Still Water, Hidden Depths: The Deposition of Bronze Age Metalwork in the English Fenland

By Yates, David; Bradley, Richard | Antiquity, June 2010 | Go to article overview

Still Water, Hidden Depths: The Deposition of Bronze Age Metalwork in the English Fenland


Yates, David, Bradley, Richard, Antiquity


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Introduction: landscapes and waterscapes

Landscapes have been studied by archaeologists for many years, but what are 'waterscapes'? In a recent publication, the anthropologist Veronica Strang has used the term to draw attention to the significance of water in many different societies, and the distinctive environments of which it is a feature (Strang 2008). It has a wider application than 'wetland', for it refers not only to bogs, lakes and pools but also to rivers, streams and springs. At the same time it acknowledges the values that people attach to such places. This paper develops the idea in a study of the relationship between deposits of Bronze Age metalwork and different kinds of water.

The contrast between landscapes and waterscapes has long been apparent in prehistoric archaeology but it is rarely made explicit. It seems as if offerings of various kinds were deposited in watery environments--from those consigned to springs and lakes to the collections of valuables placed in wells or artificial pools. Sometimes this process is clearly documented, as it is in the Classical world (Buxton 1994); but where literary sources are lacking, more attention has been paid to the interpretation of the artefacts than the locations in which they are found.

That is because it has been difficult to distinguish between material that could have been hidden or lost, and items that were deposited with no intention of recovering them. Finds from lakes and rivers have attracted particular attention because it is hard to see how they could have been retrieved. That argument is not entirely satisfactory (Randsborg 2002; Becker 2008), and in any case it reflects a discredited conception of ritual which identifies it as behaviour that cannot be interpreted in more 'practical' terms (Bruck 1999; Bradley 2005). Thus, artefacts buried on dry land are sometimes characterised as valuables that were lost or hidden, whilst those found in water are usually interpreted as offerings. The significance of the places where it happened has been a secondary consideration.

Strang's research suggests a quite different approach. Rather than making a simple distinction between land and water finds, as commonly occurs in prehistoric archaeology, it is worth examining the findspots in more detail. Were particular kinds of artefacts associated with particular kinds of water? Might such an approach contribute to a more subtle account of this material?

There are precedents for this approach. Two studies stand out as examples of what can be achieved. Stuart Needham has published an analysis of Early Bronze Age metalwork which showed that, in Ireland, findspots of axes changed between bogs and rivers during the course of this period; the context of deposition shifted from one kind of water to another (Needham 1989; see also Becker 2008). Similarly, David Fontijn (2003) has shown that separate kinds of objects are associated with different parts of the 'waterscape' of the southern Netherlands. Whilst sickles and pins were deposited on dry land inside settlements, spearheads and axes were deposited in streams and marshes. In contrast, the swords and more elaborate ornaments were deposited in rivers.

Taphonomy and artefact deposition

It is not easy to carry out such studies, for it requires knowledge of the ancient environment. Were the artefacts recovered by dredging modern rivers necessarily deposited in rivers during prehistory? Were the finds from peat bogs originally associated with a wet environment, or could they have been buried in dry ground that became waterlogged during a later period? Conversely, might finds that have been recovered from dry land have been associated with wetlands in the past? It is possible that objects have been moved by flooding and have changed their contexts in this way. A salutary warning is provided by the Gundestrup cauldron which was recovered during peat cutting in Denmark. …

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