Recently myself and Tess Machling have been involved in making more Bronze Age Sussex loops, this time using more traditional techniques. We wanted to see what the limitations of the techniques were, and whether known archaeological finds could be used to make a loop.
Giovanna Fregni, in her groundbreaking PhD thesis, ‘The Compleat Metalsmith: Craft and Technology in the British Bronze Age’ (Fregni 2014) describes the many types of tools available to the Bronze Age craftsperson. Of interest to our work, are Fregni’s Type 1, 1a and 3 hammers. However, hammers of this weight proved insufficient to move the 8mm cross-section bronze (although they would certainly have been sufficient to bend the finer 4mm cross-section examples such as the East Dean example -Loop 9 in Friend’s catalogue (Friend 2013)) and so a work around was sought. This involved using hammerstones of sufficient weight, 1.8kg, used against a wooden punch or drift, to avoid marking of the metalwork. This proved capable of moving the metal. These would have been available to BA craftspeople. It is, however, possible as Fregni notes, that heavier bronze hammers were available at the time and have been recycled for their bronze once they became no longer usable, but without extant examples, this will always be speculative.
Fig 1: Artist’s representation of how a loop might have been clamped using a split beam (Image © Roland Williamson)
We also think that, without the use of modern clamps, holding the loop during construction would have been extremely difficult. Our suggestion is that a suitably robust tree, split and wedged, could provide a solution comparable to a modern vice. However, it proved difficult to locate a suitably robust tree with a correct branch angle (see Fig 1). This must have also been a problem in the Bronze Age, and would have perhaps been solved by husbanding trees at a young age, and encouraging them to grow in a certain manner by using careful binding and training of branches). This, in turn, has implications for the importance of such trees which may have had a special status as metalworking sites.
Fig 2: The use of a large pebble and wooden drift.
For our purposes, a suitably authentic set up was created (Fig. 2) which did not utilise clamps or other modern equipment. Interestingly, working in this way proved impossible for just one person to achieve, with a minimum of two being necessary to complete the work. This could be suggestive of a craftsperson and apprentice working together and would also suggest that Bronze Age workshops might have been staffed by more than one craftsperson? However, we do believe that the split beam solution would have allowed for a single person to construct a loop, thus negating the need for a helper. Further experimentation will be necessary. The one downside to the two-person method used above was a certain amount of slipping of the drift from the loop.
In addition, closer study of the examples held in the Sussex museums, and previous replication of the loops, suggests that there are several different techniques used to make loops, including a method which results in a flattened loop on the ‘wrist band’ and another which results in a loop which continues the circle of the ‘wrist band’shape.
Decoration of the loops, as seen on examples such as the Handcross loops (Friend’s loops 10 and 11) proved straightforward with an observable difference being noted between the bronze chisels and modern steel examples (Figs 3 and 4): the bronze chisel became worn with time and created a less precise punched mark in the bronze loop as use increased. This would suggest that chisels were often re-sharpened regularly as the decoration on BA examples does not show a reduction in precision of the marks.
Fig 3 and 4: Chisel marks on the bronze loop (left), and wear of chisel (right).
This work has shown how the manufacture of Sussex loops may have been achieved in the Bronze Age, has offered some thoughts about how many people might have been involved, and which tools could have been used. Further research will be necessary to refine these ideas, but our work has provided a few suggestions for the techniques utilised.
Fregni, E.G. 2014. The Compleat Metalsmith: Craft and Technology in the British Bronze Age. PhD thesis, University of Sheffield.
Friend, A. 2013. The Sussex Loops: An investigation into their form function and significance. MA thesis. Bangor University.
We are extremely grateful to the Prehistoric Society for awarding us the James Dyer Prize, which enabled us to carry out this work.