Pattern and purpose: a new story about the creation of the Snettisham Great torc.

The Snettisham Great torc is one of the most recognisable and well known Iron Age artefacts in Britain. Found in 1950 by Tom Rout, whilst ploughing fields on the Ken Hill estate in Snettisham, Norfolk, the torc has long been seen as the pinnacle of Iron Age goldwork found in the UK. However, it remains poorly understood and it’s precise manufacturing methods and techniques have yet to be thoroughly explored.

In previous papers (Machling &Williamson 2018, 2019a, 2020) we have demonstrated that the terminals of this torc were created separately in sheet gold alloy, using a tripartitie construction technique (a shell, core and collar). We have also suggested that the terminals of the Great torc were poorly fixed and perhaps not created to fit the neck ring to which they are currently attached.

Torus torc construction. Image © T Machling

This blog revisits this previous work, and examines the Great torc in greater detail, looking further at the construction technique and decorative evidence and uses this to create a new object biography regarding the origins and creation of this artefact.

The neck ring/collar join.

In a previous paper (Machling & Williamson 2020, 90) we suggested that the terminals of the Snettisham Great torc are unusual:

Detail of the Snettisham Great torc attachment.

“The Snettisham Great torc appears to be different to many of the other torcs, and has components which were less expertly assembled than other high craft-quality gold torus torcs of the type. This torc is unusual as the joint between collar and wires is extremely messy: there are a large number of wide gaps between the wire ropes of the neck-ring which have been filled with poorly-applied quantities of gold solder, perhaps overlying and surrounding pressed-in sheet from a collar lip.

It would seem that the eight wire ropes of the neck-ring, as made, were not wide enough to snugly fill the collar aperture. Therefore, they had to be splayed open to fit the collar, as witnessed by the widening of the neck-ring as it joins the terminals.

The Snettisham Great torc.

As such, the ropes of the neck-ring had gaps in between, would have been able to move and became unstable when the torc was complete and in use. This would appear to demonstrate that the Great torc terminals were not specifically made to fit the Great torc neck-ring.

There are two possible explanations for the addition of so much solder: either the excess attachment material was necessary to secure the poorly fitting neck-ring, or the mass of solder is proof of a bodged repair to a substandard original joint. Perhaps, as Spratling (1972, 261) says, this is yet more evidence that ‘soldering had not been mastered by the majority of southern British smiths’. Even today the joint looks precarious, with the solder cracking away from the wires in many places, suggesting that the solder did not bond well with the underlying wires (Bob Davies pers comm). Whatever the reason for the solder application, the underlying truth is that the Snettisham Great torc has an incorrectly sized neck-ring and/or incorrectly sized terminals.

This could be explained in a number of ways:

• Was this an error in measurements which required a late fix due to the impossibility of taking the time to recreate each element of the torc again? This seems unlikely in such a highly crafted prestige item.

• Were the most complex and skilled part of the torc, the terminals, ordered in from a distant sheet-working goldsmith, with the wires, the least complex element, being made by a less skilled goldsmith, local to the commissioner – and this in turn led to discrepancies in measurements?

• More interestingly, does it suggest that torc elements were being recycled or remodelled into new designs, perhaps due to a scarcity of gold?” (Machling & Williamson 2020, 90)

If compared to other complete torcs with separately made and attached terminals, this difference becomes apparent. In the Snettisham Grotesque, the Newark and the Sedgeford torcs the neck ring wires are fixed precisely to the collar, without gaps or splaying of the wires.

This marked difference, when compared with other torus torcs leads more credence to the idea that the Great torc terminals were, for whatever reason, not designed to be attached to the neck ring they have been attached to. The terminal apertures are just too big and this has resulted in a poor fit, which apparently needed to be soldered and/or repaired.

In such a highly-crafted and prestige item it seems unlikely that this discrepancy would be caused by either incompetence or poor design, thus almost certainly ruling out the first two suggestions above. If we look at torc terminal design the third possibility, that gold torcs were being recycled or remodelled, becomes increasingly likely.

