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Stuart Needham1 , Mike Parker Pearson2 , Alan Tyler3 , Mike Richards4 & Mandy Jay4
The furnished barrow burials of Wessex represent a maturation of the Beaker rite during the Early Bronze Age in Britain. Many of these burials were unearthed centuries ago, when archaeology was at its most eager and insouciant, but – happily for us – there were often a few careful recorders on hand. Thanks to their records, the modern scientists engaged in the Beaker People Project can still follow the trail back to a museum specimen and obtain high precision dates – as in the case of the ‘Wessex 1’ grave from West Overton in Wessex reported here.
Keywords: Britain, Brittany, Wessex, Overton Down, Bronze Age, Beaker, radiocarbon dating
The ‘Wessex Culture’
A radiocarbon date has been obtained for the ﬁrst time for a grave belonging to the Wessex 1 grave series and coming from Wessex itself, courtesy of the Beaker People Project (hereafter, BPP). The ‘Wessex Culture’ (more latterly, ‘Wessex grave series’) was ﬁrst deﬁned by Stuart Piggott in a seminal publication (Piggott 1938). It served to recognise that funerary accompaniments of the mature Early Bronze Age in central southern Britain (the Wessex region) included a new range of specialist equipment involving varied, often exotic, materials – such as amber, jet, faience, gold, tin – and new levels of craftsmanship. The ‘Wessex series’ featured both ornament-dominant graves, presumed to be those of females (most were recovered by antiquarian excavations) and dagger-graves, presumed to be those of males, as well as less easily categorised graves. Piggott was able to show that the emergence of the
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Langton Fold, North Lane, South Harting, West Sussex, GU31 5NW, UK Department of Archaeology, University of Shefﬁeld, Northgate House, West Street, Shefﬁeld, S1 4ET, UK 22 Albert Road North, Malvern, Worcestershire, WR14 2TP, UK Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Deutscher Platz 6, 04103 Leipzig, Germany; Department of Archaeology, Durham University, South Road, Durham, DH1 3LE, UK
Received: 8 February 2010; Accepted: 24 February 2010; Revised: 3 March 2010
84 (2010): 363–373
where very similar styles of dagger have been found. notably Armorica (ancient Brittany) and Central Europe. today many important series of graves are still relatively poorly dated. such as Thomas Bateman. but few have had any direct bearing on the chronology of the ‘Wessex Culture’ which therefore continues to rely on typological comparisons and association patterns. and that the phenomenon in general related to the emergence of elites capitalising on inter-regional trade in metals and exotics. now offer a rich harvest of information with the development of more reﬁned radiocarbon dating and a range of other new analytical techniques. The limitations of ad hoc dating are now beginning to be turned around with much more targeted dating programmes. this is because of the decay of critical skeletal materials in adverse environments. Radiocarbon programmes Over the course of the later twentieth century radiocarbon dates have accumulated in an ad hoc fashion from new excavations of burial sites and have proved to be of varied quality and sometimes disputable relevance. in press). Even so. Opinion has been divided on both the longevity of the ‘Wessex grave series’ and the extent to which the distinction between ‘Wessex 1’ and ‘Wessex 2’ ﬁrst suggested by Arthur ApSimon (1954) was truly a matter of chronological sequence. He also ventured that the Wessex graves represented an elite that had imposed itself from Armorica. or who saw little purpose in recording them well. These targeted campaigns. Chapters 8-10. occasional pioneering excavators.g. The second date published below bears on this issue. Sometimes. as in Armorica. such as that by Anna Brindley and Jan Lanting on Early Bronze Age burial deposits (both inhumations and cremations) from Ireland (Brindley 2007) and that by Alison Sheridan focusing on. It was only some while after the advent of radiocarbon dating that it became clear that the links used for cross-dating were sometimes spurious and that the beginnings of the Early Bronze Age in Europe reached back centuries earlier than Piggott could then have envisaged. John Thurnam and John Mortimer in Britain. Similarly. kept and labelled at least the skulls. made possible in large measure 364 . but the notion of wholesale introduction has found less favour in more recent decades (e. the chronology of the Early Bronze Age in Britain and Europe was condensed and still wholly dependent on a chain of regional interconnections to the historically-dated cultures of the Eastern Mediterranean. however. Jay et al. graves containing faience beads (Sheridan & Shortland 2004). and have helped in the building of an outline chronology (Table 1). inter alia. and sometimes this is because diagnostic burials were mainly found by early barrow diggers who did not retain the skeletal remains. there has been uncertainty over whether there was signiﬁcant temporal overlap between the early stages of ‘Wessex’ and the burials of the climax Beaker phase (Period 2 in Table 1) some of which are early bronze dagger burials lacking a Beaker. Fortunately. Their respective collections. When Piggott was writing. The ﬁrst date dealt with below is salient here. Some are individually good results. not relevant to this paper but central to the BPP (see papers in Larsson & Parker Pearson 2007: esp.A ﬁrst ‘Wessex 1’ date from Wessex ‘Wessex Culture’ was linked to the appearance of similar ‘rich’ graves in certain other parts of Europe. Needham 2000). well curated for over a century. nevertheless.
