It might be argued that lurid stories of human sacrifice were simply propaganda, conjured-up by classical writers to justify Roman actions, but there may well be some truth in them. For instance, at Danebury hillfort, Hampshire, animal and human remains (whole bodies and body parts), deposited in disused storage pits, could be the result of sacrifice. At Glastonbury Lake Village, two roundhouses had a child’s skeleton in the floor, a further seven children had been buried between buildings, and one was found in the peat outside the perimeter palisade. There were no other inhumations, so it seems that these were ritual deposits, though there is no indication of sacrifice. On the other hand four adult skulls, associated with the perimeter, were damaged by sword blows. These might be the heads of sacrificial victims, or they could, possibly, be the heads of vanquished enemies:
… when they [Gallic warriors] depart from the battle they hang the heads of their enemies from the necks of their horses, and, when they have brought them home, nail the spectacle to the entrance of their homes. At any rate, Poseidonius says that he himself saw this spectacle in many places, and that, although at first he loathed it, afterwards, through his familiarity with it, he could bear it calmly. The heads of enemies of high repute, however, they used to embalm in cedar-oil and exhibit to strangers, and they would not deign to give them back even for a ransom of an equal weight of gold. But the Romans put a stop to these customs, as well as to those connected with the sacrifices and divinations that are opposed to our usages.Strabo Geography IV, 4.5
Excavations at the main hillfort on Bredon Hill, Worcestershire, in the 1930s, uncovered the crushed remains of skulls lying in a straight line within the ruins of the entranceway. They were believed to have been trophy-heads, which had been mounted above the gate.[*] The head does, indeed, seem to have been a focus of especial interest. At several occupation sites more skull fragments have been found than those of other human bones, and there are examples (e.g. at All Cannings Cross, Wiltshire) of skull pieces being shaped – sometimes perforated so they could be worn – to produce, what would appear to be, charms.
As well as human and animal remains, offerings of objects, such as ironwork, broken pot sherds and worn out quern stones, were buried in important places. The deposition of currency bars, for example, is often associated with settlement boundaries in Wessex. In the floor of the wheelhouse at Sollas were a large number of pits, containing “a whole menagerie of mutilated and cremated animals” (Ian Armit), whilst, behind the walls of an unfinished wheelhouse at Cnip, there were a series of deposits, including the head of a great auk, articulated cattle bones and a complete pottery vessel.
Towards the end of the Iron Age, specialised shrines were constructed in southern Britain – an idea probably imported from Roman Gaul. At Hayling Island, Hampshire, a circular wooden structure (in all probability a building), set within a rectangular courtyard and enclosed by palisading, was built in the mid-1st century BC. A large quantity of material – coins, currency bar fragments, brooches, shield binding, iron spearheads, horse trappings and some fragmentary human remains – had been deposited at the site. Its status as a shrine being confirmed by the construction of a stone Roman temple, on top of and to virtually the same plan as the earlier wooden structure, in the later-1st century AD. At other sites, structures have been identified as shrines because of their obvious differences from normal domestic buildings. For instance, single rectangular structures within a village of roundhouses, as found at both Heathrow (Middlesex) and Stansted (Essex) airports, are interpreted as shrines. For the most part, however, special places in the countryside – such as the Druids’ groves – would have been the focus of religious activity. Watery places – springs, lakes, rivers, bogs – seem to have provided a route to the gods. There are many instances of metal objects recovered in circumstances that strongly suggest they were deliberately committed to the water as votive offerings – presumably the origin of the wishing-well. And not only metalwork. In 1984, peat cutters at Lindow Moss, Cheshire, discovered the well preserved remains of a man. Radiocarbon dating indicates that Lindow Man (as he is commonly known), aged about 25, died between 2 BC and AD 129.[*] Before being deposited, face down, in a bog pool, he had been struck on the head twice, garrotted, and had his throat cut. The elaborate nature of the killing tends to indicate that it was a sacrificial ritual.[*]
As the Bronze Age began to metamorphose into the Iron Age, the predominant, archaeologically visible, method of disposing of the dead was cremation – the ashes being buried (in urns or not) in cemeteries. By the fifth century BC, however, this tradition had ended. Thenceforth, over much of Britain, remarkably few Iron Age burials are in evidence. Actually, it must have always been the case that most bodies were disposed of in ways that are not archaeologically visible. Corpses could simply be exposed to the elements and scavengers (excarnation); or cremated remains could be scattered; or bodies could be committed to the water, perhaps accompanied by high-status metalwork – maybe that’s how the Battersea Shield and Waterloo Helmet came to be in the Thames. There are, though, a couple of notable, regional, inhumation practices.
