Hunting for cave art
Archaeology of industry
Editor Simon Denison
Entombed with the tools of his trade
Alan Saville recalls finding the skeleton of a flint-knapper in a barrow in the Cotswolds
My fondest memory of a find is the Neolithic flint-knapper burial that I found during the excavation of the Hazleton North chambered tomb on the Cotswolds in 1981.
I was a field officer then with the regional archaeological unit for Avon, Gloucestershire and Somerset, and we managed to get funding from the Department of the Environment to undertake a complete excavation of a Cotswold-Severn tomb. The risk to scheduled ancient monuments from ploughing was a great cause for concern at the time - as it still is today - and we had carried out a survey of monuments in the Cotswolds, ranking them in order of threat. Among the long barrows, Hazleton North came top of the list.
The tomb was a bump in the middle of the field, and it was being completely ploughed over. The site had not been excavated before, and the DoE people were in a Catch-22, as it was difficult for them to make the case to stop the farmer from ploughing it - even though it was scheduled - without any other information known about the site.
The irony of a rescue excavation is that, in physical terms, the monument is now completely gone - as Mortimer Wheeler said, all excavation is destruction. But the justification depends on the quality of the record, and science now knows far more about this Cotswold-Severn tomb than it does about any of the others.
Hazleton North is a chambered tomb with two chambered areas and a false entrance. We first stripped off all the ploughsoil and exposed this huge scatter of stone from the cairn. You could see immediately where the chambered areas were, because you could see the tops of the orthostats - the standing slabs that define the chambered areas.
At the entrance to the chamber on the north side, there'd been a collapse of stonework which had prevented any further burials taking place on that side, so they'd started to pile up burials in the entrance itself. And the final one was an extended inhumation - a very rare thing in a long barrow. They'd swept aside the bones of the previous occupants to make room for this chap, a male between 30 and 45 years old. And underneath his right elbow there was a very large flint core, and just where his left hand was there was a pebble hammerstone. So he was a flint-knapper, and he was buried with the tools of his trade.
And he was remarkably well preserved, given the fact that his skull was less than 50 cm below the surface of the ploughsoil, protected by just a thin layer of crushed stone.
It is very rare to find personal grave goods with individuals within chambered tombs, because although they may have been buried originally with grave goods they would generally all become disturbed. As a rule, in chambered tombs all the bones are higgledy-piggledy. But what we had here was the final burial in this area, which was then sealed and never disturbed since. It was just fantastic to find this skeleton, an extended inhumation in this small area, which was well preserved, with personal grave goods, and radiocarbon dated to 5,500 years ago.
The way of excavating this sort of discovery is to get people to lie on planks over the stonework, lean down and gradually pick off the pieces of fragmentary stone until you uncover the skeleton - very much brush and toothpick kind of work rather than trowelling. Although I was directing the excavation I certainly had a go at physically uncovering the bones. I couldn't resist.
A Cotswold-Severn tomb is one of the classic sites of British prehistory, and to have an opportunity to excavate one completely was such a treat, and a privilege. Only one other has been completely excavated in recent years - Ascott-under-Wychwood in Oxfordshire - but that one has not yet been published.
Alan Saville is a prehistorian and curator in the Department of Archaeology at the National Museums of Scotland
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005