Is the great age of the Stonehenge and Avebury stone circles in southern England related to arsenic copper mining in Ross Island, Ireland? (I’ve just found Andrew Sherratt’s paper which said bits of this in 1996).
Britain is an island mostly surrounded by cliffs. These result from the sea’s relentless erosion of the island’s landscape. Some of those cliffs are crumbly, with beaches below them. However, in the west, where the rocks are old and crystalline, the coast is scarily jagged.
Britain’s coast is also attacked by prevailing winds from the south-west, which induce strong swells that hit the west coast in huge waves. These concentrate their energy on any part of the coast that juts out into the sea.
So it is little wonder that the Cornish coast, with it’s fearsome cliffs, unseen reefs and wild seas (true also, but to a lesser extent, of Pembrokeshire), has been the stuff of nightmares for sailors through the ages. Any sailors journeying from France to Ireland negotiate the Cornish coast at their peril.
Step back into the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age, around 2500 to 2100BC and the seas are likely to have been similarly wild. But back then the boats would have been smaller, held together not by nails but by twine and rope, and altogether more fragile.
Why anyone would wish to travel this dangerous sea route back then perhaps seems an odd question. But there was a reason. For at this time the first recorded mining operations in the British Isles were taking place – the mining of copper sulphide ores at Ross Island, in the south west of Ireland, dated to between 2500 and 2000BC.
The value of Irish arsenic bronze
Copper was a familiar substance in continental Europe in the middle of the third millennium BC. Indeed the introduction of smelting techniques to Ireland is likely to have been from the continent. Many north European graves contain copper daggers, for example, that come from various copper sources around Europe. Whilst copper was valuable at this time, it wasn’t that valuable.
What is odd about the copper ores of Ross Island is that, unlike most others in the British Isles, they are rich in arsenic. This makes them difficult to smelt (i.e. turn into copper metal) but when the resulting metal is hammered to remove bubbles it becomes very hard and strong. Because of this property it is often called ‘arsenic bronze’ or ‘arsenical bronze’.
Sources of arsenic-rich copper ore are relatively rare in western Europe, the two main ones being Ireland and south and west Iberia. The ore’s hardness after smelting and working, its silvery sheen and its rarity conspired to make arsenic copper much more precious than ordinary copper. Perhaps because of this it was an important export to both Britain and Europe beyond.
Proper bronze, made by combining copper with a little tin, was first produced in Britain a little bit later, around 2100BC. This is about the same time as there is evidence for other copper mines being opened up around the British Isles. Tin can can be found in northern Europe as well as Cornwall. So once tin mines were being used arsenic copper lost its value. But for perhaps two or three hundred years around 2500 to 2000BC Ireland was producing a rare and highly valuable product for north Europeans.
Trade routes to Ireland
At the time when arsenic bronze was possibly being exported to Europe from Ireland European traders must have been attempting the journey from the continent to Ireland and back. Is there any chance that they would have baulked at negotiating Cornwall’s headland, instead choosing either to take a land route across southern England or to negotiate with southern English middlemen?
This is not a decision to be taken lightly. Boats can carry far more than any pack animals. Middlemen take their own cut. All in all much better profits are to be made from the sea journey. But if it meant the difference between life and death traders might just have opted for the land route and England’s middlemen.
Trade routes leading from the south or east coasts of England to the west coast are various, but limited in number. Due to England’s extensive forest cover at the time, these routes might either follow the high open chalk ridges or the larger rivers. There are not really any other choices.
And this is where my suspicions are aroused about the great stone circles of Wessex in southern England.
Stonehenge and Avebury at trade hubs
Stone circles were built in Britain over a wide period of time, perhaps from the late 4th millennium to around 1700 BC. Many early circles, such as those near Langdale in the north of England, are associated with stone axe manufacture and may have served as both religious sites and market places for local trade of goods.
But there appears to have been a short episode of stone circle elaboration around the period 2500 to 2200BC in southern England, predominantly in Wessex. The major phase of Stonehenge certainly appears in this phase and current evidence suggests that Avebury’s expansion and avenue building was at this time too.
Avebury sits at a point in the landscape at the head of the Kennet River leading east to the Thames and out into the southern North Sea (it is also at the end of a chalk ridge which ultimately leads to the east coast around Norfolk). In the other direction, a few miles to the west, it is possible to join the Bristol Avon, which leads down to the Severn Estuary on the west coast. This is a pretty good route for crossing southern Britain without negotiating the Cornish coast.
