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The British Bronze Age

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The British Bronze Age:

Thesaurus of British Archaeology, L. Adkins 1982.
The prehistory of metallurgy in the British Isles, R.F. Tylecote 1986 / 1990

The Bronze Age is characterised by the first use of copper and bronze. For the British Isles the period used to be divided into: 

  • the Early Bronze Age ( 2300 - 1400 B.C.E.)
  • the Middle Bronze Age ( 1400-1000 B.C.E.) 
  • the Late Bronze Age ( 1000 B.C.E. - 700 B.C.E.). 

But nowadays for the U.K. the Bronze Age has been redefined as:

  • the earlier Bronze Age ( 2300 - 1200 B.C.E.) and 
  • the later Bronze Age ( 1200 - 700 B.C.E.). 

The original three-period structure to which was added a fourth period -a Copper Age- has been made obsolete in overall Irish and British prehistoric metallurgy by the discovery of the fact that tin-bronzes were introduced very early. As elsewhere, it is not surprising to find that C14 dating has pushed back the beginning of the Copper / Bronze Age to dates around 2750 B.C.E..

Although there was probably a pre-beaker metallurgical tradition in Ireland we can certainly discount such a phase in the U.K. There are similarities in axe-typology between Ireland and the continent. There could even have been a putative pre-beaker phase -perhaps the megalith builders- of people who have come from the east or the south (Iberia).

Within the Bronze Age various cultures and metalworking industries have been recognised. The Beaker Culture dates from 2300 B.C.E. or even earlier and is represented by pottery, burials and some settlement.

The Wessex culture dates from 1700 B.C.E. and is represented by burials accompanied by rich grave goods. Since it is only repesenned by these burials, it is not a culture in the strictest sense.

It is contemporary with many sites that have produced food vessels. The Deverel-Rimbury culture dates from 1400 B.C.E. and is mainly represented by burial sites accompanied by Deverel-Rimbury pottery, and some settlement sites. The Bronze Age has also been divided into phases based on evidence from metalwork industries.

Chronology of the Copper and Bronze Ages in the British Isles:
Age Date B.C.E. Period / culture   Metals used Main artifacts
EBA 2700-2100 Early Beaker

 (I:) copper + arsenic flat axes, halberds

      (UK:)copper + tin  
  2100-1900 Late Beaker same knives, (Bush barrow:) tanged spearheads
  1900-1500   (I and UK:) copper + tin  
MBA 1500-1300   copper, tin ("Acton":) palstaves, socketed spearheads (also lead)
  1300-1200     rapiers
  1200-1000 Early Urnfield    
LBA 1000-900 Late Urnfield   socketed axes, palstaves (also lead)
  900-700     leaf-shaped swords ("Ewart")
  700-600 Hallstatt C bronze, iron iron swords

Settlement sites and agricultural economy.

Beaker people have been described as nomadic and pastoral, since very few domestic sites of this period are known -as with all the earlier Bronze Age period- , while there is evidence for the hunting of red deer and collecting of shellfish. A more settled econmy is indicated, however, by finds of grain rubbers, paired postholes which may have been corn-drying racks, and oval settings of postholes and stone packing which may have been huts or enclosures. There hace been finds of bone implements and animal bones which may indicate a settled pastoral economy. Grain impressions (mainly barley) have also been found on some Beaker vessels. Later evidence for settlement in southern Britain is associated with Deverel-Rimbury pottery. The settlements are often enclosed ones consisting of rectlinear banks and ditches surrounding circular huts. Some of these settlements were once considered to be cattle enclosures, since early excavations revealed no trace of internal occupation, although more recent excavations have revealed buildings. They are often associated with Celtic fields and dykes and ditches which continued in use into the iron age. Settlement was preferred in valleys, near rivers, and along coastal plains. Some nucleated or village-like settlements are known in southern England consisting of trackways, huts and enclosures. There is also evidence for extensive field systems in other parts of Britain, although as yet there is little evidence for settlement. Later Bronze Age settlement includes "mini-hillforts", consisting of a large hut site surrounded by a large bank and inner and outer ditches.

There is also growing evidence for pre-Iron Age settlement of hillforts, consisting mainly of palisades and ditches surrounding huts and pits, and there is also evidence for some cave occupation, and for unenclosed settlement sites, associated with Post Deverel-Rimbury tradition pottery. The environment of the earlier Bronze Age was characterised by weather which was warmer and drier than that of today. There was continued clearence of land for agriculture, and cultivation extended onto higher and marginal land. There was an increase in birch and ash trees. In the later Bronze Age there was a detoriation of climate which continued into the iron age, leading to the widespread of blanket bog. Througout the Bronze Age there is evidence for mixed farming. Cattle (Bos longifrons) and sheep / goat bones are found, as well as some horse (probably domesticated as there are finds of horse harness) and pig. Sheep were kept for wool as well as for meat. Arable farming is attested by finds of grain in pits (mainley hulled barley and emmer wheat), and bronze sickles. The hunting of deer was also practised. 


