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The Significance of Iron Age Torques

by: Marko Ceković

The neck-ring or torque has been identified as a characteristic feature in Celtic civilization,
and often depicted by classical artists and sculptors, and is found in archaeological sites, not
just as a find but also depicted on celtic sculptures, coins and fibulae. Torques were worn in
iron age Europe in large quantities, deposited in graves or in potentially ritual contexts such as
rivers, lakes, or hoards. Neck-rings are also found in the Hallstatt, period but not as
widespread they are usually found in rich graves, often made of gold, associated with male
and female burials.1

In the later Hallstatt the broad decorated band of gold worn around the neck is found in the
rich “princely graves” (Vix and Hochdorf being the most famous examples) and is considered
as a status symbol. But in the La Tene period the gold or bronze neck ring or torque (for some
finds were made by twisting a rod or band of metal) became a widespread form of personal
adornment. In La Tene 1 the torques, particularly those made of bronze, are mainly (but not
always) found in graves, later in the La Tene II and III torques are frequently made of gold
(but bronze and even iron ones are found) and when associated with human remains are
largely in male contexts (though not exclusively). 2

Even though they are usually considered as a statement of social status, toques might
represent religious symbolism associated with the kind of submissive relationship between
humans and the gods referred to by Tacitus. Tacitus describes a ritual of self-subjugation in
the presence of the divine, expressed in the bounding of the congregation with ropes or cords;
(Germania XXXIX) a rite followed by the Semnones, one of the federated polities of the
Suebi:3
1
Champion S. 1995, 413
2

ibid

3
Aldhouse- Green M. 2004, 20, 328
At a set time all the peoples of this blood gather, in their embassies, in a wood hallowed by
the auguries of their ancestors and the awe of ages. The sacrifice in public of a human victim
marks the grisly opening of their savage ritual. In another way, too, reverence is paid to the
grove. No one may enter it unless he is bound with a cord. By this he acknowledges his own
inferiority and the power of the deity. Should he chance to fall, he must not get up on his
feet again. He must roll out over the ground. All this complex of superstition reflects the
belief that in that grove the nation had its birth, and that there dwells the god who rules over
all, while the rest of the world is subject to his sway. 4

Many neck-rings, like some of those from Snettisham in Norfolk were made as if to mimic
ropes or cords, and it is likely that human images wearing torques often depicted people rather
than deities: such an interpretation is supported by the depiction of Iron Age images of
warriors from Lesenho in Portugal and Vachères in southern Gaul 5

Although we can interpret some images wearing of torques wearing figures as people, some
clearly represent god figures, for example Iron Age stone figures from Gaul, notably the
second-/first-century B.C. image of a torque-wearing 'god' with a boar depicted striding
along his torso, and a small group of simply-carved images from Brittany. 6 One of the
most famous images of godlike figures with torques is, of course, The Gundestrup Cauldron.

Plate A of the cauldron centrally shows a horned male figure in a seated position (Cernunnos –
The Horned One). In its right hand, the figure is holding a torque, and with its left hand, it
grips a horned serpent by the head. To the left is a stag with antlers very similar to the
humanoid. Other animals surround the scene, canine, feline, bovine, elephant, and a human

4
Aldhouse- Green M. 2004, 328

5
ibid

6
Green M. 1998, 20
figure riding a fish or a dolphin. Though the date of the cauldron is generally attributed to the
2nd or 1st century BCE (La Tène III), there still remains much room for controversy concerning
the place of its manufacture. The main problem comes from the fact that its style and
workmanship is Thracian rather than Celtic despite its decorative motifs manifestly Celtic. 7

Bergquist and Taylor propose that it was made in southeast Europe by a Thracian silver smith,
possibly commissioned by Celts (Scordisci) and transported by Cimbri who invaded the
Middle lower Danube in 120 BC and looted the Scordisci. They make conjecture that since the
cauldron takes the 4th century BC Thracian style and lacks the Roman tradition, it was made
between fourth and first century BC. According to their interpretation we can be certain that
the image represents celtic religious traditions. 8

God of Etang-sur-Arroux, is another possible depiction of Cernunnos. He wears a torque at the


neck and on the chest. Two snakes with ram heads encircle him at the waist. Two cavities at
the top of his head are probably designed to receive deer horns. Two small human faces at the
back of his head indicate that he is tricephalic.9

