Artifact, usually identified as Celtic, dated to around the first century.
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:
- Base: The base shows a bull being speared by a man leaping over it. The man is horned, but it's hard to tell if they're from a helmet or not. Accompanying the man are two dogs.
- Outter Plates:
- a: a large male figure (beareded with a mustache) holds up two smaller men by their arms; they smaller men are each reaching towards two boars. On the large man's left shoulder is a dog; on the right shoulder, what looks like a winged horse.
- b: a large man (bearded, no mustache) holds two serpents. Across his chest is a two-headed monster eating a person on each side.
- c: a large bearded man raises his fists. On each side are smaller men, looking as if they're trying to fight the large man. Beneath the man on the right is a man on a horse.
- d: a large bearded man holds a stag upsidedown in each hand.
- e: a large woman in the center, with two smaller men (similar to the large men) over each of her shoulders.
- f: a large woman holds her right arm up, her left arm across her chest, supporting what might be a person. On our left is a standing woman, with a panther-like animal over her head. On our right is another (presumably) woman, doing the large woman's hair. At the top, on each side, is a bird. By the large woman's right breast is an upsidedown dog.
- g: a large woman (looks like the same as plate f) crosses her arms over her chest. On the left is a man wrestling an animal; on the right is the same man on the right from plate c.
- Inner Plates
- A: A man with antlers--presumably Cernunnos--is surrounded by animals. The man sits crosslegged, his eyes closed. In his right hand he holds a torque; in the left, a ram-headed serpent. A torque is around his neck. On our left side is a stag and what might be a type of bull. On our right is a number of animals (identification is tenuous): a hyena, a lion, something resembling an antelope, two fighting animals that may be lions, and a boy riding a fish. The boy riding a fish is similar to a statue in the British Museum identified as the Greek god Eros. Surrounding all the figures are decorative vines and flowers.
- B: the large woman from the front is on what might be a chariot; fantastical looking elephants and griffons surround her, with some sort of large dog or wolf beneath her.
- C: the large man from plate a is fighting a man wearing a horned helmet who carries a broken wheel; around them are the wolves and griffons from plate B. The ram-headed serpent is at the smaller man's feet.
- D: three small men are sacrificing three bulls. Below each bull is a dog, and above each bull is a spotted animal. Decorative plants are also present.
- E: on the left, a standing man, the hight of the plate, is dunking a man into a vat. A dog is at his feet. The rest of the plate is divided lenghtwise by a plant or vine. On the top, four horsemen with elaborate helmets ride away from the large figure; below, six men with shields, one man with a spear, and three men with carnyxes are marching towards the large figure.
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:
- The presence of Cernunnos: while he is not named on the cauldron, the seated figure with antlers on his head is undeniably similar to a figure on the Nautes' Pillar found in Paris and dated within a century after the creation of the cauldron. On the pillar, the horned figure is ERNUNNO, which is reconstructed as Cernunnos, from cernu- "horn" and the divinizing particle *-on-, such as in Maponos, Gobanon(os?), and Epona, with the typical Gaulish ending of -os, comparable to the Latin -us.
- The Wheel-bearing God: one of the figures usually identified as a deity is holding a wheel; other deities are surrounded by wheels. The presense of wheels in Celtic art, especially connected to the god Taranos, is well-documented.
- torques and helmets: the presence of torques--as well as horned helmets--on several of the figures show a definite Celtic influence. The torque was a popular object in Celtic art.
- carnyx: a type of trumpet prefered by the Celts; it's long body stretches vertically, with the bell horizontal, thus forming a shape like an elongated "S".
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.
- A: Cuchulain's naming. Olmstead identifies Cernunnos with Cuchulain.2
- B: Medb on her chariot; Olmstead also compares this to the story of Berecynthia of Autun.
- C: Two encounters between Fergus and Cuchulain (66 and 92) are combined into one scene.
- D: Death of Donn Cuailnge. Olmstead holds that the original ending of the Tain would have involved a sacrifice of the bull, which has been replaced with the current ending in which the bull plunges itself into the sea. Certainly the bull sacrifice would make sense as an ending, but we can't know if this is in fact the original ending.
- E: Táin bo Fraich or Aided Fraich. The large man dunking a soldier is identified with Cuchulain; the army on the bottom with Fraich's men.
- e: Identified as Fergus-Medb-Ailill
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