Desborough Iron Age Mirror Drawing & Essay

In 2017, I followed ‘Who were the Celts?’ at Oxford Department for Continuing Education. I enjoyed reading an essay on Iron Age mirrors. ‘Mirrors in the British Iron Age: Performance, Revelation and Power, by Melanie Giles and Jody Joy. It inspired me immensely.

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Iron Age 50 BC – AD 50
Found in 1908 near Desborough

After reading about Iron Age mirrors, I set out to draw the Iron Age Desborough mirror. Through drawing I would gain more insights into its decorations and its function. Iron Age mirrors that were beautifully decorated and made of bronze and iron were found in graves of high status Iron Age women.

I like to say something about high status Iron Age women. One might think ‘high status’ refers to rich women or wives of rulers or kings. But although both accounts can be correct, high status refers in the Iron Age more to women being leaders or shamans.

The essay discusses how Iron Age metallurgy and how a whole community was involved in the making process. Also, it discusses social relations, grave goods, and the compass drawn motifs of repeated and distinctive forms arranged into intricate and flee flowing designs. Fascinating, to say in the least. The question begs why were mirrors used as grave goods? The easiest answer does not always work, one being that the Iron Age lady was buried with her belongings. Perhaps the mirrors were not possessions but (diplomatic) gifts. And why would a deceased lady take a mirror, she wouldn’t need it in her afterlife, or would she?

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Imagine looking into this mirror. The effect of seeing your face in the reflective properties of the plate, disrupted or enhanced by its La Tene decorations would …yes, what would you see?

Giles and Joy describe how the decorations on the mirrors are not only used to deceive the eye, but also to reinforce the reflective qualities of the mirror plate. The anthropologist Alfred Gell points out that Iron Age mirrors could have expressed political power and legitimise associations with the supernatural. This is hard for us to understand but in order to understand what Gell states requires us to imagine a time in which you only saw your reflection in (restless or calm) water, in shiny objects, like copper, bronze, silver or gold. How special such mirrors would be! Imagine now that next to not frequently seeing your reflection, you were raised to notice all sorts of shapes in water, smoke, old trees, and rocks. We have a clear sense of what we see is real and what is imagination, but for ancient people perhaps seeing was just seeing, whether it was imagination or fact. If the under-upper and middle world aren’t having hard borders, perhaps seeing imaginative, hallucinative and factual weren’t compartmentalised either.

Working on Desborough Iron Age Celtic Mirror
Working on Desborough Iron Age Celtic Mirror; adding a golden border.

When I suffer a migraine aura, I see things that do not exist and things that I need to see are gone. I can be passed in the streets by somebody who is missing his head. Perhaps looking into an Iron Age mirror yields a similar effect as having a migraine aura because Iron Age mirrors have blanked out spaces and thus provide viewers with a disorienting and distorted image of themselves. Yet, an Iron Age mirror has not only missing parts (blanked out spaces, decorated with a basket woven texture) but carefully chosen synchronised but flow-like playful, witty, and mischievous botanical and animal patterns. What effect would looking into a shiny plate, with a deliberate disorienting pattern have? Here the essay explains more about the ‘technology of enchantment‘ and goes deeper into psychological war-fare though powerful visceral and visual effects. It informs the reader about the Fang People of Gabon who used hallucinogens before looking into mirrors, and states that these Iron Age mirrors were not real mirrors (not for checking hair or make-up). In fact, the mirrors played a role in rituals to release the soul to its afterlife.

Desborough Mirror copied by Paula Kuitenbrouwer
Desborough Mirror copied by Paula Kuitenbrouwer. Mixed media; Derwent graphite & metallic pencils, and bronze coloured ink.

During the time that I spent drawing this Iron age mirror, I tried many things. I tried to project my face behind the decorations, fusing my face and the decorations and then see all sorts of animals. Of course, this is a very poor attempt to understand its magic. But I have to do it with a large doses of imagination and hours of drawing as there is no way I would be able to hold the mirror up and have a look in it. And even if I could do that, there wouldn’t be a ritual that would be helpful performed by an Iron Age shaman who would be experienced in travelling between worlds. (Or brainwaves, or different stages of consciousness, whatever way you might define shamanistic journeying).

My concluding thoughts are that by looking into this mirror, in an Iron Age ritual ceremony, with an Iron Age cognitive mindset, maybe, as a dying lady of high status, I would find great comfort in seeing my old face being obscured with these splendid swirling decorations. I would be calm as I have seen, thanks for my migraines, often enough things that aren’t there and fail to notice things that are there. I would probably enter theta brainwaves the same way as after sitting down for a longer time in meditation or -more Iron Age style- looking into the smoky swirls of an open campfire. I might start seeing my face, combined with the swirly flowing embellishments turning into animal and ancestral spirits. One has to understand that the Iron Age was full of spirits, spirits we have carefully abandoned from our modern life. But just as they have been forgotten, it doesn’t mean these spirits aren’t there. I would most certainly find an ancestral spirit that would ‘present’ itself as so much of my own face would be blanked out, and only essential and familiar facial lines would still linger in the reflective image. Or perhaps, I would see a beautiful stag or other horned mammal, and experience it as my guiding spirit animal. Perhaps I would see the hybrid human-animal dressed-up shaman of the village giving me instructions to journey to the Other-world.

All in all, it would perhaps release my soul into an in-between world in which I would be able to project comfortably to what I would need to see. I would probably have been fasting during the last days of my life, I would be susceptible for my imaginative mind to dominate and thus the softly and dreamily reflecting mirror would get a transitional quality and function. Or perhaps I would look and whisper some wise words, like Tibetan shamans who look into mirrors to see the future and the past, wise words that would be helpful to my tribe. The Fang people of Gabon use mirrors to contact their ancestors. Do Iron Age mirrors have a similar function?

