Bronze Age Britain

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Bronze Age Britain
Geographical range British Isles
Period Bronze Age
Datesc. 2200 — c. 800 BC
Preceded by Bell Beaker culture, Neolithic British Isles
Followed by Atlantic Bronze Age, Iron Age Britain

Bronze Age Britain is an era of British history that spanned from c.2500–2000 BC until c.800 BC. [1] Lasting for approximately 1,700 years, it was preceded by the era of Neolithic Britain and was in turn followed by the period of Iron Age Britain. Being categorised as the Bronze Age, it was marked by the use of copper and then bronze by the prehistoric Britons, who used such metals to fashion tools. Great Britain in the Bronze Age also saw the widespread adoption of agriculture.


During the British Bronze Age, large megalithic monuments similar to those from the Late Neolithic continued to be constructed or modified, including such sites as Avebury, Stonehenge, Silbury Hill and Must Farm. That has been described as a time "when elaborate ceremonial practices emerged among some communities of subsistence agriculturalists of western Europe". [2]


Bronze swords found in Scotland Museum of ScotlandDSCF6306.jpg
Bronze swords found in Scotland

Early Bronze Age (EBA), c. 2500–1500 BC

There is no clear consensus on the date for the beginning of the Bronze Age in Great Britain and Ireland. Some sources give a date as late as 2000 BC, [3] and others set 2200 BC as the demarcation between the Neolithic and the Bronze Age. [4] The period from 2500 BC to 2000 BC has been called the "Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age" in recognition of the difficulty of exactly defining the boundary. [5] Some archaeologists recognise a British Chalcolithic when copper was used between the 25th and the 22nd centuries BC, but others do not because production and use were on a small scale. [6] [7]

Middle Bronze Age (MBA), 1500–1000 BC

Late Bronze Age (LBA), 1000–700 BC

In Ireland, the final Dowris phase of the Late Bronze Age appears to decline in about 600 BC, but iron metallurgy does not appear until about 550 BC.


The Bell Beaker culture

Extent of the Beaker culture Beaker culture.png
Extent of the Beaker culture
Stonehenge ruins Stonehenge, Salisbury.JPG
Stonehenge ruins

Around 2500 BC, a new pottery style arrived in Great Britain: the Bell Beaker culture. Beaker pottery appears in the Mount Pleasant Phase (2700–2000 BC), along with flat axes and the burial practice of inhumation. People of this period were responsible for building Seahenge, along with the later phases of Stonehenge. Silbury Hill was also built in the early Beaker period. [8] [9]

Silbury Hill, c. 2400 BC Silbury 1.jpg
Silbury Hill, c.2400 BC

Movement of continental Europeans brought new people to the islands from the continent. [10] Recent tooth enamel isotope research on bodies found in early Bronze Age graves around Stonehenge indicates that at least some of the new arrivals came from the area of modern Switzerland. The Beaker culture displayed different behaviours from the earlier Neolithic people and cultural change was significant. Many of the early henge sites seem to have been adopted by the newcomers.

Furthermore, a fundamentally different approach to burying of the dead members began to take place. In contrast to the Neolithic practice of communal burials, the Bronze Age society undergoes an apparent shift towards focusing on to the individual, rather on the ancestors as a collective. [11] For example, in the Neolithic era, a large chambered cairn or long barrow was used to house the dead. The 'Early Bronze Age' saw people buried in individual barrows, also commonly known and marked on modern British Ordnance Survey maps as tumuli, or sometimes in cists covered with cairns. They were often buried with a beaker alongside the body. However, even though customs changed, barrows and burial mounds continued to be used during the Bronze Age, with smaller tombs often dug into the primary mounds.

There has been debate amongst archaeologists as to whether the "Beaker people" were a race of people that migrated to Britain en masse from the continent or whether a Beaker cultural "package" of goods and behaviour, which eventually spread across most of Western Europe, diffused to Britain's existing inhabitants through trade across tribal boundaries. However one recent study (2017) suggests a major genetic shift in late Neolithic/early Bronze Age Britain and up to 90% of Britain's Neolithic gene pool may have been replaced with the coming of a people genetically similar to the Beaker people of the Lower Rhine region (modern Netherlands/central-western Germany), which had a high proportion of steppe ancestry. [12] According to the evolutionary geneticist Ian Barnes, "Following the Beaker spread, there was a population in Britain that for the first time had ancestry and skin and eye pigmentation similar to Britons today". [13]


Bush Barrow gold lozenge, c. 1900 BC. Bush barrow gold lozenge.jpg
Bush Barrow gold lozenge, c.1900 BC.

