'Hair-Rings' and European Late Bronze Age Society

By Eogan, George | Antiquity, June 1997 | Go to article overview
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'Hair-Rings' and European Late Bronze Age Society

Eogan, George, Antiquity

The type

The term 'hair -ring' or 'ring-money' is applied to a specific type of gold, or partially gold, ornament known especially from Ireland but also from Britain, Belgium and the adjoining areas of France to the south, at the end of the Bronze Age. The function of the rings is not known. The view has been put forward that they could have been used as a form of barter (cf. Armstrong 1933: 34-5); although there is considerable variety in their weights, nevertheless, as Wilde (1862: 89) pointed out, they 'do not show any scale of proportion from the largest to the least'. The view has also been expressed that they were worn as ear-rings or in the hair, like the Egyptian wig-rings, a view endorsed by Hawkes (1961: 453-4). Perhaps one day an inhumation burial with rings in position will turn up to show the sex of the wearer and, if a personal ornament, its position on the body. Meanwhile the terms used are ones of convenience.

The corpus in Britain and Ireland

Amongst the many metal objects of the European Late Bronze Age these rings are not particularly distinguished either aesthetically or technologically. While some objects are made from solid gold, that material is more often confined to an outer cladding of sheet over a core which may consist of lead, bronze or clay. A number are decorated with transverse bands of inlay of electrum. Only about 40 of the 120 or so pieces from Ireland have a recorded find-place; for those the distribution is fairly widespread, which may reflect the distribution pattern as a whole [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. Associated finds are rare but varied and include hoards, occupation and manufacturing sites and a burial (see below).

In Britain the 37 hair-rings came from 24 find-places, mainly from the Sussex-Wessex region of southern England and all of these are as unassociated finds. Northwards there is only a thin scatter but amongst them are two associated finds from Scotland, a hoard from Balmashanner, Angus (Anderson 1891-2) and the cave site at Covesea, Morayshire (Benton 1930-31).

The corpus in Europe and beyond

The origin of hair-rings presents a puzzle as there are no definite forerunners in Europe. They share similarities in form and technique of manufacture with rings from Egypt and Palestine (Hawkes 1961: 453-4) which were in use during the latter half of the 2nd millennium. In addition to bronze gold-plated examples other materials were also used in Egypt such as alabaster, white glazed pottery or jasper (Petrie 1927: 10, plate 8, nos. 130-33, also 22, plate 17: 1-36). Such rings were relatively common in Egypt during New Kingdom times (Dynasties 18, 19, 20) and were usually associated with mummy burials (Andrews 1990: 117; Schneider 1996: 49, nos. 303-4, plates 31, 73). They were worn threaded in their wigs but on some mummy cases the rings are shown projecting vertically from the wig suggesting that they might have been worn in the lower lobe of the ear (see also Aldred 1971: 142-3). On the other hand the opening in some examples is too narrow so they could not have functioned in that way. Brovarski et al. (1991: 228) argued that such rings may never have been worn in life but simply deposited as token jewellery with the mummy. Similar rings were also found in graves, again seemingly of important persons, at Tel el 'Ajjul (Gaza) in Palestine. In Grave 1206 a ring was found on each ear, but the Palestinian rings differ from their Egyptian counterparts in having a much wider opening (Petrie 1934: 7, plate 16:72-3). It therefore seems that in those Eastern Mediterranean lands such rings could have served as either wig- or ear-rings associated with men of rank, members of a wealthy and powerful society.

The other region where similar rings were found is in northwestern Europe, in Britain and Ireland and across the North Sea in the southern part of the Low Countries and the adjoining part of France as far south as Sainte-Thorette, Cher [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED].

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