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Mantell Yr Wyddgrug

Old Gold from Mold

Unknowingly, I have moved from one of the most ancient seats of learning in the world – Oxford – to one of the most important areas of the country for Bronze Age culture. Perhaps Wrexham isn't such a bad trade-off after all . . .

Some of Britain's most significant Bronze Age artefacts have been discovered within a 10 mile radius of where I now live. These include the Burton Hoard; the Caergwrle Bowl, and, probably, one of the most magnificent treasures this land has ever offered up – the Mold Cape. The Welsh name is 'Mantell Yr Wyddgrug'. Strangely, I feel better using what little Welsh I have when referring to these items, as the core of our modern Welsh language has its roots in the Iron Age, and quite possibly beyond. It is as near as we can come to the language of our ancient forefathers.

Ever since watching a BBC programme on the top ten treasures of the British Museum, I have wanted to see them all, especially Mantell Yr Wyddgrug. Imagine my delight on hearing it would be coming virtually back home for the first time in 172 years, as part of an exhibition to be held at Wrexham County Borough Museum! The arresting Kate and I put the exhibition dates in the diary, and both vowed to go and see it as soon as possible.

In the event, 'as soon as possible' became the penultimate weekend of the three month show, which I realise is dragging the heels for an avowed megalither. We entered the museum – which, ironically enough, was the old courthouse and police station; Kate enjoyed looking at the old 1950's photographs on display for various retired Inspectors she knows – and, relishing the splendour to come, we paced ourselves by entering the first part of the show, which was a few artefacts and a continual loop video presentation. First excitement belonged to Kate, as the centrepiece of the room was a reproduction of the Capel Garmon firedog, an Iron Age artefact, found near Carreg Goedog Farm, Capel Garmon, by a peat digger in 1852. Kate was particularly thrilled by this, as many years ago when she was heavily into Viking re-enactment, she owned a faithful copy of this awesome firedog as usable item. The light in her eyes when she saw it was nearly as bright as the time she first saw the Abingdon Sword in the Ashmolean Museum; she had fought with her very own replica of this rare sword, but had never seen the real thing. What a treat that particular afternoon was . . .

After watching clips of Julian Richard's 'Blood of the Vikings' in English and Cymraeg, we moved into the main room of the museum, where the centrepiece was a frighteningly life-like model of a Welsh archer from the battle of Agincourt. Even as we glanced at this, some invisible power caused us to look left, down the room.

Absolutely Fabulous

Glowing like a dawn sun, centrepiece of the exhibition, Mantell Yr Wyddgrug was framed by a doorway into a side room. Even from a distance, and in a glass case, it was possible to see what an awesome object it was – what must it have looked like when worn? The museum literature says it was the 'Mantle of a Woman of Distinction from the Early Bronze Age 1900-1600 BC'. I'm guessing she would have been extraordinarily distinguished.

The workmanship in this cape is stunning. I counted seven different types of punches used to create the flowing, graceful patterns, which were simple, yet beautifully ornate. From a distance, it is crafted to appear as if ropes of gold beads are lying on a gold cloth background; up close, the artistry is dazzling. Fine pin holes round the top and bottom edges of the cape suggest that it may have been stitched to some form of shift or dress to make it bearable for the wearer. The pamphlet accompanying the exhibition contains a picture of one very lucky woman modelling the cape in a controlled experiment to assess the fit.

It's an incredible garment, a unique artefact, and something which inspires reverence and respect on its own, let alone being worn by a venerated, respected and distinguished woman. What makes it all the more amazing is the amount of gold needed, when generally gold was retrieved by soaking fleeces in rivers to catch dust and nuggets swept out of rock face seams. I'm not aware of large Bronze Age gold mines in the UK, but please let me know if there were. Quite frankly, it is astonishing.

Discovered by a gang of labourers in October 1833, who were moving a mound of earth, the cape was lying in the ground encasing the remains of a human skeleton, along with a 'quantity' of amber beads, a strip of bronze and second gold object. Sketchy though these details are, we have the Rev Charles Butler Clough, Vicar of Mold to thank for them, as the land tenant and director of operations, a Mr Langford, was happy for the workman to sling the cape in the hedge, with instructions – 'to bring it with them when they returned for dinner'.

The cape had already been partially crushed in the ground, and the subsequent rough handling ensured more pieces of gold fragments were lost. The restoration work carried out by the British Museum is fantastic.

Of course, this postulates the question who would have worn it? The most current theory, after a breastplate, a peytrel for a horse, and a ?male chieftain's cape is that of a mantle for a woman. This is due partly to the first serious attempt in the 1960's at restoring the cape, and in 2002, a new restoration resulted in the artefact we now know (and love). Unfortunately, none of the human bones found in the destroyed barrow of Bryn-yr-Ellyllon remain, but the general opinion is that they were these of a woman, as additional grave goods included beads, pendants, and other ornaments associated with a woman's burial.

Whoever she was, I imagine she had been highly respected on a very wide scale. Considering Mantell Yr Wyddgrug is such a unique find, the huge amount of gold required for its creation, and that there are no other similar artefacts, could its wearer have been a phenomenally powerful and influential leader or priestess throughout British and possibly European Bronze Age society? As powerful say, as Queen Victoria? Would this explain why this area is known as a hot spot for Bronze Age Culture and artefacts? Could this area of Wales been something of a 'Constantinople' of the European Bronze Age – a confluence of peoples, cultures, trades and politics? Taken with the unique and probably Mediterranean-like Caergwrle Bowl, I believe it strongly suggests that the area surrounding what is now a regenerating ex-industrial town with a binge drinking problem was once the hub of Bronze Age Britain. That's exciting.

treaclechops Posted by treaclechops
10th January 2006ce
Edited 10th January 2006ce

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