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Prehistoric Gold in Britain

Gold has been treasured as a rare and precious material ever since it was first used in Britain nearly 4500 years ago. But there is much that we still need to find out about the sources of gold, how objects were made, and how the know-how to extract and work gold was passed on.

Last updated: 14 March 2022

About the project

This project brought together an international group of expert geologists, geochemists, archaeometallurgists, archaeologists and practising goldworkers to define what we know and what we don’t know about gold and its uses and significance between 2450 BC and 800 BC, and how we can go about addressing the outstanding questions.

 

Header image: Detail of a Late Bronze Age hair ring from Cladh Hallan, South Uist, around 1100 BC. Photo reproduced courtesy of Professor Mike Parker Pearson.

Project details

Project title

AHRC Research Network on gold in Britain’s auriferous regions, 2450–800 BC

Project active

May 2018 - October 2019

Research theme

Scotland's Material Heritage

Contributors

Alison Sheridan, Principal Investigator – National Museums Scotland

Jana Horak, Co-Investigator – Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museums Wales

Dr Matthew Knight – National Museums Scotland

The AHRC Gold Research Network sought to investigate questions such as:

  • From where did the knowledge of extracting and using gold come to Britain?
  • We know that gold from Cornwall or Devon was used from around 2200 BC, but was Welsh and Scottish gold, or gold from north-west England used during this period as well?
  • Can we identify the use of non-British gold?
  • How easy is it to source gold from artefacts?
  • Who were the goldworkers?
  • What were their tools and techniques?
  • How did the various goldworking traditions develop?
  • What did gold mean to the people who used it?

Three symposia were held in Edinburgh (September 2018), Cardiff (February 2019) and Dublin (July 2019), and the Network worked towards creating a Research Framework, setting out what we know, what we don’t know and what the key outstanding questions are, and drawing up a Research Strategy that shows how we can best address those questions. The Research Framework and Strategy will be published online so that everyone can benefit from them.

Network members

Dr Alison Sheridan (Principal Investigator)
National Museums Scotland
Research interests: Specialist in the Neolithic, Chalcolithic and Bronze Age of Britain, especially Scotland.

Dr Jana Horak (Co-Investigator)
Amgueddfa Cymru/National Museum Wales
Research interests: British, and specifically Welsh geology; curator of the AC-NMW geological collections.

Adam Gwilt (AC-NMW Curatorial Input)
Amgueddfa Cymru/National Museum Wales
Research interests: Specialist in the Welsh Chalcolithic and Bronze Age.

Dr Matthew Knight (Project Officer)
National Museums Scotland
Research interests: Specialist in Chalcolithic/Bronze Age metalwork and depositional practices.

Dr Stuart Needham (Advisory Group)
Independent/AC-NMW
Research interests: Specialist in Chalcolithic and Bronze Age Britain and its Continental connections, particularly its metalworking traditions; has published extensively on British prehistoric gold, including the Mold 'cape'.

Mary Cahill (Advisory Group)
Independent/NUI Galway
Research interests: The prehistoric goldwork of Ireland, history of collections and antiquarianism.

Dr Rob Chapman (Advisory Group)
University of Leeds
Research interests: Gold geology, geochemistry, mineralogy.

Dr Maria Guerra (Advisory Group)
CNRS, UMR 8096 CNRS – Université Panthéon Sorbonne
Research interests: Director of research at CNRS. Analysis, goldworking methods and traditions.

Prof Gregor Borg
Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg
Research interests: I am a geologist with long-standing experience in geoarchaeology and especially provenance studies of geo-materials and mineral resources including precious metals, base metals and dimension stone. Projects have covered both prehistoric and ancient Greek periods in Central, Western and Southeastern Europe as well as in Armenia. Together with colleagues from the region, I am currently investigating the natural gold and tin from Cornwall and its geological sources and compositional evolution from lodes to fluviatile placers to artefacts, with a special emphasis on the gold of the Sky Disk of Nebra.

Dr Alicia Perea
CSIC (Centro de Ciencias Humanas y Sociales), Spain
Research interests: I have been working in prehistoric-ancient technology over the last twenty years mostly from the Iberian peninsula and the Mediterranean. I promoted the installation of the first Scanning Electron Microscopy and Microanalysis laboratory in an Art and Humanities institution in Spain (IH-CSIC).

Dr Ben Roberts (Critical Friend/referee)
Durham University
Research interests: The origins of Bronze Age metalwork across the world.

