As so often seems to be the way with extraordinary finds, the first signs of the Bronze Age hoard emerged late on a Friday. It was September 2018, and Archaeological Solutions were excavating at Wennington, in the east London Borough of Havering, ahead of major gravel quarrying works. The site lay in a landscape known to be scattered with Late Bronze Age enclosures, and analysis of an aerial photograph taken in 1961 had identified a cropmark hinting at one more addition to this network of closely connected communities. The team little suspected how significant this site would prove to be, however.
The cropmark clue bore fruit: excavation revealed the well-preserved outline of a neatly cut ditch, forming a square c.35m across, with a single entrance to the east. In the centre, post-holes picked out the footprint of what has been interpreted as a large roundhouse, with four larger holes perhaps representing an imposing square porch. Initially, the team’s plan had been to sample half of the enclosure – but, as work progressed, it was clear that this strategy would need to change. While investigating the section of ditch immediately behind the roundhouse, the archaeologists were met with a flash of green – the unmistakeable colour of bronze that has been left in the ground. As object after object emerged from the soil, it was clear that they had found a Bronze Age hoard – and with the working week drawing rapidly to a close (and the sun sinking), it was all hands on deck to carefully remove and record its contents so that they could be kept safe over the weekend. By the time the team left site, they had recovered over 130 bronze artefacts – but this would prove to be only the beginning.
Over the following week, further investigation of the hoard pit revealed three more caches, with each densely packed group arranged carefully around the edge of its base. (As they are thought to have been buried at the same time, it is still considered to be a single hoard in four parts.) There was no sign of any bags or other containers that might have held these objects, but mineralised traces on some of the artefacts suggest that there may have been straw packed around them. Altogether, they represented at least 453 items, weighing 45kg: an astonishing total that makes the Havering finds the largest Bronze Age hoard known from the London area, and the third largest yet found in Britain.
Perhaps it was because of this great weight that the mass of metalwork had been lowered into the pit in four parts. The significance of this assemblage goes beyond its unusual size, however. Hoards tend not to be discovered during formal excavations, but are more commonly chance metal-detectorist finds. The Havering hoard therefore offered a unique opportunity to investigate one such collection in unprecedented detail. The three deposits found in situ were block-lifted for micro-excavation back in the lab, and since then they (and the 131 objects recovered on that first Friday) have been painstakingly conserved by Drakon Conservation and Heritage, before undergoing detailed research that has shed vivid light on the hoard’s components and on the community that committed it to the ground three millennia ago. With the hoard now on display at the Museum of London Docklands (see ‘Further information’ box on p.23), what has been learned?
Context and connections
Today, Wennington is a scattered village of around 300 occupants, located on the edge of Rainham Marshes. Three thousand years earlier, the same spot was covered in marshy woodland, with field systems blanketing the higher ground, overlooking a Thames that was much wider and slower-flowing than it is today. This would have been a tempting place to settle – easy access to the river for transport, communication, and trade; good grazing land; and plentiful natural resources for hunting, fishing, and gathering reeds and other plants. Indeed, archaeological evidence suggests that the Late Bronze Age saw a flowering of activity in the Thames river valley. It was a time of technological transformation, with iron set to eclipse less-hardy bronze as the material of choice for tools and weapons, and this period may also have seen greater social stratification, hinted at by increasing division of the land. This is the context in which the Havering hoard was buried – but what more can we learn from its contents?
The types of artefacts within the hoard suggest that it belongs to the Ewart Park period of metal styles, placing it c.900-800 BC. It is a diverse collection of tools, weapons, metalworking materials, and other items reflecting a community who were skilled at working the environment around them – and, intriguingly, the vast majority (87%) of its contents are broken fragments, with no two pieces coming from the same object. Tools are most common, making up 42% of the hoard; they were mainly used for woodworking – with gouges (a kind of chisel with a curved blade), awls (for drilling), and chisels – while the 168 complete and fragmentary axes represent the most-frequent inclusion. There were also implements like sickles that could have been used to harvest reeds or plants. Some of the axes might have had a more violent purpose – weapons were the third-largest category of object (15%), including spearheads, knives, and 40 fragments of swords. Many blades show signs of damage, suggesting that they had not been made specifically for inclusion in the hoard: these were objects that had seen heavy use.
Another major contribution to the hoard, making up 39%, is material associated with metalworking: copper ingots (totalling 23kg, these represent over half the weight of the entire assemblage) and chunks of casting waste. These solidified droplets and puddles of bronze had probably splashed out of moulds when molten metal was being poured, and would have been far too valuable to discard.
There was also a scattering of items giving more personal insights: a double-edged razor, probably used for shaving, represents a wonderfully tactile and intimate trace of a long-vanished individual, while more-decorative artefacts include strap fittings, fragments of four bracelets or armlets, and terret rings (which were normally used in pairs to prevent the reins of a horse-drawn cart or chariot from tangling). While these items offer some clues to the community’s tastes and interests, though, they also illuminate their far-reaching cultural links.
This appears to have been a well-connected society, with trade contacts across Britain and on the Continent. One socketed axe is a distinctive type linked to south Wales, while a bracelet has parallels with an example found on what today is the French–German border. The copper ingots probably came from the Alps; one of the sword fragments is a type from what is today the Czech Republic; and the terret rings are the first such objects to be found in Britain – they are more commonly associated with northern France. Nor are these the only hints of a French connection: some of the hoard objects belong to a category of artefacts known as the Carp’s Tongue Complex. These include fragments of the distinctive swords that give this group its name, socketed axes, and end-winged axes. The complex is traditionally associated with hoards in north-west France, though similar assemblages are increasingly being identified across southern England and Ireland. Far from being isolated in the river valley, it seems that the Havering hoard community was interested in exchanging ideas and objects with people who lived considerable distances from their settlement.
