Thursday, 19 December 2013

The "Glastonbury" spindle whorl

the "Glastonbury" spindle whorl
2nd to 1st cent BC
I referenced this lead spindle whorl in an earlier post but as it is the only known British La Tène decorated spindle whorl it deserves a fuller treatment.

It was the first example of La Tène decoration that I bought -- a dealer friend had purchased it in London in the late eighties from another dealer who had it in a box with several other common lead spindle whorls of a much later period. It cost me ten dollars.

As I had only been looking at early Celtic art (other than the coins) for only a couple of years, I had no idea about how rare it was. As two dealers had not valued it that highly I assumed that it must be very common indeed, but after looking through a number of books I could find nothing even remotely similar. In fact, I found no La Tène decorated spindle whorls recorded from Britain or the continent in any material at all. I wondered if it was so common that no one had bothered to mention it at all, but its absence in the literature bothered me. I did find an example of the same form, but quite plain, that had been excavated at Glastonbury Lake village (Bulleid, A., and Gray, H. St G., The Glastonbury Lake Village, vol. 1 1911, Pl.XLV, L13), so I called it the "Glastonbury" spindle whorl.

My wife made a couple of casts of it in gesso sottile with gelatin (she had a strong interest in Medieval artist materials and had slaked the plaster herself) and she drew the following diagram of it:

"Glastonbury" spindle whorl diagram by Carin Perron
(click to enlarge)
I added my own ideas about it, noting that the decoration seemed to be derived from continental (Marnian) styles, and we sent of two packages one to the British Museum, the other to the Ashmolean. It was just as well that we picked two museums because I soon got a short typed reply on a tiny piece of paper from someone at the British Museum who said it was a common Roman lead spindle whorl. I wondered if that person had actually even looked at it! Much later, I got the following (handwritten) letter from Professor Martyn Jope at Oxford:
Andrew Sherratt of the Ashmolean Museum handed me your letter & photos of the lead spindle-whorl, as I am currently finishing the British Isles successor to Paul Jacobsthal's Early Celtic Art.
Yr. spindle-whorl seems an excellent piece. I know of no elaborately decorated lead spindle-whorl of this type, though plain ones of the type were in use at Glastonbury, as you have probably already noted (Glastonbury Lake Village  I pl XLV, L13) and lead was an Iron Age commodity of this area (ie from Mendip).-- ie a pre-Roman Iron Age native tradition.
The mid-rib round the the body suggests it was produced in a 2-piece clay mould(as also the Glastonbury piece), with the ornament done by pressing a model into the soft clay. The ornament on yr. piece seems rather dishevelled from canonical, but a good example of its class. It would be of great value to know where it did come from --presumably from the Somerset area or not too far away. (ie east into Wessex).
There are of course many other decorated spindle-whorls -- in stone, slate, baked clay &c, but the decoration is usually incised line & very simple; yours is quite out of the ordinary domestic run.
It would of course be of great value if this seemingly so far unique piece cd end up in a public collexion-- but at least, if it wd be at all possible to have some idea of its provenance it wd be of great value. I'm most grateful to have seen your photos & lucid illustrations...

He then went on to discuss other matters I had included in the letter to the Ashmolean Museum. Sadly, no information as to the find spot could be obtained, but in those days false find spots were very common -- dealers often said things were from "Norfolk" to cash in on the popularity of the Iceni and Boudicca, etc. Only very rarely was a close town or village given.

As  this sort of decoration was used by the elite, such humble objects were rarely decorated.


  1. Hi John, it was nice to read back over this one to appreciate how rare and important this piece is, with out your knowledge this piece would still be lost and unknown well done for making it recognized, and to Carin for the amazing job on the diagrams.

    All the best


  2. Thanks Dale,

    I almost missed your post (I don't get email notifications and don't check the blog as much as I should these days).

    Who would have thought that I would become involved in "repatriation", too! :-)