Friday, August 1, 2014

A twisted torc from Corrard, Co. Fermanagh | Dr Greer Ramsey UAS Lecture| Review

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The evening of Monday 28th of April brought Dr Greer Ramsey to the Ulster Archaeology Society to talk about the recent find of a gold torc from Corrard, Co. Fermanagh. The President of the society, the wonderful Barrie Hartwell, gave the introductory welcome. He informed the audience that Ramsey had first graduated from Queens’ University Belfast back in 1982, with an undergraduate dissertation on Bronze Age metalwork. He followed this up with a PhD in 1989 on Middle Bronze Age weapons in Ireland. In 1993 he became deputy curator of the Armagh County Museum, before moving to the Ulster Museum in 2014 as curator of Irish archaeology.

The Corrard torc ©NMNI (Source)
Ramsey began his lecture by stating that the Corrard torc is, without doubt, one of the most spectacular single finds of gold ever discovered on the island of Ireland. To place the find and the manner of its discovery in context, he reminded the audience that, contrary to popular belief, the majority of materials in museums are not found through licensed archaeological excavation, but are chance finds. Under the provisions of the Historic Monuments and Archaeological Objects (Northern Ireland) Order 1995, there is a duty to report all archaeological finds to the Ulster Museum, the NIEA, or the PSNI. At this point, the artefacts may be held for up to three months to facilitate recording and illustration. In many cases, the objects are donated to the museum or are returned to the finder. In other circumstances, the museum may consider purchasing the item. The Treasure Act 1996 replaced the medieval laws of Treasure trove. The latter attempted to answer questions of ownership between the Crown and the landowner, based on an understanding of whether or not there was an intention to retrieve the precious metals. If a Coroner’s Court decided that there was an intention to retrieve the artefacts, they were deemed Treasure trove and became the property of the Crown. As an example, Ramsey noted that the diarist Samuel Pepys buried the ‘family silver’ in the garden of his home at the time of the Great Fire of London in 1666, and recovered it with considerable difficulty. Had he not found the objects, and they were only recovered many years later, they would likely to have been considered Treasure trove and, thus, the property of the Crown. I’m presuming that Ramsey is using the term ‘family silver’ euphemistically here as Pepys recorded in his diary on Tuesday, 4 September 1666 that ‘Sir W. Batten not knowing how to remove his wine, did dig a pit in the garden, and laid it in there; and I took the opportunity of laying all the papers of my office that I could not otherwise dispose of. And in the evening Sir W. Pen and I did dig another, and put our wine in it; and I my Parmazan cheese, as well as my wine and some other things.’ As none of these were composed of precious metal, they would not have been considered to be Treasure trove, but after a couple of centuries in the ground only the most gastronomically ambitious would have sampled the delights of the cheese … but I digress. On the other hand, items such as grave goods were unlikely to have been deposited with an intention of recovery, so would have been considered property of the landowner. For example, the Anglo Saxon ship burial at Sutton Hoo was considered to be the property of the landowner, Mrs Edith Pretty. The fact that this, and similar finds, ended up in a museum was largely down to the goodwill of the landowner. The central issue with this legislation is that the intention to recover or not recover is not always clear. Ramsey gave the example of the Broighter Hoard, which was the subject of a court case to determine ownership. One of the lawyers, Edward Carson, argued that there was an obvious intent to recover the items. This line of thinking prevailed and ownership was awarded to the Crown, who gifted it to the Royal Irish Academy, before that collection eventually became the core of the later National Museum of Ireland’s collection. However, if this case had been heard today, there is a good possibility that the evidence would not have supported this conclusion. Thankfully, the anachronisms of Treasure trove have been superseded in the provisions of the modern Treasure Act. It defines treasure as any metal over 300 years old with a minimum of 10% precious metal content. It also includes non-precious prehistoric metalwork, such as bronze, so long as there are part of a hoard. The situation for coins is a little more complex but usually a discovery of two or more silver coins would also constitute treasure. It was under the provisions of this Act that the Corrard torc was declared treasure and was valued by the Treasure Valuation Committee at the British Museum.

