14/1300-8/700bc: The Bronze Age

Distribution of sites for Bronze Age
Figure 6.13-3: Distribution of sites for Bronze Age

6.13 14/1300-8/700bc in the South West

The south west area has 35 sites in this period, of which 18 are single disposal sites, 9 multiple similar disposal sites, and 8 multiple varied disposal sites. In these groups there are respectively 2, 5 and 2 sites which have evidence for ritual activity. The numbers for this area in this period are very small, and therefore very detailed analysis has a slim basis. The single disposals are especially concentrated in Cornwall and Scilly, but are thinly dispersed elsewhere, with none in Mendip and the south Cotswolds. The multiple similar and multiple varied disposals are both mostly focused in the very tip of Cornwall and Scilly, with a handful in Mendip and the Cotswolds.

6.14 14/1300-8/700bc in the South

The south area has 185 sites in this period, of which 79 are single disposal sites, 65 multiple similar disposal sites, and 41 multiple varied disposal sites. In these groups there are respectively 9, 10 and 11 sites which have evidence for ritual activity. The single disposals are mostly in the area extending from the environs of Stonehenge southwestwards to Dorchester, with very heavy concentrations just inland from the south Dorset coast, and spreading eastwards into south Hampshire. There is a slight scattering to the north of Stonehenge as well. The multiple similar disposals are more evenly distributed throughout the whole length of the previously identified Windmill Hill-Dorchester oval, but also show a very strong spread to the east into south Hampshire and the Southampton basin, and a slight scatter to the north east towards Berkshire. The multiple varied disposals fall mostly in the area between Stonehenge and Dorchester to the south west, with a handful of sites in the east of the south area.

The distribution is interesting for the appearance of more significant numbers of disposal sites in the previously barren south Hampshire area, for the continuing seeming shift in distribution southwards in the original Windmill Hill-Dorchester oval, and for the very heavy population of sites accruing in the Dorchester region.

6.15 14/1300-8/700bc in the South East

The south east area has 62 sites in this period, of which >32 are single disposal sites, >16 multiple similar disposal sites, and >14 multiple varied disposal sites. In these groups there are respectively 1, 3 and 5 sites which have evidence for ritual activity. The single disposals fall into four loose geographical groups: in east Kent, the South Downs, an area in the Thames Valley around Staines, an area just west of Oxford, and with the few remaining sites scattered generally. The multiple similar disposals are less evident in the same broad grouping, but more notable in the Thames Valley around Staines. The multiple varied disposals have a similar but even sparser distribution.

6.16 Observations, Issues and Questions

This period of c. 700 radiocarbon years (c. 860 calendar years), taking the longest possible span, is the third longest of the five periods being considered, and contains the second largest number of Gazetteer sites. The surviving evidence is biased towards the south area, which supplies five times the number of sites as supplied by the south west area and three times the south east area total. The 'flatter' style of many monuments (ring ditches [some possibly ploughed out barrows], urn cemeteries, and pits) has sometimes made for poor survival of evidence previously well protected by mounds, and their lower physical profile reduces their chance of discovery except by aerial photography or serendipity. More settlements are recorded - and more disposals in settlement contexts.

There is possibly in this period an evening up of the ritual attention given to the three different types of disposal site, the multiple similar disposals perhaps providing pro rata more evidence for ritual activity than in the previous periods, and the activity at the single and multiple varied sites being more subdued. It is nonetheless the case that many of the ritual acts prevalent over 3500-14/1300bc recur in 14/1300-8/700bc, even if the manifestation is sometimes in a slightly different form, and even if the record is reduced. The smaller number of sites may give a false impression of less activity and the cremation rite conceal evidence, but when the examples are examined individually, there is a sense of a diluted presence.

Overall, there is nonetheless evidence for traditional activity continued but in muted form.

Disposal container type and distribution

Just as in the previous periods, it would appear that the different disposal modes could take place in monuments of varied types, and again that different disposal processes were used in the same monuments. This once more reinforces the proposition that it is disposal process which may have more significance than disposal container, since the latter can vary so much. In this period the containers continue in reduced types: the pit, the mound (but only in the south and south east areas) and the urn continue to be the dominant types, as in the last period, with urnfields also now a major site type in the south and south east areas. Settlements, and ring ditches (especially in the south and south east areas) make increasing appearances, and there is the occasional river find. The incidence of disposals across a still quite wide range of site types over the whole of southern England (noting the area variations) continues to indicate that there is no neat division of monument usage, since the variety of practices continue and are not confined to particular monumental contexts. This lengthens the period of time of this occurrence now to 2700-2800 radiocarbon years or 3550 calendar years (c. 4350 CalBC to c. 800 CalBC).

