c.700BC – AD43
IV: A Way of Death
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’ Book IV Chapter 4
When the main hillfort on Bredon Hill, which lies on the border of Worcestershire and Gloucestershire, was excavated in the mid-1930s, a line of six skulls was found 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 in ‘British Archaeology’, Issue no 32, March 1998), 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.
Between 1948 and 1990, a number of hoards (at least 11) were unearthed in a field at Snettisham, in Norfolk. The hoards – the largest deposit of Iron Age gold, silver and bronze artifacts yet found in England – are famous for the finely-crafted torcs that they contained. There are over 200, of which 75 are, more or less, intact. Some of the hoards included coins, the majority of which were Gallo-Belgic imports, and these have suggested a date of c.70BC for the treasure's burial.
Snettisham Great Torc (left), discovered during ploughing in 1950 (now on display in the British Museum), is made from over a kilogramme of a gold and silver mix. Eight ropes, each comprising eight strands twisted together, are twisted together and welded into cast end-pieces.
Such rich hoards (totalling about 20 kilogrammes silver, 15 kilogrammes of gold) might be a royal treasury of the, local, Iceni tribe (or their predecessors). However, there are no signs of a contemporary settlement nearby, and it is, perhaps, odd that broken fragments (scrap awaiting reuse?) should be deposited in the same location as complete, obviously valuable, items. It would also seem remarkable that a treasury should be abandoned. Possibly then, the area was a sacred site, and the buried hoards were votive offerings.
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 buildings 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, several of which are mentioned in these Iron Age pages, 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 shows that Lindow Man (as he is commonly known), aged about 25, died between AD20 and 90. 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.
The carnyx was a long, animal-headed, trumpet. It was held vertically, so that the sound was emitted from about three metres above the ground. The carnyx flourished, across much of Europe, during the period around 300BC–AD200. Though it probably had other uses, it was used to intimidate the enemy on the battlefield. Diodorus Siculus, discussing the Gauls says: “Their trumpets are of peculiar nature and such as barbarians use, for when they are blown upon they give forth a harsh sound, appropriate to the tumult of war.”
The bell of a carnyx, in the shape of a boar's head (which appears to have been the usual animal form used), made from bronze-sheet and brass, was buried, as were other offerings (butchered cows, smashed pots etc.), in a peat bog at Deskford, north-east Scotland. It is dated AD80–AD200.
Right: a reconstruction of the Deskford Carnyx.
Left: A horseman brandishes a carnyx, on a gold stater, from about 10BC-AD10, of Tasciovanus, king of the Catuvellauni. (It can be seen that the coin has SEGO inscribed on it. On the other side, however, Tasciovanus is clearly indicated. Possibly Sego was a subordinate ruler to Tasciovanus, possibly it is a mint-mark, or perhaps it is an epithet, such as 'victorious'.)
As the Bronze Age metamorphosed into the Iron Age, the predominant 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 burials are in evidence. It seems likely that, generally, bodies were simply exposed to the elements and scavengers (excarnation) – which could explain the scatterings of human bones found at Iron Age sites – 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 exceptions, of course. As already mentioned, there are cases where human remains, possibly the result of sacrifice, appear to have been deposited in an act of propitiation. Also, there are a couple of notable, regional, inhumation practices.
In western Devon, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, inhumation burials in stone-lined graves (cists), dating from about the 4th century BC to the mid-1st century AD, have been found – for instance, a cemetery of some 130 cist burials was unearthed at Harlyn Bay, near Padstow, at the beginning of the 20th century. Though early excavations are ill-recorded, it seems that the general tendency (by no means an invariable rule) was for the graves to be, roughly, arranged in rows, with the bodies laid, in crouched position, heads toward the north. The dead were often buried with an item of personal ornament, such as a pin or brooch, though, occasionally, it might be a richer item – a necklace or a mirror, for instance.
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’. The Arras culture is named after Arras, near Market Weighton, where an Iron Age barrow cemetery – there were more than 100 barrows, i.e. circular burial mounds – was excavated by a band of local worthies, in the years 1815–17. They found two chariot burials – that is to say barrows beneath which the corpse shared its grave with a dismantled, two-wheeled, vehicle. Because of the military implication, some archaeologists are reluctant to call them 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 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 1877, the well known ‘barrow-digger’, Canon William Greenwell discovered a third chariot burial at Arras. The two earlier bodies were identified as male, but Greenwell's discovery was female. 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 Dane's Graves, near Driffield, where once there were up to 500 barrows, a chariot burial was excavated by local archaeologist J.R. Mortimer, in 1897, which held the skeletons of two men.
