A collection of polished “chunks of stone” found in a burial mound near Stonehenge more than two centuries ago is a 4,000-year-old goldsmith’s toolbox, archaeologists have said.
A microscopic reanalysis of the axes and shaped pebbles found in the tomb revealed tiny traces of gold and wear marks, showing that they were used by a skilled craftsman to hammer and smooth gold leaf.
The Bronze Age burial mound was excavated in 1802 near Upton Lovell in Wiltshire and has attracted attention for its large deposit of pierced animal bones, which have been interpreted as the spectacular costume of what was supposed to be a shaman.
But the other grave goods, which also included flint cups, two broken battle axes and a copper alloy awl, “hadn’t gotten as much attention from archaeologists, comparatively,” Oliver Harris said. , Associate Professor of Archeology at the University of Leicester. .
Thanks to new technologies that weren’t available just a few decades ago, he said, “it means a lot of these objects have new stories to tell us that we previously didn’t know how to search for.”
Microscopic analysis discovered traces of gold on five of the stone tools, which were found to have a composition similar to known Bronze Age gold. Examination of tiny rubs and scratches revealed how they had been used to flatten and polish the precious metal.
The goldsmith, according to archaeologists, may have used the tools to make precious objects in which jet, amber or wooden objects were covered with thin gold leaf – examples of which are known from the time .
The flint cups, they suggest, could have been used for mixing resins and adhesives, while the awl could have created perforations and patterns.
The grave goods are thought to date from 1850-1700 BC and are associated with the culture of Wessex, which flourished in the aftermath of nearby Stonehenge, according to Harris.
Although no bone fragments were saved, the goldsmith “is definitely special”, he said. “The way they dress, they have materials that are thousands of years old – they are going to be someone who stands out. He is a person who dresses very differently from some of his compatriots and who can do incredible things. They are definitely different and special.
Curiously, the grave goods included four Neolithic axes, meaning they were already several thousand years old when buried with the goldsmith – and analysis showed that one had been used to prepare Bronze Age gold.
“I would like to know if these are heirlooms passed down from generation to generation, or if they were deposited in rivers and found next to cobblestones that were turned into stone tools – or perhaps at side of gold itself,” Harris said. .
“Because these objects have an incredible history. I would like to know all the things they saw and the story of how something became so precious, but used in a radically different way than it was intended for 2000 years ago.
The results are published in the journal Antiquity.
Lead author Rachel Crellin, associate professor of archeology at the University of Leicester, described the finds as “really exciting”. “At the recent World of Stonehenge exhibition at the British Museum, we know audiences were blown away by the incredible 4,000-year-old silverwork on display. What our work has revealed is the humble stone toolbox that was used to craft gold objects thousands of years ago.