The Caergwrle Bowl
SJ 311 573
The Caergwrle Bowl is unique. This late Bronze Age artifact, dated as far as we have been able to determine to around 1200 - 1000 BC, is thought to be our only artistic representation of a Bronze Age boat in the British Isles. As such, it is entirely iconic, though it had a long journey to gain this stature. It has led to scholars learning much about the technological and artistic sophistication of our distant ancestors - and continues to do so. The most recent conservation efforts, undertaken in 2007, removed much of the early 20th century restoration work and has given us a greater understanding of the techniques used in its fabrication, along with a deeper respect for the workmanship that was required to fashion it.
And if considered outside of its isolation, but within the wider context of the Bronze Age in North East Wales, there is a case to be made that this part of the country was the centre of a culturally vibrant and successful network of communities, that had connections throughout the rest of the British Isles. Consider finds such as the famous Mold Gold Cape, discovered a few miles up the road from Caergwrle and just ten years later than the Bowl, along with the discovery a rich and exotic grave goods in the barrows and cairns at Llong and elsewhere, and it becomes clear that something rather special was happening here.
Why this was so, probably turns on the fortuitous wealth of natural resources such as lead, copper, timber and even gold in the area, and an outstanding network of trade routes, by land, river and sea. It was the gateway to Ireland and the lucrative lowland areas of England. In its very fabric, the Caergwrle Bowl is evidence of these inter-connected communities - tin and shale from the south west of England, the gold perhaps from Ireland (though it is possible it came from much closer, indeed). But it is clear that these networks were not only from within the British Isles, but were also international. The Neolithic revolution that brought farming and megalithic monuments to these islands followed the Atlantic sea routes along the west coasts of England and Wales, through the Irish Sea. The likelihood that the Caergwrle Bowl depicts a boat, and an ocean going boat at that is thus not as surprising as it may seem, then. Evidence for sea going enterprise amongst our Bronze Age ancestors is very rare indeed, but it was obviously happening, and happening in vessels considerably larger than the coracles.
The bowl was discovered in 1823 by workmen undertaking drainage work in the fields below Caergwrle Castle, an area prone to flooding at the time by the River Alyn. Where the bowl was found exactly is a matter of some debate. While this should not vex us too much, since we are talking a difference of yards not miles between the competing sites, it remains interesting in that it does seem to show a general lack of understanding of what was found, its importance and influence. In Archaeologia Cambrensis (Series 4: 1875), E.L. Barnwell describes the circumstances of the find, near Rhyddyn,
‘A house near the foot of the steep hill on which the ruins of Caergwrle stand. In a field to the south west, which was occasionally flooded...The field forms a kind of small valley at the foot of the Castle, and must have been at one time a morass, thus adding to the protection of the fortress on the east side.’
However, the antiquarian Angharad Llwyd writing earlier than Barnwell, suggests a site a little further to the west of Rhyddyn, the river and the later railway. She has a point, since the name of the field there, an area later built over in the 1920s, was Maes cibyn, or Field of the cup. There is, in fact, still a road within the housing there called Maes Cibyn. The history of this field is fascinating in its own right, but perhaps a little beyond the remit of this article. Still, given the fact that Barnwell’s identification of the find site is closer to the River Alyn is important, especially when one considers that it is thought that the Bowl was a votive offering, placed within the boggy ground there as a ceremonial offering. There is also a suggestion that the bowl was found in an area known for peat cutting, which Maes cibyn was not. The workmen who found the Bowl are said to have thought it was the gold ornamentation from a coffin and struck it with a spade, breaking it. It was bought from them by the Rev. George Cunliffe, younger brother to Sir Robert Henry Cunliffe 4th Baronet, and stayed with the family for nearly 100 years before being donated to the National Museum of Wales in 1912, by Sir Foster H.E. Cunliffe of Acton Park in Wrexham (an area known for its own Bronze Age finds), who later died of wounds suffered at Ovillers-la-Boiselle, France during the Battle of the Somme in July 1916.
Sir Foster Hugh Egerton Cunliffe 6th Baronet
It was initially thought to be of Saxon origin, and was described as such by Sir Samuel Rush Meyrick and Angharah Llwyd, before its true, much older Bronze Age providence was realised. During its time with the Cunliffe family it underwent some form of restoration, although the nature of this is unknown. After its donation to the National Museum, it was sent to the British Museum in London for further work, and it was this restoration, in which the missing half of the Bowl was replicated in wax, that remained in place until 2007.
It may seem incredible to us today, knowing what we do about the Bowl, to imagine it remaining in relative obscurity in the care of the Cunliffes. There was some attempt to place the Bowl in a wider context, and some appreciation of its potential, perhaps. The Bowl was exhibited at a meeting of the Society of Antiquaries in 1823 by Sir Samuel Rush Meyrick, in which the Bowl was described as,
‘Richly inlaid on the exterior with thin gold in various devices; the gold leaf beautifully tooled, and extremely pure; the border being formed of concentric circles, and the rest of parallel lines, where it was made to double over the edge. The ornament of the under part consists of a central band very sharply indented both ways; and a little distance on each side, another composed of three lines of zigzag, which is again bounded by another indented border’.
Basire wrote an article in Archaeolgia (21:1827), in which a watercolour of the Bowl was produced, which fairly reinforces Meyrick’s description.
