1.1 General structure of the research method

The principle underlying the method has been to analyse the archaeological evidence into data types within characteristics, and then apply various simple analytical and synthesising techniques. At each pass through the data the level of analysis has been lifted, as the study progresses, to greater levels of aggregation, leading ultimately to the capability to make high-level statements of probability, or propositions, and to construct supporting hypotheses for testing using the data assembled.

The data collected and their quality


The Gazetteer records were collected by a literature search for sites in the south-eastern counties of Wales and in English counties on or to the south of the course of the River Thames - a separate section describes the research methods). It is a selection resulting in ust over 1700 records. At least as many sites again have been rejected on grounds of insecurity of dating, or because the manner of discovery, retrieval and recording of the evidence did not breed confidence. Selection is made harder when an area or period has few sites, and pressure exists to include a site regardless of the quality of evidence, but efforts have been made to resist this. Complex sites with much information have been included alongside simple sites briefly recorded by their excavators, since both have their place in any pattern. The literature search was extensive but bounded (1996 publications tend to be the latest used), and there may be good evidence for sites which has been missed. For example, museum and other public archives have not been searched, and there are private archives with material which have not been explored.

The Gazetteer site summaries are themselves open to selectivity in the course of distilling the original reports. The original reports on some sites are not as well structured as they might be, and have required unravelling to produce an account useful to the research. As work progressed, checks were made to ensure that there was an even quality of distillation in the Gazetteer, but in such a large corpus, there are sure still to be some omissions and lapses. Finally, the Gazetteer represents a minority proportion of sites known in one substantial area of the United Kingdom. There is also an unknowable quantity of undiscovered or irretrievable evidence.

The data

The interpretation of the site investigators has been accepted in all cases except where later work has conclusively proved otherwise. This applies to site dating, design, structure, and phasing, disposal processes, and all details given about the human disposals and associated materials. On dating, the conventional attribution of site type and artefact type to a period has been used (usually following the site investigator), except where radiocarbon dating is available. Sometimes site analogy is used where it seems reasonable. On a handful of occasions the evidence is strong enough to suggest an alternative dating to that implied or given by the original investigator.

Site location and the singleness or multiplicity of the disposals are generally not arguable within the definitions used (see Research Methods), although at times investigators' reports are not clear about numbers of disposals on multiple disposal sites. It seems that only in comparatively recent times have consistent attempts been made to assess scientifically the number (in terms of body count and completeness) and nature (sex, age, and health) of cremated and inhumed remains.

Similar criticism might be made of the recording of characteristics like special materials (029) used in building, completion processes (027) and domestic refuse (036). To search for the last was certainly not the objective of most early investigators, and it was perhaps disregarded or unrecognised, whereas now such refuse seems to be of likely significance. Another matter of indeterminate record at times is that of partial deposits of human remains (045). This can result from incomplete recording or be due to differential decay of human bone, but in many earlier reports it is uncertain which.

Identifying single or multiple phasing of disposal rite tests judgement, as does discerning ritual activity. Much depends on the detail of the excavation record (which is subjective), and on the understanding of what is a phased process. In the multiple phased process, capacity to interpret depends on careful recording of bone deposits, their condition, position and arrangement, and of certain monument characteristics (for example existence of any seeming mortuary or other internal structure). The cremation process can also conceal or destroy evidence for preceding phases, such as exposure and excarnation. Now that the research is complete, and with hindsight, it is likely that there is much more evidence for multiple phase processes than was first recognised.

In the case of ritual activity, the record of the disposal's immediate environs is as important as that of the disposal itself. These details have not often been the focus of interest, particularly for the earlier investigators. Where there has been a full record, on the other hand, remarkable detail can emerge.

The research hoped to capture indications of seasonality of disposal, but these were hard to identify. They are not always easy to interpret accurately where they exist, unless they have been scientifically analysed. Evidence for body orientation is patchy, especially in earlier reports, and can be inconsistent. On one interpretation of orientation it is the direction in which the eyes are facing, in another the direction in which the top of the head is pointing. Evidence for body placing (position and spacing in the monument) is also patchy, the earlier reports tending to imply this, or to leave the reader to infer the position from other information.

Information on the age and sex of human remains is very incomplete. There are many reports where no attempt has been made to gather it, and in the earlier excavations there were often pseudo-medical assumptions about the implications of bone size and condition for sex (such as heavy bones imply a male, gracile bones a female). Only a minority of sites have had the benefit of the pathologist's expertise and, where they have, the material for examination was sometimes not provided in the best state. Thus sex, age, health and elementary matters such as the count of bodies have not been consistently well documented until much more recent times, when the evidence has been more carefully collected and then properly handled.

Evidence for grave goods is often well recorded in respect of the object, but in the earlier accounts there are frequent failures to assign exact associations, and often these associations have to be inferred, if sometimes with fairly low risk. Certain types of grave good or deliberate deposits were possibly not recognised as such on the early excavations, for example domestic refuse. It is also likely that organic goods (and slight organic structures such as withy fencing) have been lost through decay or through insensitive excavation, especially on the earlier sites. However, remarkable survivals are recorded, and it is conceivable that many of the earlier excavators were sensitive to the possibilities of survival but could not recognise some of the signs.

For the most part the evidence for the containers of remains is well recorded, the only caveat again being on containers which were organic and whose traces were too slight for recognition. Some evidence may have been lost here, perhaps particularly wrappings in which the body was contained.

