Prehistory
Addenda to: THE BRONZE AGE
 
CANON GREENWELL: BARROW-DIGGER
Canon William Greenwell – to some, famous for his trout fishing fly, Greenwell's Glory – was an enthusiastic ‘barrow-digger’. In 1877, the Canon published his ‘British Barrows’:
“The work now offered to the public will be found to contain a record of the examination of above two hundred and thirty sepulchral mounds, belonging to a period before the occupation of Britain by the Romans. A considerable part of many years has been devoted to this examination; and, I trust I may say with confidence, the facts collected during this process have been carefully and minutely observed and accurately recorded.”
Canon Greenwell describes his excavation technique:
“My practice has always been to drive a trench, the width of the barrow as it was originally constituted and before it was enlarged by being ploughed down, from south to north, through and beyond the centre. I have not always thought it necessary to remove the whole of the north and west sides, as they are generally found to be destitute of secondary interments; in very many cases, however, I have turned over the whole mound.”
Aubrey Burl, in ‘Prehistoric Avebury: Second Edition’, 2002, comments:
“... Canon Greenwell ... a clergyman whose methods have led archaeologists to wish that he had used his knees more often in prayer and less frequently in excavation.”
Be that as it may, it was, apparently, in 1869 that Canon Greenwell conducted his “barrow-opening operations” on a group of round barrows at Rudston, East Yorkshire. He writes:
“LXVII. The next barrow, the largest of the group ... was 100 ft. in diameter and 9 ft. high, and was formed entirely of chalk, with the exception of a layer of dark fatty earth which rested on the natural surface, and was of a thickness varying between 1 ft. and 2½ ft. There was no trace of any hollow in the neighbourhood from whence so large a mass of chalk could have been obtained as that required to form this barrow. The chalk employed must however have been quarried from a considerable depth, for the material over a great part of the mound was of a description that does not occur in the upper chalk beds of the locality. There can be but little doubt that it was obtained close by, and it would therefore seem as if the place from which it had been obtained had been afterwards filled up again. There is no difficulty in understanding how the chalk was excavated, for the remains of the tools were found amongst the material composing the barrow, in the shape of broken tines of red-deer antlers and splinters originating in their breakage...
This barrow produced a large number of burials, all of them, with one exception, appearing to be secondary, and many of them mere insertions. They were all placed at a very slight depth beneath the present surface of the mound.
At a distance of 14 ft. south-west of the centre was the body of a man, placed 6 ft. above the natural surface, and laid on his right side, with head to W.N.W., and the hands up to the face. At the crown of the head was a ‘food vessel’, and behind the head a long flint scraper [there follows a description of the food vessel and scraper] ... The body had been inserted in the barrow, which, as has already been observed, was made of chalk, and the hollow in which it was placed had been filled in with earth, but along the back of the body some large flat pieces of chalk were set on edge. Twenty-seven feet west-by-south of the centre, and 4½ ft. above the surface, was the body of another man, laid on the left side, with the head to N.N.W., the right hand being up to the face and the left on the right arm. [There follows a description of a flint knife placed at the feet] ... Twenty-one feet west-south-west from the centre, and 6 ft. above the ground-level, was the body of a woman, laid on the right side, with the head to N.W. by N.; the right arm was extended and the hand placed under the knees, the left hand being up to the face. Between the head and knees was a ‘food vessel’. This body was evidently an insertion, and was deposited in a hollow filled in with earth, having a thin chalk flag laid over the knees and the vessel. [There follows a description of the vessel] ... Close to the last body were the remains of a disturbed one, with many pieces of a ‘drinking cup’ [i.e. Beaker], which had probably been associated with it ... Twenty-one feet west-by-south from the centre, and 6 ft. above the natural surface, was the body of a second woman, laid on the right side, with the head to N. by W.; the hands were crossed in front of where the hips had been, but these, together with the bones of the legs, had been cut away by the introduction of the interment last mentioned. Behind the head was a ‘drinking cup’ [this Beaker's description matches the early, 'all-over-cord', one whose photograph appears at the top of