Excavating a square-barrow cemetery at Pocklington
Recent work at Pocklington has exposed a remarkable Iron Age burial ground. As well as producing grave goods that have never been seen at such a site before, the cemetery is shedding new light on the rituals accompanying burial rites. Paula Ware told Matthew Symonds about an excavation that looks set to rewrite our understanding of an Iron Age culture.
Archaeology is renowned for springing surprises during the closing stages of a dig. By any measure, though, the discovery that emerged from the final phase of work at Pocklington, East Yorkshire, was a remarkable one. As archaeologists from MAP Archaeological Practice turned their attention to the roadside verge at the very edge of a new housing development, they encountered a ditch sketching out part of an Iron Age square barrow. Although the ditch disappeared under the modern Burnby Lane, the burial that the barrow received fell within the trench. In a shallow grave, just 10-15cm below ground level, lay the dismantled remains of an Iron Age chariot and its owner.
Chariot burials are rare finds, and the image they conjure of Iron Age elites showing off their wheeled status symbols is usually enough to cause a stir. Even in that context, the Pocklington burial is truly exceptional. It marks the first time in 200 years that a burial has been discovered where the deceased and his or her chariot were accompanied by the vehicle’s means of propulsion. In a reminder that this was an era when horsepower really meant something, two ponies were artfully arranged alongside the chariot, so that its pole passed between their legs. This momentous find proved a fitting finale for a dig that has had more than its fair share of dramatic developments.
In the shadow of the Wolds
‘The excavations came about as part of the planning process,’ says Paula Ware, Managing Director of MAP Archaeological Practice. ‘Cropmarks were known in the area, so we undertook geophysics and trial trenching. That revealed one square barrow, but it looked like the archaeology had been severely plough-damaged. It was decided that we’d undertake mapping and recording after the topsoil was stripped away in advance of construction. At that stage, we didn’t anticipate anything like the 164 burials and 74 square barrows that were discovered over the course of the excavations. It ended up being the most extensive exploration of a square-barrow cemetery for 30 years.’ Not only was the presence of so many burials within the construction site a surprise, but it was also unheard of for that sort of cemetery to occur in that sort of location.
Burials of this form are associated with a particular Iron Age culture, known as the Arras tradition after a cemetery excavated in the early 19th century. The phenomenon first appears in the late 5th century BC, and remains distinctive down into the 1st century BC. In Britain, such burials are concentrated in eastern Yorkshire, but they closely resemble funerary rites practised in parts of northern France, suggesting a connection of some kind between the two regions. Traditionally, the rapid appearance of this new mode of commemoration is linked to invaders settling in Yorkshire. Previous Iron Age cemeteries in the region containing dismantled chariots or carts have been found up in the low chalk hills forming the Yorkshire Wolds, however. Pocklington lies in the shadow of the escarpment, at the junction between the uplands and the Vale of York.
‘It’s totally unexpected,’ says Paula. ‘The response has been “Who would have thought it could turn up here?”. We don’t know where the people buried in the cemetery were living, but Peter Halkon at the University of Hull thinks that it was further down Burnby Lane in the direction of Hayton (see CA 314). The cemetery population itself is very mixed. We have a roughly equal representation of males and females, but there’s also a percentage of children and infants, so we could be looking at a community. The burials are arranged in a roughly linear formation, but there are two distinct areas to the cemetery. One area contained a concentration of noticeably richer burials, and these were divided off from the rest of the cemetery by a trackway.’
Inequality in death
‘A lot of the things that we have found are unique, in so much as they are the first to be found in a squarebarrow cemetery,’ Paula explains. ‘In the area where we are seeing a more exclusive sample of the population, there were some exceptional burials. One individual was interred with a sword, and another with a shield. There were also brooches and bangles, which are being looked at by Sophia Adams, who is based at the British Museum. She’s excited because there are types that have never been found in secure contexts before, so we’re hoping that radiocarbon dates will provide a more accurate chronology for them. Some of the objects are really intricately decorated with coral and zoomorphology: we’re got one lovely example with a duck and a horse.’
