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date: 22 January 2019

Introduction: The Bronze Age of Europe

Abstract and Keywords

This article introduces the Bronze Age in Europe. It starts with a review of the two books that were considered as the main references for the European Bronze Age, and then notes the changes which occurred in archaeology that provided more information on the Bronze Age. The article also lists the sources of information for Bronze Age archaeology, such as the deposition of grave goods. The article ends with sections on the debates in Bronze Age archaeology – chronology and world systems – and directions for future research.

Keywords: Bronze Age, Europe, archaeology, grave goods, debates, chronology, world systems, future research

Why a new book on the Bronze Age? When we were invited by Oxford University Press to compile one of their handbooks, covering the Bronze Age of Europe, our first question was: in what ways does this represent a challenge to provide something new? So many books have been written about the prehistory of Europe that we wondered what we could add. In the end it seemed that the challenge lay in producing a book that—while individual elements might not necessarily represent an advance in knowledge—was different in enough respects that it would add significant information to the range of books on the Bronze Age already available.

One of these was Coles and Harding's The Bronze Age in Europe, written in the 1970s (Coles and Harding 1979). This has been the textbook for generations of students all over Europe. It summarized the data from all regions and also combined it with the first comprehensive compilation of radiocarbon data. Its approach was above all geographical, treating the data in five separate sections for central, eastern, southern, western, and northern Europe, in two chronological divisions (earlier and later Bronze Age). There was no overarching view of ‘the European Bronze Age’, merely a short set of concluding remarks that drew out some of the main themes.

A few years earlier Jacques Briard had written a short French-language volume: L’ Age du Bronze en Europe barbare, in 1979 translated as The Bronze Age in Barbarian Europe (a reworked version appeared under a slightly different title in 1997: Briard 1976; 1997). It had a comparable goal: to present a picture of the period to the growing number of students. Briard used a different approach, however. He provided much less data, but described it from a thematic point of view. His chapters have titles like ‘Le beau bronze des pays de l’ambre’ or ‘Les îles cassiterides’. They revealed the European Bronze Age as a wonderful world with many marvels, but there was no coherent view on social processes or processes of change.

These two books held the field for some twenty years. In that period, between 1980 and 2000, the archaeological world changed fundamentally, both through an increase in data and through a new interpretative paradigm. The fall of the Iron Curtain meant that the (p. 2) amount of data accessible on central and eastern Europe grew substantially; and former Eastern bloc scholars started to publish regularly in English and German, which made their work more accessible to other European archaeologists. Another factor that created an increase in data was the beginning of developer-funded archaeology in the latter years of the twentieth century. This was accompanied by a move towards not merely describing the material recovered, but using it to illustrate new models of the past. Especially burial data and the monumental landscapes of (for instance) southern England have been used to illustrate how Bronze Age society became a complex society ruled by elites and chiefs. Perspectives on the past involving the role of material culture in developing power relations, sometimes within a Marxist framework, were especially a hallmark of the work of Kristian Kristiansen (e.g. Kristiansen 1984), while alternative perspectives were provided by authors such as Timothy Earle and Andrew Sherratt (Earle 1987; 1991; Sherratt 1994). Kristiansen stated in 1998 that he was following a modified ‘processualist’ approach (Kristiansen 1998: 40), but this is mainly evident in his extensive use of models to explain and describe the period. In fact, the theoretical position for which he has become best known, following the seminal work of Friedman and Rowlands (1977), is as an advocate of World Systems and core-periphery thinking (see below), and of the associated search for political institutions, elites, power, and prestige in archaeological data. This was also a major preoccupation of Andrew Sherratt (e.g. Sherratt 1993). Their articles have profoundly changed the way fellow archaeologists view the Bronze Age.

These new interpretations of the past have also led to new kinds of synthesis. In 2000 Harding discarded the format he and John Coles had used twenty years earlier, and wrote a thematic account of the European Bronze Age in European Societies in the Bronze Age (Harding 2000). No longer was the geographical approach central, but rather the connections between societies and the way they used material culture. It clearly opposed the World Systems approach that Kristiansen had adopted in his various writings in the 1980s and 1990s, and most recently in The Rise of Bronze Age Society, with Thomas Larsson (2005). In the latter book a ‘Grand Narrative’ of the European Bronze Age has taken shape in a form that is both appealing and controversial. Appealing, because it connects all kinds of developments all over Europe with each other in an intriguing and inspiring manner; controversial, because it follows only one theoretical approach and uses the data in a highly selective manner to accommodate the narrative.

