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Cover of British Archaeology 104

Issue 104

Jan / Feb 2009



Britain’s oldest string found off Isle of Wight

Antiquities scheme saved: time to go to sea?

Consultation on ancient human remains ended Jan 31

In the press

In Brief & Phase 2


Rethinking Bush Barrow
New insights into a famous burial excavated 200 years ago

THE BIG DIG: Chichester
Burials at a leper hospital document this feared medieval disease

PEACE SITE: Greenham Common
John Schofield reports on the an archaeology of protest at the former US air base

Archaeology that matters
Gilly Carr investigates the world war two relics of the Channel Islands

on the web

Recommended websites
Caroline Wickham-Jones goes underwater and two new resources for Surrey are launched


your views and responses

CBA correspondent

Campaigns, comment and communications from the CBA
Lynne Walker and Mike Anthony give an annual pick of listed building cases


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


Rethinking Bush Barrow

200 years ago the “fathers of archaeological excavation”, William Cunnington and Sir Richard Colt Hoare, identified one of Britain’s iconic prehistoric sites. Stuart Needham, Andrew Lawson and Ann Woodward are engaged on the most definitive study yet of what was found.

One day in 1808, William Cunnington found a spectacular group of artefacts in an ancient burial mound near Stonehenge. In the 1720s William Stukeley had called it “the bush barrow” after trees planted on the top (though the “county people” knew it as “the green barrow”). The name has stuck.

Bush Barrow is a relatively large mound, over 40m across and today standing 3m high. It is part of an important group of barrows on a ridge south of Stonehenge known as Normanton Down; although on private land, they are monitored as scheduled monuments by English Heritage. The Wiltshire Archaeological Society owns the artefacts and records, but keeps the gold in a bank vault: the British Museum had exhibited these since 1922 until they were returned in 1985, after controversial restoration of the largest piece. The recent study of the records and artefacts as part of a University of Birmingham/Leverhulme project on early bronze age ritual is the most comprehensive yet.

The barrow

Cunnington described the results of his many barrow excavations in letters to his patron, Sir Richard Colt Hoare. The lavishness of Bush Barrow fortunately encouraged him to write more than usual. Hoare was equally excited, and gave the barrow full treatment in his book, The Ancient History of South Wiltshire (1812). Yet the lack of any field drawings is frustrating for the modern archaeologist. The position and orientation of the body, and the disposition of grave goods, are now central to the interpretation of individuals – their gender, status, associations in life and significance to the bereaved. Our interest in such things is doubly strong in the case of Bush Barrow, still one of the most stunning and unusual of early bronze age funerary associations (2200–1500BC).

Although sometimes present at the excavations (and shown watching one in Philip Crocker’s watercolour on Normanton Down), Hoare was in Wales when Cunnington made his second, and this time successful, attempt at revealing Bush Barrow’s secrets. Hoare undoubtedly came quickly to the grave on his return to Wiltshire, for it remained open for some 18 months – presumably with the skeleton still there, as it was eventually reburied. But only Cunnington’s words are based on observation at the moment of unearthing.

The exact date of the discovery is not recorded, but it was probably over September 5–10 when William and his wife Mary are known to have been at Amesbury, the nearest modern settlement. “I congratulate you heartily”, Hoare replied to Cunnington’s news on September 22, “on the continued success you have met with at Stonehenge”.

Taking Cunnington’s account direct from his manuscripts and at face value (Hoare generally renders them faithfully in his book, but in his own language) we can plausibly reconstruct the Bush Barrow grave. As a starting point, we need to make two assumptions.

The first is that the body was crouched or flexed rather than extended. Paul Ashbee, the first to attempt such a reconstruction, opted for an extended position (The Bronze Age Round Barrow in Britain, Phoenix 1960). He was undoubtedly influenced by the then prevailing notion that Bush Barrow should match the rites seen in certain “princely” burials of the period in central Europe, notably Leubingen, Saxo-Thuringia. Lawson, however, has found nothing to suggest that the skeleton was supine. For Cunnington and Hoare to have omitted to mention such an exception to the consistent pattern of crouching they had established for prehistoric burials (in contrast to those of Romans or Anglo-Saxons), would be surprising indeed.

