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Britain’s Prehistoric Funerals – Six Feet Under, or a Bronze Age Mound?

Mary-Ann Craig talks to Heritage Key about the fascinating discoveries at Irthlingborough, Solstice at sites across the country and how the Amesbury Archer wasn't quite the all action hero! Click the image to skip to the video.

You might never have heard of Irthlingborough, in Northamptonshire, but an excavation there in the 1980s revealed some pretty spectacular archaeology, as explained in the first of a series of HKTV videos (Watch the Video).

The archaeologists found a round burial mound with cremations buried in the sides.

Below the cremation burials, there was a lattice of rotted cattle bones, which had been placed on the top of a heaped stone cairn. Below the cairn was a wooden platform that had now collapsed, and below the platform, at the heart of the mound, was a chamber, with a mans body inside.

He was curled up on his side, and was surrounded by grave goods 11 flint blades, an arrowhead, a beaker, an archers wristguard, five jet buttons, an amber ring, carved cows ribs, a boars tusk, shaped stones and an incredibly special, totally unused, flint dagger. The jet buttons had come from Yorkshire, the dagger from East Anglia, the stones from Wessex, and the amber all the way from the coast of the Baltic Sea.

This was a man with connections.

And along with the 184 cattle heads that had been placed on top of his grave, there was one other addition. Another body. An adult male, in a crouched position, placed in a small pit next to the first body. The only thing this second man had with him was a bone needle.

The Neolithic, or late Stone Age, moves into the Bronze Age in around 2400BC, when metalworking first comes to Britain. But its not just that stone tools get replaced by metal ones.

Culture Shift

This is a time of massive cultural change:

For starters, they went monument crazy they built the massive stone rings on the Orkney Islands and at Avebury, the beautiful passage grave at Newgrange in Ireland, Silbury Hill, the largest prehistoric mound in Europe, and they went to town on Stonehenge, erecting the enormous Sarsen stones weighing up to 50 tonnes each into the complete circle and central horseshoe that we still see today.

Round Barrows are small circular mounds that cover an individual burial or cremation. Image Credit - Jim Champion.

The pottery they had been using in the late Stone Age is called Grooved Ware a tradition that stretched across the British Isles, the pots had simple patterns pushed into the clay, often making them look like basketry. It was a style that had been around since 3000BC, pretty much unchanged for 500 years.

But by the mid 3rd millennium, the early bronze age, we start to find a totally new style called Beaker ware.

Beakers are smaller, finer, and very carefully decorated. It was a technique and design that had come from continental Europe. This wasnt everyday crockery theyre most often found in graves, the earliest with adult men, but then increasingly with women and childrens burials too.

These new style of graves are called Round Barrows, small, circular mounds that cover an individual burial or cremation.

Often they got used again to deposit later cremations, but the early Bronze Age is the first time we see individual people getting individual burials.

HD Video: Mary-Ann Craig on the History of Stonehenge

(Read the transcript of this video here)

Newgrange, Ireland and Maeshowe, Orkney are both aligned to the Midwinter solstice. Thanks to Orkneyman for the clarification.

Stone Age, All in it Together

The Neolithic was all about communal burial they built what we call Long Barrows, tombs that held the bones of many people, jumbled together, and added to with every generation.

These tombs were important, powerful places, where the world of the living met the realm of the ancestors.

These ancestors would have been powerful beings who could control things beyond the human world the rain and wind, the fertility of the earth, and perhaps offer protection from illness and attack from other tribes.

West Kennet Avenue connects the south entrance of the Avebury Henge to the Sanctuary. Image Credit - Phil Selby.

A fantastic example of a Neolithic tomb is the West Kennet Long Barrow. Its about twenty five miles from Stonehenge, and if youre going to Wiltshire to see Stonehenge, be sure to go to West Kennet and Avebury nearby. You can go right into the tomb and explore this amazing place for yourself.

Constructed in around 3600BC, its within a rectangular mound, 100m long, with ditches on each side. Theres a central passageway, with five stone chambers inside.

