Remarkable Bronze Age hoard in the United Kingdom uncovered by stunned archaeologists

Just when you think there can’t possibly be any more really incredible Bronze Age discoveries left to find, archaeologists in the United Kingdom hit the jackpot by unearthing the third-largest Bronze Age hoard the country has ever seen.

Spanning from 2500 BC until around 800 BC, the Bronze Age in Britain was an era of great cultural development and achievement, some of which can still be witnessed to this day.

For instance, Britons during this age built megaliths such as Stonehenge, which continues to awe us to this day. Britons also turned increasingly to agriculture and Celtic languages developed.


800px Stonehenge from the north
Stonehenge is just one of many megaliths constructed during the Bronze Age in Britain. Image via Wikimedia.

The Havering Hoard

As the name suggests, the Bronze Age is the era when humans began making tools and weapons out of metals instead of stone. And as such, ancient Britons often left these tools and weapons behind for us to find in the present day, either by burying them in rituals or discarding them.

Over time, these objects were largely forgotten. But we continue to uncover them all around the world, including the United Kingdom, where one of the largest such finds in that country has been discovered and is set to go on display at the Museum of London Docklands next year.

During an archaeological investigation last year in Rainham, which is located in the southeast coast of the United Kingdom, a team came upon a rare Bronze Age hoard dubbed the “Havering Hoard” buried in a pile weighing in at 100 pounds and consisting of 453 pieces, making it the third-largest such hoard ever found.


Excavation of the Havering Hoard c Archaeological Solutions Ltd
Archaeologists found the Havering hoard in a pile under the ground of a Bronze Age enclosure. Image via Museum of London Press.

According to Kate Sumnall, the curator of the upcoming exhibition, archaeologists have known that the site is a Bronze Age enclosure since aerial photographs were taken of the area in the 1960s.

“From the aerial photos we can see crop marks, so earthworks, which revealed the outline of a bronze age enclosure,” she explained to The Guardian. “We had no idea that there was going to be a hoard on site.”

And that hoard included a variety of Bronze Age objects such as swords, jewelry, and other pieces.

“We do have quite a few weapons, a lot of tools that relate to woodworking, so gouges, chisels, things like that, [and] we have a lot of objects that are used in metalworking – like ingots that would be melted down to be able to cast the bronze tools and weapons,” Sumnall said.

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This hoard is not even the first ever found on this particular site, but the fourth, and like all the others, it raises questions.

“It’s incredibly rare to have uncovered four separate hoards of such size on one site,” Museum of London Historic Environment Lead Roy Stephenson said in a press release. “This discovery is also of huge importance due to the deliberate placement of each deposit and raises questions as to why this treasure was buried in this way and why it was never recovered? These questions and more will be investigated in the exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands next year. We’re thrilled to be able to display this momentous discovery for the first time at the Museum of London Docklands as the centerpiece of a major exhibition in April 2020.”

The Havering Museum has put forward some plausible theories, including one that involves a blacksmith burying broken pieces for safekeeping.

Almost all the weapons appear to be partially broken or damaged, raising questions as to why these objects ended up being carefully buried in groups close together. The deliberate placement of these items may suggest a specialist metal worker operated in this area, and this large scale deposit of bronze may represent an accumulation of material akin to a vault, recycling bank or exchange. Could this treasure have been a religious offering, were they hoping to recycle the metal, control access to the material, or was it merely a rejection of bronze tools that were becoming outdated with the emergence of iron technology?

River Thames

Prehistoric and Roman Pottery specialist Andrew Peachey says that the site of the finding must have been a “special place” to Bronze Age peoples who lived there because of its proximity to the Thames River and that the location features beautiful sunrises and sunsets.

“The excavation has been an unprecedented opportunity and experience for our team to be able to excavate these intricate bronze hoards in such a valuable context,” he said. “The setting of many hoards is often unclear, but these were deliberately placed and aligned within a late Bronze Age enclosure so that we could excavate them in their entirety. The location of the enclosure and hoards, overlooking the River Thames, made for a dramatic setting, especially as the sun rose and set, highlighting that in prehistory this would have been a special location.”

River Thames from Canvey Island .uk 103279
The Thames River at sunset near Kent, the county where the hoard was discovered. Image via Wikimedia.

So, it’s possible the hoard may have had a religious or ceremonial purpose.

However, it also turns out that not all of the pieces were native. Some, especially the axe heads, appear to have come from continental Europe.

“Our site is not a little isolated site, it is much part of a bigger European connection, with a lot of trade, a lot of movement, a lot of communication of ideas and also of goods as well,” Sumnall said. “Either it is trading or it is people coming across, bringing their own stuff with them.”

The Battle Axe culture

Toward the end of the Stone Age and into the early Bronze Age, a battle-axe culture arose in Europe. However, the Havering hoard dates back to the Late Bronze Age circa 900-800 BC, so it’s likely unrelated to battle-axe culture, but the fact that these axe heads came from the continent means there may very well be a distant connection. After all, the culture stretched from eastern Europe all the way to France, and it would have only been a short sail to Rainham from there. Perhaps these axe heads are evolved versions of those made hundreds of years earlier.

Fortunately, hoard finds such as this one give us more knowledge about this time period.

“[Archaeologists] have found lots of Bronze Age sites in that area – enclosures, settlements, field systems,” Sumnall says. “[The Havering hoard] is not one of a kind, but rather interestingly it fits into a much bigger pattern and also gives us a little bit more evidence, a little bit more information, about the people who are living and working in this area in the Bronze Age.”

Axe heads found in 2010 as part of the Burnham hoard. Image via Wikimedia.

Historic England chief executive Duncan Wilson agrees and pointed out that it’s an example of the proper development procedure.

“This extraordinary discovery adds immensely to our understanding of Bronze Age life,” he said. “It also underlines the importance of planned assessment and, when appropriate, excavation in archaeological hotspots when new development comes along. The opportunity to investigate here and ultimately unearth the remarkable hoards that have come to light was only possible because of the effective partnership between archaeologists and developers. The finds have already taught us a great deal about this distant age, and on-going analysis and public outreach means that many more people will benefit from this window into the past thanks to this example of successful development-led archaeology.”

It’s an exciting find that will certainly capture the imagination of all who visit the exhibition in April 2020. There is still much for us to learn about the Bronze Age, and we continue to gain more insight into this time period with each new discovery.


Featured Image: Museum of London Press

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