The voice of archaeology in Britain and beyond

Cover of British Archaeology 101

Issue 101

July / Aug 2008



Early Scottish gardens unturfed

Axes could be 0.5m years old

In the press

Listing lobby was no hot air

Kent Anglo-Saxon cemetery could be royal

Poetry to assist transfer of Hadrian's Wall collection

In Brief & Phase 2


The Copper Age
Special: did Britain have a fourth age?

Portable Antiquities
The Scheme must go on

Drawing Stonehenge
A major fieldwork project is explored by six artists

Severn estuary
Martin Bell describes the unique world of ancient mudflats

Gin Drinker's Line
Insights into WWII Hong Kong defence system

A Professional Mockery
Gary Lock on difficulties in obtaining "grey lierature"

on the web

Recommended websites
Caroline Wickham-Jones explores the realms of archaeological fiction and a look at Barwick-in-Elmet Historical Society's website


your views and responses

CBA correspondent

Campaigns, comment and communications from the CBA
Mike Heyworth says it's time to think big – The CBA at Discover Archaeology LIVE, London Olympia


An exhibition to make you think (and a bog body)

Mick's travels & more travels

Mick Aston goes to Glamorgan in search of monasteries, and Jon Cannon tours south-east Wales

in view

New columnist Greg Bailey probes a coming major TV series – BBC's Bonekickers

my archaeology - NEW!

Neil MacGregor: The accidental archaeologist and new director of the British Museum


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


In the Copper Age

We divide the ancient past into three ages: stone, bronze and iron. But leading archaeologists are saying Britain also had a copper age, between stone and bronze at around 2500–2200BC: Stuart Needham, who opens this major feature, compares it to the Renaissance. What was it, when did it occur and why? British Archaeology canvassed the views of six archaeologists and scientists.

Although British prehistorians recognised long ago that there was a phase of copper metallurgy before bronze, they have seen little cause to define a "chalcolithic" period (or "copper age"). This is at least partly due to the relative brevity of the phase, copper having arrived on our shores late in terms of the pan-European scene (current dating c2450BC), it then being superseded not many centuries later by alloyed bronze (c2150BC).

As prehistoric chronologies have steadily improved, however, it has become more and more apparent that the phase of copper use in Britain was also one of significant cultural overlap between a continuing late neolithic Grooved Ware complex, and a new and radically different one. The latter is of course the early Beaker complex, comprising not only metals but a range of other distinctive equipment and a highly visible treatment of the dead. Contrasting though these two complexes are, for a time they patently coexisted – indeed many sites yield elements of both – and their stories must be integrated in any holistic interpretation. Yet this period is still plagued by terminological ambiguity, being referred to alternatively as part of the late neolithic or early bronze age according to what material is under discussion, a confusion hardly conducive to clear thought: neither does the "Beaker period" help, because of considerable change in artefacts and practices over their long currencies.

My case here is not so much to determine a "chalcolithic" per se, but rather to acknowledge that this part of the later third millennium BC was both distinctive and historically direction-changing. Whatever model one prefers for the introduction of the Beaker "cultural package", once it had entered the fray a whole new cultural dynamic arose – it was much more than a simple internal evolution from the previous late neolithic. But equally, there is much to distinguish this period from the full early bronze age. At roughly the same time as the transition from copper to bronze metallurgy we see the final demise of the Grooved Ware cultural assemblage, the birth of new pottery traditions in the form of Food Vessels and then Collared (and other) Urns, and the first erection of substantial mounds over prominent burials since the fourth millennium.

The grand construction projects of later neolithic tradition – enormous timber-palisade or henge enclosures and big stone or timber circles – were also tailing away towards the end of the third millenniumas they were replaced with a growing obsession with the construction and agglomeration of barrows. The rearranged bluestone settings at Stonehenge may have been amongst the last of the labour-intensive projects, while the enormous undertaking of Silbury Hill also falls on this cusp, drawing itsmonumental scale fromlate neolithic and chalcolithic precedents and yet standing (along with a few other supermounds) as inspiration for the fixation on funerary barrows that was to follow.

The chalcolithic (or whatever we call it) was then radically different from what went before and came after. Of course any boundaries that we draw across time are arbitrary to some degree, and this will be an especial problem when, as during the later third millennium, we have a period of unusually dynamic change. But to dismiss this as a long-lived period of "transition" would be a travesty, for it undervalues the dynamic qualities of certain cultural situations relative to other more static ones. One can, for example, draw a parallel with the Renaissance. Sweeping change in early modern Europe came in the arts, science and technology, and social and political institutions; much the same can be argued for the chalcolithic, which also saw radical change in treatment of the dead.

