New research changes our view of the still rather mysterious metal deposits: axes, swords and jewelry that were left behind in specific places in the landscape during the Bronze Age.

Burying your iPad next to a river. Or deliberately drop your iPhone in a swamp. Most of us don’t even want to think about it. But in the Bronze Age, something similar happened regularly. People ‘just’ left objects that were of great value and that they could use frequently and well in the landscape. These so-called metal deposits have proved to be a headache for archaeologists. Because why did people do that?


It is a question that Leiden archaeologist Marieke Visser does not want to get into. But in her PhD research she did further research into the act itself: leaving those precious things behind. And the study reveals that it must have been the most natural thing in the world in the Bronze Age.

Not irrational

“It was not an irrational act,” says Visser “From our modern ideas about economics, we find it strange that you just throw away the most precious thing you own. We call that irrational, and it is often dismissed as ‘ritual’. But the scale on which bronze objects were thrown away, and the patterns in the finds, show that these were not just irrational acts. There were widely shared ideas and conventions behind it, which were probably not imposed from above, but everyone simply did the same because it was natural for people to do this at the time.”


Visser draws this conclusion after analyzing metal depositions in three different countries – Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands. “Denmark occupies a special place in the field. Firstly because there are very many finds from the Bronze Age, and this while there are no natural sources of copper and tin, so all the metal had to be imported from far away. And secondly, because research into prehistory in general and metal depositions in particular started early – in the nineteenth century – in Denmark. There is thus a rich research tradition that has had a major influence on the research into metal depositions. Similar finds have been made in northwestern Germany and the Netherlands, albeit on a smaller scale. Nevertheless, these countries have never been treated as a whole in a single study, but previous studies have mainly limited themselves to national borders. As a result, patterns and similarities remain hidden, which have now come to light.”


And those patterns reveal that the metal deposits aren’t just lost objects. “They were deliberately left behind in the landscape,” says Visser. “At the same time, bronze objects were also placed in graves with the dead during part of the study period. But clear choices were made regarding which objects were given to the dead and which were left in the landscape.”


For example, Visser’s research shows that axes were deposited separately in the landscape throughout the research area. “From about 2000 BC almost exclusively in wet spots in the landscape,” she says. “And axes were almost never used as grave goods.” And between 2000 and 1800 BC, daggers and halberds were also deposited separately in wet places throughout the area. “This is a very widespread and clear pattern.”

This ax – of the Oldendorf type – dates from the period between 1600 and 1500 BC and was used as a tool. The ax has probably been re-sharpened several times, which indicates intensive use. This type of ax was mainly deposited separately in wet places in the landscape, such as swamps and peat bogs, and was not given in graves as grave goods. A good example of selective deposition. Image: Marieke Visser.

Based on what Visser has seen in the three countries, she concludes that the metal deposits – as strange as they may seem to us – in the Bronze Age must not have been strange or irrational. “An incredible amount of deposits have been found throughout the Bronze Age. If you systematically examine them, looking at which object is in which place, you will discover the conventions. That shows that they weren’t accidentally lost items. There are clear patterns. This was done on purpose.”


The big question, of course, remains after this research why people left behind precious objects in the landscape. Some researchers think that at least some of the metal deposits are related to religion. But Visser has difficulty with that statement. “’Religion’ is a problematic term because there is no general definition,” she says. “Throughout the ages, the term has had different definitions, and the term has been colored by our modern conception of religion. We can’t just project this idea onto the Bronze Age, because we can’t know how people thought about ‘religion’ back then. In addition, research into metal depositions often assumes a dichotomy between religious and profane depositions, but this dichotomy is a product of the Enlightenment. This is therefore a modern concept that we cannot simply project onto the Bronze Age.”

Visser prefers not to speculate about alternative motives or intentions of the people who lived in the Bronze Age. “Archaeologists have done this for decades, often through explanations such as religious or ritual acts, and I have not chosen that approach because it does not help us further in the research into metal depositions. I have chosen to focus on the actions themselves, which objects exactly were chosen and which places in the landscape. So I focused on the what, the how and the where, to find out the logic behind these widely shared actions.” And based on that, we can at least conclude for now that the metal deposits that are still special and puzzling to us must have been quite normal and logical in the eyes of people who lived in the Bronze Age.