The Trevethin Hoard, Torfaen
The Trevethin Hoard, Torfaen
The upper blade of the broken South Wales axe.
The upper blade of the broken South Wales axe.

Imagine the scene. You’re out walking in a field. You have your trusty metal-detector in hand, sweeping backwards and forwards across the ground as you walk. A steady rhythmic beep emits with each step. Suddenly the machine starts beeping more frequently. Something lies beneath the ground. You crouch down to dig, to see what you’ve found. As you dig you start to reveal an ancient axehead…

This was the story for metal-detectorist, Gareth Wileman in November 2014. Over a couple of weeks Gareth uncovered a Late Bronze Age hoard comprising three bronze socketed axeheads and two bronze spearheads in close proximity in the Community of Trevethin, Torfaen.

Recognising the significance of the find, Gareth promptly contacted Mark Lodwick, the Finds Co-ordinator for Portable Antiquities Scheme Cymru, who was able to investigate the hoard findspot. The hoard was buried around 3000 years ago (between 950-800 BC) during the Late Bronze Age. This period is a time when large amounts of metalwork, including weapons and tools, were hoarded and buried in various locations in the landscape.

What’s in the hoard?

While the objects in the hoard may be broadly classed as ‘axeheads’ and ‘spearheads’, each object represents a distinctive type, that we can use to inform our understanding of how different objects were traded in the Bronze Age. Of particular interest is the socket of a ‘South Wales’ socketed axe that was buried within the hoard. The cutting edge was deliberately removed in the Bronze Age. One of the other axes has also been deliberately damaged. These axes have three vertical ribs on both faces and are particularly common in… you guessed it, South Wales!

Conversely, one of the spearheads is relatively rare. It is referred to as a ‘lunate opening spearhead’ due to two semi-circular holes in the middle of the blade. The tip of this spearhead has broken off and part of the socket has broken off, which may also have been deliberate.

Why does the hoard matter?

The Trevethin hoard was found in an area where Bronze Age activity was previously unknown. It adds to a growing volume of Late Bronze Age material found across Wales. Gathering or hoarding objects and burying them is a widespread tradition in the Late Bronze Age, but reasons behind this are uncertain.

Combinations of weapons, such as spears, and tools, such as axes, are common in Late Bronze Age hoards. These categories should not be taken too seriously though; an axe can be a deadly weapon too, while some spearheads might have been ceremonial items. The combination of different objects may represent a single person’s collection of objects. Alternatively, it may reflect several people coming together to bury objects that were important to the local area. We will probably never know exactly what is represented in the Trevethin hoard.

The rare ‘lunate opening’ spearhead
The rare ‘lunate opening’ spearhead.
The only complete axe in the hoard
The only complete axe in the hoard
One axe was found broken with lots of smaller fragments
One axe was found broken with lots of smaller fragments.
Excavating the hoard was very muddy!
Excavating the hoard was very muddy!

To Break or Not To Break

In the Trevethin hoard, the blades of two of the axes appear to have been deliberately removed. The spearheads display similar intentional damage. However, the third axe was left complete. Why was this? And where are the missing pieces?

It’s possible that the pieces are still out there, waiting to be found. However, deliberately destroying objects in hoards was common. Certain parts of objects were selected for burial – in this case the socket end of the axes – while others were excluded (the cutting edge). In other hoards, we sometimes only find axe blades and no sockets. The part of the object that was included may have been important.

Including complete objects also has significance. At Trevethin, the complete axe was sharpened and probably used before it was buried. It still would have been functional, so why abandon a useful, usable tool? It is possible the axe was used over many years and was significant to its owners, which made it suitable for burial.

It’s important to think of these items as both functional and symbolic objects.

Understanding the Bronze Age

Archaeology is about understanding people in the past. The Trevethin hoard offers a valuable insight into the Bronze Age in this area of Wales, where previously no prehistoric material was known. It shows that Bronze Age communities were present and engaging with their objects in mysterious ways we might only speculate. Every find helps us understand the broader picture, and the Trevethin hoard is an important step towards this.

Notes and Acknowledgements

This hoard was responsibly reported through Portable Antiquities Scheme Cymru and is now proudly on display at Pontypool Museum where it can be enjoyed by all members of the public. It was acquired with funding from the Saving Treasures: Telling Stories Project. More details on how the hoard was investigated, as well as a conversation with the finder, Gareth Wileman, can be found here.

Thanks to Adam Gwilt (Principal Curator: Prehistory at National Museum Wales) and Mark Lodwick (Finds Coordinator: PAS Cymru) for allowing me access to an unpublished report on the hoard.

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