8/700-100bc: The Iron Age

Distribution of sites for Iron Age
Figure 6.17-4: Distribution of sites for Iron Age

In this section the total site numbers will differ very slightly from those for the same period in Sections 4 and 5 since they reflect additions to the Gazetteer. This does not materially affect any statistics, but does add more detail.

6.17 8/700-100bc in the South West

The south west area has 35 sites in this period, of which 18 are single disposal sites, 6 multiple similar disposal sites, and 11 multiple varied disposal sites. In these groups there are respectively 2, nil and 3 sites which have evidence for ritual activity. The great majority of these sites appear in the Cotswold-Mendip region, with a very few outliers to the west and south.

6.18 8/700-100bc in the South

The south area has 61 sites in this period, of which 20 are single disposal sites, 25 multiple similar disposal sites, and 16 multiple varied disposal sites. In these groups there are respectively 1, 7, and 7 sites which have evidence for ritual activity. The single disposals are mainly in the Dorchester-Windmill Hill oval, with a concentration around Stonehenge, and the odd outlier. The multiple similar disposals are very differently distributed, being in a thick band running from the west Wiltshire border through the Stonehenge area to the east borders of Hampshire. The multiple varied disposals have two different foci: one appears to be grouped around Hod Hill and the other in a line from Bradford-on-Avon south eastwards to Winchester.

6.19 8/700-100bc in the South East

The south east area has 50 sites in this period, of which >23 are single disposal sites, >13 multiple similar disposal sites, and >14 multiple varied disposal sites. In these groups there are respectively 2, 1, and 8 sites which have evidence for ritual activity. The single disposals are distributed in three main groups; two small groups in east Kent (3 sites) and the South Downs (4), the third comprising an extended string on or just north of the Ridgeway passing from around Swindon to the Bedfordshire Chilterns, and north Buckinghamshire. The multiple similar disposals, on the other hand, are mostly in a very concentrated group around the Oxford-Abingdon area, with a few outliers to the north east in north Buckinghamshire. The multiple varied disposals mirror the distribution of the single disposal sites.

6.20 Observations, Issues and Questions

This period of c. 700 radiocarbon years (c. 820 calendar years), taking the longest possible span, equals the fourth longest of the five periods being studied and contains the second smallest number of Gazetteer sites. The south west area supplies the fewest sites (35), but the south and south east are similar in total at 61 and 50 respectively. The settlement sites of various types - open, enclosed and fortified (hill forts) - are now the most frequent location for human remains in both casual and disposal contexts. This incidence first began to be noticeable in the previous period, but has echoes in the earliest. There is still a steady if very slight representation of older forms of monument such as barrows, cairns, ring ditches, urnfields, and isolated graves, but with the exception of the last two types, these examples are normally cases of association of Iron Age burial with a structure founded in a previous period.

The more equal ritual attention apparently given to the three disposal types in 14/1300-8/700bc appears to come out unambiguously in the evidence for 8/700-100bc. Allowing for the fewer sites, evidence for the ritual activities most prevalent in previous periods is very scarce, although clear instances of previous traditions are still found. Single monuments are not the focus for disposal (or are rarely so), but rather the settlement itself (pits and other locations within the settlement ambit), the settlement midden and the flat grave cemetery. The changed location of disposals may be an influence on the activity taking place on site. The considerable reduction in pit ritual may be a simple convergence of activity into a single pit focus, especially so given that the ritual pit activity often involved burial of domestic refuse, and that frequently in this period the domestic refuse deposit and the human disposal are combined. In all this, the strongest evidence for ritual activity again comes from the south area.

Disposal container type and distribution

As remarked above, this period has a reduction in types of container notable in all areas. The pit or ditch on the settlement site primarily receives remains, but communal low profile cemeteries occur (both late urnfields and inhumation cemeteries), as do deposits in large middens outside the settlement either close to or in the fields. There is still a range of container types in use, but sites are seldom constructed as monuments to be seen far and wide. The inter-relationship of domestic refuse with the disposal process has become much more easily detectable in the record, and deeper examination of individual contexts very frequently shows that the activities of human body and bone transfer, which occurred in earlier periods in more monumental associations, continue with vigour in 8/700-100bc. In the relative absence of individual or communal monuments, the activities are captured in the midden-settlement-domestic refuse pit relationship. The resurgence of inhumation has helped to reveal this.

