The Gold vessel from Biia

10th-8th century BC
Gold sheet (gold 84,36 %, silver 15,11%, copper 0,09%, tin 0,03%, antimony 0,02%)
H max: 5,80 cm, D max: 9,80 cm, D mouth: 8,70 cm; Weight: 143,92 g

    The Gold vessel from Biia

    Text: Sorin Oanță-Marghitu, Rodica Oanță-Marghitu; photo: Marius Amarie.

    The prehistoric gold vessels belong to a small community in the area north of the Danube: four cups constituting a treasure discovered in the former Bihor County (Soroceanu 2008, 226-228 no. 163-166; 401 Taf. 58; 402 Taf. 59 / 166), the cups from Biia (Schroller 1925; Popescu 1956, 233-234, picture no. 144; Soroceanu 2008, 225-226, 228-230; 402 Taf. 59/167) and Bistrița-Dealul Târgului (Gogâltan, Marinescu 2018) and the treasure from Rădeni comprising eight vessels of which only five were preserved (Vulpe, Mihăilescu-Bîrliba 1986; Soroceanu 2008, 224-226, 231-234, 403-404, pictures no. 60-61). The vessels from Rădeni and the disc from Călărași (Bondoc 2003-2005; Constantinescu 2003-2005) belong to a distinct tradition that also includes the cup from Kryžovlin (southern Ukraine) and the treasure from Vălcitrăn (Bulgaria). In this group, the handles are attached with rivets to the plain body of the cups. The limited repertoire of forms has correspondences in the ceramic vessels, as indicated by the analogy established between the vessel with a handle from the Vălcitrăn treasure and cups deposited in graves from the Hallstatt period cemetery of Zimnicea (Vulpe, Mihăilescu-Bîrliba 1986, 48). Unlike this group, the handles of the Transylvanian vessels are not attached to the body, and the decoration associates the embossed motifs with the incised ones.

    Thanks to the combination of various morphological and ornamental elements, the vessel from Biia (picture no. II), discovered in the riverbed of Târnava Mică (picture no. I) (after which, in 1895, it became part of the Brukenthal Museum’s inventory), occupies a special position in the context of the repertoire of forms and ornaments of the prehistoric vessels. It is a small vessel (maximum height: 5.80 cm, maximum diameter: 9.80 cm, mouth diameter: 8.70 cm), it weighs 143.92 g, and it was made by hammering, from a single thick gold sheet shaped as a slightly flattened hemispherical bowl (elemental composition: gold 84.36%, silver 15.11% , copper 0.09%, tin 0.03%, antimony 0.02%; according to Ţârlea et al. 2016, 59). The diameter of the vessel first narrows towards the mouth and continues with a flared border from which, diametrically opposite, two handles are profiled. Two bands were spared from the gold sheet, relatively narrow, arched down, split in two towards the extremities, each strip being transformed by hammering into a tapering round cross section wire rolled in a spiral at the ends (picture no. III-1). The decoration marks the elements which define the profile of the cup: below the smallest diameter area, a dotted motif was drawn, delimited in the upper part by a straight line and in the lower part by a zigzag line (picture no. II; III-2). In this area, the guiding lines that define the boundaries and outline the decorative pattern can be clearly distinguished, the pointed impressions, made from the outside inward, overlapping and accurately respecting their trajectory (picture no. III-2). The maximum diameter of the vessel is highlighted by two horizontal strings of small protuberances, made from the inside out, the same type of impressions, grouped into two concentric circles, is also found on the bottom (picture no. III-3). In this area the decoration is structured by five groups – made of a protuberance surrounded by three circles – placed in cross, one in the center and four at equal distances on the path of the outer circle (picture no. III-3).

