Iron Age Burials

Iron Age burials are rare along the Atlantic coast and almost non-existent in Wales. Most bodies were disposed of in a way that has left no archaeologically detectable remains, and those burials that have been identified are usually located on chalk and limestone geology or on other soils conducive to good bone preservation. In some parts of Britain, and in much of continental Europe, burial traditions have been recognised, such as the cart burials of East Yorkshire, but no single tradition had been traced in the Atlantic zone owing to the disparate nature and poor quality of the evidence. In Wales, and indeed in north-west Iberia, south-west England, Ireland, Brittany and western Scotland, the problem of burial identification is exacerbated by rapid bone decay in acid soils.

It has been argued that excarnation - exposing the body allowing the fleshy parts to decay - was the primary way of disposing of the dead in the early and middle Iron Age across much of central-southern Britain (Carr 2007; Carr and Knüsel 1997). Some time after exposure skeleton parts were placed in pits located in settlements, a process best recorded during Barry Cunliffe's excavation of Danebury hillfort, Hampshire (Cunliffe 1983). This practice has not been specifically recognised in Wales. This is due to a number of factors, such as the low level of archaeological investigation in Wales compared with central-southern Britain, acid soils, and the fact that storage/rubbish pits used for the deposition of excarnated bones characteristic of hillforts in the south of England are unknown in Wales. It has been generally accepted that cremation (and also inhumation) replaced excarnation as the chief burial rite in the Late Iron Age, at least in central-southern Britain. It is here that we have the most comprehensive evidence, and where, it is believed, the change of rite was introduced from northern France prior to the 1st century BC. It has been, argued, however, that there was both an overlapping and blurring of rites, with excarnation continuing into the Roman period and some excarnated bone later cremated (Pollock 2006).

Only about 25 burial sites are known in Wales, representing approximately 45 to 55 individuals, an obviously minuscule proportion of the population. The disparate and fragmentary character of the evidence means that it must be treated with some caution: several skeletons are considered Iron Age as they were found close to hillforts or similar settlements; skeletal remains are absent at a number of locations, but these are considered burial sites owing to the presence of artefacts known elsewhere to have been associated with burials (such as a bronze mirror from Llanwnda, Pembrokeshire, and a pair of La Tène spoons from Penbryn, Ceredigion); other sites are known of only through (often vague) antiquarian records. There are very few examples where skeletal remains have been positively associated with Iron Age artefacts, discovered within stratified Iron Age deposits or have been scientifically dated and which, therefore, can confidently be assigned to the Iron Age.

Despite the poor quality of the evidence, burial practice in Wales seems to broadly parallel what is happening elsewhere in Britain. For instance, the scattered metacarpals found during the excavation of Coygan Camp, Carmarthenshire, the mutilated skeleton discovered in the defensive ditch at Nash Point, Glamorgan, and fragmentary disarticulated remains at Dinorben, Denbighshire, may be indications that excarnation was practised. There are several examples of cremation burials. Cremation in Wales, however, seems to represent a continuing, if sporadic, tradition from the Late Bronze Age, and not a reintroduction from the continent, as is claimed for southern England. In the late Iron Age in Wales, as elsewhere in Britain, burials become a little more visible in the archaeological record with several types of burial rite recognised. In addition to cremation and possible excarnation, crouched burials have been found at Merthyr Mawr, Glamorgan and at Plas Gogerddan near Aberystwyth, Ceredigion (Murphy and Williams 1992). An extended inhumation was found in a partial cist accompanied by a La Tène sword at Llangeinwen, Gwynedd. A crouched adult burial and the skeletons of three crushed and twisted infants (a perinatal infant, a 14-18 month old child and a 3 year old child), all close to the Devil's Quoit standing stone at Stackpole in Pembrokeshire, represent possible evidence of human sacrifice, or at least something more than simple disposal of the dead.

The use, or reuse, of early prehistoric funerary and ritual sites, such as standing stones and burial mounds, for Iron Age burial is well attested across northern and western Britain. In Wales, in addition to the Devil's Quoit, inhumations have been found close to a standing stone at Plas Gogerddan, and a cremation was found in a Bronze Age burial cairn at Ystrad-Hynod, Llanidloes Without, Powys. If excarnation was a common rite in the early and mid-Iron Age in Wales, then it is entirely possible that many other Neolithic and Bronze Age standing stones and burial mounds were used for depositing dispersed bone, but the evidence does not survive. Most other known burials in Wales are in or close to hillforts and other settlements, following the tradition common elsewhere in Britain.

Overall, burial evidence from Wales indicates a greater focus on the individual in the Late Iron Age than earlier in the period (Whimster 1981), with interments often associated with brooches, mirrors, swords and other artefacts marking the status of the person.


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