Many bronze implements have been found in rivers and bogs which may have been ritual deposites. The shaft near Stonehenge, Wiltshire, is a pot at least 33m. deep and 2m. in diameter, which contained several items of Bronze Age date. A C14 date of 1380 90 B.C.E. has been obtained by wood from the shaft. The shaft may have had a ritual purpose. Other features which probably had a ritual significance are stone circles, standing stones, henges and carvings on stones. There is much evidence for ritual in the burial practices of the earlier Bronze Age, but virtually nothing is known of the underlying beliefs. 


A.Beaker burials  

Beaker burials are found in Britain dating from 2300 B.C.E. These consisted of single crouched inhumations covered by small bowl barrows accompanied by beakers. Some beaker burials were cremations. A few beakerburials were accompanied by a variety of grave goods such as copper daggers, awls, basket-shaped earrings and discs of gold, barbed and tanged arrowheads and daggers of flint, stone bracers and battle axes, yet or shale conical buttons, etc.

B.Bronze Age burials  

During the Bronze Age, there is an increasing tendency towards single burial, a trend which began in the later neolithic. Many bronze age burials were covered by a round barrow or cairn. There were different types of barrows in use in the British Bronze Age:

  • The bowl barrow is the most common type of round barrow and is a simple round mound, usually with a surrounding ditch and sometimes a bank, found all over Britain.

  • Bermed barrows:

    • A bell barrow has a berm between the mound and the surrounding ditch and occasionally an outer bank.

    • A disc barrow has a small central mound on a wide platform surrounded by a ditch and an outer bank.

  • A saucer barrow has a low mound surrounded by a ditch and outer bank, with no berm.

  • A pond barrow is a circular depression surrounded by an outer bank and can contain cremations, inhumations, and dismembered inhumations, as well as empty pits, and may have had other ritual functions besides burial.

The size of the barrows can vary considerably and does not reflect the wealth of the burial.

The internal structure of barrows varies, but often includes a mound of turf or earth covering a central burial, which was placed either in a pit, or occasionally on the old land surface.

Grave pits were sometimes lined with wood or stone slabs; inhumations and some cremations were sometimes placed on wooden planks, or else in coffins made from hollowed-out tree-trunks with lids. Some hollowed-outcoffins resembled boats. Cremations contained in small wooden boxes are also known.

Wessex culture burials are found from 1700 B.C.E. and stand out because of the richness of a few of the burials. This type of burial is restricted mainly to the Wessex region.

The custom of accompanying burials with grave goods declines from 1400 B.C.E.

Stone Circles

Stone Circles were built from the Later Neolithic period onwards, although the most impressive examples are seen in the earlier bronze age. (Stonehenge: probably from 1700 B.C.E. on)

The copper alloys

Effect of arsenic and tin on the hardness (HV) of copper
  composition (%) as cast work-hardened
A.Pure copper 100 40 120
B.Arsenic copper 2   140
  4   195
  6   185
  8 87 215
C.Tin 2 50 140
  4   165
  6   185
  8   210
  10   230
  15 140 300
  100 5*)  

*)pure metallic tin: 5 hv

Early and Middle British Bronze Age stone mould for a sword and Late Bronze Age clay moulds for spears.
The hilt plate is the bottom part of the stone sword mould.
A metal box supports the clay - sand mixture on the top.
The stone mould must stay open about 0,65 mm to let the gases escape.
The "vents" in the clay spear moulds prevent gas bubbles in the bronze results.
The stone moulds were commonly used in the (British) early and Middle Bronze Age,
the clay moulds were mostly in use during the Late Bronze Age. No prehistoric stone moulds have been found in the Netherlands for so far.

For more information regarding technical specifications of bronze alloys, please refer to: 

1987: The early history of metallurgy in Europe, R.F. Tylecote / all about bronze and iron from all over the world, the smith, trading, smelting, fabrication, moulding, forging, wires, swords 

The Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining  

The Ancient Metallurgy Research Group

Early Metallurgical Sites in Great Britain. Edited by C.R. Blick.

Prehistory Of Metallurgy in the British Isles, The. R.F. Tylecote.

History of Metallurgy, A (2nd Edition). R.F. Tylecote.

More information about the writer / editor