Searching for meaning
Why, then, was the hoard buried? Four possible explanations are explored in the Museum of London Dockland’s exhibition. First, was this mass of mostly broken objects simply a rubbish dump? When metalworking was first introduced to Britain c.2500 BC (brought from the Continent as part of the Beaker cultural phenomenon – see CA 338), it had a transformative effect, and bronze remained a highly valued commodity through the Bronze Age. By the time the Havering hoard was buried c.850 BC, though, the metal was falling out of favour, for reasons that are still not fully understood. It would ultimately be replaced by iron as the go-to material for stronger tools and weapons. Bronze still continued to be used, but in much smaller quantities.
Might the Havering hoard represent someone disposing of a mass of outdated metal that had become surplus to requirements? If this were the case, however, the lack of any matching pieces among its components is odd: why were only individual bits of unwanted objects being discarded? Moreover, the neatly packed and placed arrangements of metal do not speak of unwanted pieces being dumped without care. Alternatively, it could be that while the bronze was no longer wanted, the objects or material still held a certain significance or power, and needed to be disposed of in a particular way.
Perhaps the objects were not unwanted after all: a second theory is that they were a jealously guarded cache of prestigious trading material used to shore up the status of their owner. The Late Bronze Age is thought to have been a period when society became increasingly hierarchical, and the creation of hoards like that found at Wennington might be part of this new landscape of control. Had an individual secured their position by maintaining a monopoly over the local supply of bronze, storing it like a personal vault to which only they had access? The fact that the hoard contained not only objects, but also copper ingots and casting waste, might suggest that it had been gathered because of its material, rather than for any practical purpose – much like the hacksilver hoards of the early medieval period, where precious metal objects were cut up and used as bullion.
Alternatively, might the hoard’s burial have had a religious motivation? The third suggestion put forward in the exhibition is that the hoard might have been some kind of votive offering, returning the bright bronze to the ground. If this is the case, though, it seems odd that the metal was not placed in water, a liminal medium in which so many other prehistoric ‘ritual’ deposits of metal have been found around the United Kingdom – the marshes and the Thames were both conveniently available, after all. There does seem to have been some deeper significance in the spot chosen for the Havering hoard’s burial, however. It is intriguing to see that the possible roundhouse’s porch faces directly towards the enclosure’s entrance, and that the hoard pit lies on the same alignment behind the building, creating a straight line through the roundhouse to the far side of the boundary ditch. These three points form an east–west axis mirroring the movement of the sun through the sky – though, if the enclosure did have some kind of ceremonial function, it also hosted decidedly domestic activity, as attested by the discovery of loomweights and spindlewhorls (tools for weaving and spinning) within its bounds.
The fact that only individual pieces of objects are present might hint at careful selection for a particular reason, while closer analysis of some of the hoard’s components also points towards a more complex story behind its burial. X-ray images of the axeheads and spearheads revealed that, in some cases, smaller objects and fragments of metal (buttons, chunks of ingots, tips of spearheads) had been forced inside their hollow sockets. These had almost certainly been placed there deliberately, as some of the sockets had been struck to distort the metal and seal their enigmatic contents inside (it has proven impossible to pin down the precise number of these small fragments, which is why the hoard’s total is given as ‘at least 453’). What these composite collections mean remains a mystery.
Finally, might the hoard pit have been a storage silo for a travelling craftsman? It is thought that, during the Bronze Age, itinerant metalworkers travelled from settlement to settlement to ply their trade – a highly valued skill that must have seemed almost magical to the unititiated. As demonstrated by the 45kg heft of the Havering hoard, however, metal objects were bulky, heavy, and not easily portable en masse. Could it be that smiths maintained local stashes of material – carefully concealed to prevent theft in their absence – that they could draw on when working in a particular area? The fact that so many of the hoard artefacts were fragmentary might strengthen this theory: perhaps they had been cut up to make them easier to transport, or so that they would fit more easily into crucibles and melt more quickly when it was time to recycle them into new objects.
The presence of ingots and casting waste suggests a link with metalworking, too, though – if the hoard pit did represent an artisan’s store – its owner evidently travelled with his or her tools. Although the Havering assemblage includes plenty of practical implements, none of the equipment associated with smithing – moulds, hammers, crucibles – is present. Moreover, while copper ingots are present in abundance, the other vital ingredient for making bronze, tin, is conspicuous by its absence. In fact, no evidence for metalworking taking place on the site has been identified at all, though this is not unusual. Very few Bronze Age smelting sites are known in Britain, perhaps because the metal was so highly valued during much of this period that every scrap of waste material or debris from the process was gathered up and recycled. If this was a craftsman’s cache, however, we can only speculate about what may have happened during their travels that meant they never returned to use it.
Above all, while the precise purpose of the Havering hoard remains, for now, obscure, what is clear is that it represents a well-connected community: a melting pot of ideas and cultural and commercial influences. As such, it seems only fitting that the converted warehouse that houses the Museum of London Docklands – itself a former focus of far-travelled trade beside the Thames – should be the place where these ideas are being shared once more.
Havering Hoard: a Bronze Age mystery runs at the Museum of London Docklands until 18 April 2021. Entry is included with a free admission ticket to the museum. For more details, see www.museumoflondon.org.uk/museum-london-docklands/whats-on/exhibitions/havering-hoard-bronze-age-mystery.
All images: Museum of London, unless otherwise stated.