Uncovering Bilton Water Main’s ‘warrior burial’

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One of the Iron Age burials was discovered with a bent sword and the articulated vertebrae of a pig. (Image: Northern Archaeological Associates (NAA); Text: Ben Turner and Oliver Cooper)

Archaeological work in the East Riding of Yorkshire has uncovered a possible Iron Age warrior burial. Northern Archaeological Associates was commissioned by Morrison Utility Services, on behalf of Yorkshire Water Services, to carry out excavations between Burstwick and Rimswell, ahead of the installation of a replacement water main. Initial archaeological appraisal in advance of this groundwork had identified that the pipeline route crossed an extensive landscape of later prehistoric to Roman date. Cropmarks picked out the ditches of large field systems interspersed with smaller, clustered enclosures, and the most extensive section of the field system was located to the north of Halsham, 4km to the east of Burstwick.

There, adjoining a meandering Iron Age trackway, were several substantial ditches forming fields and smaller enclosures, within which was a pair of burials in sub-rectangular pits, spaced a few metres apart. Their human occupants were both lying in a crouched position on their left sides, with animal remains placed in front of them.

One of the graves contained a skeleton identified as an adult male, accompanied by a group of iron weapons: a sword, bent almost double, had been placed by his head; across his hip was a shield (its boss survived relatively intact, but the timber had been reduced to a dark stain in the soil); and clutched between his arms was a small spearpoint. The other burial, badly preserved and of indeterminate sex, did not appear to have any weapons, although an iron arrowhead was found within the grave fill. Whether this was a grave good or a projectile that had penetrated the body is unknown.

The animal remains comprised long sections of articulated vertebrae and, during excavation, it was speculated that they might represent pieces of oxtail; subsequent examination has shown that they are actually pig vertebrae. Within the territory of the Iron Age Parisi, in what is now the East Riding of Yorkshire, pork seems to have been a favourite accompaniment of the dead.

While there was no settlement evidence recorded in the immediate vicinity of the burials, 900m to the east was a cluster of ring gullies, almost certainly the remains of roundhouses. One had an inner ring for a timber structure, while another produced burnt daub from the fill of the gully; hand-made pottery was recovered from several post-holes. Post-excavation assessment is ongoing.

This article was published in CA 335.

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