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New carbon dating brings evidence of Bronze Age mining in Cornwall

Recent carbon dating research on an Oak Shovel along with evidence from examination of an Antler Pick has signified that these two items within the museum’s archive are the first Bronze Age tin mining tools to be found in Europe.

This newly published research into the Pick and Shovel supports the growing evidence of Bronze Age tin workings in Cornwall dating back over 3600 years, with Royal Cornwall Museum chronicling this important evolution of mining and minerals within their collections. Both the Antler Pick and Wooden Shovel were found in the Carnon Valley, mid-Cornwall, when alluvial tin streamworks were being reworked in the nineteenth century, with radiocarbon dating indicating they are from the British Bronze Age (2400-800 BC).

Led by Dr Alan Williams from the Department of Archaeology at Durham University, Royal Cornwall Museum’s Oak Wooden Shovel has most recently been radiocarbon dated at around 3200 years old by the Project Ancient Tin Team, with a grant from the Royal Archaeological Institute. Understood to have been found in the Carnon Valley in 1815, this design is formed from one piece of wood, unlike Medieval wooden shovels that are in two pieces.

Found circa 1855, the Antler Pick (48cm long) is around 3600 years old, or Early Bronze Age, and is the first evidence for the extraction of tin and/or alluvial gold in the British Isles. Examination of the Antler Pick reveals tally marks carved into the side, which could signify the recording of work by prehistoric miners, with the research and dating for this piece conducted by Dr Simon Timberlake, Early Mines Research Group.

Now with designated dates, these two items within Royal Cornwall Museum’s collection are of historical significance, representing the first Bronze Age tin mining tools discovered in Europe and showing evidence of Bronze Age tin workings in Cornwall. Small amounts of gold also found in the Carnon Valley have been linked by chemical fingerprint to the gold in the famous Nebra Sky Disc, an artefact thought to be the world’s oldest map of the stars. Found in Germany, and considered one of the most important archaeological finds of the 20th century, the inclusion of Cornish gold and tin in this disc along with other finds suggests Cornish prehistoric mining and trading practices may have pioneered the European Bronze Age.

Bryony Robins, Artistic Director for Royal Cornwall Museum says: “Cornwall and mining are already intertwined, but this important discovery demonstrates just how long mining has been taking place in Cornwall, and how well developed some of the tools of the trade were, even at that time. The Mineral Gallery will share with our visitors the heritage of mining in Cornwall, and present the world-renowned collection of rocks and minerals in a more accessible way. And, of course, the role that mining is continuing to play in Cornwall.”

Reopening early July 2024, the new Mineral Gallery will be a chance to celebrate the past and future of Cornish mining, with the unveiling of this first phase of the museum’s transformation which continues into 2025. This is just the start of an exciting new era for this 200-year-old institution – a centre of exploration, learning, and custodian of Cornish heritage – home to over one million artefacts.