My Lord Essex
Old stones and the sea
Riding into history
The folk that lived in Liverpool
So tyger fierce took life away
Editor Mike Pitts
Ridding into history
With the recent discovery of a rich woman’s grave in East Yorkshire and a unique example in Edinburgh, Iron Age chariot burials have been in the news. Yet Angela Boyle was astonished by what she found in West Yorkshire
It was inevitable that an ancient chariot buried beside a major road would catch media imagination. The Sun reported that ‘shocked workmen digging up a field for a new motorway found a driver already there – a 2,500-year-old skeleton sitting in his chariot … heading to battle’.
If I have to reveal that the man was not actually holding the reins, it is nonetheless true that the grave we excavated at Ferrybridge last winter was unusually well preserved and in many ways unique. The find has presented us with huge challenges, to conserve and study the remains and to understand what they mean. It is certainly the most amazing thing I have ever seen in 20 years of archaeology.
Other chariot burials have been excavated, notably most recently the rich grave at Wetwang whose vehicle was replicated for the BBC. So when during topsoil stripping beside the A1(M) at its junction with the M62, we saw the dark marks of a square-ditched enclosure around a central pit, we immediately suspected an Iron Age grave. Not everyone believed us, but we thought an iron object protruding from the central feature could be the tip of a chariot wheel.
There were reasons for doubt. A single Iron Age chariot burial was found at Newbridge, near Edinburgh, in 2001. The other 19 previously known British graves of this type were all in East Yorkshire, mainly near Wetwang, where they are associated with the ‘Arras Culture’. Again apart from the Newbridge chariot, British vehicles were all dismantled; intact chariots are more typical of those found on the continent. We were proposing a complete chariot in West Yorkshire. We soon knew we were right. In other ways, however, we were as surprised by anyone by what we uncovered.
We completely excavated the ditch and the oval-like pit, which was 4.5 m by 4 m across and at most 86 cm deep. It had steep sides, and a flat base which sloped down at its southern end to accommodate the chariot’s wheels. In contrast, purpose-built slots had been dug for the wheels of the Newbridge chariot, presumably to lessen the labour of excavation.
An alcove had been dug at the northern end to take the full length of the yoke. The disposition of the fill suggested the topsoil had first been thrown out to the west and south, and the deeper limestone rubble to the west, with other spoil heaped on the eastern and south-eastern sides. This might indicate that the chariot was lowered or wheeled backwards into the pit from the north.
This pit would originally have been covered by a low mound derived from the surrounding ditch, which enclosed an area 8 m by 7.75 m. As this had been dug into white limestone, the mound would have been clearly visible from a distance. The ditch itself was relatively insignificant, little more than a metre wide and less than half a metre deep.
The chariot’s two iron tyres, around 82 cm in diameter, survived in good condition. Both appeared slightly misshapen in the ground, but when we lifted them they reassumed their original shape to a degree. The western wheel was far better preserved than the eastern, and it was possible to trace the outline of 12 wooden spokes which had survived as wood stains. J-shaped iron linchpins and associated rings were located at either end of the axle. The two copper alloy nave hoops on the western wheel were different to those on the eastern wheel. This could, as the press reported, mean a wheel had been replaced, but it is as likely to have been only the nave hoops that were changed.
A wooden axle connecting the wheels survived as an exceptional soil stain. We identified the pole and the yoke as voids where the wood had completely decayed. Five copper alloy terrets, strap guiding rings, lay on the line of the yoke. All were plain, the central terret being the largest. We filled the pole void with plaster of Paris, and we now have a clear idea of what it actually looked like.
We found several other well preserved bronze objects, many likely to be items of horse harness. The deceased had been placed in the wooden box of the vehicle, which again survived as a soil stain. The chariot platform was positioned slightly foreword of the axle; this may mean it had been separated from the rest of the chariot. Perhaps the body was brought to the grave laid out on the platform, and placed on the chariot structure as a separate event as part of the ceremony. The skeleton indicates an adult male aged between 30 and 40, about 1.75 m tall (5 ft 9 ins), with mild spinal degeneration.
Four animal bones were directly associated with the inhumation. Half a pig skull, articulated with its mandible (lower jaw) and atlas (top neck vertebra), and a pig humerus were found near the man’s upper left forearm. We can see no butchery marks on the bones, although the surfaces were in very poor condition and cut marks may well have been eroded. The mandible is scorched on its outer, lateral, face, evidence that the complete half skull had been cooked.
Similar pork offerings have been noted at East Yorkshire Arras Culture square barrows. The pig parts vary somewhat between burials, although there is a definite preference for forelimbs or forequarters with or without elements of a head. The combination found at Ferrybridge of half a skull with its mandible, and elements of a forelimb are seen in three other Iron Age barrows, two at Rudston and one at Burton Fleming.
During excavation, we thought we might have found a spear with the body, in the form of a cast of the shaft and a corroded iron head. Until conservation is complete, however, we will not know the true nature of this object.
