Copper is a natural metal that has been mined in England ever since the Stone Age, so the Chessmen Museum naturally has several English chess games made of copper in its collection.

The ornate copper chess pieces belonging to the English chess games from the J.M. Glotzbach Collection were purchased in 1982. The oldest processed copper found in England is a lot older than that and dates from 2400 BC. It was placed as a burial gift in a grave at Stonehenge, the imposing prehistoric stone structure in the south of England. Stonehenge itself is older than the copper in this tomb. The man buried here was not an original Stonehenge construction worker, but grew up in Switzerland, as his DNA showed. It was discovered several years ago that the original Stonehenge builders were driven out by mainland migrants who belonged to the Bell Beaker culture.

The oldest known drawing of Stonehenge, 14th century. Merlins assists with the construction of Stonehenge.

The Stonehenge builders managed to place the bluestone in a circle as early as 3000 BC. The stones are no longer set up in this circle, but the original holes they were in contain burial gifts and the remains of cremated people. At the time, Stonehenge acted as a place of transition to the realm of the dead. With the arrival of the newcomers, the tradition of cremating the dead came to an abrupt end. The new arrivals buried their dead and did so in the same way everywhere. Miles and miles of rows of graves remain, from Russia, Germany or Denmark to England, and they can also be found in the Dutch Veluwe region.

In all these areas, the same happened as in England. Just like the Stonehenge builders, the Funnel Beaker people, the first farmers in the Netherlands and the builders of the Hunebedden (dolmens, 3500-2900 BC) disappeared almost entirely after the arrival of the Bell Beaker culture from the east. Copper was an unknown material in the Veluwe area, but copper beads and small daggers were found in graves near the Hunebedden. These beads appear to be made around 2500 BC, which also makes them a lot younger than the Hunebedden themselves. Copper was rare and this location, like Stonehenge, was used as a burial site for people with a higher social status.

Prehistoric copper mine

Prehistoric Great Orme copper mines in Wales (Alan Simkins, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Back to England now. Although nowadays it is thought that the residents were introduced to copper for the first time as a result of the Bell Beaker culture, archaeologists have their doubts about that, because of their discovery of a copper mine from the same era. There are several prehistoric copper mines in Great Britain, such as the one on Ross Island in Southern Ireland, which dates from 2400 BC; or the Great Orme mines in Wales. The last mentioned mining complex, from 1800 BC, consists of miles of narrow corridors of up to 70 metres deep, which no adult was able to enter. For this reason, archaeologists assume that children were sent down to get the copper from the mines.

Metals found in nature, such as gold and copper, looked nice but were quite soft and therefore unsuitable for making weapons. In order to obtain a harder metal, a mix with tin was needed: a mixture of 90 per cent copper and 10 per cent tin produces bronze, a much harder material. Producing it is not easy though, and requires an advanced knowledge. The copper had to be melted and that only happens at a temperature of 1150 degrees Celsius. That is near-impossible on an open campfire of up to 700 degrees, so ovens were needed to melt the metals. The bronze could then be cast in any desired shape and when it was broken or worn it could be melted down again.

Bronze reached the island through trade, but from around 2200 BC, the British knew how to produce it themselves. Bronze was a powerful weapon and its status increased the differences between social classes. The historical period that followed the arrival of bronze saw so many changes that it has been given its own name: the Bronze Age. Like copper, bronze is a lot less rare nowadays, but it is still a beautiful material to create adornments with. The chess sets on display in the Chessmen Museum are certainly proof of that.

By Marjolein Overmeer