Past decades have seen a number of exciting discussions about the relationship between late Grooved Ware and early Beaker material. Highly influential over 20 years ago was Nick Thorpe and Colin Richards' model of a ritual authority structure vested in the ceremonial of Grooved Ware societies being progressively broken down by the introduction of a new ideology introduced with the Beaker material package. Their work came at a time when archaeologists had become dismissive of any significant migration into Britain, but there are now grounds for seeing an influential, if small number of incomers as being responsible for the initial appearance of Beaker culture here – not least the isotopic evidence of the "Amesbury archer".

The model I have developed sees a short-lived "pioneering" phase, the first half of the chalcolithic, during which small, autonomous groups of Beaker settlers lived in dispersed communities dotted through a land largely occupied by indigenous Grooved Ware communities. These two different societies had a radically different material and economic basis as well as different outlooks on the world in almost every respect – they were seemingly poles apart.

However, contact between the two groups in certain restricted spheres was perhaps inevitable and led to strategic intermarriage to form cross-cultural alliances. I see these as arising from a mutual attraction based on the very complementary features that each culture could offer the other. The Grooved Ware elite doubtless coveted metal, which they previously could not even have envisioned, and with it other exotica and foreign ideas. The tiny Beaker groups required security on the land they had taken up and would have been overawed by the spectacle of the ceremonial theatres – the henge monuments – by the performances enacted there and by any grand construction projects they witnessed. It is hard to imagine that they would not have sought to obtain a significant place in the ceremonies and thereby obtain political and religious sanction. Indeed, it may have been the spreading word of these insular marvels that helped lure early incomers across the channel.

During the course of the chalcolithic such early interaction would have led to greater understanding and assimilation between the two parties, but also to localised friction and squabbles as some sectors of the numerically dominant group felt their social position being eroded. Nor can we rule out inter-group violence – note the arrow-shotmale laid to rest in the ditch at Stonehenge – but there is no sign that this was more than occasional.

By the end of the chalcolithic, the demographic pendulum had swung markedly in favour of Beaker acculturated groups. This was almost certainly brought about by amix of processes, perhaps continuing small-scale migration from abroad, but also marriage into Beaker communities and other forms of defection from the indigenous way of life because of the attractions of Beaker values and practices. Perhaps there was even a greater reproduction rate within those populations. Grooved Ware culture eventually disappeared, but it is possible that there was still a disaffected rump of that society. Even at its zenith Beaker culturemay not have been embraced by the whole population, for it becomes increasingly hard to interpret the emerging ceramic and funerary traditions of Food Vessels and Urns as simply sub-spheres of a single umbrella culture, rather than as newly created group identities supported by new or modified ideologies. But that is the story of the ensuing early bronze age.

Stuart Needham is a freelance researcher in later prehistory, formerly at the British Museum

The newly-defined copper age spans a complex era of British and Irish prehistory between the late neolithic and the early bronze age (c2500–2200BC). Sophisticated stone tools were still being made, but were now accompanied by the first rare copper and gold objects. For much of the time, two quite different ceramic traditions – indigenous Grooved Ware and continental-inspired Beakers – existed side by side.

Back in 1970 the eminent archaeologist David Clarke proposed seven Beaker migrations from continental Europe. By then the former story of ancient Britain built on waves of immigrants had been abandoned: only "Beaker folk" survived, whose distinctive pots, graves and round skullswere thought to signal a major change c2100BC. In the 1980s these "invasions" too were largely rejected, and the "Beaker phenomenon" was seen as a spread of ideas, not people (one popular suggestion being a cult ritual in which the objects were used). A study of the skulls concluded that the shape change could have several unresolved explanations.

Since the 1980s the idea of Beaker immigrants has been revived: not in mass movements, but as small-scale journeys and settlement. Stuart Needham first wrote of a "metal-using neolithic". He now calls the era the chalcolithic or copper age. The revelation that an exceptional Beaker burial from Boscombe was of a proven immigrant brought added interest to these ideas.

The earliest Beaker burials are key to this time. No two are identical, but they have in common crouched bodies, often apparently clothed (as suggested by fittings – dress has not survived), laid in discrete graves. They were typically accompanied by a few distinctive artefacts, including decorated pots and (in male graves) "barbed and tanged" flint arrowheads (those opposite are from the "mass grave" at Boscombe). For generations before, there does not seem to have been a normal rite here that involved this style of individual burial.

