Thursday, 3 July 2014

The Desborough mirror handle ― part one: slave chain link

Desborough mirror handle. Public domain photo by Fuzzypeg, cropped, enlarged and enhanced (click for full size)

In Pattern and Purpose: a Survey of Early Celtic Art in Britain, Cardiff, 1958, p.101, Sir Cyril Fox says "This handle is one of the greatest plastic achievements of the Celtic  bronzesmith in Britain", yet he says only a little about why this should be and he seems to have overlooked (surprisingly) an important connection with part of the design.

Imagine that you are holding a soft metal ring between your thumb and forefinger and then you squeeze both sides of the ring together. You will get a shape similar to the number 8, but the sides of the ring touch but do not cross. This general shape is doubled on the mirror handle and the two shapes are joined with a small, circular ring set at ninety degrees in the way that chain links are connected. In the lower shape, the bottom of the two loops is thicker at the sides incorporating a sort of trumpet shape, and this shape is vertically reversed for the upper shape which is set over the mirror plate.

Had each of these "figure eight" rings been joined together by linking them directly as a chain with one at ninety degrees to the other, instead of by the small circular ring, the resulting chain section would be a direct match for the iron slave chain found in the bog at Llyn Cerrig Bach.

Llyn Cerrig Bach
photo: Eric Jones (Geograph)
When the chain and other objects were first discovered by workmen building a landing strip, the anaerobic conditions of the bog has preserved it without any rust. Rust did start to appear once it was used to tow vehicles out of the bog and it had been left out in the rain. It was thought at first to be only a modern chain, but when examples of early Celtic art started to emerge it was realized that it was an Iron Age slave chain. It is surprising that Fox did not notice the similarity in the Desborough mirror handle because he wrote another book about the Llyn Cerrig finds.  This chain link design was thought to be a nineteenth century design. Being the strongest design possible for a chain link, such chains were used in the nineteenth century for towing ships. A great weight on the link would not snap the link, but stretch it into an oval shape. An early problem in the manufacture of iron items was that the iron had a tendency to bend because iron was wrought as the temperature necessary to cast iron could not be reached (cast iron is brittle and can snap). An ancient author records that the Celts often had to keep straightening their iron sword blades in the middle of a battle. Such slave chains were likely used by the Brigantes who captured and sold their opponents into slavery.

Everything in the bottom half of the mirror handle (below the small connecting ring) is mirrored in the top half. This was done, not because mirroring was an appropriate motif to use on a mirror, but because mirroring is an important part of La Tène composition and was used on other objects including coin designs. Its meaning "As above, so below" is recorded in later Hermeticism, but it seems likely that that concept was also understood by the Pythagoreans and like many aspects of the La Tène religion, was adopted by the Celts when they were in Italy.

"As above, so below"
"As above, so below"

Each of these designs were used in a
specially marked part of the chronology
of Coriosolite Group H coins to
demonstrate variations on this religious

Originally thought to be military
standards, their usage by many tribes
eliminates any sort of heraldic function.
We have to wonder about the choice of a known slave chain link as a design element in a high-status mirror. Perhaps the two links were connected by the weaker circular link only to connect the two "figure 8" links on the same plane, or perhaps the weakness of that link was to emphasize that the owner of the mirror was elite and certainly no slave. We can only speculate about such things without further evidence, and as such, cannot record the idea as anything other than speculation with no real basis for the claim (people see all sorts of things in Celtic art). Nevertheless, the use of a slave chain link design in a mirror handle warrants at least a mention.

Tomorrow, the evolution of the design.

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