The problem of Iron Age gold sources.

(This was cropped from a previous paper as it didn’t fit, but thought it was worth putting here as a blog: not peer reviewed, not definitive, but might spark some ideas….)

At present, the sourcing of gold used to make Iron Age artefacts from the United Kingdom is unresolved. For Irish material, work by Warner (Warner 2009) and more recently Standish (Standish et al, 2015) have offered possibilities for the origins of Irish Bronze Age gold-work, but as yet, little has been done to examine Bronze Age gold artefact sources in Britain, let alone those for the Iron Age. As Standish states, ‘gold is poorly characterised in terms of provenance, which poses a significant obstacle if an understanding of the role this material played in prehistoric societies is to be achieved’ (Standish et al 2015, 166).

However, in 2018, an AHRC funded project, ‘Research network on gold in Britain’s auriferous regions, 2450–800 BC’, based at National Museum Scotland and National Museum Wales aims to examine ‘which sources of gold had been used, how objects were made, and how the know-how to extract and work gold was passed on’ (National Museum of Scotland 2018). Although the remit of the project ends at the beginning of the Iron Age, it is hoped that the results of this work will allow a better understanding of gold sources and gold-working practice immediately prior to, and which were potentially the antecedents of, Iron Age gold-working.

Despite these broader issues, there are clues that hint at the possibility of British/Irish natural gold being used during the Later Iron Age. The Netherurd torc terminal is described by Tylecote as being ‘probably alloyed’ (Tylecote 1986, 4), suggesting there is doubt as to whether it is natural gold or not and the Snettisham bracelet – which shows uniquely British decoration and which was found attached to the sheet-work Great torc – is of such purity as to be described as ‘natural’ gold (Tylecote 1986, 4).

The Snettisham Hoard E bracelet (Image © Trustees of the British Museum)

As such, there is no reason to suggest that gold procurement from natural sources was not happening in the British Isles in the immediate centuries prior to the arrival of the Romans, and may have been obliterated by intensive later mining, or remains unrecognised due to the ephemeral nature of gold collection achieved via alluvial sources. Indeed, the speed at which mines such as Dolaucothi (Burnham & Burnham 2004; La Niece et al 2018, 412) were exploited upon the arrival of the Romans, would suggest that there was knowledge of gold at some mining sites, prior to their large scale Roman exploitation – with gold perhaps extracted from alluvial deposits, in advance of the Roman period.

A further problem with sourcing the gold used to make Iron Age items comes from the lack of comprehensive and standardised compositional data with which to compare gold samples. In many cases, gold percentage compositions have been recorded only by pXRF (Portable X-Ray Fluorescence) to satisfy the requirements of the England, Wales and Northern Ireland Treasure Act of 1996 rather than as an aid to accurate composition. It is known that several Iron Age gold surface treatments result in a purer level of gold at the surface of an artefact, whilst a more varied ternary alloy lies below (Meeks et al 2014, 142). As such, a surface analysis method such as pXRF may be resulting in inaccurate metal alloy composition readings.

The Snettisham Great torc: 70 component pieces: 3 per terminal and 64 individual wires (Image © Trustees of the British Museum)

It is often not clear whether multiple readings from different elements of each object (for example, each torc comprises two separate terminals – made often from three component parts- and up to 64 separate wires) were taken, or whether a single reading or average was used. The location where each reading was taken is also almost never recorded. Often an average of several readings seems to be used, and this will inevitably distort the figures. Also, often trace elements (which may help pin-point alloy source) are not recorded in the published spectra. In addition, a number of techniques, including both surface reading pXRF and penetrative XRF are used, with the make and age of the machine used remaining unidentified. As such, there is potentially huge variation in the results obtained which makes accurate comparison between artefacts almost impossible. Therefore, most data, and the conclusions derived from these, need to be treated with the utmost caution. 

Other sources of gold.

Another source of Iron Age gold is thought to be recycled gold (Atherton 2016, 47; La Niece et al 2018, 419). The wide range of gold proportions seen in the broad compositions of these items would appear to support this, with sheet-work and cast torus torcs ranging from over 80% gold in sheet-worked examples (e.g. Netherurd and the Great Torc) to below 20% in various cast examples. However, the source of this recycled gold is uncertain.

Comparable ternary (i.e. gold, silver, copper) alloy proportions are sometimes seen (although it should be noted that you can find just about any gold/silver/copper range of % proportions in torcs- inevitably, some will match coins, but many don’t) in both coins and torcs and this has led to a theory that coins were the alloy source for torcs, which then in turn became an alloy source for coins in the later Iron Age (Gosden 2013, 49; La Niece et al 2018, 419). This theory is supported by the apparent evidence that coins superseded torcs in the archaeological record in some areas of southern Britain (Hutcheson 2015, 362). However, the authors believe that the current state of knowledge in Iron Age gold torc studies does not presently allow for such a definitive answer, for the following reasons:

Firstly, several hoards (for example, Snettisham, Essendon and Netherurd) contain coins and torcs, suggesting that both coins and torcs were equally valued or alternatively – when considered in the light of other pieces of gold scrap included in hoards – are evidence of a society where gold was valued and hoarded, perhaps as bullion, no matter what its form. Secondly, there is no reason to suggest that those torcs previously assumed to be continental (for example, the Leekfrith, Caistor and tubular torcs) are not actually British examples copying continental ideas. That this was happening has been proven by the Blair Drummond and Irish lobed torcs (Hunter 2018, 434) which show evidence of continental ideas but which were produced from gold alloys with distinctively British compositions.

