Bronze Age metal mining

Simon Timberlake, ‘New ideas on the exploitation of copper, tin, gold and lead ores in Bronze Age Britain: The mining, smelting and movement of metal’, Materials and Manufacturing Processes, 32 (2017), 709-727.

This is a review of the archaeological evidence for the mining of copper, tin, gold and lead in the Bronze Age (2100-800 BC). It presents a comprehensive account of all four metals and then links the evidence together in a new model of Bronze Age mining that contains some intriguing asides on the role of Cornish mineral resources.

The early source for copper in Britain was south west Ireland, where it was mined from 2400 to 1800 BC. Timberlake suggests that these Irish sources declined after 1500 BC, to be replaced by mines in Wales and the southern Pennines. Some of the 20 or so sites discovered in Britain were very small or just prospects. However, the mine at Great Orme on the north Welsh coast was an exception, becoming the first industrially worked copper mine, dominating production from 1500 to 1200 BC.

In describing the geography of British copper mining, Timberlake arrives at the ‘greatest enigma of all’. ‘Somewhat bizarrely’, one of the ‘areas richest in copper mineralization’ – south west Britain – has no evidence of Bronze Age copper mining. This is despite the region ‘including some of the best preserved and most intensively occupied and exploited Bronze Age landscapes in Britain’. Although stone hammers, anvils and mortar stones have been discovered in Cornwall, these are unprovenanced and there remains no evidence directly linking Bronze Age artefacts, copper mining and Cornish mines.

Others have suggested that intensive later mining activity, especially in coastal areas where the lodes would have been followed inland, may have removed the evidence. But Timberlake dismisses this, arguing that this is not the case in equally intensive districts such as Parys Mountain in Ynys Môn. It ‘cannot explain the complete absence of primitive mining tools’.

While evidence for Bronze Age copper mining in Cornwall is absent, there is good, though circumstantial, evidence for tin extraction from an early date. Cassiterites were being collected from the dawn of the Bronze Age. Timberlake offers 2100 BC as a date for the beginning of tin extraction, suggesting Cornwall could be the ‘European home of prehistoric tin’. All this of course was alluvial tin. And not just tin. The article goes on to outline evidence for Bronze Age gold extraction in Cornwall. It’s suggested that the search for alluvial gold, for which south west Britain was a major source, led to the discovery of alluvial tin.

The article concludes with a model, tying together the histories of the four metals (although lead appears to be marginal). Irish copper began arriving in Great Britain from 2400 BC and at the same time gold from the south west was making its way to Ireland. Timberlake argues that the absence of evidence of copper mining in the south west was because there was none. Hard-rock copper mining and alluvial tin streaming were ‘mutually exclusive’.

The reasons were political and economic. He suggests that there were agreements between regional groups of metal producers. These controlled the mining carried out on a part-time basis by pastoralists. The prestige and value of both metals was enhanced because access to them was only possible through alloying with another metal produced many miles away. Furthermore, he offers the theory that chiefdoms based further east in southern Britain may have controlled the trade between Wales and the south west.

Entrance to the Great Orme mines

After 1200 BC copper mining at Great Orme was replaced by recycled and imported copper. Yet tin from south west Britain continued to be exported, but now to Europe. The importance of the Atlantic coastal trade was superseded by cross-Channel trading. While tin from Cornwall (and Devon) became central to the ‘new world order’ of Late Bronze Age Europe there is sparse evidence of wealth in Cornwall, so possibly the trade was ‘never controlled from there’.

Just as in later millennia, it seems that Cornwall may have prospered from north-south trade along the Atlantic littoral as much as when it was a more peripheral adjunct to an economy centred on cross-Channel trade. Moreover, it was also unable to benefit from its own resources because of outside control. Lessons galore perhaps?

Incidentally, Simon Timberlake dedicates this article to the late Roger Penhallurick. His Tin in Antiquity (1986) set the benchmark for research on this topic, reinforcing Cornwall’s central role both in early mining and in its study.

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