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David Shukman

The Horsepower team went behind the scenes at the British Museum to get a closer look at its remarkable collections of bronzes from China and the steppe regions.

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Donated to the museum over the past century, these items hold potentially important clues about the patterns of ancient trade. 


The team includes specialists in metallurgy who use a range of instruments to investigate the detail of the objects themselves and their history – “their biographies”, as principal investigator Riuliang Liu puts it.

This kind of forensic analysis can reveal the origin of the ores, how the alloys were formed and whether the objects were ‘recycled’ by being melted down and reformed.


The flow of metals between China and the steppe is a key part of the Horsepower project’s aim of exploring how neighbouring but very different societies interacted.


Dame Jessica Rawson, who was a senior figure at the museum before moving to Oxford, explained how far back these interactions go.

The intricate techniques of granulation – using tiny gold spheres as decoration - spread from their beginnings in the Mediterranean 3,000 years ago through Central Asia and eventually to China.


Critical to this movement was a region known as the ‘Arc’ which lay in a vast belt between China and modern-day Mongolia to the north.

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Over the millennia, this region’s fertile lands attracted peoples including from the steppe and seems to have acted as a cultural crossroads.


As the Horsepower project’s excavations get under way later this year, it’s hoped that many more metal artefacts will be discovered and brought to the British Museum to be studied.

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