How Can We Model Bronze Age Society in Britain?

Organisers: Paul Garwood (University of Birmingham), Ben Roberts (The British Museum) and Neil Wilkin (University of Birmingham)
Emails:  P.J.Garwood@bham.ac.uk, BRoberts@thebritishmuseum.ac.uk, NXW376@bham.ac.uk
Chair: Paul Garwood (University of Birmingham)

Over thirty years have passed since the last in-depth, over-arching narrative of Bronze Age society in Britainand Ireland (Burgess 1980). The intervening decades have seen a vast expansion in methodologies, theories and especially data. And yet the breadth of the resulting narratives has remained resolutely thematic – centred mainly on funerary, monumental, votive or settlement practices but rarely weaving together the complex strands of chronology, material culture, landscape and geography into a clear and coherent model. In contrast to the Iron Age, there have been no broad foundations against which to evaluate new ideas and discoveries. This session is concerned with opening the task to a wider audience by calling for new models of Bronze Age society using the wealth of recent data.

Burgess, C. 1980. The Age of Stonehenge, J.M. Dent

Introduction

Speakers: Ben Roberts (British Museum) & Neil Wilkin (University of Birmingham)
Emails: BRoberts@thebritishmuseum.ac.uk & NXW376@bham.ac.uk

Over thirty years have passed since the last in-depth, over-arching narrative of Bronze Age society in Britain and Ireland (Burgess 1980). The intervening decades have seen a vast expansion in methodologies, theories and especially data. And yet the breadth of the resulting narratives has remained resolutely thematic – centred mainly on funerary, monumental, votive or settlement practices but rarely weaving together the complex strands of chronology, material culture, landscape and geography into a clear and coherent model. In contrast to the Iron Age, there have been no broad foundations against which to evaluate new ideas and discoveries. This session is concerned with opening the task to a wider audience by calling for new models of Bronze Age society using the wealth of recent data

Burgess, C. 1980. The Age of Stonehenge, J.M. Dent

Metal brewtality? On scales & Bronze Age societies

Speaker: Marc Vander Linden (University of Leicester)
Email: mmagvl1@leicester.ac.uk

The Three Age system remains a potent interpretative scheme in prehistory. While Neolithic communities are pictured as farmers inhabiting an ever-complex landscape, Bronze Age societies are still often perceived as dominated by male prominent individuals, heavily resorting to bronze either as an economic currency, a source of prestige, or a display of war-like identities. Albeit this generalisation is admittedly very crude, it does highlight the importance of bronze in our social narratives of the period, at the expense of other sources of information. This paper will adopt an alternative standpoint, by focusing on the various scales of existing data, and what they can tell us about the various scales within Bronze Age societies. The importance of both micro- and macro-analyses will be stressed.

The Insensitive Landscape

Speaker: Bob Johnston (University of Sheffield)
Email: r.johnston@sheffield.ac.uk

Anthony Harding wrote in his authoritative synthesis of European Bronze Age societies that the ‘The Bronze Age “world” was, according to how you look at it, very large or very small’. This may seem self-evident, indeed prehistorians have long taken it for granted that social phenomena come in and out of focus at different analytical, and specifically spatial and temporal, scales. On the other hand, human experiences of the landscape may be said to be scale-insensitive, what the anthropologist Marilyn Strathern refers to in her essay ‘Environments within: an ethnographic commentary on scale’ as the ‘extensibility of the environment’: ‘values retain their relationships…and thus their significance, across different domains of life regardless of the dimensions of an event’. This paper will review the fundamental importance of scale in models of Bronze Age society, and discuss the efficacy of these models once the ontological status of a ‘scalar’ perspective has been challenged.

Framing the Bronze Age in Britain: establishing the parameters for creating societal models

Speaker: Ben Roberts (British Museum)
Email: broberts@thebritishmuseum.ac.uk

The majority of current ideas concerning the characteristics of Bronze Age society in Britain derive from 19thcentury scholars, many of whom regarded their interpretations as speculative at best. The absence of resolution in ongoing Bronze Age debates gives the impression that the societal questions being asked cannot be easily answered using the available data – even when that data is rapidly expanding in quality and quantity. This paper surveys the geographical, environmental and archaeological evidence for Bronze Age Britain to propose parameters within which social and political models can be created and evaluated.

E pluribus unum (ish): Integrating & comparing the metal & ceramic narratives for the late third millennium in Britain & Ireland

Speakers: Peter Bray (University of Oxford) & Neil Wilkin (University of Birmingham)
Emails: peter.bray@rlaha.ox.ac.uk & NXW376@bham.ac.uk

In Britain and Ireland, the end of the third millennium sees significant changes in many categories of archaeological evidence. There is a wealth of data available to link the use of new ceramic forms and the introduction of metalwork to underlying social and geographical structure. Based upon artefact typologies and chronological series, Bronze Age specialists have begun to create regional frameworks for each material’s use. Due to the expertise required and the difficulties of the archaeological record, interpretations of the metal and ceramic records often stand apart. This is obviously at odds with modern concerns of creating integrated chronologies, concepts of cross craftsmanship and the agency of objects, and the desire to build synthetic models of Bronze Age societies.

