Archaeologists discover evidence of prehistoric gold trade route

Archaeologists at the University of Southampton have found evidence of an ancient gold trade route between the south-west of the UK and Ireland. A study suggests people were trading gold between the two countries as far back as the early Bronze Age (2500BC).

The research, in collaboration with the University of Bristol, used a new technique to measure the chemical composition of some of the earliest gold artefacts in Ireland. Findings show the objects were actually made from imported gold, rather than Irish. Furthermore, this gold is most likely to have come from Cornwall.

Lead author Dr Chris Standish says: “This is an unexpected and particularly interesting result as it suggests that Bronze Age gold workers in Ireland were making artefacts out of material sourced from outside of the country, despite the existence of a number of easily-accessible and rich gold deposits found locally.

“It is unlikely that knowledge of how to extract gold didn’t exist in Ireland, as we see large scale exploitation of other metals. It is more probable that an ‘exotic’ origin was cherished as a key property of gold and was an important reason behind why it was imported for production.”

The researchers used an advanced technique called laser ablation mass spectrometry to sample gold from 50 early Bronze Age artefacts in the collections of the National Museum of Ireland, such as; basket ornaments, discs and lunula (necklaces). They measured isotopes of lead in tiny fragments and made a comparison with the composition of gold deposits found in a variety of locations. After further analysis, the archaeologists concluded that the gold in the objects most likely originates from Cornwall, rather than Ireland – possibly extracted and traded as part of the tin mining industry.

Dr Standish says: “Perhaps what is most interesting is that during this time, compared to Ireland, there appears to be much less gold circulating in Cornwall and southern Britain. This implies gold was leaving the region because those who found it felt it was of more value to trade it in for other ‘desirable’ goods – rather than keep it.”

Today, gold is intrinsically linked with economic wealth, is universally exchangeable and underpins currencies and economies across much of the globe. However, gold may not always have had this value – in some societies, gold was seen to embody supernatural or magical powers, playing a major role in belief systems rather than economic ones. The value and significance placed on gold may have varied from region to region.

Dr Alistair Pike, a co-author from the University of Southampton, adds: “The results of this study are a fascinating finding. They show that there was no universal value of gold, at least until perhaps the first gold coins started to appear nearly two thousand years later. Prehistoric economies were driven by factors more complex than the trade of commodities – belief systems clearly played a major role.”

The paper A Non-local Source of Irish Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age Gold can be found in the Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society.

From pots to clays to rocks: re-making Afro-Caribbean pottery

For the past 350 years, Afro-Caribbean pottery has been made by hand in the West Indies. Enslaved Africans created these rustic vessels for their own use – jars for cooking and bowls for eating – from the end of the 17th century until emancipation in 1833.  The descendants of those freed slaves make different vessels today – braziers (‘coalpots’), casseroles (‘yabbas’), water jars (‘monkeys’), jugs and flowerpots – using many of the old methods of manufacture [see Figure to the right/left].

Trace element ratios for Afro-Caribbean pottery samples from three sites on Nevis

Archaeologists have yet to find where these pots were made throughout this long period of history.  Was there one sugar plantation estate where all of this pottery was produced on each island; a single production location with one clay source utilised per island?  Or were there potters on every plantation making their own pottery creating dispersed production with many sources of clay?

Did this pattern change through time? Can we find the same or different production systems in place during the pre-emancipation period of slavery, the economic depression of the post-emancipation period, and the tourism development phase of modern times? Today there is one source of clay utilised and one ‘pottery’ remaining on each of four islands in the Eastern Caribbean – Jamaica, Antigua, Nevis and St. Lucia – but what was it like in the past?

On-going research by myself and Rex N Taylor began in 2011 by identifying the suite of trace elements, or signature ratios, present in the clay fabrics of 13 pot sherds from Afro-Caribbean assemblages dated to the late 17th-early 18th century recovered at three sites on Nevis excavated by our students as part of their training – Upper Rawlins, Charlestown-Waterfront, and Mountravers. Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry (ICP-MS) analysis revealed that two or three sources were used to make these early pots [see Figure to the right/left].  The next stage is to establish whether this is the same for all three major periods by analysing 50 sherd samples from pottery of later date from five assemblages, as well as 15 clays from different parts of the island.  This will be followed by sequencing selected trace element ratios for each volcanic eruption that created Nevis and tracking the sedimentary history from these rocks into clays and the human history from these clays into pots.

Nevis Pottery: Afro-Caribbean pots after firing
Nevis Pottery: Afro-Caribbean pots after firing