Early Bronze Age


Unsurprisingly, the Museum’s Early Bronze Age collections are amongst those who receive the most interest from researchers, as well as consistently attracting high-profile and well- funded research projects. It is also notable that there are a number of objects, particularly Early Bronze Age goldwork, which have been accessed repeatedly over the course of the last 10 years.

The recent publication of the Beaker People Project (Parker Pearson et al. 2019) and Olalde et al.’s (2018) study of genetic shifts in the Early Bronze Age demonstrates the exceptional value of the Museum’s collection of human remains from this period, despite its small size relative to collections of grave goods. The Beaker People Project sampled ten individuals, including two from the Late Neolithic, for radiocarbon dating and Strontium, Oxygen, Carbon, Nitrogen and Sulphur isotopic analysis, as well as undertaking an osteological review of the remains. In addition to identifying non-local individuals, such skeleton 7 from Wilsford G54, the large corpus of new radiocarbon dates allowed for a reassessment of the dating of beakers in Britain, arguing that funerary depositions of the vessels had largely ceased by c. 1950 BC, significantly earlier than previously thought. Olalde et al.’s (2018), study sample seven individuals, including one from the Late Neolithic, for ancient DNA analysis. In addition to providing accurate indications of genetic sex (in some cases contrary to previous osteological assessments) these results were part of a much larger pan-European study which was able to identify a major genetic shift at the start of the Bronze Age. Perhaps more excitingly, the data from Olalde et al.’s study has allowed Booth et al. (2021) to reconstruct familial relationships at a local level, highlighting a number of closely related beaker-period individuals buried in the Amesbury area, as well as the two individuals excavated from the Netheravon Flying School.

In addition to these projects, there have also been a number of smaller scale research projects which have examined human remains. Jones et al. (2017) undertook a reassessment of the primary log-coffin burial in Milton Lilbourne G4, including sampling the individual for radiocarbon dating, whilst the probable trumpet of worked human bone from Wilsford G58 has been radiocarbon dated by Booth and Brück (2020), as part of a wider project which has provided further evidence for the curation and manipulation of human remains in the Early Bronze Age. English Heritage (Vincent and May 2010) have undertaken a thorough assessment of the age, sex and condition of all of the human remains from the Stonehenge landscape held in museum collections, although it is unfortunately difficult to link their findings back to the primary museum collections.

Other research projects accessing the Early Bronze Age collections have invariably focused on grave goods. Principally among these has been the Leverhulme-funded project re- examining Early Bronze Age Grave Goods from across Britain (Woodward and Hunter 2011; 2015). Between the two volumes 245 objects from the Wiltshire Museum Collections are discussed, principally examined macroscopically or under low magnification, providing an excellent synthesis of current thought, and updated interpretations of a huge variety of grave good categories. A number of objects discussed by Woodward and Hunter have received subsequent research or discussion: Wallis (2014) convincingly disputes the interpretation of wristguards as being a falconry tool, whilst the gold-studded bush barrow dagger hilts have been a particular focus of research in the past 10 years (Corfield 2012; Standish 2020; Papadimitiou et al. 2021; Figure 4.2-3). This has included analysis of trace lead- isotopes in order to identify a source of the gold, as well as experimental reproduction as part of renewed interest in potential links between Mycenaean Greece and North Western Europe in the Early Bronze Age. There has been continued interest in arguing for an interpretation of the sheet-gold lozenge of Bush Barrow and related artefacts as being in some way a calendar (Maumene 2017), whilst the Chalcolithic gold ‘sun-discs’ have recently been comprehensively reviewed as part of a larger European study (Gerloff 2016).

Objects not discussed by Woodward and Hunter have also been consulted during the review period. Frieman (2014) has examined the two Early Bronze Age flint daggers held in the collections as part of a national survey, whilst there has also been two very distinct takes on the Museum’s collection of miniature funerary vessels. The first, by Jones and Brück (Jones 2012; Brück and Jones 2018) approaches the vessels from an extremely theoretical perspective, discussing how the materiality of the vessels may have been experienced and what this may have meant to those who experienced them. The second, taken by Copper (2017) in their Mphil thesis, is a much more traditional contextual and typological analysis of the vessels. Recently, there has also been a great deal of interest in evidence of metal working amongst grave assemblages, often incorporating use-wear analysis (Boutoille 2019; Tsoraki et al. 2020), and the Museum is currently awaiting the publication of one such large-scale project, Beyond the Three Age System (University of Leicester n.d.) as well as the long-awaited results of Shell’s research into the ‘Shaman’ metal- worker’s burial, first reported over 20 years ago (Shell 2000).

Research projects and publications

Andrews, P., Last, J., Osgood, R., and Stoodley, N. (2019) A Prehistoric burial mound and Anglo- Saxon cemetery at Barrow Clump, Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire, Salisbury: Wessex Archaeology.

Booth, T., Brück, J., Brace, S., and Barnes, I. (2021) Tales from the supplementary information: ancestry change in chalcolithic– Early Bronze Age Britain was gradual with varied kinship organization, Cambridge Archaeological Journal 31, 379-400.

Booth, T., and Brück, J. (2020) Death is not the end: radio-carbon and histo-taphonomic evidence for the curation and excarnation of human remains in Bronze Age Britain, Antiquity 94, 1186-1203.

