About 2400 BCE bronze artifacts began appearing in Britain, usually associated with Beaker pottery. Archaeologists suggest that during the Bronze Age, chiefdoms develop as evidenced by individual graves with lavish grave goods including decorated pottery, weapons, and non-local items. During this time a rich, gold-using aristocracy developed in some areas.
Beaker pottery refers to a type of handle-less drinking vessel which holds about a pint of liquid. Beaker pottery developed in northern and western Europe between 40000 and 2000 BCE. These vessels were manufactured in a number of distinctive shapes, including the funnel-beaker, the protruding-foot beaker, and the bell beaker. These distinctive shapes are very different from the bowls of the earlier Neolithic Bandkermik cultures. Beakers seem to have been associated with a drinking ritual which promoted solidarity among the elites.
A map of the Beaker cultures is shown above.
There are two possible hypotheses regarding the appearance of Beaker pottery in Britain. The first sees the Beaker pottery as evidence of the migration of the Beaker “people” to the island, bringing with them new technology (the use of bronze), new farming systems (the use of a plow pulled by cattle), and new social organization (stratification with leadership and wealth in the hands of an elite).
A second possibility is simple diffusion. Both the material culture—the beakers, the manufacture of the beakers, bronze—and social organization—social stratification—could have been borrowed from people on the continent with whom the people in Britain were in contact.
Evidence from burials seems to support the immigration hypothesis. With the Beaker pottery, there were now graves in which single individuals were buried in long barrows. There is no evidence that this immigration was a military invasion, but rather the evidence seems to suggest a fairly peaceful assimilation of the new immigrants.
The Beaker people brought with them a new breed of cattle—bos longifrons—which has led some archaeologists to suggest that the Beaker immigrants were pastoralists. There is also a hypothesis that the Beaker people had domesticated horses as well, but there is little archaeological evidence for this in Britain, but there is in Ireland.
The Beaker people grew all of the crops which had been established in Britain, but they showed a preference for barley. Barley had a double advantage for them: it could be used for livestock fodder and it could be used to make alcoholic beverages which could be drunk from the beakers.
In addition to making tools out of bronze—axes, riveted knives, awls, clothing pins—the Beaker people also made ornate gold necklets. The designs for these necklets, called lunulae by archaeologists, were similar to the designs on the Beaker potter.
The lunulae shown above is actually from a site in Ireland.
In Britain, the use of Beaker pottery declined after 2200 BCE.
Bronze is an alloy of tin and copper. One of the resources which Britain had during the Bronze Age was fairly abundant tin. Thus tin mining flourished in the areas with large, easily accessible tin reserves, primarily in southwest England (Cornwall and Devon). By 1600 BCE, Britain was exporting tin to the continent and ports had been established at Bantham and Mount Batten.
As bronze became more important in making tools, the social organization of ancient Britain changed. During the Neolithic period, virtually all farmers were able to produce the stone tools which they needed for farming. With bronze, however, specialized knowledge was needed. This specialized knowledge included how to find and identify the copper and tin ores needed in the production of bronze, the smelting techniques needed to transform the ores into workable metals, and finally the skills to make the metals into usable tools. What had been an egalitarian society developed stratification in which some people acquired more material wealth than others.
Between 1500 and 1200 BCE, the economy of Bronze Age Britain seems to change. While subsistence continues to be based on farming, agriculture at this time was characterized by field systems, land boundaries, and domestic enclosures. Some of the field systems extend over a significantly large area. The population appears to be stable and human efforts were directed toward food production.
By 1400 BCE, there was a climatic change that impacted that island. Britain became colder and wetter so that the old settlements were gradually abandoned. The ceremonial centers which had characterized the early Neolithic period and the early Bronze Age were no longer being maintained.
During the later Bronze Age (which is generally dated from 1200 to 700 BCE), new kinds of sites appeared. There were now specialized settlements along major rivers which engaged in large-scale craft production. With the deteriorating climate, some of the old areas of settlement were being flooded out. In addition, the lands in some areas had become exhausted from over-cultivation.
During the later Bronze Age British society appears to have become more warlike. There were now some fortified hilltop settlements. These sites often had circular houses and stone granaries.
Burials often provide archaeologists with a lot of information about the lives of the people. English Bronze Age burials show a great deal of diversity. Some are found within barrows, some within stone circles, and some within circles which don’t have standing stones. This diversity suggests that there was also diversity in ritual and in religion.
In some cases there are indications that grave sites were ritually purified with burning. In some instances there is evidence that offerings of grain were made at the grave sites. In one case, the compacted earth around the grave has been interpreted as having been compacted by people dancing around the grave. There are also suggestions that women may have been buried to accompany their men to the afterlife and there is also the suggestion that slaves were sacrificed.