Category Archives: Bronze Age

Bronze Age discovery reveals surprising extent of Britain’s trade with Europe 3,600 years ago

© Great Orme Mines Ltd

Alan Williams, University of Liverpool

Britain’s wrestling with the scope of its future trade links with Europe may seem a very modern phenomenon. But early trade between Britain and Europe was much more widespread than previously thought. Our new research reveals remarkable evidence of a copper-mining bonanza in Wales 3,600 years ago that was so productive that the metal reached France, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark and Sweden.

Understanding Britain during the Bronze Age (c.2,400-800BC) relies entirely on archaeological research. During this period, agricultural communities combined stock rearing with cereal cultivation. While they constructed numerous circular monuments, evidence for settlement is generally scarce before 1,500BC and on a small scale. Despite this somewhat insular vision of scattered farming communities, there is growing evidence of strong trade or exchange links with continental Europe. What the nature of these contacts were, in a pre-monetary economy, remain a matter of debate.

Copper objects (daggers, axes) first appeared in Britain around 2,400BC and were associated with people arriving from continental Europe. According to recent DNA studies, these arrivals eventually replaced most of the preexisting Neolithic population over the following centuries.

Britain’s copper supplies initially came mostly from southwest Ireland – Ross Island. As this source became exhausted, around 1,900BC, however, small mines opened in Wales and central northwest England. Production in these mines was relatively small, and had to be supplemented with metal from the continent.

Palstave axe found near the Great Orme. It is a type associated with Great Orme metal.
© Great Orme Mines, Author provided

This all radically changed around 1,700BC, with the discovery of the exceptionally rich copper ores of the Great Orme mine on the north Wales coast. This was one of the largest Bronze Age copper mines in Europe. Probably in response to the sheer richness and easily-worked nature of the Great Orme ores, all the other copper mines in Britain had closed by 1,600BC. The Great Orme mine met an increasing demand for metalwork of all types (axes, spearheads, rapiers).

Great Orme

Until recently, it was thought that the Great Orme mine was only large in size due to nearly a thousand years of small-scale seasonal working. This assertion was based on claims that the mine only produced high purity copper, which is uncommon in the artefacts of that period.

But our new research, which combines archaeological and geological expertise with the latest scientific analytical techniques, reveals a radically different picture. Extensive sampling of ores throughout the kilometres of Bronze Age workings, along with associated bronze tool fragments and copper from a nearby smelting site, have allowed “fingerprinting” of the mine metal based on chemical impurities and isotopic properties.

Distribution map of bronze objects (palstave axes) that are thought to be linked to Great Orme copper.
© R.A.Williams, Author provided

The surprising results revealed a distinctive metal rich in nickel and arsenic impurities and, combined with its isotopic “signature”, closely matched the metal type that dominated Britain’s copper supply for a 200-year period (c.1600-1400BC) in the Bronze Age. Remarkably, this metal is also found in bronze artefacts across parts of Europe, stretching from Brittany to the Baltic.

This very extensive distribution suggests a large-scale mining operation (in Bronze Age terms), with a full-time mining community possibly supported or controlled by farming communities in the adjacent agriculturally richer area of northeast Wales, where there are signs of wealth and hierarchy in grave goods. Geological estimates suggest that several hundred tons of copper metal were produced. This would have been enough to produce thousands of bronze tools or weapons every year, equivalent to at least half a million objects in the 200-year period.

When the mining boom turned to bust by around 1,400BC, the distinctive Great Orme metal gradually disappears. This major decline was probably due to the exhaustion of the richly mineralised central area of the mine that corresponds today to an impressive manmade underground cavern and an extensive deep area of surface mining (possibly a collapsed cavern). Both of these can be seen at the mine visitor centre. The bonanza was followed by a twilight period of many centuries, when all that remained were narrow ore veins that required a huge effort for a small output and probably only satisfied local needs.

Aerial view of the Great Orme Bronze Age mine site above Llandudno.
© Great Orme Mines, Author provided

Bronze Age trade

Tracing the metal from the extraordinary 200-year copper boom across Britain and into continental Europe suggests that Britain was much more integrated into European Bronze Age trade networks than had previously been thought. This is reinforced by fascinating new isotopic evidence from other researchers suggesting that the copper replacing that from Great Orme may have come from the Eastern Italian Alps, which would further extend the long-distance trade networks.

The next big challenge is to understand how important the exceptionally rich British tin deposits in Cornwall and Devon were in enabling the complete changeover from copper to bronze (10% tin, 90% copper), not only in Britain (c. 2,100BC) but also across Europe and beyond, where tin is very scarce. Researchers in Germany recently suggested a link between Bronze Age Israeli tin ingots and European tin deposits, rather than Central Asian deposits, and tentatively suggested a source in Cornwall, although much more research is required.

So we now have increasing evidence that Britain’s trade with continental Europe – although currently turbulent – has deep roots that go back several thousand years.The Conversation

Alan Williams, Honorary Research Fellow, Department of Archaeology, Classics and Egyptology, University of Liverpool

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

England – Late Bronze Age Must Farm

The link below is to an article that takes a look at Late Bronze Age ‘Must Farm’ in eastern England.