Dr Brendan O'Connor
Independent
Research interests: Specialist on Chalcolithic and Bronze Age metalwork in Britain and on the Continent.

Dr Clément Nicolas
Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne
Research interests: I am a specialist in Bell Beaker and Early Bronze Age fancy grave goods in Europe and the role of these ‘object-signs’ in defining social and cultural identities. For this purpose, I am interested in gold objects which, among others, have a peculiar relevance for these past societies in highlighting high-status individuals and long-distance connections.

Emma Biggs
Australian National University
Research interests: I am a PhD student at the Australian National University. My project involves studying gold, gold technology and goldworkers, with a particular interest in lunulae, from the Atlantic European Bronze Age as a case study through which to explore the potential of GIS as a tool for developing a critical cartography of Bronze Age mobility.

Prof Eugène Warmenbol
Université libre de Bruxelles
Research interests: As a professor at the Université libre de Bruxelles, I am lecturing on the Bronze and Iron Age in North-Western Europe. I have been (or am) publishing most of the Bronze and Iron Age gold found in Belgium (Sinsin “Trou del Leuve”, Han-sur-Lesse “Trou de Han” etc.), and can thus claim to have a real interest in prehistoric gold, and its mining (in the Belgian Ardennes). I am also part of the Franco-German “Celtic Gold”-project (directed by Barbara Armbruster:http://www.agence-nationale-recherche.fr/Project-ANR-16-FRAL-0001).

Prof Garth Earls
University College Cork
Research interests: Exploration of gold in Ireland/Scotland for 35 years; numerous papers on genesis of gold in Ireland/Scotland; long interest in gold artefacts and metalworking.

Dr Simon Timberlake
Independent
Research interests: Chalcolithic/Bronze Age alluvial gold extraction; gold foil ornament manufacture.

John Pickin
Independent/ex Stranraer Museum
Research interests: Gold extraction and early mining in Britain.

G. Simon Camm
Independent
Research interests: Gold in the Carnon Valley, Cornwall.

I am a retired geologist having worked in the exploration for gold in the UK and Spain as well as consulting on gold prospects in Europe, Asia and Africa. I am the author of Gold in the Counties of Cornwall and Devon and have co-authored papers on the occurrence of both placer and hardrock gold in Cornwall. My interests are the geochemical prospecting for gold and the recovery of gold in Prehistory. I have been working in collaboration with Prof. Borg el al. in the research of the provenance of gold in the Nebra Sky Disc with special reference to the occurrence of gold in the Carnon Valley, Cornwall.

Richard B Warner
Independent
Research interests: Gold analysis and geological searching

Prof Ernst Pernicka
Curt-Engelhorn-Zentrum Archäometrie gGmbH an der Universität Heidelberg, Mannheim
Research interests: Long history of analyses of prehistoric gold objects including Varna, Troy, Nebra, Hallstatt gold and others. Keeper of the remains of gold analyses of Axel Hartmann.

Dr Mary Davis
National Museums Scotland
Research interests: Analysis of gold artefacts, particularly in Wales.

Prof Nick Pearce
Aberystwyth University
Research interests: My background is as a geologist/geochemist with many years' development work in laser ablation (LA) ICP-MS analysis principally for silicate glasses, but also in sulphides, and some isotope studies, for use in correlation/provenance studies particularly of tephra deposits.

Dr Norman R Moles
University of Brighton
Research interests: My early research career focussed on metalliferous ore formation and exploration, seeking to understand metal behaviour in natural environments to help locate further resources. I established and collaborated in several industry-academic joint studies to research the metallogeny and origins of hydrothermal precious- and base-metal mineralization and the application of heavy mineral characterization in mineral exploration. Particles of inert metals such as gold are extremely persistent in the environment and their chemical and spatial variation can be used to interpret landscape evolution. Working with colleagues I have used microchemical analysis of alluvial gold to characterize bedrock gold mineralization, to determine the provenance of gold in prehistoric artefacts, and to resolve scientific controversies regarding landscape evolution.

Dr Laurent Olivier
National Museum of Archaeology in Saint-Germain-en-Laye
Research interests: I am already involved in the French-German research project on Hallstatt Gold and presently Celtic Gold at the scale of the Western European continent.

