Buxton Museum and Art Gallery is one of five venues to host ‘Hoards: a hidden history of ancient Britain,’ and the only one in the Midlands and North West. The exhibition showcases objects from Prehistory to the post-medieval period that tell us how people lived, what they valued, why they collected and stored objects that they considered precious and what circumstances may have led to hoards remaining hidden.
More often than not objects were hidden because of times of economic hardship, warfare, or as gifts to the gods. Three of the most spectacular items on display at the Hoards exhibition are gold neck torcs dating to the Iron Age, and which were most likely deposited in the ground as offerings to the gods. Two on display come from a hoard from Ipswich in Suffolk, territory of the Trinovantes tribe, and the other was found as part of a hoard from Snettisham in Norfolk, the territory of the Iceni.
Anyone visiting the exhibition cannot fail to be impressed by these huge collars of twisted and plaited gold, and this must also have been the effect, and the intention, during the time of the Celts. For the Celts jewellery was a highly important status symbol and a clear sign of wealth and rank. The torc was reserved for the aristocracy, as well as the gods, and they seem to have possessed an intrinsic magical and religious significance. Depictions of Celtic gods and goddesses often show them wearing a torc. G
Roman authors provide a good description of the Celtic aristocracy, often describing them as ostentatiously flaunting their wealth. Diodorus Siculus describes warriors going into battle, hair spiked using lime water, and completely naked except for their weapons and gold torcs. Cassius Dio describes Queen Boudicca of the Iceni as wearing a huge gold torc, and Quintilian writes that a delegation of Gallic Celts presented the Emperor Augustus with a gold torc weighing thirty three kilograms – far too heavy to wear!
A question we are often asked at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery is “how were the torcs put on?” Julia Farley, curator of British and European Iron Age collections at the British Museum, has suggested that they were put around the neck “by being bent slightly out of shape, slipped onto the neck, and then bent back into shape again.” One torc from Ipswich, which is on display in the Hoards exhibition, clearly shows that it has been bent out of shape to make the opening larger. Some torcs do show repeated flexing of the metal; this eventually leads to a lot of stress being exerted onto the metal which eventually becomes brittle and snaps. One gold torc from Snettisham (not on display at Buxton) had snapped in antiquity and been soldered back together again, the break being hidden by a thin sheet of gold. Some torcs have hidden hinges or removable sections to allow easier fitting to the neck; when worn they would have given the impression of a solid ring of metal.
Some torcs are far too rigid and heavy to be bent out of shape and worn, and it is possible that these were attached to cult statues or held aloft during ceremonies. A clue to this can be seen on the famous Gundestrupp cauldron from Denmark; one scene on the cauldron shows a seated deity with antlers to his head, interpreted as the god Cernunnos, surrounded by animals and wearing a torc around his neck and holding one up in his right hand. At Maily, Champagne, France, comes a torc with an inscription in Greek which alludes to it being part of a large offering of treasure dedicated to the gods by the tribe of the Nitrobriges in south-west Gaul. By offering precious items into the ground, or in water, the Celts were placing them into a liminal world between that of humans and the gods.
It is possible that torcs were placed around the neck of Celtic aristocracy at a rite of passage, such as a coming of age ceremony, or upon inauguration as a king or queen of a tribe. Some may have been only produced as votive offerings, intended to be buried and sent to the realm of the gods, out of reach of humans. Some bog bodies have been found wearing leather torcs around their necks, and this type may be associated with sacrificial rituals.
You may notice that one of the Ipswich torcs is decorated to both of its terminals with a foliate curvilinear pattern; this is known as the La Tene style (named after an archaeological site in Switzerland) and was a much favoured style of art across most of Europe and the British Isles from the 5th to 1st century BC; in fact it was so popular that the Celts are also known as the La Tene culture.
Torcs are frequently mentioned in the vernacular mythology of Wales and Ireland. The tale of Culhwch and Olwen describes Olwen as wearing a large gold neck-ring, and Giraldus Camberensis mentions a well in Pembrokeshire which contained a gold torc guarded by a serpent who bit anyone who attempted to steal it.
If you would like to discover more about hoards please come along to one of the following free talks at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery:
Hoards and hordes: – the Viking conquest and settlement of the East Midlands, by Gareth Williams, curator of early medieval coins at the British Museum, on Tuesday 30 April, 11am – 12 noon.
Talking torcs – the Leekfrith Hoard, by Teresa Gilmore, Finds Liaison Officer for Staffordshire and the West Midlands, on Wednesday 12 June, 11am – 12 noon.