Prehistory
The most common monuments of the Earlier Bronze Age (c.2400BC–c.1200BC) are ‘round barrows’. Whilst, the much earlier, ‘long barrows’ were communal tombs, round barrows contained the graves of individuals – presumably the community's elite.
Victorian psychiatrist (he was medical superintendent of the Wiltshire County Asylum) and ethnologist, John Thurnam (1810–1873) measured skulls from various barrows. As a result of his observations, he came up with the maxim: “long barrows, long skulls; round barrows, round skulls”. The occupants of Bronze Age round barrows were, indeed,
An early (2500–2200BC) Beaker with ‘all-over-cord’ decoration.
This later (2200–1900BC) Beaker has more sophisticated decoration, but retains a recognisably bell-shaped profile.
round-headed (brachycephalic), whilst those of Neolithic Age long barrows were narrow-headed (dolichocephalic). Additionally, some of these round-heads were buried with a selection of ‘grave goods’ (occasionally including the earliest types of metal object, e.g. copper knives, golden jewellery) featuring pottery cups having a characteristic bell-shaped profile. These Bell Beakers have a wide distribution in Europe – the earliest, apparently, being from Iberia, where they appeared by 2700BC. It seemed reasonable to infer, therefore, that Britain had been invaded by a race of, technologically superior, ‘Beaker people’ (or ‘Beaker folk’). People responsible, not only for the introduction of metalworking, but also for the construction of henges and stone circles, which appeared to belong to the, hazy, Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age border. As the evidence accumulates, however, this attractive idea does not seem quite so persuasive as it once was. Beaker burials in Britain seem to begin round about 2400BC. Henges and stone circles (see: Henge Monuments) have their origins before this, and, though there may have been developments inspired by ‘Beaker culture’, these were evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Having said that, innovations such as the sarsen settings of Stonehenge, or the massive chalk mound of Silbury Hill, might possibly be the result of Beaker influence. Further, it appears that a different skull shape is not, necessarily, indicative of a different race – it could have been caused by non-genetic factors, like diet or climate (after all, Neolithic Age long barrows and Bronze Age round barrows are separated by something like one and a half millennia). Although it is a subject of ongoing debate and research, it is probably fair to say that most archaeologists tend to the view that, rather than a race of foreign interlopers, the Beaker people were simply the native population, who had adopted the Beaker cultural package, introduced from Europe by a limited number of migrants and by trade.
At the beginning of May 2002, the richest Beaker burial known in Britain was uncovered. It was discovered by archaeologists investigating a site at Amesbury, some 3 miles south-east of Stonehenge, in advance of building work. The grave (originally, it probably
The Amesbury Archer's copper knives.
had a timber lining, and may - there is no surviving evidence - have been covered by a low round barrow) was that of a man (typically for the period, he had been laid on his side, in a crouched, as if sleeping, position) about 35–45 years old. Radiocarbon analysis of bone samples placed his death between 2400BC and 2200BC. Examination of his skeleton revealed that, at some time during his life, he had sustained a serious injury to his left leg (his knee-cap had been torn off), and his bones had become infected. Not only would he have been in constant pain, and would have walked with a limp, but he would have had a, stinking, suppurating wound. As well as this, he suffered from a dental abscess, which would also have been painful and foul-smelling. This unprepossessing individual, however, was clearly of high status. He was buried with around a hundred objects, which, say Wessex Archaeology who made the discovery, is “ten times the usual number of finds from other graves”. There were the pieces of five Beakers (the usual is just one per grave), three copper knives
The Amesbury Archer's gold ornaments.