In 1959, in an attempt to find more chariot burials, an area of the Arras cemetery was surveyed with a magnetometer. None were found, but another characteristic feature of the Arras culture cemeteries became apparent. The magnetometer did detect two barrows that were surrounded by square-plan ditches. A search through the records showed that square-ditched barrows had been noticed at earlier excavations. Today, ‘square barrows’ (as they are generally known), like those at Arras, are generally not recognisable to the naked eye at ground level, having been ploughed flat. Their square ditches can, however, appear as crop marks, visible from aircraft. Most recent discoveries have been made this way, 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).
Photograph courtesy of the British Museum.
The Kirkburn Sword: “Probably the finest Iron Age sword in Europe”. The, 70 cm long, iron sword (dated 300–200BC) has an elaborate hilt, assembled from thirty-seven separate pieces of iron, bronze and horn, and then further decorated with red glass. The scabbard is made of iron and bronze, features La Tène style decoration and has red glass embellishments. Apparently as part of the burial rite, after his body had been placed in the grave, three spears were plunged into the warrior's chest.
The burials – their sheer number suggests that this was the normal method of disposing of dead adults (apparently, it is rare to find the remains of anyone younger than around sixteen years old) – 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 (the barrows, at up to 9 metres diameter, are not large), 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 very rare. The elite were not always buried with a chariot. At Kirkburn, for instance, where excavations took place in 1987, the grave designated Kirkburn 3 was a ‘warrior burial’ (a male inhumation accompanied by warrior's weapons) containing, according to the British Museum: “Probably the finest Iron Age sword in Europe”. Kirkburn 5 was a chariot burial – the occupant's chain-mail tunic had been draped, upside down, over his corpse. Both warrior and charioteer were in their late twenties/early thirties.
Each chariot burial is unique, there is no standard layout. In the majority, however, the chariot has been dismantled prior to burial.Supplement There are, as always, exceptions. In a burial at Pexton Moor, first investigated in 1911, the chariot had been buried upright and intact – the wheels standing in pits. It seems likely that a barrow, opened in the mid-19th century, at Cawthorn Camps also contained a chariot which had been buried upright. 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 some 20 miles west of the Wolds, at Ferrybridge. Once again, the chariot had been buried intact, but instead of the wheels resting in pits, the base of the grave sloped downwards to accommodate them. Radiocarbon dating places the burial in the 4th century BC. Interestingly, strontium testing showed that the charioteer was not a local man. He hailed from further north – possibly the Scottish Highlands or even Scandinavia.
In some two centuries of archaeological excavation only about 20 chariot burials have been found in Britain. All of them in the Wolds and surrounding area ... except one. In January 2001, at Newbridge, near Edinburgh, a chariot burial was excavated. Like the Arras culture outliers, the vehicle had been buried upright and intact. Its wheels had been located in pits. All that remained of the charioteer were scraps of his tooth enamel. Radiocarbon assays suggest a 5th century BC date for the burial.
In Britain then, square barrows and chariot burials are usually associated with the Arras culture, centred on the Yorkshire Wolds. There are, however, similarities (there are differences too) between Arras culture burials and those found in the Champagne region of France. Further, to the Romans, the tribe living in the Arras culture area were the Parisi, an appellation shared with the Gallic tribe after whom Paris is named. There is no conclusive evidence, but it is possible that the Arras culture was a result of an influx of people – there need not have been many – from Gaul.
In the British Museum an actual, late-1st century BC, Welwyn type burial (discovered 1965, at Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire) has been reconstructed. The heap of cremated remains is in the foreground (the body had been wrapped in the skin of a bear before cremation), behind which is a scattering of glass gaming pieces.
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 (excavated in the 1960s) – there were at least 463. There is considerable variation in the style and richness of burials. Those of the ‘Welwyn type’ (after a site described in 1912, at Welwyn in Hertfordshire – this type of burial is found north of the Thames, in the area 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.
