Portesham mirror

Iron Age woman buried with lavish goods

From: Dorset Museum

This beautiful Iron Age mirror, made of polished bronze, was found in the grave of a woman, along with other personal items.  It is a wonderful example of Celtic art and one of the finest pieces to be found in Dorset.

Buried with her treasures

The grave, dating from the 1st century AD, contained an elderly woman’s body, lying in a crouched position. As well as the mirror, she was buried with two brooches, glass beads, coins, tweezers and nail and ear cleaners.  

The lavish grave goods indicate that the woman was an important figure in her community.

Mystical mirror

The mirror is made of polished bronze with an engraved back. But some experts believe that such mirrors weren’t connected with personal appearance, but more to do with ritual, seeing the future, or a symbol of religious power.  So the swirly Celtic art decoration on the back might have been designed to bestow the mirror with magical powers – patterns like these are used on other powerful Iron Age objects like swords and shields.

Fewer than 30 of this type of mirror have been discovered in the UK.

Food for the afterlife

Research also shows that at the woman’s funeral, the guests ate roasted pork and put aside some for her to carry into the afterlife. She was also provided with pots and a bronze pan for making warm wine.

Discovering the mirror

The mirror was found by a metal detectorist, who reported it to Weymouth Museum. They then called in Wessex Archaeology to excavate the grave. Dorset County Museum bought the finds in 1996, after a successful appeal to raise £65,000.

Mirror inspires a poem

As part of the Grave Goods Project (see below), the former Children’s Laureate, Michael Rosen, was invited to write three poems for children inspired by the findings in three ancient burials. He said the project reminded him of personal items placed in his son’s casket, who died aged 18 of meningitis. Listen to a video of Michael reading the poem. You can read the words below.

The Grave Goods Project

The objects from the Portesham grave, along with those from two other burials, are the subject of the unique Grave Goods Project. This involves the British Museum and Reading and Manchester universities, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Britain is internationally renowned for the high quality and exquisite crafting of its late prehistoric grave goods. Objects from burials have helped archaeologists to interpret society at that time. They provide insights into prehistoric lives, and demonstrate the care shown to the dead by the living, and of people’s relationships with ‘things’.

Artist's reconstruction of the burial, showing a woman in a crouched position, surrounded by her grave goods.
Artist's reconstruction of the Portesham burial, showing the woman with her grave goods. (© Craig Williams)
Photo of Portesham mirror showing the swirly decorative Celtic art and ornate handle.
The back of the Portesham mirror, showing swirly Celtic art decoration.

Portesham Mirror by Michael Rosen

 The power is in me

The power is me

I am the power

I am the one and only

that sees it all

for now and for ever.

It looked like you looked in me

like people look in rivers

but you weren’t looking for you.

You wanted my power

to see beyond yourself,

to see what it is

we will be.

The power is in me

The power is me

I am the power

And now you are there

beyond yourself

in the company of what

you let people see

mattered to you most:

the tastes on your tongue

the shine of your show

the blood on the blade.

But I saw that look

to see yourself beyond yourself

And see:

I am

in the time beyond yourself

I am

in the time you looked for

when you looked in me.

The power is in me.

The power is me.

I am the power.

 

 

Portesham Mirror poem read by Michael Rosen

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