Boutoille, L. (2019) Cushion stones and company: British and Irish finds of stone metalworking implements from the Bell Beaker period to the Late Bronze Age in Brandherm, D. (Ed.) Aspects of the Bronze Age in the Atlantic Archipelago and Beyond: Proceedings from the Belfast Bronze Age Forum, 910 November 2013. (Archaeologia Atlantica – Monographiae; Vol. 3). Curach Bhán Publications

Brück, J., and Jones, A.M., (2018) Finding objects, making persons: fossils in British Early Bronze Age burials in Harrison-Buck, E., and Hendon, J. (eds.) Relational identities and other-than- human agency in archaeology, University of Colorado Press, pp. 237-262.

Corfield, M. (2012) The decoration of Bronze Age dagger handles with gold studs in Trigg, J.R. (ed) Of things gone but not forgotten: essays in archaeology for Joan Taylor, BAR International series 2434, Oxford: Archaeopress.

Frieman, C.J. (2014) Double Edged Blades: Re- visiting the British (and Irish) Flint Daggers Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 80, 33-65.

Gerloff, S. (2016) Die kupfer- und bronzezeitlichen „Sonnenscheiben“ aus dematlantischen Europa, Die kunde: zeitschrift fur niedersachsische Archaologie 67, 151-220.

Higham, R., and Carey, C. (2019) ‘The Durrington Walls sarsen burial relocated and reconsidered’ WANHM 112, 74-84.

Jones, A.M. (2012) Prehistoric Materialities: Becoming Material in Prehistoric Britain and Ireland, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jones, A., Brunning, R., and McKinley, I. (2017) Barrow (G4), Milton Lilbourne, Wiltshire: new analysis and dating of the log coffin burial, WANHM 110, 123-133.

Maumene, C. (2017) The Bush Barrow and Clandon Barrow Gold Lozenges and the Upton Lovell Golden Button: A Possible Calendrical Interpretation, Culture and Cosmos 21, 31-50.

Olalde, I., Booth, T., Reich, D., and others (2018) The Beaker phenomenon and the genomic transformation of northwest Europe, Nature 555, 190.

Papadimitiou, N., Konstantinidi-Syvridi, E., and Goumas, A. (2021) A demanding gold-working technique attested in Armorican/Wessex and Early Mycenaean funerary contexts, Bulletin de l’association pour la promotion des reserches sur l’age du bronze 19, 26-33.

Parker Pearson, M., Sheridan, A., Jay, M., Chamberlain, A., Richard, M.P., and Evans, J. (2019) The Beaker people: isotopes, mobility and diet in Prehistoric Britain, Oxford: Oxbow.

Standish, C. (2020) Lead isotope analysis of a gold-wire stud from Bush Barrow, Unpublished report: University of Southampton.

Tsoraki, C., Barton, H., Crellin, R.J., Harris, O.J.T. (2020) Making marks meaningful: new materialism and the microwear assemblage, World Archaeology 52, 484-502.

University of Leicester, n.d., Beyond the three age system, https://le.ac.uk/archaeology/research/new- approaches-to-the-material-world/beyond-the- three-age-system [accessed 5/5/2022].

Verkooijen, K.M. (2014) Tears of the Sun: Bronze Age amber spacers from Britain and Europe, Unpublished PhD thesis: University of Exeter.

Wallis, R. (2014) Re-examining stone ‘wrist- guards’ as evidence for falconry in later prehistoric Britain Antiquity 88, 411-424.

Woodward, A., and Hunter, J. (2011) An examination of prehistoric Stone Bracers from Britain, Oxford: Oxbow.

Woodward, A., and Hunter, J. (2015) Ritual in Early Bronze Age Grave Goods, Oxford: Oxbow.

Research priorities

The Early Bronze Age collections are consistently the focus of high-quality research at the highest level, however a number of observations can still be made. A notable feature of the research undertaken into the Museum’s Early Bronze Age collections between 2010 and 2021 is a comparative lack of PhD and Masters-level research; of the 27 projects identified by this project just two were theses: Verkooijen (2014) and Copper (2017). On the whole research has been dominated by established researchers often working as part of large-scale, well-funded research projects, and whilst this is not necessarily a negative point, it is in marked contrast to other periods and raises a question as to why, but also what the Museum can do to encourage wider engagement with these collections amongst post-graduate students.

In terms of priorities and opportunities for future research projects, the most glaring absence in the above body of research is the lack of interest in the ceramics of this period, excepting miniature vessels. The results of the Beaker People Project quite substantially compresses the chronological scheme for Beaker vessels suggested by Needham (2005), and it remains to be seen if this will lead to subsequent projects reviewing the chronology of Collared Urns, or domestic beaker assemblages. Such a project would require a national review, although the Museum’s collections could be incorporated into a pilot or case study. Projects which may finally lead to the publication of the Avebury G44 and Bishops Cannings G61/62a excavations should also be encouraged.

Unfortunately, despite the interesting results of Wilkin’s (2011) literature-based based review of deliberate inclusions of animal remains in Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age graves, it is doubtful that a more detailed research project could be built off of its back. Reflecting the attitudes identified by Banfield (2018) in the Neolithic (see 3.2.1), it is doubtful that a significant proportion of the animal bone assemblages are extant. This lack of interest in the material is reflected in the discrepancy between the descriptions of a probable collection of burnt animal remains deposited under a food vessel at Snail Down in the preliminary report (Thomas and Thomas 1955) and the deposit of “greyish soil” described in the final publication (Thomas 2005: 27). As further recent excavation archives are deposited however, this may be a theme that could be explored.

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