Obviously, many things become possible should such a highly valued mirror be available to a tribe. It is therefore that there many more than this Desborough mirror only. One by one these mirrors and their fascinating embellishments are showing us that Iron Age metallurgy and shamanism practises were interrelated and that highly decorated ‘magic’ Iron Age mirrors were much appreciated by Iron Age peoples.

Paula Kuitenbrouwer

www.mindfuldrawing.com

@mindfuldrawing on Instagram

At Etsy

P.S. During the hours that I was my drawing of the Desborough mirror, I travelled between worlds too. I had to descend from my creative, spiritual plane of manifesting ideas to the mundane world of running errands. As the trees were shedding their leaves, I noticed many decomposed leaves with open parts resembling mini Iron Age mirrors scattered on the street. If you can not enjoy looking into the Desborough Iron Age mirror at the British Museum, do not despair, mini versions are freely available every autumn.

Art cards are available at Etsy (and can be framed as small memories to this exquisite mirror):

Two Mandarin Duck Couples

I like to show you two different mandarin duck drawings. In traditional Asian culture, mandarin ducks are believed to be lifelong couples, unlike other species of ducks. Hence they are regarded as a symbol of love, affection, and fidelity.

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Mandarin Ducks in Lotus Pond copyright Paula Kuitenbrouwer

The first drawing is titled Matchmaking in Heaven. It shows a mandarin duck couple in a lotus pond. It is a softly rendered watercolour drawing. The pond is calm, lotus flowers are growing and so is the bond between this duck and drake deepening. The duck and drake have just decided to take a swim. They will look for food, synchronized as they are. They are life long partners and, like swans, will stay together. Lotus flowers are symbols of purity, enlightenment, self-regeneration and rebirth. In Asia, mandarin ducks represent love and loyalty. Seeing bonding ducks, seeing how synchronised they are, makes people long for a deep belonging, a deep bond between lovers. Love renews itself every day; it grows, it deepens and sometimes we need to stand still and take time to say ‘I love you’ to our beloved ones. Because, although we know it, expressing this during a day that is full of obligations, commitments, and ambitions is a good thing. Combining the Lotus symbol with the Mandarin ducks, this couple stays together to grow old and wise together. They feel reborn in their deepening love every season.

The other mandarin duck couple drawing has a longer story. I was about to add a new couple to my portfolio when I noticed the Fibonacci Sequence in one of my old sketches. I immediately set out to make a circular composition, adding two ducks shaped as in the well-know Fibonacci fashion. And after having done that successfully, I couldn’t stop and added parts of The Great Wave off Kanagawa by the Japanese artist Hokusai next to the mandarin ducks.

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Now I had four Fibonacci elements in one drawing, as I recognized the Fibonacci sequence in Hokusai’s wave too. This mandarin duck couple, deeply in love with each other, is bathing in wild waters. In fact, they are so deeply bonded, they have no idea where they individually begin or end. They have become one in emotion and routine. They are also one with the waters they live in.

Fibonacci Sequence

The beautiful Hokusai wave, which could be interpreted as the pleasant and unpleasant high waves life throws at every couple, can’t separate them. They will stay together during their whole life; in high tide and low tide, in calm and difficult times, through day and night, till the end.

More Mandarin ducks are at my Etsy homepage & Instagram.

Paula Kuitenbrouwer

Forest Scene: Mandarin Ducks Resting on a River Bank

The mandarin ducks (Aix galericulata) have carefully chosen a place to rest. They seems to blend in with the dark background, thus if necessary, they will respond quickly by taking to the waters and thus escape predators. The river is calm, the forest is rich in sounds and smells, and all is well. The reflection of the lovely couple is visible in the calm water. Birds are flying over. 

The duck and drake have just decided to take a rest and have already positioned themselves on the bank. The duck is checking the left, the drake checks the right, if all feels safe they will soon tuck their bills into their wings and take a nap. After that they will look for food again, synchronized as they are. They are life long partners, like swans. In Asia mandarin ducks represent love and loyalty. On the photos of this drawing, you will notice a few wooden ducks. They are used, in Asia, like drawings, prints and paintings, to enhance feelings of love and loyalty in homes and rooms between couples. Seeing bonding ducks, seeing how synchronised they are, makes people long for a deep belonging, a deep bond between lovers.

This is a softly rendered graphite drawing. On my Etsy home page and Instagram you can watch a video of the making of this drawing. I have done many Mandarin duck commissions for homes, weddings, engagements, stationary, or meditation/sleeping rooms. Contact me should you have specific wishes regarding a mandarin duck drawing. Also, have a look at my shop where you will find mandarin duck mini-prints, cards, and full colour drawings. May I advise to have a full colour drawing of mandarin ducks in a monochromatic coloured room and a softly rendered graphite drawing in a colourful room?

Artist information: Derwent graphite H-series pencils on Arches hot press paper 31-41 cm. Winsor & Newton Varnish Spray.

Ornithological information: Although Mandarin ducks are Asian ducks, Dutch park and estate owners buy these ducks to add some bright colours to their duck ponds or castle moats. Mandarin ducks then need nesting facilities because in nature they breed inside tree cavities. They seem to do well in Dutch weather. I am very lucky to have spotted them nearby my home town. One thinks that they stand out splendidly, but I can assure you that even the very colourful drake often seems to blend in its surroundings perfectly.

Paula Kuitenbrouwer

@mindfulfdrawing on Instagram (video  link)

Etsy (for video watching scroll down till ‘About Paula Kuitenbrouwer’

www.mindfuldrawing.com

mindfuldrawing@gmail.com