The Late Bronze Age in County Durham

One of the things that I really love about archaeology is that there is always something to learn. We might develop areas of specialty, but a single person could never learn it all (in fact, we could never learn it all because so much of archaeology is based on interpretations of evidence and our ideas and hypotheses that we form while trying to understand the actions and beliefs of people in the past).  Last year, I had the opportunity to write a treasure report on a hoard from the Late Bronze Age. I have a broad background in a lot of periods, but I have to confess that I haven’t spent much time studying this particular period! So, writing the report gave me the perfect opportunity to learn more.

In Britain, the Bronze Age lasts from about 2500 to 800 BC (around 1,700 years) and is divided into three sub-periods (early, middle, late). I’m not going to be able to go into detail about the period here, but I’ve included some useful resources below if you want to read more. In general though, this period is marked by the use of metals, agriculture, large megalithic monuments and changes to how the dead were buried. The Late Bronze Age is a very short sub-period of only 300 years: from 1000 to 700 BC. By the end of this period we see iron start to be used, but not in large quantities.

One practice that existed during the Late Bronze Age and other periods was ‘hoarding’, which is the deliberate burial of a group of objects. There are many reasons why a person might choose to do this, but in general we can say that some might have been buried for safe keeping and the owner intended to return to collect the stash at a later time. I like to think of these as a sort of bank deposit box or safe for putting valuables in. There are also some hoards that were probably buried without the intention of retrieving the objects in the future. In these cases there was probably a social significance for the burial that might be a ritual or spiritual reason. Sometimes the artefacts themselves can hint at the intentions (for example: high value objects or scrap for recycling), but often it can be difficult to know sometimes whether a hoard of objects was placed in the ground with the aim of returning, or whether they were simply not retrieved for other reasons.

When found, prehistoric hoards are usually legally classed as ‘Treasure’ because they’re a group of two or more metallic objects found in the same context. In this case they don’t need to contain gold or silver to be Treasure. As part of this process, a report needs to be written, which forms the permanent record for the find. Just like in a report that I would write for a commercial or research excavation, each object should be measured, weighed and described. Where possible, a discussion section should discuss the artefacts, make comparisons with other similar contemporary examples and place the find in a local, national, or even international context depending on the nature of the finds.

The report on the hoard that I wrote while working for the Portable Antiquities Scheme can be seen published here: DUR-F9B0D6 (Figure 1). It was found near Eggleston in County Durham in 2019 by a metal-detectorist. The village is located at the foot of the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It was a hoard dating to the Late Bronze Age, which I dated primarily from the spearhead type (pegged) and puts it in the Ewart Park phase (c. 1000-800 BC). There was also a Thorndon type knife (also pegged), a tanged knife, beads made from amber and jet, at least two bronze rings and three different types of bronze pins or nails.

Figure 1: The hoard from near Eggleston, County Durham (c) Durham County Council (CC BY).

From what I’ve learned about hoards from this period, these are all fairly typical objects. What may be more unusual is the very finely beaten and decorated scrap of gold foil (it was also impossible to photograph well!) and four decorated ‘terminals’ (Figure 2). The terminals are a cast cylinder shape with a hollow centre and they have an attachment flange sticking out to the side. They seem to have been cast in one piece because there’s no sign of any joins. On each of the terminals, one of the cylinder faces was decorated with concentric circles. Two of the terminals had a wooden attachment piece in the side flange. Although one of the wooden pieced had dropped out of  its terminal, the other was still attached and seems to be held in place by a piece of twisted string. I was really excited to see the string and fragment of wood because being organic, these types of components don’t often survive. The wood fragments were carefully carved  into domed shaped ends (presumably to fit onto something else) and are faceted from being carved.

In 2020 I gave a paper about this hoard to the Later Prehistoric Finds Group, which allowed me to build on the research I had done for the Treasure report. I wanted to draw attention to the hoard for its research potential given the terminals were so unusual and because of the surviving fragments of string. On its own, the hoard also lacked context because it was found by chance by a metal-detectorist. I wanted to find a way to situate the hoard within the other evidence we have for Late Bronze Age County Durham.

Figure 2: Decorated bronze terminal with wood peg inside and string (c) Durham County Council (CC BY).

What I found was that there were several other Late Bronze Age hoards from the west side of County Durham. There are several recorded on the PAS database, but perhaps the best known is the Gilmonby Hoard and Heathery Burn cave hoard. The Heathery Burn Cave hoard is in the British Museum and many of the objects are photographed or illustrated in their online catalogue. Both of these hoards were much larger than the Eggleston area hoard and had a greater range of object types.

I was also able to do a quick analysis of the Historic Environment Record data courtesy of the HER officer for Co. Durham, which showed that there was quite a lot of general Bronze Age activity in the western area of the county, but I would really need to do more research to review the evidence to refine this further to the later period.

The Eggleston area hoard certainly has the potential for further research, including identification of the wood and string material. I think it would also be beneficial to see an analysis of the Late Bronze Age material culture from the Pennines as well as a more detailed analysis of the archaeological landscape in an upland environment.

If you want to learn more about the Bronze Age more generally, you might be interested in these books:

Hunter, J., Ralston, I. 2009. The Archaeology of Britain. 2nd ed. London: Routledge. See Chapter 6 on the Later Bronze Age by Timothy Champion.

Parker Pearson, M. 2005. Bronze Age Britain. Batsford/English Heritage.

Petts, D., Gerrard, C. 2006. Shared Visions: The North-East Regional Research Framework for the Historic Environment. Durham County Council. See page 33 for a summary of the evidence for Late Bronze Age and Iron Age activity in the North East.

Header Image credits: (c) Durham County Council (CC BY)

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