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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 Chiara Bonacchi on

Online Transcription

How can it be useful?

Letters, documents and literary works are useful for several different kinds of research into the human past. For example, transcribing old excavation records can make them more amenable to spatial and quantitative analysis, whilst transcribing historical documents from past literate societies can be compared and contrasted with the evidence from contemporary objects. Other kinds of transcriptions can also be important for exploring family histories, broader historical movements and phenomena, and personal biographies of archaeologists, historians, philosophers etc. To be used for research purposes, however, this (often hand-written) material needs to be carefully transferred from paper form to digital (typed) formats. In this way, it is possible to preserve the records, while making them widely available beyond the walls of archives and study rooms and enabling computer-aided analysis.

A letter from Hilda Petrie to Veronica Seton-Willliams (1936), archived at UCL; courtesy of UCL Institute of Archaeology Collections

Transcribing large quantities of text is not an easy or quick task and requires interpretation skills that computers do not yet have at adequate levels. For this reason, crowd-sourcing the transcription of letters or documents via interested volunteers can produce high quality results, as in the case of the Transcribe Bentham project. In this project, contributors are transcribing the unpublished works of the philosopher and reformer Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), thereby helping to prepare a new edition of the Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham. As Bentham himself wrote: ‘Many hands make light work. Many hands together make merry work’. Another interesting project where transcription is successfully used to research the history of archaeology is UR Crowdsource. Here, people are helping document the famous excavations that took place from 1922 to 1934 at the site of Ur, in present-day Iraq, by reading and transcribing letters, field notes and reports from the dig.

On the MicroPasts crowd-sourcing platform, we have developed an application to transcribe the object cards that were written to record a vast number of Bronze Age metal artefacts found in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries up until the 1970s. These cards allow us to know more about objects’ features, places of discovery, and any published information relevant to them. The information is hand-written in often neat and aesthetically pleasing styles, but can at times be difficult to decipher. Thus, volunteers’ help is crucial for digitising these resources and enabling the exploration of the Bronze Age Index and the history of this catalogue (e.g. the geographic and chronological scope of its records), but also, for example, the examination of the recurrence of certain features within a same class of artefacts.

Currently, we are working on the development of a second type of application for transcribing cards which are also part of the Bronze Age index, but describe the context of discovery of specific finds rather than the objects themselves. This transcription work will be slightly different, requiring fewer text boxes and more ‘free text’. We also hope that, in future, the MicroPasts crowd-sourcing platform will foster further transcription work. One way to achieve this is for both volunteer communities and academic institutions to identify archaeological and historical transcription projects of joint research interest and fund them via the MicroPasts crowd-funding site.


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 Jennifer Wexler on

3D Modelling of the Arreton Down Hoard

We are in the process of adding a new photo-masking application to the MicroPasts site. This is going to be a bit of a ‘pop-up shop’ as it will only include one Bronze Age British hoard, although it is one of considerable importance.

A hoard is an archaeological terms for two or more objects, normally of metal, deposited together. In some cases these were buried with the intention of recovery, but in other cases they were intended as ‘gifts to the gods’ or suitably auspicious ways of casting off old fashioned or damaged objects.

This particular hoard was found on Arreton Down on the Isle of Wight sometime before 1735, and we think that it was associated with a series of aligned pits. It constitutes a major group of Early Bronze Age spearheads and axes (as well as at least one dagger) that was probably placed in the ground around 1700-1500 BC.

Antiquarian drawing of the Arreton Down Hoard, from the The Antiquaries Journal XXVII (1947)

Antiquarian drawing of the Arreton Down Hoard, from the The Antiquaries Journal XXVII (1947)

The Arreton Down hoard represents the final metalwork traditions of Early Bronze Age (EBA) in southern England, c. 1700-1500 BC (Britton 1963, 284-97; Burgess & Cowen 1972; Needham 1986). The hoard gave its name to the ‘Arreton phase’ of Early Bronze Age metalwork. This arguably represents the first large scale and frequent burying of metalwork in prehistory, a practice that would continue for many centuries (and millennia) to come.

