When the grave goods of two people were discovered in the 19th century, they were described as a'shaman's costume'. A new analysis of stone tools found in the grave shows they had gold on their surfaces.

Was it shamans, goldsmiths or something else? Scientists stated in a study that grave goods are more than representations of a person's identity. The roles of "shaman" and "goldsmith" don't adequately represent individuals who may have represented many different things to a Bronze Age community.

"We tend to think of people in simple categories but this modern western approach should be put to one side when we think about life in the early second millennium B.C."

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The first image of two.

Stone tools from 1801 excavation.
The artifacts from the 1801 excavation were re-analysed with modern archaeological techniques; one of the researchers saw traces of gold on the surface of one of the stone tools, a repurposed battle ax. (Image credit: Crellin et al./Antiquity)

Stone tools from 1801 excavation.
Metallurgical analysis showed the traces of gold on the stone tools were ancient, and corresponded to other sources of gold used in Bronze Age Britain. (Image credit: Crellin et al./Antiquity)

The Bronze Age artifacts, including the stone tools, were found in a barrow or burial mound in the 19th century.

flint axes, a necklace of beads of polished stone, and dozens of bone points are included in the piece. At that time, the collection was thought to be the grave goods of a "shaman" or holy man.

The shaman and his wife were thought to be the genders of the two people buried in the barrow.

The study's lead author, Rachel Crellin, an archaeologist at the University of Leicester, believes that one of them was known for their ability to create ornaments from gold and other precious materials.

She said that the two people were associated with a toolkit that allowed them to make incredibly fine and beautiful objects.

Grave goods

The first image of two.

Researchers at University of Leicester analysing stone tools.
The metallurgical analysis on the stone tools was carried out with scanning electron microscope equipment and other techniques at the University of Leicester. (Image credit: Crellin et al./Antiquity)

Researchers doing microwear analysis on stone tools.
The study included microwear analysis of the surfaces of the stone tools, which revealed how they were used to work gold and other materials. (Image credit: Crellin et al./Antiquity)

During a reanalysis of the artifacts using modern archaeological techniques, researchers discovered the traces of gold on the stone tools, which included using a scanning electron microscope and an X-ray spectrometer to verify the presence of any residues and determine their chemical make up.

The study confirmed that the traces of gold on the tools are from prehistoric times, and that they have the same impurities as other sources of gold.

Crellin said that the wear on the stone tools shows they were used to shape gold and a variety of other materials, such as amber, wood, copper and jet.

Small ornaments, such as belt-hooks and clasps, were often made during the Bronze Age with a "core" of materials, which would then be covered in a thin sheet of gold.

Ancient barrows

The Golden Barrow is located a few miles from the barrow where the tools were found.

The idea that the entire area was a prehistoric necropolis is strengthened by the fact that both barrows are among the many prehistoric graves found within a few miles of Stonehenge.

The Golden Barrow contained the remains of a single person who had been buried with gold ornaments and other objects.

If the gold traces on the tools match the gold objects from the Golden Barrow, Crellin hopes further analysis will determine their geographic origins. She said that it was the million-dollar question.

Susan Greaney was not involved in the study, but she said that it shows how fine artifacts could have been considered magical.

She said that the ability to transform other objects by covering them with a gold sheet may have been seen as a magical or ritual process. The research shows how metalworking was related to certain beliefs.