British Collection Highlights:

Gold Ear or Hair Ornaments ('Basket Earrings') from Radley

These gold ear or hair ornaments date from the earliest part of the British Bronze Age, (about. 2650-2000 calibrated BC), and were found in 1944 near the head of the skeleton of an adult male buried under Barrow 4A at Radley, Oxfordshire (formerly Berkshire). The man was about 25-35 years old and had been buried in a crouched position with his legs and head and facing left. The burial also contained a decorated European beaker placed near the feet, and three flint barbed and tanged arrowheads were found immediately above the skeleton and are assumed to have been deposited during the burial.

The ornaments are made of small elongated ovals of thin sheet gold with a protruding tang along one edge, and are decorated with incised lines across the outer face. They have been rolled to form a semi-cylindrical shape and would probably have been worn wrapped around the ear.  It is thought that the tang would have been passed through a piercing of the ear and then around the outer face of the earring to secure the ornament. They may have been worn in similar manner as ornaments on plaits, bunches or locks of hair. They are of a type known as ‘basket earrings’ due to their shape, and which are one of the earliest forms of metalwork known in Britain.

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Radley Earrings (AN1944.122a-b) (Click to enlarge)

Pair of gold earrings from Radley, Oxfordshire

Only seven other pairs of gold basket earrings such as these are known from Britain, four of which were also found with adult male burials.


Beakers are distinctive finely made and decorated ceramic vessels that are found in western and central Europe from about 2750 BC (in Portugal) to about 1800 BC. In general, they seem to correspond with the first uses of metals in each region and it seems likely that the idea of beakers spread along the same routes as the new technology - the Atlantic coast and the main river valleys. Beakers also seem to be linked in some individual burials with a set of other ‘prestige’ objects such as copper knives, archery equipment or ornaments made of gold, jet or amber. These burials presumably indicate the special status of the dead person - perhaps reflecting wealth, power, or technological knowledge.

Barrow Hills Field: Barrow 4A

The prehistoric linear barrow cemetery at Barrow Hills Field near Radley dates mainly to the Early Bronze Age period, although later features are also present. Much of the cemetery has been excavated in advance of gravel quarrying between the 1930s to the 1980s. Barrows 4-6 and 17 were excavated early in 1944 by the Ancient Monuments Department of the Ministry of Works with the assistance of the Oxford University Archaeological Society. Barrow 4/4A is a twin barrow surrounded by an ovoid ring ditch, with the primary Beaker burial barrow (4A) subsequently included with another containing a cremation burial (4). The twin barrow is recorded as having survived to a height of about a metre before the excavation. The artefacts from the excavation were donated to the Ashmolean by Mr W. Docker-Drysdale in 1944. The human skeletal material was submitted to the Duckworth Laboratory in Cambridge for analysis and preservation in 1946, and is still housed there.

The Radley 'basket' ornaments and the accompanying beaker and arrowheads are on display in the 'European Prehistory' gallery on the ground floor.

Objects from Radley Beaker burial

Beaker, gold earrings and arrowheads from the Radley burial (AN1944.121, AN1944.122a-b and AN1944.123a-c)

Further Information

About Barrow Hills Field, Radley.

Barclay, A J, and Halpin, C. Excavations at Barrow Hills, Radley, Oxfordshire 1: the Neolithic and Bronze Age monument complex (Oxford: Thames Valley Landscapes 11, 2002).

Williams, A., ‘Excavations in Barrow Hills Field, Radley, Berkshire’. Oxoniensia 13 (1948), 1-17. (Available online from the Oxfordshire Architectural and Historical Society)

About Basket Ornaments and associated Beaker burials.

Portable Antiquities Scheme Bronze Age object guide: Basket-Shaped Ornaments

Clarke, D.V., Cowie, T.G., and Foxon, A., (editors). Symbols of power at the time of Stonehenge (Edinburgh: National Museums of Antiquities of Scotland, 1985).

Fitzpatrick, A.P. ‘The Amesbury Archer: a Well-Furnished Early Bronze Age Burial in Southern England’. Antiquity 76 (2002), 629–630.

Russel, A, ‘Two Beaker burials from Chilbolton, Hampshire’. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 56 (1990), 133–72.

Taylor, J. J. Bronze Age Goldwork of the British Isles. (Cambridge University Press, 1980)

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Alison Roberts
last updated August 2013