Basire's watercolour from Archaeolgia (1827)
And E.L. Barnwell wrote an article in Archaeolgia Cambrensis (Series 4:1875), which ends with a call to arms to have the Bowl placed in the care of the British Museum,
‘It is certainly remarkable that for fifty years this interesting relic of British Art should have remained, in spite of the notice in the Archaeolgia, unknown, except among the private friends of the owner. We trust, however, that when the Trustees of the British Museum are aware of its existence and of its importance, they will take immediate care that it be removed to their charge, and, if possible, placed as near as convenient to the British corselet.’
Early photograph taken from Archaeolgia Cambrensis (Series 4:1875)
Although it was first thought to have been made of oak, it is actually composed of Kimmeridge shale, sourced from Dorset, a fact not known for sure until the 1980s. There are a variety of reasons why it is thought to represent a boat, and not least because with its oval shape it actually looks like one. However, the decoration on the Bowl furthers the belief that it represents an ocean going vessel. Along the side of the Bowl are a series of zig zags, which would suggest waves, while above these ‘waves’ there is a long row of downward pointing triangles, thought to represent oars. Around the rim of the Bowl is a sheet of gold foil which has been stamped with a row of fairly concentric circles, possibly denoting the shields of the crew or perhaps warriors. There is also, along the spine (or keel) of the Bowl, a double line of markings which have been variously interpreted as evidence of the ‘boat’s’ construction, or more probably a visual representation of the boat cutting through the surf. But, perhaps the most interesting decoration, magical even are the two oculi, the eyes situated at the prow and the stern of the boat, thought to represent charms against ill fortune. They give the boat an overall Greek, Mediterranean feel and place the Bowl in an international cultural context that would seem delightfully incongruous given its finding in a North Walian bog. The waves, oars and shields have been given an applied decoration of tin and gold with considerable care, expertise and patience. It is difficult to see the Bowl as anything other than a representation of an ocean going ship.
The Caergwrle Bowl is an astonishing piece of art, and shows a depth of detail and superb craftsmanship that gives us reason to believe that North East Wales was home to craftspeople of considerable talent and renown. This is all the more incredible, at least to our modern understanding, given that the Bowl was then given up as a votive offering.
The circumstances of this offering are lost, of course, and can only be wondered at. Did it involve an entire community, or a family perhaps? Was it made specifically to be placed in the sodden soil? You can insert your own favourite suggestion here, since the truth is no one knows and no one will ever know for certain. But the obvious value of the Bowl suggests the ceremony was of some significance. Personally, I like the suggestion of a community gathering together seeking the favour of a deity before some trading or diplomatic mission, the benefits of which would bring advantage to all.
And looking at the Bowl in a wider context, it is clear, as has been said, that it reinforces the impression that North East Wales was a thriving, important centre of Bronze Age culture. It is clear that there were extensive connections with other areas of Bronze Age Britain - with the materials in its making suggesting established trading and cultural networks. The representation of the Bowl as a ship is hugely significant in this context, since while it has been known that extensive sea going networks were in existence, certainly from Neolithic times, evidence of that transport are tremendously rare. The idea that sheep and other livestock were ferried over the Channel from the continent during the Neolithic revolution in what amount to coracles is hard to credit. But, care needs to be taken of course. We cannot leap to the conclusion that the waters of the British Isles were regularly plied by sea going vessels of the size and stature as represented by the Caergwrle Bowl. But, it demands we consider again, the sophistication of our Bronze Age ancestors.
And why would this representation of a sea going vessel be found at Caergwrle? Why not closer to the coast? It is possible, of course, that the Bowl was not fashioned in the Caergwrle area. It is possible that it was made elsewhere, possibly even outside of North East Wales, but I fancy that is unlikely, given what we know of the craftsmanship available in the area. Such talent was valued, and continued to be valued. The area known as Elmet, an independent Brittonic kingdom centred on South Yorkshire is thought to have been largely spared the ravages of the Saxon because of the quality of the metal work being produced there. Granted, this was several centuries later, but it does, I think, show that quality was recognised, appreciated and exploited. I fancy North East Wales was producing outstanding goods, valued by communities throughout the local, national and perhaps even international areas. It should also be remembered, that Caergwrle, though some distance from the sea, stands on the River Alyn, a hugely significant water way throughout the Bronze and Iron Ages, a tributary of the sacred River Dee, which of course, in its turn feeds into the Irish Sea, the ‘motorway’ of the Bronze Age. Water was an important aspect of the culture of the Bronze Age, and many would argue that it has remained so, and it’s clear that water was important at Caergwrle.
We cannot be certain as to whether there was a community centred on Caergwrle, and its history is a curious one, but it’s likely that there was an earlier build than the castle on the hill, and it is unlikely that such a vantage point was not utilised in some fashion. The hillfort at nearby Caer Estyn can be dated to the early Iron Age, and possibly late Bronze Age, which would place a community contemporary to the Bowl. The River Alyn separates these two hills, separating what was perhaps two communities. Perhaps then, the offering of the Bowl near the waters of the Alyn was a shared experience for these two peoples. In truth, there are so very many possibilities that it could make your head spin.
In the glaring light of the Mold Gold Cape, the Caergwrle Bowl is often overlooked, perhaps even in North East Wales. But to look at the Bowl is to be transported to an age that Stephen Aldhouse-Green has described as one of, ‘gold, princes and heroes.'