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Rare bronze armlet returns to isles

The unusual Fetlar bronze armlet, which arrived in Shetland on Friday. Photo Shetland Museum and Archives

A RARE iron age body decoration has finally found its way back home to Shetland almost 250 years after it was found on the isle of Fetlar.

The Fetlar bronze armlet is the only one remaining of a hoard of six uncovered in 1772 near where Brough Lodge now stands.

The artefact, considered one of Shetland’s most unusual treasures, goes on display at Shetland Museum and Archives over the festive period from this Sunday until 20 January.

Such bronze armlets would have been created around 1,700 years ago during the later iron age, when a tradition of “massive” metalwork emerged in northern Scotland.

They were heavy ornaments with enameled settings thought to have been worn around the lower bicep as a show of strength and of the wearer’s prestige.

Such items were made by the traditional technique using a wax model to form a mould from which the bronze ornament was cast.

Imogen Gunn, collections manager from the Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, places the bronze armlet on display under the watchful eyes of Shetland Museum curator Ian Tait and exhibitions officer John Hunter, who will be running bronze casting workshops for the two month duration of the exhibition.
The interesting feature of the Fetlar armlet is that the casting failed, so it was cut in two with hinges riveting the two halves together leaving a small section of the overall design missing.

It was described by the Rev George Low during his 1774 visit to Shetland thus:

…six pieces of curiously cast brass were found wrapped in a raw hide, and sunk a good way below the surface. The figure of these is very singular and the workmanship fine, the relieve bold.”

This armlet came originally from the collection of Welsh natural historian and travel writer Thomas Pennant who toured Scotland in 1769 and 1772.

In 1912 it ended up in Cambridge University’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology as part of the Pennant collection.

The Cambridge museum has kindly lent the armlet to the Shetland museum for the festive season.

As part of the exhibition there will be a display on the science of bronze casting and a lecture on 4 December about the history around such ornaments.

More information about the Fetlar armlet and similar ornaments discovered in Scotland can be found here.