Unpicking a Bronze Age enigma
Two years ago, London’s largest Bronze Age hoard was discovered on the eastern fringe of the city. It is now on display at the Museum of London Docklands. What do its contents tell us about life in the Thames river valley 3,000 years ago? Carly Hilts visited the exhibition to find out.
As so often seems to be the way with extraordinary finds, the first signs of the Bronze Age hoard emerged late on a Friday. It was September 2018, and Archaeological Solutions were excavating at Wennington, in the east London Borough of Havering, ahead of major gravel quarrying works. The site lay in a landscape known to be scattered with Late Bronze Age enclosures, and analysis of an aerial photograph taken in 1961 had identified a cropmark hinting at one more addition to this network of closely connected communities. The team little suspected how significant this site would prove to be, however.
The cropmark clue bore fruit: excavation revealed the well-preserved outline of a neatly cut ditch, forming a square c.35m across, with a single entrance to the east. In the centre, post-holes picked out the footprint of what has been interpreted as a large roundhouse, with four larger holes perhaps representing an imposing square porch. Initially, the team’s plan had been to sample half of the enclosure – but, as work progressed, it was clear that this strategy would need to change. While investigating the section of ditch immediately behind the roundhouse, the archaeologists were met with a flash of green – the unmistakeable colour of bronze that has been left in the ground. As object after object emerged from the soil, it was clear that they had found a Bronze Age hoard – and with the working week drawing rapidly to a close (and the sun sinking), it was all hands on deck to carefully remove and record its contents so that they could be kept safe over the weekend. By the time the team left site, they had recovered over 130 bronze artefacts – but this would prove to be only the beginning.
Over the following week, further investigation of the hoard pit revealed three more caches, with each densely packed group arranged carefully around the edge of its base. (As they are thought to have been buried at the same time, it is still considered to be a single hoard in four parts.) There was no sign of any bags or other containers that might have held these objects, but mineralised traces on some of the artefacts suggest that there may have been straw packed around them. Altogether, they represented at least 453 items, weighing 45kg: an astonishing total that makes the Havering finds the largest Bronze Age hoard known from the London area, and the third largest yet found in Britain.
Perhaps it was because of this great weight that the mass of metalwork had been lowered into the pit in four parts. The significance of this assemblage goes beyond its unusual size, however. Hoards tend not to be discovered during formal excavations, but are more commonly chance metal-detectorist finds. The Havering hoard therefore offered a unique opportunity to investigate one such collection in unprecedented detail. The three deposits found in situ were block-lifted for micro-excavation back in the lab, and since then they (and the 131 objects recovered on that first Friday) have been painstakingly conserved by Drakon Conservation and Heritage, before undergoing detailed research that has shed vivid light on the hoard’s components and on the community that committed it to the ground three millennia ago. With the hoard now on display at the Museum of London Docklands (see ‘Further information’ box below), what has been learned?
CONTEXT AND CONNECTIONS
Today, Wennington is a scattered village of around 300 occupants, located on the edge of Rainham Marshes. Three thousand years earlier, the same spot was covered in marshy woodland, with field systems blanketing the higher ground, overlooking a Thames that was much wider and slower-flowing than it is today. This would have been a tempting place to settle – easy access to the river for transport, communication, and trade; good grazing land; and plentiful natural resources for hunting, fishing, and gathering reeds and other plants. Indeed, archaeological evidence suggests that the Late Bronze Age saw a flowering of activity in the Thames river valley. It was a time of technological transformation, with iron set to eclipse less-hardy bronze as the material of choice for tools and weapons, and this period may also have seen greater social stratification, hinted at by increasing division of the land. This is the context in which the Havering hoard was buried – but what more can we learn from its contents?
The types of artefacts within the hoard suggest that it belongs to the Ewart Park period of metal styles, placing it c.900- 800 BC. It is a diverse collection of tools, weapons, metalworking materials, and other items reflecting a community who were skilled at working the environment around them – and, intriguingly, the vast majority (87%) of its contents are broken fragments, with no two pieces coming from the same object. Tools are most common, making up 42% of the hoard; they were mainly used for woodworking – with gouges (a kind of chisel with a curved blade), awls (for drilling), and chisels – while the 168 complete and fragmentary axes represent the most-frequent inclusion. There were also implements like sickles that could have been used to harvest reeds or plants. Some of the axes might have had a more violent purpose – weapons were the third-largest category of object (15%), including spearheads, knives, and 40 fragments of swords. Many blades show signs of damage, suggesting that they had not been made specifically for inclusion in the hoard: these were objects that had seen heavy use.
Another major contribution to the hoard, making up 39%, is material associated with metalworking: copper ingots (totalling 23kg, these represent over half the weight of the entire assemblage) and chunks of casting waste. These solidified droplets and puddles of bronze had probably splashed out of moulds when molten metal was being poured, and would have been far too valuable to discard.
There was also a scattering of items giving more personal insights: a double-edged razor, probably used for shaving, represents a wonderfully tactile and intimate trace of a long-vanished individual, while more-decorative artefacts include strap fittings, fragments of four bracelets or armlets, and terret rings (which were normally used in pairs to prevent the reins of a horse-drawn cart or chariot from tangling). While these items offer some clues to the community’s tastes and interests, though, they also illuminate their far-reaching cultural links.
This appears to have been a well-connected society, with trade contacts across Britain and on the Continent. One socketed axe is a distinctive type linked to south Wales, while a bracelet has parallels with an example found on what today is the French–German border. The copper ingots probably came from the Alps; one of the sword fragments is a type from what is today the Czech Republic; and the terret rings are the first such objects to be found in Britain – they are more commonly associated with northern France. Nor are these the only hints of a French connection: some of the hoard objects belong to a category of artefacts known as the Carp’s Tongue Complex. These include fragments of the distinctive swords that give this group its name, socketed axes, and end-winged axes. The complex is traditionally associated with hoards in north-west France, though similar assemblages are increasingly being identified across southern England and Ireland. Far from being isolated in the river valley, it seems that the Havering hoard community was interested in exchanging ideas and objects with people who lived considerable distances from their settlement.
Havering Hoard: a Bronze Age mystery runs at the Museum of London Docklands until 18 April 2021. Entry is included with a free admission ticket to the museum. For more details, see: www.museumoflondon.org.uk/museum-londondocklands/whats-on/exhibitions/haveringhoard-bronze-age-mystery.