Monday, September 23, 2013

A Bronze Age pot from 4,000 years ago

An Early Bronze Age pot which could be up to 4,000 years old has been studied this week at Wakefield Museum by a visiting researcher from Bradford University. Debbie Hallam is researching Pygmy Cups from the north of England as an MPhil topic.  So far over 200 vessels have been tracked down,  and although cups from North and East Yorkshire form a large part of the Northern assemblage, examples from industrialised areas are much rarer and therefore of great interest.

These enigmatic small cups were made as funerary vessels to accompany the body in the cremation pyre and were recovered after the funeral rite and placed in a round barrow or flat grave with the collected cremated remains. In many cases they are found in association with larger urns known as Collared Urns or Food Vessels or in rich graves along with prestige items such as jet, amber or bronze knives.  Although their use is not generally well understood, they have been referred to as ‘incense cups’ because they have small holes drilled in the side, apparently to allow airflow to burn something like incense at funerals. In the Northern collection many of the cups do not have any holes or perforations and this challenges their use as incense burners.

By researching the larger Northern collection as a whole, the study hopes to provide new information about the date and purpose of these pots. Debbie said “most cups are extremely individual, however the Mitchell Laithes cup has some form and decorative similarities to one from Wensleydale, and if this proves to be evidence of an individual craftsman then this will be very exciting, particularly given the distance between the two find sites”.

Wakefield Museum’s incense cup was found during an archaeological excavation at Ossett Sewage Works at Mitchell Laithes  in 2007. In the Bronze Age a barrow was built on the site, which contained 3 cremations, one of which contained this pot. These were carbon dated to 1920-1680 BC. It is on display in Wakefield Museum.

We were also able to give Debbie new information on another incense cup found at Oulton in 1873, the location of which is not known. As a sketch was published in J W Walker’s History of Wakefield’ she may be able to identify it if it survives unlabelled in a museum collection. 

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