this webpage] ... Twelve feet south-south-east from the centre, and 6¼ ft. above the natural surface, was the body of a child, about 3 years old, laid on its right side, with the head to S.S.W. Seven feet and a-half south-south-east from the centre , and 7 ft. above the surface, was the body of another child, rather younger than the last, also laid on its right side, with the head to N. by E. On the same level, 6ft. south-east-by-south of the centre, and apparently in the undisturbed chalk of the mound, was still another child, about a year old. Just west of this, but about a foot higher, was part of the skull of another child of about the same age; whilst 4 ft. east-south-east of the centre, and nearly at the same height as the two children's bodies just named, were two other children, laid close together, the elder in front of the younger, both on their left sides, and with their heads to N.E. by E., and the hands of both up to their respective faces. Between the face of one and the back of the head of the other were two flint chippings. These bodies also were placed apparently in the undisturbed chalk of the mound. Six feet east of the centre, and at the same level with the last-named children, was yet another child; while 3 ft. west of it were several disturbed bones of another child. Seven feet and a-half north-north-east from the centre, and at the same distance above the ground-level, was the body of a young woman, the epiphyses of the thigh bones not being united; she was laid on the right side, with the head to S.W. by S., the right hand being under the corresponding thigh, and the left on the chest. Between the face and the knees was a ‘food vessel’. [There follows a description of the food vessel] ... Seven feet north-north-east of the present centre, but no doubt coincident with the original one, and clearly the primary interment, was the body of a child, scarcely a year old, on its left side, with the head to N. by E. It was placed on the natural surface in a slight hollow, with a direction of west-north-west by east-south-east, 5 ft. long and 3 ft. wide, and lined with wood, which towards the east end was charred. Close to the child, also towards the east end of the hollow, were some of the bones of, apparently, a young woman, placed certainly with some regard to their proper order, but by no means presenting such an appearance as would imply that when the interment took place there had been an entire body. The head was on its left side, but there was no lower jaw with it; the other bones were in such a position as to show that it had been intended to lay the body on the right side, but there was no left femur, no vertebræ, and none of the bones of the arms, except the left humerus. The bones still remaining were in such a sound condition as to render it impossible to suppose that those which were wanting had perished by decay, so that there can be no room for doubt that when the child was buried certain parts of the skeleton of another body had been placed in association with it, the bones probably of one removed from some other place of deposit, and possibly those of the mother.
The size of this barrow was such as (presumably at least) to indicate the importance of the person over whose body it had been raised; and yet there seems every reason to conclude that the person in question was a child of very tender years. [There follows conjecture regarding the child's status] ...
At a distance of 15 ft. north-east of the centre, and 6½ ft. above the natural surface, was the body of a child, very much decayed; close to the head was a small and perfectly plain vessel [description follows] ... One foot and a-half east of the last was another child, also much decayed; at the head, and probably in front of the face, was a small ‘drinking cup’ [description follows] ... Twenty-one feet and a-half east-by-north from the centre, and 6½ ft. above the level of the ground, was the body of a man, laid on the back and at full length, with the head to W. by N. One foot north of the last was another man; and 1½ ft. to the north of the second was a third man's body, both of which, like the first, were laid at full length on their backs, and with the head in the same direction; the hands in all three cases being placed on the hips. Two feet north-west of the third man was a fourth, laid on the right side in a contracted position, with the head to S.W., and the hands up to the face. Just beyond the feet of the three extended bodies there was another, the bones of which were too much disturbed by the plough to admit of the position of the body being ascertained. It is not improbable that the three bodies laid at full length, and indeed the other two as well, were those of Angles, placed in the mound many centuries after its construction. In the absence of any associated relics this is of course mere conjecture...
