Life among the dead

17 mins read

Revealing riverside rites at Trumpington

A small area of rural Cambridgeshire has proven remarkably rich in archaeological evidence for the funerary practices of long-vanished communities – including unusual burials from the Neolithic, Bronze Age, and Iron Age. Carly Hilts reports.

Overlooking the outlines of two Neolithic burial mounds and the Iron Age pit settlement separated from the barrows by a large ditch
Overlooking the outlines of two Neolithic barrows that were excavated by Cambridge Archaeological Unit on the outskirts of Trumpington. Around 3,000 years after the monuments were built, a large early Iron Age pit settlement sprang up nearby – though its inhabitants dug a huge ditch separating their homes from the burial mounds. [Image: Cambridge Archaeological Unit]

The land that nestles beside the River Cam at Trumpington, just south of Cambridge, is home to an astonishing array of archaeological remains. In CA 343, we explored a small Anglo-Saxon cemetery uncovered on this site, which held the elaborate 7th-century grave of a young woman adorned with gold and garnet jewellery and laid to rest on a wooden bed – but it was not only early medieval burials that came to light during excavations by Cambridge Archaeological Unit (CAU). This work (funded by the Trumpington Meadows Land Company and carried out between June 2010 and May 2011 ahead of the construction of a new housing development) also revealed echoes of diverse funerary practices spanning the Neolithic, Bronze Age, and Iron Age.

Trumpington’s dead: human remains spanning the Neolithic, Bronze Age, and Iron Age were found across the excavated area. The barrows, Beaker burial, and pit settlement discussed in this article lie in the central part of this diagram; towards the top, four red circles mark the location of the Anglo-Saxon cemetery explored in CA 343. [Image: Cambridge Archaeological Unit]

The story of the site’s ceremonial use seems to have begun in the early Neolithic period, taking us back almost 6,000 years. There, at a time when once-nomadic hunter-gatherer groups were abandoning their ancestral ways in favour of agriculture, one community put a clear stamp on the landscape of what would become Trumpington, undeniably linking their people to a fixed location by constructing two burial mounds close to the river.

Today, nothing of these barrows (known to the project team as Monument 1 and Monument 2) can be seen above ground, but the outline of the ring-ditches that once encircled them stood out starkly during excavation. Mounds like these are often associated with the Bronze Age, and it was initially thought that the Trumpington examples might also date to this period, but radiocarbon analysis revealed that they were in fact considerably earlier. The barrows are thought to be broadly contemporary with each other, and although Monument 2 has been heavily truncated and its central burial almost entirely destroyed by modern ploughing, it is possible to unpick a possible sequence for the development of its larger, more intact neighbour.


Monument 1’s construction began c.3762-3648 BC, but this was only the first stage of a complex evolution – the tomb’s initial incarnation was very different to the round mound that it ultimately became. Instead, its original design appears to have been more linear in form, akin to a long barrow, and focused on an oblong hollow that was gradually filled with human bones. In the second phase of development, this space would be further defined by an arc of wooden posts and a shallow C-shaped gully dug to the rear of the depression. It is possible that the human remains were housed in some kind of wooden structure. Such ‘mortuary chambers’ have been identified in other long barrows of this period, and although no physical evidence for one survives at Trumpington Meadows, the tightly packed nature of the skeletons at the barrow’s heart, and the way they seem to have been periodically rearranged to allow new bodies to be added to the tomb, do hint at their being placed within a confined, clearly defined space.

Four phases have been proposed for Monument 1’s construction. It is thought that the barrow began life in a linear form, with its central hollow later defined by an arc of posts and a shallow c-shaped gully. It was then transformed into a closed mound surrounded by a circular ditch, and this latter feature was shallowly recut in the early Bronze age.
Four phases have been proposed for Monument 1’s construction. It is thought that the barrow began life in a linear form, with its central hollow later defined by an arc of posts and a shallow c-shaped gully. It was then transformed into a closed mound surrounded by a circular ditch, and this latter feature was shallowly recut in the early Bronze age. [Image: Cambridge Archaeological Unit]

Whatever its form, this space seems to have been reopened on multiple occasions over a fairly long period of time. Three of the tomb’s occupants (dubbed Skeletons 1, 2, and 4) were sufficiently intact for the project team to identify their remains as the bones of adult men, although Skeleton 1 is missing his head and torso, while Skeleton 2 only survives from the pelvis up. Skeleton 3’s remains, however, are much more disturbed, represented only by a mass of loose bone scattered over the lower part of Skeleton 1 (the jumble is thought to also include some of the missing parts of Skeleton 1). This closely nestled group seems to have been deliberately arranged, and thanks to radiocarbon dating and analysis of the positioning of the skeletons it is possible to suggest a likely order for their interment.