What is interesting in all of these books that summarize the data on a European scale is that in general one or two authors do all the description and synthesizing. That has its advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is that there is one coherent and uniform treatment of the data. The disadvantage, however, is that regional archaeologists tend to shake their heads about (mis)reading or over-interpretation of their data. Moreover, most syntheses are viewed from an Anglo-Saxon perspective. That need not in itself be a problem, but on the other hand it is not necessarily how ‘continental’ and regional archaeologists interpret their data. Here we take a different approach. We have divided the book into two parts: the first written by specialists on various themes and topics (the thematic approach); the second by regional scholars about their particular area of Europe (the geographical approach). We also decided to leave out grand narratives, the World Systems approach, or any other overarching interpretative scheme, but present the data as it is experienced by those who work on particular themes and in particular regions. That may of course be seen as a regrettable omission, but on the other hand this aspect has already received so much attention from the work of (p. 3) Kristiansen and Larsson that a summary hardly seems necessary. Some chapters do in fact deal with these theoretical issues (power, identity, gender, complexity).

Leading scholars were therefore invited to write a chapter on their topic or region, as they see it. We consider ourselves fortunate in having been able to attract so many of the top scholars in their field to contribute to the volume; and in having (with only a couple of exceptions) used the scholars of the relevant regions to write about their areas, avoiding the common pitfall of inviting a few Anglo-Saxon scholars who could write an acceptable chapter but who would not command the respect of those from the regions in question. Of course, as one will quickly see on reading the book, this leads to very different visions of the past. It also lays bare how different our scholarly traditions are. For instance, typology, chronology, and myriad archaeological cultures are still very much a feature of central and eastern European archaeology. By contrast, in north-western Europe large-scale settlement excavations and surface surveys dominate the record, especially since the introduction of the Valletta Convention and the principle that the developer pays for archaeological fieldwork in advance of construction.

This volume covers Europe outside the Aegean area. The Aegean is not covered because a companion volume in the same series has already appeared; and because for the most part the developments in Bronze Age Greece were on a different level to those in the rest of Europe. Inevitably, of course, it has been necessary to refer to Aegean and east Mediterranean matters in some chapters: in those on trade, for instance (Chapter 20), or on Italy, Sicily, and Sardinia (Chapters 357); to some extent also in the discussion of the Copper Age background to the Bronze Age world (Chapter 3). This serves to reinforce the fact that in the Bronze Age there was no barrier to communication between the central and eastern Mediterranean, nor between the Aegean and the rest of the Balkans (or indeed further afield). Greece is part of Europe, but its Bronze Age development was significantly different from that elsewhere: it was much more attuned to developments in the eastern Mediterranean, with which it shares many features.

Not every topic or country receives a chapter to itself, and our authors have interpreted their briefs in somewhat different ways. While we have attempted to provide at least some coverage of all parts of Europe, inevitably there are some areas (e.g. the eastern Baltic, Belorus, Albania, Iceland) that receive little or no attention, whereas others (e.g. Italy) are extensively covered.

In this volume a separate chapter (Chapter 2) is devoted to the chronology of western Europe (Britain and Ireland, France, and Spain); other areas present their own chronological schemes in Part II of the book. A companion chapter to Chapter 2, devoted to central and eastern Europe, was commissioned but unfortunately was not forthcoming. The reader is referred instead to the introductory remarks on chronology in the relevant chapters.

Sources of Information

The sources of information for the Bronze Age are in several ways more informative than those for earlier periods. This implies not only different object types, new materials (metal) and classes of sites (hoards, settlements with farmsteads), but also different traditions of deposition. For instance, the frequent deposition of varied grave goods has enabled (p. 4) archaeologists to make inferences about the status of individuals and the organization of communities in a much more informed manner than was possible in most regions for the Neolithic. The evidence from settlements and farmsteads is also—especially for the Middle Bronze Age onwards—much more extensive and informative than before.

