The Ringlemere gold cup was a spectacular discovery: as a beautiful and evidently personal item made in a rare material, it seems to reach back to an individual of high status in an epoch of which history has to be constructed entirely from Archaeological evidence.
The recognition soon after the discovery by Cliff Bradshaw in November 2001 that the cup had actually lain on the site of an ancient burial mound - or barrow - in Kent gives grounds for believing it may have furnished a grave, further strengthening the potential link to an elevated person. But how far can we take such assumptions in the light of excavations on the site to date and by taking stock of a dozen or so comparable cups from north-west Europe'. What stimulated the practice of making cups out of the various exotic materials in the early Bronze Age, and how would they have been used'.
The opportunity to investigate the site of one of barely more than a dozen cups in rare materials (gold, silver, amber, shale) could not be passed over. Canterbury Achaeological Trust has already mounted three short seasons of excavation under the direction of Keith Parfitt and supported by, inter alia, the Townley Group. Already the findings are significant in a part of the country for which there is relatively little information on Early Bronze Age burial monuments.
Intriguingly, the site seems first to have been used intensively a few centuries earlier during the Late Neolithic, for quantities of Grooved Ware pottery and flint work have been recovered from the last vestige of the soil mound to have survived. Tantalising discoveries which, like the cup, came from disturbed contexts are two fragmentary objects of amber; one being a pommel from the hilt of a dagger or knife, the other perhaps a pendant.
Both fit in with an Early Bronze Age context, but these sites can have long, complex histories and it may be a mistake to assume that all these objects were necessarily associated. Actual burials, though remain elusive to date and only full excavation of the remnant mound and its large encircling ditch will allow any confident assessment of the role and history of the monument.
Given its association with an established type of funerary monument, it is natural to jump to the conclusion that the Ringlemere cup had been dragged out of a grave by modern agricultural machinery (this undoubtedly accounts for the buckling of the vessel). It is true that some of its best parallels are recorded from burial chambers, but some caution needs to be exercised. Valuables of this periods were used, and indeed buried, in a range of contexts, sometimes within burial sites, yet not with burials per se. An amber cup from Clandon, Dorset, appears to belong to this category of ritual deposit.
The apparently disturbed context of our new cup may preclude any definitive conclusion as to its original context, but we still stand to learn much about the development of the site, the cultural background against which such a cup might be used and the kind of practices which might account for it being buried. How the cups functioned, and what they contained promises to be another area of debate, but their generally rounded bases at a time when pottery was consistently flat based, are highly significant and could suggest that once in use in a ceremony, the cup was held until drained. We know that feasting played an important role in the social and political round during later prehistory. Such occasions allowed the display of personal wealth and, more subtly, the creation and maintenance of obligations between people.
As yet the Ringlemere example can only be dated by comparison with four others from useful contexts. Overall they suggest a currency for the type within a four-century span, from as early as the 19th century BC through to the 16th century . The most similar cup to Ringlemere, the famous example from Rillaton, Cornwall - on loan to us from the Crown (room 37) - was associated in a stone slab grave with a bronze dagger and other objects dating to the latter half of this period.
Two plainer examples in silver from Breton tombs, however, are likely to be from earlier burials, while the above mentioned amber cup found in the Clandon barrow may also be an earlier deposit. One of the great puzzles, though, is the origin of this precious cup style.
Old ideas about derivation from Mycenaean prototypes are no longer tenable. It seems more likely that they were modelled on Pottery cups which abound in the central European Early Bronze Age.
The cup, which was secured for the British Museum and the nation with generous grants form The Heritage Lottery Fund, The National Art Collection Fund and the British Museum Friends, will be on display in the British Museum this Summer, before playing a part in "Treasure: Finding Our Past".
Meanwhile, the research into the cup's context will continue.
Stuart Needham and Gill Varndell
Department of Prehistory & Europe.
First printed in the British Museum Friends Magazine Number 46 Summer 2003
Pictures reproduced from originals copyright the British Museum, reconstruction is an original piece of work by Stephen Crummy