Somerset Industrial  Archaeological Society

UPDATED: 11.04.2021

 

SIAS

 

SIAS is a Charitable Incorporated Organisation (CIO)

Charity Commission registered number: 1185669

 

 

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SIAS SUMMER PROGRAMME ANNOUNCED

See the Programme page for details of further talks


Reports (from 2009 to 2018) have been moved to the new Archive page,

which also includes Journals 1, 2 & 3 and Bulletins 1 to 45


Bulletin 146 is about to be posted to all members and includes a supplement on "Gloving in Martock".


SIAS is interested in all aspects of the industrial history and heritage of the County of Somerset. The Society was founded in 1972 and the geographical frontiers of the Society were delineated by the Local Government Act which established the new County in the same year. Cordial relations have been established with similar societies in neighbouring counties. The work of SIAS has included excavations, site surveys, ‘rescue’ operations for old machinery and the listing of significant industrial buildings. Records of these activities in the form of photographs, line drawings, maps and written reports have been retained in the Society's archives and at the Somerset Heritage Centre, with whom SIAS has established close links.

 

SIAS supports various initiatives, either by financial grants or manpower support, including:

The Kenyon Photographic Project (South West Heritage Trust)

Dulverton Weir & Leat Conservation Trust

Langport Flood Gates at Westonzoyland Pumping Station Museum of Steam Power & Land Drainage

Richard Sims' Book "Sailcloth, Webbing and Shirts - The Crewkerne Textile Industry"

Otterhead EstateTrust

 

If you would like to add your support, please donate using the PayPal button below:

New members are always welcome. For details see the Membership page or contact the Membership Secretary, Barbara Cooper, Park Field Cottage, Chipley, Langford Budville, Wellington, Somerset TA21 0QU or telephone the Honorary Secretary, Geoff Fitton, 01278 760869 or email contact@sias.me.uk.

 

Activities 

 

Talks are held fortnightly on Monday evenings from October to March at 19.30.  There is a free-of-charge Book Exchange and SIAS publications are on sale. There is no charge to members to attend lectures; non-members are welcome and are charged £3. For details see the Programme page.

Talks are given at meetings in Silver Street Baptist Church Hall, Taunton.

(please use the side entrance facing the private car park)

(please do not park in reserved spaces)

DURING THE CURRENT EMERGENCY TALKS ARE BEING HELD ON LINE VIA 'ZOOM'.

FURTHER DETAILS

 

Field Trips take place each summer. SIAS enjoys a full programme of day, half-day and evening visits to place of industrial and historic interest. There is no charge to members unless there are transport costs or admission fees to pay. Non-members can attend field trips on payment of a £3 fee, but please first contact the Field Officer, Peter Daniel, peter.daniel51@btinternet.com (e-mail contact is preferred when possible, but telephone 07736 374003 if urgent). For details see the Programme page.

 

Fieldwork involves investigation of specific sites, including, for example, photographs, measurements, excavation or clearance of vegetation. For details see the Fieldwork page. Information on the current programme is published in the Bulletin which is published three times each year.

 

Committee Work. Apart from the governance of the society, members are involved in a range of other tasks including responding to local authority planning applications affecting industrial sites and structures and generally monitoring Somerset's industrial heritage.

For details see Notes & News

 

Publications

 

Bulletins are published and circulated to members, usually in January, April and September. Each Bulletin carries articles and reports on the industrial history of Somerset and also the current programme of events.

 

Surveys. SIAS publishes surveys on specific topics. There have been twenty-one published up to now.

Other SIAS (and non-SIAS) publications are available and are listed on the Publications page.

All publications are available to non-members.


Mining and miners in Newton St Cyres’ - a 'Zoom' talk by Brian Please

 

8th March 2021

 

Brian is a local historian, resident of Newton St Cyres near Exeter, member of the village’s History Group, and author of the book ‘Mining and miners in Newton St Cyres’. His interest began on discovering the remains of manganese mining in a field next to his home.

 

Newton St Cyres is an ancient village that sits astride the old route from Exeter to mid-Devon. The mining of lead and silver here may go back to Roman times. In the 18th century manganese ores began to be extracted from the same geological fault that extends from Stoke Canon westwards, through Upton Pyne to Newton St Cyres, along the southern boundary of a geological feature known as the Crediton Trough. Mining was primitive and small scale at first, but rich manganese ores were found at Upton Pyne in 1770. According to Lysons’ ‘Magna Britannia’ of 1822, this mine with others nearby supplied the whole country’s need for manganese for some 40 years, producing up to 10 tons per day. It was claimed that Newton St Cyres and Upton Pyne had the first commercially successful manganese mines in the world.

