Sherds: East meets West

A study carried out by geneticists in 2009 discovered that 30% of the 500 people who volunteered to provide a DNA sample on the Isle of Anglesey, in north east Wales, carried a gene segment common in the eastern Mediterranean but rare in the rest of the UK, where it is present in just 1% of the population. The Sheffield University team who carried out the study, led by Andy Grierson and Robert Johnston, concluded that this was the legacy of Bronze Age migrants who came to this part of Wales 4,000 years ago through the connections built up by the copper trade. There are mines of the period at both Parys Mountain on Anglesey, and on Great Orme, Llandudno, site of one of the biggest mining enterprises in Europe during the period from c. 1600 to 1400 BC (CWA 100).

Evidence has now emerged of long-distance metal trading at the other end of the chain. In a paper published in June 2019 in the scientific journal PLOS One, the authors reported on their analysis of 27 tin ingots from prehistoric sites bordering the eastern Mediterranean. The specific ratios of tin and lead isotopes and trace elements enabled the authors to identify mines in Devon and Cornwall as the source, particularly the Carnmenellis area between Redruth and Helston.

The ingots came from shipwreck sites off the coasts of Mochlos, Crete, and Uluburun, Turkey, and from three locations off Haifa, Israel, including the drowned village located about 200m from the coast of Kfar Samir that has yielded ancient evidence of olive oil production and some of the oldest wooden artefacts in the world.

The ingots date from about the 13th and 12th centuries BC, and their British origin provides direct evidence for the complex and far-reaching trade routes of the Bronze Age, which were probably used for a range of other highly valued raw materials, including silver, gold, polished stone, glass, amber, and ivory.

Celtic from the West

The finding also supports the ideas published in a series of volumes called Celtic from the West, edited by Barry Cunliffe and John Koch, in which specialists in archaeology, genetics, language, and literature argue for a chain of coastal and riverine trading ports linking northern Europe and the Mediterranean that were used by traders and prospectors to undertake a series of short journeys from place to place rather than longer and more demanding sea journeys. From inscription evidence it has been deduced that traders from different backgrounds developed a lingua franca to communicate with each other, and that this is the origin of the Celtic languages spoken in the ‘Celtic fringes’ to this day.

This Celtic Atlantic Bronze Age theory represents a major departure from the long-established, but increasingly problematical, scenario in which the ancient Celtic language was said to have originated in the Iron Age of central Europe, and is closely bound up with Hallstatt and La Tène material culture. Celtic speakers were then driven to the western fringes of Europe by the expanding Roman Empire. Numerous studies have now been published supporting the idea that ancient Celtic had an earlier starting point, rooted in the Bronze Age metal trade of the Atlantic seaways.

Angevin-era heavy metal

With industry comes air pollution, and just how early and how far reaching that pollution can be is indicated by a recent study in which the authors have matched the lead traces in an ice core from a Swiss glacier with English taxation records recording lead production in England’s Peak District between 1170 and 1216.

The research team used ultra-high precision laser technology to analyse the contents of an 800-year-old section of ice, part of a 72m-long ice core that was bored out of the Colle Gnifetti glacier in the Monte Rosa Massif on the Swiss-Italian border in 2013. The ice core is the subject of collaborative project involving climate change scientists, historians, and archaeologists from the universities of Nottingham, Maine, and Harvard.

Described as ‘super-compacted and made up of invisible layers containing chemical elements that form an annual chemical fingerprint, analogous to an annual tree ring’, the ice core has been found to contain elements that were deposited by winds carrying dust and pollution from Britain. The fluctuations in annual lead levels reaching the Alps between 1170 and 1216 exactly maps the calendar of historical events that occurred during the Angevin period – from the death of Thomas Becket to Magna Carta.

The study is being hailed as the first in the world to demonstrate the environmental impact of a medieval macro-economy on an annual basis, with over 100 measurements of lead pollution between 1170 and 1220. Christopher Loveluck, from the University of Nottingham’s Department of Classics and Archaeology, said: ‘the correlation between lead production in Britain and the ice core deposits is astonishing. We see direct associations between production levels and the workings of government at the time’. Lead production fell during times of war and rebellion and in the intervals between the reigns of Henry II, Richard the Lionheart, and John; it then rose again during more stable times, when lead was mined in the Peak District and Pennines for use in coinage, roofing, water pipes, and paint.

The analysis, published in the journal Antiquity, also shows that the atmospheric pollution did not start with the 19th-century Industrial Revolution: the 12th century had the same degree of lead pollution as 1890, when levels increased rapidly through its use as a petrol additive. The next big project for the research team is to study short- and longer-term climate events so as to paint a detailed picture of weather patterns over the last 2,000 years.

George III’s military maps

George III (born 1738; ruled 1760–1820) never left England and never fought a battle in person, but he took a close interest in the wars fought on his behalf, following the progress of the American War of Independence (1775–83) and the steady erosion of his hold on the American colonies through a series of maps. Measuring more than 2m in width, these were hung on purpose-made mahogany stands in the monarch’s library at Buckingham House, now Buckingham Palace. His map of the final British defeat at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781 is the only known copy to survive outside the USA. An annotation by the American mapmaker poignantly records: ‘the Field where the British laid down their Arms’.

To mark the 200th anniversary of the king’s death, his military map collection has been published online (, including more than 4,000 sketches of sieges, battles, and marches, depictions of uniforms, fortification plans, and prints illustrated with vignettes that provide a glimpse of life for the ordinary soldier: butchers, breadmakers, and tented taverns are shown, as well as latrines and baggage trains. A map of the Siege of La Rochelle during the Huguenot Rebellions of 1627–29 shows a group of soldiers drinking in a tented tavern, with one turning from the table to be violently sick.

The latter is part of a collection of 500 military prints that George III acquired in 1762 from the collection of the Italian art patron Cassiano dal Pozzo. These provide an insight into the many wars being fought across Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. A rare engraving of the Siege of Malta in 1565 shows the chaotic scenes as the Fort of St Elmo was overrun by the besieging Turkish forces, resulting in the death of 1,300 Christian knights, captains, and soldiers.

The king also acquired a major collection of military maps and plans from his uncle, William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, who led British and allied armies on the Continent during the War of the Austrian Succession (1740–48) and against the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745–46 at home. The first map known to have been commissioned by Cumberland depicts the Battle of Dettingen of 1743, the last occasion on which a British monarch – George II – went into battle at the head of his troops.

George III also played a key role in the foundation of the Ordnance Survey. In 1766, the Scottish military engineer Captain William Roy wrote to him proposing a national survey of Britain, based on his map and survey experience during the Seven Years War (1756–63). The letter, which survives in the Royal Archives, is regarded as the founding document of the Ordnance Survey. The king visited Hounslow Heath in 1784 to watch as the preliminary setting out of a baseline was undertaken, and in 1791 he paid for the construction of the Ramsden theodolite, the most accurate surveying instrument of its day.