Friday, 4 July 2014

The Desborough mirror handle ― part two: design evolution

Desborough Mirror Public domain photo by Fuzzypeg
All design carries something of its genesis. The two naturalistic loops at the centre of the Desborough mirror handle descend from loops made in a pliable material like rope or wicker. But as both of these loops are only half of the uncrossed "figure 8" link, the remaining part of the designs of each motif have been modified from that model and require further explanation.

I see the overall mirror handle design being influenced by previous anthropomorphic sword hilts with the naturalistic loops forming the torso; the upper modified loop being the head; the extension below the head, which is riveted on to the mirror plate binding being the shoulders and arms, and the suspension loop at the very bottom of the handle being the legs. The interpretation of the top modified loop as representing the head is further strengthened by the shape echoing the abstracted woman's head which forms the mirror plate decoration.

Celtic anthropomorphic sword (detail),
circa 60 BC
Metropolitan Museum of Art, OASC image

The artist was bound by certain tenets such as the "as above, so below" concept I mentioned in yesterday's post. This tenet takes the form of a true mirroring where the lower element is an upside down form of the upper element. Thus, the corresponding motif to the "head" is the modified loop positioned between the "legs" (which form the suspension loop). Because of its position and modified shape, it is tempting to see its meaning as a female symbol (like the yoni in Indian iconography). However, making such an interpretation is a risky business: even if the shape had such a connotation in an earlier time, shapes are often copied and modified long after their original meaning has been lost. Also, certain shapes can be tied into the meaning only within the unconscious as archetypes and will have no conscious interpretation. And, as the saying goes, sometimes a  cigar is just a cigar! Some scholars have looked for a pre-Roman Celtic origin of the Medieval Sheela-na-gig architectural detail but, as with similar searches for Celtic continuity, there is a danger of seeing "horses in the clouds", and I know of no La Tène prototype for the Sheela-na-gig.

Handle mount of the Chertsey shield
© Trustees of the British Museum

There is another use for the loop shape in combination with the "duck-billed" shape of the "arm and leg" terminals and that is on two different shield handle mounts. The first is illustrated on the right and belongs to the Chertsey shield. It is shown in situ below:

Celtic shield handle mount
(ex coll.)

The second example, on the right, was in my own collection and is slightly earlier. There are no holes for rivets and it seems to have originally been lashed to the shield. It has the "swan's head" terminals. No other shield handle mounts are known to have survived and my example shows swan's heads that are remarkably close to the swan's head on an extremely rare and early brooch type from Champagne, also in my own collection and illustrated below:

La Tène 1a fibula, circa 475-400 B.C.
Unprovenanced. Workshop near
Witry-lés-Reims, Marne.
3 cm X 5.5 cm, bronze. (in coll.)

The photo shows an ornithomorphic brooch, the foot terminating in a swan's head. This motif is very ancient. Similar heads can be seen on the ritual kettle vehicle from Acholshausen of the Late Urnfield period (circa 1250 B.C.). The swan has an extensive mythological history and survived in Greece in association with Zeus (originally a northern sky god). In Scotland, it was the bird of Brigit, who was later conflated with Mary. Compare with almost identical fibulae from Witry-lés-Reims (La Tène I en Champagne, Bretz-Mahler 1971. p. 17f. Pl. 1.2).

The choice of motifs and their arrangement can thus be seen to have strong connections with other sorts of handles, both sword grips and shield handle mounts and this casts further doubts on any interpretation involving female iconography. I would not completely rule it out, and it might make a good subject for a paper by someone, but I hope that any claims of Celtic continuity would be accompanied by evidence and not left as conjecture.

Finally, the suspension loop shape is balanced by the shape of the mirror plate, itself, but unlike the other motifs, it is not mirrored and is depicted in the same alignment as the plate.

While symbolic interpretations are very tempting, the more prosaic explanation of the use of such designs on other sorts of handles being the main inspiration seems more likely and should be mentioned even if such symbology is supported. Furthermore, other mirrors can have some or none of these symbolic connections so any intended symbology is not a constant feature in Celtic mirror art and might thus not be understood by everyone at the time.

On Monday, I will have a piece on Dracula's dad. I hope my American readers are having a great Independance Day, and that readers in Calgary are enjoying the first day of the Calgary Stampede (William Shatner  ― a keen horseman, is this year's parade marshall).


  1. Hi John,

    What a great read, I was thinking would my new artifact slot in with the above somewhere?

  2. I think it is yet another variety of a shield handle mount. There are two on the Chertsey shield; the one I had, and now yours and two of the four are in the B.M. Even if it served some other purpose, the dating would be the same -- 3rd cent BC.

    It's fortunate that I checked my pending comments just now, I've been doing that rather irregularly, lately!



  3. Amazing thanks for your help once again John much appreciated.

  4. John are still a blogger I have a dagger of the same symbol but not sure if it is a letter opener.

    1. If you email me photos, I'll do my best to attribute it for you.

      Send to john(at)

      I have not done much with the blog, lately, but might write a new post each week in a while.