Bronze Age Overview - Northumberland National Park Download

To introduce children to the
Bronze Age using specific
landscapes and sites in the
Northumberland National
Park and North Pennines as
local case studies
Powerpoint Slides
Activity Sheets
Artefact Collection
KS 2 History: Changes from the
Stone Age to the Iron Age
KS 2 Science, Maths, Art and
Design, English
(See Activity Sheets for detailed
What does “Bronze Age” mean?
When was the Bronze Age?
What was Bronze Age life like in our area?
What was Bronze Age technology like?
What Bronze Age features are in our region?
Artefact Investigation
Bronze Age Casting
Bronze Age Cheese Making
Build a Bronze Age Cairn
Pottery Throughout Prehistory
Who’s Who in Prehistory
The Sum of its Parts – Compound Tools technology
End of Topic Review: Do “Archaeology Detective” or “Who’s Who in Prehistory”
activities, focusing on Bronze Age evidence.
End of all Topics Review: Do “Out of Order Story” focussing on all periods.
The Bronze Age is part of prehistory – “before history” or before written records.
The Bronze Age is a subdivision of the Three Age System (Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age).
The Three Age system was developed by Danish museum curator and antiquarian Christian
Jürgensen Thomsen (1788-1865) in 1816-1819, to order the collections of artefacts from
oldest to newest. Archaeologists have tinkered with this system and created many local
versions, subdivisions and revisions, but it’s still a useful way of thinking about the past.
The Bronze Age is characterized by the use of bronze (which is an alloy of copper and tin) to
make tools, jewellery, weapons and containers, but also changes in the way people lived.
Copper/Tin may have had to have been imported, showing that people were involved in
national and international trading networks. Peoples’ farming and everyday lifestyles
changed as well. For more information see What was Bronze Age life like in our region?
The Bronze Age in Northumberland dates from approximately 2,500 BC to around 700 BC.
The Bronze Age lies after the Neolithic period (4,000 BC to 2,000 BC) and before the Iron
Age (700 BC to AD 80). Bronze was first made in the Near East as early as 3300 to 3000 BC,
but it took a long time for the knowledge to travel west to Britain.
In Northumberland, there isn’t a definite line between the Neolithic and the Bronze Age.
Many sites are described as Neolithic/Early Bronze Age, because there was overlap in the
use of burial monuments, pottery types and the use of metal. However, in the same way
that the Mesolithic gradually changed to the Neolithic, people shifted to a different way of
living over several generations. In the Bronze Age, permanent settlements of timber and
stone were established, and people started to live the whole year in the same place.
Because they used their fields for farming and livestock all year, it became more important
to build field boundaries – out of banks of earth or stone – to divide up the land. As the
countryside became divided up, so did society – “social differentiation” became more
important. In other words, some people were “better off” than others by having more
influence in the community, more control of resources, and the ability to tell others what to
do. Archaeologists call these people “elites”.
Some archaeologists think that the emergence of elites was partly related to the use of
bronze. Bronze is an alloy of two metals, copper and tin, which melt at 1085C and 231.9C
respectively – learning how to keep a fire hot enough to do this was a specialist skill.
Although these materials are common in southern England, the idea of melting and mixing
them together to make a stronger, sharper metal may have been introduced from overseas.
The Bronze Age started in Europe before it did in Britain, and the earliest known bronze
artefacts in Britain are the same types as found on the Continent. So the people who had
the most connections (with Europe and with the south of England) and the knowledge of
how to make bronze may have become rich through trading bronze and become more
respected and powerful because of their knowledge and wealth (Frodsham 2004: 36). They
then passed this wealth and knowledge on to their children.
Significant deposits of tin are found in Cornwall in southwest Britain, and copper is more
common – trading tin may have been important to the Bronze Age economy. The wealth of
mineral resources in Britain (tin in Cornwall, and gold in Wales) might have encouraged the
Romans to invade Britain (Butler 2011: 27).
Another change was that people made weapons out of bronze. This is not to say that the
Neolithic period was completely peaceful! Examination of peoples’ skeletons shows many
injuries caused by blunt objects, axes, adzes and arrows – so it seems that when people
fought, they used their everyday tools or hunting equipment. For example, archaeologists
digging at the Causewayed Enclosure at Crickley Hill in Gloucestershire found hundreds of
Neolithic arrowheads at the gate, and the wooden palisade (a tall fence) had been burnt
down! In the Bronze Age, however, people created objects that were only useful for fighting
– swords and shields particularly. These are relatively rare – perhaps a sword was a sign that
the person who owned it had a lot of power and authority, as well as being able to fight,
while other people stuck to fighting with stone and wood weapons.