Terminal design

Torc terminals have often been poorly examined. In many cases this lack of close attention to detail has led to several torcs (e.g. Newark and Sedgeford) being described as being ‘identical in shape and design’ (Hill 2005), and with the majority being lumped together as having ‘cast on’ (La Niece et al 2018, 418) terminals. However, our work has shown this to not be the case (Machling & Williamson 2018, 2019a, 2020).

In the case of the Snettisham Great torc, the British Museum catalogue still states that the terminals were ‘cast in moulds’ (BM Catalogue entry 1951,0402.2) although this torc has now been confirmed to have sheet gold alloy terminals, following our work in 2017 (Machling & Williamson 2018, 7).

The Snettisham Great torc (terminal 2, left, and terminal 1, right).

The terminals of the Great torc at first seem comparable, but surprisingly it has never been noted that they are in fact entirely different in design and also, slightly different in size (although this might be expected in a sheet gold construction).

This difference is unusual, with all complete torus torcs, either with sheet or cast terminals, (Newark, Sedgeford, all Ipswich torcs, South West Norfolk, Needwood, Snettisham Grotesque and various Snettisham others), bar one Snettisham torc (BM Catalogue entry 1991,0407.38) being of identical design in both terminals. Indeed, even in complete non-torus terminal torcs, I could find no examples where the terminals showed different designs on each terminal (e.g. Bawsey, Leekfrith, Blair Drummond, etc show matched terminals).

Both terminals of the Snettisham torc have decoration covering similar areas of the torc – that is, on the top and outer face of the terminal and the front and back of the collar – but the motifs and patterns used are unique to each terminal. Each terminal is a stand alone example of Iron Age gold craft.

The individual design elements seen in both terminals are typical of the art of the period: punched dots, roundels, raised lentoids, curved raised ridges, dummy rivets, and areas of punched tooling infilling space. However, when examined closely the punched tooling – and its arrangement and design – would suggest an element of individuality that can perhaps only be explained by different goldsmiths working on each terminal.

Punched tooling

On each terminal there are nine punch-filled spaces/panels and these have each been given an identifying letter from A-R (A-F, N-L on Terminal 1 and G-K, O-R on Terminal 2). These spaces/panels are often similar in shape and area and can be separated into different types: teardrops/cut teardrops (A, I, L, M, O and R), straight-sided teardrops (N and Q), roundels (B, C, F, G and K), and what Fox (1958, 148) refers to as ‘3-Sided Voids’ (D, E, H, J and P).

The Snettisham Great torc decorative panels, after Jope (2000, pl. 108-9),
Terminal 1 (front and back) top, Terminal 2 (front and back) bottom.

As will be shown below, each terminal uses very different decoration in similarly shaped spaces and it my belief that these characteristics may represent different makers/finishers. But first, to detail these shapes and their design motifs:

The 3-Sided Voids: D, E, H, J and P

By comparing the decorative punching in Terminals 1 and 2, differences immediately become apparent. In Terminal 2, the tooling follows a regular and repeated square patterns of three vertical lines, with a further three horizontal lines at right angles to the first three (henceforth, ‘3 by 3’). All the lines are of similar lengths. This can be seen on the images of Terminal 2: H, J and P below.

However, when the punching of Terminal 1 (Images Terminal 1: E and D below) is examined, it can be seen that – although the pattern of Terminal 2 is generally followed – in the ‘3-Sided Voids’ of this terminal, additional extended lines have been added, which disrupt the regular square ‘3 by 3’ pattern.

Teardrops/cut teardrops: A, I, L, M, O and R

Again, with the repeated shapes of the teardrops/cut teardrops, in Terminal 1 the extended single line interrupts the standard ‘3 by 3’ pattern. However, in Terminal 1: M, a new pattern of triangular blocks of three lines appears.

