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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.

cats

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 Viking-Age Govan Stones

From bbc:

Govan is well-known as an industrial powerhouse which, over the past 150 years, has built an incredible number of the world’s largest ships.

However the town, now part of the city of Glasgow, has a long and largely-forgotten history as one of the earliest seats of Christianity in Scotland and the main church of the Kingdom of Strathclyde, the lost kingdom of the northern Britons.

In AD 870, Vikings, who had been based in Dublin, destroyed Dumbarton at the mouth of the Clyde, which had been a major power centre in the centuries after the Romans departed from Britain.

As a result Govan, further up the river, took on a crucial role in the new kingdom of warrior chieftains that emerged to resist the Vikings.

It is thought that the church at Govan may have been the main one for the kingdom of Strathclyde.

The Govan Stones are a collection of 31 recumbent grave stones, hogback stones and one remarkable sarcophagus from this period of history when warfare instigated by the Norse transformed the political landscape of Britain.

There had been 45 stones but a number were lost in the 1980s when the site of the neighbouring Harland and Wolff shipyard was demolished.

It is thought the stones from the 10th and 11th centuries, which had been lined up against a wall, were removed along with debris from the shipyard.

The most imposing monuments in the Govan collection are the five massive sandstone blocks, commonly known as the “hogbacks”.

The solid stone blocks are not, as the name might suggest, representations of pigs but stones which are designed to make the tombs of the dead look like mighty buildings in the Norse style.

The hogbacks are found exclusively in areas of northern Britain settled by Vikings – southern Scotland, Cumbria and Yorkshire – and the Govan examples are by far the largest.

The bow-sided shape of the hogbacks is similar to the classic Viking house and the interlace patterns on them are also very Scandinavian in origin, according to Prof Stephen Driscoll, professor of historical archaeology at Glasgow University.

“It underpins this idea that this British kingdom of Strathclyde has some strong connections with the Scandinavian world,” he says.

“My feeling is that this is meant to represent a lord’s hall or a chieftain’s hall.

“This type of monument, these hogback monuments, you only find them in Britain. You don’t get them in Scandinavia and you don’t get them before the Vikings come here.

“So somehow the Vikings come here and see they are in this world where people carve stones all the time and they think ‘let’s carve us a suitable stone that resonates with us’.”

Although the beasts carved into some of the hogbacks could reflect pagan Viking beliefs, the fact that all these stones were found in a church yard suggests the settlers had taken to Christianity.

Even more impressive than the hogbacks is the monolithic sarcophagus which was found buried in the Govan church yard in the 19th century, without a body inside.

Prof Driscoll thinks this probably held the relics of St Constantine – the son of Pictish king Kenneth MacAlpin – who died in AD 876, ironically, fighting against the Vikings.

The sarcophagus of this Christian martyr, which is carved with hunting scenes and the same interlace that is seen on the other stones, was intended to take pride-of-place inside the church, Prof Driscoll says.

But it was probably stuck in the burial ground as an act of “iconoclasm” after the Reformation, he says.

“I think this sarcophagus is to house Constantine’s relics as part of making this church into an important place,” Prof Driscoll says.

“This is unique. There is nothing else like this in Scotland.

“It was just not something they did at the time. If you were being buried you would put them in the ground.

“Sometimes they lined the graves with slabs but mostly they would be put in the ground in a wooden box or just a shroud, no matter who they were.

“If you are king they may put something special on top but this treatment is unknown.

“I’m sure they would have seen Roman sarcophagi when they went on pilgrimage and things like that. So they would have had the sense that emperors belong in a sarcophagus.”

The other tombstones in the collection, though not as imposing to look at as the hogbacks or the sarcophagus, are also remarkable in the fact that they are only really found in Govan and Dumbarton, places which had a Royal association during the kingdom of Strathclyde.

Govan ceased to be important at the start of the 12th century when Glasgow emerged as one of the centres of the newly-ascendant kingdom of Scotland.

This massive changing of the old order meant that the old kingdom has been largely lost to history and only fragmentary records remain.

The tombstones at Govan were reused in the 17th and 18th centuries by local worthies, such as the Rowand family and William Bogle, whose name is inscribed into one of the ancient stones.

One of the stones was found in Jordanhill, on the other side of the river, where it had stood in the garden of one of the parishioners who had been given it as a gift.

Though there has probably been a church on the site since the 6th century, the current Govan Old church was only built in 1888 and is no longer in use as a parish church.

Prof Driscoll wants to raise the profile of the church and ensure its stones are given their rightful prominence.

A request from the British Museum to feature one of the hogbacks in a flagship exhibition Vikings Life and Legend, which begins in March, is an indication of the growing awareness of the importance of the sculptures.

Gareth Williams, curator of the British Museum Viking exhibition, said: “We wanted to go with one of the Govan ones because it is a particularly splendid example but also because we felt that it would be nice to put Govan on the map a bit more.

“It is a very important site and one which I think deserves to be better known.

“It is one of the best collections of early medieval sculpture anywhere in the British isles.”

The smallest hogback, which weighs about 500kg, will be removed from the church and taken to London on Monday, the first time it has left Govan in a millennium.

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

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