For more visit:

Solved: the mystery of Britain’s Bronze Age mummies

Tom Booth, Natural History Museum

Whenever mummies are mentioned, our imaginations stray to the dusty tombs and gilded relics of ancient Egyptian burial sites. With their eerily lifelike repose, the preserved bodies of ancient Pharaohs like Hatshepsut and Tutankhamen stir our imaginations and stoke our interest in people and cultures which have long since passed away.

But the Ancient Egyptians weren’t the only ones to mummify their dead. As it happens, mummies dating back to the Bronze Age – between 4,200 and 2,700 years ago – have also been discovered in Britain. But until recently, we knew very little about how mummification was practised by ancient British societies, or to what extent. I devoted my PhD to finding out how peat bogs and bacteria affect the body after death, and helped to unravel some of the mysteries surrounding Britain’s Bronze Age mummies.

I first learnt that mummification may have been practised in Britain back in 2008, while a student at the University of Sheffield. Mike Parker Pearson gave a lecture on the evidence for mummification, based on skeletons he’d excavated at the site of Cladh Hallan on South Uist in the Outer Hebrides.

Mummy bundles

Several lines of evidence came together to suggest, rather controversially, that these skeletons had once been purposefully mummified. The tightly-flexed positions of skeletons were like Peruvian mummy bundles, and two teeth, part of the wrist and the knee of one of the Cladh Hallan skeletons, had been removed long after they had died, which suggested that the bodies had been curated for an extended length of time.

A mummified Peruvian male, who was buried in a bundle.
Wellcome Images/Wikimedia, CC BY

The radiocarbon dates from one of the skeletons were older than the dates obtained from the sediments at the burial sites. This suggested that the bodies may have been buried centuries after they had died. A thorough physical examination, together with DNA analysis, showed that both skeletons had actually been constructed from the mummified parts of several individuals.

Of course, based on this evidence alone, it was possible that these mummies were outliers. Mummification could well have been a fringe practice, carried out by people living on the peripheries of Britain’s Bronze Age societies.

The problem is that the same evidence from Cladh Hallan might not necessarily be found at all sites where mummification was practised. Radiocarbon dates would not always have the precision needed to identify significant delays between a person’s death and their burial. And there was no guarantee that the extensive meddling with mummified body parts identified at Cladh Hallan was practised elsewhere.

So, it was my challenge to identify whether remains from other sites might once have been mummies, too. And I was going to have to get my hands dirty.

Microscopic death tunnels

After we die, our gut bacteria circulate around our body through our blood vessels and begin to decompose our soft tissues. These bacteria also get into our bones and begin to eat away at the proteins, producing microscopic tunnels. Most of the bones from bodies that have been buried in the ground soon after death are filled with these tunnels, because the skeleton is essentially trapped in an enclosed environment with destructive bacteria.

Little or no tunnelling was observed within the skeletons from Cladh Hallan, suggesting that their putrefaction had been interrupted. Methods of mummification usually involve killing or removing gut bacteria soon after a person dies, in order to prevent this process. So studying the extent of bacterial attack inside bones was potentially a new way of identifying skeletons which had previously been mummies.

Bacterial tunnelling in a femur from Cladh Hallan.
Tom Booth, Author provided

To test this theory, I examined the bone microstructure of two bona fide mummies. Both skeletons showed little or no bacterial attack, confirming that this pattern was consistent with mummification.

I then looked at bacterial tunnelling in the bones of over 300 British archaeological skeletons dating to various periods. As expected, almost all bones from most periods were filled with bacterial tunnels. But around half of the samples that dated back to the Bronze Age showed little or no sign of bacterial tunnelling.

The Bronze Age skeletons which bore this signature came from sites located all over Britain, stretching from north-west Scotland to south-east England. This was the first evidence that mummification was practised all over Bronze Age Britain.

Burned or buried?

Some of these skeletons even hinted at the processes that Bronze Age people may have used to mummify their dead. The Cladh Hallan bones looked like they had been eroded by acid. Yet they were buried in alkaline shell sand. The nearest acidic environments to Cladh Hallan during the Bronze Age would have been a series of peat bogs – so, these bodies were probably preserved by being buried in a peat bog for a few months.

In contrast, Bronze Age mummies from Kent were discoloured in a way which suggested that they had been burnt. So they may have been preserved by being smoked over a fire.

It is impossible to say for sure exactly why Bronze Age Britons mummified some of their dead. The evidence suggests that Bronze Age people kept their mummies above ground for a number of years, or even decades: quite the opposite to the practices of Ancient Egypt, where mummified bodies were locked away in a tomb.

Both ancient and present societies which keep their mummified dead close tend to view them as being alive, in some sense. In some ancient cultures – like the Aztecs – the bodies were used to communicate with ancestors in the afterlife. Even today, human remains are innately powerful objects, which can be leveraged for political or social purposes – one modern example is Lenin’s mummified remains.

We might even reasonably guess that Bronze Age people used the mummies of their ancestors to exert rights over land, resources and power. The next step will be to examine whether mummification was practised even further afield – perhaps in mainland Europe.

The Conversation

Tom Booth, Wellcome Post-Doctoral Research Associate, Natural History Museum

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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