Stonehenge, and its associated ‘settlement’ at Durrington Walls, sit by the Hampshire Avon, which leads to the south coast. Up river one can follow the Hampshire Avon on toward Avebury again, and again follow down to the Bristol Avon. Alternatively one can follow the River Wylye and take this route to connect to the Bristol Avon and out to the Severn. Both routes are again good for avoiding Cornwall* (I’m not the first to have noticed this link but I’m damned if I can find the paper from the academic who first suggested it in the 1990s).
These are not the only routes possible through southern England. For example, following the Thames east up into its tributaries in the Cotswolds and joining the River Severn to the west is another possibility. But many such rivers, such as those of Devon, are small, steep and rocky and would not be good for transport. The advantages of going along gentle rivers through the chalky lowlands of southern England are the lack of stones and hence, a lack of rapids. So the Kennet and Avon routes may have been the best.
So is there any archaeological evidence of these trade connections through Wessex?
Bell beakers, incomers and locals
Bell beakers are a form of pottery widespread in continental western Europe during the third millennium. There has been a long and tortuous debate, which I shall not go into here, about how these Bell beakers spread from continental Europe to Britain and Ireland around 2500BC. However, the pattern of spread of bell beakers from Europe indicates that they spread to Ireland through southern England.
Beaker pottery may have initially been traded. Some of it will have come with people from the continent, after a time it will have been made locally. But the rapid spread of this fashion from Europe around 2500BC after several hundred years of very conservative pottery styles in Britain (e.g. grooved ware) indicates hugely increased contacts with Europe.
To me it seems that the first flowering of sophisticated societies in Wessex in the second half of the third millennium BC was based on some kind of trade with Europe. This trade brought European goods, such as beakers, as well as European ideas into southern England. In a more distorted form, those same goods and ideas also reached Ireland.
The trade of goods back to Europe may well have been, at least in part, of highly valuable arsenic bronze. I suspect that what made Wessex flourish was that ability to control the trade from Ireland to the continent.§
The middlemen and traders living and working in southern England could have worked together. More likely they formed rival centres, with settlements of people living (all year) at Durrington Walls, near Stonehenge and, arguably, in the West Kennet enclosures near Avebury. And during that early flowering of culture, based on the arsenic bronze trade from Ireland, they built the great monuments at Avebury and Stonehenge (and perhaps Stanton Drew) that we see today.
Cunliffe, B. 2008 Taking to the Sea – Crossing the Peninsula: 2800-1300BC. In “Europe between the Oceans: 9000BC-AD1000”. 179-227.
Gillings, M. & Pollard, J. 2004 Avebury, Duckworth, pp211.
Ixer, & Budd 1998 Mineralogy of Bronze Age copper ores from the British Isles: implications for the composition of early metalwork. Oxford Journal of Archaeology 17, 15-41.
O’Brien, W. 1995 Ross Island and the origins of Irish-British metallurgy. In “Ireland in the Bronze Age” Waddell and Twohig. 38-48.
Parker Pearson et al. 2007 The age of Stonehenge. Antiquity 81, 617-639.
Savory, H.N. 1978 Some Iberian influences on the Copper Age pottery of the Irish Channel area. Boletin del Seminario de Estudios de Arte y Arqueologia Valladolid 44, 5-13.
Sherratt, A. 1996 Why Wessex? The Avon route in later British prehistory, Oxford Journal of Archaeology 15, 211-234.
(an article I remember being delighted to find the abstract of as it was this same idea, admittedly about ten years before I had it, then forgetting, but now finding again… and it turns out to be Andrew Sherratt. Andrew, I’m so sorry you’re gone.)
piece of article in: http://docs7.chomikuj.pl/1434969324,PL,0,0,Sherratt-A-1996—Why-Wessex.pdf
* It should be pointed out that, as with other traders in history, only the return route from inland tended to be downriver. The route inland often follows open country. The chalk downlands south of Stonehenge would provide such a route from the south coast. The return journey downriver would return you to near where you set off from.
§ The control of trade crossing a peninsula is probably not unique. A similar situation could also be true of the Armorican peninsula in France, where avoidance of the dangerous western headland may have been important in encouraging the existence of sophisticated societies in Armorica.