There remains however a very large bank of evidence, including much of acceptable quality for the purpose of this research, given that the ideal in quality will never be achievable.

The handling of data

Data structure

A site's characteristics have been divided into four groups: the period when the site was used, disposal location characteristics, monument characteristics, and disposal characteristics. The last subdivides into disposal method, phases of disposal, ritual activity, season set down, body orientation, container positioning, placing of deposit, sex/age, grave goods associated, internal constructions, container type, and death type. The approach has generally been to code the presence or absence of a particular characteristic on the site but not, in the case of multiple occurrences, the number of times that it occurred. To attempt the latter would have meant great complexity of the computerised research record (experiment confirmed this) which time did not allow. The fact of incidence is therefore key, rather than the number of times of incidence on a site. However, where later it was desirable to review the record more sensitively (for example in the detailed studies used in sections 4 and 6), simple less structured devices sufficed.


Codes have been assigned to site characteristics to enable retrieval and analysis of data in support of both broad analyses and specific investigations of individual characteristics. The assignment of codes is subject to errors of omission and commission. Coding is an activity that needs considerable concentration, and attention to consistency, and there can be lapses in both. It is also subjective: a full-time professional in the field might interpret the data differently, and reflect this in the coding record. However, in this research no particular outcomes were sought, patterns desired or theories cherished before work began, and the chances of intrinsic bias in the coding are perhaps the less for that. Inexperience is more likely to have caused error than bias. Cross-checks have been carried out on the coded data to remove potential logical inconsistencies.

In the case of certain characteristics, initial interpretations of the data changed as research advanced. Sites have been reviewed for re-interpretation in the light of the accumulating evidence and the coder's own view of signals from the site records. In early 1996 the coding was held so that the tables of analysis could be built. When the detailed studies in Sections 4 and 6 were carried out, further corrections were incorporated in the narrative if it seemed right to do so.

The effectiveness of the method adopted

Potential for re-examination of the raw data

If the effort to permit more scientific re-examination is to be sustained, then the data must be coded so that sources for generalising statements can be checked. To handle many sites with so many characteristics, coding is needed to facilitate the searches for broad change. Intuitive statements based on having read the site summaries and reflecting upon them are risky, and much harder to verify. At least the statistical results (for example in Sections 4, 5 and 9) can be checked, and there is confidence that data can be produced to support the statements, assuming that the coding is sound.

When the research process moves to less numeric interpretation of the Gazetteer site reports, and needs the colour of detail, the detailed studies data abstracted under structured headings and found in sections 4 and 6 provide a similar reference checkpoint. Those who wish may probe beneath the generalising statements being offered, as the research reconstructs stage by stage the picture of mortuary process and beliefs, especially in Sections 6, 7 and 9. They may look up what data and information were used, and need not have to guess at the process of synthesis (although inevitably some things were the result of such a process). The method has sought to be reasonably open therefore in its use of data, in terms of both access and explicitness.

Scale of the gazetteer and the timespan covered

To use a large collection of sites and a wide timespan is another insurance against the risks inherent in generalisation. This is not to criticise reviews from narrower bases, but rather to argue for some touchstone against which to measure their outcomes. In-depth but more narrowly focused examinations might now be better made in future against the broad picture which this research has produced. The broad base of sites and the whole scale of the timespan covered should both provide confidence in the high-probability statements that have been reached.

Structuring in the method

The structuring facilitates control, but also can force uncomfortable decisions at a number of levels; for example in dating and coding. The deliberate attempt to begin drawing broad themes from earlier broad statistical sweeps through data in the hope (at the time) that later more detailed work would benefit, did prove a useful and effective cross-check in the final event. As developmental stages the themes are felt to have proved useful, and guided approaches to later work. They sensitised the author to possibilities, and were a formative element in shaping the final hypotheses. They were never regarded as definitive, but rather indicative.

The very structured approach to the final proposition/hypothesis formulation for Section 9 was uncomfortably rigorous, but had to be so to provide an adequate testing ground, and to re-invest the knowledge and understanding gained from Sections 2-8. Propositions and hypotheses which focus on cognitive processes are hard to test, and there is a high degree of interpretation in assigning possible meaning to suggestive archaeological material in equally suggestive contexts. The author has been encouraged by Renfrew's support for Binford's view that 'data relevant to most if not all the components of past socio-cultural systems are present in the archaeological record' (Binford 1962, 218-19; 1968, 22; Daniel and Renfrew 1988, 165). Binford also believed that the scientific approach was worth following even when data were imperfect or could not all be known, a state very applicable in this case. The fact that suggestive evidence might not be great in quantity at times is less important than the fact that it is there, in every period, in similar contexts, and is distinguishable after survey of a very large number of sites. Cumulatively, this gives some grounds for confidence in the results.

The objective of the structuring, beside exercising control, was gradually to build up a picture moving from treatment of raw data (4, 5 and 6), to the drawing of wide themes from the data and from anthropological theory, and then onto the formulation of the high-level statements of probability that could be tested against the background developed. The objective was reached, but the method was laborious at times in the amount of processing of data that it required, and this sometimes has given problems in presenting the results. The method has however produced a bank of organised data capable of manipulation in various ways from the rigid to the more flexible, and capable of fairly easy reference.


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