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The Broken Hoards of Late Bronze Age Cornwall

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Cornwall has a lot of Late Bronze Age hoards.

I know this because I am currently trying to see them all. Fortunately, the majority are held in the Royal Cornwall Museum in Truro, which I can see from my living room window, making my life a lot easier! These hoards hold particular significance, however, as they follow the typical Late Bronze Age pattern of having been smashed to pieces.

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One of the two hoards from Breage

Until recently, Late Bronze Age hoards in Cornwall followed suit with the rest of South West England: i.e. they were largely confined to antiquarian accounts, having been lost, or melted down for scrap. There are a couple of notable exceptions, but compared to South East England and South Wales, Late Bronze Age hoards have been few and far between.

And this is precisely what makes what’s been happening in Cornwall in the last 20 years so interesting. At least, 8 Late Bronze Age hoards have been recorded since 1998, largely through the PAS scheme, more than doubling the number of hoards previously known from the area. All of these so far can be classed within the Ewart Park phase (c.950-800 BC) – a period when we observe huge numbers of hoards across southern Britain.

I’ll be honest, the majority of the fragments in these Cornish hoards aren’t all that interesting. I wish they were, but they largely consist of several kilos of ingot pieces. And even I can’t make ingots interesting. A hoard from St. Buryan, for instance, contains a broken socketed axe (the same axe that inspired my replicas), a socketed axe cutting edge fragment, a notched flint flake and 9 ingot fragments (weighing a combined 3kg) – enough said! Meanwhile, a hoard from Porthcothan contained only ingots and metallurgical waste.

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The St. Buryan hoard consisting of a broken socketed axe, an axe blade and lots of ingots

Similarly, one of two hoards from St. Erth – let’s call it St. Erth 1 to avoid confusion – contains a winged axe, and 4kg of ingots. Presumably these ingots represent accumulations of raw material, rather than waste; certainly from a purely economic perspective, there’s nothing wrong with the metal.

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Ingot pieces from St. Erth

In traditional nomenclature, these sorts of hoards have been regarded as ‘Founder’s’ hoards – that is deposits/stores of metal for travelling blacksmiths. This theory has never quite sat right with me because if they were stores, intended for retrieval, why were so many never retrieved? While on a fragment-to-fragment basis, ingots aren’t too thrilling, the mass accumulation of them is certainly a fascinating phenomenon. But I digress… back to Cornish hoards!

Other hoards from Cornwall include the second hoard from St. Erth (St. Erth 2), and two hoards from the parish of Breage (Breage 1 and Breage 2). The St. Erth hoards offer a particularly interesting case study as two hoards were metal-detected from the same field at about the same time, along with two pieces of gold. St. Erth 1, as I have already mentioned, consists of an axe and ingots, while St. Erth 2 contains four refitting pieces of a Ewart Park sword (which inspired the replica made with Neil Burridge), fragments of another sword, a socketed gouge and possibly hog’s back knife, as well as 1½kg of ingots and some casting waste.

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A selection of fragments from St. Erth 2

The hog’s back knife fragment in St. Erth 2 signals a potential connection with South East England, as this type of object is typical of the ‘Carp’s Tongue’ hoards in Kent and Essex and north-eastern France. Similarly, the winged axe from St. Erth 1 is a French inspiration, and incredibly rare in South West England – I can count the known examples on one hand. The other fragmentary objects one might consider fairly commonplace for Ewart Park phase hoards.

The gold pieces in the same field in St. Erth are also incomplete – one being completely undiagnostic, while the other is a decorated curved strip folded over several times. Metallurgical analysis has shown this folded piece is consistent with a Late Bronze Age date, but at present lacks any specific parallels. The seemingly deliberate commissioning of whatever this strip once was is interesting as it aligns with a much earlier tradition whereby some gold objects, such as lunula, were folded.

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The two gold fragments from St. Erth

If we turn to the Breage hoards, there’s also weird and wonderful things going on in these. In 2003, two hoards were found about 250m apart on a hilltop occupied by numerous Bronze Age barrows and an Iron Age fort. The first hoard, Breage 1, consisted of a broken socketed axe with fragments of a sword, torc, socketed implement and knife all wedged inside, and deposited surrounded by 12 ingot fragments and various pieces of casting waste. The deliberate decommissioning of axes by plugging their sockets with small fragments is a phenomenon seen, not only across Britain (at last count over sixty examples had been identified!), but also Europe.

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The fragments of object found stuffed inside the socketed axe from Breage

Breage 2, on the other hand, was a slightly smaller accumulation, containing a socketed axe fragment, two sword fragments and 4 ingot fragments. One of the sword fragments, however, represents a Carp’s Tongue type, again emphasising this connection with south-eastern England. It is interesting to consider the significance of depositing multiple hoards in close proximity (i.e. at both St. Erth and Breage) and on hilltops. As has been argued by multiple academics over the last couple of decades, it is likely such locations held significance to the local communities, perhaps as social or political boundaries.

The final hoard I wish to mention here is the St. Michael’s Mount hoard, found in 2009. The hoard consists of c.50 objects that were deposited on the tidal island. This hoard is, in part, important for its landscape context – a deposition on an island that is only accessible at certain times of the year represents a concerted effort – but also for its contents. The hoard includes crushed and broken axes, as well as fragments of sword blades, a decorated sword chape, a two-piece decorated buckle, an incomplete socketed gouge and – yep, you guessed it – lots of ingot fragments.

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This hoard is very stereotypical of a Carp’s Tongue hoard and represents multiple signs of deliberate destruction. Perhaps these pieces were all being broken for the crucible, but there seems to be a deliberate selection to include a series of different objects, representing a range of activities and skillsets.

This is largely true of the other hoards presented here. Objects like axes, gouges, and knives, on the face of it, appear to be practical, functional tools, while swords are quite definitely combat implements. Ingots signify raw material and represent objects not yet produced, though is no sign of any other material one might need for casting and working objects (e.g. crucibles, hammers etc.). And of course almost all of the pieces are broken, if not deliberately, then perhaps accidentally.

There is obviously not space to go into all of these hoards in any great detail (plus, I need to leave something to write about in my thesis!).

But the Cornish hoards are fast becoming my most interesting case studies. The security of the contexts, and thus the ability to accurately interrelate practices, means the practice of hoarding and destruction can be set within a greater scenario of what was happening in Late Bronze Age Cornwall, and indeed Britain.

Notes and Acknowledgements

The majority of the hoards mentioned in this piece are available to look at in more details through the Portable Antiquities Scheme online website and the links to each are provided in text. Furthermore, I have been incredibly fortunate to have support from the local museums and institutions in Cornwall in getting access to most of this hoards and special thanks goes to the Royal Cornwall Museum (and specifically Anna Tyacke), as well as Katie Herbert and the staff at Penlee House Gallery and Museum in Penzance. Finally, I must thank Jim Parry and the National Trust for allowing me to study the St. Michael’s Mount hoard. All photos are taken courtesy of the museums and institutions mentioned here. I seriously recommend getting down to any of these museums to check out the hoards in person if you are ever holidaying in Cornwall!

About Me

DSC03887I’m Matt, 25 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 to keep up to date with my experiments as they happen, be sure to follow me on Twitter (@mgknight24) and like my Facebook page: www.facebook.com/alifeinfragments.

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1 Comment

  1. […] already touched on some of the Cornish material in a previous blog post. The PAS has been a fundamental source for recording Bronze Age hoards from the county in recent […]

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