    The technical solution chosen for shaping and adorning the Biia vessel (picture no. IV), relied on very good knowledge of the physical properties of gold. On the one hand, crafting of a vessel from a single sheet of gold has as an implicit premise the knowledge of the hardness and rigidity of the used material and, on the other hand, the embossing and shaping of the metal sheet was possible only as a result of the characteristic malleability of gold (pictures no. IV-1, 2). Thus, with a thickness of about 1.5 mm towards the two handles and thinned up to less than 1 mm in the body of the vessel – details that can be easily observed in the mouth area (picture no. IV-4) –, the characteristics of the gold sheet allowed its shaping and subsequently conferred the finite object the necessary resistance to a use that, however, would not expose it to very high tensions. Special attention has been given to the polishing of the external side of the vessel in order to achieve the highest brightness (pictures no. IV-5, 6, 7). The metal sheet was probably polished both before being profiled by hammering and after this phase, so these traces are not still visible on the metal surface. The few traces resulting from the hammering process can only be guessed on the inside of the handles (picture no. IV-3). The execution of the decorative motifs is not too accurate (pictures no. IV-9, 10, 11). Even if the intention of arranging the five groups of circles on the bottom according a cruciform layout is very clear, their distribution does not even respect the line of the handles, and the direction on which the other two are aligned deviates from perpendicular (pictures no. IV-8, 9). Thus, although the theoretical structure of the decoration involved symmetry, the result was rather different from the chosen model, the general impression being that it was adapted and altered on the go. The examination of the decoration indicates its completion after obtaining the final form of the vessel. All the protuberances on the vessel bottom and circumference were obtained by deforming the metal sheet from the inside out (pictures no. IV-5, 6). From this perspective, the technical option of creating the motif that decorates the vessel area immediately under the rim (pictures no. IV 10, 11) is also suggestive. In this area, the execution of protuberances would have been more difficult, particularly the fastening and finding a position that would allow the use of a stamping punch. As a result, it was decided to use a decorative motif that could be achieved through interventions directly on the surface of the artefact. The guiding lines were firstly outlined, and then the decoration was obtained from the succession of dots made by pressing with a pointed tip tool. In the context it is interesting to notice that the border was interrupted in the areas covered by the handles.

    The morphological details of the vessel provide little guidance on the practices in which it has been involved in the past. It was constantly thought to be similar to a leather bag (Schroller 1925, 114; Popescu 1956, 233; Ţârlea, Popescu 2014, 67), but its unique appearance, the association between the absence of the neck, the shape of the handles and the ornaments on the shoulder (which could remind of the folds produced by tightening the drawstring) did not encourage, however, any attempt of understanding this virtual act of transformation of a perishable object in an exquisite and persisting one. This formal link underlines more clearly the unique character of the cup in prehistoric toreutics, unlike vessels such as ones from Bistriţa (Gogâltan, Marinescu 2018) or Vălcitrăn (Vulpe, Mihăilescu-Bîrliba 1986, 48) which have analogies in ceramic vessels.

    The unicity of this vessel determined several attempts of dating with reference to some of its characteristics: the shape, decoration on the shoulder and the base, the features of the handles made of the same sheet of metal from which the vessel was fashioned, with their ends rolled into a double spiral (Figure V). The decoration on the vessel shoulder was compared with the ornamentation on the belts at Şpălnaca and Guşteriţa (Pârvan 1926, 330-331, 338, Figure 229) and those found on swords and gold discs (an analogy used to date the vessel “between the start of the transitional period and the Iron Age”; Dumitrescu 1974, 398). The handles of the Biia vessel are reminiscent of both double-spiral-ended bracelets dated to the end of the Bronze Age and beginning of the first Iron Age (Ţârlea, Popescu 2014), such as those from Sacoşu Mare, Firiteaz (Popescu 1975; Pârvan 1926, 330; Popescu 1956, 213, Figures 129, 233) or Oradea (in this case the decoration comprising also zigzag lines of punched points; Mozsolics 1973, 336 Taf. 84/1-2; Dumitrescu 1974, Figure 446), and circular plates with two opposite pairs of spirals included in the Vatin deposit (Mozsolics 1968, 56, Taf. 26). Moreover, the Bodrogkeresztúr piece (Mozsolics 1973, 90, 97, 339 Taf. 87/1) combines double-spiral ends with a dotted decoration forming lines and hatched triangles. The imprecise game of formal associations is also illustrated by the comparison that can be drawn between the shape of the Biia vessel and other vessels from the early Urnfield period, such as those at Milavče (Kytlicova 1991, 62 No. 35, Taf. 6, 35), Haltingen (Jacob 1995, 62 no. 137) or Gönnebeck (Jacob 1995, 125 no. 411). As stated previously (Soroceanu 2008, 233, 238), these “do not represent well established typological benchmarks, but rather are rough guides that can to some extent help avoid confusion”.

