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Bronze Age Britain

The Bronze Age in Britain lasted from around 2500-700 BC.

This period can be sub-divided into an earlier phase (2500 to 1200 BC) and a later one (1200 – 700 BC), with the arrival of the so-called Beaker culture at the start of the earlier phase heralding the change into the Bronze Age.

The Beaker Culture

A distinct new culture appeared in Britain at the start of the Bronze Age, the Beaker culture named after the distinctive beakers which appear in the archaeological record from this culture. The people who brought this culture with them are sometimes called the Beaker People. Around 4,500 years ago, a new, bell-shaped pottery style appeared in Iberia, in present-day Spain and Portugal. These 'bell-beakers' quickly spread across Europe, reaching Britain fewer than 100 years later.

Evidence for the Beaker in the form of pottery first appears in England around 2475–2315 BC along with flat axes and burial practices of inhumation (full burial of the body instead of cremation).

A Beaker from Sierentz in France

Beaker techniques brought to Britain the skill of refining metal, with copper being smelted until the discovery of smelting bronze (a mixture of copper and tin and a much harder metal) around 2150 BC. With this discovery, the Bronze Age truly arrived in Britain, and over the next thousand years, bronze gradually replaced stone as the main material for tool and weapon making.

Warwickshire Bronze Age axe ca.2500-800BC Herbert Gallery and Museum

Britain had large reserves of tin in what are now Cornwall and Devon, and with these reserves being easily accesible, tin mining and trade began.

The Britons even traded tin with the Greeks and Romans - during the later Iron Age we have a report from a traveller named Pytheas from Massalia (modern day Marseille in southern France) who, writing around the 4th century BC appears to have visited Britain. His report was used by the historian Diodorus Siculus in this account from Book, Chapter 22 of his Library of History:

The inhabitants of that part of Britain which is called Belerion are very fond of strangers and from their interactions with foreign merchants are civilized in their manner of life. They prepare the tin, working very carefully the earth in which it is produced. The ground is rocky but it contains earthy veins, the produce of which is ground down, smelted and purified. They beat the metal into masses shaped like knuckle-bones and carry it off to a certain island off Britain called Ictis. During the ebb of the tide the intervening space is left dry and they carry over to the island the tin in abundance in their wagons ... Here then the merchants buy the tin from the natives and carry it over to Gaul, and after travelling overland for about thirty days, they finally bring their loads on horses to the mouth of the Rhone.

Some people believe that St Michael's Mount in Cornwall (below) is the location of this island Ictis.

This trade in tin and other commodities began in the Bronze Age and by around 1600 BC the southwest of Britain was experiencing a trade boom as the British tin was exported across Europe.

Early Bronze Age Britons buried their dead beneath earth mounds known as barrows, often with a beaker alongside the body. Later in the period, cremation was adopted as a burial practice with cemeteries of urns containing cremated individuals appearing in the archaeological record, with deposition of metal objects such as daggers. People of this period were also largely responsible for building many famous prehistoric sites such as the later phases of Stonehenge along with Seahenge.

The Bronze Age people lived in round houses and divided up the landscape. The roundhouse below is a reconstruction of a Bronze Age roundhouse from Beeston Castle in Cheshire. You can read an interview with a Bronze Age settler here from the English Heritage website.

Bronze Age Coventry

At the University of Warwick, excavations prior to the construction of the Sports Pavilion uncovered post-holes in a concentric circular arrangement typical of a Bronze Age roundhouse about six metres in diameter with a thatched roof extending beyond the main wall of the building and supported on an outer circle of small posts. An associated rubbish pit contained the remains of a pregnant cow and butchered fox bones. More information can be found here.

Excavations (above) revealed the post holes of a Bronze Age roundgouse, reconstructed in 3D below.

Click here for 3D animation (1.95mb)

And what did Bronze Age Britons eat? They ate cattle, sheep, pigs and deer as well as shellfish and birds. They crystalised salt from sea water. From wetlands they hunted wildfowl and collected reeds for building the roofs of their roundhouses.

Where did the Beaker People come from?

Changes in cultures are always difficult to explain, especially thousands of years after the event. The coming of the Beaker People is no exception, and archaeologists have been trying to understand whether the Beaker people were a race of people who migrated to Britain en masse from the continent, bringing their culture with them, or whether the cultural package (the skills and ideas and beliefs) spread independently of the people. Did the inhabitants of Britain simply borrow this new culture which was spreading across Europe?

A scientific study by Natural History Museum scientists from 2017 study suggests that more than 90% of Britain's Neolithic gene pool was replaced with the coming of a people genetically related to the Beaker people of the lower-Rhine area at the start of the Bronze Age. In short, ancient DNA shows that the culture that brought Bronze Age technology to Britain was connected to a migration that almost completely replaced the island's earlier inhabitants.

As Prof Ian Barnes, Research Leader in Ancient DNA at the Museum, explains, 'We found that the skeletal remains of individuals from Britain who lived shortly after this time have a very different DNA profile to those who came before. It seems that there is a large population turnover.'

The genetics reveal and interesting and complex pattern. It seems that the people who entered Britain with the Beaker culture themselves originally had migrated from the Eurasian Steppes to Central Europe. The Eurasian Steppes (turquoise on map below) extend across Europe and Central Asia.

In Central Europe these Steppe people had taken up the Beaker culture which had itself spread through Europe from Iberia. With the new culture, this group continued to migrate west and finally arrived in Britain around 4,400 years ago. The DNA data suggests that over a span of several hundred years, the migrations of people from continental Europe led to an almost complete replacement of Britain's earlier inhabitants, the Neolithic communities who were responsible for huge megalithic monuments such as Stonehenge.

So new people brought the culture to our shores. The same cannot be said of the spread of the Beaker Culture through Europe, which seems to have spread without such widespread movement of people. The Beaker culture spread into central Europe from Iberia without a significant movement of people. Only the movement into Britain seems to have been so people-led.

The genetic evidence helps resolve the century-old debate, says Museum archaeologist Dr Tom Booth: 'The question of whether new things spread by the movement of people or ideas has been one of the most important and long-running questions in archaeology, and it's fascinating to see that both are the case for the Beaker culture.'

Interestingly, this was a time of major disruption across Europe and the Near East. This was a period when most of the great Near Eastern empires and the Greek Mycenaean empire collapsed, while the 'Sea Peoples' (probably not a single group but the name given to a diverse range of people on the move at this time) raided the Mediterrannean and are recorded for example in inscriptions in Egypt. So throughout Europe and the Near East this was a period of great change.

What did the Beaker People look like?

The DNA also shows that the Beaker folk would have had generally different pigmentation that of the population they replaced, who had olive-brown skin, dark hair and brown eyes. In comparison, the Beaker folk brought genes significant reduction in skin and eye pigmentation, with lighter skin, blue eyes and blonde hair becoming more common in the population.

The information on the Beaker People was adapted from an excellent article The Beaker people: a new population for ancient Britain by James McNish and published on the Natural History Museum website. It is well worth checking this out and then searching the wider website for more information.