It has already been mentioned that there was a deposit of dark fatty earth upon the level of the ground, extending throughout the whole barrow, and increasing in depth up to the centre, where it attained a thickness of 2½ ft. This deposit was full of burnt earth and charcoal in every part; but there was more evidence of burning in that part which immediately overlaid the natural surface. There were also in it a very large number of animal bones, as well as sherds of pottery, principally of plain dark-coloured ware, flint implements, and chippings of the same material. Amongst the implements must be numbered 79 saws; 17 scrapers; 3 leaf-shaped arrow-points; 2 pointed tools (probably for boring); several flint articles of uncertain purpose; a hammer-stone; and a piece of a greenstone axe. Many of the saws are very delicately serrated, some along both edges, and showing by the glaze upon the edge that they had been in use. The number of saws was very surprising, and far exceeded the aggregate of those obtained from all the barrows I have opened; and it is by no means easy to give any reasonable explanation of the phenomenon.”
During his career “barrow-opening”, Canon Greenwell (1820–1918) excavated more than 400 barrows, at 150 sites. His collection of finds was entrusted to the care of the British Museum in three blocks: in 1879,1889 and 1893.
Back
 
HEMP KNOLL
In ‘British Archaeology’ (Issue 60, August 2001), Howard Williams writes:
“Late in the 3rd millennium BC, a round barrow was raised over a Beaker grave at Hemp Knoll in the chalk downland of southern England, three miles south-west of Avebury in Wiltshire. The burial rite, as revealed by excavation in 1965, illustrates well this complex process of the transformation of the dead person into a new state.
The first act of the rite was to dig a large, deep burial chamber using antler picks. Next, a wickerwork coffin was placed at the centre of the grave, which contained a skeleton placed in a crouched position on his left side. The body was of a 6ft male, aged between 35 and 45.
We know very little about the organic objects placed with the deceased because they did not survive in the chalkland soils. However, by analogy with burials elsewhere, the body was probably clothed and/or wrapped in a shroud. It may have also been bound with twine soon after death into the crouched position revealed by the skeleton.
Associated with the body was an archer's wristguard made of greenstone. Although it was worn on the left forearm, it had been broken before burial. A bone object – a toggle or belt ring – was recovered beneath the dead man's right thigh. This was also broken and the severed edge had been subsequently decorated. It may have been sewn onto the clothing or shroud so that its broken decorated edge was on display.
It is possible that the coffin was opened in the grave to allow a highly decorated Beaker to be placed at the foot of the skeleton. This would have allowed mourners to view the corpse for a time in its final resting place.
In addition to the coffin, part of a timber planked structure was identified in one corner of the grave. By analogy with other Beaker graves, it may suggest that a timber mortuary ‘house’ enclosed the coffin. This structure may have allowed the coffin to be viewed or accessed for a period before the grave was finally backfilled and the barrow raised.
Sometime later, further deposits were included as the grave was being filled in. A roe deer antler – perhaps used in the grave digging – was discarded on one side of the burial. On the other, the four feet and skull of an ox were added when the grave was half-filled with chalk blocks.
As with so many Beaker burial sites of this date, the mound was not raised to commemorate a single grave. Before the mound was built, a second grave of a young child was dug next to the coffined male. A small ditched barrow was then thrown up and at least one further burial – the cremated remains of an individual placed within a food vessel – was inserted into the central burial area.
Looking at the full grave-plan, it would be easy to imagine that the corpse was ‘on display’ within its large grave for mourners to see. However, the relationships between structures, objects and the body – so apparent during archaeological excavation – may not have been so clear to the mourners themselves. Much was carefully controlled, and hidden from view.
Management and control of the corpse had started right at the beginning of the funerary sequence, when it was probably washed, clothed, bound into a crouched posture and then perhaps wrapped in a shroud of animal skins and placed in a coffin. Binding and wrapping seems to symbolise containment; or controlling the power of the dead. It certainly signifies a change in the dead person's state, away from the individual ‘personality’ known in life to a new status of ‘ancestor’.”
Back
 
BRITISH BRONZE
Writing in ‘British Archaeology’ (Issue no 56, December 2000), Paul Budd, a specialist in archaeometallurgy, states:
“The latest archaeological research shows that, although metallurgy came relatively late to Britain, its arrival here sparked a technological revolution whose consequences reached every corner of Europe. It was in Britain that metal workers perfected a new metal. It was called bronze.”