 

When the first mine at Upton Pyne was exhausted in 1796 the new mine was opened at Newton St Cyres which continued until 1810. Activity continued sporadically after that as people responded to ore price fluctuations, but working finally ceased in 1882. As late as the 1860s-70s up to 4000 tons of ore each year was produced nationally, the majority from Devon. Tin Pit Hill lies to the south of Newton St Cyres and was a principal centre for lead and silver mining, but not tin. Activity goes back to the Roman period but had similarly ceased by 1878.

 

Manganese was used in small quantities as an oxidising agent to remove unwanted colours in glass production, typically a green tinge, to make it colourless. If more manganese was added then purple, violet or black could be introduced, as is found in apothecaries’ jars.

 

Few visible signs of the industry survive today, mainly due to the original leases requiring the land to be returned to its original condition. However, Brian was able to illustrate some surviving shafts, spoil dumps, and the principal adit portal with its flooded interior which survives for a considerable length. The site of Upton Pyne mine is now a pond, known locally as the Black Pit. As the industry grew in the 18th century it attracted miners from Cornwall, especially for the Camborne area. They settled, married, and became part of Newton St Cyres’ community. Evidence is found in the 1841 census of lodging houses, and some found accommodation in temporary shacks at busy times. Local records tell of the tragedies and deaths that occurred in the local area as in most early mines, and even today abandoned shafts and hollows continue to present a hazard.

Report by Geoff Roughton


The Blackdown Hills and the Whetstone Industry - A talk by Professor John Mather.

 

8th February 2021

 
SIAS was pleased to be joined by members of Tiverton U3A to hear Professor John Mather describe this now-vanished industry which centred mainly around Blackborough, on the western scarp of the Blackdown Hills.


So what are whetstones? They are made with a fine-grained stone, usually sandstone, and used for sharpening tools. Being a geologist, Professor Mather was able to give a detailed account of their geological context, sufficient to say here that they were mined from a seam within the greensand high on the Blackdown Hills scarp. The greensand here is about 30 metres thick, but in a seam of some 7 metres the sandstone has been cemented by silica to form concretions. These were often about the size of a horse's head, and were obtained from tunnels dug into the scarp. Here was to be found a very high-quality, durable whetstone, called the Devonshire Batt. The upper greensand also contains fossils, which provided an additional income for the miners.


 

A whetstone was usually used with water (hence the term water-stones) to sharpen a variety of cutting tools such as knives, sickles and scythes, and at one time swords. The properties of good whetstones are that the grains should be hard enough to cut metal and thus sharpen it. Large numbers were produced to meet the demands of home, farm and industry.

The tunnels were driven horizontally into the hillside for up to 400 yards. They were about 40 metres apart, and went deeper as the seam dipped to the east. A little over 1 metre wide, they were about 1.7 metres high, with passing places. Shuttering held the unstable sandstone in place. Where concretions were found and dug out, larger caverns formed. Although supporting pillars were left, when the seams were exhausted these were removed and the whole excavation was allowed to collapse. For many years the white spoil heaps from these mines were visible for miles. All that remains today are areas of uneven ground and subsidence, and barrow runs in the undergrowth. A Lidar image of the western side of Hembury Fort showed these runs and trackways at right angles to the banks.
 
The concretions were a greenish colour, and soft and moist when first removed. They were roughly shaped on the spot using a unique double-headed tool called a 'basing axe'. These were made locally in Kentisbeare. The stones were then brought down to local villages to be hewn to about 30 cms in length, after which women rubbed them down in water on a large stone. Once dried, the whetstones became very hard and were fit for sale. The miners and their families could live reasonably well on the profits from their whetstones, earning up to three times agricultural wages. Leases passed from generation to generation. However, it was dangerous work with roof falls and dust a constant hazard.

The industry was first mentioned in 1690 in Bridgwater Port Books, and by 1728 there were regular exports from Exeter and Topsham to destinations including Bristol and London. Mining continued from the 17th Century through to 1920s, producing whetstones of a very high quality to a huge market. The accessible seams gradually became worked out, and by 1900 there were only three mines left. By 1910 the invention of Carborundum stones spelt the end of whetstone mining, and the last miner left in 1929.

