First humans in Britain
Editor Simon Denison
Supernatural power dressing
Jewellery from Bronze Age graves is normally interpreted as a symbol of status. Howevr, materials like jet, amber, faience and tin were also worn as talismans, writes Alison Sheridan
When archaeologists found the 4,300-year-old burial of an archer and metalworker at Amesbury in Wiltshire last year, they knew at once that they were looking at the remains of a great Bronze Age chieftain. The astonishing wealth of the possessions found in his grave declared him a man of power.
This was, quite simply, the richest early Bronze Age grave ever found in Britain, with some of the country's earliest known items of gold. Included among the man's 100-odd possessions were a pair of gold hair ornaments, three copper knives, a shale belt-ring, archery equipment and arrowheads. No wonder he was described in the media as the 'King of Stonehenge'.
In some ways, however, this spectacular discovery - and its interpretation - were not unique. We have, in fact, become used to thinking of prehistoric jewellery and accessories in terms of what they tell us about status. The wealthier the grave, and the more exotic, rare and well-crafted the possessions, the more powerful the individual is said to have been. It has become almost a commonplace of archaeological thinking.
Yet there is far more to fine possessions than their role as symbols of power. Current research suggests, in addition, that some of the finest prehistoric ornaments may have been worn as talismans, based on the supposed 'magical' properties of their constituent materials. We might, indeed, be dealing with a kind of 'power dressing' that had as much to do with influencing those in the Otherworld as with impressing people in this world.
Jet and amber, much used in the early Bronze Age, are known to have been attributed magical powers in more recent times - mainly, it is thought, because of their electrostatic properties. Rub them, and they develop a static charge. Jet and amber were used for amulets by the Romans and Vikings, and were widely employed in the Middle Ages and down to the recent past for healing, divination or for turning away evil spirits.
According to Pliny, jet could be used to determine whether a woman was a virgin. When ground, boiled in wine and consumed it could heal toothache, and when burnt its fumes relieved gynaecological ailments such as 'suffocation of the uterus'.
In Brittany, as recently as the 19th century, necklaces with beads of amber, glass and semi-precious stones were worn to protect their owners against ill fortune. In parts of the Caribbean, jet is regarded as a magical stone even today. It seems likely that in prehistory, too, jet and amber were thought to have special power - and indeed that other substances and types of object were accorded talismanic force as well.
The jewellery and dress accessories of the Copper and early Bronze Age in Britain and Ireland (c 2400-1500 BC) offer many possible examples of this 'supernatural power dressing'. In some cases, a single material such as jet has been used. But in many others, a combination of materials is found, as in the composite necklaces mostly found in the rich graves of Wessex.
Here, beads or pendants of jet or similar materials have been found beside beads of amber, faience, bone, wood, shell or stone. We can tell by the degree of wear that some of the jet pieces probably came from 'heirloom' necklaces already 200-300 years old by the time they were reused. Other pieces had been adorned with gold.
Among the stone beads used in these necklaces were fossil crinoids. These remains of ancient tiny sea creatures are natural geological freaks which resemble 'segmented' (concertina-shaped) faience beads and which may have been collected as otherworldly items. The stone items also include fragments of stalactite from a Mendips cave - a liminal and otherworldly location if ever there was one - made into quoit-shaped beads for the necklace buried at Stockbridge Down in Hampshire.
Most of these necklaces come from graves, and where the sex of the deceased has been determined, it is allegedly almost always female. However, at Tara in Ireland, one was definitely worn by a young man.
The faience beads found in necklaces, and as isolated beads, have traditionally been discussed in terms of their origin - with some people still clinging to the idea that they were imports from Egypt or the east Mediterranean in the 14th century BC.
New research on faience conducted by all three national museums in Britain, along with Andrew Shortland (at Oxford University's Research Laboratory for Archaeology & the History of Art) and faience veteran Stanley Warren (formerly of Bradford University), is not only putting the final nails into that particular coffin. It is also revealing that this material, too, may well have had talismanic force.
Faience is a glass-like material, made by heating a paste consisting of sand or crushed quartz, an alkali such as plant ash, and a glaze, until vitrification occurs. The result is an opaque, brittle material. The turquoise colour of British faience results from using a copper-based colourant for the glaze.