The smaller number of sites, especially in the south west area, does not help with generalisations about population groupings. The Cotswold-Mendip evidence in the south west area continues to suggest that that region is well peopled in the Iron Age, but the sparseness of sites elsewhere in that area may not imply a population reduced from previous times ('Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence' is a precept applicable throughout this study). The south area shows the same spread of population foci as before, but perhaps with a stronger band of sites across the middle of the area from west Wiltshire to east Hampshire. The south east area continues with population foci in East Kent and the South Downs, but there may be a shift in the northern part of the area to use of sites on or north of the Ridgeway, from foci around and south of Oxford.

Single and multiple phase rites

While the majority of disposals appear to use the single phase rite, the multiple phase rite may, on closer inspection through the special studies, have been more in evidence than the fairly high level analyses of Sections 4 and 5 indicated. Much depends on the interpretation of evidence, and on correctly sensing that more activity perhaps underlies the evidence than may at first appear. One problem lies in disentangling what may be evidence for process concerning disposal ritual from that which may be concerned with other or wider ritual activity, but which uses human remains in whole or part as a medium. Where the line is drawn between these two can determine whether remains are to be classed as subject to a single or multiple disposal process. Key to this is the issue of whether part remains found in deposits of domestic refuse are still in a transitional disposal process or are in some other use. It is significant that the problem of interpretation should still exist down through what is now a period extending over 3400 radiocarbon years or 4200 calendar years. Pit and ditch deposits at a variety of site types have presented similar evidence for interpretation. The Iron Age settlement pit activity appears not to be a simple process from whatever angle it is viewed, and is capable of being treated as multiple phase in more instances than perhaps have been so interpreted to date.

The evidence of 14/1300-8/700bc showed that cremation did not invariably mean that rite was single phase. It also showed that inhumation continued as a not unusual method of disposal. Why the cremation method so dramatically decreased in 8/700-100bc is perhaps a more challenging question to answer than that of why inhumation is more in evidence then. What might change the disposal mode? An inference which was beginning to be drawn for the years 3500-8/700bc was that settlements may have long been the bases for ritual activity concerning human disposal processes. We may not so much lack evidence for disposal in the Iron Age ('disappearance of a visible burial rite' has been the usual phrase for the period), as no longer have the class of visible monumental sites. These until then had provided extra-settlement foci for disposal and served a landmarking purpose, but the need for this diminished as territory was marked out by alternative boundaries. Without these, we are left with the settlement foci (pits and middens) and flat cemeteries, other places for disposal (including 'wet places') being perhaps (although we cannot be sure) in a small minority.

Ritual activity and special deposits

The last period's evidence seemed to imply a retrenchment in ritual activity in 14/1300-8/700bc following the high levels of 2500-14/1300bc: activity existed but it was in more muted form, and it was more evenly applied to the single and multiple disposal types. It was suggested that this reduction should not necessarily be attributed to the use of cremation as the predominant disposal method. In 8/700-100bc the number of examples of ritual activity continues to be less, when inhumation has returned to dominate but not exclude cremation. This is further evidence for the case that it is not the disposal method which determines or is related to the amount of ritual activity. The tendency to treat the different disposal types (single disposals, multiple similar disposals and multiple varied disposals) evenly is also a characteristic of this period as it was in the last. The identifiable ritual activity includes many of the previous forms. As remarked earlier, the settlements provide a more concentrated focus for certain ritual activities centring on pit disposals, and this period's evidence appears to fulfil the suggestions of the importance of the settlement in ritual which the previous period indicated.

Table 6.20-1 gives an update to help in the comparison with, as before, subjective indicators of relatively high (H), medium (M) or low (L) frequency for the periods covered so far. Some more activities have been added, some activities are less likely to occur with the decrease in cremation which provided the material for the activity, and the shift in locations to settlements may be another reason for reductions or decline.

Disposal process

The single and multiple similar disposals of every area continue to share similar characteristics, with no site containing both inhumation and cremation on it at the same time. These two types were the only types to hold cremation only sites (the multiple varied type having none), and the multiple varied disposal sites alone in the south and south east areas had examples with both disposal methods on the same site. All types had a very heavy bias towards inhumation only sites.

There still appears to be no geographical area where one disposal process was favoured at the expense of the other, although in the northern region of the south east area there might appear to be a longer attachment to the cremation rite than elsewhere. Otherwise the two methods are evenly distributed.


