The Mirror Style

Most distinctively insular of all the later examples of La Tene art are the decorated mirrors, concentrated for the most part to the south and east of a line from the Severn to the Wash. They apparently represent an innovation of the first century bc; earlier mirrors are known, in the Arras culture, and very infrequently from early La Tene contexts in Central Europe, but these are undecorated and typologically have little or no relationship to the later insular series. The later British mirrors are large, generally between 20 and 30 centimetres in diameter, of necessity, since unlike Etruscan mirrors, for example, they have planar rather than convex surfaces. It is, of course, the backplate that bears ornament, visible to the onlooker in use or doubtless when suspended by its handle and not in use. For the most part they are preserved in burials; the fine example from Holcombe in Devon (Fox and Pollard, 1973) was one of the only examples recovered from a non-funerary, presumably domestic context.

The mirror plates can be either circular or slightly kidney-shaped, with the indentation corresponding to the point where the handle is attached. Sometimes the junction bears additional embellishment, like the feline or owl with large round eyes and pointed ears on the Holcombe mirror (Figure 7.7, 1), closely matched but with the additional use of enamelling on the Nijmegen mirror (Figure 7.7, 2). The design of mirror ornament is most frequently based upon what Fox termed a 'three-roundel' arrangement, in which the ornament might be fused into a unity to a greater or lesser degree. Jope (2000) described this as basically an omega-loop with foot-scrolls. The Colchester mirror displays a classic layout, with a pendant pelta or what Jope called a 'bag-loop' within the top circle, sometimes giving more than a hint of a ghostly zoomorphic face. The unique mirror from Great Chesterford, Essex, is modelled

Figure 7.7 Mirrors from Holcombe, Devon (A) and Nijmegen, Holland (B). Adapted from Fox and Pollard (1973) and Jope (2000).

essentially on the same design, but displays in execution an 'unsteady lurch and leering face' (Jope, 2000, 139) that quite wilfully defies symmetry. Most mirrors do in fact display near-perfect symmetry, of the fold-over kind, in their layout. Where the layout departs from this principle, as on the Desborough and Holcombe masterpieces, it is a subtle but deliberate deviation from symmetry at the very centre of the design, easily overlooked at first sight.

Within the mirror repertory it is possible to point to stylistic elements that suggest production in the same workshop, but it is more difficult to point to regional 'schools'. The distribution shows a concentration of finds in the south-east of England, north of the Thames, in the territory that was occupied in late pre-Roman times by the Trinovantes and Catuvellauni, together with a more westerly group extending from the territory of the Dobunni and Durotriges westwards. Perhaps the strongest case can be made for a south-western group, on the basis of recurrent motifs found in association, notably crescents with radial hatching and peltae with basketry hatching. The basketry hatching itself is of a distinctive form, using invariably three strokes in each direction, alternating in blocks at right-angles. As a representative of the group the Desborough mirror (Figure 7.8, 1) is a classic example. Here the omega theme with flanking scrolls has become looser and more florid, so that the large zoomorphic aspect of the upper element has disintegrated. But there remain smaller faces peering through the foliage, a pair of Punch-like heads back to back at the top, and a succession of elusive faces, full-face or profile, created by the shaded crescents. Nowhere is the interplay of foreground and background better illustrated than in the complex designs of the decorated mirrors, as Sir Cyril Fox (1958, Pl. 56a, A1, A2) demonstrated by his two contrasting illustrations of the 'Mayer' mirror. The repetition of motifs and the way they are rendered certainly argues for local or regional traditions among craftsmen or workshops. Yet the inclusion of tiny 'signatures', like the three-pointed ('Mercedes-Benz') stars on the extreme flanks of the Desborough design (not totally unlike the small central tricorn formed by three conjoined vessicas on the main central-upper panel of the Colchester mirror), must be the hallmark of specific master-craftsmen.

Beyond the south-western and eastern English distribution, the Nijmegen mirror is an obvious candidate for an export. Despite technical features, like the use of enamelling and a preference for hatching rather than simple linear strokes as infilling for its small lunate motifs, it is hard to believe that this mirror was made anywhere other than in the south-west of England, unless by a south-western craftsman working for a Continental patron. The Balmaclellan collar from south-western Scotland (Figure 7.8, 2) is likewise so similar in its use of stroke-filled lunate finials and hatched peltate motifs that one is tempted to see it as the product of an expatriate south-western craftsman.

There remains the vexed question of dating. Most authorities are agreed on a late date, starting in the second half of the first century bc, and going out of fashion shortly after the mid-first ad. Where good associations are available, as in the burials at Colchester and Birdlip, the date of the deposit is generally first century ad. A recent find, however, from Shillington, Bedfordshire, possibly from a disturbed burial, included a bronze ornamented mirror, together with a silver brooch of Continental late La Tene type dating to the mid-first century bc. Late dating therefore may arise from the fact that most of the surviving mirrors are found in graves, the majority of which

Balmaclellan Collar

happen to be late in the sequence. High-status metal-work is seldom abandoned on domestic sites, and many of the wealthiest graves appear to date from the latest pre-Roman Iron Age in south-eastern Britain. Why so much of the work of highest quality of insular Celtic art manifests itself on the eve of the Roman Conquest is an issue to which we shall return.

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