Did a Bronze Age Woman Wear This 3,800-Year-Old Gold Spiral in Her Hair?

The precious metal accessory is the oldest gold object ever found in southwest Germany

Gold spiral found in southwest Germany
The gold ring's chemical composition suggests it originated in Cornwall, England, and likely traveled to Germany via a vast trade network. Yvonne Mühleis, LAD Esslingen

Archaeologists near Tübingen, Germany, have discovered the oldest gold artifact ever found in the region.

As Owen Jarus reports for Live Science, a team led by Raiko Krauss of the University of Tübingen and Jörg Bofinger of the Baden-Württemberg State Office for Cultural Heritage Management unearthed the spiral-shaped ring while excavating a 3,800-year-old Bronze Age tomb last fall. The grave’s owner, a young woman who was around 20 years old when she died, may have used the gold wire as a hair accessory. The researchers published their findings in the journal Praehistorische Zeitschrift on May 21.

“Precious metal finds from this period are very rare in southwestern Germany,” note the study’s authors in a statement. “… The gold find from the Tübingen district [is] evidence that Western cultural groups [such as from Britain and France] gained increasing influence over central Europe in the first half of the second millennium [B.C.]”

Per the statement, metalworkers wrought the spiral out of a gold alloy that contained around 20 percent silver, less than 2 percent copper, and traces of platinum and tin. In the words of the History Blog, the ornament is “strongly reminiscent of a fettuccine nest.”

The team speculates that Bronze Age artisans crafted the metal from a naturally occurring gold alloy acquired by panning in rivers. According to the study, the object’s composition points to its likely origin near the Carnon River in Cornwall, England.

Did a Bronze Age Woman Wear This 3,800-Year-Old Gold Spiral in Her Hair?
The green pin (top center) marks the spot where the gold spiral was found. University of Tübingen, Institute of Prehistory and Medieval Archaeology

Comparatively, notes Heritage Daily, most ancient gold artifacts found in the region have ties to metal deposits in southeastern Europe, not northwestern Europe. The unusual spiral’s presence points to the existence of a vast Bronze Age trade network, with Western cultural groups exerting increasing influence over central Europe during the first half of the second millennium B.C.

Based on radiocarbon dating, the gold ring’s owner was buried between 1850 and 1700 B.C. The team speculates that she was a person of high social status, as such valuable luxury items were uncommon during the Bronze Age. Krauss tells Live Science that the woman’s bones showed no evidence of injury or disease, so the researchers were unable to determine her cause of death.

Outside of the spiral, which was found tucked behind the remains around the height of the hip, the tomb contained no grave goods. The young woman herself was buried in fetal position, with her body facing south.

Though the artifact is relatively rare, it certainly isn’t the only Bronze Age gold spiral discovered in central or northern Europe. In 2015, experts uncovered around 2,000 similarly ancient coils in the Danish town of Boeslunde. Crafted out of hair-thin gold thread, each spiral measured around an inch long.

“Maybe the spirals have been attached to cords which have served as a small fringe on a hat or a parasol,” said National Museum of Denmark curator Flemming Kaul in a 2015 statement, as quoted by the Local Denmark. “Perhaps they have been braided into the hair or been embroidered on the suit. The fact is that we do not know, but I tend to believe they were part of a priest king’s costume or headwear.”