Archaeology in East Oxford

Leopold Street Hoard

We had the pleasure of attending a talk on Sunday, 18th March, at the Ashmolean given by Professor Richard Bradley on the Leopold Street Bronze Hoard.
Alison Roberts, Curator, Department of Antiquities at the Ashmolean, had kindly arranged to have the hoard available for us to examine (with gloves on). This was a first for all of us but also, surprisingly, for Professor Bradley!
The following is our description of the talk and should not be taken as a verbatim report. And of course, any errors or glaring omissions are our own.
First off, before we start to describe the talk, a description of the hoard, or rather, the two hoards, as Alison had got both the Leopold Street hoard and the Burgess’ Meadow hoard (another Bronze Age hoard) out for us to examine.

The two hoards laid out for our inspection (the Leopold Street hoard is the closer one)

First the Burgess’ Meadow hoard, strictly speaking, not in East Oxford, but on the east side of Port Meadow, discovered in 1830; it consists of 7 pieces as follows: –
1    A palstave – an type early bronze axe, common in the mid Bronze Age, rather confusingly named after the Icelandic name for a digging tool.
2,3    Two socketed and looped spearheads, one incomplete
4    A tanged chisel, which shows signs of considerable use
5    A thin implement, perhaps a knife, or part of a knife
6    A rod or ingot with rounded ends and the surface hammered all over
7    A socketed hammer
The larger hoard, which was discovered about 1881, in the course of drainage-works for tramway stables in Leopold Street off Cowley Road (long gone, now Galpin Close). A much simpler collection, it consists of 11 items:-
1    A socket, looped celt – a socketed axe with a loop for securing the axe to its haft
2    A large looped palstave
3    The butt end and half the blade of a smaller looped palstave
4-10    Seven palstaves without loops – these have been assumed in the past to have been from the same mould
11    Part of the blade of a palstave
All the palstaves are of a similar size and weight (taking into account different wear and erosion)
After a brief description of the two hoards, Professor Bradley then posed the question – what is a hoard? Somewhat like a ‘site’, the term is rather flexible, and can change over time. When the two hoards on display were discovered, the term was taken to mean a collection of objects, usually metal, deposited at the same time. They were regarded as very useful for the construction of a ‘comparative chronology’ on the assumption that being buried at the same time, they were of the same age.
This idea of the hoard being of the same age came about from the prevailing mind-set of the time – the 19th and early 20th century archaeologists thought in terms of trade and manufacture – hence the assumption arising that the hoards were either the ‘wallet’ or stock-in-trade of a traveling smith, or perhaps a salesman, or goods buried in times of conflict.
However, these ideas, so well presented to the Society of Antiquaries on 23rd March, 1916 by E Thurlow Leeds, have gradually unraveled as time has progressed. As Professor Bradley pointed out, the use of hoards for constructing a taphonomy has been superseded by radio carbon dating, as fragments of the hafts of axes and spears have provided enough organic material for absolute dating, as well as the rather strange fact that no bronze age hoard has been found closely associated with any settlements.
Also, Ben Roberts of the British Museum, has demonstrated with the Salisbury hoard, being buried together does not necessarily mean contemporaneous – the pieces dated from between 2400 BC and 200 BC (roughly when the assemblage was buried). The “buried in times of conflict” theory is also rather suspect as the main evidence for conflict comes from finding buried hoards.

Professor Bradley taking questions after his talk

As the 20th century progressed, Professor Bradley referred to the broadening of the term ‘hoard’ to include stone axes, for example, which had been buried collectively long before metal hoards and also the increasing awareness of anthropology and ethnography. We now know (or are more aware) that many societies regard metalwork as akin to magic, and it is surrounded by myth and ritual; for instance in many African societies, only men can be involved in metalwork. Mary Helms has suggested that Bronze Age peoples might have thought of metal as a creature that grows so that something must be returned, or perhaps fed, to the earth to replace that which has been taken. From the written myths that survive we know that smiths are part of the pantheon of gods, though often deformed in some way.
This ritual aspect could also be related to cremation burials, as a smith would have been the only person with ready access to the technology to enable complete cremation – which requires a very high temperature, much higher than could be achieved in an ordinary fire.
Also, as Professor Bradley pointed out, one must account for the curious fact that often only part of an object is deposited – and which part varies across time and geography – and what happens to the unburied part? The narrow distribution of weight of the palstaves is curious too; were they being used as a form of currency, or perhaps a standardized size of ingot? And there is also the distribution of Bronze Age finds; metal objects are rarely found in burials. Axes are found in “hoards”, weapons found in rivers or bogs – a curious place to store something you presumably might need in a hurry!
The Burgess’ Meadow hoard was found by Port Meadow, which often floods, and the Leopold Street hoard was on the edge of Cowley Marsh (though more work is needed to determine exactly what was meant by the term “Marsh”). Professor Bradley has asked a successful metal detectorist how he found hoards, and he was told to “follow the spring-line”.
So it would appear that our Bronze Age ancestors were very particular about where they would deposit metal objects, though for what reasons we can only speculate, and as with many aspects of the Bronze Age it is the totality of the landscape – the “waterscape” as well as the “landscape” which must be taken into account when attempting to interpret these finds.

Leigh & Gill

Many thanks to Dr David Griffiths, Oxford Continuing Education, for letting us use the photos he took at the talk – we had a camera with us but were too engrossed to remember to use it!


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