Monday, 14 August 2017

A Historical Interlude: Bronze Age people by Michael Perry

Two additional figures from the Wargames Foundry range - an older woman and a young man - note the 'pageboy' hair cut and the hairnet!
A few weeks ago, I published a post about my love for the Foundry's European Bronze Age range and discussed how the 1921 discovery of the Egtved Girl came to inspire Michael Perry's sculpting. She certainly inspired me too, and I have continued to work on this seemingly unpopular, but excellent range, as you can see! 

This time we are going to have a closer look at the garments worn by people in North West Europe around 1600 BC, as illustrated by these two wonderful character figures. I like to think that these represent the Egtved girl's family; perhaps her parents or siblings and that they inhabit the same village or environment. Roleplaying is possible in Europe's distant past, see? Though as we will find, these two additional figures may be more closely matched to each other than I originally thought. 

So what do we know of the people who inhabited this sceptred isle three and a half millenia ago? The first thing you need to forget is the concept of the nation state. Modern views of nationality and regional identification didn't really develop into the form we recognise today until the end of the 18th century. People were tribal for sure, but where one tribe began and another ended is now largely lost to us. 

Here, in what would one day be called England, population density seems to increase significantly from the Neolithic period, with smaller family clans gradually morphing into settled, larger communities. Some scholars have even suggested that the total population of the British Isles (that includes Eire, remember modern geo-politics don't apply here) could have reached 1,000,000 by 2000 BC. 

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Ye Olde illustration of Bronze Age costume inspired by the Danish oak coffin finds. Again, note the hairnet and rounded hats, both present on Michael Perry's models. 
The reasons behind this population increase are hotly debated by prehistorians to this day, but the general consensus is that farming practices developed rapidly and this resulted in a more substainable food source. As the population grew, there were more people to work the land and in turn generate further produce. Environmental archaeology, particularly the discipline of palaeoethnobotany, has provided evidence to suggest that these growing populations cleared large areas of forest to develop the first field systems. Occasionally, these fields were enclosed with boundries, using earthworks, wooden pallisades or drystone walling, such as at the Dartmoor Reaves. Much of the woodland remained as a managed resource, with scholars arguing that around fifty-percent of forest growth had survived by the Middle Bronze age. Ancient versions of barley and wheat (remember, our crops are the result of thousands of years of manipulation: GM produce being nothing new) were harvested, alongside hay and straw to aid in animal husbandry, thatching and many other purposes, such as bedding. Malt was also cultivated, as alcoholic drinks were fermented and no doubt enjoyed in copious quanities- just like today! 

Climatology surveys suggest that the weather was probably slightly warmer in the Bronze Age, with a two degree difference on average to modern times, and this obviously effected agricultural land use, as arable farming was able to spread to moorland and upland environments. By the later Bronze Age, this weather pattern changed into the cooler, wetter variety the inhabitants of these islands are famous for enduring, and so many of these upland farms were abandoned. 

With food production no longer a day to day necessity for all, some people began to specialise in skilled activities. Evidence for metal workers, shipwrights, leather tanners and so on suggest a varied cabal of craftsmen operating throughout the Bronze Age. Despite having the name 'Bronze' in this period, stone tools were still used extensively, though their production lack the artistic finess of the Neolithic or Mesolithic periods, and any modern day search of freshly ploughed land, or even your own back gardens here in Europe, can result in the discovery of these stone relics if you know what you are looking for.

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Bronze Age stone tool, discovered by the author in his garden. 
As we learnt from the Egtved Girl's teeth, travel around the European continent seemed to be a common enough occurance three and half millenia ago. Archaeological excavation has proven time and time again that there were strong trade links between the British Isles and the continent even then, with metalwork and ore (particularly tin) being shipped out and amber, jade and such being imported, and that these links were probably already well established by the Neolithic. Exotic or unusual items would have been seen as status symbols and the relative 'worth' of a item needs careful examination and avoidance of modern bias. A good contemporary example of this can be found in Ancient Egypt, where silver was deemed of greater value than gold, something that was beyond the ken of our Victorian antiquarian forebears. 

If we now return to the subject of clothing, we can understand that there is a good likelihood that textiles would have been traded and may have seen specialised production, though if we look at comparative societies in the Iron Age and Medieval periods, the production of textile was an activity carried out by women and sometimes children. Though I very much doubt that the production of textiles was a 'women-only' pastime, sewing was a skill of great importance for thousands of years, and it didn't matter if you were a queen or a milkmaid, you still spent some of your time at the loom and needlecraft was a highly valued skill. 