Once again the summary is very similar to that for the last two periods, 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 (skulls or skull parts especially) not simply in ditch contexts but more widely in settlement pits where there are very many examples but whose meaning is ambiguous. As suggested above and in earlier sections of this section, these become difficult to distinguish from ritual activity with wider meanings than the disposal process.

Ritual activity 3500-2500bc 2500-14/1300bc 14/1300-8/700bc 8/700-100bc
Site selection (assumed)H H HL
Floor clearance MMLL
Platform construction LL M L
Grave lining L M L L
Temporary disposal M M MM
Binding or bundling LL L L
Stake structures L M LL
Pit activity M H L H
Importing materials LLL L
Use of colour L L LL
Special floor covering LLLL
Empty grave or containerLM LL
Self-mutilationL L L L
Trampling L L LL
Shaft making LL L L
Fires or burningMHM L
Spreads or scattersLM LL
Burial of artefacts L M ML
Burial of domestic refuseHHMH
Burial of animals or boneH H MM
Votive offering LLL M
Human bone manipulation M H MM
Storage of cremated bone L LLL
Stoning of deposit L L L L
Deliberate breakage L M LL
Grave fill with bone frags L L LL
Setting down grave goodsLM L L
Token deposit L M L M
Designed layout L L L L
Ritual structure L M L L
Monument blockingM L L L
Mound layeringL M L L
Boundary settingM H LL
SculptingL M L L
Table 6.20-1 Broad comparison of ritual activity incidence over 3500-100bc

Mortuary structures and other internal structures

Mortuary structures and other internal structures have virtually disappeared, which may not be surprising given the changing nature of the disposal locations. There may, however, be evidence for the inception of other structures connected with disposal process (but not containers) of a ritual nature, but it is very slight. As possible predecessors of structures or other ritual foci in the next period, the ritual site or area at 1177 Harlyn Bay B (a possible funerary building), and a ritual area at 1445 Prebendal Court are of note. These are distinct from the rampart burials at a number of the sites which have been taken as votive offerings. It is an interesting point to establish where in these periods sets of ritual shade into religion, a concept not yet mentioned in these sections on issues. What kind of evidence supports the existence of religious activity, in which ritual usually has a part? Can anything observed in these activities to date, especially on non-burial sites, support a case for a religion?

Grave good deposits

There appears to be some revival in the deposition of grave goods compared with the dearth of such goods in the preceding period. This may be a factor of survival of such items with inhumation burial which has increased considerably in proportion. On the other hand, the grave goods are generally of simple type (which has been a consistent theme through all periods for the majority of disposals having them), the distinctive nature of this period being the higher incidence of domestic refuse in burial associations. In previous periods the association of this material with a complete inhumation has not been frequent. The more usual occurrence has tended to be with part bodies (even small fragments) in small pit contexts or in ditch deposits, or in the material of the monument itself (as a layer in a mound for example, or in a monument closure deposit). In 8/700-100bc the burial of bodies or substantial parts of bodies (as well as fragments) in the reused settlement pits, and the finds of part bodies in midden contexts (which begin in 14/1300-8/700bc, but occurred in earlier periods by inference, or occasionally on direct evidence), make use of the domestic refuse association in a much more robust way. It is as if the body being deposited (or its part) by the very quantity of the refuse material in which it is often placed has taken on another role in which the disposal rite is subordinate to or connected with another practice. This is also the case with the middens, where the body parts are in the mixture rather than accompanied by it. There is indeed one example of a skull setting within the midden itself, as if the midden were the real focus.

If this line of argument holds, then the practices seen in the settlements in the Iron Age may have not burial but rather (to use the most likely candidate given the normal use for midden material) the promotion of fertility as their objectives. It appears in some instances (see 1198 Danebury) that bodies in states of decomposition were brought in from elsewhere to be placed in the reused storage pits. In other pits, individuals were set down upon death. It is not suggested that this was the destiny of all those who died, but the community appears to have chosen some for this process, save that the use of the individual's remains may serve purposes other than simple disposal by burial. The process of these practices need defining as well as their purposes. It must be asked whether the settlement pit disposals, having in some cases started with a form of primary deposition, were not destined for the midden (the pit content of refuse and disposal being emptied and transported there) after a given period. If this were so, and given that no occupation of a settlement ends tidily upon final abandonment, the remaining pits found with burials and part burials might be simply suspended in time, and not represent the intended final destiny for the remains. Had the occupation continued, they might have themselves been moved on by the process. This use of human skeletal material in association with collections of domestic refuse has been in the evidence since the period 3500-2500bc, starting most notably with the deposits in causewayed enclosure ditches.