The, reconstructed, Aylesford Bucket is on display in the British Museum. It rests on three bronze feet, making it a little different from the reconstruction shown in the illustration above, of 1890, which depicts the bucket in the grave. The jug and pan to the immediate right of the bucket are also of bronze, and were imports from the Roman world. The burial is probably from the 2nd half of the 1st century BC.
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. It used to be that the ‘Aylesford-Swarling culture’ was seen as direct evidence of the Belgic invaders that Julius Caesar mentioned had, at some time previously, settled in the “the maritime districts” of Britain. It turns out, however, that most burials can be dated after the mid-1st century BC, i.e. after Caesar's expeditions to Britain. There must have been some migration – people fleeing Roman subjugation – from Gaul to Britain in the mid-1st century BC. The most pervasive view today, though, seems to be that the ‘Aylesford-Swarling culture’ was not the result of a large scale population movement, or invasion, but a manifestation of increasing trade and social contacts between south-eastern British tribes and their, more and more Romanised, neighbours across the Channel.
In 1992, a cremation cemetery at Westhampnett, West Sussex, was excavated. A number of pyre sites were found, and four, rectangular-plan, structures interpreted as shrines. The cemetery contained 161, mainly un-urned, cremations spanning a forty year period, from about 90–50BC. Barry Cunliffe writes:
“The early date for the beginning of the cemetery may suggest that the rite was introduced directly from neighbouring regions of northern Gaul, perhaps as the result of an influx of Belgae into the Solent region around 100BC, and was, therefore, separate from the cremation tradition of the Aylesford-Swarling tradition.”
‘Iron Age Communities in Britain’ (Fourth Edition, 2005)
Strabo ‘Geography’ by H.L. Jones
Diodorus Siculus ‘Bibliotheca Historica’ by C.H. Oldfather
Poseidonius (c.135BC–c.51BC) was a Greek polymath, born in Apameia, Syria. Strabo (‘Geography’ Book XVI Chapter 2) calls him: “the most learned of all philosophers of my time”. Today, his work only exists as fragments.
There are two, definite, hillforts on Bredon Hill. The main one, a promontory fort on the highest part of the hill, is sometimes called Kemerton Camp. It was excavated, by Thalassa Cruso Hencken, in 1935–7. The other – smaller and roughly oval, on the south side of the hill – is Conderton Camp (also known as Danes Camp). Excavations were carried out at Conderton Camp, by Nicholas Thomas, in 1958–9. It is thought that it began, sometime in the 5th century BC, as a cattle enclosure – probably belonging to the main fort – before being modified to house a village, and eventually being abandoned in the 1st century BC. The main fort, however, may have come to a dramatic end – overrun by attackers in the early-1st century AD. There is quite possibly another hillfort, at Elmley Castle, on the north side of Bredon Hill.
Torcs are ornaments, worn around the neck, manufactured from twisted strands of metal.
The statue, known as ‘The Dying Gaul’ – a Roman copy, in marble, of a, now lost, original, probably produced, in bronze, by the sculptor Epigonus for the acropolis at Pergamum (in modern Turkey), about 220BC – is a sympathetic portrayal of a fatally wounded Gallic warrior, naked except for a torc.
Lindow Man's, now freeze-dried, remains are kept, by the British Museum, in an environmentally controlled showcase.
Lindow Man seems to have been something of a gentleman – his beard and moustache were trimmed, and his finger nails were manicured. Apart from a severe case of parasitic worms, he appears to have been in reasonable health. He had drunk a liquid containing mistletoe pollen, raising the possibility that he was sacrificed by Druids. Indeed, it has been suggested that he, himself, was a Druid.
The head was found, during drainage of a peat bog on the southern side of the Moray Firth, about 1816. It was soon recognised as a representation of a boar's head, but, apparently, was not positively identified as a carnyx ‘bell’ until the 1950s.
In a letter of 1847, the Rev. Edward William Stillingfleet, vicar of South Cave, who had taken part in the excavations, wrote:
“The skull of the skeleton was that of an old man. The labourers were certain that he “must have been a king,” and as we could not contradict them, we named this “the King's Barrow” ...”
The Aylesford Bucket is circled by three bronze-sheet bands. The lower two are plain and the top one – shown in the illustration above – is ornamented. The handle-mounts are decorated with men's heads. The photograph on the right is of one of the heads on the bucket itself.
‘Bibliotheca Historica’ Book V Chapter 30.