‘Ötzi the Iceman’, whose well preserved remains, dating from c.3300BC, were discovered in the Tyrolean Alps in 1991, had a copper axe. Some copper ores are rich in arsenic. The proportion of arsenic determines the properties of the metal produced. It may well be that this was appreciated by prehistoric metallurgists. Paul Budd:
“Recent research suggests that early metal workers knew exactly what they were doing in using these ores. A significant addition of arsenic to copper produces better mechanical properties, and higher levels produce a metal of striking silvery appearance. Artifacts with higher levels tended to be ‘high status’ objects such as knives and daggers, while everyday tools, such as the 4th millennium BC Iceman's axe, contained less. The proportion of arsenic in artifacts ranges from less than 1 to 7 per cent – never more than that – while ores can contain up to 30 per cent, suggesting that arsenic quantities were being controlled.
Such control may have been exercised by mixing arsenic-rich copper with other types of copper, both in pure form and as recycled tools...
Whatever the truth of central Europe's arsenical copper in the 4th millennium, Britain remained literally in the Stone Age. It would be a thousand years before the island periphery of north-western Europe was to experience metallurgy at all. And yet when it came, the metals revolution took off with explosive technological pace. Within a few hundred years not only was a Continental-style arsenical copper industry thriving here, but by about 2000BC the harder, tougher alloy of copper and tin known as bronze had also been invented. It replaced arsenical copper across Europe and dominated the European metals scene until the coming of iron more than 1,000 years later...
Cornwall is one of only two possible major sources of the tin used in bronze throughout Europe after about 2000BC. No prehistoric mines have yet been found in Cornwall but this is hardly surprising: the landscape has been eaten away by coastal erosion and turned upside down by the vast scale of the post-medieval tin industry. All prehistoric evidence may have been destroyed.”
There may not be any known tin mines, but the largest known Bronze Age copper mine in the world, discovered in 1987, is at the Great Orme, Llandudno, North Wales. Copper seems to have been mined there from before 1800BC to about 600BC.
Back
 
SEAHENGE
Seahenge emerged on the beach at Holme-next-the-Sea, Norfolk, in August 1998.
Dendrochronology alone could not provide a precise date for the timbers of Seahenge – local conditions having sufficiently distorted the effects of general climatic variation to prevent an exact match of the tree-ring pattern. The central ‘altar’ most closely fitted three dates, 2454BC, 2050BC and 2019BC. Radiocarbon assays produced a date range of 2200BC to 2000BC. Bayesian statistical analysis of the data indicated it was in 2050BC that the tree had died. Examination of the outer tree-ring showed that the 150-year-old oak was uprooted between April and June. Exactly one year later, between April and June 2049BC, other oaks, used to make the circle, were felled. The altar stump was dragged into position using ropes made from honeysuckle stems.
Back
 
FOOD VESSELS AND COLLARED URNS
Food vessels are generally coarser and thicker than Beakers. To the modern eye they tend to have the look of ornamental plant-pots. They usually have, narrow, flat bottoms, but the one illustrated left – 5½ inches high and about 6 inches across – from Weaverthorpe, in North Yorkshire, has four feet. It was found, by Canon William Greenwell, in a barrow:
“... 54 ft. in diameter, 4 ft. high, though a good deal ploughed down, and made of earth, with an admixture of some chalk... Fifteen feet south of the centre, and about 1 ft. above the natural surface, was a body, probably that of a man about 20 to 25 years of age, lying on the right side, with the head to W., the left hand crossed over and clasping the right, and both up to the face. Above the knees was a very peculiar vase which must be classed amongst the ‘food vessels’. It has four feet set upon a round bottom ... Amongst the material of the mound were many flint chippings; five round scrapers, and one oval, left-handed one; a most symmetrically-formed and beautifully flaked willow-leaf-shaped arrow-point of flint ... the half of a spindle-whorl, of baked clay ... some charcoal, several fragments of pottery, and many broken bones belonging to four oxen and three goats or sheep, all of them adults.
In this barrow there were twelve unburnt bodies, half of which were those of children, and probably one burnt one, in all thirteen; and so far as could be judged from the appearance of the mound, there did not seem to have been any disturbance occasioned by the insertion of secondary interments, all of these as it would appear having been placed on the then existing surface of the barrow, to which, as each new burial took place, fresh additions of earth were made.”
