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Posted by Neil Wilkin on

Later Prehistoric Britain & the Development of Bronze Age Metal Objects

What we call the ‘later prehistory’ in Britain and Ireland traditionally spans the first use of metal artefacts and thereafter the replacement of bronze technologies with iron, an overall period of approximately two and a half millennia which starts around 2500 BC and, by academic convention, is said to end with the Roman conquest of Britain in AD 43 (which brings in the a series of hitherto missing documentary sources for the historian and hence is deemed to be roughly the end of ‘prehistory’ where our evidence is largely archaeological), spanning the Bronze Age and Iron Age chronological periods.

Bronze Age Metal Objects: Background & Overview

Given that a major early component of the MicroPasts project involves looking at Bronze Age metal objects from Britain, the following section provides a little background information in order to understand how the subject developed and the basic outline of the period and topic.


Antiquarian depiction of Danish & British Bronze Age implements by J.J.A Worsaae (1843)

The term ‘Bronze Age’ was developed by the Danish archaeologist Christian Thomsen (b. 1788 – d. 1865), to sit between the Stone Age and the Iron Age in his ‘three-age system’. Although the simplicity of Thomsen’s scheme has been questioned in the intervening years, and other important divisions have been recognised, it remains relevant, and the Bronze Age has a distinct character of its own. The date and character of the Bronze Age do, however, differ across Europe, with communications and mobility between regions and countries also changing through time.

In Britain, the Bronze Age is a period used by archaeologist to refer to the centuries from 2500 to 800 BC. At the start of the period (from 2500 to 2200 BC) only gold and copper were being used, but from 2200 BC bronze was created by mixing (alloying) tin and copper. In the initial period (around 2200-2000 BC), Irish copper and Cornish tin were used in bronze production. The sources of copper then changed as new mines (especially in Wales) were exploited and Continental metal was brought into Britain. The first iron objects appear from around 1000 BC, and the Iron Age is said to begin around 800 BC (again, this is more a convenient academic label, rather than an abrupt historical  ). The Bronze Age chronologies are notoriously complex, but here is a table summarising the main developments by period:

BA Chronology Chart-1

Major chronological periods of the British Bronze Age (largely based on Needham 1996; see also Roberts 2008 & Roberts, Uckelmann, & Brandherm 2013).

From around 1500 BC, the evidence for the contexts in which we find metal objects changes from burials to ‘hoard’ deposits. Hoards, defined loosely as two or more objects deposited together, that are often treated in special and unusual ways prior to deposition (for instance swords may be intentionally bent and ornaments folded and broken up). This hoarding practice may sometimes have had a religious or ritual significance, a point also suggested by the location of the deposits in unusual and special places (e.g. rivers, bogs and natural features). Indeed, although opinions vary, current thinking tends to suggest that hoards were ‘gifts for the Gods’ (akin to pennies thrown into wells with the expectation of a granted wish), rather than purely ‘rubbish’ or items stored for safe keeping.

Communities also made use of ceramics throughout the period, expressing identities through particular styles. These were often deemed important enough to deposit with the dead, particularly during the period between 2500 to 1500 BC (e.g. Beakers, Food Vessels and Collared Urns). Although the survival of organics from this period is rare, there are sufficient examples to know that communities were highly skilled at working these materials as well.

Most of the archaeological evidence for the earlier part of the period (c.2500 to 1500 BC) comes from funerary evidence and monuments and there is little evidence for permanent settlements of any size or scale. This may suggest that communities and populations were still relatively small-scale by comparison with later periods. Towards the end of the Bronze Age (from 1500 to 800 BC) there is, however, greater evidence for roundhouses and field systems, particularly in Southern England.

The Arreton hoard from the Isle of Wight includes flanged axes and spearheads (socketed and tanged types).

The Arreton hoard from the Isle of Wight includes flanged axes and spearheads (socketed and tanged types).

If you are interested in reading more about later prehistoric Britain these resources might help to get you started:

Published resources:

Books & articles:

