Man, as a race, has long understood boatbuilding and seafaring; he owes his ubiquitousness to the ability to take to the sea and colonise new landmasses. It is postulated that Australia was colonised in this way 40,000-60,000 years ago (McGrail 2003). So the knowledge of seafaring was once known, but was it used in the Bronze Age, and why? Was there a need to reach beyond our shores and interact with a wider world, or was our island nation world enough?

To look at cultural contact in the Bronze Age (nominally 2200-800BC), it is perhaps necessary to start a little further back, to the late Neolithic and inspect the conditions at the very start of the Bronze Age. We had already seen, in the Neolithic, a marked similarity in style in chambered cairns and similar megalithic monuments along the Atlantic coast of France, and down the West coast of Britain. The spread of ideas would not be a new phenomenon. Stone axes, too, made their way from various ‘axe factories’ to destinations all over Europe.

It is reasonable then to assume that contact continued with our continental brethren, and that communications and trade, whether of ideas or material goods, persisted and became ingrained in society. To look for confirmation of this assumption, we will consider the archaeological evidence available for the movement of people, ideas and objects.

The Beaker Phenomenon – People and Practices

The earliest Beaker pottery found so far is from Iberia, but examples of this pottery, in similar form and in seemingly similar contexts are found across continental Europe. From Europe, Beaker pottery and the beginnings of copper metallurgy found their way North to Britain. Whether this was due to an invasion of ‘Beaker Folk’ or just the knowledge and ideas spreading, there is no definite answer. The reality is probably a little of both (Brodie 1997): communication and trade brought people into contact with other people, but also it would be possible to imagine overcrowding or pressure on resources causing a band of people to seek their fortunes elsewhere. The rapid spread of Beakers throughout Europe and thence to Britain is considered evidence for the continuation of networks of trade and exchange dating back to the Neolithic and perhaps beyond (Cunliffe, 2001, 215).

Beaker pottery is found amongst some of the most richly-furnished graves discovered so far, the most famous example being the Amesbury Archer. Excavated by Wessex Archaeology in 2002, the Archer’s grave contained fragments of 5 beakers (normally individuals are found with one) along with items of gold and beautiful barb-and-tang arrowheads (A. Fitzpatrick 2002). But this wasn’t what was special about the Archer. Strontium analysis on the Archer’s teeth revealed a childhood spent in cooler climes, possibly the Alps. Yet he was buried near Stonehenge. Not far off, the ‘Boscombe Bowmen’ also claimed a non-local childhood (Evans et al. 2006).  A copper dagger found in association with the Archer’s burial site is suspected to have continental origins, based on analysis of the ores that constituted the raw materials (Barber, 2002, 87).

If we accept that the Stonehenge landscape would have had a particular draw on people, and is by no means typical of the rest of Britain, the fact remains that Stonehenge was known about in distant places, and that implies connectedness of some form.

Wessex Culture – Exotic Artifacts

The term was coined by Stuart Piggott (Needham et al. 2010) to describe the feeling that the almost excessively rich burials found in Wessex must have been due to an elite group of Bronze Age warrior types, buried with exotic goods and symbols of power. These goods included exotic amber and faience, bronze weaponry, jets, shale, pendants, pins, sceptres and special types of pot. Elaborately decorated gold items were found, showing evidence of techniques also known to the Mycenaeans (Clark 1966) (although Renfrew seems to disagree about the workmanship being similar (Renfrew 1968)).

More important, for our purposes, was Piggott’s observation of the similarities to what was being found in the Breton Dagger Graves, on the other side of the channel (Woodward 2002). Piggott’s interpretation of this was the invasion of the Wessex chalklands by Breton noble warriors (Barber 2002, 33). Whilst the nobles may have faded away, the connection between Wessex and Armorica may not be so far-fetched. Northern France is only across the Channel, and the means to cross this had long been available.


Archaeological evidence for the means of transport that facilitated these connections has been discovered in the form of the Dover Boat (Cunliffe, 2001, 68), remains of several vessels at North Ferriby, spanning a period of over 1000 years. Whilst there is some discussion about whether the Ferriby vessels were intended for crossing the Humber or the sea, the positioning of site in terms of navigating out of the Humber estuary indicates that more than the river-crossing may have been possible (H. P. Chapman & P. R. Chapman 2005).

