3D scans of situla art produced at the University of Bradford


Possibly the most famous example of its kind, and now residing in the National Museum of Slovenia, the Vače situla was described by the archaeologist Jože Kastelic as a work of art in which ‘the artist most perfectly and intimately expresses himself and his time’.  At just under 24cm tall, and formed from two bronze plates riveted together, the situla was discovered by a farmer in 1882, having originally been buried in a rich grave below the Zgornja krona hillfort at Vače.

The uppermost of the situla’s three friezes depicts a procession of men, horses and carriages. The second shows a series of scenes depicting feasting and ceremonial activities, together with boxing and musical competitions. The third frieze depicts a procession of hinds, ibexes, and a large carnivore with a human leg in its mouth. Plant tendrils emerge from the mouths of three of the deer/ibexes, while birds of prey stand on the backs of two of the hinds.

Such scenes – blending formal, ritual and natural elements, and perhaps referencing well-known myths – occur on other situlae in Slovenia and elsewhere. Some of the figures on the Vače situla may represent the same person, identified by his Phrygian cap – perhaps a politically or ritually significant individual. The precise meaning of the scenes on the situla is no longer clear, but they may have related specifically to the lives of the individuals depicted in a way that would have been well-understood by those familiar with the imagery.

This tiny fragment, measuring just over 13mm x 30mm x 32mm, depicts a horse and rider. It comes from a rich cremation grave dating to the late seventh or early sixth centuries BC, under Tumulus 12 in the Gradci necropolis near the Kaptol hillfort in eastern Croatia. The fragment may have formed part of a fibula that adorned the clothing of the deceased, but is now extremely fragile, having been burnt on the funeral pyre during the cremation of the body. Recent analysis suggests that the horse is made of elephant ivory imported from North Africa, which would have made it a rare and valuable object.

The horse’s bridle and reins are clearly visible, as are the legs and lower arms of the rider. One side is much more finely worked than the other, suggesting that this side was intended to be seen, although it was nonetheless still important to depict both sides of the rider.

Images of horses and riders occur widely on situla art. Horse remains and horse imagery also occur in burials in the region. As well as being of great practical value, horses held symbolic, magical or even religious significance during the Iron Age (the winged stallion Pegasus being perhaps the best-known example). A well-known depiction of a winged horse occurs on a gold torc from the famous Iron Age burial at Vix in eastern France. It has even been suggested that horses acted as ‘psychopomps’, guiding the dead to the Underworld. 

Three sheet bronze earrings bearing geometric repoussé decoration were unearthed at the University of Bradford, having been visible in X-rays of a soil block containing human remains from the site of Grofove njive, near Drnovo in Slovenia. The soil block had been lifted from Grave 2 of an Early Iron Age tumulus at the site, which was excavated by TICA SYSTEM Research and Development Ltd in 2003. Three more earrings had already been recovered from the grave on-site, demonstrating that the individual was interred with a total of six. Parallels for the earrings are not uncommon and are known from other sites in Slovenia, such as Magdalenska gora, although many examples bear animal motifs such as cats and rabbits.

All of the earrings were subjected to structured light scanning using a MechInnovation Ltd MechScan, in order to record them and their detailed repoussé decoration. The most complete earring was also subjected to higher resolution data capture in order to study the finely executed motifs in greater detail. Scanning of the earrings served another purpose by allowing for their digital refitting, as shown in the above animation. Digital refitting showed that this earring at least was in its closed position when excavated (with the loop passing through a perforation in the main body of the earring), presumably since it was worn by the deceased for burial rather than being separately interred.


The Molnik belt plate was discovered in a cremation grave near the Molnik hillfort southeast of Ljubljana. The grave dates to the late sixth or early fifth century BC. The bronze plate, which originally bore a scene of a hunter equipped with bow and arrow, a large dog and a stag set inside an interweaving flechtband and palmette leaves, has become an icon of Slovenian situla art. At one or more points in its history, the plate was broken and the pieces riveted back together as four overlapping fragments, one upside down, with much of the original imagery hidden from view. Nonetheless, the riveted hook on the back of the plate shows that it remained functional. Innovative 3D visualisation techniques developed at the University of Bradford reveal details of the manufacture of the plate, including the skillful freehand nature of much of the work and the limited range of tools used. A key question is why, when all narrative potential had been lost, was the reworked Molnik belt plate still considered an appropriate item to place into a high-status grave? Was the plate some form of talisman or heirloom? Did it have some magical or religious significance? Was the value of the item drawn from its history? Unfortunately we do not know whether the Molnik belt plate had been in use for a few years or for many generations - a fact that is important to bear in mind when considering the dating of such items. Indeed, the life of the Molnik belt plate is far from over, as its appearance on modern Slovenian stamps shows.

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme for research, technological development and demonstration under grant agreement no 291827.

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