Iron Age Inhumation Burials at Yarnton, Oxfordshire

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Formal burials dated to the Iron Age are not common in the British archaeological record, although they become more usual from the 1st century BC onwards (Whimster 1981; Cunliffe 1991: 505). Iron Age inhumation cemeteries are found in East Yorkshire, with its groups of barrows and distinctive cart-burials (Dent 1985; Stead 1991), and the southwest where inhumations in cists were known (Whimster 1981: 192-3). Otherwise human remains are usually recovered as disarticulated human bone in domestic contexts or as individual burials or small groups, for example in storage pits on settlement sites (Cunliffe 1991: 505,508), and these are not sufficiently numerous to account for all those who must have died during the Iron Age (Whimster 1981: 191; Carr & Knusel 1997: 168). The discovery of a small inhumation burial cemetery of middle Iron Age date by the Oxford Archaeological Unit at Yarnton (Oxfordshire) may indicate that such burials are more common than has been suspected and highlights the merits of radiocarbon determinations on otherwise undated skeletons. This work also demonstrates some of the potential and the limitations of high-precision dating and the explicit mathematical modelling of archaeological problems in the Iron Age (Buck et al. 1992).

The Yarnton-Cassington Project and the circumstances of the discovery

Excavations by the Oxford Archaeological Unit at Yarnton, Oxfordshire, were precipitated by gravel extraction. As no significant archaeological remains had been anticipated in the gravel-pit area, no evaluation was carried out and no conditions were imposed on the developer (ARC Ltd) by the planning authority. As a result, the first phase of archaeological work in 1990 was undertaken in haste and in less than ideal conditions. The cemetery was discovered in this first season of work. The project has been funded throughout by English Heritage.

The Yarnton-Cassington project area is situated in the Upper Thames valley, 8 km north of Oxford [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. It lies on the north bank of the Thames, on floodplain and the higher second gravel terrace. The early to late Iron Age settlement at Yarnton lay on the edge of the gravel terrace overlooking the floodplain of the Thames, and was one of a string of small settlements located on this topography, spaced at intervals of around 1.5 km, between the river Evenlode and an old course of the river Cherwell. Large parts of these settlements at Purwell Farm, Cassington, Worton and Sandy Lane, Yarnton and the large, defensive enclosure at Cassington Mill have been destroyed by gravel extraction during the course of this century (Harding 1972: 15, 19-21, plate 27; Case 1982).

Excavation of the Yarnton Iron Age settlement took place over two field seasons. In 1996 excavations over one hectare on Cresswell Field exposed occupation of mainly early Iron Age date (Bell & Hey 1996); the main area of middle Iron Age settlement was located a little further to the east in the Yarnton Worton Rectory Farm site, where the majority of the human remains were uncovered (Hey 1991) [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED]. This was the site excavated as a rescue operation in 1990, when ARC was already extracting gravel in the field. A one-hectare area was selected for excavation, mainly on the basis of cropmark evidence, and this was stripped with some care. A palimpsest of features was revealed, dating from the early Iron Age to the late Roman period, with a small area of earlier Anglo-Saxon activity in the southeast corner of the site. As time and resources were limited, and the archaeology was very complex [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 3 OMITTED], it was only possible to excavate approximately 20% of all the features exposed.

The middle Iron Age settlement, as shown on FIGURES 3 & 4, consisted of around 15 circular post-built structures 5-9.5 m in diameter, some surrounded by gullies, and a D-shaped building. …