Bronze Age Britain

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Bronze shield, 1200-700 BC
Socketed axes from a hoard
Swords found in Scotland

Bronze Age Britain refers to the period of British history that spanned from c. 2500 until c. 800 BC.[1] Lasting for approximately 1,700 years, it was preceded by the era of Neolithic Britain and was in turn followed by the era of Iron Age Britain. Being categorised as a Bronze Age, it was marked by the use of copper and then bronze by the prehistoric Britons, who used such metals to fashion tools. Britain in the Bronze Age also saw the widespread adoption of agriculture.

During the British Bronze Age, large megalithic monuments similar to those from the Late Neolithic continued to be constructed or modified, including such sites as Avebury, Stonehenge and Silbury Hill. This has been described as a time "when elaborate ceremonial practices emerged among some communities of subsistence agriculturalists of western Europe".[2]

History[edit]

Early Bronze Age (EBA), c. 2500-1500 BC[edit]

There is no clear consensus on the date for the beginning of the Bronze Age in Britain. Some sources give a date as late as 2000 BC,[3] while others set 2200 BC as the demarcation between the Neolithic and the Bronze Age.[4] The period from 2500 BC to 2000 BC has been called the "Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age", in recognition of the difficulty of exactly defining this boundary.[5]

Middle Bronze Age (MBA), 1500-1000 BC[edit]

Late Bronze Age (LBA), 1000-700 BC[edit]

Development[edit]

The Beaker culture[edit]

Extent of the Beaker culture

In around 2700 BC a new pottery style arrived in Britain, often referred to as the Beaker culture. Beaker pottery appears in the Mount Pleasant Phase (2700 - 2000 BC), along with flat axes and burial practices of inhumation. People of this period were also largely responsible for building many famous prehistoric sites, such as the later phases of Stonehenge along with Seahenge.

Immigration brought new people to the islands from the continent. Recent tooth enamel isotope research on bodies found in early Bronze Age graves around Stonehenge indicates that at least some of the immigrants came from the area of modern Switzerland. The Beaker culture displayed different behaviours from the earlier Neolithic people and cultural change was significant. Integration is thought to have been peaceful, as many of the early henge sites were seemingly adopted by the newcomers.

Also, the burial of dead (which until this period had usually been communal) became more individual. For example, whereas in the Neolithic a large chambered cairn or long barrow was used to house the dead, the 'Early Bronze Age' saw people buried in individual barrows (also commonly known and marked on modern British Ordnance Survey maps as tumuli) or sometimes in cists covered with cairns. They were often buried with a beaker alongside the body.

There is some debate amongst archaeologists as to whether the 'Beaker people' were a race of people who migrated to Britain en masse from the continent, or whether a prestigious Beaker cultural "package" of goods and behaviours (which eventually spread across most of western Europe) diffused to Britain's existing inhabitants through trade across tribal boundaries. Modern thinking tends towards the latter view. Alternatively, a Beaker elite may have made the migration and come to influence the native population at some level.

Bronze[edit]

The Mold Cape is unique among survivals
The massive bronze Oxborough Dirk is too large to use

Believed to be of Iberian origin (modern day Spain and Portugal), part of the Beaker culture brought to Britain the skill of refining metal. At first they made items from copper, but from around 2150 BC smiths had discovered how to make bronze (which is much harder than copper) by mixing copper with a small amount of tin. With this discovery, the Bronze Age began in Britain. Over the next thousand years, bronze gradually replaced stone as the main material for tool and weapon making.

The bronze axehead, made by casting, was at first similar to its stone predecessors but then developed a socket for the wooden handle to fit into, and a small loop or ring to make lashing the two together easier. Groups of unused axes are often found together, suggesting ritual deposits, though many archaeologists believe that elite groups collected bronze items, perhaps restricting their use among the wider population. Bronze swords of a graceful "leaf" shape, swelling gently from the handle before coming to a tip, have been found in considerable numbers, along with spear heads and arrow points.

Britain had large reserves of tin in the areas of Cornwall and Devon in what is now Southwest England, and thus tin mining began. By around 1600 BC, the Southwest of Britain was experiencing a trade boom as British tin was exported across Europe.

Bronze-age Britons were also skilled at making jewellery from gold, as well as occasional objects like the Rillaton Cup and Mold Cape. Many examples of these have been found in graves of the wealthy Wessex culture of Southern Britain, though they are not as frequent as Irish finds.

