The Social Context of Technology: Non-ferrous Metalworking in Later Prehistoric Northwest Europe

Research project key facts
Project title The Social Context of Technology: Non-ferrous Metalworking in Later Prehistoric Northwest Europe
School Arts
Department Archaeology and Anthropology
Funder The Leverhulme Trust
Contact Dr Leo Webley

More about this project

Metalworking has long been central to interpretations of European later prehistory. More than any other craft, the manufacture of metal objects is thought to have been bound up with political power, prestige and ritual. Yet much of the discussion has been based more on ethnographic parallels than on the actual residues of prehistoric metalworking practices.

This three-year project, commencing in October 2014, will address this issue by reassessing the evidence for non-ferrous metalworking across Britain, Ireland and the near Continent during the Bronze Age and pre-Roman Iron Age. The focus will be on bronzeworking, which dominates the evidence for non-ferrous metallurgy, though the crafting of other metals such as gold, silver, tin and lead will also be considered. The central questions are: what was the social significance of metalworking, and what roles did metalworkers play? How did this vary regionally and change over time, particularly across major transitions such as that from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age?

A key element of the research will be to systematically examine the find context of metalworking remains from excavated sites. These remains include slag, casting waste, crucibles, moulds and smithing tools. The analysis will identify places where metalworking occurred, and explore what the treatment and deposition of metalworking remains can tell us about the meanings and values ascribed to this craft. Specific themes include:

  • Did metalworking occur at ordinary or high-status settlements, defended sites, ritual sites, or isolated places? Was it dispersed across these sites or restricted to specific areas? This can inform us about the status and role of metalworking, and whether it was subject to social control or taboos.
  • What other practices took place at locations where non-ferrous metalworking was carried out? Was it associated with domestic activities, or other crafts such as ironworking? What does this imply for relationships between craftworkers?
  • Did metalworking, or the deposition of its residues, involve ritual?
  • What does the use of metalworking tools as grave goods suggest about the identity of craftworkers? 

We would welcome discussions and collaborations with other researchers examining similar issues. In particular, we would be very grateful to learn of any unpublished finds or analyses of non-ferrous metalworking remains from ongoing or completed excavations. 

People involved in this project

Principal investigator:

Postdoctoral research assistant: