Stonehenge, Avebury, Ross Island and the perils of the Cornish coast

by Edward Pegler on 8 May, 2010

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).

lands end with a sign saying 'dangerous cliffs'

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.

Dangerous headlands

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.

blue water above an old mine shaft, Ross Island

Old Ross Island mine workings

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

map of British Isles showing location of Ross Island copper mine and the suggested late Neolithic trade routes through southern Britain via Stonehenge and Avebury

Possible trade routes through southern Britain from the continent on to Ireland, going via Avebury and Stonehenge.

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. InIreland 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:,PL,0,0,Sherratt-A-1996—Why-Wessex.pdf


Photos by fingermouse and Matt Chotin.


* 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.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

GCU In two minds April 2, 2011 at 3:44 pm

Dear Edward
One of my future co-writers will whitter on about the Amesbury Archer being an archeometaurgist based on her Barabra Cartlandesque beliefs.
I just give warning that the scientific basis does not support this.

Our most recent work suggests that SH orthoststs, if moved by man, come from a range of sites none-of which make any trade route sense.

Also is the proposed first movement of the bluestones EBA?? or before then was Ross Island but a twinkle in the eye of the SH builders.


Edward Pegler April 2, 2011 at 6:35 pm

Dear Rob

Thanks for the comment. Let me know when the paper comes out. I suspect I agree that the ‘archer’ was not an archaeometallurgist. The artefacts don’t say anything except that he was high status.

I’m starting to think (?) that you are starting to feel more comfortable with ‘bluestones’ moved by ice. This seems perfectly reasonable, but I’m not sure that they were ever delivered to Salisbury Plain, as argued by Brian Johns, say. I can perfectly cope with the Somerset coast or perhaps a little further, but there are just too many problems with the lack of evidence for large stones in the plain’s long barrows. This seems like an overwhelming problem for pre-Neolithic arrival.

I’m interested in whether there has been any further opinion offered on the idea of the bluestone setting in the Aubrey holes. This seems to have been accepted without question and that worries me. Whatever, I think that the sarsen setting at Stonehenge still seems to be mid to late third millennium BC.

As for whether there’s any connection to Ross Island, anything I say is only a guess and it seemed a neat idea at the time. All that I can ever be proved is wrong.

However, I really appreciate your comments. Could you direct me to some online papers that will make your case in more detail?

best regards



GCU In two minds February 19, 2011 at 3:49 pm

The largest source of prehistoric arsenic copper is the Alps and southern Germany. Ross Island is rather small compared with those.

I accuse those of propsing links between Ross Island, SH, the Amesbury Archer and his red bracer of belonging to the Mills and Boon school of Archaeology.No facts, emasculated heros and twaddle.


Edward Pegler February 19, 2011 at 10:34 pm

Dear Rob

Thanks for the (admittedly negative) comment. I have no particular axe to grind and I’m here to learn. I know that you have a strong background in mineralogy and archaeometallurgy. Could you possibly expand on your critique?

regards Ned


TONY HINCHLIFFE September 19, 2010 at 6:47 pm

Dear Ned,

Yes, I shall be at the Prehistoric Geography talk by David Field which I anticipate should be very good. He worked on this summer’s excavations at Marden Henge near the infant Hampshire Avon and has worked for English Heritage on Salisbury Plain sites for many years.


TONY HINCHLIFFE September 18, 2010 at 7:03 pm

Hi Ed,
as a Geographer and henge enthusiast, I find this theory fascinating. Stanton Drew and Marden henges are back in the news again as well as the Stonehenge Riverside Project’s work: was Wessex at a crucial pivotal and focal point in the movement of arsenic copper? Others have suggested a link between the movement of Southern Ireland’s copper and a possible reverence for the Preselly Hills and their bluestone e.g. Parker Pearson, Cunliffe
Your theory may help account for the density of “Super Henges” in a small part of Wessex, close to both River Avons.
David Field, an eminent Wessex area field archaeologist, is giving a talk entitled “Prehistoric Geography: Neolithic and Early Bronze age land use in the Solent (ie Hampshire Avon) drainage system” on Saturday 20th November to the Wiltshire Archaeological Society at Devizes.


Edward Pegler September 19, 2010 at 9:43 am

Dear Tony

Thanks for the positive comment. I suspect that something similar may be true, on a smaller scale, for places such as the Kilmartin area in Argyll.

Also thanks for letting me know about the meeting ( I shall endeavour to be there. Will you?



Geoff Carter June 12, 2010 at 5:28 pm

Hi Ned
Parys Mountain on Anglesey, was one of the largest copper mines in Europe, & dates back to the BA. [& It is an amazing place to visit]


Geoff Carter May 31, 2010 at 9:01 pm

[Sorry not to comment earlier], I enjoyed this, you make some interesting points, although I see beakers as the arrival of a new elite.
I think there is also an important point about arsenical copper, it makes difference for tools, and is a significant phase of metallurgy pre-dating bronze in the Mediterranean.
Another issue is the ratio of wood/charcoal required to smelt the ore; it can be easier to move the ore to the fuel source.

Ever wondered why Anglesey was a centre of druid power in the following millennium?


Edward Pegler June 7, 2010 at 9:26 pm

Dear Geoff

It’s only an idea, one which has been festering for a few years. As for the arrival of beakers, there’s nothing like new wealth to get someone muscling in on the act and continentals would undoubtedly have turned up. I’m not sure when however. I think the argument for Spaniards or people from even further afield prospecting for the ores is highly likely, so there must have been incomers even at the beginning. How many I don’t know. Would they, could they have shipped the raw ore back from Ireland? I have considered it.

I also played at one point with people having to avoid the Pembrokeshire coast and so crossing the Peninsula there (links with prescelly bluestones etc etc)… amusingly the welsh world for copper is “pres” (although I suspect it’s origins are quite recent).

As for Anglesey I don’t know. I guess the Great Orme copper mines are significant but copper had lost some of its value by then, with tin being the big export. However, if you go even further north you can start playing with an arsenical copper trade route from Ireland, past Arran, across Argyll and along the west coast of mainland Scotland and past Orkney to Denmark… there’s even a small blob of arsenical copper from the Uists I believe… but that story probably really is fantasy.

love Ned


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