The Whitehorse Hill Documentary
26th March 2014
Last November I was invited to take part in a BBC TV documentary titled ‘Mystery of the Moor’ that celebrated the Bronze Age burial finds from Whitehorse Hill, Dartmoor. Excavated in 2011, the granite cist contained a female skeleton accompanied by one of the most interesting collection of grave goods to be found in the whole of Bronze Age Europe. There were some rare organic remains, such as a woven bag and a fur pelt, and various beads and pieces of jewellery. Unusually some of the jewellery was made of tin, which illustrates that this metal was prized and being worked on Dartmoor in this period.
The TV company asked me if I could re-create the tin objects using local metal and, as far as possible, the techniques they would have employed in the Bronze Age. Quite a challenge – especially as even the experts were not clear how the items might have been made! I had to replicate a large tin bead (16X8mm) that took center place in a mixed-bead necklace and 36 tin studs (5X3.5mm) to be woven into an intricate cow-hair bracelet. The research and making process was really interesting. I discovered that many of the tools used in the Bronze Age were similar to those I use today – such as hammers, chisels, swage blocks, burnishers and leather and rouge for polishing. However, while most of my tools are made out of steel, in the Bronze Age the hammers were probably made out of stone, antler or wood, the chisels and burnishers out of bronze and the swage blocks out of hard wood, stone, or the remnants of broken hafted-axes. For files, they probably used fine-textured stones with water, much as we use oil with sharpening stones today.
Tin is a very different metal to work with than silver. On the upside it is more malleable and doesn’t work-harden but on the downside it is more easily scratched and loses its shine more quickly. Making the bead’s seam diagonal as it was in the original also involved working quite counter-intuitively. I am still not certain how they made the tin studs, but after trying a few methods came up with a holding tool – rather like an out-sized pencil – that seemed like a feasible option given the materials and techniques available at the time. The original finds, along with my replicas, and replicas of other items in the find, will be exhibited at Plymouth City Museum from Saturday 13th September to Saturday 13th December 2014.