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The Ringlemere Cup: Precious Cups and The Beginning Of The Channel Bronze Age, Edited By Stuart Needham, Keith Parfitt And Gill Varndell
British Museum Research Publication 163, 2006; x + 116 pages including 6 pages of colour plates, 55 figures, 5 tables, 12 black and white plates. ISBN 978-086159-163-3 (£23.00)

Within five years of its recovery in November 2001 we have this publication of the Early Bronze Age gold cup from Ringlemere in Kent. Prompt reporting of the find led to a programme of field-walking, survey and excavation that evolved into the Ringlemere Ancient Landscape Project under the Canterbury Archaeological Trust. Apart from the Roman site of Richborough, little work had been done in the Ringlemere area and this volume provides a statement up to the end of 2005. Significant evidence has been revealed for the Mesolithic, Late Neolithic, Late Bronze Age, Early Iron Age, Romano-British and Early Anglo-Saxon periods, indeed for most periods except the Early Bronze Age! So this is not a volume for Bronze Age specialists alone.

The gold cup was recovered from a mound within a substantial earlier ditch. Below this mound was Late Neolithic occupation with the largest assemblage of Grooved Ware in Kent, though its relationship to the ring ditch is uncertain. 80% of the mound had been excavated without any evidence for prehistoric burials, but a sequence of structures has been revealed at the centre of the mound: first, a timber cove; then a low turf mound; a rectangular trench on the same axis as the cove; an irregular pit over the cove; which was spread with woody lining that produced an amber pendant; finally a modern intrusion just off the centre of the mound. This intrusion was probably the location of the cup, despite being some 8 metres away from where the finder believes he found it. The ditch was probably a Class 1 henge with a cove aligned on its entrance, comparable to Site IV at Mount Pleasant and the Stones of Stenness. The later mound can be matched at various sites, including Knowlton, Mount Pleasant, Arbor Low and Cairnpapple.

The Ringlemere cup was found complete, though crumpled probably by one episode of modern plough damage. ‘Because of concern that opening the severe buckles might alter the metal structure’ the cup has not been physically restored, but a virtual reconstruction has been made. The cup has an omphalos base and curved profile reaching vertical at the shoulder with concave neck and flared mouth. Except at the base and mouth, the cup is ribbed and there are punched dots around the rim. A separate sheet handle of hour-glass shape with ribs outlining its profile is attached by rivets under the rim and above the shoulder. The body was hammered in one piece from a flat disc, technically simple but done by an experienced goldsmith from the quality of the work. The composition is consistent with alluvial gold containing around 25% silver. The cup’s capacity was about 0.6 of a litre, near enough a pint.

Broadly contemporary with the cup are the amber pendant mentioned above and an unstratified fragment of an amber dagger pommel (recovered thanks to Tina Parfitt). Keith Parfitt estimates that there may be nearly two thousand round barrows in Kent, unrecognised because of intensive land-use in the garden of England but fully comparable with Wessex, and he suggests Ringlemere is not alone as a Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age ceremonial centre in north-east Kent.

Four chapters on what Stuart Needham calls ‘precious cups’ of gold, silver, amber, shale and perhaps also wood, comprise the core of the book. Most enduring will be the catalogue of precious cups in north-west Europe which presents much important new information, including one example hitherto unknown to your reviewer. A watercolour contemporary with the discovery of the Rillaton cup indicates that it did have a round base. All precious cups are now seen as having round bases so they could not have stood upright on their own. In 2002 a gold cup from a Swiss private collection was exhibited in Munich, but its provenance is unknown and any reader who doubts the value of the Treasure legislation in England should reflect on the amount of information revealed as a result of the Ringlemere find compared with the position in some other parts of Europe. There is a new reconstruction, resembling a Beaker, of the silver cup from Saint-Fiacre in Brittany and minor adjustments have been made to the form of the Clandon Barrow amber cup. Doubt is cast on the local provenance so far inland of the shale vessels in Salisbury Museum and there is a new reconstruction of the lost cup from the King Barrow, Stoborough. However, the bibliography for the Eschenz cup, Switzerland, omits the entry, containing additional information about its findspot, on pages 120-5 of the excellent catalogue of the 2003 gold exhibition in Nuremberg (despite the fact that this catalogue is in the bibliography of the Ringlemere volume, Springer 2003).

