Dorton Iron Age Mirror

Nominated by: Mike Farley

Only a few decorated objects from the Iron Age have been found in Buckinghamshire.  One of the most spectacular is a mirror found at Dorton in the Vale of Aylesbury and now in the County Museum.  The circumstances of the find are unusual.  In 1977 construction workers on a new gas pipeline noted large broken pieces of pottery which turned out to be from three wine amphorae imported from the Mediterranean a decade or so before the Roman conquest.  A rapid visit to the site by a museum archaeologist led to a search of the nearby soil heap and a glint of metal here was enough to cause a soil block to be transported back to the County Museum.

X-rays and subsequent excavation of the block in the laboratory by the museum’s conservator soon established that within it was a complete (but fragmentary) mirror made of a copper-tin alloy.  At the time of burial, the mirror had been placed in a wooden box together with cremated human bone.  As the box was being placed in the grave it had been tilted and all of the bone slid against one side – this insignificant act gave us a frozen moment in time!

Meanwhile what was left of the grave in one side of the pipeline trench was excavated but although there were other finds, nothing quite as exciting as the mirror was found.

The back of the mirror is decorated in typical ‘Celtic’ style – on which subjects many books have been written.  Parts of over forty such mirrors are known from the British Isles but the majority are represented only by their handles as they are more solid than the mirror plates, which can corrode quite easily in the soil. The majority of previous finds were casual finds and very few have been archaeologically excavated as was the Dorton mirror.

The presence of amphorae with the burial (which, judging by the mirror was probably a female burial), links it with a group of rich amphora-containing graves from eastern England.  It seems likely that the mirror’s owner, herself probably of considerable status and perhaps born in the west where such mirrors were probably made, might have married a chieftain from one of the eastern-centred tribes such as the Catuvellauni (a celtic tribe living in the South East of Britain before the Roman conquest).

The Dorton Mirror was nominated by Mike Farley.