One of the metaphorical things about archaeology is that archaeologists like to put real things into categories so they can make sense of the past.
Back in the 19th century a Danish ‘archaeologist’, well he was more of an antiquarian really, C. J.Thomsen, hit upon the idea of organising archaeological material to form a more reliable chronology of prehistory. He had noticed that particular material seemed to appear in excavations in a particular order. Thomsen mapped out which kinds of artefacts occurred in combination and which did not. In this way, he discovered that stone tools were found in connection with amber, pottery and glass beads whereas bronze was found with both iron and gold, but silver was only found in connection with iron. He also found that bronze weapons did not occur with iron artefacts – so that each period could be defined by its material. As a result of this he formulated what has become known as the ‘3 age system’. You, of course, are familiar with this as it lies at the heart of how we all now think of prehistory – the Age of Stone, the Age of Bronze and the Age of Iron.
Nowadays we call these the Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age – but this is something of a trap. It relies on a particular type of technology as the defining character of a period in the past. Take the Bronze Age for example. Yes, it is an age where Bronze appears in the archaeological record, so people at that time (from around 2,300 BC) began to use bronze, but more importantly they had the technology and knowledge to make bronze. The technology and knowledge however, were not limited to bronze, but rather they were about metalworking and metallurgy in more general terms. This is best seen in the Age of Bronze with the appearance of other metals – copper and gold.
From the Early Bronze Age there are a number of outstanding examples of gold-working from the British Isles. Of course, all the objects are now in museum collections around the country. The making and use of copper is thought by many archaeologists to predate bronze. The earliest know example found so far was in a famous burial near Stonehenge – the Amesbury Archer. This is the richest burial of its type found in Britain. Among the objects buried with the Archer were 3 copper daggers. The Archer and his artefacts are now in Salisbury Museum and you can read more about this amazing find on their website (http://tinyurl.com/of9ragh).
It is of course gold which really catches our imagination. There are some fine pieces to be seen in museums. In the British Museum there is the Rillaton Cup found by workmen on Bodmin Moor in 1837 (http://tinyurl.com/5b6w65). Much more recently a metal detectorist in North Wales found two gold rings which have been dated to the Bronze Age (http://tinyurl.com/ozsb97l). It looks as if these will be making there way to Wrexham Museum sometime soon.
So,when next you think about ‘The Bronze Age’, be sure to keep an open mind about what it may stand for . . .