Was there a Bronze Age Gold Rush in Cornwall?

Cornwall Gold

Even though Ireland had plenty of its own, its most beautiful Bronze Age artefacts were made with Cornish gold.

Archaeologists have discovered an ancient gold trading route that stretched from Cornwall to Ireland. But if Ireland had its own gold mines, why didn’t they just dig up their own?

Think of something that defines wealth and the chances are that gold will be one of the first things to spring to mind. From pirates to prospectors, gold has always been a highly prized treasure amongst those without direct access to this precious resource.

Of course, historically, different societies have valued gold differently (just think of the 15th century Europeans who traveled to the Americas to find that the people there would happily swap tin for gold).

What’s so surprising here is that the value of gold seems to have varied between two societies who not only had access to their own gold deposits, but also lived within a relatively short distance of each other.

No universal value of gold

Archaeologists have recently discovered evidence of an ancient gold trading route that stretched from Cornwall to Ireland and extends as far back as the Bronze Age.

Geological estimates now indicate that up to 200 kilos of gold, worth almost £5 million today, was extracted in the Early Bronze Age from Cornwall and West Devon’s rivers – mainly between the 22nd and 17th centuries BC, and new research suggests that huge amounts were exported to Ireland.

Researchers looked at 50 gold artefacts from Bronze Age Ireland and compared them to samples from locations across the UK.

From the results, they worked out that the gold in each of these objects probably came from Cornwall, which is strange, given the abundance of gold deposits in Ireland.

Highly prized in Ireland

Most of the gold in circulation in fact seems to have been Cornish. So why was Cornwall exporting it to Ireland, rather than keeping it for themselves? The locals seem to have chosen to trade it for other more desirable goods that they held to be of higher value than gold (though these goods are unlikely to have been jam, cream and tea…)

What exactly they were trading it for is unclear from this study, but whatever they were receiving in return was clearly of more use to the ancient Cornish people.

The question is whether gold was in such abundance in Cornwall that its value was depreciated? Or perhaps their society was less interested in material goods, the type of which we see being produced in Ireland at this time?

The exotic value

On the flip side, Ireland itself had no shortage of its own easily-accessible gold deposits, and the knowledge to extract and work it most likely existed as there is evidence of large scale exploitation of other metals.

So what was so appealing about this Cornish gold? Archaeologists believe that the “exotic” value of the imported gold may have made it more highly prized than the local variety; much like in society today where we are willing to pay more for something unique.

Or just a by-product?

On top of that, Dr Chris Standish of Southampton University who carried out the metallurgical research, believes that although Cornwall’s prehistoric gold production was of considerable cultural and potentially political significance, it was, for the most part, a by-product of an even more important industry – tin extraction.

Cornish tin was crucial to the development of the Bronze Age in Western Europe, Britain and Ireland – because in order to make bronze, the prehistoric metalworkers had to combine copper with tin.

More questions than answers

The study leaves us with a lot of questions still to be answered. Why was there such a large difference in attitudes to gold? Was there something about the structure of these two prehistoric societies that influenced this?

The majority of gold that survives from Bronze Age Britain is actually found in Ireland, and a significant proportion of the objects are items of jewelery. Does this reflect a cultural difference, with the Irish placing a higher value on status symbols?

Or perhaps religion plays a part; historically gold was believed to have supernatural or magical powers. Did a difference in belief influence the demand for the metal in Ireland?

Whatever the reason, the study provides an interesting, if brief, introduction to the trade relationship between two prehistoric societies, and will hopefully encourage more detailed research in the future.

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Written by Rosanna Ring

Rosanna is one of DigVentures' intrepid Community Archaeologists. She's busy turning Barrowed Time (our dig at Morecambe's Bronze Age burial mound) into a real seaside adventure, and getting the Pop-Up Museum on the Prom ready for you to visit!

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