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7. Metalworking – the social dimension

If such suppositions as presented are at least partially correct, then identifying what this evidence looks like is going to be challenging. However, the integration of geochemical analyses within excavations of such sites (e.g. Carey et al. 2014) could be a means of defining residues associated with features (e.g. hearths or burnt pits), as well as soil micromorphology of floor sequences and feature fills. Whilst such techniques are relatively costly and might be considered an additional expense, especially within developer-funded excavations, they might provide part of this missing evidence which is not visible at the macroscopic level of excavation. Such approaches have the potential to identify geochemical residues within features which can be used to elucidate function.

With reference to looking for the earliest evidence of metalworking within henges, geochemistry could play a pivotal role, being used to analyse the geochemical composition of fill sequences contained within excavated features associated with heating, to investigate whether this heating was connected to metalworking. Geochemical analysis could also be used more extensively to analyse henge ditch-fill sequences, to look at wider geochemical signatures associated with a monument. Mighall et al. (2002; 2009) demonstrated the ability of Bronze Age airborne geochemical signatures associated with copper and lead mining to be detectable in blanket peat away from the mining sources, and a similar method can be proposed here to look at slight pollution signatures associated with metalworking but on a site/enclosure-wide basis. This approach is currently being utilised on samples from the ditch-fill sequences of Marden Henge and also the recently discovered hengiform site at Damerham, Dorset, on the edge of Cranborne Chase.

Likewise with the excavation of Middle Bronze Age houses, samples can be collected from fill sequences contained within excavated features associated with heating within roundhouses, such as hearths, to investigate whether metals were indeed being worked within such features. In addition, when intact floor surfaces are revealed, samples can be collected on a regular grid plan. Again, geochemical analyses can be utilised to look for pollution signatures associated with metalworking in roundhouses. Such an approach of context-specific geochemical sampling has recently been employed at Holwell, Devon and West Northwood, Cornwall, and proved successful at Tremough, significantly strengthening the interpretation of metalworking within this roundhouse (Jones et al. 2015).

It is necessary to at least speculate where the locations of metalworking were during the Beaker period and Bronze Age if we are to further debates regarding the significance of metals to society in this period, and the status of the individuals involved with the creation/transformation of such materials. By developing new ideas as to where metalworking was occurring, and by testing these hypotheses using archaeological science, it is possible that patterns of metalworking may become apparent. Potentially, are certain enclosures, roundhouses, or particular areas associated with metalworking whilst others are not? Is metalworking in these periods more common than previously thought? Does metalworking occur within ritual arenas or within domestic spheres? How was the process of artefact creation perceived by societies at the time? If roundhouses or enclosures are found to be associated with metalworking, is variation evident in their spatial or architectural morphology? Or is the current sparsity in the archaeological record a true reflection of the organisation of metalworking, and it is indeed very rare to find such evidence? Such questions need addressing if we are to elucidate this social dimension of metalworking. If we can start to gather data to answer at least some of these questions, then the locations and individuals engaged with these processes will start to come into focus; from this ideas regarding the perception of metals and the people engaged with their working can be developed. Given the current level of evidence, developing these models is based more on speculation than engagement with actual data.

However, it is undoubtedly true that mould fragments and casting debris do become more common from the Middle Bronze Age onwards. As Knight (2014) discusses, does this indicate a movement from 'metalworking masters of mystery' in the Beaker period/Early Bronze Age, through to a more common craft activity undertaken on many settlement sites from the Middle Bronze Age onwards? Whilst it is tempting to view the limited evidence in this way, it must also be remembered that there is a shift in the archaeological record between the funerary monuments of the Beaker period/Early Bronze Age to Middle and Late Bronze Age settlements. This shift in the physical nature of the archaeological record changes the depositional contexts within which debris from metalworking can be found, alongside a potential difference in where the artefacts from metalworking were selectively deposited in the past. This creates an undoubted bias in the archaeological record and one that makes it even more difficult to understand changes in the social organisation of metalworking during this period. It is imperative to identify the actual locations (the 'smithies') where the metalworking occurred, rather than looking for the locations of where artefacts and tools used in the metalworking process have been deposited, although it is possible there is overlap between the two. So do the data lead us toward specialist smiths or agricultural handymen producing metals? Is there a mixture of everyday items made in one arena (e.g. settlements), but more elaborate metal items made by specialist workers? Does the social dimension of this production change over time? At present, the data are simply insufficient to draw any conclusions with confidence, with bias from the depositional contexts potentially warping this view even further. However, recent work, particularly in southwest England does allow us to make some tentative observations regarding aspects of the social organisation of metallurgy, as well as its changing character.

