Bronze-Age Dagger Handle Gleaming With 140,000 Minuscule Gold Studs Was the Handiwork of Children

British scientists studying the gold-studded treasures unearthed at a 4,000-year-old Stonehenge burial site are convinced that children were responsible for ultra-fine craftwork and likely developed debilitating myopia from their labor.

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Credit: University of Birmingham and David Bukach

New research into the artifacts of Bush Barrow, a burial mound first discovered in 1808, delves into the human cost of micro-gold working during the Bronze Age. A BBC documentary, “Operation Stonehenge,” contends that children as young as 10 years of age were likely responsible for creating some of the most elaborate treasures of that era.

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“Stonehenge, Condado de Wiltshire, Inglaterra, 2014-08-12, DD 09” by Diego Delso – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons 

The Bush Barrow dagger, for example, was originally decorated with a handle gleaming with a herringbone pattern of 140,000 tiny gold studs, each thinner than a human hair and barely 1mm wide. They were meticulously set — 1,000 per square centimeter — into the wood handle to create a layering effect reminiscent of fish scales.

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Credit: University of Birmingham and David Bukach

“The size of the studs clearly shows they are too small for adults to have made and set into the dagger handle,” David Dawson, director of the Wiltshire Museum, told Discovery News. Dawson estimated the ornate dagger, which was found in the burial chamber of a clan chieftain along with his remains, would have taken at least 2,500 hours to complete.

Worse yet, the task would have left the young artisan nearly blind because the close-up focusing was done without the assistance of a magnifying glass. That helpful device wouldn’t be invented for another 1,000 years.

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“Bush Barrow – geograph.org.uk – 1622275” by Derek Harper – From geograph.org.uk. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons  

“Only children and teenagers, and those adults who had become myopic naturally or due to the nature of their work as children, would have been able to create and manufacture such tiny objects,” Ronald Rabbetts told Discovery News.

Rabbetts, who is one of Britain’s leading authorities on the optics of the human eye, said that within five years, the child workers’ eyes would have deteriorated, rendering the child very short-sighted. By the age of 20, many of them were likely almost blind, seeing anything more than three feet away as just a blur.

“They would therefore have been unable to do any other work apart from the making of tiny artifacts and would have had to be supported by the community at large,” Rabbetts said.

Visitors to Stonehenge can see the Bush Barrow artifacts at the Wiltshire Museum in Devizes, just 15 miles from the famous prehistoric stone monument.

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