4. Problems in identifying metalworking

Traditionally it has been argued that during the Beaker period and the Early Bronze Age, metalworking was an exclusive skill in Britain associated with itinerant metalworkers, which by the later Bronze Age had become a more widespread but uncommon craft specialism (e.g. Childe 1930), although this model has been challenged (see Bray 2016). Needham (2007, 280) describes prehistoric metalworking as a 'holistic metal value system', comprised of traditions of deposition and disposal, traditions of usage and circulation, and metalworking traditions defined 'not only [by] the types cast, but also by the technique and materials employed, the places used for activity, attendant rituals and the relationship of metalworkers to the community'. If a holistic metal value system is to be discerned for the Beaker period and Bronze Age then these social aspects of metalworking are an integral part. However, for all the significant advances in our knowledge of mining, artefact deposition, typology and recycling/reworking, very little is known about who was engaged with metalworking and where metalworking took place.

One challenge in understanding the production and working of copper and bronze in the Beaker period and Bronze Age is the organisation of the metalworking process – socially, temporally and spatially. For example, were mining sites also the places where smelting and casting took place? Were there spatially discrete areas away from mining where smelting was undertaken? Were the miners also the smelters/casters/smiths? Was smelting and casting routinely undertaken in settlement sites? How were areas containing metalworking treated and viewed? Do the locations where metalworking occurred change over time? One problem in addressing these questions is the extremely rare identification of copper ingots prior to the Late Bronze Age Ewart Park hoards (Needham 2007, 261), making it difficult to interpret the distribution and supply of metals and raising the possibility that prior to the Ewart Park phase (c.1000 cal BC) metals were supplied in artefact form for reworking into new artefacts (e.g. Needham et al. 2013).

A further difficulty with identifying areas of metalworking is the lack of metalworking tools found in secure Beaker and Bronze Age contexts. For the earlier part of the period this is likely to be due to a paucity of settlements and the selective deposition of metals in barrows in the Early Bronze Age (Needham 1988). Some metalworking toolkits or tools are found in graves, for example the Amesbury Archer cushion stone and the Early Bronze Age Upton Lovell G2a assemblage (Needham 2011, 113–17), although such kits indicate cold working rather temperature-dependent processes. Bronze Age hoards rarely contain any tools associated with the working of metals, either in bronze, clay or stone (Needham 2007, 279), although stone and clay moulds have been found on settlement sites (e.g. Brown and Medlycott 2013; Evans et al. 2016). It is also probable that some stone tools deposited in barrows were associated with metalworking, but in the absence of non-destructive scientific analyses there is difficulty in identifying which stone tools had been used for metalworking (Carey and Jones forthcoming; Figure 1).

Figure 1
Figure 1: The analysis of a stone tool from the Beaker structure on the Sennen pipeline. With no obvious surface indications that the artefact had been used in metalworking, pXRF analysis of the surface confirmed Sn residues on the stone in high concentrations.

There have been some attempts to tackle the organisation of metalworking in Britain, most notably Rowlands (1976), who plotted the spatial distribution of artefact types from the Middle Bronze Age in southern Britain. Whilst this successfully identified five different metalworking centres (regions) of Middle Bronze Age metalwork, the locations of the workshops could not be discerned. Over 40 years later, our understanding of the social dimensions and locations of metalworking in the Beaker and Bronze Ages of southern England has barely moved forwards. It is time to address the social dimension of metalworking in the British Beaker period and Bronze Age societies, as it has the potential to contribute to wider discussions of society and identity. But how can such questions actually be tackled? There are several lines of enquiry that offer considerable scope for creating data to address these questions. The first is reports on excavations of Middle Bronze Age and Late Bronze Age sites that have produced evidence for metalworking, particularly by synthesis of unpublished/grey literature (e.g. Skowranek 2007) which might provide key evidence for changing trends in metalworking practices. Another direction is the established field of copper/bronze artefact compositional analyses and typologies, which has offered significant insights into technological aspects of bronze production. However, it is also time to consider where such metalworking might have occurred and how it can be detected, particularly deploying developments in archaeological science.


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