A Touching Bronze Age Burial

on Wednesday, 30 January 2013. Posted in Archaeology

An archaeological excavation was undertaken by Wessex Archaeology on an area that was proposed for a new magazine store (planning number S/2010/1865) at DTSL Porton Down. The fieldwork is completed and the initial post-excavation work has been done, so I thought it would be interesting to talk about some of the results. Readers should be aware that some of this blog will talk about and have pictures of human burials, including those of infants.

There had been previous work on this site to evaluate the archaeological potential, so the site had results for geophysics and trenched evaluation. The main features identified through the evaluation and the excavation were two long ditches, one a ‘Wessex Linear’; a small barrow with associated cremation and inhumation burials and a further inhumation burial associated with the smaller ditch.


The Barrow

This feature was a circular, segmented ditch (like a string of sausages) which surrounded a sequence of seven inhumation burials and one cremation burial. Interestingly, the ditch appears to be later than the burials and may well have been dug in order to provide chalk for the mound to go over them.

The central burial was actually at least three separate graves that had cut through and into each other. The earliest grave contained part of the skull and shoulders of an adult female and a single sherd of Beaker pottery. Cutting that was a later grave which had a layer of chalk rubble packing around the sides and at the base – this had been used to infill the gap between the edges of the grave and a timber chamber. The bone at the base of this feature was from a single adult female. There were also relatively large sherds of a single Beaker (dating to around 23rd c BC) which was probably the only grave goods for that burial. Cutting that was an ‘empty’ grave. This is a cut that looks like a grave, but there was no burial within it. The fill of that ‘empty’ grave contained redeposited bone from two adult females and an infant and sherds from possibly two more beakers. An infant is a baby between 1 month and 1 year old. A further sub-oval grave had been dug through the top of the ‘empty’ grave and contained the slightly crouched skeleton of an infant that was possibly female.

Just to the north-west of the central grave was another sub-oval grave which contained a crouched burial of a sub-adult female lying on her right side and facing west. This was a particularly touching grave as the skeleton of a neonate overlaid the shoulder and upper right arm so that they lay face to face. No grave goods were present. A neonate is a baby in the first 28 days of life.

To the east and southeast of the central grave were two more inhumation burials and a cremation burial. The inhumations were a neonate and an infant, both placed in small graves and accompanied by a food vessel dating to the 22nd c BC. In the smaller (neonate) burial, the vessel had been inverted whereas in the infant it lay on its side.

It is interesting that all the burials (where we can tell) appear to be female. The burials were spread over quite a long period of time, and the identifying mound over the top may have been the last element of the barrow, and yet the burials appear to be the same sex and in within the same area.

Middle to Late Bronze Age Ditch

A shallow, sinuous ditch extended across the entire site for a distance of at least 450m. It ran from east-west before turning north eastwards. This is thought to be Middle to Late Bronze Age in date. This ditch was in two sections, and at least one had been recut. In the picture I have unfortunately left out the scale, but the right hand section is about 1.2m across.

A burial had been exposed in the initial evaluation and was excavated at this point due to the small amount of cover over it. This grave lay close to the South-West terminal of one part of the ditch and partially blocked in the entrance. It contained the tightly flexed skeleton of a possible adult male, lying on his front with the arms underneath and the knees to the north-west. The skull, shoulders and much of the left foot were missing, apparently truncated by ploughing. The body had been covered with a tightly packed capping of flint nodules, perhaps to form a small cairn.

‘Wessex Linear’ Ditch.

Wessex Linears are large, Late Bronze Age monumental earthworks.  It is significantly larger than the other ditch and has a V-shaped profile. They are often thought to be boundary ditches to tribal areas.

Unfortunately, the likely meeting point for the two ditches on this site was outside the excavation area and so the relationship between them wasn’t visible. This means we can’t tell which is the earlier or whether one was still visible when the other was built.

So, this site revealed a number of burials and ditches from the Bronze Age. None of these remains were known about before the proposal to develop this site and the excavation and reporting are being undertaken (and paid for) as part of the planning permission for the development. There are a number of scheduled barrows and other Bronze Age features in the area and the work that has been done on this one will add more information to help our understanding of what our ancestors were doing on Porton Down around 4,000 years ago.

Clare King

Assistant County Archaeologist


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