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 high quality goods. By far the great majority of burials, as in previous periods, were without goods. There is a little evidence for goods of excellence (although there are more items of personal decor such as rings, armlets and brooches or clasps), and the few outstanding examples tend to be burials with fine armour and weapons (one also including horse gear and a bronze tankard), although one female had a necklace, rings and iron objects and another a necklace, a bronze bowl and bronze mirror. There are more burials with whole animals, especially horses and dogs, more with craft items or tools like spindle whorls and querns, and more with personal utensils. The south area again provides the majority of (the few) richer burials.

Elite burial rites

There are certainly burials with rich goods accompanying the individual in every area, of which those with armour and weapons are the best examples. These are in separate graves for the most part (unlike many of the burials with rich goods in 2500-14/1300bc which were in mounds shared with other burials). There are some organised inhumation cemeteries where some burials are accompanied by bronze ware (most commonly rings, armlets and brooches). These are most likely to represent personal possessions rather than symbols of wealth). There is once more nothing in the evidence which otherwise indicates an elite burial rite, although again there are many examples of unusual burial places, unusual assemblages, and striking incidences of ritual activity. If there is any elite class division, it may be between the warrior burials, the flat cemetery burials with grave goods of finer personal nature, and the burials of others, either in simple contexts or in contexts where their remains appear to have been used for a communal purpose. It may be significant that the single burials are now the sole media for the cremation rite.

The period 8/700-100bc: 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 and the espousal of beliefs. The great variety of this activity, when analysed and compared, continues to disclose very similar practices, although there may be variations between areas in the intensity with which 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.

In the period 14/1300-8/700bc there had appeared to be no monuments with unambiguous focal purposes for the wider community, as might have been the case in the previous period. Some sites provided evidence for more elaborate activity than others (as was the case in earlier times), but at none was there a sense that over a long period they acted as community foci for ritual. On the other hand, the limited evidence for settlement sites in that period contained striking sets of activity at several which suggested 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. In 8/700-100bc the use of settlements as ritual foci appears to be strongly confirmed by the evidence: monuments of the types of previous periods have diminished in occurrence as disposal sites, and the settlements now appear to hold both disposal and other ritual activity, with links possibly to be established between the occupation areas, the middens and the cemetery sites where they have been found. The focal purposes of the previous visible monuments as community landmark sites or territorial statements would have become obsolete if land had been divided in more precise ways over 14/1300-8/700bc by the excavation of extensive territorial boundaries as appears the case.

The monument's importance having been subsumed, the settlement remained as the community focus for major ritual activity. It is a moot point whether this focus encompassed all such activity, or was diffused beyond the bounds of settlement, midden and cemetery to other locations which had begun to assume an importance. The appearance of disposals and goods in river contexts is noted for the first time to any degree. So many different containers and locations have been used for disposal purposes that one addition need have no significance per se, save as one more example in the range of symbolisms encompassed by locations and containers.

Are there any detectable area links in this period? The distribution of sites is very skewed to the south and south east areas, and the distribution within the south west area is concentrated in one region. There appear to be no particular links, the areas all continuing to share similar processes in similar contexts.

Apart from the increase in the placing (or survival) of grave goods, there is no special difference in the treatment of the single and multiple disposal types between this period and the last, now all appearing to be given equal disposal treatment ritually. The cremation cemeteries are much reduced in number but do not die out completely until the middle of the period, and cremation still exists as a method but is practised more for the individual disposal than the multiple (where it was rare). Individual inhumations dominate mostly on settlement sites, and the communal inhumation reappears in the form of flat cemeteries. As indicated above, ritual activity in traditional forms is low key. The importance of domestic refuse in disposal practice has emerged strongly, and this has been discussed above.

This period has found more evidence that 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 disposal process are still discernible, even though some ritual activity referred to above is diminished. The preliminary grouping of major elements has been further augmented in Table 6.20-1. The evidence for disposal process obtained in this period continues to support the idea of transition, although the particular use to which the human remains are being put may have changed to reflect the preoccupations and convictions of the communities of the time.


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