Walberton’s ‘warrior’ burial

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The grave of a late Iron Age or early Roman ‘warrior’, who had been laid to rest with a sword and spear, has been discovered in Walberton, West Sussex.

Two archaeologists excavating the grave
Archaeologists from ASE excavating the ‘warrior’ burial. [Image: Archaeology South East / UCL]

The burial was found by Archaeology South East (ASE), the commercial branch of UCL’s Institute of Archaeology, during investigations ahead of the construction of a new housing development. The rectangular grave cut, which measured 2.8m by 1.2m, was initially interpreted as a large pit, but lead archaeologist Teresa Viera soon realised that the team had uncovered something much more exciting.

While the local soil conditions meant that no human remains had survived, traces of a wooden ‘container’ (2m by 0.8m) on which the body may have been lowered into the ground could still be seen, as well as an impressive iron sword, an iron spearhead, and four ceramic vessels.

The sword was taken for conservation and further examination at Fishbourne Roman Palace, where X-rays revealed that it was surrounded by a scabbard made of organic material and decorated with an intricate copper-alloy mount near its mouth. This would have been highly visible when the sword was worn and may have acted as a badge of honour of some sort. The sword blade itself is highly corroded, but it is hoped that after conservation it will be in good enough condition to place it within known typologies of Iron Age swords.

X ray images and photographs of the sword
X-rays and initial conservation of the warrior’s sword revealed a scabbard with a copper-alloy mount. [Image: Archaeology South East / UCL]

X-rays also identified dotted lines, which may represent the remains of a studded garment that had become melded with the mineralised organics of the scabbard, offering an insight into how the individual might have been dressed at the time of burial. There is evidence that other iron objects were also present in the grave, but due to the poor preservation levels none have yet been identified by post-excavation work.

The burial also yielded four ceramic vessels, which had been placed outside the area of the wooden ‘container’. These were jars made from local clays, of a type that would have been used for cooking, food preparation, or storage. They may have contained funerary offerings, and it is hoped that scientific analysis will be able to identify animal or vegetable fats in the ceramics, providing information about what they once held. The style of the vessels suggests that they may have been influenced by Roman techniques, pointing to a date around the time of the Roman Conquest (AD 43), though radiocarbon dating of any organic fats within them could give a more accurate date in the future.

This ‘warrior’ burial is one of only two discovered in Sussex (the North Bersted warrior was excavated in 2008; see p.30 of CA 361 for more information), and only a few are known in South England as a whole, making it a very significant find. Although the skeleton has not survived, it is clear that the individual was important in life, and it is hoped that a comparison of the grave goods with those in similar burials may be able to provide more information about their owner’s identity and status.

A 3D model of the burial, which was created using photogrammetry, is available at https://skfb.ly/6PLLN.

This news article appears in issue 361 of Current Archaeology. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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