Skeleton 1 is thought to be the primary burial, interred at the start of the monument’s life. Some years – perhaps even decades – later, his body appears to have been ‘folded’ out of the way to make room for Skeleton 2 in c.3703-3641 BC. Skeleton 3 produced a radiocarbon date of 3696-3537 BC, and Skeleton 4 was probably the last addition to the tomb in c.3630-3376 BC. Few objects had accompanied these individuals to the grave, though CAU did recover a leaf-shaped flint arrowhead and a piece of aurochs heel bone. The former was found only while processing soil samples from around Skeleton 2, and although its precise context is unknown it has been suggested that it may in fact have been lodged in the man’s flesh, representing his cause of death rather than a grave gift. The aurochs bone is a significant discovery, though – the remains of these giant prehistoric cattle are known from early Bronze Age burials in Britain, but this is thought to be the first time their bones have been found in an early Neolithic grave within these shores.

Monument 1’s central burial contained the closely packed remains of four individuals who are thought to have all been interred at different times between c.3762-3648 BC and c.3630-3376 Bc.

If the barrow was a communal burial space returned to on multiple occasions by the local population, the third phase of its evolution marked a dramatic change in not only appearance but ethos. This stage saw a large ring-ditch dug around the burial group and a turf-and-gravel mound raised over the top. The monument was transformed from a linear form to a round one, and its central burial from an accessible space to a closed barrow. This major reworking seems to have been perceived as permanent: Monument 1 was not adapted again until the early Bronze Age, when the ring-ditch (which by now had silted up) was shallowly recut. Perhaps later populations still felt some kind of reverence or ancestral connection to the silent mounds, even if the identities of their occupants had faded from collective memory.

Yet while the barrows seem to have had an enduring influence on how the prehistoric landscape was used, surprisingly few traces of the living can be found in their immediate area. Evidence for any Neolithic settlement at Trumpington Meadows is very scarce, and the same is true for the Bronze Age, aside from a few short lengths of ditch that may hint at part of a Middle Bronze Age field system. The Bronze Age did, however, yield a second striking example of how the local population treated their dead, in the form of a well-preserved Beaker burial.

These intricately decorated Beaker vessels were found by the skulls of the two Bronze age individuals buried at Trumpington Meadows
These intricately decorated Beaker vessels were found by the skulls of the two Bronze age individuals buried at Trumpington Meadows. [Image: Cambridge Archaeological Unit]

This isolated grave lay about 400m north of the Neolithic barrows, and at first glance its rectangular form is unusually long, measuring 2.5m from end to end, but this is because it contained not one, but two bodies. These individuals (who were the ‘poster couple’ of the recent aDNA study of the Beaker culture led by Harvard University, and featured on the cover of CA 338 which explored this research) had been laid toe-to-toe, with their heads at opposite ends of the burial as if ‘topping and tailing’ in a bed. One skeleton was that of a young woman who was 16-18 years old, the other was a young man aged 17-20, and both had been placed on their sides in crouched positions, each exactly mirroring the other, with an ornately decorated Beaker pot tucked beside their skull. Radiocarbon dating indicates that they had been interred at the same time in c.2204-2029 BC or c.2136-1951 BC – possibly a short while after death, as elements of both bodies were slightly disturbed, suggesting that decomposition may have already begun before they were committed to the ground. Intriguingly, aDNA analysis also suggests that they may have come from what is now the Netherlands.

This double Beaker burial contains the remains of a young man and a young woman, each accompanied by the decorative beakers that give such graves their name.
This double Beaker burial contains the remains of a young man and a young woman, each accompanied by the decorative beakers that give such graves their name. DNA analysis suggests that they came from what is now the Netherlands. [Image: Cambridge Archaeological Unit]

This was the only Bronze Age inhumation uncovered on the site, although CAU also identified four cremations from this period. One pair, lying south-west of the barrows, included the remains of an infant which had been buried (together with a bone awl) in a collared urn. The other cache of burnt bone seems to have been placed directly into the ground (although it is possible that the remains were originally held in some kind of organic container, perhaps a cloth or leather bag, which has not survived); two more unurned cremations were also found a short distance to the east. Like the barrows, these Bronze Age burials seem to have been deliberately distanced from any discernible contemporary settlement – but, by contrast, the area’s Iron Age population seems to have been entirely at home living among the dead.


