ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 53, June 2000


Burial in water `normal rite' for 1,000 years: skeletons, animal skulls and other Iron Age offerings found in Thames

Human bones and other prehistoric remains from a dried-up channel of the Thames in Berkshire have shed light on one of the enduring mysteries of the last millennium BC - where and how people disposed of their dead.

The new evidence suggests that burial in rivers or lakes may have been the normal funeral rite in Britain for nearly 1,000 years before the coming of the Romans, following the demise of cremation in about 900 BC.

Marks on the bones from the Thames may also suggest, more controversially, some degree of cannibalism - or at least ritual defleshing of skeletons - in funeral ceremonies in this period.

This unprecedented evidence, if substantiated further, will mark the exceptionally late survival of a practice thought to have died out in Europe at least 5,000 years earlier.

Few human burials are known in Britain from the late Bronze Age/Iron Age periods. A number of skulls dredged up from riverbeds across Britain, and dated to the 1st millennium BC, first raised the possibility that the dead may have been buried in water - but more substantial evidence was not available. Now, however, excavations by the Oxford Archaeological Unit at Eton have produced clear signs of funeral rituals taking place on sandbank islands in the middle of the river. Skulls and bones belonging to up to 15 individuals were found on the islands, and of these eight have been radiocarbon dated to between about 1300 - 200 BC. The others are undated, but some are associated with bridge timbers previously dated to the early Iron Age.

Surrounding one island was a ring of wooden stakes, interpreted as mooring posts for funeral boats. Downstream, a wooden platform was built over another island. In addition to the human bones, the excavators found skulls from horses and cattle, and two complete pots.

By the edge of the stream, a pair of quernstones had been carefully placed one above the other. A Bronze Age ard was also found a couple of years ago in the middle of the channel, associated with charred grain and human bones.

According to excavation director Tim Allen, the evidence suggests that `a range of rituals' took place by rivers - not just the well-known deposition of weapons and metalwork - and that burial in water `was a standard part of the burial rite in the last millennium BC'.

The discovery of bones from the same skeletons, apparently in situ, implies that the dead - either as whole or part bodies - were weighted down in the water to prevent complete disintegration. A lack of scavengers' marks on the bones suggests they had not previously been exposed on dry land. Other marks, however, are more perplexing. Five long-bones, examined by Margaret Cox of Bournemouth University, seem to have been deliberately smashed in a way normally interpreted - for much earlier periods - as an attempt to extract the marrow for food. Other cutmarks suggest that the flesh may have been deliberately removed from the bone. Defleshing, or scalping, is not unknown among Iron Age burials but cannibalism is unheard-of for the period.

Dogs on the menu in medieval Northern Ireland

Casserole of dog may not sound too appetising to modern tastes, but in Carrickfergus, medieval Ulster's principal town, it seems they ate dogs for dinner for hundreds of years.

Big dogs, small dogs, old and young, even newborn puppies - hundreds of the poor mutts have been found during recent excavations of 13th - 18th century domestic rubbish pits in the town and from the medieval town ditch. About a fifth show unmistakable signs of butchery, skinning and cooking.

The evidence is without parallel in the British Isles, according to excavator Ruairi O' Baoill of the Department of the Environment, Northern Ireland. Dog bones are occasionally found in medieval towns elsewhere but only a small proportion seem to have been eaten.

Historical sources record that dogs were consumed in extreme circumstances - for example, under siege - and Carrickfergus was repeatedly attacked during the period.

Animal hides were one of medieval Ireland's main exports, according to a report in the latest Archaeology Ireland.

Direct references to dog skins are rare, but history records that they were exported from Youghal, Co Cork, to Bridgewater in Somerset in 1560.

Oldest tidal mill found in Ulster

Substantial remains of the earliest tidal mill yet found in Europe have been excavated at Nendrum on the east coast of Northern Ireland.

Timbers from the mill show that it was first built in AD 619 - 21, and was twice rebuilt over the following 200 years. It belonged to a major early Christian monastery that flourished between the 7th and 10th centuries, and whose remains survive in state care. The mill stood on the foreshore at the edge of the monastic enclosure.

Archaeologists led by Tom McErlean of Ulster University discovered the mill in a partially silted-up bay during an intertidal survey of Strangford Lough. Two stone embankments in the intertidal zone proved to be parts of millpond dams linked to the mill, whose buried drystone walls were found to survive more than 2m high.

Excavation has shown that the millpond was filled with seawater at high tide, which was released through a sluice and fed along a channel to the mill's horizontal wheel as the tide receded. Later silting has ensured excellent preservation of remains, including the morticed oak hubs of three mill-wheels, a number of wheel-paddles and hundreds of other pieces of worked timber, along with a quantity of grain thought to be barley. A complete pair of granite millstones was found, parts of early timber flumes (or channels) and a later stone flume leading from the pond to the wheel.

The problem of how to retain seawater behind the millpond dam was solved by extensive use of clay as a sealant. The earliest embankment was a massive structure, some 9m across at the base, with timber-revetted sides enclosing clay layers and a central core of wattling. In the later 8th century, the dam was built of inner and outer stone walls filled and sealed by clay and moss.

It has long been known that tidal mills were used in the pre-Norman period. About 5,000 mills were listed in England's Domesday Book of 1086, of which about 400 were on the coast. Very few early examples, however, have been found in the British Isles.

Neolithic hunting platform preserved in Scottish peat

The first example of a Neolithic hunting platform in Scotland has been excavated from peat-beds near Stirling. The timber platform was built on the edge of an area of seawater marsh at the head of the Forth estuary, and is thought to have been used by Neolithic people hunting for fish, wildfowl or other animals from small boats.

