Object of the week: The Ringlemere Cup

Published 14 May 2014

To celebrate Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story at the Natural History Museum, we look at the oldest work from the British isles ever supported by the Art Fund.

One of the marks of finely crafted objects is that – as with ruin lust – wear and tear seems only to enhance their beauty. The Venus de Milo's missing arms merely add to its romance, and people pay a considerable premium to buy high-end musical instruments that have been intentionally damaged – 'distressed' – by their manufacturers.

Dating to the 16th or 17th century BC, the Ringlemere Cup had been damaged by a blow from a plough when it was discovered by a metal detectorist in 2001. Yet despite being badly crumpled – one half of the gold drinking vessel has entirely caved in – it retains an incredible presence.

The sharp, exposed edges where the metal has torn are placed in stark relief by the unblemished, even surface of the undamaged half. And the uniform corrugations running around the circumference of the bowl, tapering smoothly to a perfectly symmetrical curved base, seem even more finely finessed in contrast with the ragged contours of the plough damage. The result is an artefact of two halves: craftsmanship of utmost delicacy alongside carelessly mangled metal.

The cup was discovered in November 2001 by Cliff Bradshaw, while he was metal detecting near Ringlemere Farm in east Kent. Dating placed the cup's manufacture to 1700–1500 BC, making it one of the oldest treasures ever discovered in Britain – not to mention one of the most important. It is only the second cup of its type ever discovered in Britain, and only five stylistically related pieces have ever been found in continental Europe.

Research has shown that the cup was created from a single ingot of gold, and was beaten into its original form using a hammer and 'former' – a tool used to shape materials. Yet there are still many unanswered questions about the cup. Was the cup dislodged from a grave in the nearby funerary complex, or did it come to the field by other means? And why was the drinking vessel created with a pointed base, which would have made it difficult to set down during a meal?

It was bought by the British Museum in 2003 thanks to an Art Fund grant – the BBC documentary Our Top Ten Treasures featured the cup as one of the most significant modern discoveries, and it toured museums and galleries around Britain before returning to the British Museum's prehistory galleries. Today it takes pride of place in the museum's Europe 10,000–800 BC room.

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