Amateur treasure hunter finds Bronze Age gold

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The Independent Online

A solid gold cup used by Bronze Age shamans 3,600 years ago has been discovered by a treasure hunter in a wheat field in Kent.

Cliff Bradshaw, 69, found the sacred vessel – the first of its type to be uncovered in Britain for almost two centuries – with a metal detector only 18in below the surface of Ringlemere Farm at Woodnesborough, near Sandwich.

The chalice, which stands 4in high and is thought to be worth up to £50,000, might have a connection with the Holy Grail of Arthurian legend.

It is believed to have been used for drinking psychotropic beverages that produced hallucinations. It had been buried with its owner in a previously unknown Bronze Age barrow grave, presumably to help inthe afterlife.

Its owner was almost certainly an individual of exalted status, probably some sort of local priest-ruler who would have used the cup in shamanic rituals. Shamans throughout history have used psychotropic substances and other methods to induce, in the form of hallucinations, what they believed to be contact with the spirit world.

In that sense, the shaman and his people could well have regarded the drink as embodying, in some literal or symbolic way, the spirits or deities that he was able to see after the potion had entered his body.

He would therefore have regarded the gold cup as a vital piece of equipment designed to enable him to be at one with the spirit world – in more modern religious terms, to be in communion with the divine. It is likely that there was a conceptual link between the ideas behind the use of the Kent gold cup and the Holy Grail, the Arthurian gold cup based in part on the Christian Eucharist.

The find is therefore not only of purely archaeologicalinterest, but also hints at the continuity of religious ideasand practices that have persisted in ever-changing form through successive religions from prehistoric times until the present.

In the Bronze Age – the period in which the Kent cup was made – the hallucinatory drink would probably have been made of opium or some other available natural drug mixed into an alcoholic liquid such as mead (honey and water).

Tests on prehistoric ritual artefacts over the next few years may reveal which drug was most commonly used in the Bronze Age.

In the whole of Europe only 18 Bronze Age gold chalices have been discovered – 10 in Hungary and Romania, one in Switzerland, one in Germany, three in Brittany, France and three, including the Kent cup, in England.

In Britain at this period, smoking equipment rather than cups were more commonly placed in graves.

The religious association of cups with altered states of consciousness existed not only in the prehistoric world but also in many other cultures. Even the Bible seems to refer to the concept. The famous passage in Psalm 23 "my cup runneth over" may be more accurately translated as "my chalice renders me inebriated".

Mr Bradshaw, a retired electrician, told archaeologists at Canterbury Archaeological Trust of the discovery, in November last year, and they excavated the site with funding from English Heritage.

David Miles, English Heritage's chief archaeologist, said: "Thanks to the team of amateurs and professionals which brought to light this outstanding and internationally important find, we have been able to undertake the vital work ofexcavating the barrow and placing the magnificent cup inits context."

The Kent cup has a curved base, is exquisitely embossed and has broad handles attached by rivets with lozenge-shaped washers.

It is being held in the British Museum pending the outcome of a coroner's inquest to decide whether it constitutes Treasure under the Treasure Act 1996. If the coroner decides that it does, the British Museum will be given the chance to buy it.