European Bronze Age Gold in the British Museum

Alessia Murgia, Martina Melkonian and Benjamin W. Roberts

Technical analyses on selected objects by Susan La Niece

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This is the first catalogue of Bronze Age gold objects from Britain, Ireland and continental Europe in the British Museum collection (c. 2500–700 BC). With 386 objects as of November 2013, this is the largest collection of Bronze Age gold in the United Kingdom and encompasses virtually all of the main object types, including famous individual pieces such as the Mold Gold Cape, the Ringlemere Cup and the Sintra Collar. This catalogue does not include objects from Greece or Italy as these Bronze Age collections are curated together with the classical collections in the Department of Greece and Rome.

The overwhelming geographical bias of the collection is towards Britain and Ireland where it is largely representative of the entire repertoire of known gold objects in the Bronze Age. The majority of the collection derives from Britain and Ireland, with the minority coming from Atlantic Europe and Hungary. The aim of this catalogue is to highlight the entire collection in the British Museum and make it accessible to the widest possible audience. Existing research regarding object types and goldworking technologies was used where possible, but this was by no means comprehensive. Additional archival, typological and archaeological research was therefore conducted by the authors, as well as technological research undertaken by Susan La Niece and Nigel Meeks. The latter work revealed that there is significant potential for further archaeometallurgical analyses in the future.

It is hoped that this online research catalogue will be of interest to both members of the public and scholars of Bronze Age gold. The success of recent general surveys of gold objects in the British Museum (La Niece 2009) and Bronze Age gold in the National Museum of Ireland (Cahill 1993; 2002) indicates that interest in the history of gold remains strong. In Bronze Age scholarship, gold is still frequently employed to explore issues such as Bronze Age social structure, craft specialization, regional and inter-regional connections as well as funerary and ritual practices. The catalogue will hopefully also assist with the identification of new discoveries. The creation of an online guide to Bronze Age gold in England and Wales (Murgia 2012) on the Portable Antiquities Scheme website represents the natural development of this aim.

This catalogue builds on the substantial legacies of earlier scholars from Britain, Ireland and Atlantic Europe. In the modern era, this begins with E.C.R Armstrong whose Catalogue of Irish Gold Ornaments in the Collection in the Royal Irish Academy published in 1920 remains a landmark publication. The immense contributions of George Eogan on different gold object types in Britain and Ireland over nearly half a century, culminating in The Accomplished Art: Gold and Gold-working in Britain and Ireland during the Bronze Age (Eogan 1994), have been fundamental. This publication complements Joan Taylor’s monograph Bronze Age Goldwork of the British Isles and shorter publications (Taylor 1970; 1980; 1984, 1999a, 1999b, 2005) as well as the numerous papers by Christopher Hawkes (e.g. Hawkes 1932; 1961; 1971; 1981; Hawkes and Clarke 1963), although few date to his time as a curator at the British Museum. In Wales, Hubert Savory published the collection in the National Museum of Wales as well as key papers on new discoveries (Savory 1958; 1977; 1980). Christine Eluère’s Les Ors Préhistoriques (Elèure 1982), Alicia Perea’s Orfebrería Prerromana (Perea 1991) and Volker Pingel’s Die vorgeschichtlichen Goldfunde der Iberischen Halbinsel (Pingel 1992) as well as Prähistorische Goldschätze aus dem Ungarischen Nationalmuseum edited by Tibor Kovács (Kovács 1999) represent similarly indispensible surveys in France, Iberia and Hungary respectively. The catalogues of the national collection in Denmark Guld, Magt og Tro (Jørgensen and Vang Peterson 1998) and of the exhibition Gold und Kult der Bronzezeit (Springer 2003) have also been invaluable.

In recent years, the majority of published scholarship on Bronze Age gold in the United Kingdom and Ireland has been primarily carried out by, or with, museum curators such as Stuart Needham and Gillian Varndell (e.g. Varndell 1997; Needham 2000; Needham et al. 2006; Varndell et al. 2007; Needham 2011; Needham 2012) in the British Museum; Mary Cahill (e.g. Cahill 1993; 1994; 1995; 1998; 2001; 2002; 2005a; 2005b; 2006; 2009) in the National Museum of Ireland; Trevor Cowie (e.g. Cowie 1994; Cowie et al. 2011) in the National Museum of Scotland; and Adam Gwilt at the National Museum of Wales (e.g. Gwilt et al. 2005). The dramatic upsurge in the discovery of Bronze Age gold objects in England and Wales as a result of the Treasure Act (1996), the Portable Antiquities scheme and better relations with metal detectorists has meant that there have been many new acquisitions (Murgia et al. in press).

The scientific analysis of Bronze Age gold to explore the provenance and manufacturing technology of the objects has also seen extensive scholarship (see papers in Morteani and Northover 1995). This ranges from the pan-European compositional analyses by Axel Hartmann (1970; 1979; 1982) and recently Gregor Borg (2010) to the investigation of Atlantic Bronze Age goldsmithing techniques by Barbara Armbruster and collaborators (e.g. Armbruster 1995a; 1995b; 2000; 2010a 2010b; 2011; Armbruster and Louboutin 2004; Armbruster and Perea 2009). In the United Kingdom and Ireland, research by members of the Prehistoric Gold Research Group has led to new compositional and provenance analyses (e.g. Warner 1993; 2004; Chapman et al. 2006; Taylor 1999a; 1999b; 2005; Warner et al. 2009). Further gold provenance research has been stimulated by the discovery of the Nebra disc, Germany, with analyses indicating a source for the gold in Cornwall, southwest England (Ehser et al. 2011). In Oxford, Peter Northover has independently conducted both scientific analyses and typological studies (e.g. Northover 1989; 1995; 2000; Aldhouse-Green and Northover 1994; 1996). The contribution of British Museum scientists in this field has been especially strong due to research led by Susan La Niece, Nigel Meeks and Duncan Hook (e.g. Hook and Needham 1990; Meeks et al. 2008; La Niece and Cartwright 2009). Although several of the objects have been subject to new analyses in order to identify the manufacturing techniques involved, the comprehensive scientific analysis of Bronze Age gold to re-examine production technologies would be a future project in this field.