Canon Greenwell unearthed the collared urns illustrated right in a barrow at Cold Kirby, North Yorkshire:
“It was 44 ft. in diameter, 5 ft. high, and was formed of earth and clay with a few stones intermingled. Three feet east-south-east of the centre, and having its mouth placed but 1 ft. below the surface of the barrow, was a cinerary urn standing upright. It was filled to the top with a deposit of the burnt bones of a person of full age but of small size. The urn [on the left] is 12 in. high, 9 in. wide at the mouth, and 4 in. at the bottom ... At the centre of the mound and just beneath its surface were a few stones placed together for the protection of a second cinerary urn, whose top was met with 2 ft. below them. The urn [on the right], which stood upright, was carefully packed round with clay and charcoal in large pieces. It was deposited about 1 ft. above the natural surface, the intervening space having been filled in with well-worked clay. The bones which it contained, those of a young person of average size, were so completely burnt that they occupied a space of only a few inches at the bottom of the urn, which is however no less than 16 in. high, 12½ in. wide at the mouth, 16 in. at the bottom of the overhanging rim, and 4½ in. at the bottom... Amongst the material of the barrow were found scattered here and there numerous chippings of flint, a round flint scraper, and various sherds of pottery.”
Quotes and illustrations from ‘British Barrows’ (1877).
Back
 
THE GOLDEN BARROW
More prosaically known as Upton Lovell G2e, this 20 metre diameter bowl barrow, on the edge of Salisbury Plain (Wiltshire), was nicknamed ‘the Golden Barrow’ following excavations, by William Cunnington and Sir Richard Colt Hoare, at the beginning of the 19th century. Interestingly, the grave goods were not associated with its primary burial.
In 1803:
“At the depth of two feet we found a little pile of burned human bones placed in a shallow bason-like cist, and at the distance of one foot from the bones was a considerable quantity of ashes intermixed with small fragments of burned bones. About two feet from the pile of bones, the following articles were discovered. 1. Thirteen gold beads made in the form of a drum, having two ends to screw off, and perforated in two places on the sides for the purpose of stringing. 2. A thin plate of the same metal, six inches in length, and nearly three in width, richly wrought, and perforated at the four corners. 3. Another ornament in form of a cone, decorated with circles and zigzags, and fitted closely to a piece of dark wood, like ebony, on which the marks of the pattern still appear impressed; the bottom part of this article is also perforated. The above are all of pure but thin gold, neatly worked, and highly burnished. The large flat plate must have been, like the cone, strengthened by a strip of wood behind; and the whole, by their several perforations, are strongly marked as forming the decorative accoutrements of some distinguished British chieftain. Besides the above, were two small articles in gold, resembling little boxes, about an inch in diameter, with a top, in the form of a cone, to take off. I cannot conjecture to what purpose these were appropriated, as they bear no sign of perforation.”
As well as the gold items they found “a curious little cup, studded over with projecting knobs” (known as a ‘grape cup’) and the remains of a magnificent amber necklace.
Returning to the barrow in 1807:
“... on the same level, and within a few inches of the very spot where the golden trinkets and the amber beads had been found, we discovered two cups, the one placed within the other. The largest of these was covered with a profusion of zigzag ornaments, but on taking out, was unfortunately broken to pieces; the smaller one [a miniature Collared Urn], containing about a pint, is quite plain, and in good preservation.”
A small bronze dagger and a, tanged, bronze awl had also been found.
“Still pursuing our excavations to the floor of the barrow, we there found an oblong cist, about eighteen inches deep, which contained a simple interment of burned bones, unaccompanied with either arms or trinkets. This was certainly the primary funereal deposit; but, however rich in materials, or elegant in form, the articles found nearer the surface of the barrow may be deemed, their high antiquity cannot be disputed; for although the grape cup exceeds in beauty and novelty of design any we have as yet discovered, the other two cups of unbaked clay, and rude workmanship, bespeak the uncivilized æra to which the construction of this sepulchral mound may be justly attributed.”
