Llyn Cerrig Bach: a study of the copper alloy artefacts from
the insular La Tène assemblage, by P. Macdonald
It is difficult to follow a seminal book with an update. I had not thought it possible to better the publication in 1917 of Glastonbury Lake Village by Bulleid and Gray (1917), though John Coles and Steve Minnitts’s masterly reinterpretation of the original data managed to produce a volume just as as important to Iron Age studies as the original. Also this was the excavation report to make me laugh out loud (see their analysis of Clarkes interpretation, Coles & Minnitt, 1995, pp 181-90). Cyril Fox’s A Find of the Early Iron Age from Llyn Cerrig Bach (Fox 1947) was also a seminal book, an inspiring volume about one of the most important groups of metalwork in British prehistory. The bronze and iron objects were found with quantities of animal bone during the construction by the RAF of an airfield in 1942. The peat containing the deposit was quarried away and used to consolidate nearby sand dunes so that the runways could be built. Fox catalogued the objects found, analysed the art on some of them and suggested what the deposit might have meant in the context of Iron Age Britain. The illustrations are some of the clearest examples of metalwork drawings ever prepared.
After 60 years, the Board of Celtic Studies felt that it was time for a new look at the objects from Llyn Cerrig Bach, with new modern approaches: a survey of the site; radiocarbon dates; metallurgical analyses; and a new catalogue and illustrations.
The survey of the site, using EDM, resistivity and magnetometer surveys has answered some niggling questions. There is apparently nothing left of the peat in which the objects were deposited and it is impractical to survey the area in which the peat was first dumped to let it drain. It might, however, be possible to identify where the peat was dumped on the airfield, and where the objects were first discovered. Fox himself found one of the currency bars here and it is possible that other objects remain to be discovered. Moreover, a new island has been identified in the middle of Llyn Cerrig Bach, perhaps the focus of ritual activity in the Iron Age. Both of these sites would repay further survey and perhaps excavation.
The radiocarbon dates on the few remaining animal bones are also interesting, suggesting a long period of deposition as discussed by Fox (1947), possibly from the fourth century BC to the first century AD. This is supported by new metallurgical analyses by Killian Anheuser and Mary Davis, which add greatly to the understanding of the objects. The authors bring together previous analyses although it is clear that many of those done earlier were unreliable or restricted in scope. The analysis has identified a group of artefacts made of low arsenic bronze, usually, but not exclusively, used in the Roman period; this suggests that these objects are late Iron Age or early Roman in date. Unfortunately the analyses are relegated to an appendix and the individual analyses are not discussed at all, a disadvantage to the non specialist. For example, it would have been useful to have ICPMS and WD and so on explained in Table 18. The analyses are rarely referred to in the main part of the text, or the catalogue; eg, the sidelinks and centre link of bridle bit Fox’s no 51 (no 11 in this volume) are identified as leaded bronze, but listed in the catalogue as copper alloy. A very interesting discussion of the metal evidence (pp 162-6) is not integrated into the main discussion of the artefacts or in the conclusion.
This volume contains a new catalogue with up to date summaries of the objects. The original report had measurements in inches! Many parallels have been found since 1947, and these are listed in detail in the text, some of it in rather too much detail, especially as much was already listed by Macgregor (1976) and Spratling (1972). More judicious use of tables might have cut down the listing.
One unnecessary and entirely avoidable complication in this volume was the renumbering of the artefacts. Fox’s 1947 numbering has been followed by all subsequent writers such as Lynch (1970), Macgregor (1976) and Spratling (1972). The National Museum accession numbers end with his numbers. Why was there felt to be a need to renumber, especially as the study was only of the copper alloy and not the iron work? I also feel that the modern drawings were unnecessary and disagree that the 1947 drawings do not meet the high standards required in modern reports (p7). In the present volume they are reproduced very faintly (perhaps over reduced). Comparing the illustrations side by side with the photographs shows that some in the present volume are slightly better, correcting small faults on some of the original illustrations, others are less good. The decoration is clearer on the 1947 illustrations (eg, terret number 46, no 3 in present catalogue: ‘pseudo-stitching’), the shape better in the present ones. Another problem is with the layout of this book; most modern finds reports now illustrate the objects alongside the catalogue descriptions and discussion. In this volume the need to refer to at least three sections of the book at once (and sometimes five with photographs and metallurgical analysis) means that the reader needed to have a fair level of dexterity not to lose the thread of the discussion.
The concluding chapters (Chapters 6 and 7) are very useful, bringing the study of Llyn Cerrig Bach up to date and taking into account parallels found since 1947. I was surprised to see that in most of the discussion consisted of three questions, the same questions that were asked of the deposit by Fox sixty years ago: the source of the artefacts; the date of the deposit; and the question of what was the site used for. The date of the site and the interpretation of the deposit have not altered substantially. There have been some alterations in ideas about the source of the artefacts. When Fox was writing he suggested that there were centres of metalworking in Britain, the lack of finds from Wales indicating a poverty of metalworking. Numerous excavations since have changed this idea. Finds of metallurgy in Britain (Foster 1980; Spratling 1979) now suggest that metalworking was widespread, probably in small settlements such as Weelsby Avenue, Grimsby (Foster 1995) and Craw Cwellt and Bryn y Castell, Merioneth (Crew 1986, 1989). It is likely that most of the objects in the hoard were made locally, rather than being imported from Ireland and southern England. The last chapter contains an interesting discussion of the type of deposit here, damping down Fox’s excesses with Druids and surveying the types of ritual deposits in Iron Age Europe. Some bridle bits are likely to have come from Ireland: it would be interesting to look at the contacts between Wales and Ireland in the Iron Age. A more detailed analysis of the types of objects and why the types of metalwork were so restricted (associated with vehicles and war) would also have been useful. Unfortunately the present volume covers only the copper alloy objects, a significant disadvantage to the author when trying to analyse the meaning of the assemblage.
Two minor quibbles: The colour photo of the crescentic plaque (Plate 2, Fox no 75) has been reversed in the reproduction, so that the bird (as interpreted by Spratling, forthcoming) is facing right rather than left. The preface mentions that Llyn Cerrig Bach is a collection dating to the Early Iron Age; this period was known as such in Fox’s day, but it is more usual today to refer to the period of most of the deposit as the late Iron Age.
In conclusion, this is a useful update of the copper alloy objects from Llyn Cerrig Bach, but the original report retains the edge in its readability; Fox’s account encapsulates the excitement created by the original spectacular discovery and all the ideas that that stimulated.
Review Submitted: December 2007
The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those
of the Society or the Reviews Editor.
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