11 Cauldrons Found at Iron Age Settlement in England

The cauldrons, most of which were buried in a circle, appear to have been used in ceremonial feasts

University of Leicester

Back in the winter of 2013, archaeologists were called to investigate a site in Leicestershire County, England, in advance of a planned construction project. They unearthed a trove of metal objects dating to the Iron Age, including woodworking tools, brooches, a sword still in its scabbard and something known as a “horn cap,” which experts believe was once attached to a scepter. But as Vittoria Traverso of Atlas Obscura reports, archaeologists were particularly excited to find 11 large cauldrons, which suggest that the site was once an important hub for grand, ceremonial feasts.

The discoveries were made in an area known as Glenfield Park, which had been the focus of an earlier excavation in 1993. Twenty years later, when archaeologists returned to the site, they found evidence of a “multi-generation Iron Age settlement,” according to Michelle Starr of Science Alert.

Early occupation of the area in the 5th to 4th centuries B.C. appears to have consisted of a small, open settlement comprised of roundhouses organized in pairs. But in the 4th or 3rd century, “the settlement underwent striking changes in character,” John Thomas, director of the excavation, explains in a University of Leicester press release. Instead of being paired up, the houses were individually enclosed, which suggests that groups living in the settlement began to ascribe greater value to individualism. Material culture at the site also increased by the end of the middle Iron Age

“It is the metalwork assemblage that really sets this settlement apart,” Thomas says. “The quantity and quality of the finds far outshines most of the other contemporary assemblages from the area, and its composition is almost unparalleled.”

The most significant of the discoveries were the cauldrons, eight of which were buried in a circular ditch that surrounded one of the buildings.  They were placed in upright and inverted positions, and appear to have come in a variety of different sizes. Thomas posited that the cauldrons were “buried to mark the cessation of activities associated with this part of the site.” Three other cauldrons were found buried throughout the settlement, providing further evidence that the objects were linked to the marking of significant events.

According to the British Museum, cauldrons played an important role in Iron Age culture. They were used to prepare food and drink during ceremonial feasts, and references in early medieval Irish and Welsh literature suggest that magical qualities were ascribed to the vessels. But Iron Age cauldrons are a relatively rare find. The Glenfield Park discoveries mark only the second time that a cluster of complete Iron Age cauldrons has been unearthed on a modern U.K. excavation.

To extract the fragile objects from the ground at Glenfield Park, archaeologists lifted the cauldrons up in soil blocks. The artifacts were then analyzed using CT scanning at a medical facility at Middlesex, which had equipment large enough to handle the cauldrons. The scans revealed that the cauldrons came in a variety of sizes, with their rims ranging from about 14 to 22 inches in diameter. Researchers estimate that the cauldrons had a total capacity of around 145 gallons. “[I]f all were in use at the same time,” Thomas writes in a summary of the excavation, “they could have provided for large groups of people.”

Thomas adds that ceremonial feasts at the settlement likely would have involved people from neighboring communities, and perhaps from even further afield. As the host of these big parties, the Glenfield Park settlement would have been a place of importance within the region.

Conservation work undertaken at the Museum of London Archaeology shows that one of the cauldrons had been used extensively and carefully repaired several times before it was placed into the ground. This, in turn, shows that the cauldrons “were special to the Iron Age community at Glenfield Park,” Thomas writes. “Continued maintenance of the vessels was essential to the role of the settlement.”

Moving forward, the team plans to conduct further analysis of the cauldrons. In particular, researchers hope to find food residues on the ancient pots, so they can learn more about what was on the menu for these Iron Age feasts.