In Devon, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, there are inhumation burials in stone-lined graves (cists). Items of personal ornament, such as pins and brooches, that have been recovered from the graves suggest this form of burial was in vogue from about the 4th century BC to about the mid-1st century AD. A cemetery of some 130 of these Iron Age cist-burials (the largest cemetery recorded) was unearthed at Harlyn Bay, near Padstow, at the beginning of the 20th century. The excavations are ill-recorded, but it seems that the graves tended to be arranged in north-south rows, with the bodies laid, in crouched position, heads toward the north. On Bryher, Isles of Scilly, in 1999, during crop spraying operations in a potato field, what turned out to be a cap-stone from a cist-burial, was dislodged by a tractor wheel that had sunk into the ground. The farmer reached inside the cist, and brought-out an iron sword, corroded into its bronze scabbard. Subsequent excavation revealed the very decayed skeletal remains of an individual of indeterminable sex, but about 20–25 years-old. The body had been buried, probably in a crouched position, with the head to the north, facing west. Apart from the sword in its scabbard, there were other, poorly preserved, bronze items: a ring from the sword-belt, fittings from what had been a wood or leather shield, a decorated mirror, a brooch, a spiral finger-ring, plus a “shattered tin object”. A bone fragment provided a radiocarbon date of 200–45 BC, though the metalwork typology suggests this can be narrowed-down to the first half of the 1st century BC. It has widely been supposed that the presence of weapons in a grave indicated its occupant was male, whilst the presence of a mirror was indicative of a female. The presence of both in this grave – which is the richest cist-burial so far recorded, and the only one to contain weaponry – provided food for thought.[*] In 2023, technological advances enabled the sex of the occupant to be determined by an analysis of a fragment of dental enamel. The person who had been buried with a sword and a shield was in fact a woman, which is highly suggestive of female participation in warfare.[*]
In the Yorkshire Wolds, and environs, the burial practices of the, so called, ‘Arras culture’ are encountered – the most dramatic features of which are ‘chariot burials’. Arras, near Market Weighton, is where an Iron Age barrow cemetery – there were more than 100 barrows (burial mounds) – was excavated by a band of local worthies in the years 1815–17. Beneath two of the barrows they found a “British charioteer”, that is to say, they found a skeleton accompanied by the remains of a dismantled two-wheeled vehicle. Some modern-day archaeologists are reluctant to call these vehicles chariots. Their original purpose is by no means certain, though it seems reasonable to assume their last role was to convey the dead person – who was certainly of the highest rank – to his, or her, grave … and then beyond. Sometimes, therefore, the, rather less glamorous, term ‘cart burial’ is used. At any rate, in one of the original Arras discoveries, the deceased had been buried, not only with the chariot, but also with its two horses – his was dubbed “the King’s Barrow”.[*] In 1876, the well known ‘barrow-digger’, Canon William Greenwell visited a recently discovered chariot burial at Arras. The two earlier bodies had been identified as male, but Greenwell, having had the skeleton examined by an eminent anatomist, concluded this third one was “probably a woman” (there was also an iron mirror in the burial).[*] Chariot burials were also found at other sites. For instance, Canon Greenwell had excavated a poorly preserved example – no traces of bone survived – in 1875, at Beverley Westwood. And at Danes’ Graves, near Driffield, where once there were over 500 barrows, a chariot burial was excavated by local archaeologist J.R. Mortimer, in 1897, which held two skeletons: “probably the remains of the owner of the chariot and his charioteer.”[*]
Today, the Arras cemetery is ploughed flat, so barrows are generally not visible to the naked eye. In 1959 an area of the cemetery was surveyed with a magnetometer. This was an early use of the technique, and only two barrows were detected, but the survey did reveal that each of the barrows was surrounded by a ditch that was square, rather than circular, in plan. In fact, square ditches had been noticed during excavations at Arras in 1850. These ‘square barrows’ (as they are known) may not be visible from the ground, but their distinctive ditches can appear as crop marks visible from aircraft, and there are, quite literally, thousands of them in the Wolds and surrounding area (southeast into Holderness, west to the middle of the Vale of York and north, across the Vale of Pickering, to the southern fringes of the North York Moors).
