26 July 2003
Supernatural power dressing
The 4,300-year-old burial of the ‘Amesbury Archer’ in Wiltshire (England), unearthed in 2003, was the richest early Bronze Age grave ever found in Britain. The grave goods comprised around 100 individual items and included copper knives, archery equipment and hair ornaments fashioned from the oldest worked gold so far discovered in the British Isles. It is has been a truism amongst archaeologists that rich burials of this kind are an indication of power and status – the Archer was immediately dubbed the ‘King of Stonehenge’ by the media – and that the more extravagant the grave goods, the more powerful the individual. But Alison Sheridan, Assistant Keeper of Archaeology at the National Museums of Scotland, argues that there was more to fine possessions than their function as symbols of power. Some of the finest prehistoric ornaments may have been worn as magical talismans, a kind of supernatural power dressing designed as much to influence the denizens of the Otherworld as to impress the occupants of this one.
The magical properties of talismanic ornaments reside in their constituent materials. Jet and amber, commonly used in the early Bronze Age, have also been attributed with magical powers by Romans and Vikings and were used in the Middle Ages and down to the recent past for healing, divination or to give power over evil spirits. The power of these materials seems to have resided in their electrostatic properties. In some cases the jewellery and dress accessories found in Britain and Ireland from the Copper and early Bronze Ages (c2400-1500 BCE) were made from a single material such as jet. But there are many examples of ornaments using a combination of materials, especially in the composite necklaces discovered in the rich grave deposits of Wessex. In this region jet beads and pendants have been found alongside beads of amber, bone, wood shell, stone and faience. Amongst the stone beads were fragments of stalactite from a Mendips cave – a classic otherworldly location – and fossil crinoids, the remains of tiny sea creatures that resemble segmented (concertina-shaped) faience beads.
Faience is a glass-like material made from a paste of sand or crushed quartz, mixed with an alkali such as plant ash, and a glaze. The paste is heated until vitrification occurs. The result is an opaque brittle material. Faience was first developed in Mesopotamia and Egypt in the 5th or early 4th millennium BCE. Until recently it was thought that faience was imported to Britain from the eastern Mediterranean in the 14th century BCE. Now new research on faience by the three national museums in Britain along with Andrew Shortland (of Oxford University's Research Laboratoryfor Archaeology & the History of Art) and Stanley Warren (formerly of Bradford University) suggests that the faience process arrived in Britain through contacts with the central European bronze industry, and that manufacture was indigenous to the British Isles. The ash mix in British faience differs markedly from the alkali composition used in the Near East and Mediterranean. Wessex was at a crossroads of exchange networks; demand for tin from south-west England increased with the growth in bronze manufacturing; and it seems that technical knowledge was one of the commodities that passed through this trading nexus.
Support for this idea is provided by a composite necklace found at Exloo (Netherlands). The beads were of tin, with others of faience, amber and recycled bronze. A second recent find, of a female grave in Bavaria, yielded a necklace made entirely of tin beads and dated to around 2000-1800 BCE. The form of the tin beads in both cases seems to be a deliberate imitation of the segmented faience bead type and it is thought that these examples, and even the Exloo faience beads, were made in southern England. More evidence linking faience with the tin trade is furnished by scanning electron microscopy which shows that faience beads from Britain and Ireland have a higher tin content than elsewhere in Europe and the Near East. Bronze shavings, copper alloyed with tin, were often used as a glaze colourant. Copper was certainly used in British faience, giving it a distinctive turquoise colour; but the high ratio of tin suggests that tin was added separately to glazes. There is, however, no technical reason for this addition, which in no way improves the final beads.
Alison Sheridan believes that the addition of tin reflected the status and value accorded to this raw material and was a way of flaunting wealth by individuals of elite standing. Further: that it may have had talismanic importance as a ‘magical’ material, since its production involves a transformation from a matt black substance to one that is silvery and shiny. By adding tin the makers may have been enhancing the magical properties of an already numinous material, whose turquoise colour may have had symbolic significance of its own. And if, as seems possible, faience manufacture was the preserve of metal workers, then its mysteriousness would have been emphasised. Metal workers were often regarded as magicians in early societies, an impression that they did nothing to dispel! Faience, then, seems to take its place alongside jet, amber and other rare materials as a token of transcendental power.
If the theory of supernatural power dressing is correct, it explains the extraordinary efforts made by ancient elites to acquire rare and unusual adornments. Their prehistoric owners were, by definition, powerful in this world, but they seemed to be taking every precaution as they approached the next.
Source: British Archaeology, Issue 70 (May 2003)