The BPP. For this reason.Cremation 1550/1500 1550/1500. 1991) for burials of Beaker tradition. it was considered essential when setting up the BPP to budget for the highprecision dating of a good proportion (c . ‘Urns’ (in-urned cremation burials) may start towards the end of Period 2 and there was a late facies of Beaker burial into Period 3. by the development of the reliable dating of burnt bone (Lanting et al. opportunities have been seized to sample burials worth dating in their own right. Period 1 (Chalcolithic) Period 2 (Early Bronze Age) Period 3 (Early Bronze Age) Period 4 (Early Bronze Age) Period 5 (Middle Bronze Age) ∗ 2450Inhumation Beaker (‘pioneering’ phase ‘Early Beaker’ 2200/2150 → ‘ﬁssion horizon’) Copper: Moel Arthur 2200/2150. has also taken in examples of earlier. 40 per cent) of the skeletal remains selected for other isotopic analyses aimed at yielding information on diet. within this remit. are already beginning to provide a much better temporal structure for the enormous and varied burial record of this period in Britain and Ireland. and. These provide a broader backdrop against which to assess the Beakerspeciﬁc results. Early Bronze Age and Middle Bronze Age. Table 1. The less precise limits given allow for poor stretches of the calibration curve. 2001). Summary chronology for the southern British Chalcolithic. Such a targeted campaign had been attempted earlier by Ian Kinnes and colleagues (Kinnes et al.Inhumation Beaker/Food Vessels/ﬂat ‘Climax Beaker’ Earliest bronze: 1950 bronze daggers Brithdir → (Butterwick-Masterton Mile Cross series) 1950Cremation Food Vessels/Urns/‘Wessex ‘Early Urn’ Willerby 1750/1700 1’ (Bush Barrow series) 1750/1700.Stuart Needham et al. A pivotal grave The ‘Wessex 1’ grave in question is the presumed primary burial in West Overton barrow G1 (project reference SK 291). which lies close to The Sanctuary timber/stone 365 Research Date range Periodisation (cal BC)∗ Predominant Main distinctive burial rite burial traditions Simple description Metalwork traditions . but unfortunately this came before more recent improvements in radiocarbon dating techniques. although focused primarily on Beaker type burials. later and temporally overlapping non-Beaker burials. There is some simpliﬁcation – for example. The tiny size of bone samples now required has helped allay curatorial concerns about irreparable damage to valuable and sensitive human remains. nutrition and mobility.Cremation 1150/1100 Urns/ ‘Wessex 2’ (Camerton-Snowshill series) Deverel-Rimbury and related Urns ‘Middle Urn’ Arreton ‘Late Urn’ Acton → Taunton → Penard Dating is based on calibrated radiocarbon determinations.
nos. West Overton parish. 23-30. Barrows are labelled with the parish-based numbers (Grinsell 1957: nos.5km to the north-west.A ﬁrst ‘Wessex 1’ date from Wessex Figure 1. Avebury lies 2. Avebury parish). 366 . Map of Overton Hill showing barrow West Overton G1 in relation to The Sanctuary. the barrow cemetery and other near-contemporary monuments. 1-8.
