Monday, 21 March 2016

The Pocklington and Tisbury brooches

Hallstatt D/ La Tène transition brooch
Tisbury, Wiltshire, metal detector find (click to enlarge)
I am going to have to change "strange occurrences in my life" to "normal occurrences in my life". Starting on March 7th, one of my metal detectorist/collector friends who lives within the territory of the ancient Celtic Dobunni tribe sent me photographs that he took of a strange brooch found by a friend of his at Tisbury, Wiltshire, wondering if it had a connection to the brooch found at the Vale of White Horse district in Oxfordshire and an apparently related brooch from Cliddesden, Hampshire. The two Portable Antiquity Scheme brooches had recesses for (missing) inlays, but the Tisbury brooch was made as a solid bronze brooch without inlay. It also had a pin with a swivel connection but no spring, while the Cliddesden brooch did have a spring (or perhaps just a dummy- spring) with an external cord, indicative, perhaps, of a brooch from Champagne. Although the PAS record says that the catch-plate is similar to La Tène 1 brooches, that is not exactly true as the latter has a smooth transition from the foot of the bow to the catch-plate and as this type of brooch is equal-ended, it has no foot, so the catch is really a hook which issued from the end of the brooch. With only three examples (and there is nothing similar among the Hallstatt D brooches in the Morel collection from Champagne) and at least two major varieties, there  was not much to go on.
The underside of the Tisbury brooch

Another problem is that metal detector finds from agricultural land can be alongside objects from various periods brought up and scattered by by the plough. Only if there are enough MD finds and nearby objects are shared among these by only a single period is identification certain as these are not archaeological sites per se as no stratification exists. A Celtic object, on its own might have been in the vicinity since it was lost; brought there in a load of top-soil or fertilizer from elsewhere; or dropped by someone who found or bought it elsewhere in any time in the last two millennia. Any claim to its origin would be nothing more than wild speculation, and worse still, could lead to false datasets for types. There are also objects that look a lot like very different objects: a broken piece of an eighteenth. or nineteenth century barrel spigot handle can look like a variety of a Hallstatt scabbard chape. Dean Crawford described the actions of most detectorists as being like "seagulls at the tip". Looking for archaeological context in a ploughed field would be about the same as looking for it at your local city dump. It is only when a number of objects are of the same period and at the same place that any claim of a potential archaeological site can be made, and even then it is likely that, without stone structures or post holes etc. lower than the ploughed levels, no valid archaeological record can be written with any claim to objectivity. The accumulated finds of similar objects can, if there are enough of them, enable someone through a properly done art-historical analysis to construct an evolutionary model of the object type, but you really need quite a lot of objects and a lot of overlapping variations to accomplish this feat. Without that,  subjectivity could be just too great. Ian Stead (1991) constructed a typology for the involuted brooch whereby the Ferrybridge example would be the most modern of all and could even be a late survivor of a La Tène 2 type that was made in the early La Tène 3 period. In other words, anytime during the last half of the first century BC to the first half of the first century AD. As I have not done such a study, myself, and the published diagrams are generalities based on just a few features (others might exist that are not mentioned) I always give the end of the period and say only circa 50 BC. I used to have a piece of paper taped the wall above my desk when I working on the Coriosoltie coinage. It had one word written on it: "Specificity".

Imagine my surprise when I saw the news report which was the first publication of the photograph another brooch of the same type from a recent archaeological cemetery site at Pocklington, East Yorkshire which was dated only ten days after I first saw the photos of the Tisbury brooch. Now there are four known examples of this newly discovered type. More importantly, there are also enough detail to fix the type more securely. The inlay on the Pocklington brooch is coral.There was a cluster of news reports at the same time, but this one had the most photographs that I saw. Unfortunately, no one thought of providing one of the underside of that brooch, so we do not yet know if it has just a swivel pin attachment and should it have a spring, whether the cord is internal or external. That could tell us if the Pocklington brooch is British-made or was brought there from France:
"Brooch making is evidenced in Britain by a few brooches of Ha-D tradition (pl.32c-g) but with distinctly insular details of design and construction—the plain pin swivelling on a rod without any spring (pl. 36)." Martyn Jope, (Ian Stead, ed.) Early Celtic Art in the British Isles, Oxford, 2000, Chapter 3; The Emergence of Insular Celtic Art; Brooches and other small objects; Early Brooch Making in Britain, p. 39. [footnotes omitted]
 Of course, the media cannot get the dates right. The site also contains La Tène swords (after ca. 300 BC.)  Seriation was a big thing in the nineteenth century and Sir John Evans was instrumental in that, but this is the twenty-first century: Bronze Age and Iron Age  etc. are so Victorian. The reports on the recent Celts exhibit in England and Scotland being the last gasp of the outdated ideas that could not perceive a Celtic cultural identity, being similar in effect to the fruit tree tree which bears the most fruit of its life just before it perishes. Hallstatt D as a style, cannot always be dated as Hallstatt D as a period and it took a while for outlying areas to change. The "Long Bronze Age" of Ireland, for example, is something often spoken of by the cognoscenti.

The Jurassic Way route (dotted lines) between East Yorkshire and Dobunni territory (dark grey overlay), with the discussed counties in red. Adapted from this and related maps; Sir Cyril Fox's
map of the Jurassic Way in Pattern and Purpose, 1958; and Dobunni territory map. JH compilation.  
The British-made Tisbury brooch, to me, has a distinctly Dobunnic look about at and Dobunnic coins can also be found in the southern counties where the other two MD brooches were found. I had tracked connections between the Dobunni and the Iceni (with perhaps the Corieltuavi  too) but this is the first time I also see their connections with the Arras culture of east Yorkshire. For further reading on this topic with the evidence discussed, XRF analysed and illustrated, see my 32 part Iceni hypothesis series. The Jurassic Way route contains, nearby, many of the greatest examples of Early Celtic Art in Britain with their iconic names of Glastonbury, Meare, Clevedon, Bagendon, Birdlip, Cheltenham, Desborough, Arras. Danes Graves. and more. One might say, "The Dobunni, metalsmiths to the stars".

John's Coydog Community page


  1. I worked on the site at pocklington and was present when the grave containing the brooch was excavated. I can pretty much guarantee that it had a simple swivel and pin with no spring like some of the iron brooches we found. The same burial had two bracelets, one inlayed with coral. The sword came from a small round barrow with a 'speared' burial, another had a shield and both were buried in boxes. Most of the iron age burials were in boxes as far as i can remember!

    1. Thank you very much for this information, I will pass the link on to my friends. Also, it's very interesting about the coral inlay on the bracelet. That, in association with the brooch, could well focus the dates.