The social context of technology: non-ferrous metalworking in later prehistoric northwest Europe

The Bronze Age and Iron Age (c 2000–50 BC) were periods of dramatic change in northwest Europe. More complex societies emerged, and there were important technological developments. In particular, the sophistication and intensity of metalworking increased markedly, in what has been described as Europe’s ‘first industrialisation’.

Metals were clearly significant to later prehistoric societies. Bronze in particular was used not only to make functional tools, but also to elaborate decorated objects such as jewellery, cauldrons or shields that are masterpieces of craftworking. Metalwork could be treated in special or ritualised ways, by being accumulated in large hoards or being placed in rivers or bogs. But who made these objects? Prehistoric smiths have been portrayed both as prosaic craftworkers, and as mystical figures akin to magicians. Some archaeologists have claimed that they were independent ‘entrepreneurs’ who moved from place to place, while others suggest that they were attached to elite patrons, whose control over the production of ‘prestige’ objects was a source of political power. In truth, despite decades of debate little is really known about either the organisation or social role of prehistoric metalworking.

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One half of a two-piece bronze mould for casting bronze axeheads, found at Sutton in Suffolk and dating to the late Bronze Age (c 1150-800 BC). Image from the Portable Antiquities Scheme/the Trustees of the British Museum; reproduced under Creative Commons licence.

This project will be the first to comprehensively explore the social context of non-ferrous metalworking in Britain, Ireland and the near continent during the Bronze and Iron Ages. The focus will be on bronze-working, which dominates the evidence for non-ferrous metallurgy, though the crafting of other metals such as gold, silver, tin and lead will also be considered. The key questions are: what was the social significance of metalworking, and what roles did metalworkers play? How did this vary regionally and change over time?

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The ramparts of the impressive Iron Age hillfort at Maiden Castle, Dorset. Excavated finds of crucibles, casting waste and scrap metal indicate that bronze-working was carried out within the hillfort. Image by Ray Beer; reproduced under Creative Commons licence.

One way in which these issues will be tackled will be to systematically examine the 'find context' of metalworking remains from excavated sites. These remains include tools such as crucibles and moulds, as well as casting waste and slag. The analysis will identify places where metalworking occurred, and explore what the treatment of metalworking material can tell us about the meanings and values ascribed to this craft. Specific themes include:

Did metalworking occur at ordinary or high-status settlements, defended sites, religious sites, or isolated places? Was it restricted to specific parts of these sites, such as boundary locations? This can inform us about the status and role of metalworking, and whether it was subject to social control or taboos. What other practices took place at locations where metalworking was carried out? Was non-ferrous metalworking associated with domestic activities, or other crafts such as ironworking? What does this imply for relationships between craftworkers? Did metalworking, or the disposal of metalworking materials, involve ritual?
What does the use of metalworking tools as grave goods suggest about the identity of craftworkers?

In line with the Trust’s aim of encouraging cross-disciplinary research, the project will help to bridge the gap between scientific studies of ancient metalworking technology and social archaeological approaches to the Bronze and Iron Ages. By addressing the fundamental issue of the relationship between technology and society it will also contribute to wider debates in the humanities and social sciences.

Dr Joanna Brück and Dr Leo Webley
University of Bristol