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Episode 19 - Mold Gold Cape

Mold Gold Cape (made over 3,500 years ago). Finely worked gold object found in North Wales

For the local workmen, it must have seemed as if the old Welsh legends were true. They'd been sent to quarry stone in a field known as Bryn-yr-Ellyllon, which translates as the Fairies' or the Goblins' Hill. Sightings of a ghostly boy, clad in gold, a glittering apparition in the moonlight, had been reported frequently enough for travellers to avoid the hill after dark. As the workmen dug into a large mound, they uncovered a stone-lined grave. In it were hundreds of amber beads, several bronze fragments, and the remains of a skeleton. And wrapped around the skeleton was a mysterious crushed object - a large and finely decorated broken sheet of pure gold.

"It is - in the true sense of the word - 'unique', because there is no other object like it." (Mary Cahill)

"When you look at this object, in one way you react by amazement about how beautiful and intriguing it is. And then you also react to it in terms of wondering about who it was made for, what does it mean that that kind of unique special objects were created." (Marie Louise Sørensen)

Undeterred by thoughts of ghosts or goblins, and exhilarated by the dazzling wealth of their find, the workmen eagerly shared out chunks of the gold sheet, with the farmer taking the largest pieces. It would have been easy for the story to end there. The year was 1833, and burials from a distant past, however exotic, enjoyed little legal protection. The isolated location of the burial site, near the town of Mold, not far from the north coast of Wales, meant that the wider world could easily have continued in ignorance of its existence. That this didn't happen, owes everything to the curiosity of a local vicar, Reverend C.B. Clough, who wrote an account of the find that aroused the interest of the Society of Antiquaries, hundreds of miles away in London.

Three years after the spoils from the burial had been divided, the British Museum bought from the tenant farmer the first and the largest of the fragments of gold, which had been his share of the booty. Much that the vicar recorded had by that stage disappeared, including virtually the whole skeleton. This left only three large and twelve small crushed and flattened fragments of the decorated gold object. It took another hundred years for the British Museum to gather together enough of the remaining fragments (and some indeed are still missing) to begin a complete reconstruction of this divided treasure.

What was the object that these fragments belonged to? When had it been made? Who had worn it? As more archaeological discoveries were made, it became clear that the Mold burial was indeed prehistoric, and dated to the newly identified age of bronze - around four thousand years ago. But it was not until the 1960s, that the gold pieces from the Mold grave were put together for the first time. All the conservators had was flattened fragments of paper-thin gold, some large, some small, with cracks, splits and holes all over them, altogether weighing just over a pound - about half a kilo. It was like a huge three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle, and solving it took nothing less than the re-learning of ancient gold-working techniques that had been lost for millennia.

It turned out to be a gold cape - or perhaps more accurately a short golden poncho. But we call it a cape, and I'm standing in front of it now. It's a stunning, punched-gold wrapping for a human being. It's about a foot and a half (or 45cm) wide and about a foot (30cm) deep, and it would have been put over the head and lowered onto the shoulders, coming down to about the middle of the chest.

When you look at it closely, you can see that it's all been made out of one sheet of breathtakingly thin gold - and it's been calculated in fact that the whole thing could have been made from an ingot about the size of a ping-pong ball. The very thin sheet of gold has then been worked from the inside and punched out - so that the overall effect is of strings of beads running from one shoulder to another and going all the way round the body. Looking at it now, you're struck with this as an object of enormous complexity and ultimate luxury. We don't know who made this, but it's perfectly obvious that they were very, very highly skilled. These were the Cartiers or the Tiffanys of Bronze Age Europe.

But what kind of society could have produced this cape? The sheer opulence and intricate details of the object, suggest that it must have come from a centre of great wealth and power, perhaps comparable to the contemporary courts of the pharaohs of Egypt or the palaces of Minoan Crete - for the cape must have been made around 1700 BC.

But archaeology has revealed no obvious palaces, cities or kingdoms anywhere in Britain at this time. There are the vast ceremonial monuments of Stonehenge and Avebury, hundreds of stone circles and thousands of burial mounds which would have dominated the landscape, but little survives of any dwelling places, and what does remain, suggests that these were extremely modest - thatched wooden roundhouses that would normally suggest tribal farming societies, led by chiefs.

