Twenty years of Bronze Age ‘Treasure’ in England and Wales: What have metal detectorists done for us?

The Treasure Act celebrated its 20th anniversary last year and numerous events were organised by the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) to mark the occasion across England and Wales.

I found myself being asked to summarise what we have learnt from 20 years of Bronze Age ‘Treasure’ cases (those finds dating to c.2500 to 800 BC). In theory it was a relatively easy brief to fulfil. Many finds reported through the ‘Treasure process’ have become key objects in museum collections across the land. In the British Museum, the Ringlemere Cup and the unique goldwork hoard from Woolaston in Gloucestershire are key recent Treasure acquisitions. Both finds are also linked to fieldwork that has illuminated the context of their deposition. The same can be said for many regional and local museum collections: the ‘Near Lewes’ hoard in Lewes Castle and Barbican House Museum, the ‘Near Wylye’ hoard in Salisbury Museum, the ‘Tarrant Valley’ lunula in Dorset County Museum and the East Cambridgeshire ‘great gold’ torc in Ely Museum. The list continues to grow and stimulate new projects and ways of thinking about museum practice and PAS object recording, including the use of 3D in recording finds, some of which are returned to their finders (Figure 1).

Figure 1: A Bronze Age Sussex Loop Bracelet from the ‘Near Lewes’ hoard, by The British Museum featured on Sketchfab

But beyond the important impact of special finds – about which so much could said – I started to wonder about the broader, cumulative value of two decades worth of data.

The number of Bronze Age Treasure finds reported has risen substantially over the course of the last 20 years (Figure 2), especially after 2002, when a new Designation Order meant that prehistoric base metal finds (or ‘hoards’) of two or more objects were considered to be Treasure alongside precious metal finds.

screen-shot-2018-02-28-at-11-47-35-e1519823955873.pngFigure 2: Histogram showing the number of Bronze Age Treasure cases reported between 1997 and 2017 (the case numbers for 2016 and 2017 are yet to be finalised)

As in many jobs, the quantity of work and email that reaches museum curators can be challenging. It is tempting to be reactive without pausing to reflect or take stock. In December 2017, I began to do exactly this. With the help of colleagues from the British Museum, I extracted and started to review 20 years of Treasure cases from the PAS database: 464 cases were reviewed, all of which were public at the time (i.e. they had successfully gone through the Treasure process and been declared Treasure). Some single finds of precious metal, others were hoards of several hundred objects.

My research question was relatively simple: what is the date spread of Bronze Age finds recorded as Treasure. What ‘phases’ and sub-periods of the Bronze Age do they belong to? Ask any Bronze Age specialist about this and they’ll likely reply that the quantities of deposition rise in the course of the period: from a trickle of copper and gold in the earliest centuries (the ‘Chalcolithic’ and ‘Early Bronze Age’), through to a steadier flow of deposition during the Middle Bronze Age (especially the so called ‘Taunton’ and ‘Penard’ periods) as hoarding became the dominant mode of expression, and then reaches a peak during the final phase of the Bronze Age, when many of the largest so-called ‘scrap’ hoards were deposited. But ask the same specialists to describe the curve of deposition in detail or account for the changes in empirical terms and the question becomes rather harder to answer using up-to-date data. The database of Treasure finds can surely help in this regard? It should be straightforward. Or so I thought.

As in any multiuser database, inconsistencies have arisen. There have been differences of opinion over the date ranges applied to sub-periods within the Bronze Age and in when to apply them. Individually these inconsistencies are not a big problem for researchers but when trying to look across the dataset they make attempts to plot deposition much harder. In cleaning the data I edited around 75% of the records to bring them into line with one another and to refine them based on up-to-date thinking. Several can be further refined and this work is in progress, but the overarching results are shown in Figure 3. Several finds can only be assigned to a range of periods and the arrows beneath the X-axis indicate these vagaries.

Check.pngFigure 3: Histogram showing the date by period of Treasure cases reported between 2007 and (December 10th) 2017 (date periods are based on Rohl & Needham 1998)

This histogram allowed me to make some quite straightforward but intriguing points based on quantified data:

  • The earliest periods of copper bronze have indeed been represented by a low number of finds.
  • The Ewart Park copper alloy ‘spike’ during the Late Bronze Age is even greater than I suspected.
  • The Penard and Wilburton to Ewart Park goldwork ‘spikes’ are far more notable than I had appreciated.

That said, so much more remains to be said and to be teased out:

  • What types of object make up these ‘spikes’?
  • How to the single finds (not accounted for by the definition of Treasure) fit into the picture?
  • What are the distributions of finds and how does the picture vary regionally?
  • More to the point: what are the social, economic and ritual factors that underpin these changes?

But that’s for the next stage of my work. For the time being 20 years of valuable data has received a spring clean.

Acknowledgments:

Thanks to Rosie Weetch, Daniel Pett, Jennifer Wexler, the Portable Antiquities Scheme team at the British Museum and to all Find Liaison Officers involved in recording and reporting Treasure finds to date.

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