SHREWSBURY, UK – An extraordinary sun pendant is to go on public display for the first time as part of the British Museum’s National Programs. The sun pendant, also known as a bulla, could be one of the most significant pieces of Bronze Age metalwork ever discovered in Britain. The rare and spectacular object will be hosted at Shrewsbury Museum & Art Gallery later this year from September until December as a British Museum Spotlight Loan. The exhibit, dubbed Gathering Light, will be on display at the museum from September 10 until December 12.
Discovered in the Shropshire Marches in May 2018 by an anonymous metal detector user, nothing like the sun pendant has been found in Britain for more than a century. Shrewsbury also hopes to acquire other archeologically significant Bronze Age objects from the same location as where the pendant was found. The museum is launching a crowdfunding campaign to display all of the objects at the same time. These important objects allow visitors an insight into the full historic story an opportunity to admire the extraordinary craftsmanship of the objects close to their discovery spot, and help to understand the significance of the local landscape to Bronze Age Britain.
The sun pendant (HESH-43148A) is more than 3,000 years old, dating between 1000–800 BCE in the late Bronze Age period. The elegant form and intricate decoration of the gold pendant includes an exceptionally rare depiction of the sun not previously seen on objects found in Britain. Solar symbolism was a key element of mythology and belief in the Bronze Age, and this pendant celebrates the life-giving power of the sun during the time of the earliest metalworkers. The sun pendant is therefore a hugely significant addition to knowledge of the art and iconography of Bronze Age Britain.
The sun pendant marks the end of an era as one of the final expressions of an art style and belief system that had lasted for almost 1,500 years. Deposited intentionally in a wetland landscape of bogs and ponds 3,000 years ago, the pendant provides a starting point for discussions about the role of both water and the sun in the religious beliefs and life in deep history. Measuring 3.6cm high and 4.7cm wide (almost an inch and a half high and almost two inches wide), this bulla is only the second ever found in Britain. The other Irton bulla – now lost – was discovered near Manchester in 1722 and is only known from a picture. Its quality was so high that experts of the day believed it must be Roman. It was last recorded in 1806 before disappearing from records. Curators hope it may one day be rediscovered in a private collection. In Ireland, six similar gold pendants have been found, though these are not identical to this gold pendant.
Alongside the sun pendant, Shropshire Museums are hoping to crowdfund to be able to acquire other historically significant objects unearthed from the findspot to help tell the complete story of ancient Shropshire. These include a jewelry parcel wrapped by lead, believed to be one of the first records of using this material, and hoards which have the potential to date the transition between Bronze and Iron Ages. Shrewsbury Museum will need to raise £40,000 as the reward value of these treasure objects. Raising this money will enable Shrewsbury Museum to add these objects to their collection, preserve them and display to the public. This vast array of high-quality metalwork from this landscape suggests that the Shropshire site was an important location for a form of religious or ceremonial activity for more than a thousand years. These objects and ongoing fieldwork at the findspot reveal important discoveries about this period in British prehistory, advancing our collective archaeological knowledge and understanding of why precious objects would be cast away. Displaying these important objects in situ together for the first time at Shrewsbury Museum would be a unique opportunity for visitors to learn about this historic site.
The objects Shrewsbury are hoping to acquire and display include an unusual lead parcel containing two exquisite gold ‘lock-rings’ (HESH-9EC8BE), which were likely worn as jewelry in hair or clothing. Found close to the sun pendant, X-ray analysis reveals similar decoration. Composed of the same gold and from the same period, there appears to be close technological, cultural and chronological connections between the sun pendant and this lock-ring parcel.
The lead sheet acted to wrap and conceal the rings in place, though damaging them in the act, and could also have helped ‘sink’ the light lock-rings when they were deposited in a wet and watery location with limited prospect of recovery. The lead itself may also be considered a significant sacrifice given the importance of lead in both gold and bronze working. Lead was an important ingredient in bronze production but is rarely found in an unworked state in Bronze Age hoards – there are only 10 other examples previously discovered. This is also the first record of this kind of lead artefact to be found in a Late Bronze Age hoard, whilst gold lock-rings themselves have only been found in relatively small numbers – fewer than 80 examples are known in Ireland, Britain and western France. The combination of lock-ring and lead is completely unique to this parcel. The rarity of the lead and brilliance of the lock-rings indicates that this object is significant both culturally and archaeologically.
The objects Shrewsbury Museum hope to acquire also includes an iron axe (HESH-42F213), of which there are fewer than 30 examples, dating to the period 850–650 BCE. This axe is nationally significant as it dates the hoard to the very end of the Bronze Age and potentially within the very earliest Iron Age, straddling the transitional period between the Bronze and Iron Ages. This is the period where iron was beginning to be used by metal working smiths in Britain. Organic material found with this hoard could provide a crucial radiocarbon date for this transition.
Objects in other hoards that Shropshire Museums hope to acquire include a well-worn cauldron handle as well as weapon fragments that demonstrate significance to our understanding of Bronze Age culture and landscape.
The sun pendant will also star in the British Museum’s forthcoming major exhibition on Stonehenge, whilst the Museum is seeking three more museums to host the Spotlight Loan from late 2022 onwards as part of its National Programs and commitment to sharing the collection as widely as possible across the country. Part of the Spotlight Loan will also include further precious objects yet to be announced.