There appear to be site clusters, probably reflecting major population groupings. In the south west area the only clear grouping appears in the very south, in southern Cornwall and Scilly with some residual evidence for groupings in Mendip and the Cotswolds. The paucity of site numbers may conceal further groups, since otherwise there seems to have been a considerable reduction in population foci in the south west in 14/1300-8/700bc. In the south area, the region around Dorchester, and especially to west and east, seems to have evidence for further growth as a population focus, while at the northern end of the Windmill Hill-Dorchester oval, the former focus around Avebury seems to have weakened. On the other hand, the mid and south Hampshire area now appears to provide additional evidence for more permanent human presence, not in great concentration, but rather in a general scatter of sites in 14/1300-8/700bc where few were before during 3500-14/1300bc. In the south east area, besides the continuing foci at or near Oxford, the South Downs and East Kent, there is a group around the Staines area. The numbers of sites are not large, and as in the south west area, this may conceal further population foci.

Single and multiple phase rites

The summary for 14/1300-8/700bc has similarities with those for the last two periods. Both single and multiple phase rites are met with in all areas and in the different disposal modes. It continues to be impossible on the evidence to assign one particular rite to any particular disposal group or geographical area. The single phase rite is again very dominant, but there are some indications that begin to weaken any assertion that the multiple phase rite has been supplanted, as the use of cremation might imply. Apart from a number of unambiguous examples of the multiple phase rite, there are also indications from the condition of cremated bone that the body has gone through a preceding stage of defleshing, and there are even some indications that the cremation itself may have involved multiple stages whereby the cremated bone itself was subjected to more than one phase of treatment (reservation, extraction, and secondary deposition being examples of what took place at some sites).

One is in the hands of the careful excavator who is alive to what to look for, and observes and reports on these indications. There is a distinct possibility (on some of the evidence for this period) that introduction of cremation did not carry with it from the outset the abandonment of certain treatment of the body, to date only associated with inhumation. Indeed, perhaps the very focusing on the disposal method in the past has prevented a more important distinction from being drawn between the ultimate physical mode of disposal (cremation or inhumation) and the disposal process, much as the focusing on monument type may have also distracted from consideration of process. Why cremation grew in frequency is still an issue, however. Whether the underlying treatment of the dead was the same whether the body was cremated or inhumed and wherever it was buried, is as great a question.

Ritual activity and special deposits

The scale and variety of activity is much reduced from the preceding period, even allowing generously for the reduction in site numbers. Table 6.16-1 provides an update to help in the comparison, with as before subjective indicators of relatively high (H), medium (M) or low (L) frequency for the three periods covered so far. Some more activities have been added, but it is also clear that others are no longer leaving a visible trace, if they still survived.

The period is almost the converse of the last. While in 2500-14/1300bc the ritual activity seemed to take on extended and more elaborate forms, it is as if in 14/1300-8/700bc there was a retrenchment which cannot necessarily be regarded as a consequence of wider use of the cremation rite itself. The evidence shows that ritual activity of the former type was still carried on, but (as remarked before) it was in muted form, and it was more evenly applied. However, the evidence provided by a high proportion of the settlement sites may be significant, since it seems that their occupants carried out a good deal of apparent ritual activity with and without burial and of a similar kind to that observed on disposal sites - and on occasion they did this activity on some scale. It is dangerous to generalise from so small a base, but the issue must be raised (given evidence from previous periods) as to whether the settlement had perhaps long provided a base for such activity. If so, then settlements join disposal sites and other non-burial sites as providers of evidence for what may have been activity in a wider ritual context pursued with particular local applications, depending on the life event being addressed.

Ritual activity 3500-2500bc 2500-14/1300bc 14/1300-8/700bc
Site selection (assumed) H HH
Floor clearance M M L
Platform construction L L M
Grave lining L ML
Temporary disposal M M M
Binding or bundling L L L
Stake structures L M L
Pit activity M H L
Importing materials L LL
Use of colour L L L
Special floor covering L LL
Empty grave or container L ML
Self-mutilation L L L
Trampling L L L
Shaft making L LL
Fires or burning M H M
Spreads or scatters L M L
Burial of artefacts LM M
Burial of domestic refuse H H M
Burial of animals or bone H H M
Votive offering L L L
Human bone manipulation M HM
Storage of cremated bone L L L
Deliberate breakage L ML
Grave fill with bone frags L LL
Setting down grave goods L ML
Token deposit L M L
Designed layout L LL
Ritual structureL M L
Monument blocking M LL
Mound layering L M L
Boundary settingMHL
Sculpting L M L
Table 6.16-1 Broad comparison of ritual activity incidence over 3500-8/700bc

Although the evidence for ritual activity is not very rich for this period, it has added a little more material for construction of a process model, taking the rite from the original loss of a member of the kin group and community to the final statement made by the monument constructed. Table 6.16-1 adds to this material.

The continued occurrence of domestic refuse in association with human bone in both structured burials and in midden-like deposits on settlements is of probable significance, and the considerable reduction in animal bone associations is of interest.

Disposal process

The single and multiple similar disposals of every area continue to share similar characteristics, with rarely a site containing both inhumation and cremation on it at the same time, whereas the reverse was the case in all three areas in respect of the multiple varied disposals. The south area in particular once again had a very high ratio of mixed cremation and inhumation sites in this group.

There still appears to be no geographical area where one disposal process was favoured at the expense of the other.


The summary is again very similar to that for the last period, in that the deliberate setting down of part of the cremated remains or just part of an inhumed body was not common but was identifiable in all areas, with the south east area again appearing to show more examples. In the case of inhumation, the tokenism again seems to overlap with the deliberate use of the body part (skull, shin bone, and jaw).

