British Archaeology, no 26, July 1997: Features


In this dark cavern thy burying place

For most of prehistory, people buried their dead in caves. Andrew Chamberlain reports

Natural caves - dark, damp, often inhospitable places - might not appeal today as sites for burying the dead. Yet for much of prehistory, caves, fissures and rock shelters seem to have been favoured burial places in Britain and elsewhere.

Many of the earliest hominid remains in Britain have been found in caves - such as the Neanderthal bones from Pontnewydd in North Wales, dating from c 225,000BC - suggesting the practice of cave burial is as old as humankind. Since the last Ice Age ended about 10,000 years ago, people appear to have been continuously buried in caves right up to the Iron Age and Romano-British period, with a single apparent gap in the Late Mesolithic between c 5900-3900BC, when no cave burials have been found.

A recent programme of radiocarbon dates on human bones from caves suggests the practice was most common in the Neolithic. After c 3900BC - the start of the Neolithic period - the numbers of people buried in caves increased dramatically, just at the time when people began also to be buried in monuments such as chambered tombs and long barrows. In all, at least 256 individual Neolithic burials have been found in 70 caves in Britain, dated either directly or by association with Neolithic artefacts.

Why, then, were people buried in caves? In the Neolithic, the existence of burials in both caves and surface monuments allows some comparisons to be drawn for the period. Most striking is the larger proportion of children in British caves (39 per cent of burials in caves, compared to 25 per cent in long barrows) - a point also noted for Neolithic cave burials in southern Europe.

This could indicate some form of cultural contact across Europe; although more likely, perhaps, is that it suggests that cave burial was the common, ordinary form of burial, and that monument burial was a privilege accorded to only a few. Demographic models of early agricultural populations, in which high infant mortality and low life expectancy were the norm, suggest that at least 40 per cent of people died before reaching adulthood. The cave sample may therefore broadly reflect the pattern of death in Neolithic society, while those buried in surface monuments - primarily adults - were being granted special rites.

More generally, however, the question remains: why caves? It may partly have been a simple matter of convenience. Caves are ready-made chambers, allowing continuous access and repeated useage - a significant aspect of Neolithic burial practice. They are also permanent features of the landscape, at a time when buildings were rare and short-lived.

Caves also have a mysterious atmosphere that may have made them seem appropriate as abodes for the dead. In early European literature, caves are sometimes associated with routes to Hades and the afterlife. From the cave art of the Palaeolithic to the deposition of coins in cave-pools in the British Iron Age and Roman periods - for example at Victoria Cave near Settle in Yorkshire - caves seem to have been used for ceremonies and ritual, even though the evidence is sporadic and often unclear.

The caves in Britain where burials have been found are all in the limestone areas, such as the Mendips, the Peak District, the Yorkshire Dales, and North and South Wales. It should be possible to tell - through scientific analysis of DNA or chemical isotopes in bone - whether the people buried in caves came from the surrounding areas, or from further afield as well; but this work has not yet been done.

The apparent gap in cave burials during the Late Mesolithic could be explained in a number of ways. Assuming the gap is not `filled in' by future discoveries, it could suggest the abandoning of burial in general during the period - Mesolithic burials are rare in any case - followed by a reintroduction of the practice in the Neolithic with a new immigrant population. It may, on the other hand, reflect the simple absence of Mesolithic people from limestone areas of Britain, as the majority of Mesolithic remains have been found near the British coastline.

In choosing not to bury their dead in caves, Late Mesolithic people prove to be rather like us. Who knows, is it possible we may decide again to use caves for burials in centuries to come?

Dr Andrew Chamberlain is a Senior Lecturer in Archaeology at the University of Sheffield


Return to Table of Contents | Return to CBA Homepage


Reclaiming heroism for the Bronze Age

Round barrows and epic poetry were two products of the same world view, writes Paul Treherne

Quickly they laid the urn in a hollow grave . . . and with speed heaped up the mound (Homer, Iliad 24, 797-99)

An older generation of prehistorians used early European literature as a mine of information about events, personalities, social and religious institutions, material culture and daily life in the European Bronze and Iron Ages. Over recent decades, this approach has been justly criticised for its naivety.

Yet the academic rejection of heroic narrative as a historical source has gone too far. Epic, saga and myth, if treated with caution, remain an indispensable source of information on matters about which archaeological evidence is generally muffled, if not mute - on Bronze Age attitudes, for example, towards death, existence and immortality.

Funeral rites are, in any culture, the way in which we attempt to accommodate and make sense of death. Archaeological evidence of Bronze Age funerals is ubiquitous and well-known, and the tumuli and grave-goods of the period seem to point towards a heroic ideal of life and death that is consistent with the evidence of nearcontemporary epic poetry. Epic poetry can therefore reasonably be used, in my view, to flesh out the material evidence for further insights into the Bronze Age mind.