The climate in the Bronze Age (until 1200 BC) was warmer than today, so it was easier for
people to grow crops at high altitudes (over 300m). After 1200 BC the climate got colder
and wetter, and many settlements at these higher elevations were abandoned when it
became too hard for people to grow their crops.
Metal tools (with some stone): Bronze Age tools were made of bronze, but also of wood,
stone, leather and bone – all the materials that had previously been used in the Neolithic!
People probably continued using stone tools for a long time, because bronze was difficult to
make and may have been hard to get sometimes, or perhaps was mostly used by wealthy
people while everyday folk made do with much older technology.
Bronze is an alloy made by melting copper and tin and mixing them together. These two
metals melt at different temperatures (1085C and 931.9C) – learning how to make a fire
that burned hot enough was a special skill. Bronze objects were often made in casts, where
the molten alloy was poured into a cast the shape of the finished object. In this way, swords,
arrowheads and certain accessories were made. Bronze could also be hammered flat and
used to make bracelets, cuffs, pectoral plaques, or stretched into wire and twisted into
torcs, rings, armlets and earrings. Gold and silver were also used to make jewellery, as were
materials like amber and jet (see Kirkhaugh barrow in the Monuments section, below, for
more information on an important recent discovery).
There is a Bronze Age copper smelting video available here:
Pottery: Local styles of pottery from the Neolithic, like Grooved Ware and impressed wares,
continued to be made, and gradually developed into fashionable Bronze Age styles. A new
pottery style called Beaker pottery arrived in England in the Bronze Age – it was brought by
people from the Continent. In the 1920s, archaeologists used to think that “Beaker people”
came from Europe and took over, replacing all of the Neolithic people already living in
Britain! Now we understand that some people probably did come over, but it was the
lifestyle involved with Beaker pots that spread around. Although early Beaker pots are the
same as European ones, later examples have a unique British style. Many archaeologists
now think that Beaker pots were especially related to drinking beer! Beaker pots are often
found with metal objects, near ritual sites, and in graves. Perhaps beer drinking had a
special significance in the Bronze Age? Another sort of pot, called a collared urn, was used
for cremations: the top of the urn was probably covered with leather to keep the ashes in.
Shelter: People settled in permanent villages of roundhouses with stone or timber walls and
thatched roofs, sometimes surrounded by defensive walls. At Kidlandlee Dean north of
Alwinton in the Northumberland National Park, an excavation in 2005 found the remains of
a Bronze Age settlement, consisting of two separate agricultural enclosures and associated
dwellings. One house was excavated: it had a diameter of 5m, built on a platform with a low
stone bank forming the base of its circular wall. It seems that the wall itself was built of turf
walling. The house was surrounded by field boundaries which had been remodeled in at
least two phases, and there were 19 cairns nearby. Excavations have found that land use at
Kidlandlee has stretched from the late Neolithic right up to the late Iron Age (Cosgrove n.d.).
Over 100 Bronze Age settlements of one or more unenclosed roundhouses have been
identified through aerial photography in Northumberland, and most of these are in the
Cheviots (Frodsham 2004: 25). The fields belonging to these settlements also survive as long
low banks of earth or stone dividing up the landscape into small irregular parcels. Another
side effect of people clearing fields was the construction of “clearance cairns” – piles of
stones picked up out of fields to make planting easier, and piled up in heaps. Another timber
roundhouse 8.5m across was excavated at Bracken Rigg in Teesdale, and a 20ha complex of
house platforms, fields and clearance cairns at Hilton Beck in Scordale, in the North
Pennines AONB.
Monuments: A common type of Bronze Age site in our region is burial cairns and cists.