End-on view of the Corrard torc ©NMNI (Source)
The Broighter hoard ©NMI (Source)
The Townland of Corrard lies on the north shore of Upper Lough Erne and it was there, in an area of boggy, low lying ground that the torc was discovered in 2009. The finder described it as lying in the ground at an angle of c.45 degrees. The torc was coiled in a tight spiral that resembled a spring that would have rendered it unwearable. In removing it from the ground, the finder pulled on one terminal and accidentally resulted in stretching out the coil. In its current state the coiled torc is 22cm long. There is also some slight damage to the flanges, but it is otherwise in good condition.

General location of Corrard townland, on the shores of Upper Lough Erne (Source)

In Ireland, gold working begins in the Early Bronze Age, around 2500BC. It starts with the manufacture of thin gold lunulae. By around 1400BC there is a change in technology that sees objects created from bars of gold. The Corrard torc was hammered from a square-sectioned bar to form a cross-shape, similar to a '+', and then twisted giving a 'four flange twisted bar torc'. In some examples of bar torcs, the terminals are formed as a single piece with the rest of the torc, while in others they were created separately and soldered on. The Corrard torc is probably of the former kind, where the body and terminals were created together.

The Corrard torc ©NMNI (Source)
Turning to the distribution of bar torcs generally, Ramsey noted that there are approximately 40 Irish examples, 70 from Britain, 22 known from France, and only two from Spain. Drilling down to the distribution of four flange bar torcs, he showed that there are around 10 from Ireland and 38 from Britain. It is difficult to know exactly how many were found in France without further research. Of the Irish bar torcs, only the Corrard example resides at the Ulster Museum - most of the remainder are in the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin. Examples of these include the two surviving torcs from Tara, Co. Meath (a third example has been lost), and one from Tipper, Co. Kildare. Of the entire Irish corpus, only the Corrard torc is still in a coiled state. The only other example known to have been coiled into a spring-like form was found at Drumsallagh, Co. Down (in a private collection), but this was untwisted after discovery. A number of coiled torcs are known from Britain and include examples from Dover, in Kent, and the Crow Down hoard from Lambourn, in West Berkshire. The Burton Hoard, found at Wrexham in Wales, included a coiled torc along with two palstaves, a chisel, examples of twisted gold wire work and beads, and a single sherd of pottery. Ramsey noted that the find of pottery may be significant, possibly indicating that the torc was deliberately coiled to fit into a ceramic vessel.

The Crow Down hoard ©West Berkshire Museum (Source)
Ramsey showed a distribution map of the known findspots for gold bar torcs. The basis of the image was Eogan's 1994 The Accomplished Art: Gold and Gold-Working in Britain and Ireland during the Bronze Age, with post-1994 discoveries added by Ramsey. Here a pattern emerges of a concentration of four flange gold bar torcs in Ireland that is largely coastal, with a defined preference for Leinster - possibly related to the abundance of gold in the Wicklow Mountains. However, the main concentrations of this form of artefact are clearly in the south of England and the north of France. In Eogan’s terminology, the Corrard example would be described as being of ‘Tara’ type and of Irish origin. Today, there may be a case to suggest that the style was of southern English type, though there may be evidence for regional production centres too. Ramsey noted the Corrard torc weighted an impressive 720g, much heavier than many of the more recent discoveries cited, and is the third heaviest torc known. The heavier examples include one from St Helier, Jersey, and the larger of the torcs from the Tara hoard. The fact that the Irish torcs are, on average, heavier than examples from other areas may be taken to suggest Irish smiths had good access to gold sources during the Bronze Age.

Derrinboy hoard
most 4 flange TBTs
Corrard torc

Dating four flange torcs based on Irish material is problematic as most are either single finds, old finds out of context, or occur in hoards with other torcs, or other non-directly datable materials. Thus, much of the chronology of these types of artefacts is done on typological grounds and not by any scientific dating method. Given these limitations, it is argued that hoards date to the late Middle Bronze Age, around 1300-1100BC, or during the 'Bishopsland' Phase, to use the prevailing chronology for the metalwork.

