New analysis says Stonehenge treasures were made by children

By Richard Moss | 17 September 2014

New analysis of the Bush Barrow treasures found near Stonehenge says the microscopic gold work on the dagger handle would have rendered the young artisans who worked on it almost blind

a photo of small golden fragments next to the eye of a needle
Dagger Studs© University of Birmingham and David Bukach
The latest revelations from a new BBC programme on Stonehenge have focused on the precious prehistoric artefacts found around the ancient monument and the identity of their makers.

Fresh analysis on the golden decorated grave goods found near the stones suggests that children as young as ten were employed in ultra-fine craftwork involving microscopic gold wire. Experts say their efforts, which date to more than 1,000 years before the invention of the first magnifying glass, would have rendered many of them effectively blind. 

The object with the largest number of ultra-small gold components is a dagger held by the Wiltshire Museum in Devizes. 

“The very finest gold work involved the making and positioning of literally tens of thousands of tiny individually-made components, each around a millimetre long and around a fifth of a millimetre wide,” said David Dawson, the director of the museum, where the collection also includes the Bush Barrow Treasures.

Made in around 1900 BC and found in 1908 inside Bush Barrow, a large Bronze Age burial mound located just 900 metres from Stonehenge, the dagger’s handle was decorated with up to 140,000 tiny gold studs - each if them almost as fine as a human hair.

a display case with gold ornaments in it
The Bush Barrow cheiftain display at Wiltshire Heritage Museum © Wiltshire Heritage Museum
These almost microscopic decorations were set into the surface of the wooden dagger handle at a rate of more than 1,000 studs per square centimetre.

The entire operation – from wire manufacture and stud-making to hole-making and stud positioning – is thought to have taken at least 2,500 hours to complete. Tree resin was almost certainly used as adhesive to help keep the studs in place.

The implications for the eyesight of the optics of Bronze Age micro-gold artisans carrying out the work could say much about the structure of Bronze Age society in Western Europe some 4000 years ago.

Ronald Rabbetts, who has been assessing the human eyesight implications of Bronze Age micro-gold-working, says that only children and teenagers, and those adults who had become myopic naturally or due to the nature of their work as children, would have been able to create and manufacture such tiny objects.

“There would almost certainly have been a section of the Bronze Age artisan class who, often as a result of their childhood work, were myopic for their adult life,” he added.

“They would therefore have been unable to do any other work apart from the making of tiny artefacts and would have had to be supported by the community at large.”

Mr. Rabbetts - the author of a key textbook on the optics of the human eye, Clinical Visual Optics - thinks it likely that prehistoric micro-gold-working artisans may have started their careers by the age of ten.

Within around five years many of these child workers’ eyes would have been so damaged by ultra-close-up focusing that they would have become myopic and, by the age of 20, many would have perceived anything more than a metre away as a complete blur.

The Bush Barrow treasures, the world’s finest example of prehistoric micro-gold working, are on display as part of a major permanent exhibition of Bronze Age gold treasures at Wiltshire Museum.

Operation Stonehenge: What Lies Beneath airs on BBC 2, 8pm, Thursday September 8.

a painting of a wood fragment decorated with gold
A painting of the dagger handle as excavated in 1888© Wilthsire Heritage Museum
a photo of a skull and bones
The reconstruction of the burial at the Museum© Wiltshire Museum
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A water drop held by surface tension over a hole of about 2mm wide on a waxy leaf makes an excellent magnifier. In any case the pinhole effect of strong sunlight enables even an adult to see objects down to 0.1mm. I have been myopic for life and experimented with viewing and manipulating tiny tools. Test it for yourself.
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