Burial cairns often consisted of a pile of stones built on top of a cist (a small stone chamber)
which was covered with a stone lid. Inside the cist, the body was placed along with other
items called “grave goods”. This is called a primary burial. Some cists were later used for
secondary burials, where cremated ashes inside an urn were added to the cist. The people
buried in this way seem to have been more important as they were buried with valuable
items like bronze daggers, jet necklaces and even gold jewellery, plus pots with food or
beer, and flint tools. Most Bronze Age burial mounds are found in north Northumberland
between the Tweed and the Coquet, but mounds in other areas might have been destroyed
by more recent farming and ploughing. Kirkhaugh, in the North Pennines, is one of the most
important Bronze Age sites in England – containing two barrows and a cairn, this site was
first excavated in 1935. One barrow contained a burial with a pot and a gold hair tress ring.
In 2014 this barrow was re-excavated and the second hair tress ring of the pair was
discovered! The burial also contained what was originally called a “pillow stone” but is now
known to be a small portable anvil for metalworking – a similar find is known from
Stonehenge. The Kirkhaugh finds are among the earliest finds of gold in Britain. It may be
that this burial represents a metalworker who had travelled to Kirkhaugh to search for gold,
as gold is often found near lead, and the North Pennines has many lead mines (but,
unfortunately, no gold) (P. Frodsham, pers. comm.. 2014).
Here is a link to the BBC news article on the 2014 discovery at Kirkhaugh: 4 August 2014
“Alston pupils unearth 4,000-year-old gold hair tress”
The mysterious “burnt mounds”: Another interesting type of site is called a burnt mound –
a big mound of burnt stones, often near hearths (fireplaces) and troughs. Examples of these
are known from Bradford Kaims by Lucker Village near Bamburgh, and Titlington Mount,
both in Northumberland. The stones were probably heated in the hearths and then put in
the troughs (which would have been filled with water). Stones that cracked from the heat
were thrown to the sides, making the mound of burnt stone that survives today.
Experimental archaeologists have found that you can boil water this way, and have been
able to cook meat, to heat water for making beer, for dyeing or “fulling” (heat-shrinking)
wool or fabric, or to make steam for a sauna – the burnt mounds may have resulted from
people heating water to do some or all of these things!
Perhaps…? In southern England, archaeologists have investigated residues left on the
insides of many pottery vessels – these residues come from the fat in milk. Because people
didn’t have refrigeration, they might have turned the milk into cheese to make it last longer.
They might have cooked milk and grain to make porridge, too. This may have happened in
our region as well, though archaeologists haven’t found these residues on pots here yet.
There are many Bronze Age features surviving in the landscape of Northumberland National
Park. These include cairns and field boundaries.
Lordenshaws and Simonside is a multi-period ancient landscape in the Northumberland
National Park, a short drive south of Rothbury. It contains features from the Neolithic,
Bronze Age and Iron Age as well as medieval and modern farming remains.
The best-known Bronze Age features at Lordenshaws and Simonside are the burial cairns.
There are several large cairns at the summit of Simonside Ridge, and the forest below
contains a Bronze Age cemetery of dozens of cairns and cists. In 1868, two bronze swords
and three bronze rings (probably used for fastening the swords to belts) were found under a
rock on the Simonside Hills. The cairns along Simonside Ridge can be very large – the cairn
at Dove Crag stands up to 2m high and measures almost 25 m across. A later small enclosure
or hut has been built into the side of the hut! Continuing along the path, you can see several
more large cairns which are also probably from the Bronze Age.
The cairns at Lordenshaws, on the other side of the road, differ somewhat from the cairns
on Simonside, because some of them reused the existing Neolithic rock art. As mentioned in
the Neolithic topic overview, it appears that cup and ring marked art was first made on
natural outcrops of exposed rock, and then these carved rocks were later incorporated into
other Neolithic ceremonial monuments including long cairns, stone circles, standing stones
and henges. By the early Bronze Age they were specifically included in burial monuments
(Waddington 2006). Changes in the use of rock art could indicate bigger changes in the way
people thought and lived throughout prehistory. As Bronze Age burial practice shifted to
burying individuals, rather than the communal burials of the Neolithic, this might be the
result of elite groups claiming ownership of the rock art as a special place (however this is
just one theory).There is an opened cist (the stone-lined chamber over which a burial cairn
is built) visible at Lordenshaws. Another type of cairn is called a tri-radial cairn – these cairns
have three arms. The meaning of these cairns is unclear – some researchers think they are
aligned to astronomical events (the summer and winter solstices) but more research is
Resources for excursions:
Park at the National Park car park between Simonside and Lordenshaws (signposted
off the B6342 south of Rothbury, follow the brown tourist information signs to
Additional parking, picnic tables and trees for shade are available in the Forestry
Commission car park, a 5 minute drive further down the same access road.