no. The second extant object is a crutch-headed bronze pin (Annable & Simpson 1964: cat. This appears to belong to a broad-tanged subset of a series of small tanged blades of the Early Bronze Age which are variously termed knives or razors. Cambridge University. Most diagnostic chronologically is a small bronze ﬂat axehead of Willerby type (Annable & Simpson 1964: cat. no. Rohl & Needham 1998: 125. a long pin with a handle and a little celt all of brass’. ﬁgure on p. 26. Annable & Simpson 1964: 52). . Two decades earlier. nor does one survive amongst the unpublished Philip Crocker drawings in the Wiltshire Heritage Museum. the identity of the associated objects had become uncertain before the material reached Devizes Museum in 1878. Devizes. a small lance. circle to the south-east of Avebury in north Wiltshire (Figure 1. the Reverend John Skinner. despite good publication for the time (Hoare 1819: 90). see Cleal 2005 for a recent review of the barrow concentration in the Avebury district). Davis & Thurnam 1865: section XXIII. but found in graves of both ‘Wessex 1 and 2’ series. folios 2. Fortunately a friend of Hoare and fellow antiquarian. thus allowing thorough re-evaluation and sampling in the context of the BPP. The body. Thurnam 1860: 329. but John Thurnam’s interests in the craniology of the ancient British led him to reexcavate some of the Cunnington/Hoare barrows to retrieve the skulls – and West Overton G1 was among them (excavation 1854. 11). pl. 7. Thurnam had randomly picked three objects known to be from quite separate sites and illustrated them as if they constituted the West Overton G1 group (Thurnam 1860: 329. including sketches. found widely across Britain in hoards and as single ﬁnds. Skinner shows the four objects in a diamond formation a foot (300mm) in front of the face. these survive in the British Library (Additional Manuscript 33648: esp. Hoare (1819: 90) described the associated artefacts as ‘. Hoare and his team re-buried the skeletal material unearthed in the many barrows they opened. an infrequent type characteristic of the mature Early Bronze Age. the right hand was between the group and the individual’s face. participated in the excavation and made detailed notes on the burial rite and grave goods. Skinner in fact adds a fourth object not mentioned by Hoare: ‘a portion of deer’s horn. 299). Davis & Thurnam 1865: section XXIII. most famously at Bush Barrow (Wilsford G5. identiﬁed as that of an elderly male of tall stature. no. ﬁg. but there was no accompanying illustration. Skinner’s records leave no doubt that two of the three objects mentioned by Hoare may be identiﬁed in the Stourhead collection at Devizes (Figures 2 & 3). folio 2). Skinner’s sketch of the third and still missing bronze object shows it to be a tanged knife with a leaf-shaped blade and apparently a single off-set rivet through its broad tang. 367 Research . this object also appears with the other three in a plan of the grave group (Figure 4). was lying on its left side with ﬂexed legs and head to the east facing south (Figure 4). 57 & 59). measuring a foot’ (British Library Additional Manuscript 33648. but only rarely placed in graves. . Thurnam’s collection passed ultimately to the Duckworth collection. It was excavated by Sir Richard Colt Hoare’s team on 2 August 1814 but.Stuart Needham et al. 56). Wiltshire. The burial was in a large oblong grave cut into the chalk beneath the large mound and was evidently enclosed in a tree-trunk cofﬁn (Hoare 1819: 90). Needham 1988). 360.
59. Revd John Skinner’s watercolour sketches of the three bronze objects from West Overton G1. f. 33648. c The British Library Board. Scale 100%. 368 .A ﬁrst ‘Wessex 1’ date from Wessex Figure 2. Add.