(one of which, judging by its position, he may well have been wearing), a bone pin (which might have been fastening an item of clothing, such as a leather mantle), a shale ring (identified as a belt-ring), two gold hair or ear ornaments, a 'cushion stone' (used for metal working), four boars' tusks, many flint tools and flakes, a red deer spatula used for working flints. Seventeen ‘barbed and tanged’ flint arrowheads were found in positions which suggested that a quiver full of arrows had been scattered over his lower half. (It seems reasonable to suppose that there would have originally been a bow also, but, like the arrow shafts and any clothing items, it had long since rotted away). He had two sandstone ‘wristguards’ (to protect his wrists from the bow string), one of which he was wearing. These latter
One of the Archer's barbed and tanged flint arrowheads.
items led to the man being nicknamed ‘the Amesbury Archer’. (He was also referred to, somewhat whimsically, as ‘the King of Stonehenge’). Close by, there was another, smaller and less richly furnished, grave. Its occupant was a man aged about 25–30, dating from about the same time as the Archer. He too had been buried with a pair of ear/hair ornaments. When the skeletons were examined, it was found that both the Archer and the younger man exhibited the same peculiarity in the bone structure of their feet. This is strongly suggestive that the two were related. Analysis of the oxygen content of their tooth enamel indicated that, whilst the Archer had grown up in the vicinity of the Alps, the younger man had grown up in southern Britain. Perhaps the younger man was the, immigrant, Archer's British born, son?
Stages in the evolution of axe-heads during the Bronze Age.
Copper was the metal first used to make tools and weapons. Pure copper is, however, soft and not ideally suited to the purpose. It was discovered that, by alloying copper with tin, a much more durable metal could be produced: bronze. Metallurgy had been late arriving in Britain, but there were excellent tin resources in Cornwall, and the switch to bronze came quickly.Supplement Though flint continued to find a use in smaller implements, bronze axes seem to have rapidly displaced their stone counterparts. Analysis of axe marks on wood from the, so called, Seahenge timber circle (which, in 1998, was exposed by the tide on a Norfolk beach) has shown that at least 51 bronze axes were used in its construction, and not one stone axe. The timbers have been dated to 2050BC and 2049BC.Supplement
Lockington Hoard.
The astonishing skill of early metal-workers is apparent in the decorative gold items they produced. Gold does not tarnish, so these survive looking as lustrous (though in some cases a little mangled) as they did on the day they were manufactured.
The Lockington Hoard, dated 2100–1900BC, comprises the fragments of two Beaker style pots, a copper alloy dagger (typical of Brittany, and still in the remains of its sheath) and two, embossed gold-sheet, armlets. One of the armlets (originally, they would probably have had a leather backing) has five plain encircling ribs, whilst the three shaped ribs of the other armlet may be simulating a strings of beads. The Hoard was found, in a pit, within a burial complex, but it wasn't actually with a burial. Intriguingly, the pots were already broken and weathered when they were placed on top of the dagger and armlets.
Round barrows were by no means the exclusive preserve of Beaker burials. The Beaker period came to an end around 1800BC. During the period c.2200BC–c.1700BC, and particularly in the north and west of Britain, some burials were accompanied by ‘food vessels’. These vessels would appear to be developed from, indigenous, Neolithic pots, rather than, the Continentally influenced, Beakers. The same is true of the ‘collared urns’ (generally dating from c.2000BC to c.1500BC) which were often used to contain cremations.Supplement
The gold belt-hook from
Bush Barrow.
In Wessex (Dorset, Wiltshire, Hampshire, and Berkshire), tagging on to the end of the Beaker period, are several very richly furnished barrow burials – the most famous of these being ‘the Golden Barrow’, and, richest of all, Bush Barrow. At one time these burials were supposed to represent a unique ‘Wessex culture’. Today, however, the tendency is to accept that they are simply a development which demonstrates the growing wealth of a local elite.