In c.500 BC, the site became host to a large early Iron Age settlement dominated by hundreds of pits. Remarkably, those excavated in CAU’s more recent campaign represent only the western half of an even larger complex that was first identified a decade earlier during archaeological work by another field unit for the Trumpington Park and Ride – together, they make up an area of some 7ha that is scattered with over 1,000 early and middle Iron Age pits.

A plan showing the Iron Age features
Iron Age features at Trumpington Meadows: the most intense phase of occupation was the early Iron age pit settlement depicted in the bottom third of this plan. The contrast between evidence for activity to the east of the boundary ditch and on the barrow-side of this line is striking. [Image: Cambridge Archaeological Unit]

These features speak of intense occupation spanning some 200 years, though this apparently bustling settlement has yielded few traces of its inhabitants’ homes. None of the wall rings, eaves gullies, or circuits of post-holes that usually point to the presence of Iron Age roundhouses have been identified on the site – though it is thought that a number of distinctive circular empty spaces within the otherwise dense pit-scatter might represent the footprints of around ten buildings, averaging 8m in diameter. Squares of post-holes picking out the corners of some 17 four-post structures, interpreted as raised granaries, have also been identified. Yet amid this thriving community of the living, the dead were a constant presence. Dozens of pieces of disarticulated human bone have been recovered from 35 of the pits, scattered throughout the core of the settlement – as we will explore further below.

The dead within the Neolithic burial mounds were also a lingering presence: the barrows would have still been prominent earthworks during the early Iron Age, and it is possible that they were one of the factors that drew later groups to settle on this spot. These ancient landmarks also seem to have affected how the settlement developed: one of the clearest traces of this occupation that has survived to the present day is the mighty ditch that the Iron Age inhabitants dug between their home and the Neolithic monuments. Measuring 2.4m wide and 0.85m deep, with a steep V-shaped profile, this was a not inconsiderable barrier, and a scatter of post-holes along its base suggests that it was further enhanced with a palisade of wooden poles that protruded as much as 2m above ground level.

What was this boundary for, and why had so much effort gone into its creation? The ditch does not seem to have enclosed a specific area, but instead divides the landscape, separating the pit settlement from the area dominated by the dead. West of this line, there is nothing like the intensity of occupation seen to the east, and the treatment of human remains on either side of the ditch also differs starkly (of which, more below). Perhaps it represented as much a spiritual or psychological boundary as it did a physical one. The recovery from its fills of the bones from a complete bird’s wing – which probably once hung on this divide – speaks of the barrier’s significance and, perhaps, its transgression.


On the eastern side of the ditch, the pits yielded a wealth of evidence for the everyday activities of the living. As well as butchering meat and grinding grain, this community was occupied with industrial tasks, including iron-working, as well as turning animal bone and antler into various objects from dress accessories and weaving tools to hunting and fishing equipment. The settlement’s craftsmen were skilled at working with a more unusual material, though: human bone.

Four tools made from modified human remains were discovered during work at Trumpington Meadows: two femurs that had been adapted as scrapers (possibly for removing fat and sinew from hides), another femur that had been turned into a long, pointed blade, and a tibia that was also intended to serve as a blade, though it does not seem to have been finished or used. What might these objects signify? Several long, pointed blades crafted from cattle tibiae were also found on the site, and it has been suggested that these might have been hafted and used as spearheads – but the human-bone objects were not hafted points. If they were ‘ritual tools’, perhaps the question is what kind of hides they were used to work?

Four human bones found at Trumpington Meadows had been reworked to serve as scrapers, possibly for cleaning hides, and pointed blades. [Image: Cambridge Archaeological Unit]

These objects might seem macabre, but they fit into a wider picture of other early Iron Age sites in Britain and Ireland – for example, artefacts crafted from human femurs have been recorded at Fairfield Park, Bedfordshire; Jack’s Hill, Hertfordshire; and Dalkey Island, Co. Dublin, all corresponding to items that could easily be (and were commonly) made from animal bone. Perhaps these might be ascribed to an accident of recycling – given that it is not uncommon to find disarticulated human remains in Iron Age pits and middens, might these items simply reflect a toolmaker accidentally selecting the wrong kind of rubbish to reuse? Not likely, the project team argues, as human femurs are unmistakably different in form to those of horses, cattle, or deer. Any Iron Age bone-worker would have been in no doubt of which material they were using.