Faience technology was developed in Mesopotamia and Egypt during the 5th or early 4th millennium BC, and its use spread out far and wide over the course of the next two millennia. Thanks to a set of faience-associated radiocarbon dates, some recently obtained at Groningen University in the Netherlands from cremated human bone from Britain and Ireland, we can now confirm that it was being used in this country by the 19th century BC-much earlier than people used to think-and that it continued to be used until around 1500 BC. The know-how to make it did indeed come ultimately from the Near East, but certainly not via Egyptian or Mycenaean traders bringing bags of trinkets for the natives in the 14th century.
The picture that is now emerging is much more plausible, and more interesting, than this far-fetched hypothesis. It now seems that people in Britain found out about faience through links with central Europe in the early 2nd millennium BC. These links arose largely from the demand for tin from south-west England for the central European bronze industry, and it seems that the Wessex 'barrow boys' were able to control and benefit from this tin 'trade'.
Faience beads of segmented and other shapes were already being made in central and east-central Europe at this time. The technique had been learned from eastern Mediterranean faience makers, thanks to a network of contacts stretching across south-east Europe. It seems that the know-how for making faience was one of the exotic luxuries that arrived in Britain as a result of this extensive networking.
There is independent support for the idea that the appearance of faience in Britain and Ireland was indeed related to the tin trade. First, a composite necklace found in a bog at Exloo in the Netherlands contained beads made out of tin, together with others of faience and amber and one made of old, recycled tubular sheet bronze. Some of the tin beads are shaped like segmented faience beads. These echo the famous but lost segmented tin bead from Sutton Veny in Wiltshire that the antiquary Richard Colt Hoare illustrated in 1812.
Even more spectacularly, a necklace made entirely of segmented tin beads has recently turned up in a female grave at Buxheim in Bavaria, dating to around 2000-1800 BC. We cannot yet source tin reliably, but it is very likely that all these examples, and indeed the faience beads as well from Exloo, were made in southern England, probably in Wessex, with the form of the tin beads deliberately copying that of segmented faience beads.
The second piece of evidence linking faience with the tin trade is the fact that most of the analysed faience beads from Britain and Ireland seem to have a tin content that is higher than elsewhere in Europe and the Near East. Measuring the tin to copper ratio in a bead can be tricky, as tin can be distributed unevenly and copper is easily leached out. Even so, the results of Stanley Warren's neutron activation analyses in the 1970s, together with new evidence from scanning electron microscopy, suggest that the 'high tin' phenomenon is genuine, and is one further reason for rejecting the idea that the beads were imports from the Near East or the Mediterranean.
The amount of tin present is higher than would be expected if faience makers were using bronze shavings as a source of the glaze colourant. Technically, the tin does not improve the bead - unlike in later, true glass, where tin can act as an opacifier to deepen its colour. So why add it?
One possible reason is the status and value attached to tin as a raw material-the 'if you've got it, flaunt it' idea, even though it would not be visible in the end product. Another reason might be that tin was accorded special importance as one of our 'magical' materials. Not only was it valuable as a raw material; it may also have had symbolic significance since its production involves a transformation from a matt black substance to something that is silvery and shiny.
By adding tin to the faience recipe, the makers might have been maximising the magic of an already numinous substance, whose turquoise colour may have had symbolic significance of its own. Faience manufacture was possibly undertaken by metalworkers, who will have emphasised its mysteriousness. Although its recipe is simple, it can be very difficult to make. Too little water in the paste and the bead will crumble; too much, and it will slump like gloopy icing sugar-as is dramatically shown in a malformed spherical bead from a composite necklace, recently found at Cossington in Leicestershire.
Aside from faience, Whitby jet - and of course gold - were the materials of choice for the elites who indulged in power dressing during the early part of the Bronze Age.
In 2000, a remarkable site was excavated in Scotland which links jet directly with tin and perhaps also with the European faience industry. A cist at Rameldry Farm in Fife was found to contain the crouched body of an arthritic old man, aged 40-50, whose bones were radiocarbon dated to between 2280-1970 BC. He had been buried with his dagger - which turned out to be among the earliest bronze daggers in Britain - and he was wearing a jacket adorned with six V-perforated buttons. Five of these buttons were of Whitby jet, and the sixth was made of stone from Cornwall.
