The Bronze Age and its Prelude - Shining Land

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The ancient sites of West Penwith, Cornwall
Palden Jenkins
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The Bronze Age and its Prelude

Prehistory > The Bronze Age
Age of the Longstone Builders | The Bronze Age 2300-800 BCE

The Bronze Age and its Prelude
Extracted from the book Shining Land, by Palden Jenkins, chapters 17-20.

The megalithic period crossed the two ages, and in the initial two-thirds of the Bronze Age came the second phase, germinating around 2500, lifting off around 2300 BCE, peaking around 2200-1800, then continuing into a stable period up to 1500. The Bronze Age saw the building of stone circles and standing stones and a kind of high civilisation in Britain and Ireland.

The notion of a Bronze Age is rather misleading. The rise of the use of bronze around 2200 BCE was important, though in Penwith it was locally processed and crafted only from 1800 onward. Up to then tin ingots were exported in exchange for bronze products. Bronze as a metal is not the core issue or the trigger driving the rise of advanced megalithic civilisation, but it played a part.

There’s a confusion between the megalithic ascendancy and the beginning of the Bronze Age. In the preceding chapter it was suggested that menhir and stone circle building had already started when the Beaker influx and the ensuing use of copper and bronze came about. Even if the difference was but fifty years, which to us seems a short time, fifty years is significant. The new megalithic culture was cranking up around 2500-2400, and around Britain and Ireland it was even earlier, during the late Neolithic.

Dated from around 2300 to around 800 BCE, the Bronze Age is usually divided into three parts, the first two of which are megalithic in significance:

  • 2300-1500 early Bronze Age (eight centuries);
  • 1500-1200 middle Bronze Age (three centuries);
  • 1200-800  late Bronze Age (four centuries).

Here we’re interested in the early and middle Bronze Age. The peak of early Bronze Age civilisation was a zenith in British history and the high-point of the megalithic era. Things then cruised along for several centuries until 1500ish. In the subsequent period from 1500 to 1200 this formerly vibrant, innovative culture shifted toward observance of custom and tradition, and doing things because that’s the way we’ve always done them. Meanwhile, background changes were starting that led to the end of the megalithic period around 1200.

The Early Bronze Age

The Bronze Age was characterised by the adoption of bronze technologies. Penwith became an exporter of tin, also some copper and gold, while importing bronze tools and ornaments, mainly from Ireland and Wales. It is slightly strange that Penwithians did not seem to take up bronze-working until around 1800 BCE, even though they were well-connected by sea and would not have lacked access to knowhow. Perhaps the barter and trade system discouraged the growth of a local craft industry, just as countries rich in oil today often lack a normal range of economic activities to sustain themselves. Or perhaps there was a cultural consensus to keep life relatively simple.

Megalith building in Penwith grew to a peak between 2400 and 1800 BCE. By 1800 there are signs of a relatively dense population that might have reached 10,000. Reliable dating is vague, patchy and unsystematic, so the antiquity and sequences of megalithic construction remain shrouded in mist. The Bronze Age heyday saw the construction of a system of stone circles, menhirs, barrows and enclosures. Even so, Penwithians remained transhumant until 1500ish, as gardeners and small farmers, still gaining much of their nourishment from game, seafood and foraging.

They were seemingly not greatly smitten with material growth and did not settle into permanent, stone-built settlements until the decline of the megalithic period. This throws some light on the continuity of their worldview, still shamanic in basis, with an attitude of cooperation with nature and the world of spirit. Their tribal relations were largely communal and, while impacting on nature, they had something that later people progressively lost: a capacity to work with subtle energy, natural cycles and deeper forces, to foster land fertility and improve the fortunes of tribes.

Things morphed gradually as the centuries progressed, and this might have been a longterm effect of Beaker-modernising influences. While Beaker people will have merged into the population, they introduced new ideas when they came, introducing a new body of preference and opinion into the population – rather like, in today’s body politic in Britain, culturally the Conservatives can be traced back to the Normans while the Labour Party can be tracked back to the Saxons and Celts, a millennium and more before today.

In the late 2000s, memorialisation of individuals in cairns was uncommon and most funerary evidence consists of bone chips from many people stored together in urns – suggesting collective ancestor and tribal rites, not personal burials. Cairn burials were quite often around the edges, as if an afterthought or supplement, not a primary reason for cairn-building. As time progressed, by the 1500s BCE burials of the great and good in cairns and barrows became more common. This sign of elite ascendancy – a trend which, by the late 1000s, became distinct aristocrat-led stratification – symptomised a deep, slow, incremental shift from a cooperative toward a more competitive, hierarchical model of social organisation.

