European Bronze Age Gold in the British Museum

Alessia Murgia, Martina Melkonian and Benjamin W. Roberts

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Guide to the Objects in the Museum

Objects in the Collection from Britain and Ireland:
Chalcolithic/Early Bronze Age (c. 2500 BC–1500 BC)

Bronze Age Gold Lunula

lunula; Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age; 2400BC-2000BC; Mangerton. British Museum 1871,0401.1

 

Primary Bell Beaker gold work (c. 2500 BC – 2000 BC)

Bronze Age Gold wrist-guard

wrist-guard; Early Bronze Age; 2280BC -2030 BC; Barnack. British Museum 1975,0901.3

1.1 Stud caps on stone wristguards

The use of simple plain gold studs set into the stone wristguards or ‘bracers’ in the Chalcolithic Beaker burial rite accompanying the crouched inhumation. This distinctive burial practice occurred in Britain from c. 2500 BC having been adopted from continental Europe. The use of gold was presumably to enhance the polished stone surface. The bracer represents one of the earliest combinations of gold with another material in the material culture of prehistoric Britain.

Two stone wristguards decorated with gold studs are part of the British Museum collection.

References: Woodward et al. 2011.

 

1.2 Basket-shaped ornaments

Ornaments, whose function is unknown but are considered to have been either earrings or hair ornaments, made of a flat oval plate curved longitudinally with a hook projecting from the centre of one side. They are decorated with rows of lightly punched dots (pointillé) between embossed lines.

Three basket-shaped ornaments are preserved in the British Museum collection.

References: Sherratt 1986; O’Connor 2004; Needham 2011.

Bronze Age Gold disc

disc; Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age; 2500BC-2000BC; Kilmuckridge. British Museum 1849,0301.31

 

Bell Beaker tradition (c. 2400–2000 BC)

Bronze Age Gold lunula

lunula; Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age; 2400BC-2000BC; Ireland. British Museum 1845,0122.1

1.4 Lunulae

Neck ornaments made from a flat sheet gold crescent with quadrangular or oval terminals. Their finely incised and complex geometric patterns can be related to Beaker pottery. This suggests a chronological range that overlaps the primary Bell Beaker gold work and is contemporary with early to middle stage Beaker pottery (Taylor 1970; Eogan 1994, 30–7; Needham 2000; Cahill 2005b).

Lunulae have been divided by Taylor (1970, 190, 25–41) into three groups based on decoration, shape and distribution:

 

1.4.1 The classical group is defined by the widest and thinnest sheet and a rich and complex, symmetrical and geometric decoration. There are 38 surviving examples of classical lunulae, 5 from Ireland and 1 from England which are all part of the British Museum collection. These include 2 of the finest lunulae of the surviving corpus from near Blessington, Co. Wicklow and Mangerton, Co. Kerry.

 

1.4.2 The unaccomplished group are narrower, thicker and less skilfully decorated than the classical group. The term was employed by Taylor (1970) to denote the inferior craftsmanship involved in their manufacture. There are 39 surviving unaccomplished lunulae, all of which are from Ireland, with 4 preserved in the British Museum.

 

1.4.3 The provincial group is made of a thicker sheet of gold and they are commonly decorated with deeply incised lines and dots. Fifteen examples of this group are known, but only one provincial lunula (from Wales) is part of the British Museum collection.

References: Taylor 1970; Eogan 1994; Needham 2000; Cahill 2005a.

Bronze Age Gold strip ornament

strip; ornament; Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age; 2500BC-2000BC; Braithwaite. British Museum 2005,0902.1

1.5 Strips; ornaments

Ornaments made from a long strip of sheet gold that is broadest in the middle and tapers to the ends. One is decorated with punched dots. They have only been recently identified and are dated on the basis of sheet-working technology in the absence of any reliable contexts. The dating to the Bronze Age has to remain tentative as potential parallels for the Braithwaite ornament have been found in Scotland and Ireland which can be dated to the 11–12th century AD. Two strip ornaments are in the British Museum collection.

References: Ó Floinn 1983; Treasure Annual Report 2001, 14, n. 1; Treasure Annual Report 2005/6, 16, n. 1.

 

Earlier phase of the Early Bronze Age (c. 2200–1900 BC)

Bronze Age Gold armlet

armlet; Early Bronze Age; 2100BC-1900BC; Lockington-Hemington Cemetery. British Museum 1996,0901.2

1.6 Cylindrical armlets

The two cylindrical armlets from Lockington are made from a band sheet metal decorated by embossed ribs and, in one case, by rows of pointillé.

References: Hughes 2000; Needham 2000.

 

Later phase of the Early Bronze Age (c. 1900–1500 BC)

 

1.7 Concave discs

Two concave gold discs from Lake, Wiltshire, made from a very thin foil of gold. They are decorated in the centre with a concave circle. A pattern of triangles is finely incised along the circumference of the discs, in the outer circumference of the concave circle and along the rim of the gold discs.

 

1.8 Small discs

Two small gold discs from Lake, Wiltshire, made from a very thin foil of gold.

Bronze Age Gold ringlemere cup

The Ringlemere Cup; cup; Early Bronze Age; 1700BC-1500BC; Ringlemere Farm. British Museum 2003,0501.1

1.9 Cup

The cup from Ringlemere was made from a single piece of metal beaten over a former to create sinuous corrugation and decorated with rows of pointillé. The corrugated profile adds strength to the thin sheet metal. These are the only two examples of gold cups known from Britain and Ireland – Ringlemere, Kent, and Rillaton, Cornwall (on loan to the British Museum from the Royal Collection), and are dated according to typological parallels and their funerary context (Needham et al. 2006).

References: Smirke 1867; Hawkes 1983; Kinnes 1994; Needham et al. 2006.

Bronze Age Gold cape

cape; Early Bronze Age; 1900BC-1600BC; Mold. British Museum 1927,0406.1

1.10 Mold Gold Cape

The cape from Mold, Flintshire, is one of the finest examples of prehistoric sheet-gold working and is quite unique in form and design. It is made from a single sheet of beaten gold, with raised decoration of ridges, which separates rows of dots, rectangles and lozenges. It is probably derived from or inspired by multi-stranded bead necklaces. It has been suggested that several additional fragments of the cape, which are of a different design, were part of an earlier cape (Needham 2000; 2012).

References: Powell 1953; Needham 2000; Needham 2012.