    The result of this endeavor was that the Biia vessel was differently dated, to somewhere between the middle period of the Bronze Age to the end of the first Iron Age (e.g. Schroller 1925, Pârvan 1926, 330, pl. XIV; Mozsolics 1951; 1968; Sherratt, Taylor 1989, 111-112; Matthäus 1989), which rather suggests the persistence of various forms, techniques and types of decoration. Tudor Soroceanu (2008, 234-236, 238-239) believes that this vessel has correspondences in the metal dishes from the 10th-8th centuries BC based on various common elements: (1) the lack of a neck, the handle deriving from the body of the vessel in a similar way to the Gusen-type cup and the Milavče-Haltingen-Rongères-Gönnebeck-type bowls; (2) the bowl shape of the recipient that resembles the bronze ladle from Sângeorgiu de Pădure (dated Hallstatt B2); (3) the decorative, concentric circles, with a small prominence in the center encountered (albeit slightly larger and flatter) on bronze vessels from deposits dating from Hallstatt A (Uioara, Cincu, Caransebeș, Cugir and especially on the pieces from Şomartin).

    As previously stated (Soroceanu 2008, 237, 240), the Biia vessel represents “rather the easternmost point of spread of a group comprising western, northern and central Europe” (see also Schroller 1925). The combination of motifs adorning the lower part of the cup reminds of the decoration of the northern, central and western European vessels (Ebbesen, Abrahamsen 2012; Armbruster 2012). The motif of the prominence surrounded by concentric circles found on the base of the vessels is multiplied in the form of rows that, through various alternations with other decorative elements, cover their bodies, as well as the enigmatic golden cones, such as that found in Ezelsdorf (Schauer 1985). The “unfolding” shape of this decoration on the disc of the Trundholm sun chariot (Müller 1903; Sofaer 2018, 236-238) indicates the development direction of the decoration, from the central motif at the bottom towards the edge of the vessel. This follows a canon, which applies a two-dimensional approach to the vessel, with the decoration not taking into account its visibility on the body of the artefact. In this family of symbols, the decoration of the Biia vessel represents a shortened, “uncluttered” variant of the ornamentation found on the northern, central and west-European dishes. The decorative combination on the lower part of the Biia cup resembles the decoration of the vessels from Avernakø and Depenau (Ebbesen, Abrahamsen 2012, 346 Abb. 6; Armbruster 2012, 408 Abb. 44/2; 412 Abb. 46), except that in these two hoards the arrangement of the four motifs has a cruciform composition made up of groups of ribs and strings of small prominences.

    As can be seen from the Trundholm chariot, the ornamental composition of circular motifs is part of the narrative of the disc being carried by horse-drawn wagon. Cups decorated with this combination of motifs and featuring a handle with horse protomes, such as the pieces from Mariesminde and Borgbjerg (Ebbesen, Abrahamsen 2012; Armbruster 2012, 411 Abb. 45/1; 420 Abb. 51), could be representations of this narrative, with in this case the golden vessel and the sun disk belonging to the same network of meanings. In the decoration of the bronze amphora from the Mariesminde deposit, which also contains golden cups with horse protomes, the sun disc or wheel is associated with representations of the aquatic birds arranged in an antithetical position (Armbruster 2012, 393 Abb. 28). This narrative, sometimes appearing with additional circular motifs, is depicted on bronze objects produced in different parts of central and western European space (e.g. von Sacken 1868, Taf. XXII / 3, 3a; XXIV / 6; Kossack 1954; Jöckenhovel 2003, 109-110; Metzner-Nebelsick 2003a, 45, Abb. 10b; 2012, 166-167; Hansen 2016, 192-193; Mödlinger 2017, 86 Figures 2.14 / 9, 12-13; 130 Figures 2.28 / 2; Sofaer 2018, 243-244), including bronze vessels from Transylvania, such as those from Remetea Mare, Sâg and Buza (Soroceanu 2008, 179-180, Abb. 27; 184-186; 191-193; 381-385 Taf. 40-42; 386-387 Taf. 43-44; 391 Taf. 46/135). Based on the aforementioned vessels and symbols it can be concluded that Transylvania is part of this same European style of depicting narratives, stories and myths (Kaul 2003). The materiality of these narratives enjoys a long duration, marked by circular decorations, miniature wagon (Pare 1987; 1989) and representations of the wheel or sun disk in association with aquatic birds.

