Irish Treasures: The Gleninsheen Gorget

Source: 100 Objects
Source: 100 Objects

For the most part, jewellery from medieval and Celtic times in Ireland is – while obviously beautiful and expertly crafted – at least partially functional. The Ardagh Chalice, Cross of Cong, Derrynaflan Paten, and even Saint Patrick’s Bell Shrine all served a useful purpose at the time; they were integral parts of religious ceremonies, although admittedly their use may have been reserved for special occasions only.

The Tara Brooch too had a practical use, namely to keep the heavy cloaks the Celts wore in one place. It’s common knowledge however that the Celts in particular were big believers in beauty for beauty’s sake, so naturally some of the jewellery items they wore were just that; to make them look beautiful (and more importantly, rich and powerful) when in battle or at important ceremonies or festivals.

Other examples such as The Broighter Collar from the Iron age and the stunning Gleninsheen Gorget from the Bronze age are just two other discoveries that would have been worn by our ancestors. The Gleninsheen Gorget is one of the most iconic of Irish treasures. Even if you don’t recognise the name, you’ll certainly know it when you see it.

What is a Gorget?

The Gleninsheen Gorget is actually somewhat misleading in name. Traditionally, a gorget was a band of linen that women in the medieval period wore around their head and neck. The term then came to be used to reference a piece of armour – a steel or leather collar worn around the neck that extended down to cover the upper chest, designed to protect the neck. It was quite restrictive however, and so was mainly ornamental from the 18th century onwards – there are still some armies today who use it as part of their ceremonial uniforms.

Nowadays, the term is also used by historians to describe a later, larger version of the typical accessory, the lunula. Lunulae are flat, thin, crescent moon shaped items usually made from gold. The majority of the surviving examples were found in Ireland (around 80 of over one hundred in total), although there are others originating from the UK and mainland Europe. They were popular around 2400 – 2000 BC (although their use extended for a much longer period), and were worn by the most revered members of society as a symbol of their power and wealth (which is why they were almost exclusively made from gold).

Source: Art History Leaving Cert
Source: Art History Leaving Cert

They were worn around the neck with the widest part of the crescent extending down over the chest, over clothing and cloaks. In Irish society they were more than likely a symbol of divinity and were thought to have magical sacred powers, which explains why they were only worn by the best of the best, and also why they are often depicted as being worn by gods in artwork. Often they were decorated with fine engravings or other subtle details, and many of the surviving examples show evidence of being rolled up or re-hammered to erase old decoration and add new patterns. They are also rarely found in burial sites, so it is generally believed that lunulae were passed down through generations or were considered as ‘clan’ property rather than owned by individuals. So in short, a gorget was a bigger and bolder version of a lunula.

There are only eight surviving examples, and they are characterised by large round terminals at each end point of the crescent shape (lunulae also have these, but they are much smaller), as well as being up to twice the size of a lunula, and usually with much more elaborate decoration. The term is largely used to distinguish between these few large versions and the many smaller objects ; their construction, design and use was mostly the same.

The Gleninsheen Gorget

The Gleninsheen Gorget dates from 800 – 700 BC and is, quite frankly, huge! It measures an impressive 31cm in diameter, or in other words, it’s the same size as a 12 inch pizza. Imagine wearing something of that size around your neck, on top of a heavy cloak and your usual clothing underneath. It is not exactly the most practical ado rnment, so it’s most likely that it was only used by the most powerful clan member for the most important of occasions. It was, however, not all that restrictive as the gold used has been hammered to very thin sheets. So while it may have been huge, it would have been very lightweight to wear and would not have stopped the wearer from moving his or her head or arms. Having been flattened so much, it was also a very economic use of the gold, so wearing such a large and shiny piece of jewellery may not have been such an indication of wealth after all – but the ordinary people of the day didn’t know that...