In Terminal 2, the usual square ‘3 by 3’ pattern can be seen in both panels I and R. However, in Terminal 2: O longer lines of tooling are apparent, although they are now used to delimit space and create blocks, which are infilled with three parallel lines. As such they are not truly similar to the regularly added extended lines seen across Terminal 1: D, E, and A and the pattern in Terminal 1: O is not relatable to the similarly shaped panel L from Terminal 1. In the Terminal 1 examples, the extended lines break up blocks rather than delimit them.

Panels I and M, although mirrored, are very similar spaces and yet how the goldsmith has handled them are entirely different, with triangular ‘3 by 3’ patterns used in panel M and the standard, square, ‘3 by 3’ in panel I.

Straight-sided teardrops: N and Q

The two straight-sided teardrop panels, N and Q, on Terminals 1 and 2 show perhaps the most easily comparable filling of a similar space. In panel Q, once again the Terminal 2 ‘3 by 3’ square pattern is rigidly repeated, whereas in panel N, alongside the extended punched lines typical of Terminal 1, the tapered ‘point’ of the shape has been filled using a herringbone design, which accentuates the shape of the panel.

Roundels: B, C, F, G and K

Typical patterning within the Terminal 1 and 2 roundels is more difficult to establish. There are imprecise triangular motifs in Terminal 1: B and C, with prominent triangular motifs in Terminal 1: F.

However, in Terminal 2: G there is no hint of triangular, with the standard Terminal 2 ‘3 by 3’ square pattern shown, although in Terminal 2: K, the square ‘3 by 3’ is less marked and a hint of a triangular pattern can be seen.

Discussion of punched patterns

As has been shown above, the punch infilled panels of Terminals 1 and 2 are very different: in Terminal 1, five of the terminals show the extended line pattern, with two more showing a triangular pattern, and a further one showing a herringbone design. Two roundels are indeterminate in pattern.

However in Terminal 2, seven of the panels show a ‘3 by 3’ square pattern, with only one panel showing extended lines, and these are not comparable to the extended line pattern of Terminal 1. One roundel of Terminal 2 has an indeterminate pattern.

The difference in patterning, and different handling of the same shaped spaces, suggests that these terminals were not made or finished by the same hand. I would also go further and suggest that the goldsmith working on Terminal 1 was a more accomplished hand, capable of creating different designs and patterns (triangles, extended lines, herringbone shapes) to fill the spaces before them (see for example the herringbone of panel N and the triangles used to fill the point of panel M). Whereas, the person who punched the designs in Terminal 2 had one pattern, the square ‘3 by 3’, which they stuck to rigidly, despite the different shaped panels they had to work with.

Indeed, the extended lines and triangles of Terminal 1 are more difficult to achieve: you need to be confident that you can reproduce the pattern and not run out of space, whereas the square ‘3 by 3’ pattern runs out of space in a number of areas of Terminal 2 – particularly in panels Q and I – and has to be cut to fit the tight angles and restricted shape of the panels.

However, there is one panel in Terminal 2, panel O, which might suggest something of a break from tradition. In this panel, extended lines are used, although not so competently as in the Terminal 1 panels. Could this be the hand of an apprentice, or less skilled goldworker, trying out the Terminal 1 extended lines pattern? As we have shown previously in the Newark torc, this is possible, with one roundel (Roundel d in image below) on that torc apparently carried our less competently than the others, and perhaps by an apprentice (Machling & Williamson 2018, 10).

The Newark (top) and Netherurd (bottom) roundels

It should also be noted that the punching techniques and patterns on both Terminals 1 and 2 of the Snettisham Great torc are very different to those of the finisher/maker identified as having been responsible for the Newark and Netherurd punched designs (Machling & Williamson 2018, 8) and more recently on another Snettisham Torc (BM catalogue entry 1991,0407.15) . This would suggest that now three torc finishers/makers have been identified for the Iron Age of these islands, each using specific designs and motifs: a individual fingerprint, as it were.

