Technology and trade in Bronze Age Wales

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TWH –  As technological change occurred in the ancient world, many deities gained rulership over new human processes. In Hellenistic religion, for example, Demeter rules farming and Dionysus rules winemaking. Similarly, as smithcraft evolved various cultures saw the technology under divine rulership as well:  Brigid to the Irish, Vulcan to the Romans and Hephaestus to the Greeks.

But none of these technological changes are part of a natural cycle. They evolved with new processes and discoveries.  To many Pagans and polytheists, the rulerships pose no issues. The deity may be a revealer of new technology or a new aspect or part of an existing natural dominion. The material world of technology has always interacted with the realm of the gods.

To scientists, however, farming, winemaking, and smithcraft present different issues. They do not occur “naturally”: humans invented them.  In order to understand the Paleo-Pagan world of the ancients, some scientists suggest that we need to understand their material cultures.

Two recent archaeological discoveries can expand our understanding of Bronze Age Atlantic Europe. The Bronze Age lasted from 2100 B.C.E. to 700 B.C.E. in Atlantic Europe. Archaeologists may have found evidence of the first pre-historic canoe in a burnt mound in Gwynedd, Wales. Only 20 Bronze Age boats have been found in all of Britain. Other archaeologists have found evidence for the use of a standardized system of measurement in Bronze Age Atlantic Europe.

A burnt mound (the slight hill to the right of the horses between the gorse and the flowering thorn tree) at Rhydau. [Image credit: Eric Jones, Wiki Media Commons]

What is a burnt mound?

A burnt mound is the result of human activity. People dropped hot stones into wooden troughs of water. Sometimes the shock of a hot stone hitting the cold water would cause the stone to shatter. When people cleaned the trough, they tossed the burned, cracked, and shattered stones nearby. The accumulation of these burnt and shattered stones caused the mound to grow.

Archaeologists have found these mounds throughout Britain and Ireland. Most of these burnt mounds date from the late Neolithic to the Bronze Age. Bronze age people built burnt mounds in clearings, near running water, and close to many stones. They built them far from population centers. The only nearby habitation would be a single hut. Sometimes, a structure would contain the burnt mound.

No consensus exists as to their purpose. Many have argued that burnt mounds would be used for cooking. No animal bones, however, have been found nearby burnt mounds. Other theories about their use include brewing beer, bathing, dyeing fabrics, or tanning leather. If a structure contained the burnt mound, people could have used them to smoke foods or as some type of sweat lodge. Dyeing fabric and tanning leather imply some type of workshop.

The first prehistoric canoe ever found in north Wales

Workers building the Caernarfon by-pass in Gwynedd, Wales uncovered the burnt mound. In that mound, may lie the earliest canoe ever found in Wales. People had recycled that canoe to be one of the troughs. They found two other troughs in that mound. Each of the three troughs measured about 3 meters (9 feet, 10.1 inches) in length. People had carved that canoe from a single oak tree, probably for fishing.

How did people live in Bronze Age Wales?

During the 1,400 years of the Bronze Age, Cornwall and Wales had become mining centers for tin and copper. Without those two metals, no one can make bronze. Bronze Age cultures had to rely on long-distance trading networks to obtain those two essential metals. For example, Cornwall’s mines are known to have produced tin during this period, rarer substance than copper; and they exported the tin to Phoenicia and other places across Europe and the Mediterranean.

Just north of Cornwall, Wales had the earliest known prehistoric copper mining complex, the Great Orme mines. Archaeologists estimate that the Great Orme produced almost 2,000 tons of copper during the Bronze Age. Mining tools would have been very primitive. That mine supplied copper for Britain and possibly parts of the Mediterranean.  In the Bronze Age, mining would have been an important economic activity in Cornwall and Wales. Wales, for example, was able to trade the metal for amber from the Baltic in the Bronze Age.

Credit Nilfanion [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

Great Orme Mine, Wales. [Image credit: Nilfanion, Wikimedia Commons]

Standardized measurement systems

Trade differs from other forms of exchange, like raids or even simple gift-giving. Trade implies communication.  Trade also created new demands.  People would need some way to measure the number of goods exchanged. The Bronze Age would have required a common set of practices for trading copper, tin, textiles, and luxury goods like amber.

The University of Göttingen in Germany has launched a project to study weights and measures in Western Eurasia in the Bronze Age. They found that the use of standard weights and scales began around 3,000 B.C.E. These standards first appeared in Egypt, the Levant, Mesopotamia, and the Indus Valley.

Lorenz Rahmstorf, a scientist at the University of Göttingen, examined gold objects from Britain, Ireland, and northern France. Rahmstorf found that objects from these places were based on similar units of weight.  People in what is now England and northern France used balance weights and scales for measurement from about 1250 B.C.E. to 750 B.C.E., the Middle and Late Bronze Age. In a balance scale, the weight of an object is compared to a set of standardized weights.

 

Nikodem Nijaki [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

Relatively “modern” balance scale and standard weight. [Credit: Nikodem Nijaki, CCA-SA 3.0]

This discovery supports a theory that parts of Bronze Age Atlantic Europe shared a common measurement system. Exchange technology had moved from an exchange system based on gift-giving to one based on common measurements.

The new research revealed similarities between the European units of weight and those of the eastern Mediterranean. It also revealed a sophisticated system the promoted exchange and fairness in the buying and selling of goods and ultimately a basis for an economic system.  It may even provide a basis for the continued evolution of how deities gained new rulership over new technologies.  That point itself might raise questions about how the deities might be negotiating rulership over the results of new and rapid technological change.