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Harborough Museum

Gold basket hair ornaments

Gold basket hair ornaments

These rather unassuming objects can be easily overlooked. They probably don’t look like much, a piece of bent metal. However, when you hear they date back to 2,500 BC, you may give them a second thought.

The purpose of these ‘basket ornaments’ – ‘basket’ refers to their shape – is thought to have been as a hair piece. How can we possibly know what people 4,000 years ago would have used these for? We can’t. Despite this, an educated guess, using evidence of the Amesbury Archer who was found with similar ornaments by his head rolled to possibly secure hair, suggests that these were hair pieces of sorts.

What is amazing about these small but significant pieces is the fact that they are the oldest known metalwork in Leicestershire (and some of the oldest in the country). Found in Gilmorton in 2006, it is difficult to picture what the area and its inhabitants looked like in 2,500 BC; after all, we have as much evidence of Bronze Age Britain as we have of the last Ice Age – very little. It is fascinating when you realise that evidence like this proves just how early developed civilisations have lived in Britain. As a country, we were inhabited considerably later than others and it can be easy to assume that in 2,500 BC we were relatively primitive. However, these basket ornaments prove otherwise – they’re evidence of practicality and culture, objects beyond necessity.

When we talk about the Bronze Age, what image comes to mind? Perhaps it conjures up scenes of the Mycenean world; the Trojan War; the beautiful Helen of Sparta. Indeed, when Schliemann famously excavated Hisarlik – the site of mythical Troy – his finds consisted of such delicate golden trinkets. Although the layer to which Schliemann dug was earlier than that of the Trojan War (he dug to Troy) hence dispelling his claim that these were Helen’s jewels, it is in fact a period in which these basket ornaments date back to. The Bronze Age spanned a fair period, the legendary Trojan War took place in 1,200 BC whereas these objects are about 1,000 years earlier. It is no coincidence that the basket ornaments in Britain and the gold discovered at the Mycenean site date to the same period; it is suggestive of an explosion in innovation and perhaps is evidence for trade and links between the distant lands – although more likely that these skills were received from mainland Europe.

Hopefully, these modest gold ornaments are more than just a piece of metal now. Everything – no matter how small or simple – has a story; take a closer look and you’ll find that some of the most interesting objects are the ones hidden in plain sight.

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