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The mysterious Battersea Cauldron

Updated: Jul 1, 2020

There are few objects that evoke memories of our long-lost past like the Battersea Cauldron. Part of the British Museum's collections since it was fished out of the Thames riverbed in 1861, the cauldron continues to fascinate everyone who sees it. How come it is so intact? What was it used for? What was it doing in Battersea?

The Battersea Cauldron courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum

I first became acquainted with the cauldron in around 2016. I was walking through the Museum's galleries early one morning, having made my customary visit to view the Lewis Chessmen, when I came face-to-face with this stunning artefact from our ancient past. Little did I know at that moment how old this cauldon was (I am no archaeologist), but I was surprised subsequently to learn that its manufacture has been dated to between 800 and 700 BC, that is, in excess of 2,700 years old. I still don't know how one can be so precise, but what I can grasp is that the cauldron in question pre-dates the Roman occupation of Britain, and the age of Boudicca, by several centuries.

The British Museum has recently upgraded its collections pages. The online description states,

'Sheet bronze cauldron, created by riveting together seven shaped plates of sheet bronze; the upper ones are sharply out-turned and corrugated for strength; a separate tubular binding was added to the rim; then two free-running ring handles attached by riveted straps; rivets and ornamental stays secure rim to shoulder.'

This technical statement somewhat obscures the object's purpose. If one has the opportunity to look inside, one notices that there are small holes in the cauldron's base and around the handles, meaning that any liquid would now pass through.

This begs the question: what was the cauldron for? We might think instinctively that it was associated with witchcraft or sorcery, but there is no evidence for this. Was it a glorified cooking pot, a very ornate one at that? Or did it serve some sort of ceremonial function? One can imagine that it might once have held potions, but were they simple medical remedies or magical concoctions?

Another mystery. What was the Battersea Cauldron doing in the Thames and how was it recovered? If you ever visit the banks of this river at low tide, you will encounter mudlarks picking their way along the foreshore, hopeful of finding treasure. Was this what William Godwin, who sold the cauldron to the Museum in the 19th century, had been doing? Or did Godwin find this magnificent object not in the river itself but nearby (remembering that the course of Old Father Thames migrated across the floodplain for millennia, until the riverbanks were bricked up in the 1800s)? Was it on that occasion that the cauldron came to light?

One is tempted to suppose that the Battersea Cauldron was deposited deliberately in the River Thames, as some kind of votive offering. But we are now entering the land of supposition, imposing our modern fantasies on a previous age. Perhaps, instead, the cauldron was thrown away when it was no longer fit to be used; it is hard to imagine that somebody lost it. Today, however, it sits majestically in its glass box in the British Museum, waiting for more visitors to stumble upon it. What tales can it tell?

The Battersea Cauldron was displayed in the British Library exhibition Harry Potter: A History of Magic in 2017-18.

Julian Harrison for Cradles and Lables

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