Crafting the Gorget

The people of the Bronze age were innovative. Nobody knows for sure where they first discovered metal and how they could use it; they may have learned it from interacting with other societies, they may have happened upon it by chance, or they may have been attempting to craft something out of rock and accidentally began smelting! Inany case, they soon knew which rocks were best and how to extract the materials they needed from it. They heated up their chosen rock with fire and then threw cold water on it to make it shatter. They then broke it down further and smelted the fragments to release the molten metal. The molten metal was poured into moulds and then hammered into the desired shapes and parts.

The Gleninsheen gorget was made from five pieces of gold, in three main parts; two large circular terminals (each one is actually made up of two discs sitting on top of one another) and the crescent shaped section. The three pieces are attached as one; each tip of the crescent has been pushed through a slot between the lower discs and stitched together. The upper discs, which are slightly larger than the lower ones, were then placed on top and curled over the edge of the lower discs to cover and secure it. The two ends of the entire piece would have been fastened with a short cord to ensure it didn’t fall off the person’s neck when being worn.

Decorating the Gorget

The neat and effective construction of the gorget, however, is nothing compared to the exquisite decoration throughout the object. It features many motifs typical of Bronze Age Ireland artwork, both on the circular terminals and the crescent section itself. The terminals feature eleven concentric circles placed around a central concentric circle, with a single raised conical boss in the centre of each. On the crescent section, six molded rope patterns run from one end to the other with increasing thickness. Both the crescent and the terminals are edged with round bosses, as well as each individual decorative concentric circle.

This decoration, although subtle, would have taken an extremely talented and skilled goldsmith to execute. First the gold was hammered into shape, then decorated using various techniques - just some methods used in the Gleninsheen gorget include repousse, incision and wirework – and finally polished before being ready to wear. Pretty impressive when you consider that they hadn’t yet began to read or write yet!

Discovery of the gorget

The Gleninsheen gorget was found in 1932 just outside the small rural village of Gleninsheen in the Burren, county Clare. A local young man by the name of Patrick Nolan discovered it when out rabbit hunting with his dog. The dog had caught a rabbit and set it down in a cavity between two of the typical rock formations that the Burren is famous for.

When trying to retrieve the rabbit, Nolan had to remove a flat thin wedge of rock slotted into the fissure to reach it, and when he pulled the rock away, saw a glint of gold inside. The gorget had been obviously hidden in there, as it was pushed in as far as it could go, with the wedge of rock clearly used to conceal it.

Nolan took it home to his uncle, who surmised that it must have been part of an ancient coffin mounting and shouldn’t be kept inside the house for fear of bad luck. Instead, Patrick hid it behind a wall on the passage between the road and his house. When a historian visited the area two years later, Patrick presented the object to him.

The historian brought the Keeper of Irish Antiquities to see it, and the two took it back to Dublin to be placed in the National Museum where it still sits today. When found, the gorget was in remarkably good condition; in fact it was almost perfect apart from one minor detail – a very slight dent where it had been folded in two. This was often done with lunulae found buried or obviously hidden, and historians believe it was deliberately done to end the ‘life’ of the object, if there was no successor to take over (or none worthy of taking over) or maybe even to release its supposed magical powers.

Some may also have been deposited in the ground as votive offerings, as a way of offering gifts to the gods. In any case, the gorget was so well made that it was able to withstand this, and survived for thousands of years untouched and unharmed. Nobody can say for certain how long it had been hidden away, if it was placed there by the people themselves or by someone else at a later date, who wore it, or why it ended up where it did.

The only thing that is certain is that there is plenty of evidence of ancient human activity in the surrounding area; Gleninsheen also has a wedge tomb not far from where the gorget was found, as well as the Poulnabrone Dolmen a short distance away. In 1973, the Gleninsheen gorget was used as Ireland’s silver hallmark for the year to commemorate the country joining the European Economic Community (now known as the European Union).

The treasures of Ireland's ancient past and the craftspeople that have gone before us, inspire our Irish designs and our work.

All made by hand using time honored silversmith techniques.

See can identify other influences from Irish history in our contemporary Irish designs.

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