Not only do we have different sources of evidence for the Bronze Age: this book also shows that we have started to use in new ways categories of evidence that have long existed but were previously neglected. Biographies of objects, and their context of use and discard, are now being studied; skeletal material is now analysed for stable isotopes; DNA studies have become possible. The context and meaning of metal deposition is much more a subject of study than previously. These new avenues are partly due to new theoretical approaches to data, but partly too to new methods that are derived from other fields of study. Archaeology has become increasingly a mix of ‘alpha’ (humanities), ‘beta’ (physical sciences), and ‘gamma’ (social sciences) studies (the terminology used in the Netherlands).

One of the most significant sources for Bronze Age archaeology traditionally is represented by the enormous number of copper alloy (hereafter bronze) objects that populate its centuries. These artefacts represent both a challenge and an opportunity: a challenge, because so many thousands of objects, often repetitious in character, can seem to stifle the imagination when it comes to interpretation; an opportunity, because each one of these objects represents a triumph of the craftsman's art, representing decades or centuries of built-up knowledge, and hours of work at extracting the ore, producing the metal, and turning the metal into a finished object. In this sense, every bronze artefact possesses information that could be used to help us interpret the period from which it emanates; the challenge is to work out how to unlock that information.

Traditionally the favoured approach has been to sort these objects into groups (types), based primarily on external appearance (form), aided where possible by contextual information (e.g. stratigraphical position). This was the approach adopted by the great typologists of the nineteenth century, most notably Oscar Montelius and Paul Reinecke, whose studies embraced much of Europe and not only their own home areas. The method was to study closed-find groups (i.e. groups of artefacts that come from the same findspot and are presumed to have been deposited at the same time) and identify which objects occur together within those groups, and which objects occur with more than one set of accompanying artefacts, thus giving the possibility of identifying change through time, both of individual objects and of whole groups of objects (Fig. 1.1). The primary intention was to identify chronological aspects of Bronze Age cultures rather than anything else (e.g. technological, functional), though these other aspects also played a part in some discussions.

The types and sequences identified by these early scholars have stood the test of time remarkably well, even if in some cases they have been extensively modified. Thus we still use a division into Periods I to VI when discussing the Nordic Bronze Age, and on the whole the artefactual contents of each Period are as Montelius suggested. We still divide the south German Bronze Age into a Bronzezeit (Bz) with periods A to D and a Hallstattzeit (Ha) also with phases A to D, of which the first two (Ha A and B) are recognized as belonging to the Bronze Age whereas the second two (Ha C and D) we now identify as part of the Iron Age; and in both cases, these divisions have been applied to areas far from those where they were initially identified—over most of continental Europe, in fact.

Introduction: The Bronze Age of
        EuropeClick to view larger

fig. 1.1 Type table as devised by Oscar Montelius.

Source: adapted from Montelius (1886).

This is not to say, however, that there are no problems arising from this usage. Over the decades, different scholars have interpreted the data originally presented by Reinecke in different (p. 5) ways, or sorted the objects into different groups or subgroups. Almost all the Reinecke phases have been subdivided, and the existence of some subdivisions has become the subject of controversy (most notably Ha B2, but also within Bz A (e.g. Bz A0 and A3) and Bz B and C.

The source of these disagreements lies in the fact that archaeological depositions did not necessarily follow what we might consider a logical or consistent pattern. Objects of varying date might be collected up and deposited at one time—though this would usually mean that the latest object gave the date of deposition. More difficult is the fact that objects of different function might have been treated differently, so that (for instance) those created specifically for burial with the dead do not occur on settlement sites or in hoards, and vice versa. Such diversity in practice can and does lead to many apparent discrepancies in chronological terms.

Yet another, and more important, reason why chronologies based on metalwork have become of less interest is that the more that becomes known about other classes of data, especially settlements, the more it becomes clear that metal typology is almost useless for types of data other than hoards and burials. Moreover, its value for making inferences about ‘normal’ social life appears to be limited, or at least one-dimensional. This is also one of the reasons why there is now waning interest in, and increasing criticism of, what was once one of the great and much-praised projects of Bronze Age archaeology: the series of corpora Prähistorische Bronzefunde (PBF) that has come to typify the typological approach to artefacts. It was the successor to an altogether more ambitious, if less focused, project, Inventaria Archaeologica, a set of cards published by the Union Internationale des Sciences Pré- et Protohistoriques (UISPP), whose stated aim was to publish as many categories of artefacts as (p. 6) possible, of as many periods as possible; perhaps inevitably, funding difficulties and differing national priorities and perceptions have resulted in a very patchy distribution of published card sets, to the extent that they can be used effectively for very few areas and periods. PBF is not the only Bronze Age corpus—another is Aner and Kersten's Die Funde der älteren Bronzezeit (Aner and Kersten 1973–2011); nor are such collections confined to the Bronze Age, though inevitably they concentrate in those areas with large numbers of well-preserved objects.

