Bronze Age Britain

Bronze Age Britain is an era 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 period of Iron Age Britain. Being categorised as the Bronze Age, it was marked by the use of copper and then bronze by the prehistoric Britons, who used such metals to fashion tools. Great 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, Silbury Hill and Must Farm. This has been described as a time "when elaborate ceremonial practices emerged among some communities of subsistence agriculturalists of western Europe".[2]

Bronze sheild, 1200-700 BC British Museum cropped
Bronze shield, 1200–700 BC
Burnham Hoard bronze axes
Socketed axes from a hoard
Museum of ScotlandDSCF6306
Swords found in Scotland


Early Bronze Age (EBA), c. 2500–1500 BC

There is no clear consensus on the date for the beginning of the Bronze Age in Great Britain and Ireland. 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] Some archaeologists recognise a British Chalcolithic when copper was used between the 25th and 22nd centuries BC, but others do not because production and use was on a small scale.[6]

Middle Bronze Age (MBA), 1500–1000 BC

Late Bronze Age (LBA), 1000–700 BC

In Ireland the final Dowris phase of the Late Bronze Age appears to decline in about 600 BC, but iron metallurgy does not appear until about 550 BC.


The Beaker culture

Beaker culture
Extent of the Beaker culture

In around 2700 BC, a new pottery style arrived in Great Britain: the Beaker culture. Beaker pottery appears in the Mount Pleasant Phase (2700–2000 BC), along with flat axes and the burial practice 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.

Movement of Europeans 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 new arrivals 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, in the Neolithic era, 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 has been 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 Beaker cultural "package" of goods and behaviour (which eventually spread across most of Western Europe) diffused to Britain's existing inhabitants through trade across tribal boundaries. The former seems incontestable now since a 2017 study showed a major genetic shift in late Neolithic/early Bronze Age Britain, so that more than 90% of Britain's Neolithic gene pool was replaced with the coming of a people genetically similar to the Beaker people of the lower-Rhine area.[7]


British Museum gold thing 501594 fh000035
The Mold Cape is unique among survivals
Brit Mus 17sept 052-crop
The massive bronze Oxborough Dirk is too large to use

Several regions of origin have been postulated for the Beaker culture, notably the Iberian peninsula, the Netherlands and Central Europe.[8] Part of the Beaker culture brought the skill of refining metal to Great Britain. 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 Great 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 to some, 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.

Great 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 the island 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).[9]

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.[10] They were found in association with cereal grain dated to the 12th century BC by carbon dating.

The Wessex culture

The rich Wessex culture developed in southern Great 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

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

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,[11][12][13][14][15][16] but this stands in contrast to the more generally accepted view that Celtic origins lie with the Hallstatt culture.

See also



  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. ^ Miles, The Tale of the Axe, pp. 363, 423, n. 15
  7. ^ Olalde, Iñigo; et al. (2017). "The Beaker Phenomenon And The Genomic Transformation Of Northwest Europe". bioRxiv 135962.
  8. ^ Lemercier (2012) "Interpreting the Beaker phenomenon in Mediterranean France : an Iron Age analogy", p. 131
  9. ^ Hall and Coles, p. 81–88.
  10. ^ Tabor, Richard (2008). Cadbury Castle: The hillfort and landscapes. Stroud: The History Press. pp. 61–69. ISBN 978-0-7524-4715-5.
  11. ^
  12. ^ "O'Donnell Lecture 2008 Appendix" (PDF).
  13. ^ Koch, John (2009). Tartessian: Celtic from the Southwest at the Dawn of History in Acta Palaeohispanica X Palaeohispanica 9 (2009) (PDF). Palaeohispanica. pp. 339–351. ISSN 1578-5386. Retrieved 2010-05-17.
  14. ^ Koch, John. "New research suggests Welsh Celtic roots lie in Spain and Portugal". Retrieved 10 May 2010.
  15. ^ Renfrew, Colin (2010). Cunliffe, Barry; Koch, John T. (eds.). 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. Archived from the original on 2010-06-12. Retrieved 2010-05-26.
  16. ^ 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. 2017.


  • Adkins, Roy; Adkins, Lesley; Leitch, Victoria (2008). The Handbook of British Archaeology (Second ed.). London: Constable.
  • 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.
  • Miles, David (2016). The Tale of the Axe: How the Neolithic Revolution Transformed Britain. London, UK: Thames & Hudson. ISBN 978-0-500-05186-3.
  • Pearson, Michael Parker (2005). Bronze Age Britain (Revised ed.). London: B.T. Batsford. ISBN 0-7134-8849-2.
  • Pollard, Joshua (ed.) (2008). Prehistoric Britain. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 978-1-4051-2546-8.
  • Pryor, Francis (2003). Britain BC. London: Harper. ISBN 978-0-00-712693-4.
  • Tylecote, R. F. (1987). The early history of metallurgy in Europe.

