The Mold Gold Cape is currently on temporary loan from the British Museum to Wrexham Museum. The gold cape is a unique artefact for Britain. It was found in 1833 near Mold, Flintshire, in a cairn in a field known as Bryn Ellyllon (Hill of Fairies or Goblins). The cape was found in a central cist. Basic information about the cape can be found on the BM website.
The cape is a fabulous world-famous example of Early Bronze Age (c. 1900-1600 BC) sheet-gold, beaten and then impressed with shapes to give the impression of festoons of beads and clothing. It is therefore an inherently skeuomorphic artefact.
When worn, it would have restricted upper arm movements, which has generally suggested it is a ‘ceremonial’ artefact as well as an object that demonstrated long-distance contacts and status. Whether used in ceremony or a part of personal dress, it defined its wearer as someone set apart from routines of work and perhaps it defined particular gestures or even dance. It is now thought that a second, smaller cape, had been present in the same grave.
This morning I went to the exhibition with my twins. Wrexham Museum is packed with displays and they have done a fabulous job (assisted by the National Museum of Wales) with minimal space to pack in the cape in a dark space, reached by passing detailed, informed display boards giving details about the artefact, its discovery, history of conservation and interpretation and broader context. I loved the gold-coloured text throughout.
I have to congratulate the display for its attention to the history of discovery and interpretation and the context of the find. I particularly liked the artist’s reconstruction of the nineteenth-century discovery of the grave. This was vividly portrayed and gave a sense to the viewer that this artefact is very much one ripped from its original context. How much more would we understand if the grave had been adequately recorded and the bones and other artefacts were available for modern study? Two aspects of context require note regarding the identities thought to be projected by the Mold Gold Cape: artefacts and locality.
Identity in Artefacts
No bones survived, but amber beads, bronze knife and cape together lead the exhibition to claim that this was the grave of a ‘woman of distinction’. The need for a sound-bite precludes discussion of the challenge of associating artefacts with particular age or gender groups in the Early Bronze Age. It seems that the artefact has now been removed from the previously considered male association and that makes sense, but the female association seems insecure too. These artefacts were perhaps significant for their form, use on the body, perhaps also their exchange and duration through many generations. Their life-histories and embodied uses, the materiality of the gold are all themes that needed addressing alongside the skill of manufacture.
Hence many users may have been associatd with such prestigious artefacts as the cape: male and female, young and old. So the equation of artefact with the singular identity of the grave’s occupant, especially when the find was so poorly recorded, is inconclusive. The fact that a portion of a second cape was found in the same grave, doesn’t lead the exhibition to problematise the association of artefacts with the status and gender of a single individual. Next door, on permanent display, is the Early Bronze Age ‘Brymbo Man’. Only a fraction of his body had been in the cist, suggesting that the grave had been a focus of multiple acts of burial and circulating of artefacts and human remains. Could the same have applied to the Mold cist-grave that produced the capes? Was any single person associated with this artefact at all?
To shed light on the history of associating the cape with gendered identities, the exhibition showed the earlier interpretation of the 1950s that it was a male dress accessory, and even the BM has an artist’s reconstruction of it being worn by a rather gender-ambiguous individual (above) who is presumably male rather than female. So this exhibition is to be congratulated for shifting the gender-association of the cape to where it probably belongs; to adult females. However, even if female bling, do we know it was the property of a single individual? Associating the grave with a ‘woman of distinction’ might be seen as a victory of insights into the find and its context allowing a long-awaited de-bunking of associations of males with wealth and power in the Bronze Age. However, the desire to connect artefacts to individuals, and thus identify an ’empowered’ female in the past, brings its own problems with it.
Identity in Locality
In a temporary exhibit focused on a single artefact, I have to congratulate the display on providing an attempt to put the Mold Gold Cape in its regional context. Excavations of another BA cairn at Llong in the 1950s and CPAT’s work on an BA monument in 2010 at Pentrehobin are seen, in broad terms, as providing a context for an ‘unusual concentration of Neolithic and large Early Bronze Age burial monuments along the Alun Valley (despite the fact that the EBA is here dated to 2300 -1500 BC). What might be criticised here is that this creates the allusion of contemporaneity with the cape, when in fact these monuments seem to be far earlier. For example, the Pentrehobin C14 dates (2400-2130 BC) are called ‘slightly earlier’ than Llong and Breyn yr Ellyllon, seems to stretch things too far, at least from the perspective of an historic-period archaeologist like me; it is centuries earlier.
So a somewhat contrived single-phase regional context triumphs over complex socio-economic and religious change over millennia. This is a little troublesome. The exhibition booklet claims this evidence indicates ‘vibrant prehistoric communities’. Fine. They were also ‘expressing themselves in culturally distinctive ways’. Distinctive from whom? Without clarification, this could be mistaken to read like thinly veiled modern politics. Certainly the capes seem to show something different happening in this region, but, superficially at least, the monument forms, artefacts and styles of NE Wales show strong some links with neighbouring areas.
I found this a brilliant temporary exhibition in many ways. The staff were very welcoming and helped me get a double-pushchair around the galleries. My twins didn’t like the heat of the strong lights, but there was plenty of space for them to get around. What I liked most was the genuine feeling of home-coming – this artefact belonged here, not in the BM. Locals were really interested and passionate about the find. The gallery was packed.
Superb attention was given to the context of the find, something you wouldn’t get at the BM. This in itself is deserving of why the Mold Gold Cape would be better off staying permanently in Wrexham Museum or a new visiting centre near Mold itself. Then again, temporary exhibits facilitate and demand reinterpretations, and that is welcome as well.
My only concern was how the archaeology of prehistoric gender and ethnicity is still presented to the British public in a problematic way. Modern tensions and debates about gender and regional identities within these islands – such as Welsh identity – are still implied and applied to the past through seemingly harmless phrases. As a mortuary archaeologist, the equation of grave-goods with the identity of the occupant is still something I see in public displays and the popular literature and it bugs me. I am happy to concede that the cape and other evidence suggests something really exciting was going on in this region in the EBA, but I dread phrases like ‘cultural distinctiveness’, a phrase I recently found written into Welsh universities as something that needs promoting within the regions of Wales.
Still, we had a good time, bought the souvenir guide and also the postcard of the cape. Well done Wrexham Museum! I hope the cape comes back permanently in the near future.
NOTE: Since writing this blog, a Welsh archaeologist has contacted me to justify the decisions over the issues of gender and cultural identity, citing recent archaeological literature that defends the judgements made. However, the blog remains an accurate account of my impressions and concerns on these issues. Still, I have revised the blog to address some errors and rephrase my arguments.