At Arras, a farm on the hill, about three miles from Market Weighton, at an elevation of more than 300 feet, overlooking a vast extent of country, and at a neighbouring farm Hessleskew, are a numerous class of barrows, above 200, a large number of which had been opened by the Rev. E. Stillingfleet, in 1815–16–17. This locality was visited by the Yorkshire Antiquarian Club in May, 1850, and three of the tumuli were examined. Only one of them gave decisive results: it was a barrow of slight elevation; and at the depth of 3 feet in chalk rubble a human skeleton was found in very good preservation, laid nearly on the face, with the head to the north, and the face turned somewhat eastward and downwards. The arms were so placed beneath the body that they covered the knees, which were bent and drawn up to the chin. The thigh bones each measured 19 inches. Near the upper part of the body were found the skull and one or two other bones of a pig. The second tumulus was composed of chalk rubble with clay, but afforded no vestiges of interment. The third tumulus examined was on the Hessleskew side of the road close to the hedge, and presented marks of having been previously opened, from the disturbed state of the bones and structure of the barrow. One exception to the general character of the works in this district was observed, in a tumulus being surrounded by a square instead of a round fossa.In 2014 an Arras culture cemetery was discovered at Pocklington (some 6 miles north-west of Market Weighton). Excavations were carried-out between September of that year and March 2017 (there was an 8 month break). The vast majority of the eighty-odd Iron Age barrows investigated were square barrows. The photograph features excavated square barrows, but there were also seven circular-ditched barrows in the cemetery. The ‘shape’ of the barrow would not appear to be related to the richness of the burial. In 2017, during the concluding phase of excavation, a square barrow containing a chariot burial was found, in which the dismantled chariot and its two horses accompanied the deceased.[*] During excavations at an undisclosed site “in the general vicinity of the southern Yorkshire Wolds and River Humber”, in 2016–17, a square barrow containing another chariot burial was uncovered, though in this case the deceased’s dismantled chariot had no horses.[*]
Arras culture burials seem to span a period of some 400 years, starting in the 5th century BC and ending in the 1st century BC. The inhumations, laid in a grave at the barrow’s centre, usually in crouched position, are usually aligned with the head towards the north – there are exceptions. Modest grave goods – locally produced pottery, a brooch, a joint of meat – might accompany the inhumation. Richer burials occur occasionally, and chariot burials are rare.
Recently, Bayesian modelling of radiocarbon dates from eight chariot burials has suggested that this burial rite was remarkably short lived – a couple of decades or so either side of 200 BC.[*] Each chariot burial is unique, there is no standard layout. In the majority, however, the chariot has been dismantled prior to burial.