Just above the fine silt on the base of the ditch were four partial cattle skulls and a cranial fragment, probably also cattle. One of these skulls and the fragment were on the south eastern side. The other three were near the northern corner, with two mandibles and a humerus and tibia (ie a leg), all of cattle and in a near complete state of preservation, albeit with eroded surfaces. The skulls were all missing their maxillary regions (upper jaws), with no upper teeth, either loose or in the jaw, suggesting skulls were incomplete when they entered the ditch. One possible interpretation is that they had fallen from a high structure and tumbled down the mound.
The ditch was then partially filled with soil and rubble, perhaps from the mound itself, before an extraordinary event took place. A huge quantity of cattle bone was placed in the ditch top, representing at least 250 animals: an assemblage unique for the Iron Age in Yorkshire, and perhaps for the country as a whole. The only comparisons we know are two Early Bronze Age barrows in Northamptonshire, at Irthlingborough (BA November 2002), and Gayhurst. At both sites, 1,500 years before the Ferrybridge ceremony, men were buried with dense masses of bone: from at least 185 cattle at Irthlingborough, and an estimated 600 at Gayhurst.
At Irthlingborough it seems the cattle bones may already have been old when buried. By contrast, we believe the Ferrybridge bones are the remains of a huge feast which took place close to the monument not long after the funeral. The bone is almost exclusively cattle, and all of it seems to have been deliberately deposited as a single event, perhaps over a few days: the heap had a consistent density and we found no finer silt lenses within it. Study to date suggests that the cattle were predominantly 2-3 years old, a prime age to be slaughtered for meat. Today you would expect to get £400 for a fully grown beef animal weighing 350- 400 kg. A single fragment each of sheep and horse bone, and small quantities of pig bone have also been identified.
One of the most interesting aspects of this chariot is its similarity to burials on the continent. In north-eastern France, for example, the normal practice when interring a body with a two-wheeled vehicle was to place a fully assembled chariot in the grave, with the body lying on top – like ours. In Britain, on the other hand, the normal rite (as much as one could say there was a normal rite) had the chariot disassembled, with the wheels either laid flat or up against the side of the pit.
Most British chariot burials consisted of a single individual placed on their side in a ‘crouched’ or ‘foetal’ position, their arms and legs drawn in close to their bodies. On the continent, however, bodies tended to be laid out on their backs, with arms either straight to the side or upon the pelvis, and legs fully extended. Our man was neither extended nor crouched: he lay on his back, his arms straight by his sides, and his legs drawn up or ‘flexed.’ This ‘hybrid’ approach is very curious, and while one would not want to read too much into it, it does raise some interesting questions.
Then there are the wheels. The decorative copper alloy nave neck sheathing, attached to the inner nave hoop of the western wheel, is unlike anything seen before in this country (see photos opposite). The closest parallel we have so far identified is the Erkenbrechtsweiler type from the Hallstatt period, the continental Early Iron Age (c 630-450 BC). If this indicates an early date for the Ferrybridge chariot, then it could be one of the first cases of a two-wheeled vehicle burial in Europe.
The ceremonial use of four-wheeled vehicles (such as that buried with the ‘princess’ of Vix, in Burgundy, France, but never yet found in Britain) was a practice of the Hallstatt period; two-wheeled vehicles were not used in burial rites until the more recent La Tène era (up to the Roman conquest). Ferrybridge might therefore give us new information about the transition between these two times, and the change from burials in four-wheeled wagons to those in two-wheeled chariots. Yet, even if the chariot itself dates to a later period, the use of an earlier style of fitting within the grave still gives us new insights as to the use and reuse of items that could only have been seen as antique at the time.
The Newbridge chariot is dated by radiocarbon to 520-370 BC. We think the Ferrybridge example will prove to be of similar date, but of course we await radiocarbon results with great interest. We hope to conduct stable isotope analysis of the man’s teeth, with a view to determining his area of birth.
The Ferrybridge vehicle is the best preserved example discovered in Britain, but what was it? A cart, a carriage or a chariot? The word cart implies either farm work or the transit of goods—a lowly vehicle inappropriate for a high-status burial, such as that at Wetwang where the terrets were overcast in bronze and studded with coral.
Vehicle burials were likely the domain of the upper echelons, but analysis of the associated artefacts and rituals should increase our knowledge of the way in which social identity was expressed. Are we looking at items that belonged to deceased men, and occasionally women, in life, or are they trappings deemed appropriate by other people for their burial?
The barrow seems to have been sited in an area of older ceremonial monuments which included three Early Bronze Age ring ditches and a Beaker flat grave, but there were no other Iron Age burials. It is also part of a larger ritual landscape that may include shrines, ceremonial pathways and enclosures. Such landscapes have rarely been excavated and examined in any detail. This should form one of the research priorities for the current work, all the more important given the paucity of Middle Iron Age burials in Britain.
The Ferrybridge excavation, appropriately enough funded by the Highways Agency, has added significantly to our understanding of the Iron Age in West Yorkshire. The burial falls outside the main area of square-ditched barrows, and is far to the west of other ‘chariot’ or cart burials. It is therefore not only a very important indicator of the spread of this type of regional burial practice, but also of the Arras Culture in general.
The chariot was excavated by Oxford Archaeology for project archaeologists RPS and the Highways Agency. RMG, a subsidiary of RMS, funded the rest of the scheme
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005