As ancient jewellery goes, the Torc is probably both the most unusual and the most widespread piece you can find. It’s completely different to anything we wear today, and it has a long and varied history. It’s not just limited to Ireland either – torcs have been found all across Europe not only from Celtic societies but also Vikings, Scythian (Iranian) and Illyrian (Greek) societies too.
If there is one piece of jewellery to define these ancient societies, the torc is it. For that reason there is a ridiculous amount of information around about torcs, so here is a condensed version that includes anything you could possibly want to find out about this intriguing ancient fashion accessory. I’ve included lots of photos I took at the National Museum of Ireland so you can see just a small selection of the torcs found in Ireland.
What exactly is a Torc?
A Torc (also spelled ‘torque’ or ‘torq’) is large ring made out of precious metal, usually open at one end and worn around the neck. The word comes from the Latin ‘torquis’, meaning ‘to twist’, as a lot of pieces are twisted in shape. They are most often made of gold or bronze, but torcs of silver, copper and other metals have been found too. Gold, bronze and silver are the metals that are the most durable, so naturally the most examples we have today are made from one of these three. The majority of torcs are open at the front and designed to be worn permanently, although some have been discovered with clasps and other closing mechanisms.
Why did people wear Torcs?
For the Celts in particular, jewellery was a highly important symbol of a person’s status in society. It was the clearest possible sign of wealth and high rank. The torc was reserved for the nobility of Celtic societies who wore them in battle and during various rituals. Although it may have started out as little more than an ornament, over time the torc became attributed to great warriors. When you consider that some torcs weigh several kilos, it seems fair to give someone that title if they had to run around for several hours at a time with that around their neck!
How did people wear Torcs?
Obviously, torcs were worn around the neck. They were generally accompanied by smaller armlets and bracelets, not necessarily matching. The opening was to the front, just at the collar bone. Both men and women wore them. Small torcs were sometimes worn by noble children, and they were nearly always passed down through generations.
It’s a well known fact that Celtic warriors went to battle completely naked except for a torc around their neck and whatever weapons they were carrying. Historians do say that most were designed for permanent wear, but some were so heavy that this seems unlikely; these were probably ‘special’ torcs reserved for important occasions while ‘everyday’ torcs were worn at other times.
Types of Torcs
So many different types of torcs have been discovered in various locations. Since they were worn by societies throughout Ancient Europe from around the 8th century BC to the 3rd century AD, many different styles, shapes and materials came and went. Very common across all societies was the twisted ribbon torc, a thin strip of gold twisted into a spiral shape. There are also plain circular shapes, styles with zoomorphics (carved animal heads) or other designs topping off each end, ‘flared’ gold that makes a wide crescent shape, and hollow torcs with stones or metal pieces inside them. As centuries progressed so did design, with torcs becoming more and more elaborate with relief design and emphasis on the carving of the terminals (end points of the torc). In some parts thick heavy torcs were common, whereas in others delicate, intricate designs have been found.
How were torcs made?
Archaeologists have been able to determine how torcs were made because of certain discoveries of partially completed torcs, probably from the sites of workshops. Basic torc designs were made simply by single or multiple intertwined rods of whatever metal was being used. More elaborate designs were made by casting the metal first and then using a variety of more sophisticated techniques. The terminals would have been made separately and then soldered on.
The flange-twisting technique of torc making involved cutting flanges into the body of the torc and, once fitted together, soldering them along the inner side to form a cross. The result, when finished, was a closely twisted circular torc. Another technique known as the ‘buffer technique’ involved forming two sheets of gold into hollow tubes, which were then bent into semi-circles before adding terminals. In all cases the metal remained relatively flexible so that it could be pulled slightly wider to be taken off.
Mythology and Torcs
As well as symbolic power, torcs were said to have mythical or supernatural powers for the Celts. They are often depicted in Celtic art being held or worn by deities, and they also pop up in several ancient Irish stories. In the Cattle Raid of Cooley, the lead warrior Morann the Arbiter allegedly had a magical torc that tightened around his neck any time he made a false judgement. One King of Tara, Dermot MacCerrbheoil, dreamt that angels took his torc from his neck and gave it to a stranger, who turned out to be St. Brendan of Clonfert. When they bumped into each other some time later and the King recognised him as the man who was gifted the torc, he relinquished his kingdom to him.
Torcs were also thought to act as talismans, offering protection from evil forces, which explains why they were worn into battle. Torcs were highly prized items for this reason and top of the list of coveted gold if the Celts were ever defeated. Some have been found broken into pieces by opponents who possibly feared their powers.
Torcs are nearly always found in hoards with various other Celtic artefacts and jewellery, such as lunulae and brooches. The artefacts in hoards are almost always from varying dates and times, making it hard to pinpoint an exact timeframe. These hoards are most likely collections held by the highest ranking Celtic families, passed down through generations and hidden for safekeeping. Often torcs have been found alongside female remains, suggesting that they were used in burial rituals. Gold torcs were generally thought to be associated with royalty while bronze or copper torcs were used by slightly less noble members of society.
The most famous and elaborate example of a Celtic torc, or any torc for that matter, was found in the Broighter Hoard in 1896 on a farm near Lough Foyle in County Derry. Two farmers hit something hard with their plough and discovered the hoard, which contained a model boat, two torcs, two necklaces, a bowl and the piece de resistance, an intricately decorated buffer torc.
Another well known torc was found in a grave in the village of Vix in Burgundy, Northern France. The Vix grave was the burial place of a noble woman that had somehow never been looted. Her exact title is unknown but judging by the quality of the jewellery found in the grave, she was a big deal. With her was a chariot, six fibulae, seven bracelets, imported objects from ancient Italy and Greece, and two torcs among other bits and pieces. One torc was bronze and not all that significant when compared with the other, which was 24 carat gold and weighted almost 500 grams.
Torcs in Ireland
Ireland holds the record for the most Torcs found in any country; thirty-one, to be precise. Bar torcs are more commonly found in South Leinster while ribbon torcs have popped up in Ulster and North Connaught. Although discovering ancient Celtic artefacts was never an everyday event, it’s even less common now than it was a few centuries ago. Still, people are occasionally ‘hitting the jackpot’ – just five years ago an amateur treasure hunter in County Fermanagh dug up a 3,000 year old torc that is now on display in the Ulster museum. Unusually this torc was coiled, a practice more common in Britain where the torc was coiled before being buried with its owner in a type of ‘decommissioning’ ritual.
Where can we see Torcs now?
Real ancient torcs can be found in almost every historical museum in Ireland and the UK, and throughout mainland Europe. The best examples are right here in Ireland – and we’re not just saying that. The National Museum of Ireland in Dublin has a sparkling collection along with various other magnificent Celtic jewellery pieces. It includes the Broighter Hoard and other famous artefacts such as the Ardagh Chalice, Tara Brooch and Derrynaflan Hoard. The British Museum in London has other examples from all around the UK including the Snettisham Torc.