The jet buttons had been brought from 250 km away, and one of them was decorated with a cruciform design made by selectively dulling the polished surface and inlaying metallic tin, which must have been imported from south-west England. The design is very similar to that seen on a bronze pin from Conthey in Switzerland, but it is thought that the design idea passed from Britain to the Continent, not the other way around.
The jet buttons were also interesting because one was brand new, with its underside not yet ground smooth. It seems as though when the man died, his mourners decided that he had to have a 6-button garment, and arranged to procure the final jet button direct from Whitby.
The sixth button was made of a steatite-like stone called lizardite, which outcrops at the Lizard in Cornwall and may have been imported from there. Its surface is covered by an inorganic, orange-yellow translucent material. It looks like beeswax, but analysis at Bradford and Cardiff Universities has concluded that it is probably a glaze of some sort. Research is continuing, but it poses the question, do we have here a unique glazed stone item, reminiscent of the glazed steatite of 5th millennium Mesopotamia?
If we do, then obviously no direct link with the Near East is implied. Rather, it may be another, and early, sign of contact with faience makers in central Europe, where people were using beeswax to make V-perforated bone buttons look like amber or bronze at around this time. Might the technologically sophisticated faience workers of central Europe have been experimenting with glazing other materials apart from faience - and if so, might this know-how have been communicated to the fashion-conscious elite in Britain?
If the Rameldry jacket is a remarkable example of 'supernatural' power dressing, it is not alone. As further Bronze Age burials are found containing talismanic jewellery made of amber, jet, faience and tin, it will become increasingly clear that their prehistoric owners may have been powerful in this world - but they were taking every precaution as they approached the next.
Alison Sheridan is Assistant Keeper of Archaeology at the National Museums of Scotland in Edinburgh
Making a talisman
Andrew Shortland on how faience was produced
The faience beads that have been found in Britain were, by and large, made here. It seems also that faience production was a small-scale, fairly localised affair. We can tell this through analysis of the composition of faience beads, and examination of variations in shape and technique of manufacture. Necklaces, it appears, were made individually, 'to order'.
As far as their composition is concerned, my own analysis of the materials used to provide the alkali in the faience paste has confirmed earlier suspicions of differences between Scottish and English beads. It is possible that seaweed ash was used to make some of the Scottish beads, while other types of plant ash were used for some of the English examples, such as the spherical and quoit beads from King's and Queen's Low in Staffordshire.
The particular mix of materials seen in these English beads recalls the low magnesium, high potash composition of the earliest true glass in late 2nd millennium Europe. It differs markedly from the alkali composition used for Near Eastern and Mediterranean faience.
Similarly, there are variations in the way beads were shaped and glazed. As HC Beck and JFS Stone observed in the 1930s ('Faience beads of the British Bronze Age', Archaeologia vol 85, 1936), most of the segmented beads in Wessex were formed by rolling a cylinder of paste against a 'butter pat'-type shaper. By contrast, some of the segmented beads in Scotland - such as the ones from a necklace found at Findhorn - were formed by jabbing a sharp tool into alternate sides of a paste cylinder.
As for glazing technique, some beads were clearly glazed by dipping the shaped paste into a glaze slurry - for example, the star-shaped bead from Dryburgh Mains, where only one side is completely covered - while in other cases the glaze may have been mixed in with the paste as a powder, working its way to the surface as the bead dried.
With one quoit bead or pendant from Varley Halls in Sussex, analysed by the British Museum, a combination of glazing techniques was used. With this bead, lead isotope analysis has revealed that the bronze colourant in the glaze probably originated on the Continent, possibly in eastern France.
Variations in the size and shape of faience beads have become associated with certain areas. The segmented, star and quoit-shaped beads made famous by Beck and Stone are not the only forms to have been used. In south-west England and western Brittany, for example, there are a small number of barrel-shaped and biconical beads.
The two biconical beads from Boscregan in Cornwall are grooved, echoing the shale beads with inlaid gold wire from some rich graves in Wessex. It is likely that these particular beads were made in the south-west, and that the tin connection was responsible for the transmission of faience know-how.
Andrew Shortland is based at Oxford University's Research Laboratory for Archaeology & the History of Art, and works with Alison Sheridan on the faience research project
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005