Dr Allison Casaly
New York University
Research interests: My dissertation research concerns practices of personal ornamentation in the Middle and Late Bronze Age of Britain, Ireland, and northern France, with a particular focus on Ireland. Although my research covers ornamentation of all raw materials, gold of course plays a central role. I am particularly interested in the composition of hoards containing ornaments, both in terms of object category (i.e. tool vs. weapon vs. ornament etc.) and in terms of the raw materials of objects included within the hoard.

Prof Beatriz Pilar Comendador Rey
Vigo University
Research interests: Beatriz Comendador Rey is Associate Professor of Prehistory at the Department of History, Art and Geography at Vigo University. She studied in Santiago de Compostela, and obtained her Master's degree and doctorate at the same university with the PhD thesis entitled Beginnings of Metallurgy in North-western Iberia (1997). Research member of the Group of Studies of Archaeology, Antiquity and Territory (GEAAT). Her main research interests range from Late Prehistory, Archaeometallurgy and Experimental Archaeology.

Dr Marilou Nordez
University of Toulouse
Research interests: I am currently post-doctoral researcher in a Franco-German project named CELTIC GOLD, leaded by Barbara Armbruster and Roland Schwab (http://www.agence-nationale-recherche.fr/Project-ANR-16-FRAL-0001; you will also find more information following this link:https://celticgold.hypotheses.org/). My PhD was about metallic ornaments of the Middle Bronze Age between France and Southern England.

Dr Linda Boutoillle
Queen’s University Belfast
Research interests: I am a Bronze Age archaeologist whose primary research area relates to metalworkers’ tools (stone, metal, clay, …) in Western Europe and to placing these within thechaîne opératoireof metalwork production. I am also interested in the place of metallurgy and the status of the metalworker within prehistoric societies. In relation to this, I am exploring relevant ethno-archaeological evidence from Africa and Meso-America. I am also very interested in experimental approaches to metallurgy. The AHRC gold project is a wonderful opportunity for me to develop a better understanding of the production of gold objects and to comprehend the traces of tools from the production process on the gold objects.

Dr Neil Clark
Hunterian Museum
Research interests: As a geologist, I have drawn up a list of over 300 potential and known gold-bearing streams and mines throughout Scotland which I hope to publish in the next year. I edited and co-authored the book on Scottish gold in 2014 with Alison Sheridan and Donal Bateson. I also maintain close contact with the British Gold Panning Association and have taken part in the Scottish and British gold panning championships for several years.

Dr Andrew Fitzpatrick
Independent
Research interests: I am interested in the adoption of metal in Britain and Ireland and particularly in prospection and extraction, knowledge transfer, and the status of miners and makers. I have undertaken research on the graves of Bell Beaker metalworkers and am collaborating with Germán Delibes de Castro and Elisa Guerra Doce on a new study of the Tablada del Rudrón funerary monument in northern Spain at which Bell Beaker gold ornaments similar to insular ones were found. Although it falls outwith the remit of the network, I am researching Late Iron Age gold torques, including the material from the Le Câtillon 2 hoard, Jersey on the Channel Islands.

Roland Williamson
Independent
Research interests: I am an experienced museum replica maker and am working with Tess Machling, researching Later Iron Age - and in particular hollow torus - gold torcs. We have discovered that many of these torcs were made using gold sheet working techniques which may have their origins in the north or west of Britain, and which may have been made using gold from the British Isles

Dr Tessa Mächling
Independent
Research interests: I am an archaeological researcher and am working with Roland Williamson, researching Later Iron Age – and in particular hollow torus – gold torcs. We have discovered that many of these torcs were made using gold sheet working techniques which may have their origins in the north or west of Britain, and which may have been made using gold from the British Isles

Dr Lore Troalen
National Museums Scotland
Research interests: As Science Officer at National Museums Scotland, I run the analytical laboratory and have experience of analysing gold from various periods and areas of the world, including Britain.

Prof Sabine Klein
Deutsches Bergbau-Museum Bochum
Research interests: I am interested in the analytical approach to gold as an ancient precious metal. My expertise includes all facets of the archaeometallurgy of gold.

Ian Jones
Oriel Ynys Môn
Research interests: I’m the collections manager at Oriel Môn, an accredited museum governed by the Isle of Anglesey County Council. We hold three prehistoric artefacts in our museum collection.

Dr Chris Standish
University of Southampton
Research interests: My research interests focus on the geochemistry of both gold mineralisation and prehistoric gold artefacts, including the development of solution and laser ablation MC-ICP-MS methods to study the isotopic signature of gold. This research aims to gain a better understanding of prehistoric gold procurement, trade and exchange; aspects that are critical for investigations into the value of gold in early metal-working societies.