Report by Geoff Roughton


On Monday 25th January 2021 Andrew Blayney gave a talk: "The Underfall Yard: The Heart of Bristol’s Floating Harbour".

 

Andrew Blayney is Heritage, Learning and Volunteer Manager for the Underfall Yard Trust, and his role is to help visitors engage with and understand the site. To provide an essential background to the Yard’s history, Andrew first described the development of Bristol’s Floating Harbour, so called because it allows boats to float at all states of the tide.

 

 

The huge tidal range of 14 metres in the River Avon initially enabled ships to reach the city centre, some 8 miles upstream from its mouth. However, as ships grew in size they were at risk of grounding on mud at low tide, with consequent damage. Bristol Docks also lost their advantage of accessibility, and decline began. Engineer William Jessop was therefore appointed to create a harbour that could be used at all tides. This was done between 1804-9 by trapping the high tide using dams at the dock’s eastern and western extremities, digging the New Cut to take the tidal River Avon past the dock’s thus enclosed, and also digging a feeder canal supplied by Netham Weir, to maintain the harbour’s water level.

 

The problem of silt brought in by rivers persisted however. The original western dam was an “overfall” or weir, allowing surplus water to run over the top. Brunel’s solution was an “underfall” dam, with tunnels and sluices underneath, which could scour silt from the harbour as the tide fell in the New Cut outside. The 4 tunnels and sluices are still in use, and the feature has given the Yard its name.

 

With the heavy maintenance demands of Bristol Docks, Docks Engineer John Ward Girdlestone built central engineering workshops at the Underfall site in the 1880s. It is now one of the few surviving Victorian dock workshops in the world. Andrew gave a virtual tour of these by showing a short film illustrating the original machinery powered by belts and line shafting, and driven by a steam engine, not currently in working order. The original pump house still stands, with its accumulator and landmark chimney. This produced the hydraulic power which operated the cranes, lock gates and swing bridges, but these are now electrically driven. The buildings all demonstrate the Victorian attitude to industry; good design and built to last. Many are listed and some are AMs. The largest slipway dates from the 1890s, was renewed in 1994, and is used to maintain smaller craft including ferries and the replica ‘Matthew’.

 

Today, Underfall Yard is home to maritime businesses involved in boatbuilding, marine engineering, metal working and training. Both the Harbour Master and the Docks Engineer are based here. The Visitor Centre opened in March 2016 with support from Heritage Lottery Fund and others. The Yard is a working boat yard and docks maintenance facility that has been in continual use since it was built. With help from the HLF it is normally open to the public, and a recent Communities Recovery Fund grant will hopefully see the Trust through current Covid restrictions and secure the Yard a bright future.

Report by Geoff Roughton


Bulletin 145 (and supplement) has been published and posted to all members


On Monday 11th January Dr Ian West began the SIAS 2021 Winter programme with a talk on Zoom entitled “Like a well oiled machine? How technology transformed the Country House”.

 

Country houses have long been a part of this nation’s heritage, and are renowned not just for their architecture, but as depositories of art, furnishings and culture. Today they are also seen as a way of connecting with the past and how their occupants, at all levels, once lived. Dr West and Marilyn Palmer have co-authored “Technology in the Country House” a collaboration between Historic England and the National Trust which became the Country House Technology Project, and which explores how new technologies began to change country houses and the lives of the families within them.

 

Dr West began by outlining the evolution of the country house. Many of the structures that survive today originated as the castles, fortified manor houses and monasteries of the middle ages. As their raison d’être passed into history, conversion into homes and the building of new ones by an emerging aristocracy led to comfort and privacy becoming the prime requirement. Changing fashions were expressed in successive and distinctive architectural styles, and in the remodelling of surrounding landscapes.

 

House design began to reflect an increasing social segregation. Service areas and those who worked in them were confined to basements or separate parts of the house or estate, with segregated access. Catering for each comfort and convenience of the owners led to the use of space becoming increasingly specialised. Separate areas were created for each element of food preparation, laundry, heating, sanitation etc, especially as new technologies brought their own particular spatial requirements. Dr West then considered some key areas of technological innovation:

 

Heating - Because of the prioritisation of comfort, new technologies were adopted unevenly. Some found ready acceptance whilst others caught on more slowly. Central heating held little appeal for owners who, concerned about ventilation, preferred the open fire, and reliance on open fires for heat persisted into the twentieth century, with the ongoing workload for servants. Nevertheless, stoves and central warm air heating systems of variable efficiency emerged, with radiators and heating coils in floor ducts, but these could not easily be retrofitted in existing properties.