Mortuary structures and other internal structures

Mortuary structures have all but disappeared, the most notable (perhaps with significance) occurring on a settlement in this period (at 1086 Cock Hill Enclosure).

There is some evidence in this period for the use of other temporary internal structures within monuments, largely in the south area, the south west area being completely barren. These appear to have been of similar form to those of the previous period.

Grave good deposits

The period presents a complete contrast to the immediately preceding period, with grave goods being both scant in survival, and generally modest in form. There is evidence for some grave goods being burnt on the funeral pyre, but since that option was available in the previous period (which was comparatively rich in such goods) it does not follow that in 14/1300-8/700bc grave goods were burnt rather than laid down - although they may have been subject to a change of ritual. The general decline in the visible remains of ritual activity may support the possibility that the peoples of this period did not deposit grave goods in such quantity just as they did not make so many pit deposits, scatter material, line graves, use colour in monuments and so forth. They may have been reverting (on disposal sites at least) to the more modest deposition practices of their forebears of 3500-2500bc.

In the grave goods associations it is again hard to detect any particular favouring of a sex either with goods per se or with particularly better goods. By far the great majority of burials, as in previous periods, were without goods. There is scant evidence for goods of excellence.

Elite burial rites

By whatever criterion, it is difficult to identify an elite burial rite. There are unusual burial places, like that at 1196 Trethellan Farm (the hearth burial). There are unusual assemblages like the animal bone deposits with the three urned cremations at 1103 Pedngwinian Point. There are striking token deposits like that at 1108 Cape Cornwall (2 skulls with an urn). One can mention perhaps another dozen such interesting presentations, but there is nothing to distinguish the burial as being that of an elite member of the society, and certainly in this period the grave goods are no indicator. What has happened, therefore, to create this contrast with the more suggestive evidence for the last period? And what comparisons can be drawn with the period before that, when an underlying broadly similar picture may have existed and the population was disposed of with few distinctions as to their rank?

The period 14/1300-8/700bc: some concluding remarks

The three areas continue to have a very great deal in common in the way in which they conducted their disposal processes in this period, and in particular in the way in which the ritual activity suggests that the communities shared much in the way of attitudes to disposal of the dead. The great variety of this activity when analysed and compared, continues to display very similar practices, although there may be variations between areas in the intensity with particular activities were carried out.

There are a number of questions which need continued airing arising from this period's evidence, focusing on monumentality, ritual, and geographical considerations.

It has already been suggested that the monument type may be subordinate to the disposal process itself, and the last period's concluding section considered whether focal monument groups existed per se, or whether particular monuments with disposals acted as focal points for the community. It concluded provisionally that a few such monuments existed but not primarily for holding burials: their form and the surviving evidence suggested that they held a wider purpose for the community, within which disposal process might have been just one element. The overlap of burial and non-burial site activity was suggestive of a broad set of attitudes, finding expression in a variety of living contexts. In the period 14/1300-8/700bc, there appear to be no monuments with unambiguous focal purposes for the wider community, as might have been the case in the previous period. Some sites provide evidence for more elaborate activity than others (as was the case in earlier times), but at none is there a sense that over a long period they acted as community foci for ritual. On the other hand, several settlement sites contain limited evidence for striking sets of activity, which suggests that these were sites for habitation and for ritual transactions of kinds similar to those on non-settlement sites, whether with or without burials. As settlements, by definition they were also focal community sites.

Turning to the issue of geographical similarities, are there any detectable area links in this period? Unfortunately the distribution of sites is very skewed to the south area, the distribution within the south west and south east areas is very scattered, and the connections between areas are tenuous. The one possible link assumes a seaboard connection between south Cornwall and south Dorset in disposal rite.

Apart from the decrease in the placing (or survival) of grave goods, there is no special difference in the treatment of most individuals or groups between this period and the last, although the multiple similar burials appear to be given more equal disposal treatment ritually. The cremation cemeteries are a new communal burial mode, largely replacing the inhumation communal burial but by no means as dominant as convention has supposed, since many disposals continued to be made (if in small numbers) in mounds of the previous periods. The communal inhumation burial has virtually disappeared. As indicated above, ritual activity is much reduced and lower key. The importance of domestic refuse in disposal practice is confirmed by its continuing if reduced presence with the disposals or in the monument, as well as on non-disposal sites.

The section on 3500-2500bc ended by suggesting that an outline disposal process model might begin to be constructed, and the evidence from 2500-14/1300bc provided more material for a framework. This period has added a little more detail from the cremation rite and process, but not a lot. It has begun to indicate more clearly, however, that the ritual activity may have its locational origins in the occupation areas, and that the activity therefore may have served to support beliefs and attitudes in a wider framework than one encompassing disposal processes. The three broad stages of process are still discernible even though the ritual activity referred to above is diminished, and the preliminary grouping of major elements has been augmented in Table 6.16-1. The further evidence for disposal process obtained in this period continues to support the idea of transition, and it will be necessary to test this further in the final two periods, even though the amount of evidence is beginning to diminish in those periods.


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