Children as young as ten created the greatest treasures of the Bronze Age, exhausting their eyesight with microscopic gold studs and ultra-fine craftwork, new research suggests.
Ornate jewellery and intricately decorated daggers, known today as the Stonehenge treasure, were unearthed in 1808 from a burial mound known as Bush Barrow near the iconic monument.
The burial contained the skeleton of a clan leader who lived almost 4,000 years ago. He was laid to rest in regal splendor with the objects that showed his power and authority.
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On his chest was a gold lozenge that fastened his cloak and would have glinted in the sun, while a bronze dagger adorned with an intricate design hung from his belt.
Now on permanent display at the Wiltshire Museum in Devizes, 15 miles north of the megalithic stone circle, the Stonehenge treasure was re-examined as part of a BBC documentary. On this occasion, experts considered for the first time the human cost of Bronze Age micro gold-working.
The ultra-fine craftwork was produced nearly 4,000 years ago — more than 1,000 years before the invention of any form of magnifying glass — and entailed extremely tiny components such as microscopic gold pins and gold wires.
“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,” Ronald Rabbetts, one of the Britain’s leading authorities on the optics of the human eye, said.
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The handle of the Bush Barrow dagger was originally decorated with 140,000 tiny studs, each thinner than a human hair. They were set into the wood at a density of over 1,000 per square centimeter to create a zig-zag pattern.
“The size of the studs clearly shows they are too small for adults to have made and set into the dagger handle,” David Dawson, director of the Wiltshire Museum, told Discovery News.
He estimated the entire operation to produce the dagger’s intricate decoration, from wire manufacture and stud-making to hole-making and stud positioning, would have taken at least 2,500 hours to complete and would have left the workers almost blind. Today only fragments of the original wooden dagger handle survive.
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Experts believe children were trained and worked in Brittany, where some 20 daggers with handles decorated with tiny gold pins have been found.
“The Bush Barrow dagger is far and away the most intricate, but the numbers suggest that the daggers were made in Brittany — where there are also sources of gold. Metal ingots were traded across the English Channel, but the dagger may have been a gift from one chieftain to another,” Dawson said.
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As flourishing as it might have been, the prehistoric gold-working process dramatically affected the artisans.
Within five years, the child workers’ eyes would have deteriorated, rendering the child very short-sighted. By the age of 20, many of them were likely almost blind, seeing anything more than 3 feet away as just a blur.
“They would therefore have been unable to do any other work apart from the making of tiny artifacts and would have had to be supported by the community at large,” Rabbetts said.
Image: Detail of the decoration of the Bush Barrow dagger handle showing the zig-zag pattern made by the tiny studs. Credit: University of Birmingham and David Bukach