External links

Atlas of Hillforts of Britain and Ireland

The Atlas of Hillforts of Britain and Ireland is an online database of hillforts―fortified settlements built in the Bronze Age and Iron Age―in the British Isles. It was compiled by researchers from the University of Edinburgh, the University of Oxford and University College Cork, led by Ian Ralston and Gary Lock. As of 2017, the atlas has 4,147 entries, which the researchers believe to be all of the extant hillforts in Britain and Ireland. A printed atlas is also planned.The data was collated from existing catalogues of archaeological sites such as the National Monuments Records and county historic environment records. Around 100 volunteers, described as "citizen scientists", also visited sites and contributed information and photographs to the atlas. The researchers noted that despite the conventional name "hillforts", under their definition, many are "not on hills and are not really forts". They included sites that are now only visible through cropmarks.The online atlas is hosted by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, which funded the project, and makes use of Esri's ArcGIS web map application platform. The project also collaborated with Wikimedia UK to make the information in the atlas available to Wikipedia.

Bowl barrow

A bowl barrow is a type of burial mound or tumulus. A barrow is a mound of earth used to cover a tomb. The bowl barrow gets its name from its resemblance to an upturned bowl. Related terms include cairn circle, cairn ring, howe, kerb cairn, tump and rotunda grave.

Celtic field

Celtic field is an old name for traces of early (prehistoric) agricultural field systems found in North-West Europe, i.e. Britain, Ireland, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, France, Sweden, Poland and the Baltic states. The fields themselves are not related to the Celtic culture.The name was given by O.G.S. Crawford. They are sometimes preserved in areas where industrial farming has not been adopted and can date from any time from the Early Bronze Age (c. 1800 BC) until the early medieval period. They can be preserved as earthworks or soil marks.

They are characterised by their proximity to other ancient features such as enclosures, sunken lanes and farmsteads and are divided into a patchwork quilt of square plots rarely more than 2,000 m² in area although larger examples are known (e.g. Dorset and Wiltshire). Their small size (35-50m) implies that each was cultivated by one individual or family.

Lynchets, evidence of early ploughing can often be seen at the upper and lower ends. Large scale Roman agriculture replaced them in lowland Britain and they are more common in less accessible regions such as the West Country.

Collette Hoard

The Collette Hoard was found in fields near Berwick-upon-Tweed, Northumberland, England by metal detectorist John Minns in April 2005. The hoard is named after Collette, the eight-year-old daughter of Minns, rather than the location it was found at, in order to keep the find location secret.The hoard included six gold lock rings, believed to have been hair decorations, as well as bracelets, rings and pins and also six socketed axes which could have been used either for woodworking or as weapons, and the first socketed gouge – a tool which would have been used by craftsmen – to be found in Northumberland.

Cross dyke

A cross dyke or cross-dyke (also referred to as a cross-ridge dyke, covered way, linear ditch, linear earthwork or spur dyke) is a linear earthwork believed to be a prehistoric land boundary that usually measures between 0.2 and 1 kilometre (0.12 and 0.62 mi) in length. A typical cross dyke consists of one or more ditches running in parallel with one or more raised banks. Univallate cross dykes typically have a flat-bottomed ditch while the ditches of multivallate cross dykes possess a V-shaped cross-section. A defining characteristic of a cross dyke is that it cuts across the width of an upland ridge or the neck of an upland spur. Cross dykes generally occur at altitudes over 150 metres (490 ft) above mean sea level.

Deverel–Rimbury culture

The Deverel–Rimbury culture was a name given to an archaeological culture of the British Middle Bronze Age. It is named after two barrow sites in Dorset and dates to between 1600 and 1100 BC.

It is characterised by the incorrectly-named Celtic fields, palisaded cattle enclosures and cremation burials either in urnfield cemeteries or under low, round barrows. Some cremations from this period were also inserted into pre-existing barrows. The people were livestock farmers.

The Deverel–Rimbury ware pottery they produced included distinctive globular vessels with fluted or channelled decoration and scratched lines along with squat, thick-walled bucket urns with cordoned decoration and fingerprint marks on the rims. The fabric is tempered with coarse flint.

The term is now normally only used to refer to the pottery types as modern archaeologists now believe that Deverel–Rimbury does not represent a single culture but numerous disparate societies who shared only certain technologies.

