A first ‘Wessex 1’ date from Wessex


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
1 2 3 4

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



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. 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. Similarly. 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. 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. now offer a rich harvest of information with the development of more refined radiocarbon dating and a range of other new analytical techniques. 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. Sometimes. where very similar styles of dagger have been found. He also ventured that the Wessex graves represented an elite that had imposed itself from Armorica. today many important series of graves are still relatively poorly dated. but the notion of wholesale introduction has found less favour in more recent decades (e. The limitations of ad hoc dating are now beginning to be turned around with much more targeted dating programmes. Needham 2000). Their respective collections. Jay et al. such as Thomas Bateman. notably Armorica (ancient Brittany) and Central Europe. kept and labelled at least the skulls. made possible in large measure 364 . inter alia. Even so. not relevant to this paper but central to the BPP (see papers in Larsson & Parker Pearson 2007: esp. and have helped in the building of an outline chronology (Table 1). occasional pioneering excavators. as in Armorica.g. 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. however. and sometimes this is because diagnostic burials were mainly found by early barrow diggers who did not retain the skeletal remains. this is because of the decay of critical skeletal materials in adverse environments. John Thurnam and John Mortimer in Britain. These targeted campaigns. Some are individually good results. Chapters 8-10. Fortunately. in press). nevertheless. When Piggott was writing. and that the phenomenon in general related to the emergence of elites capitalising on inter-regional trade in metals and exotics. The first date dealt with below is salient here. The second date published below bears on this issue. graves containing faience beads (Sheridan & Shortland 2004). well curated for over a century. or who saw little purpose in recording them well. 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.A first ‘Wessex 1’ date from Wessex ‘Wessex Culture’ was linked to the appearance of similar ‘rich’ graves in certain other parts of Europe.

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. For this reason. but unfortunately this came before more recent improvements in radiocarbon dating techniques. within this remit. 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. 1991) for burials of Beaker tradition.Stuart Needham et al. Summary chronology for the southern British Chalcolithic.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. later and temporally overlapping non-Beaker burials. A pivotal grave The ‘Wessex 1’ grave in question is the presumed primary burial in West Overton barrow G1 (project reference SK 291). ‘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. 2001). 40 per cent) of the skeletal remains selected for other isotopic analyses aimed at yielding information on diet. opportunities have been seized to sample burials worth dating in their own right. although focused primarily on Beaker type burials. and. has also taken in examples of earlier.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. by the development of the reliable dating of burnt bone (Lanting et al. Table 1. Early Bronze Age and Middle Bronze Age. nutrition and mobility.Cremation 1550/1500 1550/1500. it was considered essential when setting up the BPP to budget for the highprecision dating of a good proportion (c . The BPP. 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 . The less precise limits given allow for poor stretches of the calibration curve. are already beginning to provide a much better temporal structure for the enormous and varied burial record of this period in Britain and Ireland. These provide a broader backdrop against which to assess the Beakerspecific results. Such a targeted campaign had been attempted earlier by Ian Kinnes and colleagues (Kinnes et al.

the barrow cemetery and other near-contemporary monuments. Avebury parish). West Overton parish. Barrows are labelled with the parish-based numbers (Grinsell 1957: nos. 23-30.A first ‘Wessex 1’ date from Wessex Figure 1. 366 . Avebury lies 2.5km to the north-west. nos. Map of Overton Hill showing barrow West Overton G1 in relation to The Sanctuary. 1-8.

26. the Reverend John Skinner. thus allowing thorough re-evaluation and sampling in the context of the BPP. a small lance. Fortunately a friend of Hoare and fellow antiquarian. Hoare and his team re-buried the skeletal material unearthed in the many barrows they opened. Skinner in fact adds a fourth object not mentioned by Hoare: ‘a portion of deer’s horn. 360. a long pin with a handle and a little celt all of brass’. no. fig. Two decades earlier. 11). including sketches. The second extant object is a crutch-headed bronze pin (Annable & Simpson 1964: cat. but found in graves of both ‘Wessex 1 and 2’ series. The body. Davis & Thurnam 1865: section XXIII. 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. no. nor does one survive amongst the unpublished Philip Crocker drawings in the Wiltshire Heritage Museum. Cambridge University. despite good publication for the time (Hoare 1819: 90). measuring a foot’ (British Library Additional Manuscript 33648. was lying on its left side with flexed legs and head to the east facing south (Figure 4). figure on p. Most diagnostic chronologically is a small bronze flat axehead of Willerby type (Annable & Simpson 1964: cat. 367 Research . Annable & Simpson 1964: 52). identified as that of an elderly male of tall stature. folio 2). folios 2. 56). Needham 1988). . 57 & 59). Davis & Thurnam 1865: section XXIII. pl. Hoare (1819: 90) described the associated artefacts as ‘. It was excavated by Sir Richard Colt Hoare’s team on 2 August 1814 but. 7. an infrequent type characteristic of the mature Early Bronze Age. see Cleal 2005 for a recent review of the barrow concentration in the Avebury district). circle to the south-east of Avebury in north Wiltshire (Figure 1. but there was no accompanying illustration. most famously at Bush Barrow (Wilsford G5. Devizes. the identity of the associated objects had become uncertain before the material reached Devizes Museum in 1878. 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. . Skinner shows the four objects in a diamond formation a foot (300mm) in front of the face. 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. participated in the excavation and made detailed notes on the burial rite and grave goods. the right hand was between the group and the individual’s face. Wiltshire. 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). these survive in the British Library (Additional Manuscript 33648: esp.Stuart Needham et al. no. 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). Thurnam’s collection passed ultimately to the Duckworth collection. 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. Thurnam 1860: 329. but only rarely placed in graves. Rohl & Needham 1998: 125. found widely across Britain in hoards and as single finds. this object also appears with the other three in a plan of the grave group (Figure 4). 299).