 

Lighting - had changed little since Roman times. The C18 Argand oil lamps were expensive to run and required a lamp room for preparation. Gas lighting developed from the 1760s but required ventilation and its own gasworks. Through SIAS the acetylene gas plant from Moredon House, North Curry was rescued and is now preserved at Hestercombe. Country house owners were in the forefront of adoption of electricity, produced using water or steam power, combined with batteries as at Tyntesfield.

 

Water and sanitation - Water, such an important consideration for early houses, caused problems when a house was located away from a supply. Given the expense of lead, elm pipes were used until cast iron was introduced in the mid 19th century. Distribution was often achieved by installing a water tower, and from 1772 ram pumps became available. Early shower baths (Tyntesfield again), water closets, laundries and sewage works illustrate the desire for comfort, cleanliness and convenience.

 

Food preparation and storage - The British tradition for roasts to be turned on a spit over an open hearth gave way to the enclosed iron range. Dedicated bake houses of increasing sophistication appeared. Each house would have at least one ice house, with ice harvested from ponds created for the purpose. From 1862 it became possible to possess a steam powered ice plant. By 1911 electric refrigerators were in operation.

 

Communication - The opening sequences of Downton Abbey featured a set of sprung servants’ bells, and such systems were present from the 1760s. Bell pulls and speaking tubes were not very effective and had limited range. Electric bell boards arrived in some houses as early as the 1860s, and were more efficient, but like earlier systems these devices were used for summoning servants, not for conversation. Telephones were installed throughout estate buildings long before the nation had a general telephone system.

 

Transport – The first lifts, using hydraulic power, appeared in industry, but began to be installed in country houses for moving goods, coal, food and luggage. Prejudice against their use by occupants evaporated when Queen Victoria used them. Occasionally small internal railways brought food from distant kitchens or delivered supplies and coal.

 

Security – Many houses kept important documents and valuables in fireproof safes and hidden stores. High walls, gatehouses and an armoury were sometimes considered necessary in politically volatile times. Fire prevention involved the use of iron or concrete structural elements and other means of fire resistance. Fire fighting methods might involve having a fire engine and water pipes, or could be more esoteric. Dr West showed pictures of glass fire extinguishing grenades at Erddig, and emergency shutes from upstairs windows.

 

Gardens - Country houses were usually agricultural enterprises, deriving their income from the estate and agricultural rents, and much new technology found its first use outside the house itself. Water-power and heating systems were first employed in corn mills and greenhouses respectively. The pineapple pit was one of the more remarkable structures, showing that the produce of the estate was often a source of prestige.

 

So what drove the adoption of technology? It was not always cost or labour saving, because some innovations required more staff. According to Dr West it was more about comfort, convenience, prestige and fashion, and impressing guests. It was not just the industrialists and financiers who were early adopters. Many established landed families were, for a variety of reasons, also technology enthusiasts.

 

Why is the subject worthy of study? Country houses often contain the earliest surviving examples of important innovations. They survive because occupants failed to continually innovate, unlike in industry with its mantra of modernisation. Country houses have noticed a shift in visitor focus; there is more interest in life “below stairs” because that is where most people’s family history lies. In consequence the National Trust and English Heritage are reassessing the importance of country house technology, and where possible are replacing what has been lost.

 

Report by Geoff Roughton


“Seeking a future for Wellington’s Industrial Heritage”

The SIAS autumn talks by ‘Zoom’ concluded on 16th November with a vivid presentation by Dr Joanne O’Hara, architectural historian and Heritage at Risk Officer at Somerset West and Taunton Council. Since 2017 Dr O’Hara has been working to save many of Wellington’s historic buildings. Repairs to the Wellington Monument are to be completed in 2021, and the famous landmark will then be removed from Historic England’s ‘At Risk’ Register. Buildings in Cornhill are also being targeted.