Though we can never know who actually made clothing in the Bronze Age, at least we have a few glimpses of how clothing was made and what these outfits looked like, largely thanks to the Danish Oak Coffin burials we touched on last time. The Egtved girl being one of the twenty so far unearthed. Hopefully, the ongoing investigations at Must Farm (nicknamed Britain's Pompeii) will reveal more in future about clothing in what would one day become England. What we do know is that clothing was mostly wool based, with a variety of weaves and more sophisticated that the animal hides worn during the Stone Age. As natural dyes were used to colour clothing, we can expect fairly drepressing shades of brown, green and dark red to have been the norm. Leather was plentiful during the Bronze Age and was probebly used extensively in clothing, and elsewhere. A shoe dated to 1420-1260 BC was found by accident in Norway in 2006, thawed from an icefield in the Jotunheimen mountains, and was found to be an equivalent size to a UK size seven. One of the shoe's seems was very well preserved and there was some indication that shoelaces were used to fasten the garment. 

Interestingly, the simple design remained in use until around AD 1600! 

Bronze Age clothes
A great reconstruction for Bronze Age clothing found at Ancient Craft, though not exactly like the outfits worn on our miniatures. 
The male miniature seems to have been based on male clothing excavated as part of a suspected family group found at Borum Eshøj. First discovered in 1871, these burials were uncovered inside a large barrow situated near Århus, the second largest city in Denmark, and weren't fully recovered until 1875. Sadly, both excavation and preservation techniques were primitive at best, with local visitors recorded as poking and proding the bodies after their removal. 

The excavations of 1871 resulted in the discover of a single grave with the body incased in a oak coffin, similar in many ways to the Egtved Girl's. Inside, lay the remains of an elderly woman. During more extensive fieldwork four years later, two further coffins were discovered and were found to contain the bodies of two men - one considerably older than the other. It has been suggested that the barrow itself was originally raised over the body of the older man, and the subsequent two further burials were added later. Dendrochronology provided a date of roughly 1350 BC for the oak coffins used, so about twenty to forty years after the Egtved Girl. 

Careful analysis of the skeletal remains, suggests that the older man had reached later middle age when he died, around fifty to sixty years while the younger male was around twenty years when he was buried. The female's age was estimated at being similar to the older man. 

The primary inhumation was very well preserved and had to be dismembered for transport to Copenhagan, as the sinews and muscles were still holding the skeleton together. His nails were well manicured and his face newly shaven, perhaps suggesting that he had been cleaned up after death as some people still do today. Like the Egtved Girl, he lay on a cow hide and was covered by a woollen blanket. He wore a wool hat, its crown round in shape, a kidney-shaped cloak, a kilt, two foot cloths and and belt. As far as I could gather, the only other item of clothing in the grave was a wooden needle, which may have been used to fasten the cloak around the neck. 

The female had a short but stocky build, and the preserved traces of muscle on her bones suggests she carried out a great deal of hard physical work. Again, her clothes are well preserved and were more numerous. A dress made from several rectangular pieces of cloth made up her dress, along with a blouse, hairnet, cap and two belts, all made from wool. She was clearly a wealthy individual, and this is reflected in the many grave-goods associated with her burial; a bronze belt plate (similar to Egtved Girl); two tutuli (ornamental bronze plates in case you were wondering), a neck ring, arm rings, spiral finger rings and a clothes pin. A ceramic vessel, a wooden box, a bronze dagger and a horn comb were also found in her coffin. 

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The preserved clothing of the older male found at Borum Eshøj is practically identical to our wargames miniature's.
The younger man most closely resembles the figure shown here. He was twenty years old when he died, and again his body was well enough preserved that his muscles and other tissues were still attached to much of the skeletal remains. His hair was also very well preserved and could be described as being in the modern 'pageboy' style popular in the 1970s and with George Lucas' leading boys ever since, just check out Jake Lloyd in the Phantom Menace and you will get the general idea. Like the older man, he wore a kilt of woven wool and a kidney-shaped cloak with the obligatory belt to hold it all in. If you return to the Foundry figure you can see he is wearing one of the rounded hats on his head, similar to the elder male individual. It is clear that the male burials at Borum Eshøj inspired Michael Perry with this model. In fact, there is an elderly man with a walking stick in the set which I suspect is based on the older individual - I just haven't painted him yet!

It is tempting to state that these burials must represent a family group, with two elderly parents being interred with their son. The dendrochronology certainly suggests this, with the initial burial being dated at 1351 BC while the latest is dated at 1345 BC. I couldn't find any record of a DNA analysis having been carried out on the bodies, but I suspect that such an investigation would be hazardous, considering the amount of contamination the bodies have suffered since burial, but I would love to be corrected. 

