Curator’s Choice – Iron mirror from Garton Slack

Posted: 1st February 2021

Humber Museums Partnership - Curator’s Choice – Iron mirror from Garton Slack

This iron mirror was found in the grave of a young woman who was around 20-30 years old when she died. The woman was buried in a barrow (a manmade earth mound over a grave) with a square ditch around it. The barrow was in Britain’s largest known Iron Age cemetery which spans Garton Slack and Wetwang Slack in East Yorkshire. The mirror has been dated to 380-200BC: it’s over two thousand years old. This makes it one of the oldest Iron Age mirrors found in Britain.

There’s been a lot of discussion around the significance of mirrors in Iron Age society. At the time people wouldn’t have had many opportunities to look at themselves apart from looking in pools of water. They would have relied on other people to tell them what they looked like. So it is possible that owning a mirror, where you could see yourself and see how other people saw you, could have given you power as it would give you control over your own image.

Some other ideas have included the use of mirrors to see behind you or as magical objects, which could help you see the future or reflect away bad spirits. Some Iron Age mirrors have been found with traces of coverings, such as cloth and fur bags. For example, this mirror had decayed remains underneath it, so might have been buried in a box covering its reflective surface. Some archaeologists have suggested this was because the mirrors were used to reflect light, which possibly represented a person’s soul. So it might have been important to protect people from the reflective surface when it wasn’t in use or when a person died, the spirit in the mirror died and so it was buried in the same way as a person.

However, when thinking about mirrors in the Iron Age, it’s important to remember that in the past everyday life and spirituality might not have been viewed as separately as they are now. Mirrors might have had multiple uses or meanings at the same time. So a mirror might have been used to look at yourself but also to see into a spirit world.

I chose this mirror because it was found in the largest Iron Age cemetery in the UK and helps to build our understanding of Iron Age life. There were also chariot burials in the cemetery (the other Iron Age mirror in our collection was found in one) which highlight East Yorkshire’s connection to Continental Europe at the time. The mirror reflects this – its handle is similar in shape to a horse bridle bit when the bit is laid out flat.

I also selected it because of what it represents: the concept of an object operating as a liminal space. There’s been a lot of academic study into the prehistoric landscape which looks at land and water as well as environments that bridge these spaces – such as bogs (which are a bit like land and a bit like water). It’s often been thought that water has a magical or spiritual quality, reflecting back an image whilst beneath the surface there’s another world. Water can also reflect back a distorted image (if the surface is disturbed) in the same way that this iron mirror would have done – similar to the world we live in, but not the same. This is why some archaeologists believe the mirror would have been viewed in a similar way to water by the Iron Age people: a liminal space between worlds. I like that as archaeologists, we can have these deep and meaningful thoughts about an object like this, whilst simultaneously thinking it’s a well-made, decent looking thing which someone probably just used to check they looked ok.

Written by Research and Documentation Assistant Alice Rose.

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