In 1833, some labourers were shovelling stones from a mound (known to locals as ‘Bryn-yr-Ellyllon’, i.e. Goblins' Hill) on the outskirts of Mold, in Flintshire, North Wales, when they uncovered a badly decayed skeleton. The skeleton was wearing the crushed remains of Mold Gold Cape, upon which there was laid a quantity of amber beads. In 1836, most of the Cape was sold to the British Museum by the land's tenant. Only one of the beads ever reached the Museum. It seems likely that the rest were converted into cash by the labourers – along with pieces of the Cape. Some of these pieces have, over the years, turned up, and been reunited with their fellows.Supplement
Mold Gold Cape
Restoration work, using ‘reinvented technology’ to replace the missing sections (about 15% of the cape), was completed in 2002. The Cape, which is dated to about 1900–1600BC, was beaten from a single ingot of gold, and then meticulously embossed. Bronze strips, found with the cape, seem to have been used to strengthen the structure, and it appears to have had a textile lining. Despite the reinforcements, it would have been a relatively fragile object, and there is evidence that it had undergone repair. Presumably, it was worn on ceremonial occasions (arm movements would have been seriously restricted), and, clearly, only by someone of slim build – possibly a woman.
The Rillaton Cup (top) and the, somewhat less fortunate, Ringlemere Cup (bottom).
In 1837, workmen, looking for building stone on Bodmin Moor, found the remains of a human skeleton, in a cist, set into the eastern edge of a round barrow, at Rillaton, in Cornwall. The grave's occupant had been buried with a decorated pot, a “metallic rivet”, “some pieces of ivory”, “a few glass beads”, a bronze dagger and a gold cup. Being Duchy of Cornwall Treasure Trove, the objects were sent to King William IV, and thereafter remained in the royal household. On the death of King George V (who is purported to have used the cup to house his collar studs), in 1936, the cup and dagger (the other items have not survived) were loaned to the British Museum. The cup's body (8½ cm in both height and diameter) was beaten from one piece of gold, and the handle is attached by rivets (which pass through lozenge-shaped washers).
In November 2001, a metal-detectorist, scanning a recently harvested potato-field, discovered a similar gold cup at Ringlemere Farm, near Sandwich, Kent. Unfortunately, this cup has not survived unscathed – it was probably damaged by a modern plough. It was found on the edge of a low mound, which turned out to be the remains of a round barrow. Archaeologists looked for a grave, from which the cup might have been dragged by agricultural activity, but failed to find one.
The Ringlemere Cup's method of construction is like the Rillaton Cup, but it was a little larger (about 11 cm high) and the gold is thicker. The cups are dated to 1700–1500BC.
At first, life in the Bronze Age appears to have carried on in much the same way as it had in the Neolithic. By 1500BC, however, fundamental changes were underway. People were settling down. Field systems were established. Houses – typically, these are round in plan – began being grouped together into hamlets. Inhumation fell from favour, and cremation became the standard method of treating the dead. The deposition of cremated remains in round barrows also declined – the trend was towards burying cinerary urns in ‘flat cemeteries’. Indeed, perhaps because permanent settlements were providing the sense of place previously supplied by monumental structures, henges and stone circles were abandoned too. The focus of religious activity seems to shift to watery places, such as rivers and bogs, in, or near which, metalwork was deposited, presumably as an offering.
A spearhead from Flag Fen.
At Flag Fen, Peterborough, can be seen the preserved remains of a, kilometre long, timber causeway, which bridged a stretch of open water. In the middle of the causeway was an enormous (around a hectare) timber platform. The installation saw 400 years of active use – between 1350BC and 950BC. Whether it was the primary purpose of this massive wooden structure or not, the hundreds of bronze artifacts, many of which appear to have been deliberately broken, that were cast from it, suggest it provided a focus for ritual activity. (Incidentally, excavations at Flag Fen, in 1994, turned up the remains of a Bronze Age, alder and oak, tripartite, wheel – at around 1300BC, it is the earliest wheel found in Britain).
In fact, a surprising number of metalwork hoards, dating from the closing centuries of the Bronze Age, are found by metal-detectorists. For instance, between January 2003 and March 2004, just in Kent, eight were found. Most of these had been scattered by ploughing, but by far the largest – 185 pieces of metalwork – was found in a pit below the ploughsoil, at Crundale. The presence of copper ingot fragments might indicate that the hoard was a stash of scrap metal, collected by a metal-worker, destined for recycling. This is the traditional interpretation of such finds, and they are sometimes called ‘founders' hoards’. However, in this case, some objects seem to have been deliberately rendered unfit for purpose. This phenomenon has been found with other hoards, which raises the possibility that, rather than being simply forgotten heaps of scrap metal, they too are ritual deposits.