Revd John Skinner’s watercolour sketches of the three bronze objects from West Overton G1.59. 33648. 368 .A first ‘Wessex 1’ date from Wessex Figure 2. c The British Library Board. Scale 100%. f. Add.

The West Overton G1 objects extant in Wiltshire Heritage Museum. Co. they are of limited value in relation to the more precise chronologies that are now emerging. have yielded Scale 50%. Llanbleddian. the cremation burial at Breach Farm. 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. SUERC-26203 (GU− 19959)). Fermanagh and Figure 3. In particular. but as early-run determinations. Wiltshire. Devizes. Despite being the most abundant metalwork type of the period. sometimes on material of uncertain origin. Needham 1996: 132). Two burials from Ireland with daggers of Armorico-British type or inspiration. Glamorgan. the axehead this time being of the Aylesford type (class 4B in Needham et al. more generally. In addition to the issue of Wessex grave chronology. Needham & Woodward 2008: 50). 125. which contained inter alia a very similar small axehead. 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. The very few radiocarbon-dated graves diagnostic of ‘Wessex 2’ (Camerton-Snowshill series) do indeed indicate a later era (Burleigh et al. Needham & Woodward 2008: 51). This potentially transitional grave has been dated on the unburnt human bone to 1870-1620 cal BC (95%). 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. Drawings Stuart Needham. 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. Grange. has been dated recently on the cremated bone to 2020-1690 cal BC (95%). sequencing axeheads has depended on typology in conjunction with critical associations particularly in hoards. their absolute chronology has remained insecure because of their virtual exclusion from graves and other contexts viable for dating. it was possible to select another rare axe-containing grave as part of the BPP (project reference SK 213). 17501645 cal BC (68%) (3410+35 BP. Brindley 2007: 367. GrA-19964. 1976). These and other − less directly relevant radiocarbon dates give a good confirmation that graves of the ‘Wessex 1’ series. comparable dates (Brindley 2007: 85. As it happens. 1985) – a southern British type belonging to the preceding 369 Research . a grave from Norton Bavant Borrow Pit. from Topped Mountain. Co. Back in central Wessex.Stuart Needham et al. of Period 3 to which they are assigned. 1920-1755 cal BC (68%) (3520+ − 60 BP. However. Roscommon. BM-2909. the West Overton date broaches a similar problem relating to Early Bronze Age axeheads.

in addition to the three bronzes.A first ‘Wessex 1’ date from Wessex Figure 4. c The British Library Board. f. Add. 33648.57). the ‘portion of deer’s horn’ is shown. 370 . Revd John Skinner’s watercolour sketch of the disposition of the body and the grave goods in West Overton G1.

Grave group from Shuttlestone Plantation. two of many more generated by the BPP. ferns. Metalwork of the Mile Cross tradition. a jet bead and a ‘circular flint’ (lost) in addition to the axehead (Figure 5. Weston Park Museum. Sheffield. Derbyshire. In the BPP and other recent programmes. Parwich. but it is essential that we can place it reliably 371 Research . Bateman 1861: 34-5.19. Drawings: Stuart Needham. a bronze dagger. has been placed close to the turn of the third/second millennia BC (Needham & Woodward 2008: 7. − Conclusion The new radiocarbon results presented here. Parwich. Scale 50%. 3). Vine 1982: 221). 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. illustrate how the project is poised to clarify further the chronological structure of the Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age in Britain. Figure 5. 2140-2020 cal BC (68%) (3680+30 BP (SUERC-26172 (GU-19924)). such as those accompanied by Food Vessels. This is not just for the sake of getting chronologies as accurate and detailed as possible. 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).Stuart Needham et al. which includes Aylesford axeheads. Derbyshire. 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. 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. Smith 1957: GB. fig. typological stage of late Period 2. Wessex should not be considered paramount. he was accompanied by remains of skin clothing or a shroud. A deep grave under a barrow at Shuttlestone Plantation.

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