By way of example, the double grave pit illustrated in the printed magazine was found beneath a round mound at Shrewton, near Stonehenge, in 1959. An adult man had been buried deep in the chalk, with a Beaker, a piece of deer antler and a copper dagger wrapped in moss (c2300BC). Generations later, another grave was dug into the top of the first, for a young man.

Many of Britain's greatest ritual monuments have their roots in the neolithic. But many were developed during the copper age, and others were newly-built; increasing precision in radiocarbon dating is helping to define this era. New projects include Silbury Hill and a ring of post pits on Boscombe Down, Wiltshire, with both Grooved Ware and Beaker pottery; and the flint mines at Grime's Graves, Norfolk (photo in magazine shows laser scanner recording of the mine shafts and galleries). The last rearrangements of bluestones at Stonehenge (the smaller stones) probably occurred then.

Insert by Mike Pitts

Archaeologists have long recognised a copper age in south-east Europe. The idea that it also happened further north and west is gaining favour, as Volker Heyd explains.

There has been a long debate on the European continent on how to define a chalcolithic (known also as the copper age or eneolithic), and how to apply this to the prehistoric sequences of different regions. Traditional terminology shows three solutions.

Archaeologists in the south-east fully use chalcolithic for the period between c4600–3100/2800BC. In the south-central and south-west they apply it only to c3300–2200BC. And in the rest of Europe, such as Poland, Germany, northern France and Scandinavia as well as Britain and Ireland, they have preferred the original three-age system, dating back to the 19th century and the Danish antiquarian and scholar Christian Jürgensen Thomson (1788–1865) – a neolithic, followed immediately by bronze and iron ages.

However, from the 1990s some archaeologists began to introduce the term chalcolithic where previously it had not been used. Recent major publications, for example in Austria and Bavaria (for the period from c4200BC), and northern France and Belgium (for the third millennium BC), have taken this step, and others are likely to follow. But it will always remain a matter of perspective and definition. So focussing on themore traditional elements of prehistoric societies (say, in the case of the English neolithic, henge monuments) emphasises neolithic continuity; underlining innovations (such as the incoming metallurgy of the Beaker period) favours a separate chalcolithic.

Three different definitions are being discussed in Europe:

  1. All chalcolithic societies produce copper (but not bronze). This definition refers primarily to the south-east European or Hungarian copper age, where many copper and gold artefacts were in use from the fifth millennium BC – the basis of Colin Renfrew's "autonomous south-east European copper age" (1978) or the Russian scholar Evgeny Chernikh's "Balkano-Carpathian metallurgical province" (1977). Moving towards the centre and west of the continent, and forward 2,000 years, the Bell Beaker phenomenon would also fit this definition.
  2. Chalcolithic societies may also just consume copper. Such an approach would, for example, make the early neolithic in southern Scandinavia (the TRB culture) chalcolithic throughout the 4th millennium BC. Here, in Denmark, southern Sweden and northern Germany, metal analysis has shown that more than a hundred mostly copper axes, and a handful of copper hoards, have all been imported from the Carpathian basin and other copper producing societies in the intervening middle range mountains. However, prehistoric archaeologists in southern Scandinavia mostly still prefer to call this special situation "early neolithic".
  3. Societies not using metal may also be chalcolithic, when they have socially and economically reached an advanced stage that clearly distinguishes them from previous periods. Andrew Sherratt's "secondary products revolution" (1981) finds its place here, as does the concept of a "copper age as historical epoch" defined by Jan Lichardus, a German scholar of Slovakian origin (1991). By this argument, many societies of the fourth millennium BC, having adopted the plough, wooden carts, domesticated horses and woolly sheep, and founded central places such as hillforts and sanctuaries – to name but a few criteria – would already be seen as chalcolithic. A minority of archaeologists share this view.

Whatever one's perspective, the Bell Beaker phenomenon, covering half the continent and stretching at its peak between the 25th and 22nd centuries BC, from north Africa to Scotland and Ireland to Hungary, stands out as chalcolithic. Although regionally diverse and far from coherent, the Beaker phenomenon has structural similarities on both sides of the English Channel.