Several regions of origin have been postulated for the Beaker culture, notably the Iberian Peninsula, the Netherlands and Central Europe. [16] Part of the Beaker culture brought the skill of refining metal to Great Britain. At first, they made items from copper, but from around 2150 BC [ citation needed ], smiths had discovered how to make bronze, which is much harder than copper, by mixing copper with a small amount of tin. With that discovery, the Bronze Age began in Great Britain. Over the next thousand years, bronze gradually replaced stone as the main material for tool and weapon making.

Bronze spearhead, 1200-800 BC Spearhead MET DT4350.jpg
Bronze spearhead, 1200–800 BC

The bronze axehead, made by casting, was at first similar to its stone predecessors but then developed a socket for the wooden handle to fit into and a small loop or ring to make lashing the two together easier. Groups of unused axes are often found together, suggesting ritual deposits to some, but many archaeologists believe that elite groups collected bronze items and perhaps restricted their use among the wider population. Bronze swords of a graceful "leaf" shape, swelling gently from the handle before coming to a tip, have been found in considerable numbers, along with spear heads and arrow points.

The Mold Cape, c. 1900-1600 BC, is unique among survivals Mold cape 1.jpg
The Mold Cape, c.1900–1600 BC, is unique among survivals

Great Britain had large reserves of tin in what is now Cornwall and Devon in South West England and thus tin mining began. By around 1600 BC, the South-West experiencing a trade boom, as British tin was exported across Europe.

Bronze Age Britons were also skilled at making jewellery from gold, as well as occasional objects like the Rillaton Cup and Mold Cape. Many examples have been found in graves of the wealthy Wessex culture of Southern Britain, but they are not as frequent as Irish finds.

Lockington gold armrings, c. 2100-1900 BC Bronze Age gold banglesDSCF6609.jpg
Lockington gold armrings, c.2100–1900 BC

The greatest quantities of bronze objects found in what is now England were discovered in East Cambridgeshire, where the most important finds were recovered in Isleham (more than 6500 pieces). [20]

The earliest known metalworking building was found at Sigwells, Somerset, England. Several casting mould fragments were fitted to a Wilburton type sword held in Somerset County Museum. [21] They were found in association with cereal grain that has been dated to the 12th century BC by carbon dating.

Wessex culture

The rich Wessex culture developed in southern Great Britain during that time. The weather, previously warm and dry, became much wetter as the Bronze Age continued, which forced the population away from easily-defended sites in the hills and into the fertile valleys. Large livestock farms developed in the lowlands which appear to have contributed to economic growth and inspired increasing forest clearances.

Deverel-Rimbury culture

The Deverel-Rimbury culture began to emerge during the second half of the 'Middle Bronze Age' (c. 1400–1100 BC) to exploit the wetter conditions. Cornwall was a major source of tin for much of western Europe and copper was extracted from sites such as the Great Orme mine in Northern Wales. Social groups appear to have been tribal, but growing complexity and hierarchies became apparent.

Disruption of cultural patterns

Cadbury Castle Late Bronze Age hillfort Somerset cadbury castle modified.jpg
Cadbury Castle Late Bronze Age hillfort

There is evidence of a relatively large-scale disruption of cultural patterns (see Late Bronze Age collapse), which some scholars think may indicate an invasion (or at least a migration) into Southern Great Britain around the 12th century BC. The disruption was felt far beyond Britain, even beyond Europe, as most of the great Near Eastern empires collapsed (or experienced severe difficulties), and the Sea Peoples harried the entire Mediterranean basin around that time. Cremation was adopted as a burial practice, with cemeteries of urns containing cremated individuals appearing in the archaeological record. According to John T. Koch and others, the Celtic languages developed during the Late Bronze Age period in an intensely-trading-networked culture called the Atlantic Bronze Age, which included Britain, Ireland, France, Spain and Portugal, [22] [23] [24] [25] [26] but that stands in contrast to the more generally-accepted view that the Celtic languages developed earlier than that, with some cultural practices developing in the Hallstatt culture.

