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The Gundestrup cauldron is a richly decorated silver vessel, thought to date between 200 BC and 300 AD, placing it within the late La Tène period or early Roman Iron Age. The cauldron is the largest known example of European Iron Age silver work (diameter: 69 cm, height: 42 cm). It was found in 1891 in a peat bog near the hamlet of Gundestrup in the Aars parish of Himmerland, Denmark ( ). It is now housed at the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen (with a replica in the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin.) Despite the fact that the vessel was found in Denmark, there has been a debate between a Gaulish origin and Thracian origin on account of the workmanship, metallurgy, and imagery.
The Gundestrup cauldron was discovered by peat cutters in a small peat bog called Rævemose on 28 May 1891. The Danish government paid a large reward to the finders, who subsequently quarreled bitterly amongst themselves over its division. Palaeobotanical investigations of the peat bog at the time of the discovery showed that the land had been dry when the cauldron was deposited, and the peat gradually grew over it. The manner of stacking suggested an attempt to make the cauldron inconspicuous and well-hidden. A recent investigation of Rævemose was undertaken in 2002, with the results that perhaps the peat bog had been present when the cauldron was buried.
The cauldron was found in a dismantled state with five long rectangular plates, seven short plates, one round plate (normally termed the "base plate"), and two fragments of tubing stacked inside the curved base. In addition, there is a piece of iron coming from a ring originally placed inside the silver tubes along the rim of the cauldron. It is assumed that there is a missing eighth plate because the circumference of the seven outer plates is smaller than the circumference of the five inner plates.
Since the cauldron was found in pieces, it had to be reconstructed. The traditional order of the plates was determined by Sophus Müller, the first of many to analyze the cauldron. His logic uses the positions of the trace solder located at the rim of the bowl. In two cases, a puncture mark penetrating the inner and outer plates also helps to establish the order. In its final form, the plates are arranged in an alternation of female-male depictions, assuming the missing eighth plate is of a female. Not all analysts agree with Müller's ordering, however. Taylor has pointed out that aside from the two cases of puncturing, the order cannot be determined from the solder alignments. His argument is that the plates are not directly adjacent to each other, but are separated by a 2 cm gap; thus, the plates in this order cannot be read with certainty as the true narrative, supposing one exists.
The Gundestrup cauldron is composed almost entirely of silver, but there is also a substantial amount of gold for the gilding, tin for the solder and glass for the figures' eyes. According to experimental evidence, the materials for the vessel were not added at the same time, so the cauldron can be considered as the work of artisans over a span of several hundred years. The quality of the repairs to the cauldron, of which there are many, is inferior to the original craftsmanship.
In the time that the Gundestrup cauldron was created, silver was obtained through cupellation of lead/silver ores. By comparing the concentration of lead isotopes with the silverwork of other cultures, it can be suggested that the silver came from multiple ore deposits, mostly from Celtic north France and western Germany in the pre-Roman period. The lead isotope studies also indicate that the silver for manufacturing the plates was prepared by repeatedly melting ingots and/or scrap silver. Three to six distinct batches of recycled silver may have been utilized in the making of the vessel. Specifically, the circular "base plate" may have originated as a phalera, and it is commonly thought to have resided in the bottom of the bowl as a late addition, soldered in to repair a hole. By an alternative theory, this phalera was not initially part of the bowl, but instead formed part of the decorations of a wooden cover.
The gold can be sorted into two groups based on purity and separated by the concentrations of silver and copper. The less pure gilding, which is thicker, can be considered a later repair, as the thinner, purer inlay adheres better to the silver. The adherence of the overall gold is quite poor. The lack of mercury from the gold analysis suggests that a fire-gilding technique was not used on the Gundestrup cauldron. The gilding appears to have instead been made by mechanical means, explaining the function of closely spaced punch marks on the gilded areas.
An examination of lead isotopes similar to the one used on the silver was employed for the tin. All of the samples of tin soldering are consistent in lead-isotope composition as ingots from Cornwall in western Britain. The tin used for soldering the plates and bowl together, as well as the glass eyes, is very uniform in its high purity.
Finally, the glass inlays of the Gundestrup cauldron have been determined through the use of X-ray fluorescence radiation to be of a soda-lime type composition. The glasses contained elements that can be attributed to calcareous sand and mineral soda, which are typical for the east coast of the Mediterranean region. The analyses also narrowed down the production time of the glass to between the second century BC and first century AD.