Dr O’Hara’s talk focussed on Tonedale Mill and Tone Works, and what has been happening recently behind the scenes.  The Fox’s Company was founded in 1772 at the Tonedale Mill site, and their adjacent family residence ‘Tonedale House’ was added in 1807. Frequent rebuilding and expansion has resulted in some fifty buildings surviving today. The Tone Works to the north is a rare example of a 19th Century cloth dyeing and finishing works, and contains many features that should be preserved. Both sites retain evidence of steam and water power being used.  All these buildings have been given the higher Grade II* listing by Heritage England, and are on their ‘At Risk’ Register. These are two nationally important sites, but Dr O’Hara’s shocking pictures showed their dreadful deterioration.

Since closure Tonedale Mill has seen several ownerships and planning applications, the most recent in 2008 which proposed intensive residential development. The 5 storey spinning mill of 1863 has lost its roof slates, and historic material has been removed. Tonedale House, having already been divided, suffered further unauthorised works and removal of structural woodwork in 2017. This was the catalyst that brought about Joanne’s appointment. Legal Notices for urgent works for protection, safety, amenity and repairs have now been served on the owners and require actions to be carried out within a limited timeframe. If these are not complied with then SW&T Council can issue a Compulsory Purchase Order.

The best path is for owners to engage rather than go down the enforcement route. Cooperation is beginning, but alongside the priority for urgent action is the need for a long term plan. As part of this process an understanding must be gained of the surviving features and remains to ensure nothing important is lost. Options and funding sources need to be explored, and community groups involved. The question of public money raises difficult issues in cases of private ownership, but these are nationally important sites and the most significant in Somerset and the most at risk. The speed of deterioration has been very quick in the last three years, and while there is urgency in the short term, there is also a need for a long term future.

Report by Geoff Roughton


  

On Monday 2nd November, Dr Tegwen Roberts, Heritage Action Zone Officer at Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council, described the Elsecar Heritage Action Zone and what has been achieved so far.

The Elsecar Heritage Action Zone (HAZ) is a three year partnership project between Barnsley Museums and Historic England. As one of only a select few places across the country to gain this special status, the HAZ recognises Elsecar’s rich heritage and International significance.

Elsecar’s History

Small scale coal mining and iron working had occurred here for centuries, but it was the transformation by the Earls Fitzwilliam from the late C18 that made Elsecar a bustling industrial village with ironworks, foundries, collieries and a canal. Many important historic sites and buildings still survive in the village, the most notable being the world’s only surviving Newcomen atmospheric engine that is still on its original site. Development continued through the C19, and the centralised workshops dating from 1850 (now the Elsecar Heritage Centre) served the surrounding collieries and employed the latest technology. A gasworks was built to light the workshops and the village.

The paternalism of the Fitzwilliams ensured a high quality of construction and design, and the ‘showpiece’ village included a church, school, corn mill, and a grand gas lit miners’ lodging house with hot and cold water supply. The imposed temperance principles may not have been popular, but provision for employees continued into the C20 with a ‘garden village’ (nothing is new) being built for the miners of Elsecar Main Colliery in 1905.

Heritage Action Zone; Aims and Progress

The over-arching intention behind designation was to improve the understanding of the area’s heritage and archaeology, and to ensure protection of this heritage and guide future growth and development.

The first year saw geophysical surveys, followed by excavations at nearby Milton Ironworks.  The project’s emphasis on community involvement encouraged volunteers, school children and visitors to learn about the site and engage in practical archaeology. With support from the Arts Council, the community also enjoyed an open day and other events with local artists, music and poetry. Excavations continued at the Newcomen Engine House, and particularly at the site of the boiler house, which had not survived. These revealed the high quality of construction, to the point of over-engineering, but this reflected the vital need to keep the machinery operating and the mine free of water at all times. Geophysics technology employed by Leeds University confirmed the survival below ground of remains of the gasworks and post-war ‘pre-fab’ housing.

What has the Heritage Action Zone Achieved?

Elsecar is now recognised as a nationally significant and early model industrial village that predates others such as Saltaire. Most of the planned C18 and C19 settlement was found to have survived. The Historic Area Assessment Report was published in February 2020 and can be accessed online. Recording and research was conducted on 15 archaeological sites, while some 2200 local people attended events and activities, with 1300 young people and 200 volunteers also being involved. A local list of buildings and archaeological sites has been adopted and new designations proposed, together with new listings and scheduling. We now have a better understanding of the place of Elsecar and its historical context, in that we can see just how planned the settlement and its operations were, and the key role played by the Fitzwiliams in supporting Elsecar, its industries and employees.

