This week has been one of discovery, I’ve been researching Celtic Torcs those crown jewels of the Iron Age world. What they were, who wore them, why and how to make them. I’ve assembled what I’ve learnt so far in this post. Iron Age treasure hordes exert a powerful pull on me as a jeweller. The survival of 2000-year-old personal objects in almost perfect condition is an incredible thing and reminds me the impulse to decorate ourselves with jewellery is timeless and ancient. The connection with people of the past through what they made and wore is a magical one.
What is a Torc and who were the Celts?
A torc is a specific kind of jewellery, usually, a neck ring that circles the base of the neck often open with highly decorated ends or terminals. The origin of the word torc means twisted. Torcs are made from gold alloys, copper alloys such as bronze or more rarely silver. They were a form of jewellery most closely associated with the Celts and archaeologists have discovered them all over Europe. About 2000 years ago Celtic tribes stretched from Ireland to Spain, were all over France (or Gaul as any Asterix reader will know), Hungary, the Alps and Britain. Eventually, they were conquered and subsumed into the Roman Empire (except Scotland and Ireland). Celtic metalsmiths were expert craftsmen, and the construction of the great torcs are masterclasses in jewellery making art.
How were they worn?
Torcs come in various sizes and thicknesses; the neck rings are usually made from bundles of twisted wire or worked square bar or flat ribbon that often end with extremely ornate terminals. They are not always so ornate many are of very simple twisted design with the wire forming a ring at each end. Some torcs look very manageable and wearable to modern eyes; others are huge with the cable thicknesses reaching an almost industrial scale.
Putting on a torc meant using the flexibility of the metal to twist the two terminals away from each other to make an opening large enough to fit over your neck, either from the back or the front then fitted in situ. Julia Farley, the Curator of the Iron Age collection at the British Museum, explains the method in detail in the museum’s blog.
Flexing the metal over time would eventually make it hard and brittle, it would work harden. This hardening often meant that torcs broke as they suffered from metal fatigue. There are broken and very clumsily mended torcs in the British Museum collection. Julia Farley speculates, “I wonder if being the proud owner of a ‘vintage’ torc (old enough to be in need of flamboyant repairs) might have been something to be proud of. Rather than an unfortunate accident, breakage could have been part of the natural lifecycle of a torc. “ (1) Perhaps this was like the Japanese Kintsugi method of mending pottery with gold, making a virtue of a repair rather than hiding it thus celebrating its history. Some torcs are so enormous and rigid they were perhaps not for wear but religious, triumphal or ceremonial symbols to hold aloft. (2)
Who wore them?
Archaeologists have found torcs in the graves of both men and women, but the biggest and most beautiful in Europe were of course in the burials of wealthy nobles. I wonder given they were made in a variety of metals and sizes if they were a standard style of jewellery and the cut of your torc denoted your status in society?
Torcs have been found in graves in Europe so archaeologists can work out how they were worn and who wore them from their context. However, all the torcs discovered to date in Britain have been in treasure hordes, so they lack any human context at all. Were they buried in graves that have not been found yet or were they passed down as heirlooms rather than buried with their dead owners? Julia Farley suggests owning a repaired heirloom torc could be a status symbol perhaps the ancient Britons considered them too valuable to inter with the dead? As a people famous for giving extravagant metal offerings to their gods it could be these hordes were offerings?
How Were Torcs Made?
As a jeweller, one of the most exciting and practical pieces of research I’ve been reading is by Dr Tessa Machling and historical replica maker Roland Williamson of Bodgit&Bendit. They were looking onto the fabrication of gold torcs with a particular focus on how the Celtic goldsmiths made the ornamental terminals. Initially, general speculation was that the ends were lost wax cast directly onto the wire neck ring.
Lost wax casting would involve modelling the decoration on in wax and then making a mould around the wax, heating to liquefy and drain the wax then pouring the hot gold into the mould. However, this would be a spectacularly risky way to do it. The opportunity for getting it wrong, or the process failing is exceptionally high. Would the cast gold even make a solid join onto all those neck wires this way? Surely you would also have to keep the neck wires at a constant temperature while you did this to fuse the cast terminals to the rest of the torc?