Thirdly, if this British origin is proved correct for other early torcs, and the manufacturing dates of some torcs are compared to those of coins, it is clear that several gold torcs could not have been made from imported or ‘British’ coins. For example the Snettisham Grotesque torc, the Caistor torc, the Leekfrith hoard and probably some ribbon torcs and perhaps Clevedon (Machling & Williamson 2019), appear to have been made around one hundred to two hundred years prior to the large scale introduction of coins to the British Isles.

In addition, the assumption of continental links providing all gold imports does not stand up to scrutiny if one considers that the sheet-worked torcs (that is, the Snettisham Great and Grotesque torcs, the Mini-Grotesque, Snettisham L20 and ribbon torcs) may have their origins further to the north or west of Britain (Machling & Williamson 2018, 401) beyond the core distribution of Gallo Belgic coinage.

Therefore, in summary, for all the reasons above, and until a more accurate composition of each of the artefacts and the gold sources that might have been utilised is known, we believe that the theory of ‘coins to torcs/torcs to coins’, should be treated with caution. As Gosden states, we currently have ‘no direct evidence [for]…coins to torcs (or torcs to coins)’ (Gosden 2013, 49).

References:

Atherton, R. 2016. The Newark Iron Age torc. Transactions of the Thoroton Society of Nottinghamshire. 120. 43-53

Brailsford, J.W. and Stapley, J. E. 1972. The Ipswich Torcs. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 38, 219-234

Burnham, B. C. and Burnham H. B. 2004. Dolaucothi-Pumsaint: Survey and Excavations at a Roman Gold Mining Complex,1987–1999, Oxford: Oxbow Books

Clarke, R.R. 1954. The early Iron Age treasure from Snettisham, Norfolk. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 20, 27–86

Gosden, C. 2013. Technologies of Routine and of Enchantment. In Chua, L and Elliott, M (eds) Distributed objects: meaning and mattering after Alfred Gell. Berghahn, New York. 39-57

Hunter, F. 2018.  The Blair Drummond (UK) hoard: Regional styles and international connections in the later Iron Age. In Schwab, R; Milcent, P-Y; Armbruster, B & Pernicka, E (eds), Early Iron Age Gold in Celtic Europe: Science, technology and Archaeometry. Proceedings of the International Congress held in Toulouse, France, 11-14 March 2015, 431-440. Rahden: Verlag Marie Leidorf GmbH

Hutcheson, N. 2007. An archaeological investigation of Later Iron Age Norfolk: Analysing hoarding patterns across the landscape. In Haselgrove & Moore 2007 (eds), 358-370

La Niece, S; Farley, J; Meeks, N & Joy, J. 2018. Gold in Iron Age Britain. In Schwab, R; Milcent, P-Y; Armbruster, B & Pernicka, E (eds), Early Iron Age Gold in Celtic Europe: Science, technology and Archaeometry. Proceedings of the International Congress held in Toulouse, France, 11-14 March 2015, 407-430. Rahden: Verlag Marie Leidorf GmbH

Machling, T & Williamson, R. 2018. ‘Up Close and Personal’: The later Iron Age Torcs from Newark, Nottinghamshire and Netherurd, Peeblesshire. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society. 84. CUP. doi:10.1017/ppr.2018.7

Machling, T. & Williamson, R. 2019. ‘”Cut and shuts”: The reworking of Iron Age gold torus torcs’, Later Prehistoric Finds Group Newsletter 13 (Summer 2019), 4-7

Meeks, N., Mongiatti, A. & Joy, J. 2014. Precious metal torcs from the Iron Age Snettisham treasure: Metallurgy and analysis. In E. Pernicka & R. Schwab (eds), Under the Volcano: Proceedings of the International Symposium on the Metallurgy of the European Iron Age (SMEIA), 135–56. Rahden: Verlag Marie Leidorf GmbH

National Museum of Scotland. 2018. AHRC Research Network on gold in Britain’s auriferous regions, 2450–800 BC. Available at: https://www.nms.ac.uk/collections-research/our-research/featured-projects/prehistoric-gold/ [Accessed 30/8/18]

Standish, C. D., Dhuime, B., Hawkesworth, C.J., Pike, A. W. G. 2015. A Non-local source of Irish Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age gold. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society. 81. 149-177. CUP.

Tylecote, R.F. 1986. The Prehistory of Metallurgy in the British Isles. London: Institute of Metals.

Warner, R., Chapman, R., Cahill, M. & Moles, N. 2009. The gold source found at last? Archaeology Ireland 23 (2). 22

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