Prähistorische Bronzefunde was conceived during the 1960s, the brainchild of Hermann Müller-Karpe, then at the University of Frankfurt am Main; the first volumes appeared in 1969 (Harbison 1969a, b) and were rapidly followed by a succession of others. Organized into twenty-one ‘series’ (Reihe) according to artefact category (axe, spearhead, sword, etcetera, with two series devoted to specific cultural groups or periods), to date some 165 volumes have been published, and more are in preparation. While the quality of the volumes is variable, the aim of the contributors is always to collect all examples of a given category in a defined geographical area—usually, but not always, a modern country—giving details of each object (dimensions, find context and associations, present location, previous publication details, function, and date) along with a drawing (redrawn to the PBF standard) and distribution maps by type, a chronological chart of the form's development in the area studied, and in some cases drawings of the associated material.

This approach has both benefits and drawbacks. The principal benefit is that all available examples of a given artefact form are presented in visual form with description, along with an indication of their geographical occurrence; thus one can quickly discover what forms occur where and when. This can be particularly useful for tracing the appearance of particular types that may have supra-regional significance or be important in other ways. The principal drawback is that most finds are presented without their associated material, as if they were isolated, individual objects, when in fact the importance of many of them lies in their associations and not simply in their outward appearance.

While some of these objections are serious, we can still agree that the PBF series is immensely valuable as a set of source materials. Some may believe that this type of research—stylistic and oriented towards the individual artefact—has had its day, but this does not mean that what has been done is outdated and useless. It will keep its value, and would become even more valuable if all of the information gathered so far could be made available on the Internet for everyone to use.

New approaches to metals and material culture have now started to produce results. One involves the concept of the biography of objects, as discussed for instance by Kopytoff (1986) and Hoskins (1998). These authors show that objects are not just things, but are often closely interwoven with culturally specific meanings and values (Kopytoff 1986: 68). Objects can be closely tied to persons, become part of their personhood as members of society (Hoskins 1998: 9), especially those objects that were exchanged between official or supernatural entities and persons. David Fontijn (2002), for instance, has shown how the contexts in which objects are discarded or disposed of, and their use, can reveal much about meaning in society (see also Van Gijn 2010) (see Chapter 11). In a different way, the seminal ethnographic work of Olivier Gosselain (2000) and others, on the chaînes opératoires of the making of objects, is becoming more and more important because it discusses how apparently self-evident technical procedures are to a large extent culture-specific. This research has also had its impact on pottery analysis, as for instance in the work of Sébastien Manem (2008). This type (p. 7) of work not only tells us about the choices that craftsmen made, but can also provide valuable information about regional styles and identities and about the geographical distribution of style zones. In that respect it is an important new line of study complementing traditional studies.

Distribution maps have always formed the heart of archaeological studies in any period, but especially for the Bronze Age. They used to be an important source for inferences about the distribution of archaeological cultures and the movement of peoples, in the sense in which Gordon Childe used the term. This approach has not yet lost its value in several regions, especially in eastern Europe—as you can read in this book. But the use of maps has changed. Especially for Bronze Age Europe the distribution of specific types of artefacts, in particular bronze artefacts, is of great importance because it shows networks of trade and exchange (Chapter 20). Better than anything else, a distribution map of specific objects or decorative symbols appears to demonstrate contacts between groups of people. A problem, however, is that we are still not very well informed about mechanisms of transport and exchange in Europe. In technological terms these matters are becoming increasingly clear (see Chapters 212), but as a social mechanism much remains to be done. The general assumption is that exchange between elites is one of the main mechanisms for the movement of bronzes, but that cannot account for all the metal that was distributed. Moreover, the context of bronze deposition shows that in many cases there is much more symbolism involved than just prestige and status (see Chapter 7). The assumption of a political economy (Earle 2002) as the model for the whole of Bronze Age Europe is also disputed by many scholars (see Chapter 11).