Arreton Decorated Socket Spearhead

Decorated socketed spearhead description in the BA Index

The Arreton phase gained its important position in the EBA chronology partially due to its early discovery in 1735, and its extensive documentation and exhibition by the Society of Antiquaries of London, the foremost archaeological body of its day (Society of Antiquaries Minutes 1732-7,128-9; Cooke 1737). Arreton Down belongs to a sub-set of hoards which are dominated by spearheads and have been assigned to a particular sub-phase of the Bronze Age (MA VI), and it has one of the best ranges of bronze equipment known from a single EBA context. This rare combination of metalwork types in combination with what appears to be purposeful deposition in a series of aligned pits suggests that the hoard was deposited in the course of ritual practices.

The Arreton hoard includes 16 objects of which 13 are currently in the BM collections: 2 tanged spearheads with rivet, 6 tanged spearheads, 1 tanged and collared spearhead with rivet, 1 socketed spearhead, 1 halberd or dagger, 1 dagger, and 4 flanged axes (illustrated below).

Photograph of the Arreton Down Hoard, as it currently exists in the BM collections © Trustees of the British Museum

Photograph of the Arreton Down Hoard, as it currently exists in the BM collections © Trustees of the British Museum

The fun thing about this assemblage from a specialist point of view is how it shows the evolution from low-flanged axes (Arreton-flanged axes) in the Early Bronze Age towards something closer to the earliest palstaves (a type of axe with cast flanges and a stop-ridge that is currently also the subject of much work by contributors on the MicroPasts site; see http://crowdsourced.micropasts.org/app/category/featured/ (Roberts 2008, 75).  Unfortunately, for a long time the provenance of the hoard was subject to great confusion, with some of the bronze finds actually given false provenances to other parts of the UK! Fortunately, research by Stuart Needham, a former British Museum curator of Bronze Age Collections, allowed for the original provenance to be re-established for all but three of the Arreton finds (Needham 1986). Subsequent, responsibly-reported metal detecting in the Arreton area have led to the discovery of additional bronze implements, adding to our understanding of this region in the Bronze Age.

Adi, Chiara, & Andy preparing a decorated socketed spearhead from the hoard for 3D scanning

Adi, Chiara, & Andy preparing a decorated socketed spearhead from the hoard for 3D scanning

This will be the first complete hoard photographed for 3D modelling and a major challenge will be how well this modelling approach handles the thin edges of the spearheads and internal socket of the dagger. Last week we took hundreds of photos of these objects in the hoard at the BM’s store, including both in very controlled photo-capture conditions and the more ad hoc set-up you see in the image above!

Close-up of the spearhead

Close-up of the spearhead

Soon these files will be uploaded as a new MicroPast’s photomasking application, allowing us to create for the first time a full set of 3D models of a Bronze Age hoard! Later this year, we hope to use these photomasked models to potentially make 3D printable models of the hoard on a 3D printer at one of the Samsung Digital Discovery Centre’s (http://www.britishmuseum.org/learning/samsung_centre.aspx) sessions at the BM.


  • Britton, D. 1963. “Traditions of Metal-Working in the Later Neolithic and Early Bronze Age of Britain, Part I”. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society XXIX: 258-325.
  • Burgess, C.B. and Cowen, J.D. 1972. “The Ebnal hoard and Early Bronze Age Metalworking Traditions”. In F. Lynch and C.B. Burgess (eds) Prehistoric Man in Wales and the West: Essays in Honour of Lily F. Chitty, 167-88. Bath.
  • Cooke, B. 1737. “Letter to Peter Collinson”, dated 1 Jan 1736/7, Society of Antiquaries Minutes, Vol. II: 285.
  • Needham, Stuart P. 1986. “Towards the Reconstitution of the Arreton Hoard: A Case of Faked Provenances”. The Antiquaries Journal LXVI: 9-28.
  • Piggott, S. 1947. “The Arreton Down Bronze Age Hoard”, The Antiquaries Journal 27: 177-8.
  • 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.