|30 June 2015
Cornwall was scene of prehistoric gold rush
New archaeological research is revealing that south-west Britain was the scene of a prehistoric gold rush. Geological estimates now indicate that up to 200 kilos of gold was extracted in the Early Bronze Age from Cornwall and West Devon's rivers - mainly between the 22nd and 17th centuries BCE.
New archaeological and metallurgical research suggests that substantial amounts were exported to Ireland, with smaller quantities probably also going to France. It also suggests that the elites of Stonehenge almost certainly likewise obtained their gold from the south-west peninsula, as may the rulers of north-west Wales, who took to wearing capes made of solid gold.
The archaeologist who has carried out the metallurgical research, Dr Chris Standish of Southampton University, believes that although Cornwall's prehistoric gold production was of considerable cultural and potentially political significance, it was, for the most part, merely a by-product of an even more important industry - tin extraction. "The available evidence strongly suggests that in Bronze Age Cornwall and West Devon, tin wasn't obtained through mining, but was instead extracted from the areas' rivers, probably through panning or sophisticated damming and sluicing systems," said Dr Standish. "But, as well as finding tin in the sand and gravels of the streams and rivers, they also found gold," he added.
Indeed, fine woolly sheepskins may well have been used to 'catch' the tiny grains of both tin and gold - in a technique similar to that which, in ancient Greek mythology, probably gave rise to the concept of the Golden Fleece. Cornish tin was crucial to the development of the Bronze Age in Western Europe, Britain and Ireland - because in order to make bronze, the prehistoric metalworkers had to combine copper with tin.
"It would almost certainly have attracted substantial numbers of prospectors. In an average year Bronze Age gold hunters there may well have been able to extract a total of more than 150 grams per year - with, conceivably, more than double that in a good year," said geologist, Simon Camm, a leading expert on Cornish gold and author of the only book ever written on the subject - Gold in the Counties of Cornwall and Devon.
Like much of the Cornish gold, some of the tin was almost certainly 'exported' to Ireland where it was mixed with Irish copper to make bronze. As the Bronze Age progressed, large quantities of tin were also exported to the great North Welsh copper mining area near Llandudno where it was used to make even greater quantities of bronze, especially bronze axes.
Although estimates suggest that up to 200 kilos of gold were extracted from the south-west peninsula during the Early Bronze Age, only around 270 gold artefacts from that period, totalling some eight kilos, have ever been found and recorded in Britain and Ireland.
Much of the gold was beaten into thin sheets that were then cut into crescent-shaped 'breast plates'. Recent research suggests that they may have been used as part of sun worship rituals. Unlike many Bronze Age treasures, they were not normally used as grave goods for the dead - but were instead buried in peat bogs and other places as votive offerings to the gods.
Sadly, the great majority of gold artifacts originally manufactured during that era were almost certainly repeatedly melted down over the centuries to manufacture later artifacts.
Edited from The Independent (4 June 2015)
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