A team of archaeologists from the Universities of Leicester and Southampton in the United Kingdom have just published a study reporting that enigmatic artifacts recovered from a significant Bronze Age burial mound near Stonehenge are actually the remains of a 3,800-year-old toolkit used for working with gold.
The true purpose of these stone and copper alloy tools, which were part of an extensive cache of grave goods associated with two buried bodies, had not previously been discerned. This is despite the fact that this 3,800-year-old toolkit was originally discovered more than 200 years ago at an excavation site near the Wiltshire County village of Upton Lovell.
But the mystery of what the tools found at the Upton Lovell G2a site were used for has finally been solved, thanks to modern technology and sophisticated methods of analysis. “We take a new approach to the grave goods, employing microwear analysis and scanning electron microscopy to map a history of interactions between people and materials,” the authors of the new study explained, in an article just published in the journal Antiquity.
This entailed a more detailed examination of the tools than had ever been performed before. Using these methodologies, the researchers found miniscule traces of gold on the surfaces or edges of five tools which formed the 3,800-year-old toolkit. This proved that the stone and copper objects had actually been used to shape and manipulate gold in either liquid or metal form, a process that would have relied on the expertise of goldsmiths trained to work with this coveted and treasured substance.
The grave goods, including a 3,800-year-old toolkit, were discovered over 200 years ago at the Upton Lovell burial and have been on display at the Wiltshire Museum in Devizes. (Crellin et. al / Antiquity Publications Ltd )
If it Looks like Gold, it Just Might Be Gold
The tools analyzed in this study were retrieved from the Wiltshire Museum in Devizes, where they had been on display for decades. University of Leicester archaeologist Dr. Christina Tsoraki was recruited to perform the wear-analysis of the grave goods, under the auspices of the Leverhulme Trust-funded “ Beyond the Three Age System ” project that was set up to study the evolution of material culture in Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age Britain.
During the process of her examination, Tsoraki noticed residues on the surfaces of some tools within the 3,800-year-old toolkit that appeared to have a golden sheen. These traces were found on the surfaces of different types of tools, including anvils, hammers and objects used as smoothers. Seeking confirmation of her discovery, Tsoraki and her associates passed the tools on to Dr. Chris Standish, a University of Southampton archaeologist with expertise in Early Bronze Age (2,000—1,500 BC) gold working.
The ever-growing research team looked at the toolkit under a scanning electron microscope to verify the existence of the gold traces, and also to see whether they were ancient or modern in origin. The scientists did in fact discover that the residues were gold, and they also found the gold had an elemental signature that linked it directly to other Bronze Age gold pieces unearthed at other excavation sites in the UK.
“This is a really exciting finding for our project,” stated University of Leicester archaeologist and study co-author Dr. Rachel Crellin. “At the recent ‘ World of Stonehenge ’ exhibition at the British Museum, we know that the public was blown away by the amazing 4,000-year-old goldwork on display,” she explained. “What our work has revealed is the humble stone toolkit that was used to make gold objects thousands of years ago.”
A 3,800-year-old toolkit has shown evidence that it was used for gold working. Image shows microwear traces on a polishing stone. (C. Tsoraki / Antiquity Publications Ltd )
Deep Inside Upton Lovell G2a and Early Bronze Age Culture
The Upton Lovell G2a barrow or burial site was first excavated at the turn of the 19th century, in 1801. Located in Wiltshire County, just a good stone’s throw (a few miles) away from Stonehenge, the burial contained the skeletal remains of just two bodies. One was entombed lying on his back, while the second was placed in a sitting position.
Notably, the first body had apparently been decked out in some sort of formal or ceremonial robe when first buried. Archaeologists know this because of some of the artifacts that were found around the body. This included approximately 40 perforated bone points and three perforated boars’ tusks, which were apparently not tools but decorations that would have been attached to clothing. Placed where they were, it seems these decorations would have once been on a robe but would have fallen off when the robe decayed.
In addition to the remains of the robe, there were several tools interred next to the body of the first man. The inventory included stone axes, a copper alloy awl and multiple stone tools that would have been used to rub or shape some other softer material. Overall the barrow contained a large and impressive assembly of grave goods , the majority of which were either tools or decorative items. Many were buried in positions that made it impossible to tell if they were buried in conjunction with the first or second skeleton.
It has generally been assumed that the two bodies in the barrow were not put there at the same time. Archaeologists have long believed that the first body was a person of high status, possibly a shaman or metalworker. Less has been speculated about the identity of the second body, since there are fewer artifacts that can be linked directly to him.
The Upton Lovell G2a barrow mound was approximately 33 feet (10 m) across and about one foot (0.3 m) high. The bodies were buried at a depth of approximately three feet, or one meter. The mound has been dated to the Early Bronze Age in Britain , specifically to the time period between 1850 and 1700 BC. This links the burial to the first phase of the Wessex Culture , which was the dominant social, political and material culture in central and southern Britain during this time period.
This version of the culture, dubbed Wessex I, was responsible for the final construction to take place at Stonehenge, which was built in several phases over the course of 1,500 years. This magnificent collection of prehistoric stone monuments brings throngs of tourists and students of esoteric subject matter to the Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire County every year, right to the vicinity of the village of Upton Lovell where many Wessex Culture burials have been found.
Based on various excavations, it is known that the Wessex I people frequently left behind impressive and extensive collections in the burial mounds of chieftains and other important individuals. This often included items made from gold, which were not present in this particular burial. But if the team of scientists responsible for the new study in correct, gold was very much associated with the lives and livelihoods of the two individuals buried in Upton Lovel G2a.
Dr. Christina Tsoraki and Sarah Morriss, University of Leicester, carry out the Scanning Electron Microscope analyses at the University of Leicester. (Crellin et. al / Antiquity Publications Ltd )
Master Gold Workers Buried with Honor
Earlier research had actually found possible gold traces on one of the stone tools recovered from the Upton Lovell G2a barrow. But it took the recent analysis of the 3,800-year-old toolkit to confirm the truth and importance of this initial discovery. Based on the shapes of the tools found in the grave and the characteristics of the gold traces found on them, the researchers believe the tools were used to complete the second step of a two-step fabrication process.
After various core objects had been made from materials like jet, shale, wood, or copper, these objects would have then been decorated with a thin layer of gold sheet. The researchers don’t know exactly what types of objects would have been made using such a process, but they would have been highly valuable and likely used primarily by Wessex Culture chiefs and other elites.
The results of this new research project strongly suggests that the men buried in Upton Lovell G2a were goldsmiths. They would have been highly respected for the quality of their work, and that is why they were given the honor of being buried with an extensive collection of grave goods, including the tools of their trade.
The public can see these unique ancient tools for themselves by visiting the Wiltshire Museum in Devizes. The artifacts from Upton Lovell G2a have now been put back on display after being returned by the British Museum in London, which had included them as a part of their historic 2022 ‘ World of Stonehenge’ exhibit.
Top image: Representational image of the traces of gold discovered on the surfaces of tools that made up a 3,800-year-old toolkit found near Stonehenge over 200 years ago. Source: ninell / Adobe Stock
By Nathan Falde