"Fabulous objects": The stunning mirrors which reveal the skill of Iron Age metalworkers

By Ben Miller | 03 November 2015

Mirror buried in Scottish bog and Iron Age bronze artefact from Devon embark on tour from British Museum

A photo of a woman looking at a golden iron age mirror
British Museum Project Co-ordinator Natalie Tacq admires the 2,000-year-old Holcombe (left) and Balmaclellan mirrors© Richard Darn
A pair of hallowed Iron Age mirrors, the earliest of which is decorated in swirling Celtic art designs from 100 BC, have gone on display alongside the prized, 2,000-year-old Newark Torc at the National Civil War Centre.

The Holcombe mirror, usually on display at the British Museum, was discovered during excavations at a late Iron Age settlement beneath a Roman villa in Devon. Its counterpart, from National Museums Scotland, emerged at Balmaclellan, in south-west Scotland, as part of a hoard of metalwork which could have been wrapped in cloth metals as an offering to the gods in a bog.

A photo of a woman looking at a golden iron age mirror
© Richard Darn
“These are fabulous objects which tell us a great deal about Iron Age culture and revealing they were capable of stunning workmanship,” says Glyn Hughes, the Team Leader for Collections at the centre, calling their temporary acquisitions “a major coup”.

“These are rare objects of international significance and we are delighted to be part of this prestigious tour.”

The Holcombe Mirror, Uplyme, East Devon, England. Iron Age, about AD 30-70

A photo of a large dark brown iron age mirror
© British Museum
In 1967, Devon Archaeological Society heard that a Roman mosaic pavement had been found by a farmer near Uplyme in East Devon. The Society started archaeological excavations at the site in 1969 and discovered a Roman villa.

In 1970 a volunteer on the dig, Nicholas Riall, was excavating a pit found under the floor of one of the rooms in the villa. The pit belonged to a farm or settlement on the same spot the Villa was later built. In the bottom of the pit he found an Iron Age bronze mirror, which was placed there during the first century AD.

The mirror is made from bronze and is decorated with a symmetrical 'Celtic' or La Tene design. The decoration is on the back of the mirror, with the polished side where you saw your reflection on the other side.

The complicated design is now difficult to see because it was badly corroded by being buried for 2,000 years at the bottom of a pit. In fact, when the mirror was first found, no-one could see any decoration on the mirror plate at all. It was only after it was carefully cleaned by conservators at the British Museum that the design could be made out.

The plate of the mirror is only a millimetre thick and binding strip around the edge helped to protect it. The grip that holds the handle to the mirror is decorated with two counterpoised trumpet scrolls. British Museum curators say that when you look at the mirror with the handle at the top, the grip looks like the face of a smiling cat.

The Balmaclellan Mirror, Balmaclellan, Kirkcudbrightshire, 75 AD - 200 AD

A photo of a large dark brown iron age mirror
© National Museums Scotland
The bronze mirror was found in a hoard with sheet bronze mounts wrapped in four cloth parcels.

It was a valuable object, important for display as well as for grooming.

A photo of a large Iron Age mirror
© National Museums Scotland
Details of the incised decoration can be paralleled on other native-made objects from England and lowland Scotland.

Bronze mirrors are found in both Roman and native sites, particularly in southern Britain. They would have been valuable and prestigious possessions.

  • Tour dates: National Civil War Museum, Newark, until January 4 2016; Littlehampton Museum, January 6 – March 9; Old Gala House, Galashiels, March 14 – May 22; Inverness Museum and Art Gallery, May-August; The McManus, Dundee, September-November 2016.

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Three places to discover Iron Age Britain at

Corinium Museum, Gloucestershire
Step through a triumphal arch to arrive in Corinium; second largest city in Roman Britain. Experience life as a Roman. Marvel at the stunning mosaics. Dress as a Roman soldier. Explore their artistry and engineering.

Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery
The Iceni were a deeply religious Celtic tribe who lived in settlements and spent their lives raising crops, managing woodland and tending herds of sheep, cattle and pigs in the area now covered by Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire during the late Iron Age. Find out more about them in the Boudica Gallery.

Old Sarum, Salisbury
The great earthwork of Old Sarum stands near Salisbury on the edge of Wiltshire's chalk plains. Its mighty ramparts were raised in about 500 BC by Iron Age peoples, and later occupied by the Romans, the Saxons and, most importantly, the Normans.
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..these societies are the kings and chiefs and their `companions', elite warriors bound to their lords by ties of honour, courage and generosity.

The English seem to have conformed to the general Germanic pattern, because Tacitus says that there was nothing noteworthy about them and the six tribes who shared in their worship except one thing. However, he found that one exception so interesting and important that he gave it a whole chapter in a very short book:
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