances of discovery: Whilst searching with a metal detector.

Description:

Form and construction:

This object is called a 'bulla' (an antiquarian term derived from the Latin for bubble), a large, hollow pendant of sheet gold which would have been suspended and most probably worn for adornment (Taylor 1980, 64-6; Eogan 1994, 89; Murgia et al. 2014).

In shape the bulla is broadly a 'D' shaped crescent in plan and a trapezoidal wedge shape in profile. In overall form it could be described as keel shaped. The pendant is a composite being formed of at least two piece of gold sheet. On either side of the upper edge (at the widest part) are collars formed from gold sheet and filled with organic compacted soil. These flank a 'false' tube that acts as a long loop from which the pendant could have been suspended. The top of the bulla curves evenly along its length forming an even subtly elegant shape. A sheet of gold plate is rolled and fixed at its mid-point; it projects from either edge and descends to form the front and rear plates of the body of the pendant. If straightened the body plate would be broadly rectangular with a waisted mid-point and rounded C shaped external edges. The plate fits seamlessly with the tube collars and the fixing points are concealed. The external edges are slightly beaded. A base plate most probably a pointed oval shape closes the two sides. Again the joints are concealed and fixing points seamless within the construct. The space constructed by these sheets is box like with a hollow void contained within the pendant. It is likely that the separate components of the bulla were soldered together. When solder is used on Bronze Age objects, the composition of the gold is likely to be richer in copper and/or silver than the components being soldered together. It was not possible to identify the presence of solder categorically (from the compositional analysis undertaken using XRF-analysis). However, the use of soldering is well demonstrated among objects from Middle and Late Bronze Age Britain (La Niece pers comm.; La Niece et al. 2015; La Nice et al. 2009; cf. Armbruster et al. 2014), and its use is very probable in the case of the 'Shropshire Marches' bulla.

Decoration:

The bulla has been highly decorated with engraved stylised geometric designs; every surface is covered with intricate and highly precise evenly proportioned patterns. These designs must have been marked out using compass or dividers and has been hand cut using a very fine graver with a 45 degree wedged cutting edge. The design is such that the decoration adds an additional texture which brings out the best reflective nature of the gold and makes the decorative design seem to be constantly moving with the play of light and reflection. The decoration is applied almost entirely through cutting or engraving - there seems to be no punched or repousse style patterns. This suggests that the gold plate from which the pendant is decorated is relatively thick and that the decoration is applied after construction of the form. The design can be broken into several zones:

The 'front' face - which is broadly D shaped in plan - is decorated with an external C shaped border which respects and takes it form from the external edge. This border is filled with ten evenly spaced grooves or channels which are evenly cut and are continuous around the edge. Within this area the space is divided unevenly by a slightly curved horizontal decorative band below which is a D shaped panel. The decorative band is delimitated by a pair of horizontal parallel engraved lines (similar to the border) each with five evenly spaced grooves. Within the area created by the paired bands are a series of tessellating broadly equilateral opposing triangles. Each triangle is filled with diagonal cut lines; the upper row are all cut with lines running top right to bottom left, whereas the lower are decorated top left to lower right. The only triangle which differs is that on the right hand edge where the lines are cut horizontally. In the area below this band - on the body of the pendant - the space is filled with further geometric panels - at the centre is a square shaped panel filled by a saltire / diagonal cross with the upper and lower triangular wedges decorated with lines engraved top right - bottom left; where-as, the triangles to the left and right are engraved with opposing lines. Flanking this central square on either side are right-angled triangles engraved with vertical lines and the rest of the area - to left and right is engraved with diagonal lines set in plane with the angle of the triangle. From careful viewing of the engraving under magnification it is clear that the external border was cut first and the internal decoration applied later during construction - this is because in several the engraving lines cut through and therefore overlay the border. The overall decorative effect can be described as 'solar' in character, a feature of other Bronze Age goldwork, especially from Early Bronze Age Ireland (Cahill 2015). An illustration of the now lost Irwell bulla shows that it's 'front' face was similarly decorated.

The 'back' plate is similarly decorated with a broad external border. However, the pattern within this differs to that previously described. Here the panel is decorated by three concentric semi-circular bands each of five grooves which emanate from a horizontal band of grooves aligned on the tube. Each of these concentric D shaped panels is decorated with geometric designs: in the smallest inner panel another much smaller saltire cross is present again decorated with opposing engraved lines as described above. Flanking this square are two sub-triangular panels filled with vertical incised lines. The two descending concentric panels are again entirely filled and decorated with tessellating opposed triangles as described before.

The decision to term the faces 'front' and 'back' is subjective, based on the greater complexity of the decoration on the 'front' when compared to the 'back'. However, an important point to stress is that the bulla was an example of reversible fashion: one face could be selected depending on the event, time or year or wearer. This is also true of several other bullae (see Cahill 2018), including the Irwell Canal example.