  • Cowie, T. 1988. Magic Metal. Early metalworkers in the North-East. Aberdeen: University of Aberdeen
  • Cunliffe, B. 2004. Iron Age Britain (Revised Edition). London: B.T. Batsford/English Heritage
  • Darvill, T. 2010. Prehistoric Britain (2nd edition). London: Routledge
  • Langmaid, N.G. 1976. Bronze Age Metalwork in England and Wales, Aylesbury: Shire Archaeology
  • Needham, S. 1996. “Chronology and Periodisation in the British Bronze Age”. Acta Archaeologica 67, 121–40.
  • Parker Pearson, M. 2005. Bronze Age Britain (Revised Edition). London: B.T. Batsford/English Heritage
  • Pearce, S.M.1984. Bronze Age Metalwork in Southern Britain, Aylesbury: Shire Archaeology
  • Piggott, S. 1938. “The Early Bronze Age in Wessex”. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 4, 52-106.
  • Pollard, J. (ed.) 2008. Prehistoric Britain, London: Blackwell
  • Pryor, F. 2004. Britain BC: life in Britain and Ireland before the Romans, London: Harper Perennial
  • Roberts, B.W. 2008. “The Bronze Age”. In L. Atkins, R. Atkins and V. Leitch (eds) The Handbook of British Archaeology, 63-93. London: Constable and Robinson
  • Roberts, B.W., Uckelmann, M., & Brandherm, D. 2013. “Old Father Time: The Bronze Age Chronology of Western Europe”. In H. Fokkens & A. Harding (eds) The Oxford Handbook of the European Bronze Age, 17-46. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Worsaae, J.A.A. 1843. The Primeval Antiquities of Denmark (Danmarks Oldtid oplyst ved Oldsager og Gravhøie). London: John Henry Parker.

 Web resources:

Posted by Adi on

The British Museum Index

The index of the British Museum was a major archaeological initiative first founded in 1913 and then moved to the British Museum in the 1920s. For over 70 years, it represented the highest standards of Bronze Age artefact studies. This catalogue contains index cards detailing object find spots and types, alongside detail line drawings and a wide range of further information about the object’s context of discovery.

BM Card Index

Drawers of index cards at the British Museum

Part of the reason to transcribe the index is so that its estimated 30,000 records can be incorporated rapidly into the Portable Antiquities Scheme database, which has also been created with the help of people across England and Wales. The PAS database includes nearly 930,000 objects, which have been collected by the public, usually by metal detectorists. Integrating the transcribed cards with the numerous records of archaeological objects discovered by the public will thereby create a near complete digital inventory of metal finds from Bronze Age Britain. There are also some records of finds from outside of Britain in the index and in some cases, these can be sent to other national databases in Europe as well.

Georeferencing the finds will support the kinds of large-scale spatial analysis discussed here. Knowing as much information as possible about the archaeological context of these finds (e.g. as recorded on the cards) is very useful for building up a clearer picture of how metal objects were produced, exchanged, used and discarded in the Bronze Age.


Posted by Chiara Bonacchi on

MicroPasts goes to Paris

Hi all, last week we had the opportunity to introduce the MicroPasts project at two international conferences: the annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, in Austin, and the Computer Applications and Quantitative Methods in Archaeology conference in Paris.

In Paris, we discussed our experience of developing the MicroPasts platforms so far, our aims, the challenges we have encountered and our evaluation plans and results until now. This talk was given as part of a very interesting session on Community Archaeology and Technology, which brought together lots of projects that are currently supporting people’s participation in archaeological research and their engagment with heritage resources via digital technologies. The MicroPasts presentation is embedded below, we hope you will enjoy it!


Posted by Adi on

Hello MicroPasts, thrilled to meet you!

My name is Adi, and I’m a research associate at the UCL Institute of Archaeology. Earlier this month I joined the MicroPasts team – and I’m especially excited about this project as it feeds into my background and interests in so many ways. Before coming to London I was an archaeologist and academic back home in Israel. A few years ago, I created the West Bank and East Jerusalem Archaeological Database (WBEJAD), an inventory of archaeological sites excavated or surveyed by Israeli archaeologists since the occupation of the West Bank in 1967. Archaeological databases in the Occupied Territories were also later on the subject of my PhD dissertation. So, I’m passionate about topics such as documentation, recording, and the management of archaeological and heritage data. Now, let me tell you why I’m so enthusiastic about MicroPasts.

To start with, MicroPasts can help transform physical archaeological archives into online datasets, as well as enhance exiting ones, using crowd-sourcing applications. Our crowd-sourcing platform is going to enable the transcription and tagging of fascinating archives such as UCL’s Institute of Archaeology’s historical photo collection of Near Eastern excavations, and the British Museum’s index cards of Bronze Age metal objects. The importance of these tasks is immense: undigitised archival data is hardly accessible – but making data freely available online opens up endless research opportunities and public use. Another crowd-sourcing application, which will allow producing and rectifying 3D models of the British Museum’s metal objects, will also greatly enhance existing data and increase its usability!