Henri Gandois
Independent
Research interests: I wish to enter this program as one of my research projects concern the first metal artefacts on the Atlantic coast of France and therefore includes gold items. Thanks to these studies I have a fairly good knowledge of the bibliography and of the objects in the different museums. Moreover, through various fieldwork that I have undertaken over the last few years I have developed many contacts with local prospectors including gold panners. Lastly, for the experimental part of the project, I have in Normandy the necessary equipment to do any smelting or melting operations (a gas furnace).

Dr Alan Williams
Liverpool University
Research interests: My recently completed PhD dealt with Bronze Age copper from the Great Orme mine in North Wales and traced the metal across Britain and into the Near Continent with strong indications of large-scale production (1600-1400 BC). I’m currently developing collaborative research proposals focusing on the sources and trade/exchange networks of Bronze Age metals (copper, tin, gold and lead) in Britain over time and the social and economic implications.

Dr Simon Cuthbert
University of the West of Scotland
Research interests: I am an economic geologist/mineralogist/geochemist interested in gold deposits in Scotland and Ireland, which involves analysis of the geochemistry and microtexture of gold and sometimes involves investigation of the history of gold extraction.

Dr Flemming Kaul
The National Museum of Denmark
Research interests: Flemming Kaul has recently been working with Danish Late Bronze Age gold hoards, in particular the many gold objects concentrated within a limited area at Boeslunde, West Zealand – called ‘a centre of wealth’. But, in what way can a concentration of hoards reflect a ‘centre of wealth’? What about the exchange mechanisms leading to such concentrations? I hope that future analyses can give us a better idea of the provenance of the gold, or at least define some groupings – enabling us to gain better insights into the Late Bronze Age European elite exchange networks.

Dr Kevin Leahy
University of Leicester
Research interests: Before going into archaeology I trained as a metallurgist. I have retained in interest in all aspects of metals and metal working. As a National Finds Adviser for the Portable Antiquities Scheme I get to see objects made from gold which are going through the Treasure process.

Dr Dot Boughton
Oxford Archaeology
Research interests: I have had little actual experience with prehistoric gold from the North West except prehistoric gold artefacts found in the North West and reported to the PAS. In my time as FLO (Lancashire/Cumbria) I dealt with a lunula fragment, a lock/penannular ring and various fragments of potentially prehistoric gold artefacts. I am currently in the process of part-writing up an LBA hoard of gold artefacts from the Furness, South West Cumbria, and would very much welcome input from colleagues and other specialists.

Dr Elisa Guerra
University of Valladolid
Research interests: My research interests lie in Neolithic and Bronze Age Europe. I have worked on different topics, the Beaker phenomenon among them. I am particularly interested in the ideological significance of gold, and how gold ornaments served as symbols of power during the 3rd millennium BC.

Dr Orla Mckenna
Dalradian Gold
Research interests: I am currently working the mineral exploration industry with Dalradian Gold in Northern Ireland. As part of our work, we have a large number of panned placer gold samples from across the Sperrin Mountains.

William (Billy) O'Brien
University College Cork
Research interests: I am interested in the cultural context of this material among early metal-using societies in Atlantic Europe. Drawing from my own specialism in early copper mining, I am particularly interested in early sources of gold (and tin) in Britain and Ireland.

Matthew Ponting
University of Liverpool
Research interests: Having trained as an archaeometallurgist, I have a general interest in all past metalworking, although my work has mostly been focussed on non-ferrous metalwork from the Classical and early medieval worlds, although gold features rarely in this. I do a lot of work on Roman silver coinage and have recently been looking at Iron Age coinage production including some work on gold staters.

Malou Blank
University of Gothenburg

Heide Wrobel Nørgaard
Aarhus University
Research interests: As an educated goldsmith my interest mostly lies in prehistoric metalworking and the techniques and traditions involved. Scandinavia is from the beginning of the metal ages closely connected to the British Isles and Ireland and my specific skills will not just allow to trace the raw material origin of these fantastic artefacts but also their technological origin.

Richard Bevins
AC-NMW
Research interests: My principal interest is in the geochemical fingerprinting and potential provenancing of gold.

Listen online

Listen to a conversation between broadcaster Win Scutt and geochemist Dr Chris Standish about gold and the issues surrounding the sourcing of archaeological gold artefacts in this podcast on Soundcloud

Email icon Dr Matthew Knight

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