The Iceni tribe is most famous for the defiant and noble warrior queen, Boudica. Who led her people in open revolt against the tyranny of Rome. There is though, much more to this ancient British tribe than merely righteous rebellion.
In the late 1940’s A chance discovery by a ploughman, would lead to a treasure hunt spanning decades, and in its course unearthing some of the finest examples of Iron age metal work ever seen. After the ploughman’s initial discovery of a “metal object” he and his colleague first dismissed it as simply a “brass bed fitting”. As more metal pieces began to appear, other local people began to take an interest, before it was finally realised that this was something far more important than the remains of a bed.
Archaeologists began digging at the site in 1950, but it wouldn’t be until the 1990’s that all of the individual hoards were uncovered. The Torcs were buried in small lots, along with Celtic coins, scattered in pits all over the site. In total 175 torcs, about 70 of them completely in tact, and 234 rare pre Roman Celtic coins were uncovered. The finds dated from around 75 BC, several decades before the Roman incursion into Britain.
This date posed some interesting questions for historians, as before accurate dating many believed the hoards to be a result of the Roman invasion. Seeing them as hurried attempts at safe keeping made by tribes fleeing the advancements of Rome.
So why then were all these magnificent hoards buried?
As most of the torcs were broken this has lead some to speculate that maybe they were recycling deposits, to be melted down at a later date. This is countered though by having so many complete torcs alongside them and of such high quality. In some of the pits, groups of broken torcs were buried above a deeper pit containing complete pieces. Some have suggested that this was an attempt to trick thieves. If a thief found the upper hoard, thinking they had struck gold, would be less inclined to dig beneath it, to find the real treasure.
One of the last finds from the archaeological digs, was a boundary ditch enclosing the whole site. The earliest dating evidence for the ditch though places it 150 years after the hoards were buried. This ditch coupled with the fact that even though the site was dug thoroughly, showed no evidence of any occupation, domestic or otherwise in the iron age, again is a puzzle. So given that this ditch surrounds nothing but hoards of gold, I do not think it too unreasonable to assume that maybe the ditch and the hoards are contemporary.
But this only gives us more questions, if the hoard was meant to be secret, surrounding it with a ditch would not be the wisest of moves. But again if the Ditch and the hoard are separate, then are we to believe someone, for no obvious reason accidentally surrounded the hoards with a ditch only a hundred or so years later?
If we place all these anomalies together, then it looks far more like votive offerings. The fact they are both broken objects and complete, is not a problem. Many votive offerings found across Britain are broken, while others are completely intact and of the highest quality. This probably just signifies some subtlety in ritual, maybe highlighting who the object was intended for? The broken objects are possibly meant for the ancestors, so are ceremonially sacrificed by breaking them, allowing them to pass to the land of the dead. The objects of high quality and complete are could be destined for the Gods and Goddesses, so there is no need to “kill” them. Whatever the truth, both broken and in tact objects are consistent with votive offerings in Britain. As for the boundary ditch, well seeing as there is nothing within it, no farm, industry or housing, then the only real option left is ceremonial.
Whatever the reason they were placed in that field over 2000 years ago, their exquisite nature cannot be denied. The beauty and level of craftsmanship they represent, can also tell us something of our ancient ancestors.
The Iceni, like all the tribes of the North at that time, were labelled as “barbarians” by Rome. This view of the Iron age North, was largely maintained up until very recently. Many of their achievement’s such as “hill forts” were attributed to Rome. Even structures much older like the ancient stone circles and monuments dotted all over Britain, were thought to be of Roman construction. For millennia, no one believed our “uncivilised” pre Roman era ancestors were capable of such design and organisation. From the late 1800’s to the early 1900’s this view began to change. As technology and a more disciplined approach to archaeology began to develop it became clear these structures and finds were pre Roman.
So what can these ancient artefacts tell us of our forebears?
The technical skill involved in their construction shows evidence of a highly advanced metal working elite. This technical skill coupled with the limited tools of the time, would challenge even the most highly skilled metal workers today. To have a society that can produce such master craftsmen, is not the mark of a primitive one. It is in fact the hall mark of an advanced and sophisticated society, that can organise itself around specialised skills.
As well as the craftsmanship, we have the artistic expression. Although the torcs have symbology and design similar to that of what has been called “La Tene” culture, they are still quite unique in construction and artistic expression. This again is far from primitive and shows signs again of a level of sophistication normally attributed to empires, not small tribes on the edge of the world. These people had their own tastes, their own ideas of beauty, and had the skills to express this in magnificent form.
These Torcs of a most splendid nature, show us another aspect of the Iceni. Not only were they bold and brave in war, but possessed advanced metal working knowledge and an intimate admiration of beauty. A beauty that which for anyone looking upon these Torcs today, will see is timeless in its nature, not simply some passing fad of taste. These Torcs far from being simply objects of power, show us an inner beauty not often attributed to the Northern folk.
Ill leave this piece with a Gallery of Images, so you may appreciate and become enchanted by the stunning beauty of these timeless pieces.