This leads me to another aspect of MicroPasts which I think is vital: making data free and accessible. I first realised the importance of open data when creating the WBEJAD, the significance of which was not only in its contents – but perhaps even more so in the fact that this information has been easily accessible for the first time. I find the debate over open access to data to be crucial, as it’s concerned with ideas of equality and democracy. Archaeological data in particular is considered to be universal knowledge, belonging to everyone, and not the private property of the researcher retrieving it. Allowing data to be freely available online encourages the general public to become more informed and more engaged with archaeological heritage. The advantages of fully accessible data are abundant also for academics: more researchers can discover and reuse data, a practice that improves the quality of research as scholars become better informed. Open data is more visible, more accountable and more transparent. In the case of the MicroPasts platforms, open data can also increase opportunities for collaboration between academics, professionals and the general public. The idea of co-designing research is innovative – and I’m very much looking forward to see how it develops!

This engagement of communities is another aspect which I really like about MicroPasts. Being an academic, I see public engagement as fundamental to the archaeological discipline. MicroPasts involves communities right from the start! Using our crowd-sourcing platform, people can directly engage in the production of research-quality information. Anyone can also contribute money to archaeological endeavours that they are interested in and consider important through the crowd-funding platform; and, as mentioned above, they will also be able to be directly involved in devising professional projects and pushing them forward. This is what’s called ‘citizen science’ – and that is the essence of the democratisation of science.

As you can probably see by now, we at MicroPasts use cutting edge technologies and software in order to engage communities with archaeological projects. We are creating and customising crowd-sourcing and crowd-funding web platforms, and using GitHub to customise, revise and share our open source code. We will also store and display large chunks of data in online repositories such as the Archaeological Data Service (ADS) for text records and 3D models or Flickr for images. And, we use cool software to create 3D models of metal objects using Structure from Motion (SfM).

This project really seems to tick all boxes for me. Lots of exciting things to look forward to then!


Posted by Chiara Bonacchi on

Crowd-sourcing, crowd-funding and archaeology


We are a team of researchers from University College London and the British Museum. In the past few years, we have been looking into the new opportunities provided by digital technologies for public engagement in archaeology, through several seminar series and a recent edited volume on the topic. We are now lucky enough to have funds from the AHRC to work on a project entitled Crowd and Community Fuelled Archaeological Research which has started this month.

The core of our efforts day-to-day will go into enabling a more general online platform for crowd-sourcing and crowd-funding that we have called MicroPasts. The platform’s goal is to bring archaeological enthusiasts of all kinds — traditional academics, archaeological societies, interested individual members of the public — together to create new, high quality archaeological and historical data about the human past.

This research blog also allows some of us to indulge our more navel-gazing tendencies (!) and to post about themes ranging from public archaeology to research ethics to the technical aspects of crowd-sourcing and crowd-funding. We will be aiming to write for a wide audience including those working in public archaeology, cultural heritage, museum studies, computational archaeology and the digital humanities, as well as practitioners in the heritage and creative sectors.

But in this first blog post, let’s start by setting out the context for our research. Recently, increasing attention has been dedicated to the potential of digital technologies for supporting more egalitarian and transparent practice, as well as wider participation.  One fairly well-known digital method to pursue these goals has been ‘crowd-sourcing’, the practice of seeking information, services or funds in small chunks from a ‘crowd’ of people including as yet wholly anonymous members of the public as well as those already belonging to relevant communities of interest. Archaeology and crowd-sourcing should make for a great fit, because, while archaeology enjoys widespread appeal, it tries to protect, document and understand a massive dwindling resource, traditionally supported by tiny pots of money.

Early examples of crowd-sourcing in archaeology and related disciplines have focused on things like inspecting imagery to detect archaeological features, pooling wartime tangible heritage, transcribing papyri, interrogating built architecture and public recording of metal artefacts. In other cases, appeals to the ‘crowd’ have been made to micro-finance student dissertations, major excavations and long-term community projects all over the globe. What past crowd-sourcing and crowd-funding experiments have in common is that they mainly embraced ‘contributory’ models, where members of the public were asked to contribute their skills or their money in support of research agendas that were typically designed by academics.

We too wish to create a community space where anyone with an interest in archaeology and history can help build archaeological knowledge by contributing to existing projects, but perhaps more ambitiously we also want to have a crack at proper ‘co-producton’ (to tack on yet more jargon!) and offer serious opportunities for traditional academics, volunteer societies and other enthusiasts to dream up new research initiatives collectively, and then to fund them via crowd-funding appeals.

What will be the ethical implications of online community co-production like this? What should be the consequences of crowd-funding for heritage policy? How, technically speaking, do we best build a multi-purpose, wide-range web platform of this kind? How can we best encourage fun, productive and inclusive online communities? How should we evaluate whether our approaches are effective or not?

These are possible subjects of future posts, but we promise to throw in some more light-hearted and serendipitous stuff too, so please do keep following!

Chiara, Andy & Dan