The story of a Bronze Age hammer

In my mind’s eye I can picture the hammer kept in the small cupboard beneath my parent’s staircase in Glasgow. It’s well used, a faded sticker below the head  presumably gave instruction or warning – about fingers and nails or small inquisitive children. It is both a general and a particular object: interchangeable but wholly recognizable.

Tools have a symbolic power, perhaps because of their ambiguous role, serving  in comfortable, everyday tasks and in urgent acts of violence. The notion is well explored in Alan Spence’s play Sailmaker (1981). A toolkit that once belonged to Davie, a redundant Clydeside sailmaker, is discovered by his 11-year old son, Alec, wrapped in a soft canvas bag. In Spence’s hands the tools stand for the pernicious  tensions of 1960s Glasgow: between creativity within an obsolete shipbuilding tradition and violence within a cruelly deindustrialised city. There is meaning in the potential of tools, the sense of an ending: what finished glories have they helped launch? These themes are of course familiar to anyone interested in pre-history.

Alan Spence’s (1981) play Sailmaker

In the British Museum stores, I showed metalworker Neil Burridge a small Bronze Age socketed hammer, recovered from the Thames at Barnes (BM registration WG.1757). He immediately identified the unusual markings on the surface of the hammer as being wood grain: the longitudinal arrangements of 3,000-year-old organic fibres. Of course the hammer itself is made of copper alloy, but the model used in the stages of its production would have been carved from wood, and judging from the grain, not a very fine-grained species.

Socketed hammer from the Thames at Barnes (WG.1757) (above) and a wooden model showing the similar longitudinal markings of wood grain (below)

The observation raises some interesting points about the Bronze Age and how we study it. The first relates to the task-scape of Bronze Age people: in their hands this hammer could be wielded for any number of activities, from construction to metalworking and, indeed, woodworking and boat-building. The anthropologist and museum director Alexander Fenton studied the way that words and expressions, tools, equipment and techniques all become entangled with one another and within the daily and seasonal round of farmers in his native Aberdeenshire.  His work offers glimpses of the rich tapestry into which pre-historic tools were woven.

Alexander Fenton’s (1987) study of the entangled role of objects within the seasonal round of rural Aberdeenshire

The recent discoveries at Must Farm have shown just how important the wooden world was to communities in the first ages of metal – and how interconnected different material may have been. Every functioning axe needed a handle and the finished product was more than the sum of its finely crafted parts. Mark Knight has spoken eloquently of connecting tools to the signatures they left – and work has shed new light on the number of axes used to shape the wooden monument known as ‘Seahenge’. The metalwork only gains its full value when placed back in a fuller context.

The second point is how often archaeologists are consumed by the particular at the expense of the general and the general at the expense of the particular. We apply typology because it gives us structure but then overlook the individual characteristics of use and production that shed light on the biography of objects. At the same time we are consumed by all things bronze in the Bronze Age but neglect the rich worlds of wood and organics. This situation is changing thanks to spectacular recent discoveries of the White Horse Hill cist and Must Farm. It’s harder for older collections that lack such rich contextual details. But there are opportunities and glimmers. As Alec discovered in Sailmaker, our agency relies on what we make of the tools that we inherit.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Neil Burridge for his insights and providing the image of a wooden replica.

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