Whilst it appears that Britain enjoyed a favourable climate during the Earlier Bronze Age – warmer and drier than today – during the Later Bronze Age (c.1200BC–c.700BC), the climate became cooler and wetter. Eventually (say 1000BC), upland areas that had been cleared and put to agricultural use were no longer viable – the deteriorating climate, exacerbated by poor land-management, created much of today's moorland – and they were abandoned. These upland areas had been densely populated. For instance, on Dartmoor, Cornwall, where roundhouses were built on granite footings (the remains of roundhouse bases are called ‘hut circles’), there were in excess of 5,000 huts – varying between 1.8 metres and 9 metres in diameter. (On Dartmoor, Bronze Age field boundaries are defined by low stony banks called ‘reaves’ – a name unique to Dartmoor).
It has been suggested that the reduction in the quantity of productive land caused
conflict for ownership of the remaining territory. Whether that was the case or not,
as metalworking had become more sophisticated, so had weaponry,
and hillfort development, traditionally associated
with the Iron Age, began as the
Bronze Age was drawing
to a close.

Sword, dating from about 1000-850BC.
The Iron Age    
A round earthen mound (or stone cairn, particularly in the north and west) covering the remains of one or more individuals – they can be male or female, of all ages. The burial (it can be of a corpse, i.e. inhumation, or of cremated remains) over which the barrow was originally thrown is known as the ‘primary’ – often, ‘secondary’ burials were subsequently inserted into the mound.
Round barrows are divided into several types,
see: Winterbourne Stoke Barrows.
Found at Rudston, East Yorkshire, by Canon William Greenwell (who presented it to the British Museum in 1879), this beaker was associated with the burial of a female adult, whose crouched remains were in a mound which contained many burials. The Beaker has all-over-cord decoration, i.e. rings of twisted-cord impressions covering the whole of the vessel's exterior.
See: Canon Greenwell: Barrow-Digger.
Found at Hemp Knoll, Wiltshire, in 1965, and now on display in the British Museum.
See: Hemp Knoll.
The knives have tangs to which handles (probably wooden) would have been fixed. Apparently, the knives came from Spain and western France.
They may have been worn around the edge of the ear, or, possibly, on braided hair. Wessex Archaeology avers that:
“The gold dated to as early as 2,470BC and is the earliest found in Britain.”
This cushion stone (it resembles a sofa cushion) may have acted as a small anvil upon which gold or copper could be worked.
The Archer was wearing the black wristguard. The red one was placed adjacent to his knees – along with one of the copper knives, the shale ring and the pair of gold ‘earrings’. It seems probable that there would also have been some items of clothing originally. A simple leather cuff would have been perfectly adequate to use as a wristguard, so it seems likely that stone ones were status symbols.
These axe-heads were found by metal-detectorists and posted on the UK Detector Finds Database. They are shown to scale.
The top one is an early (c.2200–2000BC) ‘flat axe’ (75mm x 50mm), found at Ewyas Harold, Herefordshire. The axe-head is made by, simply, pouring molten metal into a one-piece, open topped, mould. Clearly, a problem with these flat axes is securely attaching the head to the handle. Later developments addressed that problem.
In the middle is a ‘palstave axe’ (155mm x 60mm), of c.1400–1200BC, found near Codsall, Staffordshire. Requiring a two-piece mould to produce, the palstave axe has flanges and end stop, which provide the seating for a projecting, split, handle-stub. Stub and axe-head would then be tightly bound together.
