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Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Stunning 3,000-year-old gold pendant to go on public display for the first time at Shrewsbury Museum & Art Gallery

An extraordinary sun pendant is to go on public display for the first time as part of the British Museum’s National Programmes.

The Bronze Age gold bulla discovered in Shropshire. Photo: British Museum's Portable Antiquities Scheme
The Bronze Age gold bulla discovered in Shropshire. Photo: British Museum’s Portable Antiquities Scheme

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.

Discovered in the Shropshire Marches in May 2018 by an anonymous metal detector user, nothing like the sun pendant has been found in this country for over a century. Shrewsbury also hopes to acquire other archaeologically significant Bronze Age objects from the same findspot and is launching a crowdfunding campaign to display these objects at the same time as the sun pendant.

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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 is over 3,000 years old, dating between 1000–800BC 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, this bulla is only the second ever found in Britain.

The other Irton bulla – now lost – was discovered near Manchester in 1722 and 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 an exceptionally rare jewellery 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 over 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’, which were likely worn as jewellery 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 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 ten other previous 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 – less 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 a rare iron axe, of which there are fewer than 30 examples, dating to the period 850–650 BC. 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 further hoards that Shropshire Museums hope to acquire include a rare and 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 Programmes 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. A British Museum Spotlight Loan Gathering light: A Bronze Age golden sun will be on display at Shrewsbury Museum & Art Gallery from 10 September until 12 December 2021.

Neil Wilkin, Curator, Early Europe at the British Museum said: “The Shropshire sun pendant is an internationally significant object, reflecting the artistic brilliance of communities from the deep past and the social and religious connections that spanned western Europe. It is fantastic that Shrewsbury Museum will have the first opportunity to show the pendant and will do so alongside fantastic objects from their own collections. This will allow the pendant to be set in its landscape and regional context for the first time.”

Fay Bailey, Manager, Shropshire Museums said: “The Shropshire sun pendant is an unparalleled find of International significance. The discovery of this exceptional object and associated finds helps to deepen our understanding of Bronze Age Britain and confirms that Shropshire has an important story to tell. We are delighted to be the first venue to display this remarkable object.”

Maria Bojanowska, Head of National Programmes at the British Museum said: “The sun pendant is one of the most spectacular objects in our collection. I’m very pleased that through the British Museum’s National Programmes, Shrewsbury Museum & Art Gallery will be the first place that the public can see this remarkable pendant in person and up close.”

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