but as early-run determinations. 125. Back in central Wessex. These and other − less directly relevant radiocarbon dates give a good conﬁrmation that graves of the ‘Wessex 1’ series. from Topped Mountain. Drawings Stuart Needham. of Period 3 to which they are assigned. Result and assessment The radiocarbon measurement obtained from bone collagen is 2020-1770 cal BC (95% probability) or 1950-1780 cal BC (68%) (3550+35 BP. The West Overton G1 objects extant in Wiltshire Heritage Museum. Despite being the most abundant metalwork type of the period. comparable dates (Brindley 2007: 85. BM-2909. Needham & Woodward 2008: 50). sequencing axeheads has depended on typology in conjunction with critical associations particularly in hoards. sometimes on material of uncertain origin. Devizes.Stuart Needham et al. they are of limited value in relation to the more precise chronologies that are now emerging. has been dated recently on the cremated bone to 2020-1690 cal BC (95%). Glamorgan. the axehead this time being of the Aylesford type (class 4B in Needham et al. While this can be claimed to be the ﬁrst direct date from Wessex for a grave with a diagnostic ‘Wessex 1’ artefact – the axehead – a few other ﬁnds have already begun to chart the absolute dating of this grave series and. 1985) – a southern British type belonging to the preceding 369 Research . This potentially transitional grave has been dated on the unburnt human bone to 1870-1620 cal BC (95%). Co. The very few radiocarbon-dated graves diagnostic of ‘Wessex 2’ (Camerton-Snowshill series) do indeed indicate a later era (Burleigh et al. more generally. Grange. Llanbleddian. the cremation burial at Breach Farm. Wiltshire. Needham & Woodward 2008: 51). Brindley 2007: 367. their absolute chronology has remained insecure because of their virtual exclusion from graves and other contexts viable for dating. 1976). Fermanagh and Figure 3. it was possible to select another rare axe-containing grave as part of the BPP (project reference SK 213). which contained inter alia a very similar small axehead. Roscommon. As it happens. allied graves and metalwork of the Willerby tradition – all key constituents in deﬁning Period 3 – date within the ﬁrst quarter of the second millennium cal BC. have yielded Scale 50%. a grave from Norton Bavant Borrow Pit. SUERC-26203 (GU− 19959)). Co. In particular. 17501645 cal BC (68%) (3410+35 BP. However. includes a dagger combining features of this style with others from the Camerton-Snowshill type found in ‘Wessex 2’ graves which are believed to belong to Period 4. Two burials from Ireland with daggers of Armorico-British type or inspiration. GrA-19964. the West Overton date broaches a similar problem relating to Early Bronze Age axeheads. Needham 1996: 132). In addition to the issue of Wessex grave chronology. 1920-1755 cal BC (68%) (3520+ − 60 BP.
f. Add. 370 . in addition to the three bronzes.A ﬁrst ‘Wessex 1’ date from Wessex Figure 4. Revd John Skinner’s watercolour sketch of the disposition of the body and the grave goods in West Overton G1. 33648.57). the ‘portion of deer’s horn’ is shown. c The British Library Board.
A deep grave under a barrow at Shuttlestone Plantation. Scale 50%. 3). Smith 1957: GB. Vine 1982: 221). typological stage of late Period 2. a jet bead and a ‘circular ﬂint’ (lost) in addition to the axehead (Figure 5. illustrate how the project is poised to clarify further the chronological structure of the Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age in Britain. but it is essential that we can place it reliably 371 Research . ﬁg. The radiocarbon date is in reasonable accord: 2150-1960 cal BC (94%). the matter of obtaining high-quality radiocarbon dates in some quantity is seen as essential underpinning. which includes Aylesford axeheads. 2140-2020 cal BC (68%) (3680+30 BP (SUERC-26172 (GU-19924)). he was accompanied by remains of skin clothing or a shroud. two of many more generated by the BPP. Bateman 1861: 34-5. The BPP results themselves will inevitably be loaded towards the early part of the total burial sequence and there remains a pressing need for more concerted dating campaigns on Wessex and indeed other graves. Weston Park Museum. Metalwork of the Mile Cross tradition. In the BPP and other recent programmes. This is not just for the sake of getting chronologies as accurate and detailed as possible. a bronze dagger. contained a presumably crouched inhumation of ‘a man in the prime of life and of ﬁne proportions’ laid on his left side (Bateman 1861: 34). Wessex should not be considered paramount. − Conclusion The new radiocarbon results presented here. Parwich.Stuart Needham et al. ferns. Figure 5. Grave group from Shuttlestone Plantation. Drawings: Stuart Needham. Derbyshire. has been placed close to the turn of the third/second millennia BC (Needham & Woodward 2008: 7.19. Parwich. Derbyshire. more reﬁned chronologies should serve to specify much better the interrelationships between given ritual practices and will thus directly affect interpretation of the social realities of the period. Shefﬁeld. such as those accompanied by Food Vessels.