Currently the earliest evidence for metalworking in the southwest is associated with traces of tin on stone tools which have been dated to c.2300–2100 cal BC, at Sennen (Jones et al. 2012; Carey and Jones forthcoming). These tools were associated with a very lightly built structure with an external hearth. They were not heavy duty and they are likely to have been used to crush cassiterite pebbles that had eroded out of 'tin grounds' and been collected from streams. Given the temporary nature of the associated structure it is possible that the collection and working of cassiterite was a small-scale, possibly seasonal undertaking, carried out as part of the yearly round. It is likely that tin was highly valued and, as discussed, considered to be a magical substance, the significance of which can be seen in the Early Bronze Age through its inclusion within ritualised contexts, such as the slag found at the barrow Caerloggas I (Miles 1975), and perhaps more especially by the kilos of cassiterite pebbles, granules and ore found in structured pit deposits near Truro (Taylor forthcoming), which have been radiocarbon dated to c.2000–1800 cal BC. Such practices surely represent a conspicuous waste of a highly valued material, and it is possible that this activity represented a 'return to the earth' in order to generate future supplies of cassiterite (Eliade 1962, chapter 3). Once again these actions are unlikely to have been large-scale, and may have been undertaken by a small group away from the settled area.

By contrast, towards the end of the Early Bronze Age there may have been a significant change in the organisation of metalworking which predated the shift to roundhouse settlements. Recent radiocarbon dating of the antler pick found in the Carnon Valley streamwork places it in the period 1600–1400 cal BC (Timberlake and Hartgroves forthcoming). This suggests that the tin grounds were being worked, possibly as a result of exhaustion of readily collectable pebbles. Such a change in tin working must necessarily have involved a shift from small-scale collection to alluvial streaming which would have required more people, and in time would made a large visual (and polluting) transformative impact on the landscape. It is possible that works on this scale would have increasingly involved the resolution of issues of tenure and agreements over access to land between families and communities. It may be no coincidence that this period also saw increasing levels of structured deposition in the form of artefacts being placed into streamworks, a practice which intensified in the Middle Bronze Age and continued throughout the Late Bronze Age and beyond (Penhallurick 1986).

The Middle Bronze Age, as noted above, marks the period when the first workplace associated with actual metalworking has been identified. Metalworking within a settlement is not unexpected, but its containment within the roundhouse at Tremough (Jones et al. 2015) is noteworthy. Although undertaken within the settlement, all the evidence for metalworking was contained inside the building, which might suggest that the 'smith' still wished to keep the metalworking process secret or magical and, given the range of artefacts at Tremough, 'specialist'. Likewise, the deliberate burial of the moulds around the hearth could reflect a desire to establish a particular 'identity' or 'personhood' in a manner analogous to the way past generations marked certain individuals at round barrows. The latter point is emphasised by the Late Bronze Age metalworking debris found at Dainton, which was buried in a pit on the southern edge of a cairn, a position which would often be associated with the burial of human remains (Bradley 2000, 157). Metalworking within Middle Bronze Age and later settlements may therefore have continued to be organised and undertaken by certain people, and it remained a highly ritualised activity, albeit in a transformed manner, until the arrival of iron.


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