The nearest public toilets and shops are at Rothbury, a 10 minute drive further north
along the B6342.
Please refer to the Lordenshaws Excursion Hazard Identification sheet included in this
education pack for known hazards, nearby facilities and tips for arranging a site visit.
Introductions to Archaeology
Adams, Simon 2008. Archaeology Detectives. Oxford University Press: Oxford
Ganeri, Anita 2014. Life in the Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age (A Child’s History of
Britain). Raintree: Basingstoke.
Hibbert, Claire 2014. The History Detective Investigates: Stone Age to Iron Age. Wayland:
Hachette Children’s Books.
Many more books are listed at Best Books About Archaeology For Kids page on the
Best Children’s [website] URL: <> Accessed 15th August 2014
Prehistory in Northumberland and the North Pennines
Beckensall, Stan 2003. Prehistoric Northumberland. Tempus: Stroud.
Frodsham, Paul 2004. Archaeology in the Northumberland National Park. Council for British
Archaeology: York.
Frodsham, Paul 2006. In the Valley of the Sacred Mountain: an introduction to prehistoric
Upper Coquetdale 100 years after David Dippie Dixon. Northern Heritage: Newcastle Upon
Frodsham, Paul 2014. Conversation about Kirkhaugh excavations and gold hair tress ring. 16
August 2014.
Petts, David and Christopher Gerrard (eds) 2006, North-East Regional Research Framework
[.pdf]. URL: < > Accessed 1st
January 2014
Waddington, Clive & David Passmore 2004. Ancient Northumberland. Country Store:
Young, Robert, Paul Frodsham, Iain Hedley and Steven Speak 2004. An Archaeological
Research Framework for Northumberland National Park: Resource Assessment, Research
Agenda and Research Strategy – Section 4, Prehistory [.pdf] URL:
eologicalresearchframework > Accessed 1st January 2014
Bronze Age Britain and Europe
BBC 2003. Britain BC, a Channel 4 documentary based on Frances Pryor’s book of the same
Copley, M, R Berstan, V Straker, S Payne and R Evershed 2005. Darying in antiquity. II.
Evidence from absorbed lipid residues dating to the British Bronze Age. Journal of
Archaeological Science 32(4):505-521
English Heritage 2011. Introduction to Heritage Assets: Burnt Mounds [.pdf] URL:
Accessed 12th March 2014
Loktionov, Alex 2013 Something for everyone: a ritualistic interpretation of Bronze Age
burnt mounds from an ethnographic perspective. The Post-Hole No. 26 [online]:
O’Brien, William 1997. Bronze Age Copper Mining in Britain and Ireland (Shire Archaeology).
Shire Books.
Parker Pearson, Michael 2005. Bronze Age Britain. English Heritage
Pryor, Francis 2003. Britain BC: Life in Britain and Ireland before the Romans. Harper Collins:
Pryor, Francis 2008. Seahenge: A quest for life and death in Bronze Age Britain. Harper
Perennial: London.
Salque, M. P. Bogucki, J. Pyzel, I. Sobkowiak-Tabaka, R. Grygiel, M. Szmyt and R. Evershed
2013. Earliest evidence for cheese making in the sixth millennium BC in northern Europe.
Nature 493:522-525
BBC, n.d. Learning Zone Broadband Class Clips, Clip 13749 Bronze: The First Alloy [online
resource] URL: < > Accessed 21st August 2014
Bamburgh Research Project, 2014. Bradford Kaims Research Project [website] URL:
< > Accessed 12th July 2014
Cosgrove, Brian n.d. Kidlandlee Dean. Gefrin Website [website] URL:
< > Accessed 10th July 2014
Durbin, Gail, Susan Morris and Sue Wilkinson 1992. Learning from Objects: A Teacher’s
Guide. English Heritage: London. Now made freely available as a .pdf as part of an ongoing
digitization project to make previously published information about English Heritage
properties accessible to teachers. URL: < > Accessed 15th July 2014
North Pennines AONB, n.d. Bronze Age (c2300-800BC) [website] URL:
< > Accessed 10th August 2014