Gundestrup Cauldron

Artifact, usually identified as Celtic, dated to around the first century.

The Artifact
Decorated silver cauldron, dated to La Tčne III period (ca. 2nd-1st c. BCE). Thracian craftsmanship, but likely for a Celtic client. It is one of the best-preserved non-Roman Iron Age artifacts from the period.

How it got to Denmark is a subject of some debate; most scholars believe it was taken in a raid by the Cimmerians, perhaps in the raid on the Balkans--then a Thracian and Celtic territory--in 120 BCE.

In 1891, the cauldron was found at the bog in Himmerland by peatcutters. "It was dismantled when it was placed in the bog, with its five inner plates and seven of its originally eight outer plates stacked with a round plate inside hte undecorated silver bowl" (Olmstead, 15).

Consisting of thirteen plates--there may be an eighth missing--the cauldron has a wealth of imagery that seems to relate to Celtic religion and customs, but also images that have no analogue to other Celtic artifacts:

Comparison with Other Arifacts
The Rynkeby Cauldron: This item "also came from a Danish bog... decorative plaques forming the interior of the upper cylindrical wall ... the approximate diametere (70 cm.) of the Rynkeby bowl (half is missing) is nearly identical to that of the Gundestrup cauldron... The remaining plate (19 x 42 cm) is clsoe to the Gundestrup Cauldron (200-21 x 40-43 cm) inside" (Olmstead, 18).

The Marlborough Vat: though it has mostly fallen apart by now, photos take of what was left of the vat (it was fragmentary even when originally found) show an image similar to plate B--namely, the top of a face with elephants similar to that of plate B on each side of the face. (Olmsted, plate 30 fig. 1 and 2)

The Lyon Cup: a man--the head is missing--reclines in the Roman fashion. In his right hand is a torque; in the left, a cornucopia. On the left is a stag; on the right a dog. Though the head is missing, the rest of the image is unmistakably similar to the Gundestrup Cauldron, so much so that it seems likely that either the artist saw the cauldron, or the images associated with Cernunnos on both have a common source. On the other side of the cup sits Mercury at a table with a bag of coins; around him are various birds.

The Sailors' Pillar: The only immediate comparisons are the Cernunnos relief and maybe the Smertrios relief. The former (of which we only have half) has a man's head with antlers; on those antlers hang torques. The latter (again, the bottom is missing) shows a man with a club holding a serpent, which may or may not be related to "b".

The Rhiems Cernunnos: Cernunnos sits crosslegged, spilling out a bag of either grain or coins. At his feet are a stag and a bull. On the left is Apollo, on the right Mercury, and above the three is a rat.

Identification--Celtic or Thracian?
It is generally agreed that the cauldron was made either in Thrace or by a Thracian artisan. Certainly it doesn't look Celtic--there are none of the elements of La Tčne art, such as the famous spirals or emphasis on the number three.

Bergquist and Taylor suggested that it was made by Thracians for the Celtic Scordisci tribe, who lived nearby. It may then have been taken by the Cimbri during a raid in 120 BCE. This would explain how it came to Gundestrup.

The argument for a Celtic identification is this:

However, there are at least a couple of obvious eastern elements, the most notable being the ram-headed snake held by Cernunnos. This serpent may have originated in Asia; there is at least one Chinese artifact featuring a ram-headed serpent encircling an owl.1

Garret Olmstead held that the cauldron--particularly the inner plates--depicts a Gaulish version of the Táin Bó Cuailnge.

While Olmstead makes an interesting case, and does much to demonstrait the cauldron's relationship to other Celtic artifacts, his theory of a Gaulish version of the Táin is not widely accepted.

1. The horned serpent is found in other places in the Celtic world; images have been found at Lypiatt Park, Gloucestershire; a stone relief in Cirencester; and on the coins of the Sequani and Meldi in Gaul, ca. 65-50 BCE. (Olmstead, 92).

2. Unfortunately, I still don't understand Olmstead's reasoning for this. I can see how the figure wearing a horned helmet might be a Cuchulain-type figure, but I don't see that as the same figure as Cernunnos.

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Mary Jones © 2007