The Bronze Age `warrior grave' is found throughout Europe from Britain to the Aegean, and has its roots in the Late Neolithic and Copper Age. It contains the burial of an individual along with the personal effects that mark him as a warrior - pre-eminently weaponry and armour, but also other insignia like dress ornaments, drinking equipment and grooming articles. It is a burial tradition that was not confined to the Bronze Age, however, but remained dominant in temperate Europe right through the early medieval period, only to be overturned by Christianity and its disapproval of the practice of consigning material wealth to the grave.

Warrior graves are the material residue of a `heroic' mortuary ideology, but what did this ideology amount to? How, in the Bronze Age, did people hope to transcend death, to gain a certain immortality? From literature, it appears the warrior hoped to do so through memory in the minds of the living, both by leaving behind an enduring tomb, and by achieving renown through personal glory - in particular, by dying beautifully in the flower of youth.

This could be done, in effect, twice: in reality, on the battlefield; and symbolically, during the heroic funeral. During the ceremony the body was briefly exhibited to the audience in full splendour, only to be dispatched in its prime - that is, incinerated on the pyre or consigned to the soil. The whole spectacle was a public but brief affair, one in which unambiguous images of the deceased had to be conveyed before his body was consumed by fire and earth. In the rites of passage preceding burial, the corpse was highly visible to a wide audience, during which time it was washed and dressed by the mourners, its face shaved and hair manicured, paraded on a bier and then laid out in an earthen grave or on a pyre. At the same time, personal effects were arranged by the participants around and upon the corpse in highly formulaic manner, with the aim of implanting an idealised impression of the deceased in the minds of the onlookers. The warrior's corpse was made to appear beautiful through its arrayment in metal armour, weaponry and ornaments.

The closing act in this performance was the warrior's symbolic triumph over his principal anathema - the slow withering descent into ageing and decay. Following a brief exhibition in the apparent splendor of youth and masculine vitality, his body was consigned to flame and earth. Thus an image was inscribed upon the spectators' minds, just as an earthen tumulus was erected as a memorial on the soil.

The warrior's funeral and epic poetry are complementary products of the same social imagination - both expressions of an attitude towards life and death in the European Bronze Age.

Paul Treherne is a Research Fellow in Archaeology at Trinity College, Oxford


Return to Table of Contents | Return to CBA Homepage


The peculiar ways of defending Britain

A survey of recent military sites has brought a number of curiosities to light, writes Jim Earle

A philosophical luminary once remarked that the tree in his Oxford quadrangle remained a tree even when nobody was conscious of it. The same observation might usefully be made about the Defence of Britain project when enquirers ask about its latest discoveries.

The answer, of course, is that the project - a survey of 20th century military sites launched in 1995 by the CBA and other bodies - has only `discovered' military archaeology in the sense that Columbus discovered America. Military concrete, like America, has been around for some time and its recent discovery has really been a process of widening awareness of a neglected aspect of our past.

In the course of exploring this archaeological `New World', we have been guided by tribes of knowledgeable amateur military researchers who roamed the concrete plains of Britain's recent defence heritage long before the arrival of the first professional archaeologist. We have even endured our own version of the Indian Wars: contact between professional and amateur remains cautious but, generally speaking, relations are mutually beneficial. Had this not been the case, the project would undoubtedly have perished in its first winter, long before the topsails of financial salvation - in the form of a Lottery galleon - pierced the horizon.

While the project cannot claim discoveries, it has brought a few curiosities - the mermaids and narwhal's teeth of military archaeology - before an interested public. First amongst these were coastal sound mirrors, enormous acoustic devices from pre-radar days when many people believed that `the bomber will always get through'. Although they were obsolescent by 1935, these surreal structures still guard parts of the Kentish and Cumbrian coasts. We persuaded the Sunday Telegraph Magazine to carry an article about the mirrors last year, and they recently featured in a television advertisement of such astonishing subtlety that no-one could identify the product.

The extent to which the Defence of Britain project can claim credit for the interest that now surrounds these acoustic relics is a moot point; the fact remains that their importance is widely acknowledged and they are no longer obscure curiosities prone to thoughtless demolition.

Even less well-known, until recently, were the hides and communications installations of the British Resistance Organisation. Created during the darkest days of World War II, the so-called Auxiliary Units were trained to fight a guerrilla war in the aftermath of German invasion. For obvious reasons, their existence was cloaked in secrecy which remains habitual for many veterans even today. The hides - elaborately concealed and often equipped with sophisticated ventilation systems - are being re-discovered, while the would-be guerrillas are increasingly prepared to record their stories on film for the Defence of Britain project. The occupants of `Churchill's last ditch' were under no illusions about the reliability of their compatriots under interrogation. In the event of invasion, many units would have included local gamekeepers and others who `knew too much' amongst their earliest victims.