Accepting the punching on Terminal 1 was carried out by a different hand to that of Terminal 2, is it possible to establish if this difference extended to other elements of the torc? Can we tell if both terminals were made at the same time, perhaps by different hands working side by side in the same workshop? Or are both terminals not immediately contemporary in time and space – was one terminal copied from an earlier original?

I believe that the evidence, both from this torc and others, may point to a copying of one torc terminal, by another hand, and that this perhaps happened at a later time, and perhaps in a different place, to the original manufacture of one of the first terminal. The evidence for this is detailed below.

The Snettisham Great torc manufacture

Superficially, the terminals of the Great torc appear similar: both have similar design elements, are constructed in a similar way (using the torus/core/shell sheet method) and to the same approximate size. However, as has been shown above, the design layout and decorative detail is very different.

In addition, in x-radiographs made by the British Museum and shared on Twitter in 2017 (now unfortunately removed but will be included in the British Museum Snettisham book, due out in 2023) , there are differences that can be seen in the make-up of the torcs. In Terminal 2, both margins of the torc core sheet are cracked and split. This cannot be seen on Terminal 1, where both core sheet margins of are complete.

Cracking of the edge of thin gold is often caused by working gold when it has not been correctly annealed (heating and quenching the gold alloy to keep it malleable) and can be seen, intentionally produced, in the image below:

Cracked gold sheet margin. Image © Sally Pointer & Gareth Riseborough

That the Terminal 2 core shows such evidence on both core sheet margins, but that Terminal 1 does not on either, can be explained in a couple of ways. The first explanation, that the gold alloy in Terminal 2 was less gold rich than that of Terminal 1 – and so work hardened and cracked easier – is possible however, visually, the gold alloys looks very similar, and so this is unlikely.

The second explanation, that the cracking of the Terminal 2 core sheet was caused by a less skilled gold smith, who had not annealed the gold correctly, seems more possible, especially if taken in conjunction with the decoration of Terminal 2, which appear to show a less competent hand.

So with the decorative and construction evidence, is there anything that other torcs can tell us about what happened with the Snettisham Great torc?

Evidence from other torcs

Gold sheet – torus terminal – torcs are rare: only the Great torc, the Netherurd terminal, the Snettisham Grotesque and Mini Grotesque torcs and another Snettisham torc (BM Catalogue entry 1991,0407.38) have complete terminals, and whilst the Near Stowmarket torc represents a torus terminal, not enough remains to be used for the purposes of this study. In addition, the Clevedon torc was almost certainly once a torus terminal torc (Machling & Williamson 2019b), but it has been significantly reworked.

However, even though rare, there is evidence which could prove of relevance. Both Netherurd and the Mini Grotesque torcs were found as detached terminals, as part of larger hoards.

This would suggest that single torc terminals in hoards were not unusual and, in the case of Netherurd, the evidence that the terminal had been carefully removed from its wire neck ring (see above image) and preserved, to be later added to a hoard, may shed light on the Snettisham Great torc evidence.

The reworking, remodelling and alteration of torus torcs

In many cases, sheet torus torcs appear to have been altered from their original form. In the case of Netherurd, the original torc was taken apart (Machling& Williamson 2018, 6) and the rest of the torc apparently discarded (presumably to be recycled or re-worked). However, a single terminal was carefully retained – undamaged – and was added to a hoard which included other, simpler, torcs and coins (Feacham 1958).

The same can also be seen with the Snettisham Mini-Grotesque terminal, and indeed many of the other broken or disassembled torcs in the Snettisham hoards, which were apparently taken apart and yet still held enough ‘value’ (either social or monetary) to be retained and then placed within the hoards (Clarke 1954, Stead 1991) .

In the case of Clevedon, the picture is more developed, with a single remaining terminal having been cut down and reworked probably – from the decorative evidence – at a later date (Machling & Williamson 2019b).

So what might the relevance be to the Snettisham Great torc?

