The Tal-y-Llyn Iron Age hoard

One of the two trapezoidal plaques showing opposing heads within a decorative scheme. Source: National Museum of Wales

One of the most extraordinary finds of late Iron Age art, in the La Tène style, is the Tal-y-Llyn hoard, found near the Tal-y-Llyn lake, a 15 minute drive from Tywyn.  The term La Tène derives from European Iron Age research and takes its name from the type site (the site at which it was first identified), named La Tène in Switzerland, on the side of lake Neufchatel.  The style extends from Ireland in the west up to and including most of eastern Europe. Many impressive examples have been found throughout England, Ireland and Wales with fewer finds in Scotland. La Tène is the second major period of the Iron Age, following the Hallstatt period, and in Britain is defined not merely by its metal work and the accompanying style but by a geographically variable and complex social and economic profile.

The metalwork in the Tal-y-Llyn features both the La Tène curvilinear geometric designs that are popularly given the broad “Celtic” label, and more unusual human faces, all very beautiful.  Savory discusses how some of the Tal-y-Llyn finds are an early form of La Tène art in Britain, before the so-called “insular” style unique to Britain evolved, still reminiscent of the middle period of La Tène art in Europe, dating to around the 4th or 3rd Century BC.  The Tal-y-Llyn hoard has been mentioned in most summaries of the British La Tène ever since.  Iron Age Britain at this time seems to have been a harsh place, described by Darvill as !a period of aggression, unrest, uncertainty and tension.”  The climate was deteriorating and the population competing for resources, a particularly difficult combination.  One of the most obvious features of the period in Britain is the hillfort, which were usually hilltop settlements enclosed by series of banks and ditches, bounded by palisades.  There were, however, many other types of settlement, also usually defended.  Meirionnydd and Ceredigion, however, are notably lacking in hillforts and it is far from clear what sort of occupation was here, if any, during the Iron Age.  Although the absence of hillforts seems to be part of a regional pattern that includes southwest England and southwest Wales I am not sure whether the absence of evidence for other Iron Age settlements is due to lack of settlement in the area during the Iron Age, which seems improbable, or lack of archaeological research in the area, and this needs to be determined.  The presence of the Tal-y-Llyn hoard is not itself evidence of settlement in the area, and seems more consistent with a separate but contemporary hillfort tradition associated with north Wales, the borders and the English south coast.

The hoard was found next to a steep path  at SH72702288, part of a walk to the peak of Cadair Idris that starts at the Minffordd car park on the B4405 road to Tal-y-llyn, just off the  A487 from Dolgellau to Machynlleth.  The path leads from the valley up the west side of Nant Cadair.  It was found by a couple having a picnic.  They noticed pieces of sheet bronze half buried beneath a large boulder. The owners of the land donated the hoard to the National Museum of Wales on permanent loan.   The find was written up and published by Dr Hubert Savory (Keeper of Archaeology in the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff) in the archaeological journal Antiquity in 1964, a year after its discovery, and discussed further briefly in the same journal in two short notes in 1966.

The two trapezoid plaques. Source: Savory 1964, plate II

The hoard consisted of thin decorative sheeting made of copper alloys, all bound closely together.  When it was inspected, it was found to look less like a ceremonial deposit than a stash deposited for later collection.  In Savory’s words “the metalwork had evidently once decorated at least two different shields and possibly various other objects as well, it must have been dismantled and packed together as scrap-metal before being deposited under the boulder.”  The shield pieces were decorated with vertical ribs and curvilinear plaques that flanked a central shield boss (a knob set in a circular, often decorated plate) all of which had been riveted on to a wooden or metal shield.   A more fragmentary shield boss was also found in the hoard, as were two trapezoid plaques that don’t appear to connect directly to the other finds, four composite discs that had been riveted to a surface that was “probably not a shield but a bier or ceremonial vehicle,” and another, plain disc.

Much Iron Age art has been associated with river and lake contexts, but although the naming of the find as the Tal-y-Llyn hoard implies that it was associated with the Tal-y-Llyn lake, this may be misleading.  The hoard was not found overlooking water and only has a marginal relationship to the lake, as Toby Driver emphasizes in his 2013 discussion of the location of the find (reproduced on the Coflein website):

Savory’s reconstruction of Shield 1 from the Tal-y-Llyn Hoard. Source: Savory 1964, p.20

The find spot is marked by a prominent glacial boulder, naturally fallen into its present position and propped up on massive upright stones so as to resemble an artificial ‘burial chamber’. Beneath the boulder is a dark, naturally formed ‘chamber’ which may have attracted Iron Age people to use the site as a place of deposition. The find spot lies alongside the modern Minffordd path up to Llyn Cau and Cadair Idris, suggesting considerable antiquity to this particular route. Across the path from the propped boulder, and below the line of the track, is a likely former spring head formed of rock slabs on three sides of a cleared, damp area. This spring head may have further influenced the hoard site. The boulder marking the find spot is the most prominent and impressive of its kind flanking the path as it ascends from the valley floor to the open mountain above. It is perhaps the only boulder formation which may have suggested an artificial construct or chamber to Iron Age people. It is likely that the corrie lake at Llyn Cau was the focus for any traveller climbing this path in antiquity, perhaps for ritual purposes, and therefore the attribution of the hoard to ‘Tal-y-llyn’ is potentially misleading in the interpretation of its landscape context.

