A Contextual Approach to the Interpretation of the Early Bronze Age Skeletons of the East Anglian Fens

By Roberts, Jo | Antiquity, March 1998 | Go to article overview

A Contextual Approach to the Interpretation of the Early Bronze Age Skeletons of the East Anglian Fens


Roberts, Jo, Antiquity


The fenland peats of eastern England have produced some 36 prehistoric burials, whose distinctive associations place them into the early Bronze Age - just sufficient for pattern to be evident in their placing and character.

Background

In the Fenland today, a lowland area extending for 420,000 ha around the Wash in the east of England [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED], the modern landscape is dominated by arable cultivation taking advantage of the peat-rich soils and flat land surface. Despite a long history of active drainage and land reclamation, sediments reflect the dynamic and complicated nature of past sedimentary environments. Extensive and long-term archaeological survey, which includes radiocarbon-dated environmental research, has described the complex development of the wetland landscape, and provided palaeoenvironmental reconstructions for each major period in history and prehistory (Coles & Hall 1997).

Many references have been made in recent years to the practice of depositing later Bronze Age weapons in rivers or bogs (Bradley 1990) and some have related the Fenland peat-bodies to a such a practice. Hall & Coles (1994: 90) state that the 'placing of the dead in wet areas is part of a wider tradition of disposal of "wealth" or possessions in such places', and Healy & Housley (1992: 953; Healy 1996: 181) make a similar assertion in consideration of the Methwold burial groups. Here, this view is examined in the light of the archaeological and environmental contexts of peat-buried individuals from the East Anglian Fens.

Peat-deposited individuals

Of 36 peat-buried individuals known from the Fenland Basin as a whole, 18, deriving from 9 different sites, have evidence dating them to the early Bronze Age:

Individual 1

National Grid Reference (NGR) TL6600 8400; Littleport, Cambridgeshire. Discovered 1911. Soil Peat on top of 'buttery clay'. Position in the Fens South fen-edge. (Briggs & Turner 1986: 182.)

The remains of 'Shippea Hill Man' (Sedgwick Museum, Cambridge), were not found in association with any funerary evidence; he was carefully described as 'four inches from the base of four and a half feet of peat which rested on buttery clay' (Hughes 1916: 29). A recent radiocarbon determination placed him in the early Bronze Age.

Individuals 2-7

Sites and Monuments Register Reference (SMR) 2542; NGR TL6505 9685; Methwold, Norfolk. Discovered 1968. Soil Peat. Vegetation Phragmites and cladium. Position in the Fens Eastern fen-edge. (Healy & Housley 1992: 948-55.)

These individuals, four adults and two children (Rural Life Museum, Gressenhall), belong to a group burial investigated by the Fenland Survey. Radiocarbon determinations place three of the individuals within the early Bronze Age. The only associated artefact was a copper alloy, double-ended, quadrangular-section awl.

Individuals 8-10

SMR 2542; NGR TL6510 9684; Methwold, Norfolk. Discovered 1971. Soil Peat. Position in the Fens: Eastern fen-edge. (Healy & Housley 1992: 948-55.)

Radiocarbon determinations again place these further three individuals within the early Bronze Age. They were found close to individuals 27, in association with 2 scrapers [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED].

Individual 11

SMR 2550; NGR TL6856 9591; Mothwold, Norfolk. Discovered 1967. Soil Peat. Position in the Fens Eastern fen-edge. (Healy & Housley (1992: 948-55).

This female adult was discovered lying on a regular level arrangement of sticks placed side by side; the bones were disarticulated, crushed and covered with wood. The survival of the wooden setting attests not only to a deliberate interment but also to a waterlogged deposition which has allowed preservation. The site lies close to the densely occupied edge of the upland.

Individuals 12-14

SMR 2585; NGR TL6310 9410; Methwold, Norfolk. Discovered 1958. …

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A Contextual Approach to the Interpretation of the Early Bronze Age Skeletons of the East Anglian Fens
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