Maybe, then, the selection of human bone had a particular resonance. Crafting the tools could have been a ritual act, producing relics associated with ancestors or trophies associated with vanquished enemies. Intriguingly, DNA analysis of the four modified bones from Trumpington suggests that they all come from male individuals, which might lend strength to the latter theory, CAU suggests – though of course this is a very small sample.


Intact burial seems to have been a rite that was only accorded to a small portion of Trumpington’s early Iron Age population. Just 12 inhumations were identified during the excavation, with ten skeletons lying in reused pits, and the other two in more formal, purpose-dug graves. This latter pair lay beyond the fringes of the pit settlement, and one in particular, located on the western side of the boundary ditch, seems to have been accorded special treatment beyond the unusual siting of the grave. Its young female occupant had been placed in the crouched position that is typical of the Iron Age, but uniquely for the site she was also accompanied by grave goods: an iron bracelet around her wrist and a small jet ring-pendant at her neck.

Known as Burial 2, this is the most formal Iron Age grave found at Trumpington Meadows. Its young female occupant is also the only individual of this period found on the site with grave goods.
Known as Burial 2, this is the most formal Iron Age grave found at Trumpington Meadows. Its young female occupant is also the only individual of this period found on the site with grave goods. [Image: Cambridge Archaeological Unit]

It is not clear whether the other individual in a purpose-dug grave had been treated in the same way: their bones were poorly preserved, with only their ribs, spine, and pelvis surviving, but the team was still able to identify them as a young adult or older teen. There were no signs of any artefacts accompanying them, but like the other ‘formal’ burial this example was also located well outside the main area of occupation, although this time on the eastern side of the ditch. It might appear that this pair was particularly privileged, but CAU suggests that the graves in fact echo earlier burial practices. Both individuals pre-date the main settlement, yielding radiocarbon dates of c.734-398 and 741-403 BC respectively, which might also explain why one had been laid to rest beyond the boundary of the ditch, which had not existed at the time.

By contrast, having been interred in conveniently open refuse pits, the other burials are thought to date from the site’s main phase of early Iron Age occupation. They are mostly located within the core of the settlement itself, and their occupants – which include adults, infants, and the disarticulated bones of three newborn babies – seem to have been treated more informally, even casually, in the way they were consigned to the ground. This is particularly notable in the case of the very young: Burial 6, for example, contained the skeleton of a newborn baby that was found off-centre at the bottom of the pit, lying face-down in a ‘splayed’ position with their arms spread out to the side as if they had been deposited from a height rather than carefully laid on the floor of their intended grave. Burial 8 was similar – there, CAU initially thought the pit held only the skull of an infant, before the rest of the skeleton was found immediately underneath. It is thought that this body might also have been dropped into the pit, coming to rest against the side, or had been ‘sat’ against the pit wall.

If these discoveries raise questions about how the dead were treated, some of the adult skeletons also offer vivid insights into the experiences of the living. The bones of one man in particular (Burial 5) testify to a brutally violent episode in which he suffered a traumatic head wound, inflicted by a sharp blade that sheared a slice of bone from the right side of his skull. He had also broken his right collarbone, probably by falling heavily onto his shoulder – it is possible that the two injuries are related, with the latter incurred as the stricken man collapsed to the ground, or this unfortunate individual may have led an especially eventful life. We might imagine a battle scenario, or at least an aggressively physical altercation with another person, but either way the head wound would have been dangerously slow to heal, leaving the man at risk from infection and also unable to contribute to his community while he recovered from his ordeal. Yet recover he did: both injuries show signs of advanced healing, a testament to the care of his companions and their willingness to invest time and resources into nursing him as he convalesced.

Top - burial 5, a man with a traumatic head wound. Below - the skull of another man which had been placed at the small of his back
The man interred in Burial 5 had suffered a traumatic head wound, inflicted with a sharp blade, yet had survived – the injury shows signs of advanced healing. The skull of another man had been placed in the small of his back. [Image: Cambridge Archaeological Unit]

The remaining two pit burials lay to the west of the boundary ditch, which again seems to have marked a behavioural as much as a spatial divide, as the graves are strikingly different to their eastern equivalents. One held the skeleton of a 6- to 18-month-old baby, and was entirely unlike the apparently careless infant burials seen within the settlement. This child had been placed in a crouched position on a heaped bed of gravel, and their body appears to have been covered by a small mound of the same material – almost like a mini barrow – before the pit was backfilled.