Disc barrow

A disc barrow is a type of tumulus or round barrow, a variety of fancy barrow identified in English Heritage's Monument Class Descriptions.

A disc barrow comprises a circular or oval-shaped flat platform, defined by a continuous earthen bank and inner ditch; sometimes the platform is raised above the surrounding ground level. On the platform there are one or more small mounds covering human burials deposited in cists or grave-pits. It is possible for disc barrows to be confused with a wide-bermed bell barrow; the distinguishing characteristic here is the presence of a platform supporting the small barrow mound and the continuous bank around the outside of the barrow ditch.Disc barrows are a relatively rare kind of Bronze Age burial mound, generally located in the Wessex area of southern England. In common with other contemporary round barrows they are regarded as being the burial monuments of important people; it has been suggested that the Wessex disc barrows were the burial places of important females, although this is based on the analysis of a very small number of cremation deposits and assumptions about the ownership of the main kinds of grave goods recovered.The 18th century antiquarian William Stukeley referred to this type of barrow as a druid barrow, a practice that was continued by Richard Colt Hoare in the early 19th century, even though he did not subscribe to the idea that their creation had any connection with druids.

Dord (instrument)

The dord is a bronze horn native to Ireland, with excavated examples dating back as far as 1000 BC, during the Bronze Age. 104 original dords are known to exist, although replicas have been built since the late 20th century.Though the musical tradition of the dord has been lost, modern performers such as Rolf Harris and Alan Dargin believe it was played in a manner similar to the didgeridoo and apply that technique (including circular breathing and shifts in timbre) accordingly for modern fusion music. The Irish musician Simon O'Dwyer attempts to recreate historically accurate dord.

Ewart Park Phase

The Ewart Park Phase refers to a period of the later Bronze Age Britain.

It is named after a founder's hoard discovered in Ewart Park in Northumberland and is the twelfth in a sequence of industrial stages that cover the period 3000 BC to 600 BC.

The Ewart Park phase dates from 800 to 700 BC, preceded by the Wilburton complex in the south and the Wallington complex and Poldar phase in the north. There are several regional sub groups including the Carp's Tongue complex in the south east, the Llantwit-Stogursey tradition in south Wales, the Broadward complex in the Welsh Marches, the Heathery Burn tradition in the north and the Scottish Duddington, Covesea, and Ballimore traditions. The Irish parallel is the Dowris Phase.

Alloying metal with lead became a common practice during the period and numerous hoards date to this period. In common with the continental Hallstatt culture, horse harnesses and vehicle fittings were developed and links with the late Urnfield Culture and Hallstatt early C are apparent.

Recently, the Ewart Park Phase, and related Atlantic phases, have come to be seen as the probable point of origin of some developments in metalwork, that then spread widely across inland continental Europe. This reverses the previously assumed direction of travel. The types concerned include swords, winged chapes and buckets.

Gold working in the Bronze Age British Isles

Gold working in the Bronze Age British Isles refers to the use of gold to produce ornaments and other prestige items in the British Isles during the Bronze Age, between circa 2500 and c.800 BCE in Britain, and up to about 550 BCE in Ireland. In this period, communities in Britain and Ireland first learned how to work metal, leading to the widespread creation of not only gold but also copper and bronze items as well. Gold artefacts in particular were prestige items used to designate the high status of those individuals who wore, or were buried with them.

Around 1,500 gold objects dating to the Bronze Age survive in collections, around 1000 of them from Ireland and the other 500 from Britain; this is a much smaller number than would have been originally crafted, leading archaeologists to believe that "many thousands of gold objects were made and used" in the Bronze Age British Isles.

Records indicate that Bronze Age gold artefacts had begun to be discovered by the 18th century at the least, although at the time many were melted down or lost. Only with the rise of the antiquarian and then archaeological movements were the antiquity of these items recognised, after which they were more usually preserved in collections.

The archaeologist George Eogan noted that investigation of Bronze Age gold artefacts revealed not only "the work of craftsmen and technicians" from that period but also aided our understanding of "broader aspects of society such as social stratification, trade, commerce and ritual."

Isleham Hoard

The Isleham Hoard is a hoard of more than 6,500 pieces of worked and unworked bronze, dating from the Bronze Age, found in 1959 by William 'Bill' Houghton and his brother, Arthur, at Isleham, near Ely, in the English county of Cambridgeshire.

It is the largest Bronze Age hoard ever discovered in England and one of the finest. It consists in particular of swords, spear-heads, arrows, axes, palstaves, knives, daggers, armour, decorative equipment (in particular for horses) and many fragments of sheet bronze, all dating from the Wilburton-Wallington Phase of the late Bronze Age (about 1000 BCE). The swords show holes where rivets or studs held the wooden hilts in place.