The second assumption is that the body lay on its left side, the usual position for a senior dagger-accompanied male of the period. Special-case arguments, such as a female who acquired a status normally attributed to males, can always be invoked, but in the absence of skeletal evidence for re-examination, we do best to assume the norm for a dagger burial and accept the sex as judged by the excavator.

As a final preliminary, we need to deduce the position Cunnington himself took in his account of the successive discovery of objects around the body. This is clear fromthe first two key facts he presents: he was viewing the body as if standing at the head end of the grave, which was at the south. It was this orientation, and the body’s position “on the floor of this barrow” rather than in a grave pit, that Cunnington recognised as being “contrary to the more general practice”. The account reads convincingly as if it represents the actual sequence of discovery.

It begins with the curious collection of pieces of “brass” and wood that lay some 45cm beyond the head. The distance does not sound great, but only by undertaking the reconstruction does it become apparent that these objects were detached from the rest of the grave assemblage. Past suggestions that they were a shield, helmet or casket are unconvincing. We believe they were the decayed remains of a type of studded-hilt bronze dagger or knife that is found in only five other graves across Britain (the closest at Milston, on the other side of the river Avon), and is probably older than the rest of the Bush Barrow artefacts.

The sequence would seem to continue on one side of the body (evidently in front because Cunnington relates one object to the finger bones), then pass across the chest, on which lay the large gold lozenge, to “the right side of the skeleton” – that is, in the new reconstruction, behind the back. On its own the position “near the right arm” given for the two daggers is ambiguous, but the flow of the account suggests strongly that they lay in front of the body and therefore close to the right forearm; this is certainly more in keeping with better recorded dagger graves than would be a position behind the back. Cunnington may well have specified the right limb as the obvious one wielding a weapon, but it is also possible that the left arm was still buried when the daggers first emerged. Having established these fixed points the rest flows naturally from Cunnington’s account, supplemented by Hoare’s publication for the smaller gold lozenge.

So what are the implications of this reconstruction? While we must be cautious in the absence of any definitive plan, the new disposition is very different from the entrenched picture. We can see that most of the artefacts were probably tightly arranged around the torso, the large gold lozenge probably still in its as-used position on the costume.

The daggers and functionally related gold hook (whether for belt or in fact a sheath-hook as originally suggested by Cunnington) lay to hand, but not necessarily either in the hand or in position on a waist belt. The third blade in the same area did not survive. This suggests it wasmuch less substantial than the daggers – probably a thin-bladed knife to have decayed so badly in this broadly benevolent chalk environment. The axe seems also to have lain in front of the body, but “near the shoulders”, and therefore a little apart from the daggers and knife. In complete contrast though is the placing of themace, with its zigzag bone shaft-mounts, a very different symbol of rank and, moreover, an unusual inclusion in a southern British grave: its position behind the body might reflect the very different background or function of this badge of office – if that is what it was.

The most startling point to emerge is the presence of a fourth dagger/knife. But was it in the main grave – already an ancient object or heirloom, which could explain why it was set apart from the rest – or in a partially disturbed earlier grave? Only re-excavation offers any real prospect of determining which. There might, for example, be remnants of grave cuts undisturbed by Cunnington, human bones which do not belong to the main skeleton, a structural sequence to the mound, or unrecognised artefacts. The burial context at Bush Barrow now looks more complex than we had thought.

The cemetery

Early and inadequate (in modern terms) though Cunnington and Hoare’s investigations may be, their records still give one of the best opportunities for assessing how a bronze age cemetery developed: of the more than 450 barrows they excavated, 24 were on Normanton Down. There are as yet no radiocarbon dates for this group, but increasing results elsewhere are dating distinctive object types, allowing us to attempt a new phasing of the known grave groups. Normanton Down is delineated mostly by dry valleys, but we also take in land extending a little beyond. We refer to specific barrows by their traditional parish codes (Wilsford G23, etc).

Without large-scale modern excavation (an impossible ambition for a well-preserved cemetery), there will always be caveats regarding reconstructed monument sequences. Known burials are not representative: the selection is both random (early excavators were indiscriminate in which monuments they opened) and systematic (almost universally they aimed for the centre of the barrow). Eccentrically placed burials and flat graves will be under-represented.