The area overlying the suspension tube is decorated differently. Here the space has been divided into two pairs of horizontal panels; each pair is separated by a spine of horizontal lines and is flanked by similar lines. The horizontal panels are again filled with opposing diagonal lines which fill the entire length of the panel in a feather like pattern. Again this decoration has been applied after the external borders as in places it overlaps the external border.

The final area of decoration is along the lower wedge shaped edge. Here the design is simpler with two flanking bands each of ten horizontal grooves with the middle panel being filled with very fine vertically cut lines. The fineness of these lines is astounding and unlike in other areas these do not cut through the border. The alternating directions in which the decoration has been engraved serves to define the edges of the decorative motifs and to enhance the effects of the play of light on all the bulla's surfaces.

Contents of the bulla:

Some Irish bullae have been shown to have cores of baked clay and one had a core of lead (Cahill 2018). CT scanning of the bulla by the Scientific Department at the British Museum has shown that the bulla does not contain anything as dense as metal. It is more likely that it contained baked clay - or that it was empty at the time of deposition and has since filled with soil from the findspot. Loose material from the perforations of the bulla was analysed by the British Museum (using Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy and Pyrolysis gas chromatography - mass spectrometry) and was able to rule out the presence of beeswax and to identify quartz/silica consistent with soil/clay. Another substance was detected but at the time of writing requires further study before its identity can be fully resolved.

Condition:

The bulla is formed of gold sheet and is unpatinated and in a clean state. The external edges have small areas of abrasion commensurate with movement in the soil. The front and rear faces have also been slightly crushed / depressed although the overall form is integrally sound. None of this distortion effects the overall decorative scheme although some abrasion cuts through the design.

Dimensions:

Width: 47.4mm; Height: 36.7mm; Thickness across base: 13.0mm; Thickness across upper edge: 6.8mm; External diameter of tube: 7.7mm Internal diameter of tube: 4.8mm; thickness of rolled rim; 1.8mm: Thickness of plate: 0.7mm.

Weight: 26.6 grams.

Metal composition:

Non-destructive X-ray fluorescence analysis undertaken by the Department of Scientific Research, indicated a surface composition of approximately 79-81% gold, 14-16% silver, the rest being copper. Results of surface X-ray fluorescence analysis are qualitative as only the surface (and not the core) of the object was examined.


Discussion: This suggests very good agreement for all parts of the object. The values do not rule out a Late Bronze Age date and are consistent with other goldwork from this period.

This is only the eighth bulla discovered to date in Britain and Ireland (cf. Cahill 2018, for an overview of previous discoveries). It is only the second to have been found in England, the other seven being from Ireland, primarily from the north part of the island (Cahill 2018: 18). The other English example, found in the Irwell ship canal (Manchester, Lancashire) during the 18th-century in the course of dredging. In terms of form, the 'Shropshire Marches' bulla is best paralleled by the Irwell find. The workmanship of the construction and decoration of the 'Shropshire Marches' bulla represents the highest skill and expertise seen within decorated metalwork of the period being almost un-paralleled within a British context.

Details of the Irwell bulla are known from an antiquarian source from the later 18th century. This reports that in May 1772 a gold 'Roman Bulla' (Whitaker 1773: Book I, 79-81 & Fishwick 1894), was found whilst deepening the river channel close to the second lock of the River Irwell, Manchester (Lancashire). However, a different antiquarian source indicates that the Irwell find was made in 1758 (Timperley 1839: 48). It was possibly discovered in association with a sword or a Celt (axe) both of which were displayed in the Leverium Museum the contents of which were dispersed through sale in June 1806 (Donovan 1806: 202). The Irwell bulla was sold for £2 4S 4d (according to hand written notes in the volume in Biodiversity Heritage Library digitised by the Smithsonian, Washington), and has since been lost from the record. Phelps (1915) (correctly) identified the Irwell bulla as an object of Bronze Age date and indicated a potential connection with Ireland where bullae were known.

The Irish bullae are more 'heart-shaped' than the two English finds, with their more crescentic shape. The Irish corpus includes bulla formed around baked clay or lead cores over which a thick sometimes decorated gold foil has been applied; others have hollow cores, similar to the Shropshire find (Cahill 2018, 20, 23, fig. 4). The decoration on the Shropshire bulla is best paralleled with the gold foil covered lead bulla from the Bog of Allen, Co. Kildare. This example has a decorated lead core over which thin gold foil has been applied. The decoration is broadly similar with similar decorative motifs: interlocking triangles with fills applied in opposite directions in order to define the edges of the design.

The skills deployed in the construction and decoration represents the highest skill and expertise seen within decorated metalwork of the period being almost un-paralleled within a British context, although elements are known from other categories of goldwork, most notably lock-rings (Eogan 1969). Lock-rings are known from Britain, Ireland and North-West France (Eogan 1994, fig. 41), and date to the period c.1000 - 750 BC.

A small number of them are decorated, and a subset of these are decorated with interlocking chevrons similar to the 'Shropshire Marches' bulla, including the recent find from Hambledon, Hampshire (Treasure case 2017 T349). The function of bullae is uncertain; they have been interpreted as reliquaries or charms (Taylor 1980, 66), but it has not been possible to link this suggestion to the analysis of their contents.

