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Seeking the elusive dead

It is a well-known fact of British prehistory that burial monuments, sometimes on a monumental scale, are well-documented in the Neolithic and Bronze Age, but largely absent in the Iron Age, outside certain distinctive regional groups at particular periods. In central southern England, for example, where hillforts and settlements abound, until recently burials were mainly limited to occasional inhumations in pits within settlements or fragmentary human remains, found scattered, apparently arbitrarily, in pits and ditches, but seldom constituting a formal cemetery. Despite abundant settlement evidence, the dead were strangely elusive.

So what has changed? In recent years the cost of excavation, especially technical analyses and post-excavation processing, has far exceeded the resources of most research groups, professional or amateur, so that research excavation is virtually non-existent, except on a very small scale. The great majority of fieldwork is now development-driven, in advance of road building, quarrying or the like, in other words, triggered by no academic rationale whatsoever. In consequence it eliminates the preconceived prejudice of academic strategies. Furthermore, it is undertaken on a scale that far exceeds the areas that could ever have been excavated by older conventional means. These two factors plainly increase the chances of detection of any archaeological feature that leaves minimal surface evidence, unlike hillforts, enclosed settlements or barrow mounds that are visible on the ground or through air-photography and thereby invite investigation. Simple burials without barrow mounds fall into this category, and are now being detected by large-scale area stripping. Unenclosed settlements, previously unrecognized from surface traces, are likewise being uncovered more frequently, significantly shifting the balance of the known database. The fact that archaeological sites exposed by mechanical stripping for development may have been severely damaged in the process, of course, is another issue.

The Wandsworth Shield, Iron Age shield boss in La Tène style, British Museum, Room 50 by Johnbod. CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Equally important, however, our expectations of the evidence are changing. In the case of burials, Western Christianity and norms of state-level society had conditioned us to expect that the dead would be buried in cemeteries, or at least following regular conventions. Isolated burials were regarded as those of criminals or outcasts, and fragments of human bone found on settlements were described as ‘casual’ disposals, as if discarding odd fragments of human bodies was the ultimate demonstration of nonchalance. Now we are beginning to appreciate that these fragmentary deposits were deliberate attempts to integrate the dead into the community of the living, rather than segregating them into separate cemeteries or communities of the dead. Plainly for Iron Age societies this world and the other world were not rigidly divided, and there is accumulating evidence that bodies or bones of ancestors were curated against the future need to invoke their potency against some impending disaster. Our recognition of settlement remains is equally being changed by the diversity of evidence, for example, of structural remains, not just circles of post-holes or stone foundations but including a much wider range of construction techniques that may leave only ephemeral traces.

So what about the downside of developer-led archaeology? Isn’t it better to discover all these new sites and have a broader picture as a result, even if sites are damaged in the process? In the case of settlement evidence, in lowland contexts centuries of agriculture had often already destroyed the uppermost levels of secondary occupation, leaving only the truncated foundations in subsoil. And developer-led archaeology is not new; as ‘rescue’ or ‘salvage’ archaeology, E. T. Leeds had organized Oxford students to help retrieve evidence from the Thames gravel pits in the 1930s. The difference is that the scale of development is so much greater today, and the response is more professional. But after a century of modern investigation we still have not a single late Iron Age burial of the Welwyn series recovered intact. The problem is that the questions now being asked need careful and reliable excavation to resolve. Questions like:

  • Were bodies exposed until clean and dry before re-assembly in graves, and were some bones retained for other purposes?
  • Were bodies re-assembled as composites of different individuals?
  • Were individuals preserved for prolonged periods before final disposal?
  • Were graves re-opened and bones or other items retrieved as talismans after burial?
  • As well as whole objects, were selected fragments of broken objects placed in graves, or are incomplete fragmentary finds the result of subsequent re-opening of the grave or simply of damage in discovery?
  • Why was only a small proportion of the cremated remains interred in cremation burials, and was the residue deposited elsewhere?
    Were inhumations treated in the same way?

Not all of these questions will ever be resolved by excavation, but to stand any chance of resolution they require optimum conditions of investigation.

If fragmented and integrated burial was a normal means of disposal in the Iron Age, could it have been commonplace in earlier periods too? In fact, have we been beguiled in the past by the tombs of the Neolithic and Bronze Age into believing that they represented the burial norm, when perhaps burial was really only incidental to their true purpose? It has long been evident that not more than a minority of the population could have been buried in tombs as monumental as New Grange or Maes Howe, even allowing for satellite tombs. These sites were plainly special, and involved burial in their ceremonial. But regular disposal of the dead in the Neolithic and Bronze Age almost certainly involved other practices that archaeologically have been as elusive as were those of the Iron Age. Modern excavation provides the opportunity to resolve these issues, but not always the conditions to realize that outcome.

 Featured headline image: Moss on the earthworks at Galley Hill Fort, Sandy by Jason Ballard. CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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