This paper presents a regional and period-by-period overview of the copper-alloy, ceramics and faience evidence for the late third millennium. This paper demonstrates the flow of influence between regional societies and also between materials. Its aim it to evaluate and test the traditional concepts promoted for each material against those drawn for the others. Extrapolations from individual materials about Bronze Age society often include stark debates over power, influence, wealth, identity, personal display, gender roles and memorialisation. In combination a more rounded model of Bronze Age society begins to emerge. We conclude that it is important that social models are inferred from the data upwards, without prioritising any one material. In short it wasn’t the “Bronze Age” or the “Beaker period”, it was a complex time that must be interpreted without recourse to simple labels.

What can burial evidence tell us about Bronze Age society in northern England:  a contextual approach

Speaker: Sam Walsh (University of Central Lancashire)
Email: SLWalsh@uclan.ac.uk

Past models of Bronze Age society have been focussed on patriarchal groups which revolve around ‘big men’ such as chiefs, warriors and metalworkers. However, the wide scale of the social relations involved in modelling society results in the removal of individuality and agency. Starting from a lower, context specific scale and building ideas on society, based on multiple case-studies may be a viable alternative. Within Bronze Age barrow studies, interpretations have relied heavily on grave-goods rather than the remains of the people who lived at this time. An osteo-archaeological study of round barrow burials in northern England reveals a variety of burial choices. A consideration of the burial processes which occurred at these sites both prior to and after the burial shows no evidence for a rigid identity across wide areas.

From henges to houses: thinking about Early Bronze Age society

Speaker: Jonathan Last (English Heritage)
Email: jonathan.last@english-heritage.org.uk

The 500 years or so of the Early Bronze Age in southern Britain saw a transformation of the landscape from one structured around monumental endeavours like Stonehenge to the emergence of field systems and land division – how did this happen? Over the last 30 or 40 years narratives of Early Bronze Age society have shifted from broad social models, particularly the identification of chiefdoms and territories, to the construction of individual identities and the interpretation of ritual, exchange and routine practices. In part this reflects a distrust of evolutionary models as well as a greater recognition of the complexities of the archaeological record. Yet the abandonment of grand narrative can leave long-term social change hard to comprehend. I suggest that one route to new social models is through the exploration of variability in the different analytical categories which we construct. In this paper I wish to explore some aspects of social change in the Early Bronze Age through the sites most characteristic of the period: round barrows.

Bronze Age pottery & “manières de faire”: underlying mechanisms of cultural diversity

Speaker: Sébastien Manem (University College London)
Email: s.manem@ucl.ac.uk

European Bronze Age cultures and archaeological materials are generally studied in terms of finished artefacts. In contrast, this paper is focused on the identification and the interpretation of technical behaviours in terms of cultural and social practices from southern England and Normandie. Technical behaviours represent a link with the body and mind, and are a consequence of the socio-cultural environment in which the individual developed. They are a complex result of a transmission of technical tradition or “manière de faire” from one generation to another and may change through the process of invention within a social group or with a technical transfer from another culture. The Chaîne Opératoire concept – observing the physical modalities by which the raw material is transformed into a finished pottery – permits to define and follow a link between people inside each culture and the interactions between European cultures with another angle. Finally, the analysis of the origin and evolution of technical tradition – endogeneous or ethnogenesis – provides a look at the underlying mechanisms of cultural diversity observed in the Bronze Age and permits to see the cultures in term of historical process.

Towards a Broader Picture – Regional Perspectives & Beyond

– Finding a methodological pathway between local studies & large-scale models, examples from the Scandinavian Bronze Age research

Poster Presenters: Anna Sörman (University of Stockholm) & Anna Wessman (University of Gothenburg)
Email: anna.sorman@ark.su.se & anna.wessman@gu.se

How can the increasing amount of archaeological data and the progressive results produced within the Bronze Age research over the past decades, be used to develop a new and updated picture of the Scandinavian Bronze Age society? We wish to give some methodological reflections upon this issue with the aim of counteracting what we see as the “theoretical dichotomy” between local and/or thematic perspectives and the broader concepts and traditional interpretations. The lack of integration between these perspectives and ambitions has resulted in research praxis where the general tendency is to have either one focus or the other. Surprisingly few studies bring up the relation between these two perspectives.

Thus, there is a need to explore how the results of local/regional or thematic patterns can contribute to the updating of broad-scale Bronze Age concepts, and how this can be emphasized methodologically. An increasing awareness of the need for a mediating approach is essential. With a more systematic and developed use of a bottom-up perspective stressing the relation between the micro- and macro perspective, the integration of recent perspectives in to a new, updated model of Scandinavian Bronze Age society will hopefully be enabled.

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