Bronze Age miniature vessels, also known as funerary cups, incense cups, pygmy cups or accessory vessels have fascinated me since I was an undergraduate. In this post, I summarise some of my thoughts about what they might have been used for, and return to thinking about their uses as shamanic objects. I have a look at one of my favourite Welsh examples: the Llanblethian cup from south Wales.
The Bronze Age in Britain dates to between around 2000 BC and 800 BC and is characterised by a new form of burial tradition and the introduction and use of bronze metal. Individuals were now being buried under a single barrow or mound, accompanied with metal objects.
The Llanbleddian barrow on Breach farm, Vale of Glamorgan, south Wales, dates from the Early Bronze Age, about 1950-1750 BC. The barrow lies directly beside the main road from Cowbridge to Llantwit Major, and has been damaged by ploughing.
During the excavation by W.F. Grimes in the 1930s, a circular barrow was found with a central burial pit, where the miniature vessel was discovered, alongside cremated human remains of four people, four bronze implements, including an axe, and a range of flint tools. All were aged over 18 years old when they died – two males, one female and one unknown.
As part of the final burial, a miniature vessel (NMW acc.no. 38.37/1) was added, and it’s beautiful biconical form has survived intact. With a diameter of 97mm, and a height of 51mm, the small cup was made of thick clay, and it has a dark brown surface which is smooth and well finished.
The decoration on this cup is made up of incised lines. Careful analysis of these designs has shown they were originally filled with red ochre and white burnt bone in an alternating pattern. The sun-like pattern on the base of the cup was meant to be seen (see picture above) and two small perforations on the side of the cup suggest it may have been suspended or tied as part of the funerary rituals.
What is really special about this cup is that it still has that evidence of the white and red inlay, which is very rare, made from a paste of cremated bones, and red ochre. The colour within the incised decoration is really very precise; white and red coloured inlays have been applied in alternate triangular decorative motifs on all four horizontal schemes, and the red alternate inlays are coloured with iron oxide.
But what exactly was the miniature vessel used for? Recent research across Britain has suggested that miniature vessels are associated with cremation burials, and are not normally discovered with inhumation burials. They are not found associated with food vessels, suggesting that they were made for non-domestic purposes.
This connection with cremation rituals is supported by the blackening of the Llanblethian cup – which seems deliberate, as the white and red inlay was added afterwards. These cups were special items which were made as pyre goods, but weren’t used to hold the collected cremated humans remains after the pyre burnt down, like a Collared Urn, for example.
One suggestion relating to the use of the bone and ochre inlay may be connected to shamanic practice. For some cultures who practise shamanism, shamans have more bones than a normal person, and since more bones means more power, the shaman would collect bones to use as part of their ritual repertoire, paint or sew extra bones onto power objects and costumes in a practical form of wishful thinking.
In Papua New Guinean cultures, each bone represented a member of the clan, collected in small bags that were carried around on a daily basis. In this way, the shaman felt protected by the entire clan, always surrounded by those that had gone before. This raises questions about the bone inlay in miniature vessels, especially here with the Llanblethian example: was it a power object, incorporated with ancestral material? Was the ochre added as a special shamanic material? This raises questions about connections with the ancestors through the integration of relic or ancestral material, making the object animic and incortorated with sentience. It seems too simplistic to suggest these materials were purely decorative, when all the evidence is taken in to account.
Since the vessel wasn’t used to collect cremated human remains, what was held inside? No liquid could have survived due to the peforated holes, which could be used to suspend the cup as part of their use. I’ve suggested elsewhere that these containers could have been used to hold herbs or even psychoactive herbs like cannabis. Whichever way, smoke seems to have played an important role.
As to the truth of this we will never know, but with new residue analysis, we might be able to get closer to reality. Beeswax has been discovered on a few examples, but as to narcotic or mind-alterning substances, we will have to wait and see.
The GIF was made using photos taken during a research visit to the archaeology collections at the National Museum Cardiff. More information about this miniature vessel, and the prehistory of Wales , please visit National Museum of Wales’s Collections.