The Mid-2000s: Beaker Prelude to the Bronze Age

Recognised signs of activity emerged in Penwith from 2500ish onward – or so the rather fuzzy archaeological consensus goes. Yet the early stages of ancient sites such as Avebury, Stonehenge and those in the Hebrides and Orkney were built three to five centuries earlier. Even so, few, or no known remains from the centuries preceding 2500 are found in Penwith. This was either genuinely a fallow time, or insufficient evidence has been unearthed from this period, or insufficient dating work has been done, or ideas around the dating and sequencing of this period need re-examining.

The evolving situation in Britain was affected by the Beaker influx, a steady trickle of ideas, technologies and people migrating in the 2400s and 2300s from two regions: people from Brittany and Iberia went to Cornwall, Ireland and up the Irish Sea coast, and those from the Rhineland and Danube areas, arriving slightly later, settling in the east of Britain. A proportion were travellers and artisans who blazed a trail, followed over the years by families and relatives as settlers.

Here we need to backtrack. The proto-Celtic peoples of the Tagus valley in Iberia, arriving in Cornwall during the Neolithic, also occupied the Biscay and Brittany regions. They weren’t Celtic, but the proto-Celtic cultural and linguistic grouping was later to emerge among this array of peoples, after the fall of the megalithic era. Archaeologists call them Maritime Bell Beaker folk, based on a characteristic pottery drinking flask they made. These incomers had adopted copper working around 2700 in Iberia, toughening it with arsenic and sulphates to make an early form of bronze. Some migrated east to the Seine and Rhineland around 2600, while others migrated north to Biscay, Brittany, Britain and Ireland from 2500 onwards.

In Rhineland they met up with migrating peoples who had spread up the Danube valley. These were an intermixture of Neolithic Danubians (what Lithuanian archaeologist Maria Gimbutas called Old Europeans)[1] and Indo-European Kurgans who had migrated around 2800 BCE to the Danube region from Ukraine and Kazakhstan. Gimbutas identified the Danubians as a matrifocal goddess culture that was overwhelmed by the early-patriarchal, Indo-European Kurgans. The mingling of Atlantic with Danubian-Yamnaya peoples in the Danube and Rhineland headwater regions created a hybrid Bronze Age culture that archaeologists call the Corded Ware culture, after another style of drinking vessel.

Some of these hybrid folk migrated to eastern Britain around 2300-2200 BCE, later than the Atlantic people who had migrated to and through Cornwall around 2500-2300 from Brittany and Biscay. People entering Cornwall from Brittany and southwards brought with them new knowledge, as well as a capability in working in copper and, later, bronze. The Cornish had had contact with Beaker Bretons for a century or more through longstanding maritime contacts, so some Beaker ideas and innovations might have arrived before the people did. Here lies the likely origin of the proto-Celtic culture and languages. The Beaker people laid the foundations, then time and circumstance rolled on for over a millennium before the Celtic tongues and the shape of Celtic culture emerged during the late Bronze and the early Iron Ages. Proto-Celtic had become an Atlantic pan-tribal tongue used between peoples with differing languages and dialects,[2] moving up to Britain with the Beaker migrants, travellers and mariners.

The Beaker influx, so named after a characteristic style of pottery drinking vessel these people brought with them (they brought social boozing too), was a change-bringer. With the arrival of the Beaker folk, the Bronze Age lifted off. This influx wasn’t just about metallurgy: with it came advances in husbandry, land improvement, carpentry, building, textile weaving, tools, medicine and many other things, as well as greater social diversity and skill specialisation, new seed and animal stocks, ideas, designs and language.

Conceivably the influx created underlying divisions between the Britons – divisions between early adopters of Beaker culture and those not doing so. This concerned not just a classic rift between modernisers and traditionalists, but also a disparity between more and less accessible areas of Britain. Some researchers suggest that a form of cultural oppression took place, wherein the incomers competed for control of localities and ancient sites through cultural capture (though not destruction and conflict, for which there is no evidence). Or perhaps it was a case of gradual consolidation and relatively friendly settlement and intermixing. Migrant numbers were not enormous, yet it seems they were high-impact immigrants bringing ideas and influence. Perhaps by osmosis they gradually became a new elite or they merged easily into the existing one.

It seems that the incomers had a more hierarchical, individualistic social structure, while the indigenals were more communal and esoteric in outlook. Both had something to offer each other but there were contrasts. Over time an upswing grew out of the subsequent cultural fusion, intermixing and intermarriage. This period, the NBA or Neolithic-Bronze Age transition, is not at all clear in shape and sequence, and the scenarios portrayed here are a best guess.

