Cauldrons and feasting in the Iron Age

Cauldrons are an iconic, if poorly understood class of artefact. They were probably used for boiling meat or heating alcoholic drinks, such as beer or mead, in communal feasting ceremonies. Tantalising references in early medieval Irish and Welsh literature suggest they might have been imbued with magical properties.

Prehistoric cauldrons fall into two groups. The first group are in use from the late Bronze Age – early Iron Age (1200 BC – 600 BC). There are around 60 known from the British Isles and Ireland. Like the beautiful example from the River Thames at Battersea, they are constructed from sheets of copper-alloy riveted together. This type of cauldron is most often found in watery contexts such as in rivers or bogs, where it is thought they were deliberately placed as offerings to the gods.

The second group are in use in the late Iron Age in Britain (200 BC – AD 100) and sometimes have iron components as well as copper-alloy. They are rarer with around 30 known examples. The Chiseldon cauldrons belong to this group and were found at a settlement. Other examples have been found in graves, such as the cremation burial from Baldock, Hertfordshire. The Baldock burial also contained other feasting paraphernalia including two firedogs, probably used to spit roast meat, as well as two wooden buckets and a wine amphora.

Cauldrons are substantial vessels capable of containing large quantities of food or liquid. It is therefore probable that they were not used for everyday purposes, but were instead used for the preparation of food and drink for feasts. Feasts are occasions distinct from the everyday, when large quantities of food and drink are consumed. In the Iron Age they were extremely important social events, used to celebrate religious festivals, mark rites of passage or even just to show off.

The Battersea cauldron
  • 1

    Battersea cauldron, Bronze Age / Iron Age, 800-700 BC. From the River Thames at Battersea, London, England

  • 2

    Fire-dog, Iron Age. Found at Welwyn, Hertfordshire

  • 3

    Bronze flesh hook, Late Bronze Age, 1050-900 BC From Dunaverney, Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland

Find out more about the Iron Age