Museum of London Docklands to exhibit the largest Bronze Age hoard ever discovered in capital

A Bronze Age axe hear Pic: Museum of London

A significant hoard of Bronze Age metal is to be exhibited in the Museum of London Docklands, in Tower Hamlets. It is the largest found in London, and the third largest in the UK.

453 bronze objects were found in September last year in Rainham, Havering, following an archaeological survey of a building site. The find includes weapons such as axe heads, spearheads, sword fragments and knives, as well as unusual items, such as bracelets and woodworking tools that have rarely been found in the UK.

The items will go on display in April 2020, as part of a new exhibition called ‘A Bronze Age Mystery’. Before its debut, further analysis of the findings and the site will provide more information on why the artefacts came to be placed there. 

A bronze age spearhead. Pic: Historic England

Kate Sumnall, curator of the exhibition, told EastLondonLines: “This exceptional find adds another layer to our understanding of the people who lived and worked in the area during the Bronze Age. While we don’t have all the answers as to why the hoard was buried, we will explore the possibilities in our upcoming exhibition, Havering Hoard: A Bronze Age Mystery, at Museum of London Docklands. Perhaps the bronze was buried for storage by a metal worker or were these objects a votive offering?”

Hoards such as these, dating from 900BC to 800BC, are usually individual, however, these particular objects were found deliberately buried in four holes that were all set within an ancient enclosure ditch. The existence of the ditch has been known since the 1960s when it was seen on aerial images. This is what sparked an archaeological investigation prior to building on the site, which was led by Historic England and the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive of Historic England, told EastLondonLines: “The finds have already taught us a great deal about this distant age, and on-going analysis and public outreach means that many more people will benefit from this window into the past thanks to this example of successful development-led archaeology.”

Wilson added: “This extraordinary discovery adds immensely to our understanding of Bronze Age life. It also underlines the importance of planned assessment and, when appropriate, excavation in archaeological hotspots when new development comes along. The opportunity to investigate here and ultimately unearth the remarkable hoards that have come to light was only possible because of the effective partnership between archaeologists and developers.”

Ariel image of a crop circle. Pic: Historic England

Almost all of the items discovered in the hoard were broken; archaeologists are thus attempting to piece together what the purpose of burying them was. Historic England have suggested that there may have been a specialist metal worker presiding in the area who used the holes as deposits for materials, similar to vaults or a recycling bank, or perhaps was trying to control access to the bronze material in order to prosper in business. There are other explanations that range from offerings to the Gods to simply disposing of bronze weapons to make way for iron ones.

Bronze Age axe head. Pic: Museum of London

Roy Stephenson, Head of Archaeological Collections at the Museum of London, told the Guardian: “We’re thrilled to be able to display this momentous discovery for the first time as the centrepiece of a major exhibition. It’s incredibly rare to have uncovered four separate hoards of such size on one site.

“This discovery is also of huge importance due to the deliberate placement of each deposit and raises questions as to why this treasure was buried in this way and why it was never recovered. These questions and more will be investigated in the exhibition.”

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