Two Iron Age burials found to the west of the boundary ditch
These Iron Age burials were found to the west of the boundary ditch. One
contained a woman whose body had been twisted into a bizarrely contorted position unlike anything else seen on site. The other held the skeleton of an infant carefully nestled into a layer of gravel. [Image: Cambridge Archaeological Unit]

The other grave, Burial 4, was even more unusual. Not only was it located west of the ditch, but it had actually been dug into the circuit of Monument 2. The skeleton within the pit was equally enigmatic: it was that of an adult woman whose body had been manipulated into a strangely contorted position, with her head and torso twisted upwards so that she faced into the side of the barrow. Adding to this picture, a number of crow bones had been placed beside the woman’s remains – might they have symbolised her status or the esteem in which she had been held in life? Intriguingly, Monument 1 had also acquired an Iron Age pit with ‘special’ contents, in this case comprising a calf skeleton, one of the worked human-bone tools described above, and an eagle-claw phalanx.

While the pit burials raise a host of questions, they can surely only represent a small portion of the settlement’s population. Where were the rest buried? The answer seems to lie in the community’s middens. As mentioned above, human bones from various parts of the skeleton have been recovered from refuse material across the pit settlement. There are no clusters to suggest that specific areas had been assigned as burial grounds, and nor were these earlier graves that had been disturbed by the digging of pits – radiocarbon dating of one of the fragments placed it in c.506-377 BC, making it contemporary with the rubbish that surrounded it.

It appears that many of the dead were primarily interred in the middens, and that their bones were later dispersed throughout the settlement. This fits with other evidence from early and middle Iron Age sites in the region – such as Wandlebury, Edix Hill, Harston Mill, and Duxford – where human remains have been found in pits, ditches, and middens. There, loose bones have sometimes been interpreted as evidence for excarnation and the reverence of ancestors, with bodies exhumed after decomposition and their parts circulated like relics – this is how similar finds were also explained during excavation of the Park and Ride portion of the Trumpington settlement a decade earlier.

A plan showing the location of all the Iron Age human remains found at Trumpington
This plan shows the location of all the Iron Age human remains found at Trumpington Meadows. While relatively few intact skeletons were discovered, disarticulated bones were found scattered throughout the pit settlement. To the west of the ditch, F.300 marks the ‘formal’ grave of the young woman with jewellery; F.1320 is the burial of the contorted woman; and F.1016 is the skeleton of the baby beneath a gravel mound. [Image: Cambridge Archaeological Unit]

CAU suggests an alternative scenario, though, which might seem almost callously pragmatic to modern readers: that bodies were buried in the middens and, when disturbed by subsequent activities, dislodged bones were simply discarded with other refuse in whichever nearby pit was open at the time. Skulls and skull fragments, however, seem to have been accorded a little more respect – possibly because of their greater recognisability. They were sometimes laid on spreads of gravel, or tucked beside intact bodies in pit graves (as in the case of Burial 5, who had another man’s skull placed in the small of his back).

Together, these finds evoke an intriguing, if still enigmatic, image of a settlement whose inhabitants chose to build their homes close to ancient burial mounds, yet also built a barrier that not only separated their living space from the monuments but also, with its tall palisade, screened them from view. West of this divide seems to have been a place reserved for ‘special’ acts and select burials – perhaps people of particularly high status or, conversely, those who were excluded from the community. Yet these same inhabitants seem to have been entirely comfortable with living at close quarters with their own dead, and encountering their remains during the course of their daily activities.

Some of the excavated Iron Age pits, photographed on a snowy day during the investigation.
Some of the excavated Iron Age pits, photographed on a snowy day during the investigation. [Image: Cambridge Archaeological Unit]

Further reading
The full findings of the Trumpington excavation, spanning the Neolithic to Anglo-Saxon periods, are published in Christopher Evans, Sam Lucy, and Ricky Patten, Riversides: Neolithic barrows, a Beaker grave, Iron Age and Anglo-Saxon burials and settlement at Trumpington, Cambridge, McDonald Institute for archaeological research (distributed by Oxbow Books), £45, ISBN 978-1902937847.

This article appeared in CA 348. Click here to subscribe.

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