Early Romano-British Jewelry Part 2: If You Read One Article About Irish Torques, Read This One

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For the most extensive representation of the prehistoric gold ornaments of the British Isles one must look, not to England, whose inhabitants generally assumed the types of ornament in use among their Roman conquerors, but to Ireland, where the Celtic traditions were continued, and which has revealed vast hoards of golden treasure.

In Celtic England during the Bronze and Early Iron Ages the majority of personal ornaments are of bronze; in Ireland, however, at the same periods the greater number are of gold. The objects belonging to the Royal Irish Academy in the Dublin Museum—perhaps the largest collection in Europe of prehistoric gold ornaments—represent merely a fraction of what, during the last few hundred years, has been discovered and consigned to the crucible.

Usually described as head-ornaments are certain crescent or moon-shaped plates of thin gold, generally decorated with engraved designs in parallel lines, with angular lines between them, and having their extremities formed into small flat circular discs.

These gold lunettes or lunulce are considered to have been worn upright on the head and held in position by the terminal plates set behind the ears,’ but they were very probably worn round the neck. The finest at Dublin is of pure gold, weighing upwards of sixteen ounces, and is richly ornamented with rows of conical studs.

Torques are the most frequent of ancient Irish ornaments. The largest known, over 5 feet long and upwards of 27 ounces in weight, is supposed to have been worn over the shoulder and across the breast. It is the property of the Royal Irish Academy.

In addition to torques and gorgets, neck-ornaments were also formed of beads of gold, and some of these have been found accompanied by beads of amber. Besides torque-shaped armlets, are bracelets composed of perfect rings; but the penannular type, terminating mostly with bulbous or cup-like ends, is commonest.

A considerable number of the prehistoric dress-fasteners, known as mammillary Fibonacci, have been discovered in Ireland. A slight enlargement of the ends of the penannular ring develops into a cup-like which increases to such a size that the ring becomes simply the connecting link between the terminations. The latter when flat are generally plain, and when cup-shaped are often highly ornamented.

The finest of these fibulae at Dublin is 8f inches long, and is of the extraordinary weight of 33 ounces. Among other gold ornaments are certain circular flat plates of thin gold, usually about 2i inches in diameter, somewhat similar to the plates discovered at Mycenae, in that they were evidently employed for sewing upon the dress.

In the middle of the plates are small holes as if for attachment. As regards “ring-money,” and similar rings employed possibly as ornaments for the ears or fingers, nothing more need be said, as they usually follow the designs of those in use among the Celts of Britain.

In a country like Ireland, which is famed for its golden treasures, many strange stories of discoveries have been recorded; yet few have excited greater interest than the famous Limavady treasure, which in the year 1896 was plowed up at Broighter, near Limavady, in the county of Londonderry, in a field not far from the shores of Lough Foyle.

This hoard— probably the most important which has ever been unearthed of objects of this period—has been fully described by Dr. A. J. Evans in Vol. LV of Archceo-logia. It includes the following personal ornaments: two gold chains, a torque formed of thick twisted wires, and collar of very remarkable workmanship. This collar consists of a hollow cylinder formed of two plates soldered together, and fastened at the end by a T-shaped projection and slot. The ornament is repousse work, in the trumpet pattern of the Late Celtic period. The style of work upon these ornaments, particularly that of the collar, associates them with an artistic period which probably dates from the first century a.d.

The year following its discovery the whole find was purchased by the British Museum, where its presence at once figured as ” another injustice to Ireland “; while through the Press and in Parliament numerous attempts were made to obtain its removal to Dublin.

The Irish claimed it as treasure-trove, and maintained that its legal home was the National Museum at Dublin. The British Museum authorities replied that Dublin had missed an opportunity of obtaining it in open market; while they themselves, having acquired it in the ordinary course of business, were precluded by statute from parting with it. They further contended that the ornaments were not necessarily of Irish workmanship, but might with equal likelihood have been produced in Britain. Thus for several years the dispute dragged on, until in the summer of 1903 the case came up in the Chancery Division of the Courts of Law.

Notwithstanding the ingenious defense of the British Museum, judgment was given that the ornaments were treasure-trove, and by virtue of the Prerogative Royal must be surrendered to the King. They were accordingly delivered to the Crown authorities, and presented to the Irish National Museum by His Majesty.

Continued in Part 3

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