It shows established individualism and core family social order; it has early social stratification, functional differentiation (note the Amesbury archer with his craftsmanship and "over-equipped" grave), and indications of inherited status (suggested by lavishly equipped children's graves on the continent). All these support the chalcolithic attribution. So too do wide international exchange (as in amber, precious stones and maybe jet); economic and productive specialisation; the frequent use of objects with special symbolism, such as tusk pendants, wrist-guards and daggers; and – not least – the use of gold and copper, the regular exploitation of metal sources, the technical know-how and wider distribution.

Here in Britain, however, even this is topped by additional expressions such as communality, monumentality and the durability of using large stones. Following definition 1 above, a British chalcolithic could be said to have lasted for a few centuries.

Volker Heyd is reader in prehistoric archaeology at the University of Bristol and a visiting professor at Halle-Wittenberg University, Germany.

In 2002 and 2003 three graves were found by Wessex Archaeology, working for housing-associated developments at Boscombe Down, Amesbury, Wiltshire. The burials must have been significant at the time, c2450–2150BC, and their discovery galvanised existing new interest in a copper age and the possibilty of Beaker immigrants, inspiring the Beaker People Project.

The "Amesbury archer" was buried with 100 artefacts, including three copper knives and two gold ornaments, some of Britain's earliest metal, and a possible metal-working cushion stone (placed beside the Beaker). The assemblage – unique in size and quality, not least for five Beakers – has wide geographical connections: tooth analysis suggested the man had been born in central Europe.

In a nearby grave was buried a man apparently closely related (the "archer's companion"), but born in England; he had two gold ornaments. The third pit was a unique "mass grave". It contained the remains of nine individuals including three children (the "Boscombe bowmen"), with eight Beakers and a bone toggle of central European style. Tooth analysis suggested the three men had grown up together in two different locations outside the area. Speculation linking these people to the building of Stonehenge should be tempered by the possibility that the stones were ancient when they were born.

When did copper first come to Britain? Mike Parker Pearson – in a view not shared by his fellow writers – says as far back as 2600BC

One of the big problems in identifying the origins of metal in prehistoric Britain is that the first copper tools must have been extremely precious. The likelihood of losing or casually discarding them was little, given their value and their capacity for melting down and recycling. There is little evidence of an inhumation rite in Britain in the period 3000–2400BC, in which such items might be included as grave goods.

As a result, archaeologists have to work with indirect evidence in the period before the first Beaker burials, dating to around 2475–2300BC, if they want to gain some idea of when metals were first introduced. The Amesbury archer's three copper daggers, made outside Britain, suggest that native copper ores had not yet been exploited by 2400BC, and no mines from Britain or Ireland date to before this time.

Yet new excavations at Durrington Walls, near Stonehenge, have produced tantalising evidence that copper tools may have been in use ten generations before the Amesbury Archer. The village probably dates to the 26th century BC and appears to have been occupied at midwinter and perhaps also at midsummer. It covered at least 17ha – occupation layers have been found beneath the banks of the enormous henge monument on all sides as well as within its interior. The nine houses excavated since 2005 are just a few of the many hundreds that must have once stood here.

People came from miles around to feast on pigs. Animal bone specialist Umberto Albarella of the University of Sheffield has discovered from their dental development that most pigs were culled at midwinter. Bizarrely, before barbecuing, some were shot with the flint arrowheads that now litter the site. These pigs were domesticates so this was not a hunt. Did archers display their prowess at pig-sticking events? Cattle were less common than pigs, and the total absence of newborn pigs and cows combined with the occurrence of all parts of the body of both species suggests to Albarella that animals were brought to the village on the hoof rather than reared on site. At the University of Sheffield, Ellen Simmons's study of the carbonised plant remains shows that roast and boiled pork was accompanied by hazelnuts and crab apples – autumnal foods for the cold midwinter. Curiously, despite flotation sieving of many tons of midden, floor layers and yard surfaces, there is no trace of any cereals or the tools for grinding them. Bread can only have been eaten if it was brought in preprocessed as flour. If the inhabitants were brewing alcohol then it was most likely West Country cider, not ale.

Amongst the debris left by these thousands of people are their chipped flint and stone tools – lithic specialist Ben Chan of Manchester University has so far analysed over 60,000 pieces from the new excavations. This is one of the largest assemblages from the third millennium BC and yet it includes only a single fragment of an axe. There are also no axe-sharpening flakes and no chisels. How could these people have carried out the huge task of woodworking in building and repairing houses, as well as the large timber circles at the centre of the complex? It could be that all the pieces of axes were collected and dumped elsewhere; that all axes were used in another part of the village; that all the wooden structures were prefabricated; or that all axes were banned from the village: but these explanations require special pleading.