    The archaeological literature has drawn a distinction between the significance of the vessels in everyday space – from this perspective, the Biia vessel could also have the function of a drinking vessel, a libation vessel or a vessel for the storage of various liquids (Soroceanu 2008, 225, note 212) – and the interpretation of the act of their deposition, through an approach that emphasizes the intended action, with different meanings, of accumulating, selecting and depositing objects. The discussion on hoards emphasized their votive nature, the comparison with sets of burial items from funeral inventories, as well as defining regional models of deposition (e.g. Aner 1956; Hundt 1955; von Brunn 1980; Bradley 1990; Hansen 1992; 1994; 2013; Soroceanu 1995; 2005). From this point of view, metal vessels in Europe form different configurations within the space of the deposition, which are rarely in the form of grave goods, and often isolated or structured in hoards (Metzner-Nebelsick 2003, 101, Figure 1). In these constellations of depositions, the association of vessels in the northern area of the Danube suggests a certain tendency of grouping into sets (the hoards from Rădeni and that from the former County of Bihor; Soroceanu 2008, 225), which may indicate a narrative in which everyday social practices are transferred in the space of deposition. Conversely, it can be speculated that the everyday practices involving the use of the vessels were imbued with the meaning of a virtual act of deposition: the vessel could at any time be deposited to mark a special occasion. Unlike these hoards, the cup from Bistrița-Dealul Târgului is the sole participant in the act of deposition. However, as shown by the archaeological research, at around 7 meters distance from the vessel, a shaft-hole ax and a bronze chisel (Gogâltan, Marinescu 2018) were discovered. The act of their deposition at a relatively close distance was probably related to the special significance of this place close to the habitation space. From this perspective, i.e. the place of deposition, it is worth noting that the deposition of the Biia vessel, probably also like that of the hoard from Rădeni (Soroceanu 2008, 232), is related to the aquatic environment. A gold band bracelet with crescent-shaped ends, as well as a chain of seven lock rings of the same material, were also found in Biia (Hampel 1881; Mozsolics 1951, 82 Figure 2; 1968, 48; Popescu 1956, 216, 218 Figure 133; Dumitrescu 1974, 406, Figure 444). Not being able to associate these artifacts within a single hoard with any certainty (an argument used to date the vessel in the Middle Bronze Age: Mozsolics 1968, 48; Popescu 1974, 62; Matthäus 1989, 92-93), we can instead assume that they reflect a long lasting practice of deposit gold objects in this area.

    For a long time, in Transylvanian space, metal vessels were not deposited in graves, the stories structuring the funeral practices relying on other material elements to express the social status of the deceased. Instead, the metal vessels are transferred from the domestic domain to the depositional spaces, either alone or in sets, or in deposits associated with other objects (socketed axes, sickles, knives, saw blades, daggers, bracelets etc.). Consequently, metal vessels (gold vessels in particular) do not directly reflect social status during the periods to which they were attributed. Over a long period, most objects that can be considered to be elements of an “Überausstattung” (Hansen 2002), such as gold weapons and vessels, are not buried in graves. To paraphrase Chr. Eluère (1998, 168, 170), we can say that, during this long period of time, once their biography comes to an end, the transfer of gold vessels to the space of the deposition as an offering is more important than their participation in the perpetuation of the social status of any person within a funerary context.

    The long-lasting existence of the small community of gold vessels in the area north of the Danube is marked by episodes from the Middle Bronze Age (the Bistrița cup, discovered near a habitation context containing Wietenberg-type ceramics; Gogâltan, Marinescu 2018), the 12th-11th centuries BC (the hoard from Rădeni and that from the former County of Bihor; Vulpe, Mihăilescu-Bîrliba 1986, 56-57 note 64) and the 10th-8th centuries BC (the Biia cup; Soroceanu 2008, 225-226, 228-230). The relationship between the historical time of the dating of the various vessels and the long duration of the existence of the shapes and decorations, of the chosen technological solutions, of the social practices in which they were involved, takes us back to a time not only of the succession of generations of individuals but also to a time of the succession and transmission of vessels, a time of the repetition of gestures, movements and meanings.


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