The workflow of the manufacturing process consisted of a few steps that required a great amount of skill. Batches of silver were melted in crucibles with the addition of copper for a subtler alloy. The melted silver was cast into flat ingots and hammered into intermediate plates. For the relief work, the sheet-silver was annealed to allow shapes to be beaten into high repoussé; these rough shapes were then filled with pitch from the back to make them firm enough for further detailing with punches and tracers. The pitch was melted out, areas of pattern were gilded, and the eyes of the larger figures were inlaid with glass. The plates were probably worked in a flat form and later bent into curves to solder them together.
It is generally agreed that the Gundestrup cauldron was the work of multiple silversmiths. Using scanning electron microscopy, Benner Larson has identified 15 different punches used on the plates, falling into three distinct tool sets. No individual plate has marks from more than one of these groups, and this fits with previous attempts at stylistic attribution, which identify at least three different silversmiths. Multiple artisans would also explain the highly variable purity and thickness of the silver.
The silverworking techniques used in the cauldron are unknown from the Celtic world, but are consistent with the renowned Thracian sheet-silver tradition. The scenes depicted are not distinctively Thracian, but certain elements of composition, decorative motifs, and illustrated items (such as the shoelaces on the antlered figure) identify it as Thracian work.
Taylor and Bergquist have postulated that the Celtic tribe known as the Scordisci commissioned the cauldron from native Thracian silversmiths. According to classical historians, the Cimbri, a Teutonic tribe, went south from the lower Elbe region and attacked the Scordisci in 118 BC. After withstanding several defeats at the hands of the Romans, the Cimbri retreated north with the cauldron to settle in Himmerland, where the vessel was found.
Nielsen believes that the question of origin is the wrong one to ask and can produce misleading results. Because of the widespread migration of numerous ethnic groups like the Celts and Teutonic peoples and events like Roman expansion and subsequent Romanization, it is highly unlikely that only one ethnic group was responsible for the development of the Gundestrup cauldron. Instead, the make and art of the cauldron can be thought of as the product of a fusion of cultures, each inspiring and expanding upon one another. In the end, Nielsen concludes that, based on accelerator datings from beeswax found on the back of the plates, the vessel was created within the Roman Iron Age at a location somewhere in Central Europe.
The circular base plate depicts a bull. Above the back of the bull is a female figure wielding a sword, as well as two dogs, one over the bull's head and another under its hooves.
Each of the seven exterior plates centrally depicts a bust. Plates a, b, c, and d show bearded male figures, and the remaining three are female.
For many years, scholars have interpreted the cauldron's images in terms of the Celtic pantheon. The antlered figure in plate A has been commonly identified as Cernunnos, and the figure holding the broken wheel in plate C is more tentatively thought to be Taranis. There is no consensus regarding the other figures. Some Celticists have explained the elephants depicted on plate B as a reference to Hannibal's crossing of the Alps. Furthermore, the appearance of torques around the necks of some of the figures suggest a connection with Celtic culture.
Because of the double-headed wolfish monster attacking the two small figures of fallen men on plate b, parallels can be drawn to the Welsh character Manawydan or the Irish Manannán, a god of the sea and the Otherworld. Another possibility is the Gaulish version of Apollo, who was not only a warrior, but one associated with springs and healing besides.
Olmsted relates the scenes of the cauldron to those of the Táin Bó Cuailnge, where the antlered figure is Cú Chulainn, the bull of the base plate is Donn Cuailnge, and the female and two males of plate e are Medb, Ailill, and Fergus mac Róich. Olmsted also toys with the idea that the female figure flanked by two birds on plate f could be Medb with her pets or Morrígan, the Irish war goddess who often changes into a carrion bird.
Both Olmsted and Taylor agree that the female of plate f might be Rhiannon of the Mabinogion. Rhiannon is famous for her birds, whose songs could "awaken the dead and lull the living to sleep". In this role, Rhiannon could be considered the Goddess of the Otherworld.
Taylor presents a more pancultural view of the cauldron's images; he concludes that the deities and scenes portrayed on the cauldron are not specific to one culture, but many. He compares Rhiannon, whom he thinks is the figure of plate f, with Hariti, an ogress of Bactrian mythology. In addition, he points to the similarity between the female figure of plate B and the Hindu goddess Lakshmi, whose depictions are often accompanied by elephants. Wheel gods are also cross-cultural with deities like Taranis and Vishnu, a god from Hinduism.