Report by Geoff Roughton


 

In the second talk via Zoom in the SIAS Autumn Programme, Dr. Mike Nevell described his work as Industrial Heritage Support Officer, and his ambitions for the Industrial Heritage sector.

We are all aware that the Industrial Revolution has left a legacy of many thousands of important sites, buildings and other remains throughout Britain, many of them of world-wide significance. For decades they were taken for granted or ignored, but are now recognised as belonging to this nation’s industrial heritage and wider history. In the 1990s English Heritage began reviewing its database of English archaeological sites, and mounted a big push to include Industrial Archaeological sites. Of the latter only some 600 were found to be protected and open to the public, a very small proportion. A report by Sir Neil Cossons in 2008 proposed more support for the Industrial Heritage sector and the organisations that comprise it. There was concern that many sites were facing an uncertain future, and that smaller volunteer groups, in particular, needed better access to a source of focussed professional help beyond what was already available.

Thus, the England-wide Industrial Heritage Support Officer (IHSO) project commenced in September 2012. The post is funded by Historic England (HE) and is managed by the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust in partnership with the Association of Independent Museums and the Association for Industrial Archaeology. In addition to these bodies, the project steering group also includes Sir Neil, a representative of the European Route of Industrial Heritage (ERIH), and project liaison from Historic England.

Aims of the Project

So what does the IHSO project and Dr Nevell aim to achieve? The project’s key objectives are to produce real improvements in the sustainability and conservation of the 600 or so preserved and publicly accessible industrial heritage sites in England. This means better operating practices and long term support arrangements, combined with strengthened links between organisations and the sharing of best practices and skills.

Industrial Heritage Networks

Another goal of the IHSO project is to develop regional Industrial Heritage Networks (IHN) as umbrella organisations to provide peer support to heritage sites and groups. It is intended that through IHNs members will share experiences, brainstorm issues, respond to common concerns and stay in touch throughout the year through meetings and online. Of the 7 regional IHNs, one covers Devon and Cornwall, and another covers the rest of the South-West.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ironbridge Gorge Museum. Floods in February 2020 caused by storms Ciara and Dennis.

Why is the Project needed?

There is no doubt that that our industrial heritage faces significant and growing threats. Some have always been there and some are new. Early industrial sites exploited water and wind power, by necessity in locations that were vulnerable to flood and storm, but which are especially so in a changing climate with increased rainfall and more river and coastal erosion. Dr Nevell is among those developing early warning and monitoring systems, not just relating to weather, but considering fire, pests and diseases, and the wider changing landscape too.

Coronovirus

The covid Pandemic is still playing out and we are not yet at a recovery stage. All 600 publicly accessible sites have been closed for much of the summer, and only half had reopened by the end of August. The loss of visitor numbers and incomes represents a real challenge for recovery and viability in 2021. The impact on volunteer health and numbers is also unclear.

You can’t smell the engine online!

Like all archaeologists, those who study industrial history are storytellers who link the past with the present, and who show how our history is relevant to modern audiences. In response to suggestions about the benefits of an online presence, Dr Nevell felt that an online experience can be a hook to maintain interest, but we should not retreat to online “virtual visits”. There is a real need for people to get back into the real world and “smell the engine!” You can’t do that on a computer!

Burgh le Marsh windmill, Lincolnshire, damaged by storm Ciara.

Report by Geoff Roughton


 

Monday 21st September - Dr. Chris Standish, University of Southampton “An Irish El Dorado? Searching for the source of Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age gold”

The first of a series of talks using “Zoom” took place on Monday when Dr. Standish, a Research Fellow at the University of Southampton, gave a presentation based on his continuing research into the sources of early gold through isotropic and elemental analysis.

The Chalcolithic (the Copper Age – the transitional period between the Neolithic and Bronze Ages) and the Early Bronze Age (E.B.A.) saw a marked growth in the use of exotic materials like jet and amber, but especially gold. Today gold is intrinsically linked to economic wealth and underpins currencies. However, in many early cultures gold was seen as embodying supernatural or magical properties, and played a major role in belief systems. Thus the value and significance of gold has varied through time and by region, showing it had no universal value until the first gold coins appeared two millennia later.

