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What is the Bronze Age anyway?

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When I was applying for my PhD, Alex (my brother) very kindly offered to read over and comment on my proposal – those of you who know Alex will appreciate the value of this gesture as he tends to avoid engaging in things for which he has no interest! He returned the proposal to me a couple of days later and as I flicked through it I saw no marks, no comments, no alterations, nothing to suggest he had even opened the document. Until, that is, I got to the bottom of the final page and there was a single six word sentence:

“You said Bronze Age 27 times.”

And he was absolutely right. Alex has diligently listened to me talk about this subject in earnest since at least 2012, he occasionally reads this blog, and I even believe he has opened the first paper I had published just to see what the fuss was all about. But I bet that to this day, Alex still couldn’t tell me what the Bronze Age actually is. He is not alone in this – the Bronze Age has not been a well-taught topic (though it has now appeared on the primary school curriculum!) – and I am frequently asked questions, which might make prehistorians laugh, but highlight a serious knowledge gap. So below are 3 questions I’m asked more often than not while explaining my PhD and hopefully some straight-forward-no-academic-nonsense answers, which may one day score you an extra point on your local pub quiz!

Question 1: Does the Bronze Age come before or after the Romans?

In my first ever post (ahh memories…) I presented a little timeline of where the Bronze Age sits within the grand scheme of time. And as you can see…

…the Bronze Age comes before the Romans. The Bronze Age is part of the “Three Age System” – an incredibly archaic system that breaks human prehistory down into the Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age, defined by the predominant material of the period. In Britain, metalworking begins around 2500-2200 BC, with societies particularly utilising the sources of copper and tin found within the isles, which are essential ingredients to make bronze. This extends until about 8/700BC when societies discover iron and it magically becomes the Iron Age! None of this, of course means that the materials previously used (e.g. flint, pottery etc.) were abandoned, but simply that the society evolved to incorporate new technology. The Iron Age in Britain ends with the Roman invasion and occupation in AD43.

Question 2: So is this when they were they all living in caves?

There is a secret that Hollywood would like people not to know. And that is that there was never a single moment in the whole of human history where everyone was permanently living in caves. Ever. There are no cave people. Just erase this idea from your mind and bully your friends with your newfound knowledge.

no caves.jpg

Caves do make good shelters, and there is evidence that people occupied caves at various periods, including the Bronze Age, but there are also modern people somewhere in the world living in caves right now. In the Bronze Age, particularly towards the middle and end of the 2nd millennium BC, people were living in farming communities consisting of roundhouses and field systems. These may have begun as seasonally occupied areas, but they increasingly became permanent areas of settlement. Bronze Age individuals were not savage cave people. They farmed animals; they build wooden post structures; they harvested crops; and they worked a huge variety of crafts.

Question 3: Is there much Bronze Age archaeology?

In short… Yes. Just Yes.

SHC boxes.JPG

So Much. In boxes and boxes in museums across the country. My photo courtesy of South West Heritage Trust (Museums Service)

It appears in the most unexpected places in the most varied conditions but we are only able to understand so much about Bronze Age societies because of the volume of archaeology that has been recovered and is still being recovered. We might only find ephemeral marks in the earth indicating the post-hole structures they were living in, or entire settlements where even the wood and organic material is preserved to such an extent that we can see the tool marks involved in construction. Round barrows (burial mounds) litter the landscape, especially in the central southern counties, within which sometimes several skeletons and/or cremations are contained. Inorganic material (e.g. pottery, flintwork, faience) survive remarkably well over the couple of thousand years since they were deposited and I’m able to conduct my PhD purely because of the huge volume of metalwork that was deposited at the time.

Ash Farm.jpg

My photo courtesy of the Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery, Exeter

Why exactly we see so much material deposited in the ground, preserved for archaeologists to discover on an almost daily basis, is up for debate (but I’m pretty glad they did regardless!)

This is not intended to be a patronising blog post. When I’m asked these questions it actually makes me stop and think about what I do already know and, more importantly, what I don’t know, so I’m always thankful for anyone that engages with me long enough to ask these questions. Please keep asking them, please tweet me, message me, and stop me in the street and pester me for answers, else what’s the point in me knowing (or not knowing) them! It seemed apt to ask Alex to read over this post before I published it to get his opinion on whether his knowledge had been improved by this post. He replied with the six word sentence that inspired it in the first place:

“You said ‘Bronze Age’ fourteen times.”

Clearly there’s no helping some people!


1 Comment

  1. Angela Knight says:

    Very entertaining and beautifully explained at the same time! Your brother….. well, what can I say … Classic Alex …brilliant lol x


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I’m Matt, 26 years old, a glutton for academic punishment, a lover of all things Bronze Age, always willing to continue talking even when my friends have lost interest, and never happy unless overwhelming busy. Find out more here and be sure to follow me on Twitter @mgknight24 and Facebook

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