An Iron Age Chariot Burial from Scotland

Article excerpt

Introduction

The Scottish Iron Age is not known for its rich burial record: indeed, it is impoverished even by Britain's fairly poor standards. Yet routine rescue excavations in 2001 at Newbridge, just west of Edinburgh (Figure 1), found a completely unexpected discovery--the first chariot burial in Britain from outside the core area of East Yorkshire.

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The burial turned up during routine monitoring in advance of development. Some 300 m away lies the large Bronze Age barrow of Huly Hill and a few small (undated) ring ditches clustered near this, but no other Iron Age activity was found. The north-south figure-of-eight pit (4.5 x 2.2 m) contained the vehicle which was buried intact, in contrast to examples known from Yorkshi re which were typically dismantled (Stead 1991). Little survived of the organic remains--even the corpse had been lost--but the pit's morphology gives a good indication of the vehicle's form (Figures 2 & 3). The wheels had been sunk into individual pits, leaving the body of the vehicle (with the deceased) resting on a spine of gravel between them, with the pole pointing south. The expanded southern end of the pit held the yoke and horse harness, but no horses. There was no sign of any barrow or enclosure to mark the burial.

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The finds

There were no surviving grave goods apart from the vehicle and harness fittings, all of which were of iron. These comprised an odd pair of snaffle hits (one two-link, the other a single bar); four terrets (all simple rings); and the remains of the wheels, which were lifted in soil blocks for excavation in the laboratory (Figure 4). Despite distortion by the weight of soil, they preserved not only the iron tyre but, in places, the shape of the wooden wheel fossilised in the corrosion products. This will provide a rare insight into wheel technology; for instance, the tenons of the spokes are preserved, set into apparently single-piece felloes. One of the wheels had a pair of iron nave hoops, but these were absent in the other; this also had a different felloe cross-section, suggesting one wheel was a replacement. Clearly this was no hearse but a working vehicle.

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Parallels

This is the first chariot burial in Britain from outside the tight concentration in the East Yorkshire 'Arras Culture'. Other candidates in England have been comprehensively dismissed by Stead (1965b: 8-9) while Scotland's other claimant, from Ballindalloch in Moray, must be judged not proven on the sparse available evidence; the only illustrated find, a shield boss, has no convincing Iron Age parallels (Wilson 1863:153-5; Proudfoot & Aliaga-Kelly 1996: 3-4).

Although Yorkshire provides the geographically closest comparanda, they are not good analogies for Newbridge. Typically these feature a dismantled vehicle; five terrets are normal, and the fittings tend to be rather more elaborate (Stead 1984; Dent 1985; Stead 1991: 29-33, 40-61; Hill 2001). There are two examples (on the fringes of the distribution) with vehicles buried intact, but on the original ground surface rather than in a pit.

The Continent provides much closer parallels (Stead 1979: 24-9; van Endert 1986). Here the predominant rite was intact vehicle burial, and the finds also show closer similarities. The bits are typically plain iron ones, while terrets, if present, are generally simple rings of bronze or iron; the number varies markedly, but there are examples with four or multiples of four (e.g. Van Endert 1987: 93, 100-1). The best-known burials from Champagne are generally rather better-equipped than Newbridge, but those from the Belgian Ardennes provide closer parallels; they are plain vehicles and the burials have few if any grave goods (Cahen-Delhaye 1993; 1998: 65). The Continental burials are predominantly La Tene A (fifth-fourth centuries BC). These close parallels are confirmed by radiocarbon dates from Newbridge, on preserved wood from the felloes, of 2350 [+ or -] 50 BP and 2365 [+ or -] 40 BP (GO-107510-2). …