The St Helier torc (Source)
X-ray fluorescence (XRF) analysis of the artefact indicates that it is mostly composed of gold (87%), but with some silver (11%) and copper (2%). In today’s terms, this would equate to a purity of approximately 21 carat, or, as Ramsey quipped, to put it in a more colloquial context: more Lunn’s than Ratner’s. Turning to where this gold may have been sourced, Ramsey explained that this is a debate that has been in motion since the 1960s. Originally, the proposition was that this precious metal would have to have been imported. This opinion has changed dramatically over the years as a number of potential sources have been identified. Looking at the XRF results for Corrard in comparison with other analyses of similar material throws up some rather interesting problems. For example, Ramsey plotted the relative proportions of gold, silver, and copper for the Corrard torc against similar late MBA 4 flange twisted bar torcs and the gold from the early MBA Derrinboy hoard from Co. Offaly (see table below). Even though the Corrard torc should, metallurgically speaking, have more in common with the other torcs of a similar date, it is actually closer in composition to the earlier examples. This may either be explained in terms of the Corrard torc being a genuine piece of the later Bishopsland phase, but made with gold recycled from earlier items. Alternately, it could be a genuinely older example of a 4 flange twisted bar torc. Clearly, there is still much to discover about this torc and where it fits within the corpus of surviving finds.

The Tara hoard ©NMI (Source)
Turning to the question of how such a piece would have been worn, Ramsey noted that, if straightened out, the Corrard torc would have a length of c.121cm or c.47 inches. As part of his research, Ramsey approached a local Armagh draper to discover the average size of men’s belt sold. He was informed that the most common size was some 36in. At 11in shorter than the Corrard example, it may not have been worn in this way around the waist. Perhaps it could have been worn as a long, looped necklace, with the terminals at the lowest part of the front. In any event, he believes that – despite their coiled appearance – there is no reason to see them as arm rings. In examining the question of how and why the torc ended up in this patch of boggy ground, he argued that the torc was part of a tradition – more usually associated with bronze objects – where they were deliberately deposited as votive offerings. He argued that the quality and quantity of materials that reoccur in such marshy locations indicate that they do not represent casual losses. As for why such items were consigned to such watery places, he suggests that they may be seen as a means of placating or thanking a deity. This form of association between watery deposition and the desire to increase luck or prevent harm appears to be deeply ingrained in human though processes and it appears to survive in the idea of throwing coins in fountains and wishing wells.

The Guînes, Pas-de-Calais torc (Source)
In the final portion of the lecture, Ramsay examined the ideas surrounding why the torc was deliberately coiled up. In the front rank of possibilities must be the practical explanations – for ease of transport or burial – perhaps it was intended to be put into a pot or carried in a bag. The other possibility is that of a deliberate denaturing of the artefact so that it could not be used. In this way, the torc is ritually ‘killed’ and put out of use in the human realm, and by these means (and burial/deposition) is transported to the spirit realm. Indeed, this is a recurring element in discussions about this form of ritualised deposition over the last several decades. Bringing the question specifically back to gold torcs, Ramsey pointed to a large 4 flange bar torc (or belt) from Guînes, Pas-de-Calais, in France. This spectacular torc was deliberately pinned together with gold pins to prevent it from being unfolded. It would appear that the Corrard torc was deliberately coiled to symbolically destroy it in this world and send it on to a watery deity.

At this point the lecture ended and the topic was thrown open to the floor for questions. I was unable to capture any real detail in these, other than to say that a number of them concerned the natural alloys that gold forms and how distinguishable these are from deliberately alloyed gold. Other questions and observations revisited the debate about the current state of knowledge of natural gold sources in Ireland. Drawing proceedings to a close, Barrie Hartwell led the thanks to Dr Ramsey for an excellent and illuminating lecture.


I am grateful to Dr Greer Ramsey for looking over my text in advance of publication and catching some of my more egregious mistakes. Any that remain are mine alone.