Despite the name ‘square-barrow cemetery’ – which implies that particular geometric shape holds a monopoly – different forms of burial mound were present. Some of the barrows were rectangular, but others were circular. ‘A number of significant burials were in the circular barrows, rather than the square ones’, says Paula. ‘Something else that we found near the barrows in the separated-off part of the cemetery was two whole cow skeletons lying in pits. We also encountered pig bones in some of the ditches, and we had a spear inside a complete pot within one of the barrows. Apparently, that’s the first time those two objects have been found together. There is a real sense that we’re starting to tease out some of the rituals associated with the burial, and the meaning of some of the differences that we can see in the archaeology. The potential for further study is enormous.’
The skeletal material itself is generally quite poorly preserved, as centuries of plough-damage and the ill-effects of waterlogging have taken their toll. So far 158 skeletons have been assessed by Malin Holst at York Osteology, and despite the degraded state of many bones, the results of employing the full gamut of scientific techniques are expected to be transformative. As well as being the first time that a square-barrow cemetery on this scale has been investigated using modern techniques, Pocklington provides an opportunity to bring the reality of life in the Arras culture into unprecedented focus. It may be possible to see whether those within the exclusive enclave undertook less hard manual labour, or enjoyed richer diets than those outside. Equally, DNA and isotope analyses could finally provide some clarity over whether these people trace their ancestry to, or arrived from, northern France over the 300- to 400-year period the cemetery appears to have been active.
Wheel of fortune
Of the burials, the one containing the chariot and its horses is the most remarkable. ‘We looked into the evidence from the burial found 200 years ago that included horses’, says Paula, ‘and it seems that, in that case, only part of the horses was revealed. We’ve got two virtually complete horse skeletons, so we can see where and how they were placed in relation to the burial. Mark Stephens, who was the site director, was able to pick out the shadow of the pole that was linked through their legs. It’s really intricate. The ritual has been very carefully carried out, probably with an eye to the people viewing it when the burial took place. We don’t know how the horses were killed, but as they both died at the same time it seems safe to rule out natural causes. They were much smaller than modern horses. We don’t have the exact measurements yet, but people are already saying that they are more like ponies. We’re planning to do isotope analysis on their teeth, too, to find out whether they could be local.’
Unfortunately, the waterlogging that led to the deterioration of some of the skeletons was not present to preserve the timber elements of the chariot. Instead, at best they survive as shadows in the earth where the wood decayed. Apart from the pole positioned between the horses, most of the chariot fabric was no more than a faint ghost. ‘We know that the chariot was dismantled, because the wheel was clearly on its side,’ Paula points out. ‘There were also certain shadows, but nothing specific. We had a couple of nave hoops, and a possible linchpin, which are in conservation at the moment.’ One of the iron-rimmed wheels was lifted, and there, within the 18-inch diameter, was the clear and crisp outline of 12 spokes radiating from a central hub. The wheel’s counterpart, though, did not fare so well.
‘A huge medieval furrow had sliced through the barrow’, says Paula, ‘and taken the other wheel with it. So, sadly, we only have one.’ Little also remained of the individual whose passing had prompted this carefully choreographed burial. ‘The skeleton is in very poor condition, which is a pity. We’re still washing it here, and at the moment we’re not sure whether it will be possible to say if the person was male or female. When we get the radiocarbon dates back, it’ll be interesting to know whether there is anything significant about when the burial happened. Is it going to be from an earlier or later burial? Something that could be tied to the founding or closing of the cemetery?’
One certainty is that the shallow nature of the grave is exceptional compared to those elsewhere on the site. Whether the depth of 10-15cm is a result of particularly severe truncation by the plough, or an accurate reflection of the original depth is an open question. The other grave shafts at Pocklington, though, were cut so that the deceased could be interred at a depth of 0.5-1m, making the case of the chariot burial suggestive. Could it be that the grave was deliberately dug less deep, so that onlookers were able to appreciate fully the elaborate rites and digest the message of status they conveyed?
The excavations at Pocklington ran from September 2014, through until the third week of March this year, with an eight-month break in-between. ‘We all feel really, really fortunate to have been involved with this project,’ Paula says. ‘It has been a remarkable experience. We’re a close-knit team. At one stage, there were 20 archaeologists on site, but in the main it was Mark and a team of between four and ten, depending on how much work was under way. They’re a really good group. We’re literally just back in from site, but we think that more and more details are going to become apparent as we work through post-excavation. Personal details will start to come out that bring the population of Pocklington alive once more. We expect the results to be very interesting indeed.’
This feature was published in CA 327.