The greater part of these objects have been entrusted to St Edmundsbury Borough Council Heritage Service and some are on display at West Stow Anglo-Saxon Village outside Bury St Edmunds, while other items are held by the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge in Cambridge.

Migdale Hoard

The Migdale Hoard is a priceless collection of early Bronze Age jewellery discovered by workmen blasting a granite knoll behind Bonar Bridge, Scotland, near what is known as "Tulloch Hill" in May 1900.Dating from about 2000BC, the artifacts are in the custody of the National Museums Scotland in Edinburgh. They include a bronze axe head, sets of bronze bangles and anklets, and a series of beautifully carved jet and cannel coal buttons that may well have adorned a Bronze Age jacket, bronze hair ornaments and fragments of an elaborate bronze headdress.

Oxborough Dirk

The Oxborough Dirk is a large ceremonial weapon or dirk from the early bronze age. One of only six such objects across Europe, it was found in a rural part of the county of Norfolk, England in the 1980s and is now part of the British Museum's prehistoric collection.


Penwith (; Cornish: Pennwydh) is an area of Cornwall, England, United Kingdom, located on the peninsula of the same name. It is also the name of a former local government district, whose council was based in Penzance. The area is named after one of the ancient administrative hundreds of Cornwall which derives from two Cornish words, penn meaning 'headland' and wydh meaning 'at the end'.

Natural England have designated the peninsula as national character area 156 and named it West Penwith. It is also known as the Land's End Peninsula.

Prehistoric Wales

Prehistoric Wales in terms of human settlements covers the period from about 230,000 years ago, the date attributed to the earliest human remains found in what is now Wales, to the year AD 48 when the Roman army began a military campaign against one of the Welsh tribes. Traditionally, historians have believed that successive waves of immigrants brought different cultures into the area, largely replacing the previous inhabitants, with the last wave of immigrants being the Celts. However, studies of population genetics now suggest that this may not be true, and that immigration was on a smaller scale.

Ringlemere Cup

The Ringlemere Gold Cup is a Bronze Age vessel found in the Ringlemere barrow near Sandwich in the English county of Kent in 2001.

Sun Horse, Moon Horse

Sun Horse, Moon Horse is a historical novel for children written by Rosemary Sutcliff and published in 1977.It takes place in Bronze Age Britain, telling the tale of a chieftain's son of the Iceni who is caught up in a conflict with the neighboring Attribates, and plays an instrumental part in creating a monumental Hill figure while working to save his tribe.

Timber circle

In archaeology, timber circles are circular arrangements of wooden posts interpreted as being either complexes of freestanding totem poles or as the supports for large circular buildings.

Wessex culture

The Wessex culture is the predominant prehistoric culture of central and southern Britain during the early Bronze Age, originally defined by the British archaeologist Stuart Piggott in 1938. It should not be confused with the later Saxon kingdom of Wessex.

The culture is related to the Hilversum culture of the southern Netherlands, Belgium and northern France, and linked to the northern France armorican tumuli, prototyped with the Middle Rhine group of Beaker culture and commonly subdivided in the consecutive phases Wessex I (2000-1650 BC) and Wessex II (1650-1400). Wessex I is closely associated with the construction and use of the later phases of Stonehenge.

They buried their dead under barrows using inhumation at first but later using cremation and often with rich grave goods. They appear to have had wide ranging trade links with continental Europe, importing amber from the Baltic, jewellery from modern day Germany, gold from Brittany as well as daggers and beads from Mycenaean Greece and vice versa. It has been speculated that river transport allowed Wessex to be the main link to the Severn estuary. The wealth from such trade probably permitted the Wessex people to construct the second and third (megalithic) phases of Stonehenge and also indicates a powerful form of social organisation. Although this stage is responsible for the image people think of when they hear the word Stonehenge, this stage of construction has little to do with the astronomical calculations that can be answered using Stonehenge.

When the term 'Wessex Culture' was first coined, investigations into British prehistory were in their infancy and the unusually rich and well documented burials in the Wessex area loomed large in literature on the Bronze Age. During the twentieth century many more Bronze Age burials were uncovered and opinions about the nature of the early-mid Bronze Age shifted considerably. Since the late 20th century it has become customary to consider 'Wessex Culture' as a limited social stratum rather than a distinct cultural grouping, specifically referring to the hundred or so particularly richly furnished graves in and around Wiltshire. The culture group, however, is named as one of the intrusive Beaker groups that appear in Ireland.

Bronze Age
Bronze Age
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