Much larger underground structures, such as the enormous Second World War factory at Drakelow near Kidderminster, are also being investigated and recorded on film. The Drakelow factory produced a number of light engineering products including components for the Pegasus aero-engine which powered Sunderland flying boats. A white powdery by-product, cyanide, was assiduously collected by some of the workers and sold as a `narcotic' to black American troops in Kidderminster for three shillings a bag. Such reminiscences, inseparable from the task of recording redundant military sites, allow few cosy illusions about the `Special Relationship' at its less elevated levels.

The selfless determination that drove so much of Britain's military endeavour has proved an unfailing cure for cynicism. Behind the Buildings Research Establishment at Garston, near Watford in Hertfordshire, a 1: 50 scale model of the Mohne Dam survives from extensive tests which preceded the famous `dambusters' raid. The model consists of 600,000 scale mortar cubes set by hand in lime-based cement during the winter of 1940. The builders completed their work, often crouched in icy water all night and with fingers flayed by the lime, in just seven weeks. When the dam was breached during tests, allotment holders down-stream were mystified by the sudden flood which destroyed their crops.

The defensive effort was financial as well as physical. By September 1941, Eastern Command had spent £3,745,000 on 5,819 pillboxes while Southern Command had built or planned 3,242 similar structures for £3,845,000. At the end of the war, Worthing alone had five pill-boxes and 66 anti-tank blocks on every mile of its sea-front. When the time came to demolish them, each pill-box required the attentions of a foreman, three hammermen and three labourers for almost a fortnight. The Defence of Britain project is now well advanced in the task of recording those anti-invasion defences which survive.

There is a theory that individuals and societies need an opponent against which to define themselves. With the menace of German aggression removed, the great powers poured immense energy into a Cold War whose legacy of built structures has yet to be fully revealed. According to one Defence of Britain project correspondent, a former secretary to the United Kingdom Chiefs of Staff, great efforts were made to save money by refurbishing the underground structures of one war for use in the next. Unfortunately for the tax-payer, the great majority of pre1945 `holes in the ground' were either unsafe or contaminated by asbestos. Others, including the reserve GHQ Land under Wentworth Golf Course, had been so comprehensively stripped out that refurbishment was uneconomic. The Cold Warriors observed, in the course of their search for new underground premises, that southern England was already perforated to a point where they felt unsafe on the surface.

Increasing numbers of Cold War structures, in particular the cavernous Regional Seats of Government and former Rotor radar bunkers, are now falling into private hands. Some of these are serving as document stores or museums, but in some cases a peaceful usage is hard to discern. At Orfordness, the National Trust presides over a `philosophy of dereliction' which in the course of several centuries may lay to rest a significant legacy of Britains ultimate deterrent. For now, massive concrete pagodas - which once housed all manner of tests for the components of nuclear weapons - brood menacingly along the Suffolk coast. There is no shortage of time in which to record these leviathans. Meanwhile, it is reassuring to know that Armageddon was never meant to arrive by accident.

Inevitably, there are some types of defensive site which prove more interesting than others and which become personal favourites. At the turn of the century, the chronological starting point for the Defence of Britain project, fear of invasion led to the construction of mobilisation depots around London so that militias could guard the capital more effectively. One of the earliest and largest examples survives, despite the assiduous work of vandals, at North Weald in Essex. There can be few better documented examples of British xenophobia; all of the original draughtsmen's plans are lodged in the Public Record Office and the redoubt features in William Le Queux's fictional account, The Invasion of 1910. The site is a scheduled monument and we hope that a Management Proposal, drafted by Defence of Britain project staff, will eventually lead to its restoration and the installation of a public exhibition on the military defence of London.

Many of these sites have already been the subject of extensive research and some were moderately well-known long before the Defence of Britain project began its survey. The project's great strength has been its ability to extend awareness of Britain's defence heritage while involving people from all walks of life in the task of recording it. In the process, we are already identifying questions which ought to inspire and guide more detailed future research.

Fifty years ago the concept of `industrial archaeology' was equally new and regarded with much the same scepticism as surrounded the Defence of Britain project in its early days. If the project can help to establish a new archaeological discipline, founded upon a broad base of genuine public interest and participation, then it may be a truly worthy memorial to the industrialised carnage of a turbulent century.

Jim Earle is Project Manager for the Defence of Britain Project

Additional information is available from the Project Office at the Imperial War Museum, Duxford Airfield, Cambridge CB2 4QR, Tel 01223 830280


Return to the British Archaeology homepage

Return to the CBA homepage


© Council for British Archaeology, 1997