THE BEAKER PEOPLE AND THE BRONZE AGE

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Stone Age and Bronze Age Somerset
Late in the Neolithic period, about 2000 B.C., groups of newcomers from Europe came to settle in the South West of Britain. They differed physically from the Neolithic people, being shorter and more round-headed, but they also brought with them something entirely new in the knowledge of the techniques of winning and working metals, which eventually brought about vast changes in man's way of life. Most of what we know about these people is derived from the contents of their burial mounds. Instead of communal tombs like the Neolithic long barrows, they constructed small cairns or round barrows, usually for one important person, though sometimes two or three additional burials were inserted later. Their name, the Beaker people, is given to them because they used a special type of pottery vessel known to archaeologists as a beaker. It has been possible to identify several different groups of these people from the variations in shape and decoration of the pottery found, with other personal possessions, in their graves, In Somerset the earliest form, the Bell-beaker, was found at Culbone, on Exmoor, with a crouched skeleton in a stone-lined grave or cist. Two other later forms, known as long-necked beakers, were found in a large round barrow at Wick, near Hinkley Point on the north coast of Somerset, as well as a bell-beaker and a beautiful flint knife. The Beaker people later came into contact with a group which had adopted the practice of cremation and used a different kind of pottery food-vessel, or urn, with a bevelled rim. At Charmy Down, near Bath, a cremation in an urn was found in the remains of a barrow like the one at Wick, near a burial with a long-necked beaker and a bronze dagger.

In many of these early burials the presence of flint knives and barbed-and-tanged arrow-heads shows that these people used flint as the most common material for tools and weapons. Only a few finds of metal implements are recorded, and these principally of copper like the flat axe-head found near Old Cleeve. This may have been an import from Ireland, but there is just a possibility that it came from local sources. There are deposits of copper ore in the Quantock Hills near Nether Stowey, which were mined for a period during the 19th century, although no traces have been found of early workings. The development of metal working was very gradual and involved experiments with alloys. It was found that the addition of 10% of tin to copper produced a bronze alloy capable of being cast in moulds to make tools with a more enduring cutting edge. Production was speeded up and tools and weapons of bronze became more common. The problem of securing a flat axe-head to its haft led to the development first of flanges, then of loops and sockets in the axe-head to give greater strength and firmness. The gradual improvement of the quality of the bronze alloy by the addition of lead in the later Bronze Age made it possible to produce buckets and cauldrons, giving better cooking facilities, as well as swords, shields and horse harness to advance the techniques of warfare. Much of our knowledge of metal working has come from the discovery of hoards of bronze weapons and ornaments, some of which are thought to be the stock-in-trade of itinerant metal workers. At Wick, near Stogursey and not far from Wick Barrow, a hoard of 147 pieces was found in 1870. It contained several copper ingots and also bronze 'jets', the surplus metal remaining in the clay funnel when it was poured into the mould. Pieces of broken swords, with 37 damaged axes and spearheads, were probably material collected for melting down and re-casting, while some socketed axes and knives were new products ready for sale or barter. Hoards like this indicate quite considerable activity in metalworking in the later Bronze Age in Somerset.

The continued use of flint implements and especially of flint arrow-heads shows that Neolithic people continued to live and work with the new settlers and gradually absorbed their ideas and ways of life. There is a link between the Megalithic monuments of the late Neolithic period and the stone circles of the early phases of the Bronze Age, several of which are to be seen on Exmoor and on the Mendips. The most impressive and the most important of these prehistoric monuments in Somerset are the three stone circles at Stanton Drew, which, unlike those on the high moorland, are situated deep in a valley beside the river Chew. The largest circle is 120 yds across and consists of 24 large standing stones averaging 6 ft in height. Close to it is the smallest circle, 30 yds across, with 8 standing stones, while 130 yds away, nearer to the village church, the third circle, 45 yds across, has 12 of its stones still upright. Quite close to the church itself are three large stones, possibly the remains of a chambered tomb, which are known locally as the Cove. Other standing stones in the area seem to indicate that originally stone avenues similar to those at Stonehenge and Avebury may have existed here.

Little is known of the everyday activities of Bronze Age people. Dwelling sites have been found and excavated in Cornwall, on Dartmoor and at Shearplace Hill in Dorset, but no similar sites have yet been discovered in Somerset. The numerous flint arrow-heads found indicate a people still concerned with hunting, though from the Devonshire and Dorset evidence they also practised stock-keeping and arable farming. Their huts were circular, with thick stone walls about 45 ft in height and roofs supported on a central upright post, with several other posts in a ring about 3 or 4 ft away from the wall. Rafters resting on these and on the top of the wall were then covered with lighter branches and thatched with reeds or heather. Small fields, edged with stone or earthen banks, were used for the cultivation mainly of barley, though some wheat was grown. The grain was threshed and then ground into flour on a saddle-quern which consisted of a flat stone with a slightly hollowed surface where the grain was crushed by a smaller stone held in both hands and rubbed backwards and forwards. Meat was obtained from domesticated as well as wild animals, and, no doubt, some kind of alcoholic drink was made from barley or wheat.

Finds of pottery, flints and bronze implements and weapons show that many of the hill tops in Somerset used by Neolithic and afterwards by Iron Age peoples were also occupied during the Bronze Age. In the Somerset Levels, too, archaeologists have found bronze implements and timber trackways of the late Bronze Age built of heavy oak and birch logs on a brushwood foundation and held in place by stakes driven through square mortise holes, capable of bearing wheeled traffic. So far, no evidence has been found of the dwelling sites of those who built and used these well-designed and carefully-constructed communication routes Also belonging to the late Bronze Age are the ornaments of bronze-necklets, bracelets and rings, as well as large ornamental pins with loop heads, known as quolt pins and found only in Somerset and Sussex, which were probably used to fasten cloaks. All these discoveries point to a people with craftsmen highly skilled in practical and decorative metalwork; and give clear indications of a settled and established, though probably as yet not very numerous, population.