Aylesford and late Iron Age cremations

From the second half of the first century bc, south-east England — north Kent, the Thames valley, Essex and thence inland to the Chilterns - sees the appearance of a new and distinctive type of burial in cremation cemeteries, a practice that is also widely represented in north-eastern France and Belgium at this period. For much of the twentieth century, following the pioneer study by Hawkes and Dunning (1930), this innovative burial rite was equated with settlement by the Belgae, a confederation of tribes variously defined by Caesar, for whom Belgium was one of the three territorial divisions of Gaul. A migration from Belgic Gaul into south-eastern Britain seemed to be confirmed by Caesar's assertion that settlers had crossed over from Belgic Gaul (ex Belgio transierunt in the pluperfect past), and 'after the invasion, settled and began to cultivate the fields' (de Bello Gallico, V, 12). Modern archaeological scholarship now recognizes that none of the cemetery evidence can be dated prior to Caesar in order to accord with the inferred date of immigration implied by his statement. If there were indeed new settlers in the later second or early first centuries bc, therefore, the archaeological evidence for their presence should be sought elsewhere, perhaps in those regions further west, in central southern England, where place- and tribal-names of the early Roman period suggest connections with Gaulish cousins.

The cemeteries remain, however, a distinctive innovation, those of the Welwyn group from north of the Thames dating to the first century ad, and some of the rich graves especially continuing into the early years of the Roman occupation. Some, nevertheless, can be dated from the third quarter of the first century bc, as at Aylesford, on the basis of associated Italic imports of the Augustan period. Aylesford was among the first such discoveries, by Arthur Evans (1890) and his father in 1886 in a gravel quarry in north Kent. One rich burial, deposited in a pit that was thought by Evans to have been one of a 'family circle', contained cremated remains in a metal-bound wooden bucket, together with a wheel-thrown, pedestalled pottery vase that also contained cremated bone. Imported grave-goods included a bronze jug of so-called Kelheim type, and bronze pan or patella, types that have a wide distribution across north-alpine Europe in the Augustan period. The stave-built wooden bucket is made of yew, with staves projecting downwards to create three feet, and with a single iron handle. Three thin bronze binding-plates hold the vessel together, of which the upper was embossed with a frieze comprising two pairs of prancing horses and two further paired motifs of abstract design. The horses are of particular interest, confronting each other with backward-looking heads (Figure 7.6, 1). Apart from their exaggerated lips, head-crests and double tails, their spindly legs are jointed in a fashion that is anatomically impossible for a horse. In fact, Jope (1983) argued persuasively that the Aylesford horses were pantomime horses, that the legs were human actors concealed beneath a festive horse-costume. Finally, the Aylesford bucket has a pair of human heads on the handle-attachments, modelled in more detail than the face-masks of earlier periods, but still displaying characteristic lentoid eyes, and still not yet quite naturalistic. From their heads project peltate crowns, doubtless a skeuomorph of twin-handle attachments of southern models, but perhaps like earlier leaf-crowns bestowing status or even divinity on the figures depicted.

The Aylesford heads have more crudely depicted relatives on the buckets discovered at Baldock in Essex (Stead and Rigby, 1985). But the most remarkable of this series in Britain is another old find, made in 1807 near Marlborough in Wiltshire, well beyond the south-eastern cremation cemetery zone, though it probably contained a cremation

Iron Art Denmark
Figure 7.6 Aylesford, Kent, and Marlborough, Wiltshire, bucket ornament, with head from Rynkeby cauldron, Denmark. Aylesford: 1, repoussé horses; 2, head of escutcheon; Marlborough: 3, Celtic head; Rynkeby: 4, head with torc. Adapted from Jope (2000).

burial. It too was fashioned from yew staves, bound with three iron hoops and three, now highly fragmentary, bronze bands with embossed ornament. Here human heads feature prominently, both as paired profiles and as full-face, frontal representations. The latter are particularly noteworthy for their open pupils, doubtless originally filled with glass settings or the like, in a manner that is most closely paralleled in the Danish finds like the Rynkeby cauldron (Figure 7.6, 4), with which one of the Marlborough faces shares a very similar hair-style. Among the profile faces, one with moustache and long flowing locks could be the archetypal representation of a Celt (Figure 7.6, 3). The human heads are inter-spaced with animal-pairs, some probably equine, others of a more indeterminate breed. One pair appears to have limbs hanging from their mouths in a fashion reminiscent of the voracious beast theme, but a parallel representation on another pair suggests that this has become little more than a formulaic, pendant scroll. Bucket-burials like these are known on the Continent, notably at Goeblingen-Nospelt in Luxembourg, where four burials of the later first century bc were richly furnished with amphorae, drinking service and other domestic equipment, as well as metal-bound wooden buckets. Pointing to a source for the British buckets, nevertheless, is not a simple matter. Manufacture was probably local, but iconographic inspiration seems to be drawn from much wider sources: indeed, Jope's compromise (2000, 99) was to suggest 'exotic experience brought into southern British ateliers', presumably through the commissioning of works by aristocratic patrons from specialist craftsmen, who enjoyed considerable professional mobility.

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