The nature and environment of the findspot of the bulla is the subject of on-going research.

The wider context of the discovery is also of note. The bulla forms the most south-westerly example of high quality Bronze Age goldwork production and deposition (from Early, Middle and Late periods, c.2000/1900 - 800 BC). The significance and context of the bulla relates to this tradition of goldworking excellence (or desire to obtain objects of the highest quality), and to the presence of rich mineral deposits (including copper, gold and lead) in this region of Britain. The find reflects important connections between England, Wales and Ireland during the latest phase of the Bronze Age.

Conclusion:

As an object made of more than 10% of precious metal, and being more than 300 years old, the 'Shropshire Marches' bulla qualifies as Treasure under the stipulations of the Treasure Act (1996).

References:

Armbruster, B. Blet-Lemarcquand, Fily, M., Gratuze. B. and Menez, Y. 2014, 'Un nouveau depot de parure en or de l'age du Bronze atlantique dans le Finistere', Bulletin Annuel de l'APRAB, no. 12, 7-16

Bradley, R. 2013, 'Hoards and the Deposition of Metalwork' In Fokkens, H. & Harding, A. (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of the European Bronze Age, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Bradley, R. 2017. A Geography of Offerings. Deposits of Valuables in the Landscapes of Ancient Europe, Oxford: Oxbow Books (Oxbow Insights in Archaeology, 2017)Cahill, M,, 2015 'Here Comes the SunSolar symbolism in early Bronze Age Ireland', Archaeology Ireland, Spring 2015, 26-33

Cahill, M: 2018, 'The man in the Bulla', Archaeology Ireland, 32 (3), 18-23

Donovan E. 1806, 'Catalogue of the Leverian Museum : part I-VI' https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/138543#page/202/mode/1up (accessed December 2018)

Eogan, G., 1969, 'Lock -Rings of the Late Bronze Age', Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy

Eogan G., 1994, The Accomplished Art: Gold and Goldworking in Britain and Ireland during the Bronze Age, Oxford: Oxbow Books

Fishwick, H., 1894, A History of Lancashire: A Popular History Series, London

La Niece, S., Roberts, B. and Bullock, H. 'Bronze Age gold wire ornaments from Northern Europe: Joining technology', Paper presented at Archaeometallurgy in Europe 2015, Madrid

La Niece, S.; Cartwright, C. 2009, 'Bronze Age gold lock-rings with cores of wax and wood', In Metals and Societies. Studies in Honour of Barbara S. Ottaway; Kienlin, T.L., Roberts, B.W. (Eds); Verlag Dr. Rudolf Habelt: Bonn, 307-312.

Murgia, A., Melkonian, M. and Roberts, B.W. European Bronze Age Gold in the British Museum, http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/publications/online_journals/bronze_age_review.aspx [Accessed December 2018]

Phelps J.J., 1915: A gold pendant of early Irish Origin Transactions of the Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society Volume 33 pp191-200

Taylor, J.J., 1980, Bronze Age Goldwork of the British Isles, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Timperley C.H., 1839, Annals of Manchester; Biographical, historical ecclesiastical and commercial. From the earliest period to the close of the year 1839. Manchester

Whitaker, J., 1773, The History of Manchester (Four volumes). London - 2nd edition.

Authors:

Peter Reavill, Finds Liaison Officer, Portable Antiquities Scheme

Neil Wilkin, Curator of Bronze Age collections, The British Museum

British Museum Scientific Research: Daniel O'Flynn and Duncan Hook

Find of note status

This is a find of note and has been designated: National importance

Subsequent actions

Subsequent action after recording: Submitted for consideration as Treasure

Treasure details

Treasure case tracking number: 2018T343

Chronology

Broad period: BRONZE AGE
Subperiod from: Late
Period from: BRONZE AGE
Subperiod to: Late
Period to: BRONZE AGE
Date from: Circa 1000 BC
Date to: Circa 750 BC

Dimensions and weight

Quantity: 1

Personal details

Found by: This information is restricted for your login.
Recorded by: Mr Peter Reavill
Identified by: Mr Peter Reavill
Secondary identifier: Dr Neil Wilkin

Other reference numbers

Treasure case number: 2018T343

Materials and construction

Primary material: Gold
Completeness: Complete

Spatial metadata

Region: West Midlands (European Region)
County or Unitary authority: Shropshire (Unitary Authority)
District: Shropshire (Unitary Authority)
To be known as: SHROPSHIRE MARCHES

Spatial coordinates


Grid reference source: From finder
Unmasked grid reference accurate to a 1 metre square.

Discovery metadata

Method of discovery: Metal detector
General landuse: Cultivated land
Specific landuse: Operations to a depth greater than 0.25m

References cited

No references cited so far.

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Timeline of associated dates

Audit data

Recording Institution: HESH
Created: About one year ago
Updated: 26 days ago

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