Project Ancient Tin

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Project Summary

Did Britain’s exceptionally rich tin deposits in Cornwall and Devon underpin the massive technological and cultural change from copper to full tin-bronze, and thus create the European Bronze Age? If true, this would radically transform our understanding of Britain’s social and economic relationships with the far larger and more complex European societies from Scandinavia to the East Mediterranean. An interdisciplinary team will ‘fingerprint’ chemically and isotopically tin ores collected from fieldwork across southwest England and metal artefacts from museums. Comparative analyses will also be performed on tin ore samples obtained from collaborators in Brittany, Iberia and Germany. 

Project Ancient Tin is a three-year research project (2020-2023) funded by the Leverhulme Trust and led by the Department of Archaeology , Durham University in collaboration with the Department of  Archaeology, Classics and Egyptology, University of Liverpool. The project partners include the Cornwall Archaeological Unit and the Curt-Engelhorn-Zentrum Archäometrie gGmbH, Mannheim, Germany .

Project Context

Recent discoveries from ancient DNA revealed that the Bronze Age in Britain (c. 2500-800 BC) began with a major population movement from continental Europe (1) and the introduction of the technology of metallurgy (copper and gold), long after it had been adopted elsewhere (2). However, a remarkable change occurred in c. 2100 BC when Britain and Ireland were the first region in Europe to completely switch over from copper to the far harder, more easily cast and golden coloured metal of bronze (typically 10% tin, 90% copper) for their tools and weapons (3). This process has recently been termed ‘bronzization’ and occurred across Europe and Asia (4). It has been persuasively argued as a form of pre-modern globalization due to the necessary establishment of a complex web of poorly understood long distance exchange/trade routes for copper and tin. The first appearance of deliberately alloyed tin-bronzes occurred across Southwest Asia by 3000 BC despite the region mostly lacking significant tin sources (5-6). There are subsequently a small number of mostly low tin bronzes found in decreasing density from Southeast to Southwest and Central Europe by around 2200 BC. However, the ‘bronzization’ of Europe started in the Northwest in c. 2100 BC and occurred subsequently across Europe with Scandinavia and Central Europe becoming fully bronze using by around 1700 BC and finally southern Iberia, the Aegean and Egypt by around 1500/1400 BC (3,4). 

Pare’s (2000) Chronological map of the spread of full tin-bronze across Europe with European tin deposits added in red.

The overall research question of this project is to establish what involvement tin production from the exceptionally rich and easily worked deposits of South West England (Cornwall and Devon) had in enabling and sustaining this change. This would not be historically unprecedented as in the 3rd-13th centuries AD, Britain had a virtual European monopoly for tin based on a reputation for high purity and abundance (8). South West England (Cornwall and Devon) contains some of the richest and easily accessible alluvial and hard rock tin deposits in European. The other substantial European tin deposits are across a wide area of  Northwest Iberia, in Germany/Czech Republic (Erzgebirge) and in Northwest France (Brittany) plus a few minor deposits elsewhere (8). This scarcity of tin across Europe and the increasing demand for tin-bronze metal would have meant that extensive long distance trade networks must have developed on an unprecedented scale (4).

Tin and copper ingots from probable Bronze Age shipwreck off Salcombe, Devon.

The tin required to make the bronze was particularly scarce and yet there was a huge demand As Britain possessed probably the richest tin deposits in Europe that were easily worked and transported there has long been speculation that Britain traded tin across the continent and even supplied civilisations in the Eastern Mediterranean. Now that the sensitivity and accuracy of analytical techniques have greatly improved there is an opportunity with this project to establish chemical and isotopic ‘fingerprints’ for British tin sources. This will allow us to explore whether Britain’s exceptionally rich tin deposits made the European Bronze Age. Identifying a major role in the huge European metal trading network for the apparently isolated, small farming/mining communities of Bronze Age Britain would radically change the perception of the island’s prehistory.

Project Background

Archaeology

The archaeological evidence to support Cornwall/Devon being a significant Bronze Age tin source has until recently been based mainly on nineteenth century finds when alluvial tin deposits were being reworked. There were frequent finds of Bronze Age metalwork as well as antler picks, which had been used as mining tools (20). However, in the last…

Classical Texts & Historical Mining

There has been over two centuries of speculation that Cornwall (with Devon often excluded) was a dominant tin source in prehistoric times reaching across Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean (19-20). This has partly arisen from classical texts that used information dating to the Iron Age (c. 320 BC) describing the voyage of Pytheas the Greek…

Geology

The project interdisciplinary team will bring detailed knowledge of the geology of Cornwall and Devon and the associated tin ore mineralisation in and around the granite outcrops. This is essential to an understanding of the likely locations and nature of any prehistoric tin workings. An outline geological map below is from Kirkwood et al 2016….

Tin Ores & Mineralisation

The mineral cassiterite (tin oxide) is the ore of tin in Cornwall and Devon and is a hard heavy mineral with a wide range of colours but is mostly brown to black. Cassiterite was deposited from hydrothermal solutions in or close to the granites mainly in steeply dipping veins although other types of deposits occur…

Tin Streaming

Use and management of water was an essential part of tin streaming work. The often complex methods used to work and wash alluvial tin in Cornwall and Devon have been researched in detail by Sandy Gerrard in his 1986 thesis (https://earlytin.wordpress.com ) and his 2000 book The Early British Tin Industry. His maps of Dartmoor and Bodmin…

Tin Mining

While some minor hard-rock mining could have taken place in prehistory on rich surface cassiterite veins, alluvial deposits were usually easier to work and often very rich. Hard rock mining started as surface openworks on veins and eventually became shallow and then deeper underground workings. Mining started to increase in the Later Mediaeval period but…

Tin Smelting

The alluvial tin extracted from stream works were often very pure and could be crushed and smelted with little or no further washing. However, hard-rock mined tin ore was usually was less pure and had to be crushed and the cassiterite separated from impurities using various processes. Very little dated evidence for the smelting process…

Tin Ingots & Artefacts

Besides characterising tin ores from across Cornwall and Devon as well as other European tin deposits, tin metal objects will also be analysed. From the literature we know that about 56 mostly undated tin ingots of crude or irregular shapes have been found across Cornwall including the famous ‘H’ shaped St Mawes ingot in the…

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