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Children revealed to be the metal workers of prehistoric Britain

Source.

Scientists believe that some 4,000 years ago children as young as 10 wrecked their eyesight embellishing weapons and jewellery with minute scraps of gold, creating dazzling pieces so fine that the detail can barely be picked out with the naked eye. They were some of the best prehistoric metal work ever found in Britain.

The children may have been working in Brittany, where the largest concentration of daggers decorated with the tiny gold pins have been found, but the finest of all was excavated more than 200 years ago from a burial mound half a mile from Stonehenge.

Daggers at the Wiltshire Heritage Museum, Devizes, discovered in 1808 in Bush Barrow, Salisbury Plain, the richest and most important bronze age grave ever excavated in Britain.

Only fragments of the original wooden dagger handle survive intact, but originally it was decorated with 140,000 tiny studs, each almost as fine as a human hair and set into the wood at more than 1000 to the square centimetre. The price of such extraordinary work would have been painfully high, leaving some of the young craft workers very short sighted by the age of 15 and partially blind by the age of 20.

Ronald Rabbetts, an expert on the optics of the human eye, believes that only children and young teenagers would have had sharp enough eyesight for the most detailed work more than a thousand years before the invention of any form of magnifying glass.

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It would quickly have damaged their sight, however, he believes, leaving them unfit for general work, but perhaps maintained by the tribe for the rest of their lives as specialist craft workers.

“Only children and teenagers, and those adults who had become myopic naturally or due to the nature of their work as children, would have been able to create and manufacture such tiny objects,” he said. “There would almost certainly have been a section of the bronze age artisan class who, often as a result of their childhood work, were myopic for their adult life. They would therefore have been unable to do any other work apart from the making of tiny artefacts and would have had to be supported by the community at large.”

The gold from the Bush Barrow burial mound, now on display in a new gallery at the Wiltshire Museum in Devizes, was already regarded as extraordinary – made using simple tools but with a sophisticated understanding of geometry and design. But this is the first time scientists have considered the human cost of such work.

Bush Barrow on Normanton Down

“Every time I’ve walked past the cases in our museum I’ve thought ‘how the hell did they make them?’ – and now we know,” David Dawson, curator of the museum, said. “Our metal worker, Neil Burridge, who has made many replica pieces for us, has called them “the work of the gods” – but now we know they weren’t gods but children.”

In the programme the micro-artist Willard Wigan, whose tiny sculptures mounted in the eye of a needle or the head of a pin are avidly collected across the world, attempted to recreate some of the tiny studs, working under a microscope. “I cannot see an adult doing that because your eyesight starts to deteriorate even at 21,” he said. “The quality of the work is phenenomenal.”

The Bush Barrow burial mound was excavated in 1808, a period when there was a craze among amateur archaeologists for digging up the past. The skeleton, buried when the great stone circle was already 1,000 years old, was described by William Cunnington, a wool merchant who dug up scores of burial mounds with local land owner Sir Richard Colt Hoare, as the remains of “a stout and tall man”. He was buried with one of the most spectacular collections of grave goods ever found in Britain, including an axe, a mace, a gold-belt plate, bronze and copper daggers, and an intricately decorated gold lozenge-shaped plaque on his chest.

The decayed wooden handle of one of the daggers had the most spectacular decoration, the tiny gold pins set so they overlapped like fish scales. Far more of it was intact when uncovered, but the ancient wood distintegrated: in a phrase to cause anguish to modern archaeologists, Cunnington described “a scatter of shining points of gold” as the excavator’s trowel hit the handle.

Dawson said there was something heartbreaking as well as fascinating about the discovery. “It forces you to think of children working in conditions like child labour in carpet factories today … the worst of it is they must have known it would ruin their eyesight, but still they persevered.”

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The mystery of bog bodies

From USAtoday:

Scholars have long tried to make sense out of one of the oddities of the archaeological world —bodies pulled from ignominious burials in cold water bogs everywhere from Ireland to Russia.

Hundreds of these bog bodies have been found over the past two centuries. But who were they and why were they dispatched to the great beyond in mucky swamps? The theories range from executed deserters, to witches to everyday people.

The Irish Countess of Moira back in 1783 launched scholarly explorations by suggesting that bog bodies were victims of Druid ceremonies. Others, citing the ancient Roman writerTacitus, quickly saw them most likely as executed deserters. Arguments over individual finds have continued ever since the first look that year by the Countess at the Northern Ireland “Drumkeeragh” bog body, a woman dressed in wool clothes.

