Early medieval Irish drinking horn finial

Early medieval Irish drinking horn finial

This drinking horn final, or if one like 'terminal' I have addressed for the first time in this blog.

Having shown this drinking horn finial to James Graham Campbell, in the form and ornament he considered it of probably 8th century Irish origin. And not, like Dirk Kennis description of 'Anglo-Scandinavian 11th century'. He also pointed to me that Carol Neuman de Vegvar was in the process of compiling a catalogue of all such drinking-horn mounts and suggested that I contact her.

In the meantime the director of the National Museum of Ireland, Raghnall Ó Floinn expressed his opinion about this drinking horn finial as follow, after James showed him the finial via mail:

I agree – there’s no reason to think that its anything other than Irish and probably of 8th  century date. I’m not too familiar with the full range of examples - Carol would be - but there are a couple of interesting points about this one. Its abraded condition suggests it may have come from a river or coastal environment (sandhills?), and it’s probably been over-cleaned also. It looks fairly complete and it is odd that there is no means of fixing it to the horn – the fact that the socket is open at the end  (if not a product of wear) would make it even more difficult to secure.


The overall appearance at first  is of a bird-headed terminal with curled beak but it is clearly zoomorphic with something issuing from its mouth – is this just a tongue or could it be a bird head? The loop at the end means that it could have had a ring for suspension.


An interesting piece – pity there’s no real context!

In reaction on Raghnall Ó Floinn's view, Carol Neuman de Vegvar responded as follows:

Raghnall may be right about its Irish provenance, as the proportions of the head are very similar to the Moynaugh Lough example, as Thomas Kamphuis suggests.

However, another close parallel for the overall design, with an analogous cast curled beak/tongue forming a loop possibly for a suspension chain, is an Anglo-Saxon (?) terminal that came up as a metal detectorist find at Ormesby by St. Margaret with Scratby, Norfolk, and now part of the Norfolk Museums collections. In that case, however, the curl is more probably a raptor beak, although the terminal is, like the example before us, rather badly abraded, in the case of the Ormesby terminal to the point of obscuring details of the original design. Image of the Ormesby example, courtesy Tim Pestell at Norfolk Museums, attached.

The example from Katwijk Klein-Duin (Leiden, Rijksmuseum van Oudheden) has a similar loop but has a more symptomatically Anglo-Saxon eye surround, as does the example with partial loop from Loveden Hill (Lincoln, City & County Museum).

I would very much like to see Kamphuis's terminal when I'm across the pond later this summer; may I contact him directly?

So.. a visit from the other side of the ocean was arranged!

drinking horn finial
drinking horn finial

Before the visit, she gave me the following response:

I've been working on the drinking horns from the British Isles across the era from the departure of the Romans to the arrival of the Normans, including the ones that postdate the arrival of the Norse in England and Ireland, for quite a long time. So far I have published several articles on them and have another three articles currently in press( see attached list). The book itself is delayed by the demands of full-time teaching, but I hope to retire in a few years and then will have time to finish the project. The volume concerns both terminals and rim mounts. I would be delighted to add your example to the catalog there.

I would be very surprised if your example were Anglo-Scandinavian. The closest parallel is the Moynaugh Lough terminal, which is quite a lot earlier. The later Irish examples that postdate the strong Norse presence in Ireland tend to be covered with zoomorphic interlace of the period, and to have a flat base and a lateral curvature which suggests that they were intended to anchor a filled horn raised on legs.

The example from Holland to which I alluded was found in a cremation grave at Katwick-Klein Duin. It was published in an article by Jos Bazelmans, Menno Dyjstra and Jan de Koning, "Holland during the first millennium," in Bruc Ealles Well: Archaeological essays concerning the peoples of north-west Europe in the first millennium AD, ed. Marc Lodewijckx (Acta Archaeologica Lovaniensia, Monographiae 15), Leuven University Press, 2004, figure 8 on page 26. Like your example, it has the loop at the end of the bill or muzzle, but the beak is flat like the early Anglo-Saxon examples. It's thought to be from England.

The visit from Carol took place July 18th 2016 whereby she thoroughly examined the drinking horn finial. To register things as good as possible, I have filmed here findings. But as it was a sunny hot day and the windows where open, just at the moment I have filmed her, some pretty noisy cleaning machines picking up the dirt in the street passed by - very slowly.

So, here is the text integral written down, the recording I have attached beneath - having learnt me that the camera always should be hold horizontal, not vertically ;)

'Ok. So this is very probably late 8th early 9th century copper alloy, if I had to guess very probably from Ireland. Drinking horn fitting, the loop at the front end probably for a suspension chain, the laidback ears allong the collar suggest that this is not supposed to be a bird, as generally birds have not have such large ears, so more likely meant to be understood as a hound, perhaps. The opening at the bottom is something I have found in a number of Irish examples. It is all copper alloy, I do not see any traces of inlay or other applied decorations, so this is entirely one piece casted copper alloy. I'd say late 8th, some time in the 9th century perhaps, that is as close as I can come, looking at it. There is not trace of horn inside it, but the way that it is open at the bottom suggests and the end that it was mounted or intended to be. Very possibly. It is not the most elaborate example I have seen, but it is a very solid example and the weight is also impressive. It is a very solid and constructive piece of work and in rather nice condition altough some surface abbration. That is pretty much what I've got!'

In my forementioned blog I have forgot to give the measurements of the drinking horn finial, these are:

90 mm (9 centimeters) in a diagonal line from top to tip of the snout

19 mm at broadest point of the socket

4 mm at the beginning of the curling part of the snout

Seen from above:

at its broadest point: 15 mm

at its narrowst point: 3 mm