If we take into consideration the evidence that most torc terminals are created to the same design on the same torc, that the neck ring of the Great torc does not appear to be a good fit for the terminals, the evidence that the terminals appear not to have been made by the same hand (the core sheet margin cracks and different decorative techniques), and the evidence for disassembled, and yet carefully preserved, single terminals found more widely in Iron Age hoards, a possible alternative biography for the Snettisham Great torc becomes possible.

A new story for the Snettisham Great torc

Having detailed the evidence above, I would suggest that perhaps an other torus torc was altered in the Iron Age and recreated as a new torc – the Snettisham Great torc which we now see today.

The Snettisham Great torc

In its original form, it would perhaps have been a torc with similar, matching, terminals. However, this torc was disassembled, with a single terminal (Terminal 1) retained of the original. This terminal was then passed to a new maker, who decided, or was commissioned, to make a new torc from it.

Less competent than the original maker, they struggled with the gold sheet and in the decorative elements, perhaps after trying to replicate them (is this evidenced by the attempt at extended lines seen in Terminal 2: O?) choosing simpler ‘3 by 3’ square blocks of punched line designs that they could achieve. The wire neck ring also proved to be difficult as the terminals were much larger than they were used to, the wire coils needing to be thicker, less easy to twist and secure, and so the wire neck ring was splayed, and quantities of solder added to keep the terminals in place.

Finally they had a new torc, similar to the old, but newly created by other hands. A magnificent piece of work, but which up close told the story of its complicated creation. Perhaps the previous torc was seen as part of the new story, an alliance created, a bond forged, by the creation of a new item using part of an old one? Or perhaps it was a lucky acquisition by a dignitary or group who decided to create a new, impressive piece out of this unusual terminal from a far away place?

What do you think?

It’s always good to torc, so please feel free to comment, email or tweet at me!

(All images are copyright The Trustees of The British Museum or National Museums of Scotland, unless noted otherwise)


Clarke, R.R. 1954. The early Iron Age treasure from Snettisham, Norfolk. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 20, 27–86

Feachem, R.W. 1958. The ‘Cairnmuir’ hoard from Netherurd, Peebleshire. Proceedings of the Antiquaries of Scotland 91, 112–16

Fox, C. 1958. Pattern and Purpose: A Survey of Early Celtic Art in Britain. Cardiff: The National Museum of Wales.

Hill J D. 2005. Portable Antiquities Scheme: DENO-4B33B7. [accessed 9 May 2017].

Jope, M. 2000. Early Celtic Art in the British Isles. Oxford: Oxford University Press

La Niece S, Farley J, Meeks N and Joy J 2018, ‘Gold in Iron Age Britain’, in R Schwab, P-Y Milcent, B Armbruster and E Pernicka (eds), Early Iron Age gold in Celtic Europe: Science, technology and archaeometry. Proceedings of the International Congress held in Toulouse, France, 11-14 March 2015 (Rahden), 407-30

Machling, T. & Williamson, R. 2018. ”Up Close and Personal’: The later Iron Age Torcs from Newark, Nottinghamshire and Netherurd, Peeblesshire’. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 84, 387–403.

Machling T & Williamson R. 2019a. ‘”Damn clever metal bashers”’: The thoughts and insights of 21st century goldsmiths, silversmiths and jewellers regarding Iron Age gold torus torcs’ in C. Gosden, H. Chittock, C. Nimura & P. Hommel (eds), Art in the Eurasian Iron Age: Context, connections, and scale. (Oxford)

Machling, T. & Williamson, R. 2019b. ‘”Cut and shuts”: The reworking of Iron Age gold torus torcs’, Later Prehistoric Finds Group Newsletter 13 (Summer 2019), 4-7

Machling, T. & Williamson, R. 2020. ‘Investigating the manufacturing technology of later Iron Age torus torcs’. Historical Metallurgy. 52, 2 (for 2018), 83-95

Spratling M G. 1972. Southern British decorated bronzes of the late pre-Roman Iron Age, unpublished PhD thesis (University of London).

Stead, I.M. 1991. The Snettisham treasure: Excavations in 1990. Antiquity 65, 447–64

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