When the henge ditch was dug out – after the village had been abandoned – someone struck a block of chalk with what appears to have been an axe blade. The mark is too sharp to have been from a flint or stone axe, and the blade might well have been metal; weathering has made microscopic study of the chalk futile. There has been no trace of any copper tools from Durrington Walls. X-ray fluorescence analysis carried out by Roger Doonan at Sheffield University on green-stained animal bones has detected low levels of copper, but this was probably absorbed from the environment.

So was copper in use in Britain by the middle of the third millennium BC? The evidence is still far from certain, but I believe the balance of probabilities is swinging towards the likelihood of a British chalcolithic starting at 2600BC. If that is indeed the case then both Stonehenge (whose stones were put up in or around the 26th century BC) and Silbury Hill (c2400–2300BC) were copper age rather than stone age monuments. From a continental perspective, the Alpine Iceman's copper axe was made around 3200BC, half a millennium before. Britain's adoption of metallurgy was still well behind the times.

Mike Parker Pearson is professor of archaeology, University of Sheffield and co-director of the Durrington Walls excavations.

A landmark study is underway into human remains in museums. As Mandy Jay and Janet Montgomery explain, the Beaker People Project will tell us about copper age lives.

The multi-disciplinary Beaker People Project is applying isotopic analysis to unburnt inhumations. It aims to investigate 250 individuals from Britain dating from around 2500–1500BC. This is approximately half of the available remains from this period: we will produce a very significant data-set informative of migration patterns, diet, environment and economy. Burial practices, grave goods, dental microwear and osteology are also being considered, and a large radiocarbon dating programme is in place.

Isotopic analysis is undertaken on two basic skeletal fractions: organic collagen from bone and tooth dentine, and inorganic tooth enamel. The stable isotopes investigated from collagen are those of carbon, nitrogen and sulphur, incorporated into the biological tissues of an individual from food: values therefore bear a direct relationship to plants and animals eaten. They are also a reflection of the environment where the plants at the base of the food chain grew, since these take their nutrients from the soil and atmosphere.

Tooth enamel is a "prehistoric passport". As it forms in childhood, it assimilates elements that reflect sources of food and drink, either from the geology on which plants grew and animals grazed (strontium) or local drinking water whose composition is determined by the prevailing climate (oxygen). Crucially, once formed, the composition of enamel is determined for life – and is very resistant to post-mortem alteration.

In practice it is rarely possible to pinpoint a birthplace using enamel isotopes: different locations can generate similar signatures. But oxygen isotope values, as in the high-profile case of the Amesbury archer, can be a very useful indication of non-British origin. Using strontium and oxygen data together can often considerably narrow the search.

The Beaker People Project is the first of its kind to examine both the human remains and the burial practices and artefacts of such a large group. Many of the burials were excavated over the past century or more, but recent finds are also being studied. The skulls from the Boscombe Down mass grave have distinctive Wormian bones between the major plates of the brain case. It is likely the males were all related.

The project has two more years to run, but early results are intriguing. Carbon and nitrogen data from collagen suggest people were consuming few if any marine resources, even when burial was on the coast. Instead diet was relatively high in animal protein (meat and dairy products). This fits the general picture for later prehistoric Britain, with sea foods showing little significant presence since the origins of farming.

Sulphur isotope data will be a considerable contribution from the project, as there are currently few available in British archaeology. We expect sulphur will help track shorter distance, inland-coastal mobility, since values are affected by sea-spray in coastal foods. Our early data suggest a possible difference between geological areas either side of the Firth of Forth, although this requires further research.

Sites of particular interest at this stage include Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother Hospital, Margate (samples from the Trust for Thanet Archaeology) where extreme bone collagen values for both carbon and nitrogen for two individuals would indicate interesting life histories; and Garrowby Wold, east Yorkshire (samples from Hull and East Riding Museum) where sulphur values for several individuals seem to be outside the normal range for their location.

Tracing geographical origins is more straightforward for some parts of Britain than others. The granitic regions of the Scottish Highlands, for example, are problematic. Granites are heterogeneous and contain many different minerals all of which might have different strontium isotope values; but skeletons survive poorly in such soils, and we have not yet characterised a local community.

For areas underlain by the Cretaceous Chalk of south and east England, however, it is easier: chalk is a very pure rock, and people eating crops grown on it have a specific and fairly tight range of strontium values. It also preserves bone very well. We now have strontium data for some 50 Beaker burials from the Yorkshire Wolds chalk. About half the people are not indigenous – a figure that may rise when we have the oxygen isotope data. It is possible that most could be accounted for by the geology of the wider region but some, such as an adult from Garton Slack (from a 19th century excavation by JR Mortimer), were clearly a long way from home.