Boats may well have been the most efficacious method for transferring goods and people around Britain. Even though the wildwood of the Mesolithic had dwindled during the Neolithic and Bronze Age, Rackham guessing that only 50% remained by the Early Iron Age (Rackham 2000, 72), travel overland would probably have been problematic and dangerous. Travel by water may have been a far simpler proposition. Once mastery of the inshore waters had been achieved, trade and exploration further afield would surely follow.

Raw Materials

We have already seen how objects from continental Europe have been found in British contexts, but we now need to consider the idea that materials may have travelled from their original source to be used elsewhere.

Tin is an essential component of the alloy of copper that gives the Bronze Age its name, so it is reasonable to assume that it would be required in considerable quantities, to manufacture the sheer number of bronzes that have been found so far.  Tin is uncommon, and the most well-known source is Southwest Britain. A map attributed to Hecataeus of Miletus, from around 500BC, shows the ‘Tin Islands’ to the North of continental Europe (Cunliffe 2001, 3).

Proving that southwest Britain was an important source of tin, based on evidence of mining, has been problematic, owing to little evidence for the exploitation of Cornish tin workings in prehistory (Barber 2002,100). Barber suggests that part of the reason for this is that, as in the Neolithic ‘axe factories’ the effort of sourcing the raw materials may be of significance and the sources non-obvious when compared to modern workings.

Such selection of obscure mines or other workings, not obvious to the modern mind, may make isolating a source for the ores difficult without locating these sources to compare data with the finished artefact. When it is then considered that ores may be mixed and contaminated, proving without doubt where the ore originated is problematic (Knapp 2000). This makes it difficult to establish exactly how far an artefact may be from the raw materials that went into it.

Bronze may also have travelled as a raw material, having been melted down for recycling. Bradley suggests that perhaps when objects moved outside their ‘normal’ locus of circulation, they ceased to be considered as objects and became a commodity (Bradley 1985).

The amber beads, of the sort found in well-furnished burials, were probably manufactured in Britain, from amber sourced from the Baltic, and then some of the beads found their way into shaft graves in Mycenae (Bradley 2007,156). Not only was Britain importing the raw material, but also exporting goods made from it. It is probably not wise to think of exports in the modern capitalist sense of the word; objects as physical items may be open to different interpretations, and the means by which they become parted from their place of manufacture may be more complex than the word export implies.

Objects and exchange

Barry Cunliffe describes Bronze Age society as hierarchical and explains the richly-furnished graves as the accumulation of wealth by Elites in society (Cunliffe 2008:226); The rich and exotic objects testifying to the power and importance of the individual. Joanna Brück does not see a need for exchanged objects to have hierarchical significance in determining status of the individual they are buried with. Rather than a display of pure status, they are a mark of connection to another: the object is more than a physical construct, representing and bringing forth the memory of the person who gave the gift (Brück 2006). In this way, subtle influence could be achieved over another, but none in the modern sense of a bribe. It was not the monetary value of the gift that was important, but the part of themselves that had been bestowed as part of the physical artefact.

It is important to remember that the presence of Baltic amber in a Wessex grave does not mean that the burial is of a person who personally visited the area, or that they knew someone who had. The connection is probably far more distant and the chain of exchange more lengthy (Harding et al. 1974).

One of the furthest-travelled objects found so far, is the bronze strumenti con immanicatura a cannone found in Salcombe in 2004 (Needham & Giardino 2008). It is of a class of item known only in Bronze Age Sicily, and is therefore reasonable to assume, has travelled a considerable distance to reach its final resting place. In itself, this is perhaps of little significance except to demonstrate the distances that objects could travel. Unfortunately, the individual stages of its journey are archaeologically invisible.

Whatever the mechanism for the arrival of exotic objects on our shores, it is clear not only from the evidence dating explicitly from the Bronze Age date range, but from the periods before and after the Bronze Age, that trade and contact was an important part of the development of prehistoric society.


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Bradley, R., 1985. Exchange and Social Distance–The Structure of Bronze Artefact Distributions. Man, 20(4), p.692–704. Available at:

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Woodward, A., 2002. British Barrows: A Matter of Life and Death New Ed., The History Press LTD.

Written on May 11th, 2011 , Essays

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