Curator's Choice: A beautifully-crafted Through the Looking Glass-style 1st century BC mirror

By Ben Miller | 06 January 2014

Curator’s Choice: David Moon, Curator of Archaeology for Oxfordshire Museum Services, on the Iron Age Mirror found by a metal detectorist in Didcot, Oxfordshire

A photo of an intricately carved circular mirror against a black background
The Didcot Mirror was used in Oxfordshire more than 2,000 years ago© Ian Cartwright
“The mirror was found by metal detector at an unknown location near Didcot some time before 2007.

As the mirror is made from bronze and contains no precious metals it was not classified as treasure, and so, after being recorded by the Finds Liaison Officer based in St Albans and undergoing conservation work by staff of St Albans Museum, the mirror went in to private ownership.

A photo of an intricately carved circular mirror against a black background
The Museum Service raised £33,000 to keep the mirror in the county© Ian Cartwright
In 2013, the mirror was sold to an anonymous overseas buyer. But a Curator at the British Museum appealed to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport and, in early 2014, a temporary export bar was placed on the mirror by Ed Vaizey, the Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, who is coincidentally the MP for Didcot and Wantage.

With the temporary export bar in place the mirror was offered for sale to a UK buyer at the recommended price of £33,000, so it could stay in the country.

We received donations from Wartski’s (the Court Jeweller), The Arts Council England and Victoria and Albert Museum Purchase Grant Fund, The Headley Trust and the Friends of Oxfordshire Museum, as well as a substantial number of private donations from people both within Oxfordshire and further afield.

We raised the £33,000 needed to buy the mirror and keep it in the county. And as it is now in public ownership, it is being displayed to the public for the very first time.

The mirror is a fine example of a Late Iron Age decorated mirror. These items are unique to Britain and only 58 are known to exist, with just 18 complete mirrors.

This one is an early example, dating to the 1st century BC, and is decorated with a highly unusual and beautiful curvilinear, La Tene-style pattern which has been inscribed into the back by a craftsman who must have been extraordinarily skilled.

The exact function of mirrors in Iron Age society is not clear. They would certainly have been prestigious items, owned by few people.

Mirrors can be used to reflect light into dark spaces or to signal across distances, as well as to apply make-up or check your hair.

In many cultures mirrors are magical objects which reflect an alternative view of the world, or act as a portal to another world, like Alice found in Through the Looking Glass.

This may well have been the case in Iron Age society, and mirrors may be connected to fortune telling or shamanic activity.

While this mirror was a casual find with no archaeological context, some have been found in association with cremation burials, so mirrors may also have had a function connected with death or afterlife, such as communicating with the dead.

Those mirrors that have been found in burials normally have the reflective side towards the person’s face.

We are very pleased to be able to say that we have been offered a £5,000 grant towards research and outreach for the Didcot Mirror.

The money has been offered by the Heritage Exchange Network, run by the Social Sciences division of the University of Oxford, and is intended to help build bridges between university and outside heritage organisations.

We intend to take very small samples from the mirror, which will be analysed by Dr Peter Northover, the head of the Archaeological Metallurgy Group. He should be able to tell us a great deal about the way the mirror was made.

We will also be having the Pegsdon Mirror on loan from Luton Culture, and hope to be able to do similar work on that mirror, although they have not yet given permission to take a sample.

The two mirrors are strikingly similar, so a comparative study could prove really interesting.

Dr Northover hopes to be able to present preliminary results at the Mirror Study Day at the Oxfordshire Museum on February 7th. We will also be commissioning a film to be made by award-winning film-maker, Sharon Woodward, of Mischief Pictures, about the sampling and analysis, which will follow the process through from start to finish.

The Study Day on the 7th February is an event I am personally very proud we are able to offer and which, I think, is almost unique among museums of our size.

We have five of the leading experts in their fields speaking on the same day, with the themes and inspiration of each talk being the Didcot Mirror.

It should be a fascinating day, and is really a must for anyone with an interest in Oxfordshire’s past.

Meanwhile, the mirror is on display in the introductory gallery at The Oxfordshire Museum for everyone to see.

I hope it will prove to be the start of a new chapter in the its story and, through research, we can discover much more about its past and use it to reach out to the people of Oxfordshire."

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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