Though the female burial at Borum Eshøj shared some of the clothing items with our Foundry figure, she doesn't closely match her in the same way as the male figure matches the younger burial. In fact, I couldn't find a really close match for her at all. The female at Borum Eshøj was buried with a hairnet of singular type, though today she doesn't have any hair left on her skull, thanks to the rummaging hands of local farmers during her discovery, and beyond a simple illustration made during the excavation we have no idea what her hair style was like. Thankfully, we know more about ladies' hairstyles and their hairnets thanks to a more recent discovery (1935) in a burial mound not far from Skrydstrup, in Southern Jutland. 

This reconstruction of the Skrydstrup Woman is very similar to Michale Perry's figure, note the embroidary on the sleeves and the pleated top to the dress. 
The so-called Skrydstrup woman was around 18 when she died and was laid in a oak coffin wearing a short sleeved blouse of woven wool with embroideries on the sleeves. Dated to around 1300 BC, she too was laid in a oak coffin wearing a large piece of textile fashioned into a long skirt. Her hair was finished in an unusual style in which all of her hair was combed forwards over a hair pad. A woollen cord was afterwards bound around her hair, which was plaited across the forehead, temple to temple like a wreath of flowers might be incorporrated into the hair. Finally, a hairnet was used to cover the elaborate style, crafted from horse hair, though a woollen 'cap' constructed using the 'sprang' technique was also placed alongside her in the grave. Large, golden earrings lay by both ears and a horn comb was attached to her belt. 

Sprang technique hairnets or caps
There seems to be a nod to both the hairnet and the sprang constructed caps on the female figure. Looking at the sculpting I was unsure how to procreed as the band around her forehead seemed to suggest a textile. In the end I compromised, giving the top of her had the plaited hair look and the band a woven, woollen tone.

A modern reconstruction of the Skrydstrup's woman elaborate hairstyle. 
Looking at the modern reconstruction, hair was clearly just as big thing for women then as it is today. I could imagine my wife spending and hour or two plaiting such a design into my own daughter's hair and there must have been quite a few tears, not to mention a harsh word to two if such a design was intended to be worn by a child. The fact that both razor blades and tweezers have been found in Bronze Age burials just goes to show that these ancient people took personal grooming just as seriously as we moderns, and that fashion and 'looking right' was clearly part of death, so it must have been part of everyday life. 

Before I depart I would like to talk about the colours I chose for the models. On the whole I took Nigel Stillman's advice (published on the Foundry website) and kept the colours very natural and subdued. Browns, greys, greens and dark reds seem to be very much the order of the day when talking about Bronze Age clothing. But as I said in my last post, the very special enivronment that ensured these garments survival also affected them over the years, often tanning them a rather turgid brown in tone. Recent investigations into the fabric of another preserved individual, Huldremose Woman, has revealed a start difference between what her clothing looks like now and how it might have appeared when she lived during the Iron Age. Of course, there is a thousand years between this individual and our Bronze Age people, but who's to say that the same vivid colour counldn't have been possible three and a half thousand years ago?


It certainly gets the miniature painter considering the possibilities, doesn't it? In the end, I opted for a much muted colour pallette for my figures and though I am deeply satisfied with their appearence, I think I might well pick up a second set one day and attempt something more imaginative with their paint schemes, perhaps something patterened as can be seen in these images. 

Right, before I go I really must point out a blog post by a fellow enthusiast, Red Orc, who wrote a wonderful opinion piece entitled 'In Defence of Ritual' after I gently mocked this most controversial of archaeological habits. It is well worth and read, so please go visit. 



  1. Really good entry! Interesting thinks:)

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, mate. I must get on with the other figures now! (:

  2. My wife still wonders why I need to read 5 books every time I buy a new pack of minis, so I'll show her this post, and Red Orc's, as an explanation.
    Again, well done!

    1. Ha! I know the feeling well, both requiring new books and dealing with the flabbergasted wife! (:

  3. As a long term lurker, may I say thank you for the fascinating and informative posts? I love the Oldenhammer ones as they remind me of a well spent youth but these Bronze Age posts have flushed me out of hiding - splendid stuff.

    1. I am glad you find these posts of interest. Expect to see more of them in the future as I finish the 'civilian' models and move on to the warfare stuff - chariots, cavalry and spearmen etc.

  4. A fantastic and thoughtful post, Orlygg! I had no idea that there were around 1 million people in the British Isles around 1000 bce. It is stunning to think about how much rich human history flies beneath our radar because there are no written records.
    Anyway, as I get older, I often think about the intersection of research, miniature-making, painting, gaming and education. Your post is a lovely example of that cross-over. I hope you keep up these historical articles!

    1. Thank you Matthew - and yes there will be more of these articles in future and in truth, I am quite surprised how popular they have been considering this is an old school Games Workshop blog. Written records certainly tell us a great deal but they too are often fragmentary and hard to interpret, so I see little difference between the study of prehistory and that of the antiquity, only we are trying to 'read' artefacts and scientific data rather than the scrawlings of Dio or Livy.