Archaeological investigations in Lechlade-on-Thames, Gloucestershire, have revealed two very unusual Bronze Age burials in an extensive ceremonial landscape spanning many phases of prehistory.
The excavations were carried out by Foundations Archaeology in 2017, in advance of the construction of a new skatepark, but post-excavation work is now complete, and the final report is being submitted for publication. The site is located just to the south of the Lechlade cursus, which lies within an extensive Neolithic and Bronze Age ceremonial landscape, comprising at least one other cursus, a long mound, and numerous barrow and hengiform ring-ditches. The skate park was to be built across a known ring-ditch cropmark, presumed to be the remains of a ploughed-out barrow.
The earliest features identified at the site were two late Neolithic pits, dated to c.2,800 cal BC. These were associated with charcoal-rich fills containing Grooved Ware pottery and flint artefacts, as well as animal and possible human bone. Some 600 years after the infilling of these pits, though, the site was chosen as for a high-status burial. The deceased individual, an adult male, was laid in a crouched position on his left side in a deep pit at the centre of a substantial ring-ditch and associated ‘U-shaped’ enclosure. He was surrounded by grave goods including a copper dagger with a whale-bone pommel, a fine stone wrist-guard, a flint and iron pyrite ‘strike-a-light’ kit, and an amber ‘V’ perforated bead, as well as other struck flints and possible cattle remains.
Dark staining around his body suggested that he may have been laid to rest on a bier or in a coffin, or, possibly, on an animal hide. Four sets of cattle skulls, accompanied by bones from the animals’ feet, were also present about halfway up the grave. These types of ‘head and hoof’ burials are known across Europe in the Bronze Age, but are very rare in Britain, with all previously known examples in this country consisting of a single animal. The cow skulls were dated to c.2,200 cal BC and this date, combined with the associated grave goods, suggests that this may be a high-status Beaker burial. However, the man was not buried with the distinctive pots that give this cultural phenomenon its name (see CA 338) – or, indeed, any ceramics, making his grave potentially a rare ‘Beaker burial without Beaker’.
The burial appears to have been deliberately positioned facing a nearby pit that contained another unusual inhumation and ‘head and hoof’ burial. The top half of this second burial had been truncated by ploughing, but it appears that its occupant had been inserted into the pit while it was being back-filled. The individual had been placed in a seated position with his legs extended downwards towards the base of the pit. Such seated burials are very rare in Britain.
This funerary monument, situated within the heart of a ceremonial complex, appears to have remained a site of significance for many years. A small number of later Bronze Age cremation urns and three Iron Age burials were also found inserted in and around the ditch, suggesting that it had been remembered and revisited for some time.
Text by Andrew Hood, Foundations Archaeology