The Iron Age in Europe was a period of tremendous cultural dynamism, during which the cultural values and constructs of urbanised Mediterranean civilisations clashed with alternative webs of identity in ‘barbarian’ temperate Europe. Until recently, archaeologists and ancient historians have tended to view the cultural identities of Iron Age Europeans as essentially monolithic (Romans, Greeks, Celts, etc). Dominant narratives have been concerned with the supposed origins and spread of peoples, such as ‘the Celts’ and their subsequent ‘Hellenisation’, or ‘Romanisation’ through encounters with neighbouring societies. Yet there is little to suggest that collective identity in this period was exclusively or predominantly ethnic, national or even tribal. Instead, we need to examine the impact of cultural encounters at the more local level of the individual, kin-group or lineage, exploring identity as a more dynamic, layered construct.
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.