B. Oxford: Oxbow. Field & D. London: William Miller. T. A. BATEMAN. References ANNABLE. MEEKS. Devizes: Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society. CLEAL.C. SHERIDAN. BRINDLEY. Oxford: Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit. 1957. JAY. O. Stafford. ‘The small compass of a grave’: Early Bronze Age burial in and around Avebury and the Marlborough Downs. Acknowledgements The Beaker People Project is funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council and led by one of the authors (MPP). T. 2005. D. 1976. Reimer et al.E.B. Technical Note on radiocarbon methodology The dates were obtained on bone collagen extracted at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology laboratories in Leipzig.R.V. McOmish (ed. 1954. Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies. those in Shefﬁeld Museum. 3. British Museum radiocarbon measurements VIII. Improved collagen extraction by modiﬁed Longin method. as obtained from the Leipzig facility. place and polity in the later 3rd millennium (Prehistoric Society Research Paper 4). THURNAM. SIMPSON. We are grateful to the British Library for permission to publish Figures 2 and 4 and for help in accessing Skinner’s manuscripts. Shefﬁeld (Bateman Collection). NELSON. Department of Archaeology. Development of the radiocarbon program OxCal. Guide catalogue of the Neolithic and Bronze Age collections in Devizes Museum.10. R. The sampling of skeletal material from West Overton G1 and Shuttlestone Plantation were facilitated respectively by Mercedes Okumura. London Institute of Archaeology. – 2005.A ﬁrst ‘Wessex 1’ date from Wessex in order to reﬁne our understanding of the British sequence and implied social changes and. 372 . The δ 13 C values for SK 291 and SK 213. A CHAMBERLAIN & A. Pugh & E.D. and Pauline Beswick... in the counties of Derby. 1988. in G. Archaeological Gazetteer in R. M. BURLEIGH. Part 1: 21-279. using standard procedures which included the use of ultraﬁltration (Brown et al. Crania Britannica. London: printed for the subscribers by Taylor & Francis. The dating of food vessels and urns in Ireland (Bronze Age Studies 7). 1865. J.) The British Chalcolithic: people. Radiocarbon 43(2A): 355-63. 2005. 1861. HOARE.) The Avebury landscape: aspects of the ﬁeld archaeology of the Marlborough Downs: 115-32.A. 1964. Brown.J. D. 2001. APSIMON. 2007.P. Radiocarbon 18: 16-42. OxCal Program v3. Weston Park Museum. Crittall (ed.A. London: George Allen & Sons. A. Sheridan and D. BRONK R AMSEY. A.S. Allen. The late Ken Annable facilitated study of the objects in Devizes Museum. The Beaker People Project: an interim report on the progress of the isotopic analysis of the organic skeletal material in M. McOmish (ed. Oxford: Oxbow. Radiocarbon 30(2): 171-7. The ancient history of north Wiltshire. SOUTHON. BROWN. M. & D. PARKER PEARSON. Volume 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press for the Institute of Historical Research. Ten years’ diggings in Celtic & Saxon grave hills. F. 1988)..K. The calibrations given are based on OxCal v. Galway: National University of Ireland.10 and IntCal04 (Bronk Ramsey 2001. Cambridge University (Duckworth Collection) and Gill Woolrich. L. A. & J. and York. GRINSELL. HEWSON & N. VOGEL & J. DAVIS. The pre-treated collagen extracts were then dated at the SUERC AMS facility. NEHLICH. 1819. moreover. RICHARDS. Dagger graves in the ‘Wessex’ Bronze Age. In press. Andrew Chamberlain gave vital reassurance that the skeletal remains sampled corresponded with those described in the original accounts. R.9%o for both samples indicating that there was no marine resource consumption by these individuals. R.) A history of Wiltshire. MONTGOMERY. were -20. Annual Report 10: 37-61. C. 2004). J. M. from 1848 to 1858. J. to clarify the much vaunted continental connections.
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