Although the hoard could have been deposited to honour the spring, or the route to the corrie lake, Savory contends that the hoard was actually a secondary deposition, part of a larger hoard or burial site that had been plundered.  He suggests that if this was the case, the cache was not deposited for ceremonial reasons at the location where it was found, but was hidden far more mundanely and on a temporary basis for later collection.

Detail of the zig-zag and basket-fill designs on Shield 1. Source: Savory 1964, plate VII

The ornamentation on the metalwork on the first shield contains similarities to continental examples, showing the influence of the European La Tène, particularly in the traditional rocked-tracer technique, but also shows departures, most significant of which is the basket-work background and the trumpet finial that became features of the insular style.  Savory suggests that the pieces could all derive from a single workshop or group of related workshops.  Although the reconstruction of one of the shields has striking similarities to the shield from Moel Hiraddug hillfort in Flintshire, Savory says that the Tal-y-Llyn example must be seen as a forerunner of both this and the one found at Llyn Cerrig Bach on Anglesey.  The second shield is represented by a shield boss, of which two fragments were found in the hoard, oval and domed and about 6 inches wide.  The curvilinear pattern is not distinct, but the ornamentation is clearly La Tène. 

The two trapezoid plaques are remarkable and have few parallels anywhere in Britain.  They are both 6 inches long and 4.1 inches wide at the top and 2.3 inches wide at the base, framed with embossed moulding.  They are made of a thin copper and and zinc alloy with only faint traces of tin and contain hole for rivets.  They are decorated with opposed human heads, top and bottom, sharing a neck, resembling continental examples.  The function of the plaques remains unknown.

Two of the four composite discs in the National Museum of Wales. Source: The Modern Antiquarian

The four composite discs each consist of two pairs of metal pieces, with diameters of 5.5 (the upper) and 6.5 inches (the lower) respectively, one attached to the other with rivets.  Each disc in the pair was decorated, the smaller brass-coloured disc with an open-work pattern and the larger with La Tène curvilinear patterns, the larger with a decorated hollow rim into which the smaller disc is inserted, its surface covered by tin beneath the smaller disc, visible through the open pieces on the bigger disc, providing a contrast of colours.  They were attached to another, large flat surface by rivets, but it is not clear what.  The open-work pattern and the “whirligig triskele with lashing tendrils or streamers attached to its limbs” again reference continental designs, although Savory says that the streamers are a uniquely British addition to the motif.

The second shield boss. Source: Savory 1964, plate VIII

Megaw suggests that the faces on the trapezoidal plaques are far from benign and represent severed heads, an appropriate image for a warrior society.  Waddell has considered the Tal-y-Llyn hoard in terms of solar imagery, specifically the journey of the sun through the night sky, often associated with a solar boat, a concept perhaps more familiar from ancient Egypt.  For those who wish to explore this interpretation, his paper “The Tal-y-Llyn plaques and the nocturnal voyages of the sun” is available online.

The date of the hoard remains uncertain, partly because of the presence of objects from different periods and partly because the hoard may have been a secondary deposition.  In 1966 Spratling recognized that one of the items in the hoard was a Roman lock escutcheon, which made no difference to the dating of the Iron Age La Tène metalwork, but potentially sheds light on the date of the deposition of the hoard itself.  The Coflein website provides a useful summary of this issue:

The four Composite Discs. Source: Savory 1964, plate IV

The date of the Tal-y-llyn hoard has been a matter for debate. The decorative bronze work suggested a date in the Iron Age, but amongst the hoard was a piece of Roman bronze. This meant that the hoard could not have been deposited before AD 43. In addition to this, the decorative methods on some of the other bronzes used techniques that are only known to have been present at the very end of the pre-Roman Iron Age, and one of the items was made from brass rather than bronze. This was also very rare in the Iron Age.

As well as the sites mentioned above, other La Tène metalwork finds in north Wales include the hanging bowl/helmet of Cerrigydrudian and the Trawsfynydd tankard in Gwynedd, the necklace/collar from Clynnog on the Llyn Peninsula and the firedog at Capel Garmon near Conwy.  To the south of the river Dovey, examples are Pen Dinas Hillfort in Ceredigion and Croft Ambrey Hillfort near Leominster in Herefordshire.

 

References:

Darvill, T. 1987.  Prehistoric Britain. Routledge
Driver, T. 2013.  Field Visit. RCAHMW, 11th December 2013
Megaw, J.V.S. 1970. Art of the European Iron Age.  Adams and Dart.
Savory, H.N. 1964. The Tal-y-llyn Hoard. Antiquity Vol.38, Iss.149, p.18-31
Savory, H.N. 1966.  Notes and News: Tal-y-Llyn revisited.  Antiquity, Vol.40, p.305
Spratling, M.G. 1966. Notes and News: The Date of the Tal-y-Llyn Hoard. Antiquity, Vol.40, Iss.159, p.229
Waddell, J. The Tal-y-llyn plaques and the nocturnal voyage of the sun. In (eds) Britnell, W.J. and Silvester, R.J.  Reflections on the past : essays in honour of Frances Lynch. Cambrian Archaeological Association (available online).

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