Around 4,000 years ago the Bronze Age came to Britain. This was the crucial period that linked the Stone Age with the Iron Age, and during which it seems new people came in from continental Europe. What did the newcomers bring to these islands?
The beginning of the Bronze Age in Britain can be put around 2,000 BC. Although not certain, it is generally thought that the new bronze tools and weapons identified with this age were brought over from continental Europe. The skulls recovered from burial sites from the Bronze Age are different in shape from Stone Age skulls. This would suggest that new ideas and new blood were brought over from the continent. Stone and bronze can be used together, subject to the availability of both materials. True bronze is a combination of 10% tin and 90% copper. Both materials were readily available in Britain at this time.
Before its entry into Britain, the Bronze Age was in full swing in Europe.The island of Crete (Minoan civilization) was centre for the expansion of the bronze trade to Europe. The Mycenaeans created the finest bronze weapons and around 1,400 BC, became the major power in the Aegean Sea.
The Beaker people
It is widely thought, although not certain, that bronze was first brought over to Britain by the Bell Beaker folk. They were so named because of their distinctive bell-shaped pottery drinking vessels. They probably came up through the south-west coast of Britain, which at the time had rich deposits of copper and tin.
The Bell Beaker folk readily mixed with any new culture they encountered, including the Neolithic farmers they found in Britain, and Bell beakers have been found in megalithic tombs, with the henge temples of the Neolithics.
They improved the existing temple at Stonehenge, which is proof that they got on well with the original inhabitants, and at Avebury they made another great henge monument. This is a large circular ditch and bank, and within it was a ring of standing stones – although these have now gone. Nearby, at Silbury Hill, stands the largest man-made mound in prehistoric Britain, again thought to have been made by the Beaker people. No burial has been found inside it.
The emergence of the Beaker people in Britain gave rise to what is now termed the Wessex Culture. This is the name given to a number of very rich grave goods under round barrows in southern Britain. The grave goods include well made stone battle axes, metal daggers with elaborately decorated hilts, and precious ornaments of gold and amber – these are some of the loveliest prehistoric objects ever to be found in Britain. Among the golden cups found in the graves, some were found that were so like those of the Mycenae that they are used as examples to prove the existence of trade between Wessex and Greece.
Later Bronze Age
Textile production had also got under way by this time. Women would wear long woollen skirts and short tunics. The men wore knee-length wrap-around skirts, or kilt-like woollens, as well as tunics, cloaks and even one-piece garments. They were also clean-shaven, long-haired and wore round woollen hats.
The standard farming household consisted of two houses, a main living house and an out-house for cooking and textile production. The dead were cremated, and buried in small cemeteries behind each settlement. The large burial sites of the early Bronze Age were a thing of the past, as the land was now needed for agriculture.
The late Bronze Age was also signatured by advanced pottery-making techniques, and more sophisticated weapon-making. The Iron Age that followed it did not happen suddenly, but is thought to have started in Britain around 650 BC and finished around AD 43. Again, the knowledge of iron-making was brought to Britain by Europeans, who had already started to build the first blast furnaces.
To sum up, the period of Bronze Age man lasted for almost 1,500 years, a time that took the giant step from the Stone Age to the Iron Age.
From the published paper “Cornwall in the Bronze Age” [CORNISH ARCHAEOLOGY No. 25 (1986), p.96], by Patricia M. Christie we read:
“In national terms, excluding Ireland, Cornwall has a disproportionately high number of
prehistoric gold objects and although no new finds have been made in the past 28 years, some important reassessments have taken place. First, the four lunulae from St Juliot, Harlyn and Gwithian have been discussed by Joan Taylor and are seen to belong to her Irish Province group. The lunulae from St Juliot and Gwithian are classed as Classical (Taylor, 1970, 44 and p111) suggesting that they were actually made in Ireland and imported into Cornwall. Of the two lunulae found together at Harlyn Bay, one is also Classical, but the other belongs to the Provincial class, as do most of the lunulae found outside Ireland itself. These are thought to have been made, as their name implies, outside the main centre of lunula production in Northern Ireland. In the case of the Provincial lunula from Harlyn, it appears that the piece was made by the same craftsman as the ones found in Brittany, though whether by an itinerant Irish or Breton, or indeed Cornish, metalworker is of course unknown.
Secondly, the famous Rillaton gold cup, thought for long to imitate a Bell Beaker, is now
considered to fall chronologically and technologically into the later stage of the earlier Bronze Age, namely Wessex II (Burgess, 1980) and to belong, whatever the ultimate inspiration for its shape, to the series of prestigious handled cups in precious materials from Wessex, Cornwall, Brittany and the Rhineland which have recently been discussed by Ashbee (1979). Since it is once again respectable to consider Britain’s links with the Aegean, in view of the recalibration of radiocarbon dates (Burgess, 1980, 108-9), the Rillaton cup, along with the famous `Pelynt dagger’, constitute the main Cornish examples of possible contact with the Mycenaean world.
A re-examination of the ‘dagger’ from Pelynt — in fact the fragment of a bronze sword
hilt — has been made by Ellen Macnamara (1973, 19-23). While the piece may be accepted as a possible Aegean import, found in the parish of Pelynt, there seems to be some doubt as to when it was imported, and whether it was actually found in a barrow.”
From the published paper “A Note on the Aegean Sword-hilt in Truro Museum” [CORNISH ARCHAEOLOGY No. 12 (1973), p.22], by Ellen Macnamara, we read:
“Dr. Branigan, in an article dealing with some of the possible connections between the Mycenaean world and the British Isles, once suggested that the Pelynt sword fragment might be dated within brackets of c. 1450-1300 B.C., but he has more recently put forward a possible dating between c. 1300-1220 B.C.. Without going into the intricacies of the evidence for the dating of the various classes of the Aegean swords, nor for the chronology of the Mycenaean and Minoan periods at that time, I would like to support Dr. Branigan’s lower dating. A date within the first three-quarters of the thirteenth century B.C. would coincide with an earlier phase of the Mycenaean III B period, during which there was a considerable contact between Greece, along the great corridor of the Adriatic and northwards into central Europe, so that there are several bronze typologies held in common between central Europe, north and Adriatic Italy and the Aegean world.
Yet I would also like to emphasize that the Italian evidence demonstrates that a second route towards the west also existed in Mycenaean times. This route passed Apulia and continued on to Sicily and Sardinia, with some evidence also from west central Italy. The distribution of pottery from the Aegean area, especially as found in the Lipari Islands and Sicily, shows that this route was already well established by Mycenaean III A times: this route appears to have remained in use after the decline of the full Adriatic trade, and to have continued during the twelfth and even into the eleventh century B.C.. As yet, we have no clear evidence that this second trade route directly extended further westwards, though some contemporary contacts between the Mycenaean world and the Iberian peninsula, probably arriving via southern Italy, have recently been proposed and more evidence may still be found. It is not impossible that the Pelynt sword fragment passed westwards from the Aegean by such a route.”
For the first publication on the subject see here
Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Philaretus Homerides