The earliest worked gold in Britain and Ireland comes from the Beaker people in 2500-2100BC. Each successive Bronze Age period established traditions of ornamentation and methods of working. Dr. Standish illustrated many beautiful and exquisitely worked Bronze Age artefacts from the collection in the National Museum of Ireland, such as basket ornaments, discs (representing the sun), bracelets, and lunulae (necklaces representing the crescent moon). The question arises, and which the talk addressed, is where did this gold come from, and what does the answer tell us about these E.B.A. societies?

By the C19th it was realised from the quantity and distribution of artefacts just how much gold had been available in Ireland during the E.B.A.. Studies of the distribution of gold in Europe however had focussed on worked objects, not on the ores from which they were derived. Nevertheless, it was clear that in many locations the quantities were sufficient to support prehistoric mining and early gold working, and also the Wicklow gold rush in 1795-1800AD.

Many possible locations of mineralisation and ancient mining in Ireland were examined using those methods of isotope and chemical analysis that are used to investigate the origins of metals, and a long process of elimination began. The outcome was that few sites fitted in terms of geochemical signature, and those that did were of insufficient quantity to meet historic levels of ornament production. The search was then extended beyond Ireland, to published literature relating to European sites.

Analysis of Scottish ores revealed inconsistencies with Irish E.B.A. objects, leaving south-west Welsh and south-west English deposits as the most likely sources. Recent finds relating to British gold point to these Welsh and English sites as providing a best fit. So far the study had been limited to chemistry. Now it was time to look at the archaeology.

In Wales, few gold artefacts were found, and the principal phase of metal extraction (for copper) probably post-dates the period when lunulae were in use. South-west England is host to important collections of lunulae and was a key source of Bronze Age tin, which is found alongside gold in alluvial deposits. Nuggets have also been found, and there was much gold extraction alongside C19th tin mining and streaming. The conclusion is that non-local gold was used in Irish gold–working traditions.

It is known that some Bronze Age societies favoured materials coming from distant sources, as an “exotic” origin was cherished as a key property. Gold was already regarded as an economic material, and the fact that fewer gold objects have been found in the south-west suggests it is more likely to have been exported. Different regions saw gold differently.

Dr. Standish then referred to Bush Barrow near Stonehenge, dating from 1950-1750BC, which is Britain’s richest Bronze Age burial. The most remarkable discovery was a gold-studded dagger pommel, set with thousands of microscopic gold studs thinner than a human hair, so small that children with better eyesight may have been involved in its production. Analysis of the gold shows it is from the same source as other E.B.A. objects in Britain and Ireland, namely south-west England and Cornwall in particular. Indeed, objects from Orkney and Brittany, and notably the famous Nebra Sky Disk found in Germany and displayed in the State Museum of Prehistory in Halle, are made of gold from Cornwall.

Archaeologists have found evidence of ancient trade routes between south-west Britain and Ireland, suggesting gold was being traded between the two countries as far back as the E.B.A. (2500BC). Dr. Standish also suggests E.B.A. gold workers in Ireland were making artefacts out of material sourced from outside the country, despite the existence of easily accessible and rich gold deposits found locally. They knew how to extract other metals, so it is more likely that an “exotic” origin was valued as a key property, and why it was imported.

A vote of thanks given to Dr. Standish by Iain Miles concluded a highly successful talk.

Report by Geoff Roughton


 

Bulletin 144 has been published and posted to all members.

 

 

As some small consolation for the enforced cancellation of SIAS meetings

and trips, Bulletin 144 is larger than usual. Also included is a copy of the

Tour Notes (with additional supplementary notes), published for the

2019 AIA National Conference hosted by SIAS in Cannington.

 

 


 

Links

 

SIAS is affiliated to the Association for Industrial Archaeology (AIA) (website)

 

Current Archaeology (website)


Friends of the Grand Western Canal (website)

 

GooseyGoo (website)

 

Sherborne Steam & Waterwheel Centre (website)

 

Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society (website)
 

South West Heritage Trust (website)

 

 

Somerset Vernacular Building Research Group (website)

 

 

 

South Wiltshire Industrial Archaeology Society (website)
 

The Somersetshire Coal Canal Society (website)
 

Wessex Mills Group (website)


Westonzoyland Engine Trust (website)


West Somerset Mineral Line Association (website)

 

West Somerset Railway (website)


 

Please contact SIAS Webmaster Chris Cooper with any problems or suggestions concerning this website.
contact@sias.me.uk

 

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