Dated by radiocarbon to between about 3900 - 2900 BC, the platform was a makeshift structure, consisting of a row of planks spread over a pair of fallen trees. It seems to have been rapidly built and soon abandoned. It may have been used to throw offerings into the surrounding dark marshy pools but so far no artefacts have been found - except for scattered hazelnuts, whole and broken. These have been interpreted as `snack-foods' eaten by the Neolithic builders as they put the platform together.

According to Thomas Rees of excavators AOC Scotland, platforms like this must once have been very common in the Neolithic. However, although large numbers of ceremonial monuments survive in Scotland - such as henges and stone circles - smaller, functional Neolithic structures are virtually unknown.

Medieval `murder weapon' hidden in Suffolk ditch

Archaeologists in Suffolk have found what may be a concealed murder weapon dating from the 13th century.

The iron sword was found in a former manor estate ditch on the edge of Felixstowe. The sword, with its tapering octagonal bronze handle-end, was a well-made weapon which seems to have been thrown away - or hidden - while still in perfect condition.

According to Ted Sommers of Suffolk's county archaeological unit, swords were expensive items that were seldom simply lost, and its discovery in a ditch suggests suspicious circumstances. `It does look as if someone hid it, perhaps because it was a murder weapon or stolen,' he said.

The sword was found in extremely fragile condition - it was little more than a rust stain - and it broke during excavation. Other discoveries on the site include the remains of manorial outbuildings and fishponds.

Regular villas for Roman colonists in Kent: evidence suggests massive displacement of native farmers after Roman conquest

New evidence for the way parts of Britain may have been parcelled out for Roman colonists after the invasion of AD 43 has been uncovered by a three-year archaeological survey near Faversham in northern Kent.

Using a combination of fieldwalking, geophysical survey and excavation, the Swale Archaeological Survey found traces of what seem to be 18 new villa estates and one possible temple, arranged with a near-mathematical regularity that suggests state-imposed planning in the immediate post-conquest period.

The estates, each of some 2,500 acres, were set an equal distance apart on either side of a 15-mile stretch of Watling Street, the main road from Canterbury to London. Each villa was placed about a mile from the street, and those to the north were all set on a south-east facing slope, on the west bank of a tributary stream flowing into the River Swale and the Thames estuary.

Pottery dates the origins of all the sites to the 1st century, and continues through to the 4th century and beyond in some cases. According to survey director Paul Wilkinson, the landscape had been intensively settled in the late Iron Age, implying significant levels of displacement of the original inhabitants when the new pattern was imposed.

Structural material includes the typical range of roofing tiles, black-and-white mosaic floor pieces and window glass. One villa, at Deerton Street, produced large quantities of painted wall plaster - mainly pink, yellow and white. At Blacklands, interpreted as a temple. excavation produced highly decorated full-colour mosaics, traces of wall-paintings including leaves and flowers, and Italian marble used for wall-cladding. The Blacklands `temple' was unique in sitting on the east bank of a stream, and consisted of a number of buildings spread over about two acres. A depression in the ground has been interpreted as a possible amphitheatre - commonly associated with temples. In early Anglo-Saxon charters, the stream was named Ealh-fleot, or Temple Creek.

Post-Roman evidence suggests a continuity of occupation of these sites into the Saxon period and beyond. At Deerton Street, Saxon pottery from the 5th - 7th centuries was found within the walls of the villa; not, as is more usual, in sunken-floored buildings at some distance from the Roman walls. At Sutton Baron, a medieval manor was built directly on top of the villa, while the manor houses at Bax Farm and Milton stood next to the former villa site. In some cases the villa now lies underneath a medieval church.

In brief

Welsh gold

The Dolaucothi gold mines near Lampeter in SouthWales are now thought to date from as early as 1000 BC, following a survey by specialists in ancient mines from France. The Welsh mines had been assumed to be Roman. The dating, based on comparisons with datable mines in France, Italy, Portugal, Spain and Romania, suggests that British Iron Age jewellery may have been largely home-made rather than imported from the Continent as previously thought.

Mirror Grave

An Iron Age grave containing both a sword and a mirror has been excavated on the Isles of Scilly, thought to date from about 250 - 125 BC. Swords are typically found in male graves and mirrors in female graves, and no other Iron Age graves are known in North-West Europe containing both. One early interpretation was that the burial was of `a gay warrior, or an Amazonian one'; others have drawn attention to a mirror's use in signalling, and in spiritual matters such as deflecting the `evil eye'.

Peat no more

The National Trust has decided to stop using peat in its gardens, following a vote at its last AGM. The decision marks an important victory in a campaign by conservationists to end peat extraction, which can destroy important archaeological remains and wildlife habitats.

Roman fort

A geophysical survey of the Roman fort at Lanchester, Co Durham, has suggested that the remains of buildings, roads, field boundaries and other features survive in an exceptionally well-preserved state under pasture. Buildings, doorways, cellars, column bases and roadside drains could be clearly seen. Funds are being sought from the Lottery to excavate the site.

Earliest louse

The world's oldest louse has been found in Carlisle, dating from the Roman period. The 1mm-long fossilised bug was found in a Roman tip and identified as a crab (or pubic) louse by Harry Kenward of York University. `When we are talking about what it was like to be a Roman, and trying to make history come alive, we now know it had an itchy-scratchy dimension,' he said.

News is compiled by Simon Denison

Return to the British Archaeology homepage

Return to the CBA homepage

© Council for British Archaeology and individual authors, 2000