The bottom axe-head represents the ultimate in Bronze Age axe development – the ‘socketed axe’. This one (104mm x 45mm), from c.1000–800BC, was found at Rainham, Essex. In order to cast the socket, which fits onto the handle-stub, a three-piece mould has to be used. The axe-head is held secure by passing thongs through the loop and around the handle.
The Lockington Hoard was discovered in 1994, by the University of Birmingham Field Archaeology Unit, who were excavating an Early Bronze Age ‘barrow cemetery’ (a group of closely-spaced burial mounds and associated works), ahead of road construction, at Lockington in Leicestershire. Two radiocarbon dates were obtained from the organic remains attached to the dagger: 2580–2200 and 2190–1880 Cal BC. The latter date is most compatible with the character of the deposit.
Bush Barrow is a large (40 metres in diameter and, today, 3 metres high) bowl barrow, in the Normanton Down group of barrows, about half a mile to the south of Stonehenge. It was excavated in 1808 by William Cunnington and Sir Richard Colt Hoare. Beneath the mound was the skeleton of a man (described at the time as “stout and tall”) laid out, full length, on the original ground surface. He was accompanied by two bronze daggers (one of which disintegrated when disturbed), a bronze axe-head (its corrosion bears an imprint of cloth, in which it was, presumably, wrapped), a copper dagger (possibly already an antique when buried, and the wooden handle of which had been inlaid with tiny gold pins), a decorative stone mace-head (there are carved bone bands, which probably adorned the mace's handle), possibly a helmet (near the man's head were found fragments of bronze-sheet and wood and bronze rivets), and three items of gold-sheet: a small diamond-shaped ‘lozenge’ (possibly decoration on the copper dagger's handle or sheath), a large (18x15 cm) ‘lozenge’ (it had been placed on the man's chest and had had a wooden backing – its purpose is not clear), and a belt-hook (over 7cm square, it too had been mounted on wood). The burial is dated 1900–1700BC.
The objects are at Wiltshire Heritage Museum, Devizes.
At the time of the Cape's discovery, it was said that fragments of “coarse cloth” still remained.
The Ringlemere Cup was purchased, for £270,000, by the British Museum, in 2003. There are no plans to straighten-out the Cup, but a computer realisation of its original shape has been produced.
Images courtesy of the British Museum.
A reconstructed Bronze Age roundhouse at Flag Fen, based on the groundplan of one found in the vicinity. In common with many Bronze Age roundhouses, this one has a circle of internal roof-supports. It is thought that these were required because a, heavy, turf roof covering was used.
The term ‘causeway’ is an interpretation of what the ‘alignment’ of five rows of posts stretching across Flag Fen represents. Following the initial discovery of the timbers, in 1982, it was thought that the platform supported a settlement, approached from either side by a causeway. After further investigation, this idea was discounted. It has since been suggested that the whole thing formed a defensive barrier, built to block neighbouring communities' access to the locals' water meadows. Of course, it could simply have been a way of crossing the marsh. The weight of opinion today appears to favour the notion that it was built with the intention of being used as a votive deposition site.
Exposed timbers at Flag Fen are preserved by sprinkling with, cooled, filtered water.
The Crundale Hoard, which was probably buried around 850–750BC, comprises:
48 socketed axe-heads (including fragments of).
33 sword or dagger fragments.
33 cast copper ingot fragments.
14 spearheads (including fragments of).
4 rings.
3 razors (including fragments of). It would seem that, at least some, Bronze Age men were clean-shaven.
2 gouges.
42 other objects and fragments
and 6 objects which had been inserted into sockets – in one case, into the socket of a broken axe-head, which was then squashed around them; in another case, jammed into the socket of a spearhead. It is this feature which may suggest that the items were being deliberately placed beyond use.
This sword is one of three found in a hoard at Tarves, Aberdeenshire, Scotland. The rest of the hoard comprised a pommel, a chape (the metal tip of a scabbard) and two pins. The hoard, minus one sword and a pin, was presented to the British Museum, by the Earl of Aberdeen, in 1858.
See: Bronze Age Warfare.