These difficulties are what the researchers intended to find out, what they found was that the Celt goldsmiths used repoussé, a technique where sheet metal is shaped using various types of chisel to push the metal from the inside out to make a decorative relief. Detail can be added to the surface using another chiselling technique called chasing, or by stamping or engraving. For modern use of this technique go and have a look at the work of silversmith Miriam Hanid where you will see how she pushes the silver into the flowing shape she needs.
The Celtic smiths would use sheet metal to make a doughnut then put a central apple core in to make the hole. They secured this onto the neck ring with a gold collar to hide the join. Sometimes this was soldered which sounds simple, but it is challenging to solder a delicate hollow piece onto a sizeable solid section, you have to keep it all at the same temperature and not melt bits of it! One Torc they investigated seemed to be cold joined, and the terminals were secured using closely fitting rods
Making Wire Neck Rings.
On my last visit to the British Museum, I discovered that the wires were twisted together round bendy willow wood which was then burnt out leaving the shaped neck ring. Using flexible rods explains how they maintained the neatness and quality of the wire twists. In the case of the Snettisham Great Torc, it is not only the whole neck ring that is hollow but also the cables making up that neck ring. Making a substantial piece of jewellery lighter and making economic use of precious materials. Torcs are also made from square bar or flat ribbon which is twisted (The National Museum of Northern Ireland has an excellent video on how this is done)
Did the Celts Have Drawplates?
Ok, what’s a drawplate? You ask, let me put it this way I can’t imagine making all the metres of wire used in the neckpiece of a torc without having one. Wire starts out as a hammered bar which is pulled through the graded holes of a draw plate to make its profile regular, to stretch it and to make it thinner. Modern ones are made of tungsten steel, but would the Celtic smiths have had access to this kind of tool? Would they have made a rigid plate with small holes in it to draw down the wire? The other alternative is hammering it all out, drawing it down by hand. Maybe they did this, perhaps Celtic goldsmiths had lots of apprentices to spend days doing this work?
Why have I spent this week researching Iron Age Jewellery? I tried making a wire torc back in 2006 it took 22 metres of wire and presented some challenges that needed further research. I was satisfied with the results at the time, and so was the new owner of the torc. The terminals proved particularly problematic. However, I have recently made a couple more using a different technique, and the pull of the treasure trove torcs has come back. There has been more research done by archaeologists on the methods used by Celtic goldsmiths, and this is feeding back into the techniques I use in my current work. The master metalsmiths of the past still have so much to teach us in the present, which is a humbling thought. We may have come a long way, but the essential truths of why we wear jewellery and how we can make it are timeless.
Torcs from the British Isles and where to find them.
I would recommend seeing these superb pieces of jewellery up close and they can be found in museums up and down the UK.
British Museum – room 50 – The Snettisham Great Torc this is the most famous torc and in my opinion, the best piece of jewellery ever made, you can see it and a wide variety of other torcs here.
Norwich Castle Museum – The Snettisham treasure is a highlight here, and they have a large number of torcs in their collection.
The Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge houses many pieces of Iron Age jewellery
Stoke on Trent Potteries Museum and Art Gallery houses the recently discovered Leekfrith torcs, the earliest Iron Age torcs yet found.
Yorkshire Museum has two torc bracelets that discovered in a stream in 2010.
Ely Museum in Cambridgeshire houses the Great Gold Torc, an enormous waist belt of a torc possibly worn as a protection amulet by pregnant women.
Museum of Somerset has the Yeovil Gold Torc found in 1909
Museum of Scotland has some fascinating examples that use unique decorative techniques that I hope to get to see one day.
National Museum of Wales – has around seventeen pieces although a catalogue search indicates they are mostly in storage.
National Museum of Ireland (Archaeology), Dublin – has a large collection of unique early and later iron age torcs
National Museum of Northern Ireland, Ulster Museum – has many examples of twisted gold torcs.
How Do You Put On A Torc? Julia Farley at the British Museum – at the end of the post there is a really good video too
(1) & (2) Julia Farley How to Put On A Torc