A Bronze Age dark age in Britain?

10 Apr 2011

At www.bbc.co.uk/science-environment-12989605 - a large gap in prehistory, it seems, may indicate Britain underwent an economic slowdown between 800 and 500BC, where experts struggle to explain what was happening. The assumption is that bronze was in decline and iron was not yet in general everyday use. Neil Oliver, of BBC TV fame, says bronze axes had become a sort of proto-currency. It was a wealth that was divorced from its use as a metal and like modern economic bubbles it could burst - leading to economic meltdown. This is of course one way of looking at the evidence. The problem with this idea is that 800-500BC is associated with a climatic downturn, the transition from the sub-Boreal to the sub-Atlantic, terms that are now really redundant but useful in this instance to differentiate between the dryish conditions of the Late Bronze (1100-800) and the wetter and probably colder weather of 800-400BC. This may have occurred rather suddenly - and would explain an economic downturn, in one sense, or a movement of population from lower levels to higher ground (as indicated several years ago by Petra Dark of Reading University). In many respects this period is similar to the Late Roman/ sub-Roman period (5th and 6th centuries AD) when the water table in river valleys rose and lake levels increased, making the upland zone more attractive for settlement and farming. In addition, a talk to  Marlow Archaeological Society by Paul Tubb of Bristol University, a few weeks ago, emphasized that bronze axes were made solely for ritual purposes, and were too soft to have an everyday function. Hence, bronze axes disappear around 800BC - but is this because of a break in trade contact with Brittany, where a lot of them were manufactured, or was there a change in ritual dedications. He did not mention the rather obvious connection between such axes and meteorites or lightning bolts, but it could be that the 12th century BC event had been superseded by something else that ushered in the 800BC downturn - but what?

If bronze had mostly become a metal associated with ritual offerings, or even as a currency as suggested by Neil Oliver, then the various hoards of bronze, as outlined by Paul Tubb, have no actual connection with the well being of people in the mid first millennium BC. In fact, Tubb is of the opinion that during the Iron Age there were around 6 million people living in Britain, much higher than usually guessed. He arrives at this figure by experience, and extensive archaeological investigation in southern England. He says that this figure increased to as much as 12 million people during the Roman period - treble the normally recited figure which he says is trotted out by successive archaeologists as a repetitive number without due consideration of new discoveries. Tubb's speciality has become, over the years, the early Iron Age and what are known as black earth deposits - the remains of great feasting events. He says the period is associated with showing off. This projection of status and wealth actually avoided tribal warfare - quite the reverse of what previous archaeologists have assumed. Hill forts are not really defensive structures he argues, but also a display of wealth and status - and therefore they have nothing to do with endemic tribal warfare, the general picture presented in history books of the Celts. Hill forts came to their most prominent state in the Late Iron Age - and proved absolutely useless when the Romans invaded. They developed out of enclosures and are often located close to black earth deposits of the Early Iron Age, and are often adaptations of earlier Bronze Age earth features in the landscape. Now, when we combine this evidence with a possible C14 anomaly as outlined by Bob Porter in SIS Workshop 2011:1, an error of some 180 years (or very nearly so) what might that mean for the 800-500BC period? Might Neil Oliver's early Iron Age economic crisis really be due to such a dark age - a missing couple of centuries. Paul Tubb is adamant the Iron Age chieftains were wealthy and powerful people, quite different from the picture presented by Oliver. Tubb was also very unimpressed by the C14 data for the early to mid Iron Age in Britain - as it was anomalous (but did not actually spell out what the problem was).