From Sicily to Salcombe: A Mediterranean Bronze Age Object from British Coastal Waters

By Needham, Stuart; Giardino, Claudio | Antiquity, March 1, 2008 | Go to article overview
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From Sicily to Salcombe: A Mediterranean Bronze Age Object from British Coastal Waters

Needham, Stuart, Giardino, Claudio, Antiquity


When in 2004, divers of the South-West Maritime Archaeology Group (SWMAG) came up with Bronze Age artefacts from the seabed not far from the site of the seventeenth-century AD 'Cannon' site, the discovery sparked great interest (Parham et al. 2006). It was not a total revelation, however, because 27 years earlier Phil Baker had found a superb hook-tanged sword of continental (Pepinville A) type 400m to the east, near Moor Sand and the Pig's Nose (Baker & Branigan 1978; Muckelroy & Baker 1979; Muckelroy 1980: 105-6). This earlier find had led to a maritime archaeological exploration funded jointly by the British Museum and the National Maritime Museum. At the end of six years of survey (1978-83) the storm-lashed seabed off the rocky south Devon coast had given up just eight bronzes in total and no sign of any ship's remains. Although small, it was nevertheless an important group of material, mainly datable to a single horizon--the Penard stage on the British side of the Channel (thirteenth and early twelfth centuries BC). The objects were highly significant too in terms of their cross-Channel connections: not only is there the Pepinville sword, thought to originate in the Seine basin of northern France, but also two Breton palstaves (Muckelroy 1980; 1981).

The new group of Bronze Age finds, from 2004 and subsequently, already out-numbers those recovered during the 1978-83 campaign (Parham et al. 2006). Some are important pieces in their own right and those that retain diagnostic features are again datable to Penard, which equates to Bronze Final 1 in northern and western France. But this immediately poses questions of their relationship to the earlier finds given the distance of almost 0.5km between the groups. One of the foremost aims of ongoing work on the site by SWMAG is to assess, from spatial and other evidence, how this material came to be deposited in these coastal waters, whether on one occasion or more.

However the purpose of this short paper is to draw attention to one particular object amongst the recent finds. Initially the object seemed wholly alien to the European repertoire of Bronze Age metalwork, even allowing for erosion, and was provisionally dismissed as something much later. It has since been recognised as one of the furthest displaced objects in north-west European prehistory.


An enigmatic bronze

Many of the Salcombe bronzes have suffered a fair degree of abrasion, as is to be expected of material exposed on the seabed for millennia. Such abrasion can readily reduce and even erase critical features. The enigmatic piece (Figure 1: 1) has probably lost some surface detail and part of its body, but its frame is still clear. Superficially, it might be compared with a chape, but despite its condition it is clear that it cannot be accommodated within any known variety of those scabbard fittings. Nor can a match be found in any other metalwork type of the north-western Bronze Age.

In plan view the bronze implement tapers from a mouth towards a rounded tip. The tip in its current form is rounded in profile rather than sharp. The 'blade' is solid for 44mm above the tip, expanding in profile gently, and is slightly bent in profile. Above the blade, the object has an incomplete socket with one face almost entirely absent and the other with a gaping central perforation of sub-triangular shape. At the top of the latter a narrow strip remains to serve as one half of the mouth in the form of a convex-profile moulding. Its top edge is slightly concave with some irregularities and to either side a small protuberance, or bump, projects upward. These features give the impression of being original rather than the product of differential erosion. Along the sides of the missing face there are erratic residual stumps and we can work on the basis that the object was originally bifacially symmetrical, allowing the reconstruction offered in Figure 1 (1).

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From Sicily to Salcombe: A Mediterranean Bronze Age Object from British Coastal Waters


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