There are, as always, exceptions. In a burial at Pexton Moor, first investigated in 1911, the chariot had been buried intact and upright. It seems likely that a barrow, opened in the mid-19th century, at Cawthorn Camps had contained a similarly buried chariot. Pexton Moor and Cawthorn Camps are to the north of the Wolds – on the southern edge of the North York Moors. At the end of 2003, a chariot burial was discovered, in a square barrow, some 20 miles west of the Wolds, near Ferrybridge. Once again, the chariot had been buried intact and upright. In December 2018, it was announced in the press that archaeologists working at Pocklington, at the foot of the Wolds, had excavated a square barrow containing a chariot burial, in which not only was the chariot upright, but the chariot’s two horses had also been buried upright, carefully arranged to look as if they “were leaping upwards out of the grave”.[*]
In two centuries of archaeological excavation, it would seem that fewer than thirty reliably identified chariot burials have been found in Britain. All of them in the Wolds and surrounding area … except two (so far). In January 2001, at Newbridge, near Edinburgh, a chariot burial was excavated. There was no ditch around the burial. The chariot had been buried intact and upright. The occupant’s remains had decayed-away to nothing. There was, however, sufficient organic material left in the wooden core of the wheel rims to allow radiocarbon dating. The results suggest that the burial dates to 540–380 BC, which is long before the Arras culture chariot burials.[*] In February 2018 a metal-detectorist discovered decorated horse fittings in a field in Pembrokeshire, south-west Wales. Subsequent excavation, in 2018 and 2019, uncovered a chariot burial. It was surrounded by a circular ditch, and the chariot had been buried intact and upright. Nothing remained of the occupant, but there was also a sword in the grave, which tend to be associated with the burials of men. The burial has been dated, by the decorative style (late La Tène) of the horse fittings, to AD 50–100, which is about the time that the Romans were subduing the tribes of (what would become) Wales, and a couple of centuries after the Arras Culture chariot burials.[*]
In Britain then, square barrows and chariot burials are usually associated with the Arras culture, centred on the Yorkshire Wolds. There are, though, similarities, and also differences, between the Arras culture burial practices and those found in the Champagne region of France. Further, to the Romans who later occupied Britain, the tribe living in the Arras culture area were the Parisi, whilst the Gallic tribe after whom Paris is named were the Parisii (mentioned by Julius Caesar in The Gallic War VI, 3). However, no evidence has, so far, been found of ‘Frenchmen’ in Yorkshire graves.
In south-eastern England cross-Channel influences are increasingly apparent during the 1st century BC. Along with the use of coinage and wheel-thrown pottery, cremation burials became common. Typically, small numbers of cremations are grouped together in cemeteries, though at the largest so far found – the cemetery at King Harry Lane, St Albans, Hertfordshire (discovered in 1966) – there were more than 450.[*] There is considerable variation in the style and richness of burials. Those of the ‘Welwyn type’, after discoveries made in 1906, at Welwyn, Hertfordshire[*] (they are found north of the Thames, in the territory associated with the Catuvellauni and Trinovantes tribes), are especially opulent, and are, characteristically, accompanied by Italian wine amphorae and other expensive, often imported, feasting paraphernalia. Cremations of the Welwyn type are usually un-urned, but, commonly, others are buried in wheel-turned urns.
Not only urns were used. For instance, the star find at a cemetery in Aylesford, Kent, which was discovered in 1886, was a grave in which the cremation was contained in a, bronze-embellished, wooden bucket: the Aylesford Bucket.[*] Aylesford is often coupled with Swarling, the site of another Kentish cremation cemetery (discovered in 1921), as a generic term for these Late Iron Age, Gallic influenced, cremation rites of south-eastern England. On typological grounds, burials of the ‘Aylesford-Swarling culture’ are generally dated from, broadly, the mid-1st century BC to the mid-1st century AD. However, in 1992 a cremation cemetery at Westhampnett, West Sussex, was excavated. As well as about 160, mainly un-urned, cremations, a number of pyre sites were found, and four rectangular-plan structures interpreted as shrines. Typology suggested that the cemetery was in use for forty years, from c.90 BC to c.50 BC.[*] More recently, Bayesian modelling of radiocarbon dates, obtained from the cremated remains, has supported a mid-1st century BC date for the end of use of the cemetery, but has raised the possibility that it started in the mid-2nd century BC.[*] Now, Julius Caesar says (The Gallic War V, 12) that, at some time before his expeditions to Britain (i.e. south-eastern England), in 55 and 54 BC, the “the maritime districts” had been populated by “immigrants who crossed over from Belgium to plunder, and attack the aborigines”.