‘Ancient Wiltshire’, Volume I, Sir Richard Colt Hoare
Finds from the Golden Barrow are at Wiltshire Museum, Devizes.
Back
 
MOLD GOLD CAPE
On account of the state of preservation of the Cape, it is assumed that the burial was in a stone-lined grave (cist), though it appears that the labourers failed to observe one. Ab Ithel (the alias of Rev. John Williams) wrote, in the April 1848 edition of ‘Archæologia Cambrensis’:
“The spot in question was situated about a quarter of a mile from the town of Mold, on the Chester road, and is described as a small gravel bank, of which there are several at a little distance from the river Alun, in the same neighbourhood. A part of it had been cut off in the formation of the road; and gravel for some necessary purposes having been afterwards raised out of the remainder, a considerable pit was thus made into the adjoining field. A new tenant having entered upon the land, and deeming this hole unsightly, employed labourers to fill it up by shovelling down the top of the bank. It was whilst thus engaged that the men found the corselet, at the depth of about four feet from the top of the mound, and, as it evidently appeared from the nature of the soil, upon the original surface of the field. It lay as it would have been worn, with the breast upwards – the back parts doubled behind – and containing within it a considerable number of small bones, vertebræ, &c., from two to three inches in length. The scull [sic], of an ordinary size, lay at the upper end; but no bones of the extremities were noticed.”
Ab Ithel notes that:
“Before the proper value of the corselet was ascertained, several persons were allowed to break off and carry away small pieces of it, which considerably impaired its form. The writer saw a piece about an inch long, which Archdeacon Clough had succeeded in recovering very lately.”
It was, indeed, originally thought that the gold pieces were the remains of a, post-Roman, Dark Age British chieftain's corselet. It was appreciated, however, that it was too fragile to be anything other than a decorative item. By 1904 opinion had changed. It was realised that the pieces belonged to the Bronze Age, but it was conjectured that they formed a peytrel – a horse's chest ornament. It was only in the early 1950s that they were recognised as forming the Cape. There are also parts of a second, smaller but similarly embossed, gold object. In the 1950s, the Cape was thought, on stylistic grounds, to date from around 1300BC, but more recent research has pushed it further back in time, to 1900–1600BC.
Back
 
BRONZE AGE WARFARE
In 'British Archaeology' (Issue 22, March 1997), Sue Bridgford writes:
“In recent years, scholars have downplayed the evidence for warfare in the Bronze Age. War has become deeply unfashionable, and many researchers now choose to believe that it hardly took place in prehistory at all. Weapons are often regarded as having had a largely ceremonial purpose, only being used occasionally (if at all) for fighting.
It now seems clear, however, that this scholarly nicety about warfare is misplaced. My own research into Late Bronze Age swords (c 1200–700BC) suggests that most have been used in group combat. Their design and manufacture also suggests strongly that warfare was deeply ingrained in Bronze Age life, and had already been the norm at the time when swords were invented.
Late Bronze Age swords are the first weapons uniquely devised for warfare...
These swords have leaf-shaped blades, balance well forward of the wrist and some even have blunt points. Unlike thin-bladed rapiers, these swords have hilts cast as an intrinsic part of the weapon and can therefore be used for slashing without coming apart. Swords are more likely to disable than kill, but few weapons are as useful in a mêlée. A rapier- or spear-user requires accuracy and time, and leaves himself open to attack from the side; while the user of an axe or club becomes exhausted in prolonged battle. Late Bronze Age swords must have been invented by societies already used to war, and aware of the limitations of other weapons...
It would be surprising if sword users were not the élite of warriors. Bronze swords are far from easy to make - the clay moulds themselves require careful preparation and only expert casting can prevent the creation of hidden flaws. Hammering and heating the edges repeatedly, without cracking the metal, is particularly difficult in tin bronze. Nonetheless the vast majority of blades have micro-structures which show this was done with consistent results.”
Back
‘Bayesian statistics’ are named after, Nonconformist minister and mathematician, Thomas Bayes (1702–1761), a pioneer in the field of probability theory.