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The phalerae from Manerbio

Mon, 29/09/2014 - 11:57 -- Laura
Brescia, the phalerae from Manerbio, Santa Giulia Museum

The term phalera, unusual in our modern vocabulary, is a word of Latin origin, and indicates a metal object such as a boss, or various decorations used as military ornaments to be worn on the chest or left hanging from horses’ trappings. 
Most probably, the phalerae from Manerbio were decorations for the harnesses of two horses. They are fourteen, all preserved in the section dedicated to the protohistory of Brescia territory of Santa Giulia Museum. Fourteen embossed silver disks, two large (average diameter 19 cm) and twelve small (10 cm), found together with fragments of other four curved longitudinal elements and three small silver chains.
The phalerae were found by accident, as it often happens with the most exceptional archaeological findings. They were buried under “two shovelfuls of soil” (about 50 cm), and found in February 1928 by the farmers of Gorno noble family while they were expanding the dung hole near Cascina Remondina, not far from Manerbio village. This treasure was immediately passed on to police officers and on 11th Feburary 1928 was in the hands of Giorgio Nicodemi, at that time director of Brescia Museums. Acquired by the State, the phalerae were temporarily loaned to Civiche Raccolte d’Arte in Brescia (today Civic Museums of Art, History and Science) where they are still preserved. They seemed some extraordinary objects right from the beginning, so unique that they were initially considered as products from the Langobardic era. Instead, they are one of the pieces produced by Celtic masters in metalworking. Carlo Albizzati was the first that in 1933 recognized them as “the most peculiar artifacts of Celtic art that our country is proud to own”.


Thanks to the comparison with other similar objects, it is possible to define a dating period for Manerbio phalerae in the first half of the 1st century BC. But they were not made by Cenomani, the Celtic tribe that settled around Brescia since the 4th century BC: they were probably produced by a shop of Boii or Taurisci artisans, and this discovery unveiled the relationship that existed among the ancient peoples in Cisalpine Gaul (northern Italy), Noricum and Pannonia (Hungary).
The silver disks have been decorated from the back, embossed probably with the use of punches because of the repetition of some patterns and the presence of traces that continue the decorative design. They show a central part in relief known as ‘umbone’ (umbo), enclosed in a circle. In the small phalerae, the centre is smooth, but in the two large ones it is decorated with a curved three-armed motif called triskele, a Greek term that literally means “three legs”, and stands for the sun pattern of the swastika diffused among numerous ancient tribes. Along the circle, all disks have a series of heavily stylized human heads that show the frontal part of the skull. The face, oval shaped, has the typical hairstyle of Celts.
Diodorus Siculus descrives this style in his Bibliotheca Historica: “the hair is blonde (..) and is pulled up from the forehead to the top of the head and towards the back (...) this way the hair grows so thick that it resembles a horse mane. (…) They also have long moustaches covering their mouths.”
The eyes are closed and the mouth is slightly ajar with the corners pointing down, which recall an image of funerary masks.
They are the so called tètes cou¬pées (“chopped heads”), one of the most important motifs of Celtic art in the 2nd and 1st centuries BC, which appear on several objects as decorative pattern with an apotropaic value. They refer to the Celtic habit of cutting the heads off defeated enemies that were then left hanging on horses’ trappings as trophies, or even preserved in sanctuaries.
Precious material with a high symbolic value: why were they buried in Manerbio?
The phalerae probably were not part of a funerary set, but a battle trophy or a gift to a sanctuary in a Cenomanic area. Around the sanctuary maybe gathered other tribes, but we have no idea of their location though they were supposedly near Manerbio territory. This hypothesis is supported by the discovery in the same area of another treasure made of coins, near Gravine Nuove village in 1959.

The phalerae from Manerbio
Fourteen disks (19/10 cm), two embellishment , three chains
First half of the 1st century BC
Fortuitous discovery in February 1928, near Cascina Remondina (Manerbio)
Now exhibited in the room dedicated to "L’età preistorica e protostorica" (Prehistoric and protohistoric eras), Santa Giulia, City Museum