The Wheeled Cauldrons and the Wine

By Rausing, Gad | Antiquity, December 1997 | Go to article overview

The Wheeled Cauldrons and the Wine


Rausing, Gad, Antiquity


Grapes appear rather early in temperate Europe: even in the cool north of Sweden, their pips occur in the Neolithic. With grapes go wine, and with wine go the artefacts of wine, amongst them the cauldron on wheels - a grand and an odd artefact type of Bronze Age Europe.

The wheeled cauldron

More than a century ago, in 1895, a farmer at Skallerup (Udby parish, Praesto Amt, Barse Herred, Zealand) in Denmark plundered one of the barrows of the area, finding a rich cremation grave which he damaged badly (Aner et al. 1976: plates 142,143). The burnt bones had been buried in a foreign bronze vessel, a 'wheeled cauldron' from somewhere in central Europe, probably from present-day Hungary or Romania. H.C. Broholm (1952) describes the vessel:

An undercarriage of bronze, with four 4-spoked wheels, supports a wrought bronze cauldron with a round body, fitted with a hollow pedestal. The cauldron is decorated with rows of dots, raised by embossing from the inside.

(Actually the cauldron consists of three pieces: top, bottom and foot, each of chased sheet bronze, rivetted together and the joints filled with rosin.)

The rim of the cauldron is bent out to the horizontal, supported by four twisted bronze rods rivetted to the sides of the vessel, and decorated with thin, lancet-shaped rattle-plates hung in short chains, rivetted to the rim. Two bronze rods are in addition rivetted to the undercarriage and terminate in figures of birds. Altogether four 'wheeled cauldrons' are known from North and Central Europe, all imported articles though there is still some disagreement concerning their place of origin. It seems most probable, however, that the Skallerup cauldron originated in Hungary.

Broholm dates this find to the early Bronze Age.

The Skallerup grave also contained a sword, a knife, a razor and a golden bracelet, woollen textiles (most probably a cloak), a cow's hide (the conventional shroud of the time), and ornamented fragments of horn, probably the remains of a drinking horn. A few generations earlier, before cremation had become dominant, when the dead were still buried, a big pot or sometimes even a bronze vessel was normally part of the grave-goods, a vessel containing the drink to refresh the defunct on his long journey. Even when the dead were cremated this large vessel remained the most important grave-gift, now used to contain the burnt bones. Apparently it was still thought to contain a symbolic liquid, since the drinking cup still went with it. Although this piece (and its counterparts at Milavec, Ystad and Peccatel) have been called 'wheeled cauldrons', they are actually 'wagons carrying approximately biconical vessels, mounted on cylindrical or conical pedestals'.

Was the undercarriage intended to represent two canoes, mounted on wheels?

Similar vessels have been found at Ystad in Sweden, at Milavec in Bohemia and at Peccatel in Mecklenburg, Germany, all dating from the early Bronze Age, i.e. the centuries between roughly 1800 and 1100 bc. In 1970 another kettle-wagon, closely resembling that from Skallerup, came to light in a cremation grave at Acholshausen, near Ochsenfurt, Germany, together with weapons suggesting 'Mycenean connections' (Pescheck 1975). This grave has been dated to about 1250 BC (Schutz 1983: plate 2c). The Acholshausen vessel - decorated in a way that makes it quite clear that it represents a wickerwork basket - is slightly pear-shaped, with a large opening and a wide, low cylindrical neck. The central framework of this 'wagon' consists of two beams, of square section, crossing each other to form a small surface, on which stands the conical frame supporting the bronze vessel. The ends of the beams curve up, forming duck protomes. It thus differs slightly from that of the Skallerup wagon, which consists of two parallel 'canoes', joined by the wheel-shafts, around which the wheels turn.

Clay wheels found at other sites suggest that similar vessels on wheels were also made of organic materials, such as have not survived. …

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