In the past, it was easy to dismiss prehistoric societies as primitive people existing before recognisable civilisations emerged. With few settlements and only burials to work from, it is easy to see why these assumptions were made. But it's partly through the discovery of rare objects like the Mold Gold Cape that in recent years we have come to see them very differently. For while it's unique in its complexity, the cape is just one example of a number of precious objects which tell us that societies in Britain must then have been extremely sophisticated, both in their crafts and in their social structures. And that their societies were not isolated, but part of a larger European trade network. The collection of small amber beads, for example, that were found with the cape, must have come from the Baltic - hundreds of miles away from Mold.

By studying these precious objects - gold, amber, and above all bronze - we can track a web of trade and exchange that reaches from North Wales to Scandinavia, and even to the Mediterranean.

The Mold Cape was buried only a matter of miles away from the largest Bronze Age copper mine in northwest Europe, the Great Orme. The copper from here, and the tin from Cornwall, would have provided the ingredients for the vast majority of British bronze objects. The peak of activity at the Great Orme mine has been dated between 1900 and 1600 BC. Recent analysis of the gold-working techniques, and the decorative style of the cape, dates the burial to this very period. So we can only guess, but it's likely that the wearers of this extraordinary object were linked to the mine, which would have been a source of great wealth, and a major trading centre for the whole of north-west Europe. But was the gold for the cape also traded from far away? Here's Dr Mary Cahill, from the National Museum of Ireland:

"It has been a huge question - where did the gold come from? We have learned a great deal about where the early copper sources are, but the nature of gold - especially if it's coming from rivers and streams, and because the early workings can literally be washed away in one flood, for example - it means that it's very, very hard to identify the sites. So what we are trying to do is to look more closely at the nature of the gold ore, to look at the objects, to try and relate the analysis of one with the other - in the hope that this will lead us back to the right type of geological background, the right type of geological environment, in which the gold was actually formed. And then, by doing extensive fieldwork, we hope that we may actually identify an early Bronze Age goldmine.

"Now, with regard to the Mold Cape, a very rich source of gold must have been available, because the quantity of gold used in making the gold cape is way above anything else of the period, so there had to be a very rich source - gold had to be collected over maybe a long period of time. The object itself is made with exceptional skill. It's not just the decoration of the object that is skilful, the shape of it, the form in which it's made, so that it would fit on the body - we have to imagine that the goldsmith had to really sit down and work this out in advance. How he was going to form the sheet - which is a very skilful matter in itself - how he was then going to decorate it, and how the whole thing would be brought together to make the cape. And this really demonstrates more than anything the level of skill, and the sense of design, that the goldsmith who made it had."

But if the expertise of the maker of the cape is clear, virtually nothing is certain about the person who may have worn it. The object itself provides us with a number of clues. It probably had a lining, possibly of leather, which covered the chest and the shoulders of the wearer. The cape is so fragile, and it would so have restricted the movement of arms and shoulders, that it can only have been very rarely worn. But there are definite signs of wear, and so it may have been brought out on a number of different ceremonial occasions, perhaps over a long period of time.

But 'who' was wearing it? The cape is too small for a grown man, certainly too small for the mighty warrior of early speculation, and it will fit only a slim small person - a woman or perhaps, more likely, a teenager. Archaeologist Marie-Louise S�rensen specialises in the role of the young in these early societies:

"We know that in the early Bronze Age very few people would get older than about 25 years. Most children would not get older than 5. Many, many women would die in childbirth, and a few would get very old, and these very old people might have had a very special status in the society.

"It's actually difficult to know whether our concept of children applies to this society, where you very quickly became a grown-up member of the community, even if you were only 10 years old, because of the average age of the communities that they lived in. That would mean that most people around them were teenagers, there were very few old people in this kind of society."

What this of course challenges, is our perceptions of age and responsibility. In many societies in the past, a teenager could be a parent, a full adult, a leader. And so the cape could have well have been worn by a young person who already had considerable power. We can only guess. The key evidence, the skeleton that was found inside the cape, was thrown away when the gold was discovered, as it clearly had no financial value. So when I look at the Mold Gold Cape now, I have a strange mix of sensations - exhilaration that such a supreme work of art has survived, and frustration that the surrounding material - which would have told us so much about this great and mysterious civilisation that flourished in North Wales four thousand years ago, was recklessly discarded.

It's why archaeologists get so agitated about illicit excavations today. For although the precious finds will often survive, the context which explains them will be lost, and it's that context of material - usually financially worthless - that turns treasure into history.

The transcript for this programme will be published when the programme is broadcast.

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