Late Bronze Age migration

In 2021, a major archaeogenetics study uncovered a migration into southern Britain during the 500-year period from 1300 to 800 BC. [27] The newcomers were genetically most similar to ancient individuals from Gaul and had higher levels of Early European Farmers ancestry. [27] From 1000 to 875 BC, their genetic marker swiftly spread through southern Britain, [28] which made up around half the ancestry of subsequent Iron Age people in that area, but not in northern Britain. [27] The "evidence suggests that, rather than a violent invasion or a single migratory event, the genetic structure of the population changed through sustained contacts between Britain and mainland Europe over several centuries, such as the movement of traders, intermarriage, and small scale movements of family groups". [28] The authors describe this as a "plausible vector for the spread of early Celtic languages into Britain". [27] There was much less migration into Britain during the Iron Age and so it is likely that Celtic had reached Britain before then. [27] The study also found that lactose tolerance rose swiftly in early Iron Age Britain, a thousand years before it became widespread in mainland Europe, which suggests that milk became a very important foodstuff in Britain at this time. [27]

See also

Related Research Articles

The Chalcolithic was an archaeological period characterized by the increasing use of smelted copper. It followed the Neolithic and preceded the Bronze Age. It occurred at different periods in different areas, but was absent in some parts of the world, such as Russia, where there was no well-defined Copper Age between the Stone and Bronze ages. Stone tools were still predominantly used during this period.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Stonehenge</span> Ancient monument in England

Stonehenge is a prehistoric megalithic structure on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, England, two miles (3 km) west of Amesbury. It consists of an outer ring of vertical sarsen standing stones, each around 13 feet (4.0 m) high, seven feet (2.1 m) wide, and weighing around 25 tons, topped by connecting horizontal lintel stones. Inside is a ring of smaller bluestones. Inside these are free-standing trilithons, two bulkier vertical sarsens joined by one lintel. The whole monument, now ruinous, is aligned towards the sunrise on the summer solstice and sunset on the winter solstice. The stones are set within earthworks in the middle of the densest complex of Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments in England, including several hundred tumuli.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Bell Beaker culture</span> Archaeological culture, 2800–1800 BC

The Bell Beaker culture, also known as the Bell Beaker complex or Bell Beaker phenomenon, is an archaeological culture named after the inverted-bell beaker drinking vessel used at the very beginning of the European Bronze Age, arising from around 2800 BC. Bell Beaker culture lasted in Britain from c. 2450 BC, with the appearance of single burial graves, until as late as 1800 BC, but in continental Europe only until 2300 BC, when it was succeeded by the Unetice culture. The culture was widely dispersed throughout Western Europe, being present in many regions of Iberia and stretching eastward to the Danubian plains, and northward to the islands of Great Britain and Ireland, and was also present in the islands of Sardinia and Sicily and some coastal areas in north-western Africa. The Bell Beaker phenomenon shows substantial regional variation, and a study from 2018 found that it was associated with genetically diverse populations.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Prehistoric Britain</span> Prehistoric human occupation of Britain

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Wessex culture</span>

The Wessex culture is the predominant prehistoric culture of central and southern Britain during the early Bronze Age, originally defined by the British archaeologist Stuart Piggott in 1938.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Únětice culture</span> Bronze Age archaeological culture in Central Europe

The Únětice culture, Aunjetitz culture or Unetician culture is an archaeological culture at the start of the Central European Bronze Age, dated roughly to about 2300–1600 BC. The eponymous site for this culture, the village of Únětice, is located in the central Czech Republic, northwest of Prague. There are about 1,400 documented Únětice culture sites in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, 550 sites in Poland, and, in Germany, about 500 sites and loose finds locations. The Únětice culture is also known from north-eastern Austria, and from western Ukraine.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Funnelbeaker culture</span> North-central European culture around 4300–2800 BCE

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Prehistory of Brittany</span>

This page concerns the prehistory of Brittany.

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Jersey dolmens</span> Neolithic sites in Jersey

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