We don’t have to travel as far as France to find examples of various contexts of torque finds;
the Ménfőcsanak skeletal cemetery in Hungary, where an iron torque was found in a male
warrior’s grave which denotes the social status of the warrior in the community, while a
bronze torque was registered in a woman’s grave. A torque with a hollow oval cross-section
made of sheet iron was found at the Rezi cemetery north of Balaton in incineration grave 7, in
which the incinerated bones of the deceased were found. The torque finds in other Celtic
cemeteries in Hungary also symbolized the distinguished social position of the deceased. In
the second century BC, torques were worn more as everyday jewellery with a certain cultic or
symbolic significance, as the finds from grave LT 11 in Zvonimirovo in Croatia show.10

7
Klindt-Jensen, O. 1995, 162
8

Bergquist, A. K., and T. F. Taylor. 1983, 268


9

Green M. 1992, 201


10
Dizdar M. 2004, 63
The usual interpretation of the appearance of aristocratic groups in iron age Europe is
demonstrated through gold and silver torques. This increase in the production of personal
ornament at the end of the Iron Age reflects the fact that adorning the body appears to have
become an obsession for women and men, especially for those belonging to the dominant
groups. The warrior-like nature of this elite may be deduced from the frequency of discoveries
of torques, which are linked during the European Iron Age to warrior chieftains or divinities.11

Even though we can be sure that the torque represented the social status and we can link its
wearing to the religious practices described by Pliny, and in some ways confirmed with
numerous images of torque wearing gods and humans alike, there is also a possible apotropaic
element hidden in the custom of wearing a torque. We are here referring to the ancient sources
who depict celtic warrior fighting in the nude, or without armor, but almost always wearing a
torque in battle.

The tradition of naked warrior images continues without break through the iron age. Eighth-
century, archaic Greek statuettes portray warriors naked but for helmet, torque, and belt,
sometimes with a shield flung to their back.. A statue from the sixth century b.c. found at
Hirschlanden in Württemberg shows a similar, fully naked Celtic warrior wearing only hat or
helmet, neckband, belt, and sword. Celts were famous for fighting naked. In the battle at
Telamon in Italy, in 225 BC they wore only trousers and capes, while their Gaesati spearmen
in the forefront, to bluster, threw off even these. Like the Hirschlanden warrior, the Celts at
Telamon wore golden torques to dare the enemy to come and get these neckbands. The
Hirschlanden statue with its torque thus portrays a warrior not in idealized nudity, but in the
actual battle gear of naked warriors. 12

When examined in correlation with the writing of Tacitus and the connection between torque
and religious cult 13 the torque worn by the Celtic warrior can be interpreted as a symbol of the
11

Garcia F. J. G. 2009
12
Speidel M. 2002
13
wearers submissive relationship between him and the gods, and because of this bond he needs
no other protection i.e. armor. Even though the true nature and meaning of the torque will
perhaps forever be obscure to us, by comparing the information given to us by archaeology,
history and the anthropology of religion, we can construct a new picture of its meaning; as not
just a symbol of status inside the community, but perhaps as a major personal cult item, used
not only as a symbol in rituals and every day life, but also as a important part of the warriors
attitude towards life or death in battle.

Bibliography

Aldhouse- Green M. 2004 - Aldhouse- Green M., Chaining and shaming: images of defeat,
from Llyn Cerrig Bach to Sarmitzegetusa, Oxford Journal of Archaeology, Oxford, 2004

Bergquist, A. K., and T. F. Taylor, "Thrace and Gundestrup Reconsidered," Proceedings of


the Seventh International Congress of Celtic Studies, Oxford, 1983, pp.268-9.

Champion S. 1995 - Champion S., Jewellry and adornment, Celtic world, London, 1995.

Dizdar M. 2004 – Dizdar M., Grave LT 11 from Zvonimirovo - An example of a double La


Tene Burial, Opuscula Archaeologica 28 (2004), Zagreb 2005., 41.-8

Garcia F. J. G. 2009 - Garcia F. J. G., Between Warriors and Champions, Oxford Journal of
Archaeology, Volume 28, Number 1, 2009 , 59-76

Green, Miranda J., Dictionary of Celtic Myth and Legend. New York, 1992

Green M. 1998 - Green M. , God in Man's Image: Thoughts on the Genesis and Affiliations of
Some Romano-British Cult-Imagery, Britannia, Vol. 29, Oxford, 1998

Green M. 1998
Klindt-Jensen, O., The Gundestrup Bowl — a reassessment, Antiquity, vol. 33, pp. 161-9 1995

Speidel M. 2002 - Speidel M., Berserks: A History of Indo-European “Mad Warriors” Journal
of World History, Vol. 13, University of Hawaii Press, 2002

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