Beaker Age Bracers in England: Sources, Function and Use

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Introduction

Bracers are thin pieces of fine-grained stone, usually rectangular, and perforated at their narrow ends. The number of perforations present is usually two (one at each end) or four, although in some cases the number reaches 12 or 18. They occur in Early Bronze Age burials in many parts of Europe and are usually considered to be archers' wristguards or 'bracers' (the term adopted here). The stone plate would have been attached to the inner face of the lower arm holding the bow to protect the arm from the rebounding string. Similar devices, usually of leather or plastic, are used in modern archery (Figure 1).

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Some early observers viewed these perforated stone plates as ornaments or for purposes other than bracers (e.g. Thurnam 1871: 428-30; Evans 1897: Ch. 19). Ingram (1867) was the first to favour the bracer interpretation, having noted one buried example in situ between the bones of the lower left arm. However, detailed study of British examples was not undertaken until the 1950s and 1960s when Atkinson prepared a preliminary list and typological scheme (see Clarke 1970: 570). This formed the basis for a list of British examples subsequently published by Harbison (1976:28-31). Since then a few individual bracers have been described in detail (e.g. Robertson Mackay 1980; Whittle et al. 1992) but the only overall consideration of the class, such as that undertaken by Sangmeister (1964, 1974) for the European material, has been Harbison's (1976) study of Irish examples.

However, no concerted effort has been made to consider the other British bracers, or the wider archaeological context. This paper is offered as a first step towards such a general synthesis; it evaluates a selected corpus of English and Scottish bracers according to context and morphology, and uses microscopic and analytical techniques. The project represents part of a wider pilot study examining ritual and dress equipment from British Early Bronze Age graves in order to reconsider the significance of burial deposits, particularly with regard to religious acts and ceremonies.

Eighteen bracers were kindly made available from the British Museum (12), the Devizes Museum (5) and the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum (1). These were viewed and analysed along with six more from recent unpublished excavations, and two more which had recently been published, giving a total of 26. Key typological and locational aspects of these bracers are summarised in Table 1 (http://www.antiquity.ac.uk/projgall/woodward). This sample comprises slightly less than half of the number of b racers currently known from England and Wales (see list in Table 2 at http://www.antiquity.ac.uk/projgall/woodward).

Typology and associations

The typology originally devised by Atkinson, which has served the test of time, divides the British bracers into three basic groups: rounded bracers with two perforations (Type A), rectangular examples with two, four or more perforations (Type B), and more complex items (Type C) which are waisted in shape, have four perforations and display a strongly concavo-convex profile. Types B and C are illustrated in Figure 2, and the bracer illustrated in Figure 4b belongs to Type A. There are also subdivisions of these groups (see Tables 1 and 2 at http://www.antiquity.ac.uk/projgall/woodward).

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Of the 58 English bracers known, 28 were found in association with other archaeological material (see Table 3 at http://www.antiquity.ac.uk/projgall/woodward). Of these groups, 16 included Beakers of known type, and two more were found with 'Drinking Cups': a term used by Colt Hoare (1812) which usually refers to a Beaker vessel. In only one case is any other form of pottery recorded: a Secondary Series Collared Urn found with the bracer from Bowerham Barracks, Lancashire (Longworth 1984:219 and pl.84c). The next most commonly occurring item found with bracers is a bronze (or copper) dagger; these occur with 11 bracers, and always, except in one case (Sittingbourne, Kent) in groups where a Beaker is also present. …