The greatest quantities of bronze objects found in what is now England were discovered in East Cambridgeshire, where the most important finds were recovered in Isleham (more than 6500 pieces).[6]

The earliest known metalworking building was found at Sigwells, Somerset, England. Several casting mould fragments were fitted to a Wilburton type sword held in Somerset County Museum.[7] They were found in association with cereal grain dated to the 12th century BC by carbon dating.

The Wessex culture[edit]

The rich Wessex culture developed in Southern Britain at this time. The weather, previously warm and dry, became much wetter as the Bronze Age continued, forcing the population away from easily-defended sites in the hills and into the fertile valleys. Large livestock farms developed in the lowlands which appear to have contributed to economic growth and inspired increasing forest clearances.

The Deverel-Rimbury culture[edit]

The Deverel-Rimbury culture began to emerge in the second half of the 'Middle Bronze Age' (c. 1400-1100 BC) to exploit the wetter conditions. Cornwall was a major source of tin for much of western Europe and copper was extracted from sites such as the Great Orme mine in Northern Wales. Social groups appear to have been tribal but with growing complexity and hierarchies becoming apparent.

Disruption of cultural patterns[edit]

There is evidence of a relatively large scale disruption of cultural patterns which some scholars think may indicate an invasion (or at least a migration) into Southern Great Britain around the 12th century BC. This disruption was felt far beyond Britain, even beyond Europe, as most of the great Near Eastern empires collapsed (or experienced severe difficulties) and the Sea Peoples harried the entire Mediterranean basin around this time. Cremation was adopted as a burial practice, with cemeteries of urns containing cremated individuals appearing in the archaeological record. According to John T. Koch and others, the Celtic languages developed during this Late Bronze Age period in an intensely trading-networked culture called the Atlantic Bronze Age that included Britain, Ireland, France, Spain and Portugal,[8][9][10][11][12][13] but this stands in contrast to the more generally accepted view that Celtic origins lie with the Hallstatt culture.

Bronze Age seafaring[edit]

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Stonehenge Closeup.jpg
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See also[edit]

References[edit]

Notes
Footnotes
  1. ^ Adkins, Adkins and Leitch 2008. p. 64.
  2. ^ Barrett 1994. p. 05.
  3. ^ Bradley, Prehistory of Britain and Ireland, p. 183.
  4. ^ Pollard, "Construction of Prehistoric Britain", in Pollard (ed.), Prehistoric Britain, p. 9.
  5. ^ Prior, Britain BC, p. 226.
  6. ^ Hall and Coles, p. 81–88.
  7. ^ Tabor, Richard (2008). Cadbury Castle: The hillfort and landscapes. Stroud: The History Press. pp. 61–69. ISBN 978-0-7524-4715-5. 
  8. ^ http://www.aber.ac.uk/aberonline/en/archive/2008/05/au7608/
  9. ^ "O'Donnell Lecture 2008 Appendix". 
  10. ^ Koch, John (2009). Tartessian: Celtic from the Southwest at the Dawn of History in Acta Palaeohispanica X Palaeohispanica 9 (2009). Palaeohispanica. pp. 339–351. ISSN 1578-5386. Retrieved 2010-05-17. 
  11. ^ Koch, John. "New research suggests Welsh Celtic roots lie in Spain and Portugal". Retrieved 10 May 2010. 
  12. ^ Cunliffe, Karl, Guerra, McEvoy, Bradley; Oppenheimer, Rrvik, Isaac, Parsons, Koch, Freeman and Wodtko (2010). Celtic from the West: Alternative Perspectives from Archaeology, Genetics, Language and Literature. Oxbow Books and Celtic Studies Publications. p. 384. ISBN 978-1-84217-410-4. 
  13. ^ "Rethinking the Bronze Age and the Arrival of Indo-European in Atlantic Europe". University of Wales Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies and Institute of Archaeology, University of Oxford. Retrieved 24 May 2010. 
Bibliography
  • Barrett, John C. (1994). Fragments from Antiquity: An Archaeology of Social Life in Britain, 2900-1200 BC. Oxford and Cambridge, Massachusetts: Blackwell. 
  • Bradley, Richard (2007). The Prehistory of Britain and Ireland. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-61270-8. 
  • Leitch, Victoria (2008). The Handbook of British Archaeology (Second Edition). London: Constable. 
  • Pearson, Michael Parker (2005). Bronze Age Britain (Revised Edition). London: B.T. Batsford. ISBN 0-7134-8849-2. 
  • Pollard, Joshua (ed.) (2008). Prehistoric Britain. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 978-1-4051-2546-8.
  • Prior, Francis (2003). Britain BC. London: Harper. ISBN 978-0-00-712693-4. 
  • R.F. Tylecote, The early history of metallurgy in Europe (1987) [1]

External links[edit]