The Bush Barrow dagger is one of the most incredible Bronze Age finds in Britain. The blade is made from bronze, but the handle is decorated with microscopic gold studs set in a zig-zag pattern. This work was so intricate it was probably carried out by children.
The dagger was buried in the grave of the Bush Barrow chieftain, near Stonehenge, c. 1950BC.
Each gold stud on the dagger handle is as thin as a human hair and most are less than one millimetre in length.
We counted how many studs there were in a single square centimetre. Then by multiplying that up for the surface area of the dagger handle, we estimated that there were around 140,000 gold studs.
How the studs were made
Each gold stud was made from square-sectioned gold wire cut into short lengths.
Each length was folded in half and then rolled between two pieces of wood or stone to form the body of the stud.
One end was gently rounded and the other flattened to create the head of the stud.
Each was then set in place, with the heads of the studs overlapping like fish scales.
Archaeologists have long puzzled over where the Bush Barrow dagger hilt was made. There have been 22 gold-studded daggers found in Brittany and six in Britain. Recent analysis by Chris Standish from Southampton University suggests that the gold comes from Cornwall – and so is probably British.
Crafted by child artisans
The work involved such tiny components that it’s believed to have been carried out by child artisans.
Ronald B Rabbetts, author of a book called Clinical Visual Optics, wrote:
“…it is possible that Bronze Age micro-gold-working artisans may have started their careers by the age of ten. Within around five years (ie potentially by the age of around 15), many of these child artisans’ eyes would have been so affected by close-up focusing that they would have become myopic.”
Excavation of the Bush Barrow
Bush Barrow was excavated in 1808 by William Cunnington, and is one of 50 burial mounds on Normanton Down, looking out over Stonehenge. The excavation was undertaken by his two trusted workers, Stephen and John Parker, who were father and son, and their finds were illustrated by Philip Crocker. Below is part of William Cunnington’s account of the excavation, perhaps demonstrating the first use of a trowel in archaeology:
“The handle of wood belonging to the dagger had been richly and most singularly ornamented by an immense quantity of minute gold rivets no thicker than the smallest pin –the end of the handle had been filled with these small points of gold, but in the flat part of the handle these rivets had been most elegantly arranged in a Vandyke pattern so as to procure a novel and most pleasing effect. Mr. Crocker has drawn part of the end of the handle which may give you a better idea of the whole. There are now a number of these minute gold rivets in the remainder of the wood which still adheres to the brass. When we first discovered these shining points of gold we had no concept of their nature, otherwise we might perhaps have preserved thousands of them, but unfortunately John with his trowel had scattered them in every direction before I had examined them with a glass.”
The first use of a trowel
Here is part of William Cunnington’s account of the excavation, perhaps demonstrating the first use of a trowel in archaeology!