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Mold's Gold Cape and other important local finds

Gold Cape
Mold's priceless Bronze Age relic, the Gold Cape, could be a ceremonial cloak

The Mold Cape is one of Britain's most famous ancient artefacts and features in a joint BBC and British Museum project called A History of the World

Jonathon Gammond
By Jonathon Gammond, Wrexham Museum
Why the Gold Cape is so important to history

Mold Gold Cape ranks alongside the Battersea Shield, the Mildenhall Treasure, and King Redwald's burial ship at Sutton Hoo. It is one of the most important European Bronze Age finds.

The cape was discovered in Mold by a gang of workmen from the local workhouse discovered the cape in 1833. They were digging for stone in a mound at Bryn yr Ellyllon, Mold, when they uncovered a stone lined burial chamber. The cape was crushed and was further damaged as it was shared out between the finders.

Luckily, the vicar of Mold recorded the finds. Many of the objects found in the grave have long disappeared such as the skeletal remains, most of the amber beads, several pieces of the cape, and the pottery vessel, found nearby, which contained cremated human bones.

Tradition has it that quite a few locals had new jewellery soon after the cape's discovery. Though it is more likely artefacts from the grave were sold on for hard cash.

Only in the early 1950s did a leading academic conclude the gold ornament was, in fact, a cape
Jonathon Gammond

However, Mr Langford, the tenant of the land on which the cape was found, kept the largest part of the cape. Three years later in 1836 he sold it to the British Museum.

Mr Langford's decorated gold ornament was in several pieces. This made deciding its original shape difficult. Deciding its function proved more difficult still. No one at the time identified Mr Langford's decorated gold ornament as a Cape.

Antiquarians

Initially antiquarians at the British Museum decided the gold artefact was a corselet, a rarely used word that means a garment for the chest. Perhaps the corselet belonged to a warrior for those occasions when he wanted to look impressive.

By 1904, more minds had pondered over what the gold ornament was. The consensus among curators was that it was a decorative breast piece for a pony. The curators of the time had not managed to reconstruct it from the separate pieces and this hindered their interpretation.

Only in the early 1950s did a leading academic, Professor Terence Powell, from the Department of Prehistoric Archaeology, University of Liverpool, conclude the gold ornament from Mold was, in fact, a Cape.

A reconstruction drawing from 1954 shows a man wearing the Cape over his shoulders. Soon after the British Museum made their first real attempt at restoring the Cape.

New research has pushed the Cape's origins back to around 1950-1550BC based on scientific analysis of the gold in the Cape.
Jonathon Gammond

Once repaired, the decoration on the Cape made sense - the embossed gold work representing strings of differently shaped beads draped over the shoulders. The Cape must have been an impressive sight to its contemporaries. Its quality and fragility helped academics to decide on how and when it was worn.

Reconstruction drawings commissioned by the British Museum put the Cape at the centre of a ceremonial investiture - the Cape wearer perhaps leading or taking part in an important ceremony. The shape of the Cape meant that the wearer could not do anything too physical as the Cape restricts the movement of the wearer's arms.

The Cape is not a robust item, even allowing for the bronze framework that supported the decorative gold. This would have further limited the occasions on which it was worn. There is some evidence on the Cape that it has been repaired. Perhaps someone was a little too active while wearing the Cape...

Dark Ages

In the 19th century, knowledge of pre-history was hazy. Study of such periods was left to antiquarians who frequently undervalued anything pre-Roman. Initially, the Cape was dated to the Dark Ages, as it was seen as too ornate to be dated before the Romans and its style was obviously not Roman. In the late 19th century, academics realised the Bronze Age came before the Iron Age and the Cape was dated to the earlier period.

During the 20th century, academic research by archaeologists and prehistorians increased our understanding of prehistory. Academics began to be able to date objects accurately on stylistic grounds and the materials used. Professor Terence Powell dated the Cape to around 1350-1250BC. Since Professor Powell's time, new research has pushed the Cape back further still to around 1950-1550BC based on scientific analysis of the gold in the Cape, the bronze in the straps and knowledge of the burial practices of the Early Bronze Age.

The grave goods that accompanied the Cape, point to it being the burial site of a woman.
Jonathon Gammond

Regardless of its date, the Cape is the product of great skill in the use of metals. The Cape is made from a single ingot of gold and then using a series of punches, the design was embossed on the shaped Cape.

To even contemplate such a design required a huge amount of imagination and to carry it out, even larger amounts of patience. The effort in creating such a masterpiece points to the Cape's importance to the society for which it was made.

The wearer

Even before Professor Powell decided the gold from Mold was a Cape, most theories saw the object as belonging to a man. Research and attitudes to the past are usually a product of the present.

Recent research points to the wearer and owner of the Cape being a woman. The British Museum recently conducted a controlled experiment to see how the Cape fitted. The Cape fits any woman of athletic and slim build, so it is not the case that the wearer had to be a small person.

More decisively, the grave goods, that accompanied the Cape, point to it being the burial site of a woman. The Mold vicar who, at the time, recorded the finds, wrote of a large number of beads. No weapons have ever been associated with the Cape.

Other important local finds

The Mold Cape is not an isolated example of artistic brilliance from the Bronze Age in NE Wales. There are a number of important finds from that period:

- The Caergwrle Bowl (a shale, tin and gold bowl, the design of which forms a boat)
- The Westminster Torc (a twisted gold neck ornament)
- The Rossett Hoard (a socketed axe containing cut pieces of a gold bracelet and two pieces of a knife)
- The Burton Hoard (a hoard containing a unique collection of bronze palstave axes and gold jewellery of great craftsmanship)
- The Acton Hoard (a collection of bronze axes that point to a strong bronze working tradition in this area).

Together these important finds help to build up a picture of what was happening in NE Wales in prehistoric times. Hopefully, future finds from the Bronze Age will come to light and the finders will ensure they are available for the public to see and academics to study. Only then will we learn more about life in Bronze Age Wales and deepen our knowledge of the Mold Cape.





A HISTORY OF THE WORLD

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Caergwrle Bowl, courtesy National Museum of Wales Caergwrle Bowl
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Gold Cape Mold's Gold Cape
The British Museum lists this relic as among its top artefacts
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Wrexham's Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn was a major patron of the arts
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