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Feasting networks and resilience at the end of the British Bronze Age

Exploring how communities respond to economic and climatic crisis is key for enhancing understanding of resilience in the past and present.


This project will explore responses to a deteriorating climate and trade collapse at the end of the Bronze Age in Britain. A major focus is the new social and economic networks that developed and how these made communities resilient in the face of turmoil. This will be achieved by employing a new suite of scientific methods to analyse the very rich, but understudied sites known as middens.

Around 800BC Europe suffered great upheaval as the climate deteriorated and economies collapsed, with bronze abruptly losing value. Like the 21st century economic crisis, this first millennium BC boom and bust caused great instability. In southern Britain, society did not shift focus to iron, but rather to agricultural intensification and grand-scale feasting; there was a 'Feasting Age' prior to the Iron Age.

Feast remains

The remains of these feasts created some of the most startling archaeological sites ever unearthed. These 'middens' represent the very richest resource of material from British prehistory, some covering an area the size of several football pitches and producing hundreds of thousands of artefacts. These provide the key to understanding socio-economic change during this phase. In spite of the rich archaeological resource and the importance of this transition in shaping society for centuries, we still know remarkably little.

The most fundamental change was the breakdown in the bronze trade network, which had controlled the movement of people, ideas and artefacts for centuries. We know very little about the new social and economic networks that emerged and centred on these vast feasts, making society resilient at a time of instability and framing power relations and community interaction right up to the Roman conquest. They are key to understanding not only this transitional phase, but British later prehistory more broadly.

Research developments

New research developments mean that the time is right to address these archaeological problems. Recent excavations have provided a wealth of material to address these issues. In addition, scientific advances mean that we can now establish patterns of human and animal movement with greater precision than was previously possible.

Finally, there is a large body of material and a suite of scientific methods that can reconstruct the changing face of society in southern Britain and examine how it remained resilient in the face of economic and climatic deterioration.

Project focus

The project will focus on six middens that date to the Bronze Age-Iron Age transition (c. 800BC-400BC) in two regions:

Wiltshire and the Thames Valley. These areas were the epicentres of activity during this phase, hosting vast feasting events evidenced by rich material assemblages. These feasts were at the very centre of the dynamics of a changing society. They provide a focal point for community interaction, forging and consolidating new alliances. They are also the focus of new economic practices, representing hubs for the intensification and trade of agricultural produce.

Therefore, using a suite of bioarchaeological techniques, the project will examine the new social and economic networks that developed and, using theoretical models, will examine how they made communities resilient in the face of adversity.

Multi-isotope analysis (strontium, sulphur, carbon, nitrogen and oxygen) will reveal where animals and humans came from and how agricultural production was maximised through different husbandry practices and landscape use. This will reconstruct the new inter-community networks and the organisation of the economy and agricultural production, thus revealing the strategies that made communities resilient.

Case study

It will provide a key case study into responses to socio-economic collapse and will transform understanding of how change at the end of the Bronze Age shaped society in southern Britain for centuries.

Funded by the Art and Humanities Research Council

Principal investigator

Picture of Richard Madgwick

Dr Richard Madgwick

Reader in Archaeological Science

+44 29208 74239