The full promise will be realised when the isotopic data-set for all five elements from bone, dentine and tooth enamel is available. In addition to illuminating the frequency and range of mobility for this period, the project will produce the first nationwide picture of human isotope variation from one era in prehistory, an invaluable resource for future researchers.

The Beaker People Project involves many researchers from different institutions, and is directed by Mike Parker Pearson, with co-directors Andrew Chamberlain (University of Sheffield) and Mike Richards (Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig); it is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council for five years. Mandy Jay (Durham University/Leipzig) and Janet Montgomery (University of Bradford) are conducting isotopic analyses

Alison Sheridan concludes that what a few remarkable individuals brought with them from copper age Europe, profoundly affected Irish and British society.

The subjects of the Beaker People Project lived in a time of change. New ideologies, practices and fashions were introduced from the continent during the 25th century BC. The new so-called Beaker package included the use of metal and the know-how to extract and work copper and gold; a new, international style of pottery and potting techniques; fancy archery gear; continental dress fashions; the use of domesticated, pony-sized horses; and a way of dealing with the dead that emphasised the individual, often portraying men as heroic hunters or warriors.

We now have an idea of the routes taken by these innovations: but how did it happen? Archaeologists traditionally assumed that "Beaker people" invaded or settled from the continent.During the 1980s this explanation fell out of favour, and the innovations were attributed to an aristocratic drinking cult, akin to the peyote cult seen in parts of 19th century north America. However, the discovery of a rich Beaker grave at Amesbury in 2002 was to reignite the debate, since isotopic analysis of the archer's tooth enamel revealed that he had probably come from central Europe, possibly southern Germany, Austria or the Czech Republic.

Recent excavations at Ringlemere, Kent, revealed a long history. After late neolithic Grooved Ware settlement before 2500BC (sherd), a copper age henge and timber circles were built by people using Beakers. In the subsequent early bronze age, the timber structures were reworked, a mound was raised inside the henge, and a ritual deposit including amber and a unique gold cup was inserted in the mound (c1900–1700BC).

The people who opened up a copper mine at Ross Island in south-west Ireland around 2400BC had also probably come from central Europe, bringing with them copper extraction skills. Isotope analysis has further shown that three adults in a communal grave near Amesbury at Boscombe (feature, Sep 2004) had not been raised locally. While Wales has been suggested as an area of origin, it seems equally likely, and on archaeological grounds more so, that they had come from Brittany. Finally, in Scotland, a handful of unusual graves – including one recently found at Upper Largie (News, Mar/Apr) – suggests some immigration from the Netherlands during the 25th century BC.

It seems that we are dealing with a small number of immigrants, not the migrations once envisaged. Why did they come? Some, like the Ross Island miners, were prospectors, looking for the precious copper and gold. Others may have undertaken long, heroic journeys as a way of confirming their status back home. It has recently been suggested that the Amesbury archer was drawn by the alleged healing properties of the Stonehenge bluestones. Whatever the reasons, some stayed and died here.

The Beaker package was to have a profound impact onmany people's lives in Britain and Ireland, even if reactions varied. It arrived in a late neolithic world where large monuments such as Durrington Walls provided the foci for seasonal festivities. The Beaker fascination with the sun – as shown, for example, in the little sheet gold "sun discs" – would have chimed with indigenous beliefs. Metal was seized upon as a new way of showing off status, and the desire to own a copper objectmeant that Ross Island products travelled far. The new pottery and funerary tradition was embraced, and many Beaker-associated graves appeared. Most of the people examined in the Beaker People Project belong to this period of widespread acceptance. The next big change came around 2200BC, when prospectors – probably from central Europe – discovered south-west England as a major source of tin, and showed others how to make bronze by alloying copper. North-east Scotland emerged as a hot-spot for bronze-working (though the raw materials had to be imported long distances). Entrepreneurs could control the flow of metal. The bronze age opens with a period of conspicuous use of exotic goods (such as jet spacer plate necklaces for elite women), and far-reaching networks: Montgomery's isotopic analysis of a wealthy early bronze age man found at Rameldry Farmin Fife, has revealed that he may well have been a Yorkshireman. The copper age was fast becoming history.

Alison Sheridan is head of early prehistory, National Museums Scotland

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