The evidence that does exist suggests that new Beaker influences grafted onto an indigenous megalithic upswing already taking shape. The incomers didn’t seem quite as interested as the Britons in building sophisticated, esoteric megalithic constructions, though they did build barrows and cairns, based on the kurgan mounds. Long cairns, not a difficult invention to conceive, had already been built in Britain in the Neolithic era, so the Beaker people didn’t bring a new idea – perhaps they gave the Cornish added impetus to build cairns for their own geomantic purposes. Meanwhile, the Beaker folk tended toward using cairns for burial of their notables. Thus, there might have been a variety of motives and purposes for building cairns and barrows.

This intermingling of ideas and people led to the ascent of one of the great civilisations of prehistory which, by the 1800s BCE, was an exporter of ideas and knowledge, together with adornments, metals, crafts and clothing to Europe and the Mediterranean. Later, in the Iron Age, druids in Gaul and much of Europe looked up to the British druids, and this primacy probably began in the Bronze Age. Contrary to the customary archaeological tradition of diffusionism, which regards all things civilised to have come from the Near East into the barbarian lands of Europe, in some arenass the flow went in the other direction, with Britain as a cultural exporter.

Copper, an attractive metal and easily workable for adornments, mirrors, needles, cutting blades and utensils, improved people’s lives but it was too malleable for use in making tools needing a tougher material. Once the alloying of copper with tin was developed, producing hardened bronze around 2200, people’s capacities in farming, woodwork and crafts escalated because of the dramatic improvement in the durability and sharpness of knives, axes, ploughs and tools.

Recent studies have revealed a surprising 90% change in the genetics of the British sometime after 2300ish in the early Bronze Age.[3] This happened to a lesser extent across Europe. Prehistorians previously had it that the Beaker influx was an inflow of ideas more than of people. This suggests however, that people – specifically male genes – had a big impact. The indigenous female mitochondrial line remained intact while much of the indigenous male gene pool disappeared, to be replaced by Beaker-origin male genetics. It could have meant warfare, rape and pillage, though there is no evidence of these – the signs are that, if anything, the locals welcomed the incomers and the skills and ideas they brought. This implies a possible infertility crisis among indigenous males around the same time as the inward migration of Beaker males, many of them travellers, artisans and traders without families.

If this genetic change was caused by a pandemic-like disease affecting male fertility, no sign of mass graves has been found. The change may have been incremental, leading to a die-out and replacement of indigenous male genes over decades or a few generations. One possibility is that, given the tribal-communal society of the time, probably partially polyamorous, male Beaker DNA infiltrated the gene pool, replacing indigenous genes by accretion. As far as we know, genetic paternity was not clearly understood at the time, and social structures were such that identifying precisely whose children belonged to whom was not a primary concern. They were tribal children.

There are a few problems with this 90% finding, such as the small sample sizes used in the study and the limited areas they were taken from, so the matter is as yet unsettled. Genetic sampling was extracted from graves and cists, elite burials in a relatively cosmopolitan part of what is now England. The extent to which Beaker genetics spread across the whole population, especially in remoter areas such as Cornwall, is an open question.

A discovery in Sweden of the arrival of a disease at that time has found that the indigenous population there was wiped out by Yamnaya incomers from the Caucasus – ancestors of the blonder strain of modern Nordics.[4] This provides a viable, though as yet unconfirmed, hypothesis explaining this population replacement. Speculation has it that people in Britain and Scandinavia lacked immunity, so they could have been much reduced by the influx.

However, since the Cornish Beaker influx came from Brittany and Iberia, not central Europe, such immunity issues might have been less applicable here. Significant population replacement does seem to have happened across Britain, but perhaps not to the extent that has been claimed. There are no conclusive signs of significant population decline during the late 2000s but, if it lasted a few decades with numbers reviving soon after, the accuracy of archaeological dating techniques is insufficient to track changes on a small timescale of decades.

There’s another quandary too: this genetic change happened at roughly the same time as the building of copious numbers of Bronze Age monuments all over Britain – and this is not a sign of population decline. Such major construction projects require a buildup of spare capacity in a society to support the necessary work and skill-development. So, the later 2000s BCE contain many quandaries that remain to be cleared up.

[1] Maria Gimbutas wrote three noteworthy books in English: The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe (1974); The Language of the Goddess (1989), and The Civilization of the Goddess (1991).
[2] Cunliffe, Barry, The Ancient Celts, second ed, Oxford Univ Press, 2017, Ch 3.
[3] Ancient Britons ‘replaced’ by Newcomers, BBC News, 2018. | Olalde, I, et al, The Beaker Phenomenon and the Genomic Transformation of Northwest Europe, 2017.
Shining Land
A book by Palden Jenkins about the ancient sites of West Penwith in Cornwall
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