The discovery and study of the cups is reviewed, their features compared and the evidence for dating, sequence and origins assessed. While the cups share features, they are interpreted as mostly local products of their respective areas. A combination of associations and typology spreads the cups over some four centuries between 1950 and 1550 BC covering the later part of the Early Bronze Age. Ringlemere is dated by the (not strictly associated) amber finds among six early metal cups, alongside the three Breton examples and Fritzdorf, in the period before 1750 BC (ie, Wessex 1), with Rillaton slightly later. The carved cups of amber and shale are dated after 1750 (Wessex 2), except Clandon which is earlier. The three remaining gold cups from the continent are dated after 1750 by their complex ornament. Ringlemere is exceptional among the early cups in being ribbed, while Fritzdorf is placed in this early group by comparison with Clandon because it is plain. This allows Needham to derive the Fritzdorf cup, found on the Middle Rhine, from central European handled pots by virtue of its proximity to the Adlerberg Group of the Early Bronze Age (named after a cemetery in Worms). There may be some special pleading here, since in the first section of the following chapter he emphasises the diversity of the precious cups in a way that seems to undermine his reliance on their typology.

In any case, the reader of this volume cannot verify the derivation because no evidence beyond references to Sabine Gerloff’s work more than thirty years ago and Stuart Piggott’s nearly seventy is set out to link precious cups with central European pottery. Not even Gerloff’s source for Adlerberg (Prähistorische Zeitschrift 43-4, 1965-66, 2-45) appears in the Ringlemere bibliography, never mind anything more recent. Chronology is also a problem. While there are few absolute dates for the Adlerberg Group, it must have flourished before 2000 BC and may have been too early for its pottery to have influenced the Fritzdorf cup; the same seems true of the other alleged continental sources of inspiration shown on fig 28, such as Singen. Attention is drawn to the proximity of the Singen cemetery to the Eschenz cup in Switzerland, despite the fact that Singen went out of use some centuries before the date assigned to Eschenz. The Adlerberg/Singen period before 2000 BC was a time with little evidence for contact between Britain and central Europe and while it is clear that contact was renewed after 2000, when the precious cups appeared, more work would still be needed to verify specific continental influences. A more relevant comparison for Eschenz would have been the lake village of Arbon-Bleiche on Lake Constance, which has produced pins like the one from the eponymous Camerton burial, broadly contemporary with the Eschenz cup, and faience beads.

Drawing on Ann Woodward’s recent work on Early Bronze Age grave-goods, Needham argues that precious cups were central to burial rites and that they represented the spiritual knowledge required for such rites rather than the secular status of any individual person. The distribution of precious cups along the south coast overlaps with the slotted pots often called ‘incense cups’ which may have been part of the same ritual. With a local provenance for the shale cups in Salisbury doubtful, it seems precious cups were not associated with Aldbourne cups or grape cups in inland Wessex. Turning to the bronzes, Needham identifies a group of hoards, centred on the Isle of Wight, that stretches along the south coast like the distribution of precious cups but also avoids inland Wessex. Taking account also of various types of later Early Bronze Age pottery, he defines the beginning of what he calls the ‘Channel Bronze Age’ familiar to students of Middle and Late Bronze Age metalwork. The key material is amber, sought-after in Wessex (and rare in northern Britain) but probably available only from the south-coast communities. With some of the pottery, this extends his axis eastwards beyond the English Channel to include amber finds in the northern Netherlands and the gold cup from Gölenkamp just across the German border. Readers of this discussion must now refer also to the publication of the Exloo necklace (called Exloërmond in the Ringlemere volume, Palaeohistoria 47-8, 2005-06, 101-39), which identifies its amber beads as representing both local sources and recycled Wessex spacers. Exloo also highlights the role of Cornish tin – in the light of Needham’s arguments we should perhaps reconsider Alison Sheridan’s claim that it was necessarily Wessex that controlled its supply – and faience in the network. Indeed, though this does not appear to be explicitly stated in the main text, the final sentence of the volume’s summary makes it clear that Ringlemere represents another nail in the coffin of the Wessex Culture.

The volume appears as a re-branded version of the British Museum Occasional Papers, in a format superior to Stuart Needham’s previous contributions. However, best use has not necessarily been made of the opportunity for colour plates: the monochrome letter about Rillaton faces a page showing four rather small cups surrounded by a lot of white space. And the editors have missed a rather unfortunate misprint!

Overall, this is a work of great importance for the Early Bronze Age and the archaeology of Kent.

Brendan O’Connor

Review Submitted: March 2007

The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.

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