Bodies werent placed in the tomb whole instead, the Neolithic farmers followed a process called excarnation, where the bones are defleshed before putting them into the tomb. Either they laid the bodies out for the flesh to rot away or they let animals and birds pick the bones clean (when you find gnawing or bite marks), or they cut away the flesh, butchering the bodies. Once cleaned, the bones were collected and sorted.

Only selected bones went into the tomb, and theres an odd shortage of skulls and thigh bones. The ones that you do find in long barrows look worn and polished which means that they were carefully used for something – perhaps they were taken in and out of the tomb, carried around, and used in rituals in the community.

West Kennet Long Barrow remained in use for hundreds of years, but only 46 people were buried in it. We dont know where everyone else ended up its the ongoing mystery of the missing majority

The End of an Era

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Profile: Mary-Ann Craig
Anthropologist and broadcaster Mary-Ann Craig, who has given a series of talks on Heritage Key TV, tells us a little bit more about herself.

But then at West Kennet, around 2400BC, the decision was taken to fill and block the tomb. After more than a thousand years in existence, the people ritually closed-in the ancient ancestors they filled the whole tomb with soil and stone, and then rolled three massive sarsen boulders across the front entrance.

The archaeology suggests that different local communities brought their own deposits to fill each chamber small amounts of pottery have been found in the soils, and each chamber has a slightly different style of pottery. This suggests that the closing of the Long Barrow wasnt a rash act by one crazy leader, but an agreed and systematic process of shutting shop.

Either way, once it was done there was no going back.

I dont think that its a coincidence that this happens at the same time as the beaker culture appears, and theres all this activity at the big monuments in the surrounding area. Life was changing, and the new society was interested in commemorating individual people, not collective ancestors.

The Grave of the Amesbury Archer. Image Credit - Wessex Archaeology.

There was a new way of burying the dead an exotic, high status style, from the continent. The man in Irthlingborough got it, and so did the most famous Bronze Age burial of them all: The Amesbury Archer.

Oxygen isotope testing shows us he grew up in Alps and travelled here as an adult. Isotope testing is a modern method to determine where ancient people come from. As youre growing up, certain chemical patterns from your food and drink are stored in your bones and tooth enamel. Archaeologists can take samples from human burials and match the particular chemical fingerprint with a specific area in the world. From this testing, and the osteology of his skeleton, we can say that he had travelled from the middle of Europe. Hed sustained a serious leg injury, but been well cared for. He was rich and important. And he was buried in his own grave, with some of the most special items in his society.

You can imagine the procession to this mans burial. Perhaps accompanied by feasting, by music and ritual chanting, he was placed into the grave with all his burial bling, remembered as an individual with a name, a personal story and a personal grave.

Boscombe Rule Breakers

But, as always with prehistoric archaeology, there are sites that appear to break all the rules:

The Boscombe Bowmen were discovered in 2003, seven individuals in one grave. They got their name, bowmen because theyd been buried with a scattering of flint arrowheads. But actually the grave contained the bodies of three men, a male teenager and three young children. The oldest man was curled up, with the bodies of two children nestled at his head, with the cremated remains of the third. The skulls of the men were placed at his feet, and their bones were mixed up, both above and below his body.

The weird thing is that these bones appear worn, as if theyve been used elsewhere first, and the adults bones have been roughly grouped together by type within the grave. These are features of a Neolithic collective burial, but theyve all been placed into one individuals grave which is typically Bronze Age.

And the date? About 2300BC. The start of the Bronze Age.

Whats clear is that things were changing rapidly, and in many areas of life. Isotope analysis shows that the Boscombe Bowmen grew up in Wales, around the area that the Bluestones were quarried from. And weve already identified that the Amesbury Archer was from continental Europe.

People, artefacts, and ideas, were moving rapidly.

This, is the start of a brave new world the world of metal, and wealth, and perhaps it marks the rise of the individual.