“Unfortunately the focus has been almost exclusively on the most spectacular finds, the mummified bodies,” says archaeologist Moten Ravn of Denmark’s Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, writing in the current Acta Archaeologica journal. Rather than arguing from just one body, Ravn suggests a survey of all the bodies might offer better clues to how they ended up buried in bogs.

What is a bog and how does it preserve anything? Cold-weather swamps, basically, where mosses turn waters brown. Roughly 560 bog bodies have turned up in Denmark alone, Ravn notes, usually discovered when farmers try to turn wetlands into farmland. His survey focuses on 145 bog bodies dating to the early Iron and late Bronze Age, roughly 500 BC to 100 BC, the pre-Roman era in northern Europe.

Acids found in bog waters have mummified some of the bodies, or more accurately tanned them into leather. Mosses release chemicals that leach calcium from the bodies, “which means that the bones of the bog bodies take on the consistency of rubber,” Ravn writes. Other bogs rich in lime have preserved other bodies only as bones.

Scholars have raced up and down the human pecking order in ascribing identities to the bodies. The historian Niels Petersen in 1835 decided that the “Haraldskaer” woman’s body found at the site of a copper factory belonged to the Norwegian Queen Gunhilde, drowned by King Harald Blatund (Bluetooth) in the Ninth Century. By 1907, archaeologist Johanna Mestorf became convinced they were all executed criminals, noting many of the bodies were bound and naked.

Shades of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Nazi archaeologists dominated bog body research starting in the 1930’s until the end of the Third Reich, Ravn notes, “interested in proving that the so-called Nordic race were direct descendants of the proto-Germanic race,” dating back to the Bronze Age.

All of these ideas have problems, starting with Queen Gunhilde, who was unlikely to have been buried in leather scraps, as she was found. Also a 2004 Journal of Archaeological Science study notes that carbon dating finds the “Haraldskaer” bog body was actually 2,500 years old, not in King Bluetooth’s reign.

As for executed criminals, Ravn notes there are only 21 Danish cases where the bodies have demonstrably been restrained, which, “may be a general protection against ghosts and not something reserved for criminals,” he writes. About 34% of the Bronze and Iron Age bodies in his sample are clothed, and clothing may not endure in bogs as well as flesh does, explaining its absence. A 2009 study, also in the Journal of Archaeological Science led by Ulla Mannering of the University of Copenhagen, reports 44 instances of bog bodies found with clothes in Denmark, most dating to the Roman era.

The Nazi theory is just crackers, of course, with even their own archaeologists pointing out bog bodies turned up in Ireland and elsewhere, even as far south as Crete, far outside any “proto-Germanic” home.

Instead, “most archaeologists today support the sacrifice theory,” Ravn writes. Proposed in the 1950’s, the basic idea is that bog bodies were mostly offerings to the Nordic gods Odin or Nerthus (“Mother Earth”), with the rest either murder or accident victims. People were mostly cremated in the era, a point which suggests a bog burial must have been a special event.

An alternative is the idea proposed in 2002 by historian Allen Lund that the bog bodies belonged to witches. Ancient people knew about the preserving nature of bogs and sought to suspend their supernatural foes in a state between life and death to forestall being haunted by them.

Ravn proposes a new theory to explain some of the bog bodies — maybe they were just people who died of natural causes and were sent to their burial in the bogs by their relatives. There is nothing special about the range of 145 people in his survey, men, women, young and old. Some were clearly placed in excavated holes lined with bark and cotton, buried with glass beads or gold jewelry in their mouths, a Roman custom. In Celtic myths, bogs and lakes were places of healing, Ravn suggests. “Is it possible that there was a wish to pass on these healing characteristics of the bog to a person who died a natural death so that the deceased could arrive healthy in the realm of the dead,” he asks.

Overall, bog bodies are “not so easy to explain,” Ravn says. The oldest one, the Koelbjerg woman, dates to 10,000 years ago. Others date to modern times, such as Johann Spieker, a hawker (person who used trained falcons to hunt), who died in 1828. “The reason that people were given their final resting place in the bog was not because of any one single tradition or one single ritual,” Ravn concludes. “Some were due to accidents and others to murder. Some may have been sacrificed and others may have died of natural causes and were buried in the bog.”

From USAtoday.

 

Filed under: Archaeology, , , , , , , , , , ,

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