The Normanton Down “cemetery” can be related to the first five phases which Needham has defined for the British bronze age. Especial care needs to be given to interpreting the earliest Beaker burials (Period 1) since they are frequently not associated with any surviving mound, and there could be unknown graves almost anywhere (a pit or grave enclosed by two “banana” ditch segments has recently showed up through geophysical survey close to Amesbury G15). Nevertheless, we suggest early Beaker graves were deliberately sited in the zone of much older long or oval barrows to the west. Later Beaker burials (Periods 2-3) reinforce this pattern; some were sooner or later covered by mounds and thus came to be targeted by the early excavators.

There is some indication of grave clustering, though the clusters are small and could span a few centuries. In the Normanton block there is traditionally only the Beaker burial from Wilsford G2B, now perhaps augmented by Bush Barrow itself. The proposed dagger with rivet-studded hilt is most appropriate to Period 2, and was perhaps froma grave disturbed by the main one.

The picture changes radically in the next phase (Period 3), actually named after Bush Barrow. Setting aside the late Beaker graves, there are now arguably three foci emerging, most strikingly the famous Normanton “linear” cemetery along the main ridge. Two graves yielded both daggers and belt hooks (Bush itself, and Wilsford G23, where we have found a unique bronze hook corroded against the dagger), and two had just belt-hooks (G15, G18). In addition, there are two graves with classic rich ornament sets (G7, G8) and another with matching bead types (G16). Here and further south in the Lake and Wilsford cemeteries other, less closely dated grave groups might amplify the pattern. Although each focus has a Beaker-period prelude (just pot sherds at Lake), it is now that the construction of sizable mounds accelerated, and the distinctive cemetery topography of the Stonehenge landscape began.

Assessment of whether the pattern then changes is blurred by the less well dated burials, but the diagnostic Camerton-Snowshill burials (Period 4) are differently sited. There are no certain additions to the main Normanton linear (though part of a Biconical/Trevisker Urn found on the side of Bush Barrow may derive from a secondary burial in this phase). The only prominent addition to the ridge top is a little to the north-west (Amesbury G15). This change, however, is not echoed in the two cemeteries to the south; their more nucleated character inevitably meant that any additions would fall close to burials of earlier phases.

More dramatic is themarked shift seen in the middle bronze age (1500–1150BC). By the end of the early bronze age (Periods 1–4) the great majority of barrows would have existed, but there are some clusters of small mounds with evidence for burials in Deverel-Rimbury urns and, by implication, middle bronze age construction. Only one cluster is attached to a major concentration of earlier barrows, that in the Lake group. There seems to have been an almost complete retreat from Normanton Down; the focus of attention has shifted to the bounded field domains lying just to the west where there is also settlement evidence and the remarkable Wilsford shaft (a very deep feature interpreted as a well or a ritual shaft).

At the start of the sequence the Normanton block may have been wooded or scrubby, particularly in its eastern half, though the evidence from other barrows in the region indicates widespread grassland. Vital information on the state of the vegetation could only be obtained from new fieldwork. In the Bush Barrow phase the emphasis was suddenly on the main east-west ridge top overlooking Stonehenge. Several graves under barrows were strung out along this ridge, though whether there was a neat progression from west to east, as sometimes suggested, is far from clear. This monumental funerary pattern may express a very particularr relationship between the community leaders of the time and performances in the still revered “cathedral” below – the Bush Barrow man, perhaps, being the key figure.

While burials of the Camerton-Snowshill phase reveal a changed pattern, some of these too overlooked the great monument and, indeed, one was placed very close to it (Amesbury G11). Continued involvement in Stonehenge is shown by the digging of the Y and perhaps Z Holes at this time, and by the carving of axes on a few of its upright sarsens. However, it is possible that the main linear component of the Normanton group, the string of barrows east of Bush Barrow, was already fossilised in the landscape – testimony to a particular regime of rulership. Interpreting the middle bronze age pattern must be tentative; Cunnington and Hoare would not have detected any insertions into the flanks of the older mounds. But the sites that can be attributed to that period are on the margins of Normanton Down and beyond, giving ever greater a sense of a block of landscape abandoned to its own history.

Stuart Needham is an independent researcher and honorary research fellow at National Museum Wales. Andrew Lawson was director of Wessex Archaeology and is now a freelance archaeologist. Ann Woodward is a research fellow in the Institute of Archaeology and Antiquity at the University of Birmingham. The University of Birmingham Project on Ritual in Early Bronze Age Grave Goods is funded by the Leverhulme Trust.

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