One of the U.K.’s Most Extraordinary Artifacts Was Likely Made by Children

The intricate work found on a dagger in 1808 was likely done by children

Bush Barrow
Bush Barrow was the original resting place of the intricate gold-studded dagger that researchers now believe was crafted by children. Wiltshire Heritage

The dagger, found in a burial mound called Bush Barrow about a mile away from Stonehenge, is one of the most extraordinary artifacts found in the U.K. It features over 140,000 gold studs, placed on a wooden handle to create intricate and beautiful patterns. In the era before magnifying glasses, this sort of delicate craftwork required sharp eyes and small hands, and researchers have recently concluded that the dagger was likely made by children.  

The Independent reports that the process of making the dagger started with the creation of tens of thousands of tiny gold studs, cut from gold wire about the same size as a human hair. Next came the tiny corresponding holes in the dagger handle and the resin coating on the handle. Then, the hard part: 

Each stud was then carefully placed into its miniscule hole – probably with the help of a very fine pair of bone or wooden tweezers,  because the studs are too small to have been placed in position directly by the artisan’s fingers.

“We estimate that the entire operation – wire manufacture, stud-making, hole-making, resin pasting and stud positioning – would have taken at least 2500 hours to complete,” said David Dawson. 

As the Guardian reports, "Ronald Rabbetts, an expert on the optics of the human eye, believes that only children and young teenagers would have had sharp enough eyesight for the most detailed work more than a thousand years before the invention of any form of magnifying glass." But the cost to these young workers was high. After doing such intensive work many of the children would have had diminished eyesight by the time they reached their mid to late teens, and some of them could have gone blind.  

The dagger was excavated in 1808 by an amateur archaeologist, whose lack of experience had devastating results, according to the Guardian

The decayed wooden handle of one of the daggers had the most spectacular decoration, the tiny gold pins set so they overlapped like fish scales. Far more of it was intact when uncovered, but the ancient wood distintegrated: in a phrase to cause anguish to modern archaeologists, Cunnington described "a scatter of shining points of gold" as the excavator's trowel hit the handle.

The remains of the dagger and other grave goods found in the tomb are on display at the Wiltshire Museum.