4.5.2 The Societal context of metallurgy

Writing Life Histories for Scottish Bronze Age copper-alloy Artefacts: Biography, Prosopography and weaving data

After a long theoretical gestation the concept of object biographies has become increasingly visible within the archaeology of Later Prehistory. Kopytoff's (1986) paper on the cultural biography of things from the edited volume The Social Life of Things can be seen as the beginning of the incorporation of the concept of artefact biography into archaeology. Over ten years later the call was taken up in other influential collections particularly Marshall and Gosden's (1999) edition of World Archaeology 'The Cultural Biography of Objects'. A recent paper by Joy (2009) explicitly tries to renew focus on the concept, though there are signs that he need not worry - biography has begun to enter the lexicon of archaeological material culture studies. However at its heart it is an idea that derives from anthropological fieldwork.

The copper-alloy objects of the Scottish Early Bronze Age (EBA) are an ideal case study for exploring the concept and assessing its usefulness for future researchers in this period of prehistory. Metalwork has always held an iconic, indeed eponymous status within Bronze Age studies, being central to understanding chronological and social change. The number of analytical, scientific and conceptual approaches that have been applied to bronze probably exceeds those for any other artefact category. This section will argue that this is crucial to the potential of biography and points towards its practical application using the concept of prosopography.

Biography as a framework is intuitively attractive for studying archaeological material culture. It focuses on a generational 'human' time scale for understanding how things and people interact. It unites the concepts of agency of things with archaeological ideas of geography, place and technology. Put briefly, biography encourages the study of fine-scale interactions of people and things. To identify how objects were being made and used; but also how people in the Bronze Age were being 'made' by the objects that they were making and using (Gosden 2005).

Being a weaver together of theory does not, however, make object biography straightforward to use in Bronze Age studies. The datasets available to archaeologists are incomplete, dispersed and imprecise when compared to the anthropological experience detailed in Kopytoff (1986) or Peers (1999). However, there is no need to be too pessimistic as many of the techniques available to the study of early metallurgy neatly mesh with object life events. Chemical composition and lead isotopes can be used to infer the origin of the ore used to produce the metal (Needham 2002; Rohl and Needham 1998), while recent work on chemical signatures of melting and casting, the distribution of moulds, and regional typologies can come together to pinpoint the birthplace of individual objects in their final form (Bray and Pollard in press). Metallography uses polished cross-sections of samples from objects under reflected light microscopy to investigate smithing processes as well as use-life (Scott 1991). Surface wear analysis can also show how copper-alloy objects were used in life and also, where applicable, how they were decorated (Wall 1987; Moyler 2008). Lastly the traditional archaeological strengths of excavation and burial archaeology can show how the object ended its social life and was removed from interaction. Many of the attributes of the lives of things can therefore be accessed using traditional and venerable archaeological techniques. Clearly, new theories can help breathe life into old datasets.

The practical limits of time, money, conservation concerns and quality of data constrain how widely object biographies can be written. Though elements of life history can be seen in our material science and archaeological datasets the chronological resolution within the Scottish Bronze Age is currently in terms of centuries (Needham et al. 1997; Needham 2004) . We can infer internal object sequences of action, but overall these sequences will float within broad periods of absolute time. Few objects have had multiple analytical techniques applied to them. Only the most important, rare or iconic can justify the expense and focus of broad based investigation. Therefore if a score is assigned to each Early Bronze Age copper alloy artefact from Scotland, (with a point gained for each technique applied to it, 1 for metallography, 1 for modern excavation, 1 for chemical composition and so on), only a few recently excavated daggers score highly (Bray 2009). Key examples would be the work on the Rameldry and Seafield West daggers (Baker et al. 2003; Cressey and Sheridan 2003). The majority of artefacts, even after over one hundred years of scientific attention, still score zero or one. Currently, no Scottish EBA metalwork has been sampled for lead isotope analysis, while the known chemical compositions were mostly derived from the Studies on the Beginnings of Metallurgy Project (SAM 1 and 2 project, Junghans et al. 1960, 1968) which were produced using the relatively imprecise, and now outdated analytical technique of Optical Emission Spectroscopy.

Overall, the vast majority of material classes have actually received less focused work than copper-alloy, which again argues against a widespread application of object biography. Where there are large available datasets, such as for metallurgy, representing a lot of known 'life-events', these data are widely spread across the assemblage. Rather than biography being a common, quotidian tool for material culture studies, it should be seen it as a feasible ideal that, in the near future, will only be applied to objects of national significance (for example see the study on the Danish Gundestrup Cauldron, a focal item in the collections of the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen Nielsen et al. 2005).

Data on artefact life events can be brought together under a slightly different framework that emphasises the analysis of fragmentary collections of data. Prosopography was developed in Ancient History to solve precisely the problem outlined above. Obviously people had life histories; however the written texts that survived are often fragmented and incomplete. Therefore prosopography collects all possible sources in parallel and draws biographical inferences on the group or assemblage level (Keats-Rohan 2007). When possible more detailed life histories are written, but overall all biographical datapoints or 'events' are used to their full potential to illuminate groups of people with a common origin, profession, age or fate. This is clearly the way archaeologists have been working for centuries, weaving together assemblages to infer relative chronologies and social systems. Building on the initial spark of object biography created by anthropology of current objects, prosopography may offer archaeologists a useful tool. The University of Oxford is exploring, through a project yet in its early stages,  ways that prosopography can be applied to archaeological datasets (Bray et al. forthcoming). Rather than individual stories about artefacts, this will be a model of data collection and interpretation to act as a bridge between archaeological information and material culture theory.

See also the ScARF Case Studies: Copper Mining at Tonderghie and Experimental Archaeology: Bronze Age Weaponry


"the relatively imprecise, outdated analytical technique of Optical Emission Spectroscopy."

Was this technique already outdated at the time it was used or is it outdated now?