Debates in Bronze Age Archaeology


Traditionally the study of Bronze Age archaeology has revolved predominantly around artefacts, mainly pottery and bronzes. The situation varies in different parts of Europe. Where long stratified sequences are available, mainly in the eastern half of the continent (such as tells, or settlement mounds, in Hungary and Bulgaria, or stratified sites in Moldavia), there has been a long-standing tradition of conducting research through the detailed comparison of the contents of the layers of different sites. With bronze artefacts, since the days of Montelius and Reinecke it has been the custom to create chronologies by setting up type sequences and association tables, so that the development of artefacts through time can be charted. One problem has always been that pottery on settlement sites is not often clearly associated with characteristic bronze types, so that two (or more, in the case of funerary assemblages) chronologies have developed side by side. Usually the best way of resolving that issue has been through the use of grave assemblages, since grave goods might include both pots and bronzes. Even here difficulties can arise, though, since the pots put into graves were not necessarily the pots used in domestic life.

In recent decades these preoccupations have become less critical in importance, at least in those parts of Europe where radiocarbon dating is commonly available. It would be wrong to conclude that all chronological problems have been solved, of course. But the way was shown (p. 8) in 1997 when Stuart Needham and colleagues carried out a dating programme on organic material surviving in the sockets of, or otherwise adhering to, bronze implements (Needham et al. 1997). This, for the first time, gave a credible absolute dating sequence for British Bronze Age bronzes—while incidentally confirming the relative sequence, and in outline the previously obtained absolute chronology. Since that time, much has been done to refine the British chronology and bring it into line with those of adjacent countries (Chapter 2).

At around the same time the results of the programme of dendro-dating on oak coffins of the Nordic Bronze Age came to fruition (later summarized in Randsborg and Christensen 2006). This gave a clear indication of the timespan within which graves of Periods II and III fell—again more or less in accordance with predictions based on cross-dating. The particular preservation characteristics of the Nordic coffin graves allowed this development to happen. The other area where an extended dendro sequence has become available is the Alpine zone, mainly Germany and Switzerland. Here, large numbers of excavated sites in wet conditions have produced wood, much of which has been dendro-dated. This remarkable corpus of material suffers only from the disadvantage that there are gaps in occupation: thus there are many sites producing wood from the Early Bronze Age, a number from the earlier Urnfield period, and a large number again from the late Urnfield period. Few sites are dated to the Middle Bronze Age or to the middle part of the Urnfield period.

Most recently a radiocarbon dating programme has been carried out on cremated bone in Nordic burials—which has the advantage that it extends the scope of absolute dating beyond the Nordic Early Bronze Age, when inhumation was the norm, into the Late Bronze Age, when cremation became universal (Olsen et al. 2011). These dating techniques have the potential to put the chronological framework of the Bronze Age beyond doubt (and therefore dispute). Questions of contemporaneity, for instance between objects or motifs apparently of Mycenaean inspiration found in continental Europe, can now be resolved, at least within acceptable limits. Long-standing debates such as the relative chronological positions of the Early Bronze Age of north-west Europe and the Aegean area (‘Wessex without Mycenae’: Renfrew 1968) can finally be laid to rest. In almost all countries of central and western Europe this is now the case, though some countries in eastern and south-eastern Europe lag behind, partly for resourcing reasons, but partly also through ignorance or scepticism. We can thus look forward to a future where debates over chronology can be set aside, enabling us to consider the implications of the synchronisms defined in social and economic terms.

World Systems

Linked to the question of chronology is that of interconnectedness. How far were different parts of the Bronze Age world linked together, and how far were they separate, like islands in a sea of uninhabited terrain? This is a question that has vexed scholars for many years, with a range of positions being adopted, often increasingly polarized.

In large measure this stems from a debate concerning the extent to which the advanced civilizations of the east Mediterranean were in contact with, or influenced, cultures in the ‘barbarian’ world. We can trace this debate back as far as Montelius, though it was mainly German scholars in the mid-twentieth century who pointed to the main pieces of evidence, followed in the 1960s by Stuart Piggott and Jan Bouzek. Through the 1970s and 1980s different opinions were expressed, some favouring an extensive range of contacts between the two (p. 9) areas, others adopting a more sceptical position (notably Harding 1984; Bouzek 1985). The publication of parts of a conference held in Aarhus, Denmark, in 1980, at which World Systems Theory (later called core-periphery theory, or similar formulations such as Centre-Periphery relations) was first broached in an archaeological context, was the first major outcome of this approach (Rowlands, Larsen, and Kristiansen 1987); it was followed by the publication of a colloquium held in Mainz, Germany, in 1985, which illustrated more starkly the difference in the positions held (Schauer 1990); here the ‘maximalist’ position of mainly Danish scholars was clearly articulated. In the following years, it was especially the publications of Kristian Kristiansen that dominated the field, in a series of articles and in two books (Kristiansen 1998; Kristiansen and Larsson 2005). Kristiansen's position is that: a) one can discern a wide range of sites and artefacts in Europe which indicate extensive connections with the Mediterranean world in the Bronze Age, notably though not exclusively Mycenaean Greece; and b) these connections are best viewed within a core-periphery framework, the core drawing in especially raw materials from its periphery and the periphery receiving in return cultural influences that led to technological and social developments, as well as manufactured goods.

In their 2005 work Kristiansen and Larsson went further. While the core-periphery framework remains, they envisaged Europe as a world where travellers moved widely across the continent, bringing with them not only tangible goods (artefacts) but also the more intangible expressions of exotic knowledge, concepts, practices, ideologies, religious symbols, and the like. The authors coupled this with a harsh critique of older artefact-based ideas of ‘merely’ assessing similarities in material culture, which had led to much of the scepticism expressed by those holding different views. In this manner they built up a narrative in which Europe became a continent linked as much by mental constructs as by material culture.

This is not the place to undertake a full critique of that narrative here, though several have been expressed (e.g. Nordquist and Whittaker 2007), which point out the selective nature of the sources used or even outmoded or erroneous use of factual data. In spite of these criticisms, the book continues to be extensively cited, generally with approval—also by several authors in this volume. Some like the approach based on a ‘Grand Narrative’; others prefer to view the Bronze Age through the prism of the detailed analysis of field and artefact data.

The most powerful objection to a World Systems approach for an understanding of the prehistoric past is that it removes much of the autonomy of action of the ‘peripheral’ societies, who become pawns in the power play of the core. Originally devised by Immanuel Wallerstein as a way of understanding the rise of the capitalist system in the early modern period (Wallerstein 1974), its application to the remote past has always brought with it the danger that we view peripheral societies through the lens of the core. It assigns particular force to notions of power, the supremacy of technological innovation, and the idea that what happened in the core was automatically desirable to those on the periphery—who would then be exploited for their resources (raw materials such as metals), which were crucial to the continuance of the developed societies in the centre. The overtones of modern economic history could not be plainer.

An alternative view would stress the way that local developments in every area proceeded, making use of local power structures and local economic forces. In such a model, it is regional economic systems that are important for the development of such power structures. We have a good idea of how settlement systems worked in several parts of the Bronze Age world (for instance the Low Countries and Scandinavia: Chapters 31 and 41). In some cases there is (p. 10) abundant data on economic life, now subject to sophisticated analyses. We would certainly accept that there was much movement of goods and people across Europe in the Bronze Age, sometimes over long distances, and that an inhabitant of, for example, Britain, could say, like Shelley in his poem ‘Ozymandias’, ‘I met a traveller from an antique land … who told of wonderful things he had seen.

The Way Ahead

Bronze Age research has a long history of studying metals and metal artefacts. However, as we have seen, much of that research so far has been dedicated to typology/chronology and stylistic comparisons. Metal analysis was important in the 1960s and 1970s with the work of Junghans, Sangmeister, and Schröder, but became less important when it became clear that the more samples were taken, the less clear the provenance of bronzes was in terms of ore sources, especially since bronze tended to be recycled. That does not mean we should belittle these efforts, nor stop doing analyses altogether; lead isotope analysis in particular has proved very useful, if sometimes controversial. Especially in combination with metallurgical research, such analyses can be very informative, as for instance demonstrated in the work of scholars such as Barbara Ottaway, Ernst Pernicka, and Tobias Kienlin (Kienlin and Roberts 2009) (see Chapter 23).

In the future non-destructive analyses will become increasingly important because the rules and scientific ethics for handling metal objects have changed considerably. X-ray fluorescence (XRF) and other methods for studying the composition of metal objects will increase in importance. Here too the biography of artefacts (manufacture—use—discard) will become more important as a line of analysis, as is demonstrated in various articles in Kienlin and Roberts (2009). If we treat the working of metals in the past less as an industrial or a given process and more as a social one, much can be learnt about its embedding in society and the place of the smith in Bronze Age communities. In that respect not much progress has been made since the summarizing work of Michael Rowlands forty years ago (Rowlands 1971). Here much may be gained by recognizing that metal production could have been firmly embedded in local communities and was less connected to elites than is currently assumed. One should also take into account regional and temporal differences, because in the Late Bronze Age the production of weapons, complex ornaments, and other objects was probably organized in a very different way from that in the Early Bronze Age.

Important new sources of information are provided by organic chemistry and biomolecular archaeology. The work of Richard Evershed in Bristol (UK) and Douglas Price in Madison (US) and Edinburgh (UK) especially has shifted the parameters of research. Isotope and lipid analysis are producing new results about mobility and diet on an almost daily basis. While strontium isotopes were at first used only for dietary studies, now mobility of groups of people is measured, or in the case of wool, of sheep or the wool itself (Frei et al. 2009). By measuring the signal in the bones with a control sample, it can be established whether a person or animal was raised locally or somewhere else. Where that somewhere was is generally hard to define, but at least one knows whether or not mobility was an issue. Large projects for determining mobility have now started (see Chapter 10) and we will probably soon see more of this type of research. When data not only about humans but also about animals starts to (p. 11) become more widely available, we will see new levels of interpretation of how the different regions in Bronze Age Europe were connected: proof positive of the Kristiansen hypothesis?

The interpretation of the results, however, is by no means simple. As with the Amesbury Archer (who came from the Alpine region according to oxygen isotope studies: Fitzpatrick 2003), the results may be accepted too fast and too uncritically by archaeologists. We have to be careful that the same does not happen as in the early days of radiocarbon dating: overenthusiastic and uncritical use which led to misreadings of the data. Moreover, interpretation of the results in social terms is not straightforward. We have previously thought of the Bronze Age as a fairly stable society with small-scale communities, some raiding and warfare, and increasingly broad exchange networks. But now it seems people moved all over Europe and settled all parts of it. New migrationist tales are emerging, for instance on continental Bell Beaker prospectors settling in Wessex or Scotland (see Chapter 24). Though this may be part of the explanation, we should not assume the social processes without reference to how they work in traditional societies. Isotope studies need a much more careful discussion of Bronze Age mobility and the way it was embedded in society than has happened so far.

The use of mass spectrometers, and especially the laser-induced variants, are now turning out results in other fields of research, notably lipid analysis and phosphate analysis. In Britain experiments have been carried out with intra-site analysis of lipids on pottery (Copley et al. 2005). A great range of comparative research studies can be imagined on the use of pottery and other materials within sites, but also between regions and in different contexts of deposition. Phosphate analyses can be used to study patterns of movement in settlements or cemeteries, if we are able to take and analyse suitable soil samples. DNA studies can also provide many new results, not only from the study of bones but also from soil samples. Careful analysis of soil samples with the aid of these new methods from graves might provide information about the presence of materials that have long decayed.


There are many possible approaches to the Bronze Age, and this volume indicates just some of them. A disjunction between a ‘culture’-based approach and one based simply on the available field and laboratory evidence without imposing a mental superstructure onto it is only too apparent; this reflects the research traditions in the different parts of Europe. New approaches are covered in some chapters, as are new interpretations of old material; equally, ‘traditional’ material is covered to a greater or lesser extent in the regional chapters. We have indicated here some of the ways we expect the subject to develop. While we do not downplay the importance of the culture-based approach, which will always be relevant for setting a framework for study, we expect breakthroughs in understanding in Bronze Age studies to occur mainly with the new analytical and interpretative techniques that have been developed in recent years. Perhaps for resource reasons, these have mostly been applied in the western countries of Europe so far; one challenge will be to enable colleagues in more easterly countries to take part in these developments.

In 1994 the Council of Europe launched its ‘European Campaign for Archaeology’, with a specific focus on the Bronze Age: ‘The first golden age of Europe’, encompassing conferences, workshops, and a magnificent closing exhibition that toured several European capitals in (p. 12) 1998–9. More than a decade later, this volume attempts to set out the basis for study to take us into the next period. We hope and believe that what you can read here will set out the framework within which Bronze Age studies will progress in the decades to come.


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