By Dr Neil Faulkner
Last updated 2011-02-17
Bronze Age grave goods
The Ringlemere Cup - Cups were common grave-goods in the Bronze Age (2200-700 BC). Usually made of pottery, they could sometimes be metal, and very occasionally gold. There are several examples of gold cups from continental Europe, but until recently the only one from Britain was that found in a cairn (a pile of stones over a burial) at Rillaton in Cornwall in the nineteenth century.
Then Cliff Bradshaw found another with his metal-detector on the site of a huge barrow (a mound of earth over a burial) at Ringlemere in Kent. About the size of a coffee mug, it has thin corrugated sides, punched dots beneath the rim, a rounded base, and a delicate little handle attached by rivets secured with lozenge-shaped washers. All this detail was immediately apparent to the finder: gold does not corrode but comes out of the ground as untarnished and beautiful as the day it was buried.
The tombs of Stonehenge - Some 30,000 Bronze Age cairns and barrows are known in Britain. Many have been ploughed flat and survive only as crop-marks on aerial photos ('ring-ditches'), but others can still be seen, marked 'tumulus' on OS maps.
Many barrows had a 'primary' burial in the middle and several 'secondary' ones around the edge. The dead were often provided with grave-goods, ranging from one or two simple pottery vessels to spectacular collections of ornaments and weapons.
The richest burials belonged to what archaeologists call 'the Wessex culture' of the Early Bronze Age (2200-1500 BC). These were the people who built Stonehenge - a temple for worshipping the sun and the ancestors - and there are over 250 round barrows within a two-mile radius of the stones.
A glitter of gold - The weapons in Wessex graves included bronze daggers with decorated handles and polished stone mace-heads. Among the personal ornaments were earrings, necklaces, belt-fittings, and decorative plates sewn onto clothing. Exotic foreign materials were used - amber, a fossilised resin from the Baltic, or jet, a shiny black stone from north Yorkshire that could be carved and polished.
Most spectacular were items of gold. The man in Bush Barrow close to Stonehenge was buried with two lozenges of sheet gold, a plate of gold with a hook from a belt or scabbard, and a gold-studded dagger pommel. A cairn at Mold in north Wales contained a skeleton with a golden cape over its shoulders - now a prize exhibit in the British Museum.
Bronze Age boozers - What were the cups found in so many of these graves for? Almost certainly for drinking alcohol - probably beer brewed from malted grain, or mead, a strong wine made from fermented honey. Chieftains may have organised communal feasts for high-ranking followers as a way of cementing allegiances. Weapons, ornaments and drinking sets were the status-symbols of the Bronze Age warrior elite.
Found in Ringlemere, Kent, by Cliff Bradshaw while searching with a metal detector.
Discover more amazing finds at the Portable Antiquities Scheme database.
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