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The Bronze Age

Overview: c. 2,000 BC - c. 800 BC

It was in this period that the landscape became comparatively treeless and open as people utilised the land for grazing, arable and ritual purposes.

It is thought that as the first metal began to replace stone as the material of choice for tools and other artefacts, we encounter the beginnings of a class system in Europe. As bronze required more effort than stone to turn it into something useful it became the material of prestige. It was usually only owned by the more powerful individuals, who received preferential treatment in life and death. 

Metal was first used as pure copper. It was then realised that alloying tin to the copper, making bronze, improved the quality of the metal by making it easier to work and the finished product less brittle, and bronze became the favoured metal.

Religion appears to have been an important factor in many of the Bronze Age sites in Herefordshire, which include possible henges at Clifford (HER 5970, 5972 and 9904), Whitney-on-Wye (HER 1014), Madley (HER 396) and Adforton, usually only denoted by cropmarks today. There is also a stone circle at Longtown (HER 12020), which most probably had ritual and religious functions for the community around it.

Round barrows were a common form of burial in the Bronze Age, and Herefordshire contains well over 140 of these sites. (Look up "barrow" and "ring ditch" in the HER Database.)

In the Olchon Valley two burials have been unearthed, one of which was a cist made of large slabs of local red sandstone. Inside was the skeleton of a man aged between 25-30. He had been buried in a crouching position with his head facing north, and at his feet was a barbed and tanged arrowhead. Also buried in the tomb was a clay beaker, which denoted that this was the burial of a noble man.

A beaker burial has also been discovered at Aymestrey (HER 7060), where a cist was uncovered containing the body of a young child. A reconstruction of the burial, complete with the original skeleton and beaker pot, can be seen in Leominster Folk Museum on Etnam Street. (This museum is also well worth a visit for its post-medieval artefacts.)

During the Bronze Age there appears to have been a move from single burials in chambered tombs to cremation and burial in level ground. Herefordshire contains two Bronze Age cemeteries - one at Southend Farm, Mathon (HER 3759) and one at Pontshill, south-east of Ross.

In the cemetery at Southend Farm, Mathon, has been found the only urn burial in the county. In 1907 the Reverend Blake visited the site and discovered fragments of two urns, which when reconstructed were found to be bucket shaped. The burial also contained bronze lance heads and a bronze shield boss; this shows that although the style of burial had changed the importance placed on grave goods had not.

At Pontshill a finger-decorated urn has been found not far below the surface, resting on a layer of charcoal which suggests that this was a cremation burial.

Many of the Bronze Age barrows in existence in Herefordshire occur near rivers. It may be that the Bronze Age people placed special religious importance on rivers and streams, or that they lived and worked the lighter soil found beside rivers and chose to bury their dead close to their settlements.

By the start of the Bronze Age the climate was relatively warm and dry, and would have probably been warmer than today's climate. This warm weather caused an increase in the area covered by oak and alder woodland.

Around the middle of the Bronze Age the climate began to become increasingly cool and wet. This would have meant that there was often insufficient sun to ripen many of the crops and the excessive moisture would have caused many to rot. The pollen diagrams (HER 5522, 32802 and 32803) show the "lime decline" of about 3,500 years ago, which was attributed both to increased farming and a cooler climate. It is thought that small-leaved lime has not spread naturally since this time (though it is occasionally planted). 

As the population was constantly rising this would have put a great strain on resources and more forest would have been cleared to meet the demand. Agricultural activity was intensified and a greater range of more sophisticated tools began to be developed.

The rich agricultural potential of the Herefordshire basin was not fully recognised in the Bronze Age, with the majority of settlements and barrows occurring on the fringes, though our distribution maps may not reflect the true situation as farming practices will have destroyed many sites.

As more and more tools were needed for everyday purposes, bronze soon became devalued and so it was no longer reserved for prestigious items.

[Original author: Miranda Greene, 2003]