Bronze Age gold-working toolkit revealed

The team found that some of the modified stone cobbles preserved traces of gold contemporary with their use.

Recent re-examination of grave goods found more than 200 years ago in an unusual early Bronze Age barrow near Upton Lovell, Wiltshire, has revealed that this assemblage could have comprised a goldworker’s ‘toolkit’.

Microwear traces on a polishing stone. IMAGE: figure produced by C Tsoraki; photographs courtesy of Wiltshire Museum, Devizes

When William Cunnington initially excavated the grave, Upton Lovell G2a, in 1801, he found two inhumations under a 10m-wide circular mound. Records are incomplete, but it is believed that the first burial was an individual lying on their back at the bottom of a 1m-deep chalk-cut grave, while the second had been interred above the first in what was described as a ‘sitting posture’, perhaps indicating a crouched burial. The supine individual, considered the primary burial, had a vast array of grave goods, including 40 perforated bone points, nine modified stone cobbles, a stone grooved abrader, a copper-alloy awl, two broken battle-axes, two reworked battle-axes, one complete battle-axe, four polished flint axes, three perforated boars’ tusks, and four flint nodule ‘cups’.

The artefacts were not fully assessed until the 1960s, when Stuart Piggott’s analysis greatly informed his idea of a Bronze Age ‘Wessex Culture’. He identified that some of the polished stones found in the grave had probably been used in metalworking, and suspected that the primary burial may have been that of a shaman or other prestigious person. Recently, however, a team from the University of Leicester (in collaboration with experts from the University of Southampton) have carried out a more in-depth analysis of the grave goods using modern scientific techniques. By using microwear analysis and SEM-EDS (scanning electron microscopy with linked energy dispersive spectra) on the surfaces of the stone and metal artefacts, the team was able to determine how each object was probably used, as well as identify traces of the materials that they had been used on.

Confirming Piggott’s theory, the team found that the modified stone cobbles had been used with a percussive action – either as stationary anvils or hammers – and that some preserved traces of gold contemporary with their use. It also appears that a grooved abrader and polished stone may have been worked in a longitudinal motion to smooth items made of wood and metal, including bronze and gold, while a copper-alloy awl was found to have been used with a compressive force against an unknown material of medium hardness, possibly for producing decoration on gold sheets.

These were not the only items that appear to have been used for goldworking. The team also found that the battle-axes in the assemblage were blunted and appear to have been repurposed as hammers, with the complete battle-axe (found on the buried individual’s chest) containing traces of gold alloy. The polished flint axes may have been used to crush dark red/brown pigments, while the flint nodule ‘cups’ all had signs of light stirring, perhaps from mixing ochres or resins to use for adhering and decorating gold. The team conclude that these stone and copper-alloy tools may have been used to work gold into sheets, decorating it, and applying it to other objects.

The assemblage is currently on display at the Wiltshire Museum in Devizes; full results of the study were recently published in Antiquity: