A GOLD cape considered one of the most important artifacts in the British Museum “rightly belongs” in Wales a director of an archaeological service has said. 

Collections held by imperial nations continue to be debated as treasures, such as the Benin Bronzes, looted by colonial forces, remain in European museum. 

The Mold Gold Cape, which was discovered in an ancient burial chamber in the north east town, 188 years ago today, sits alongside many such items in the collection of the British Museum in London. 

While the Mold Gold Cape was sold to the museum it is one of Wales’ and Europe’s most important prehistoric artifacts. 

It was last exhibited in Wales in 2013 when it was displayed in Cardiff and, closer to the spot where it was found, in Wrexham. 

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A joint project between The British Museum and the BBC, in 2010, named the cape as one of 100 objects which told the history of the world. It was included on the list alongside the mummified body of Egyptian priest Hornedjitef, a statue of the Pharaoh Ramesses II and one of the priceless Benin plaques looted by British troops in 1897. 

Germany has said it wants to return Benin Bronzes from its museums to Nigeria but the British Museum, which houses the largest and most significant collection of the items running into hundreds, has stopped short of making a clear commitment. 

Oliver Dowden said the items “properly reside” in the British Museum when Channel 4 News asked him, as then UK culture secretary in September, about Nigeria’s requests for their return. 

European museums continuing to hold looted items are now coming under renewed questioning along with the issue that their countries of origin are being denied ownership and possession of priceless pieces of their history. 

It is in the context of where historical items should be kept and displayed that Dr Paul Belford, the director of the Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust, which works across Wales, thinks the issue of where the Mold Gold Cape is held should be considered. 

He said the “rationale and ethos” behind the collections of the British Museum is being questioned due to  ongoing debates around objects such as the Benin Bronzes. 

The National Wales: Another view of the Mold Gold Cape Picture: CC British MuseumAnother view of the Mold Gold Cape Picture: CC British Museum

“The British Museum acted as an agent of the imperialist mission, carefully curating treasures stolen from around the world as part of the wider colonial exploitation of people and resources,” said the director of the trust which aims to promote an understanding of the historic environment in Wales. 

“The Parthenon Marbles and the Benin Bronzes are seen by many as prime examples of objects stolen by the British that should be returned to Greece and Nigeria respectively - and other European museums have chosen to do so. 

“The Mold Cape arguably falls into the same category,” said Dr Belford. 

“Although Wales was part of the imperialist project, her people have also been victims of English exploitation and oppression. The Mold Cape was found in Wales, was almost certainly made here; it had been worn by someone who likely lived and certainly died in Wales, and so it rightly belongs in Wales.” 

Fragments of the cape were first discovered on October 11, 1833 by men from a local workhouse who’d been put to work digging for stone at a field Bryn yr Ellyllon in Pentre, Mold. 

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They had uncovered a stone lined burial chamber, within which were fragments of the crushed gold cape. 

The vicar of Mold recorded the finds made in the cist which included a skeleton, amber beads and a pottery vessel containing cremated human bones. 

The largest part of the cape however was kept by a Mr Langford, the tenant of the land where the find had been made, and he sold it to the British Museum in 1836. 

For years it was unclear to which period the cape, which was still in pieces, belonged or even what its purpose was. It was only in 1953 that it was established it was a cape and by 1965 staff at the museum had succeeded in recreating it. 

In the 1950s Professor Terence Powell, of Liverpool University, dated the cape, once considered “too ornate” to pre-date the Roman period, to 1350 to 1250 BC. But further research, based on analysis of the single ingot of 23-carat gold, it was made from has pushed that date back further to between circa 1900 and 1500 BC. 

Due to its size its would have only fitted a slim woman or child and they would likely have had great power or weath, possibly derived from Great Orme, the largest copper mine in north-west Europe and a major trading centre for prehistoric communities. 

Dr Belford says its importance cannot be underestimated: “The Mold Cape is an exceptional object which belongs to a long tradition of prehistoric metalworking excellence in north-east Wales. 

“It was probably made locally - although the gold may have come from Ireland. North-east Wales was the heart of a distinctive Bronze Age metalworking tradition which also used native copper mined at Llandudno and Llanymynech; this tradition continued into the Iron Age - as seen for example in the Caergwrle bowl of c.1200 BCE.  

“Prehistoric Wales had close trade links with Ireland and the wider Atlantic seaboard. The Mold Cape is therefore hugely significant to the history of north-east Wales.” 

The National Wales: Detail on the restored Gold Cape Picture: CC British MuseumDetail on the restored Gold Cape Picture: CC British Museum

David Rowe, who is a member of the Flintshire Historical Society, and who was invited to the exhibition which told the discovery of the cape and its importance, when it was staged in Wrexham in 2013 said he thinks relocating the cape could pose logistical problems. 

“If it was going to be held in Wales it should clearly be held up in north Wales where it originated from but unfortunately because of the nature of it we don’t perhaps have the facilities needed to protect it, somewhere like the National Museum in Cardiff would. 

“Unfortunately Mold would not have the facilities to keep the original but there is a replica at the Mold Museum, above the library, and it is very good. 

“When the original was in Wrexham they had a security guard in the room with it at all times.” 

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However the local history enthusiast thinks there are other arguments for and against holding the cape in the area it was found: “In the British Museum it’s in the middle of a room without any great exhibition about its background, as it had when it was in Wrexham, and is in a room full of other gold items. 

“It’s very popular in the British Museum and named it as one of its treasures so they obviously value it highly. 

“It was also restored by the British Museum so it is not as if they had stolen it, someone had given it to them and they restored it.” 

A plaque now marks the site in Mold where the cape was discovered and Mr Rowe said the archeologists from the National Museum in Cardiff had held further digs on the remaining open spaces at the site, which is adjacent to playing fields, in 2013. 

Wherever the cape is held, for Mr Rowe, its significance lies in what it says about what is now north-east Wales: “I think it’s extremely important and it shows that the area was obviously lived in and that whoever it was made for was extremely important and wealthy. There are so many theories around it, such as the gold is from Ireland, but it was made by local craftsmen and it shows the skills of the craftsmen who lived in the area. 

“The exhibition at Wrexham was very popular and I would go back to see it.” 

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