Unearthed Near Stonehenge, This Toolkit Was Used for Goldwork 4,000 Years Ago

The toolkit was discovered in 1801—but until recently, researchers didn’t understand its purpose

Microwear traces on a Bronze Age tool used for smoothing or polishing
Microwear traces on a Bronze Age tool used for smoothing or polishing Courtesy of Wiltshire Museum

In 1801, archaeologists discovered an earthen mound near Stonehenge that contained the remains of two individuals, as well as myriad objects buried alongside them. 

Now, more than 200 years later, researchers have unraveled some of the mysteries surrounding these Bronze Age grave goods and their owner. According to a new paper published in the journal Antiquity, an ancient toolkit found in the grave was likely used to make gold objects.

Researchers recently returned to the 4,000-year-old artifacts, which had been unearthed at a site known as the Upton Lovell G2a burial. They conducted an initial analysis of the items, which date to 1850–1700 B.C.E., then took an even closer look using a scanning electron microscope and an energy dispersive spectrometer.

Their study revealed gold residue on five of the artifacts that matched, on an elemental level, other Bronze Age gold objects. They also noticed signs indicating that someone had used the objects for different purposes, ranging from smoothing materials to hammering.

Museum display of grave goods
The Wiltshire Museum's display of Bronze Age grave goods from the Upton Lovell G2a burial site near Stoneage Courtesy of Wiltshire Museum

The findings suggest craftsmen used the tools to make “multi-material objects where a core object was crafted in a material like jet, shale, amber, wood or copper and decorated with a thin layer of gold sheet,” per a statement from the Wiltshire Museum in Devizes, England, which is displaying the objects.

The Bronze Age users also appear to have repurposed some ancient items, such as stone battle axes, specifically for goldworking—even though such items “were far from the only smooth stones that could have been selected for these purposes,” per the researchers. “In intentionally repurposing these objects, their histories rubbed off on the materials they worked.”

“We have shown how central stone is to the process of making gold and how stones with certain properties and histories were preferentially selected to be part of this practice,” says study co-author Oliver Harris, an archaeologist at the University of Leicester, to ARTnewsJesse Holth.

Researchers at a computer
Researchers at the University of Leicester performing scanning electron microscope analyses of the grave goods Courtesy of Wiltshire Museum

The toolkit revelations also offer additional insights into the identity of one of the two individuals buried at the site, a man wearing an elaborate costume nicknamed “the shaman.”

“The man buried at Upton Lovell, close to Stonehenge, was a highly skilled craftsman, who specialized in making gold objects,” says Lisa Brown, the Wiltshire Museum curator, in the statement. “His ceremonial cloak decorated with pierced animal bones also hints that he was a spiritual leader, and one of the few people in the early Bronze Age who understood the magic of metalworking.”