A First 'Wessex 1' Date from Wessex

By Needham, Stuart; Pearson, Mike Parker et al. | Antiquity, June 2010 | Go to article overview

A First 'Wessex 1' Date from Wessex


Needham, Stuart, Pearson, Mike Parker, Tyler, Alan, Richards, Mike, Jay, Mandy, Antiquity


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The 'Wessex Culture'

A radiocarbon date has been obtained for the first time for a grave belonging to the Wessex 1 grave series and coming from Wessex itself, courtesy of the Beaker People Project (hereafter, BPP). The 'Wessex Culture' (more latterly, 'Wessex grave series') was first defined by Stuart Piggott in a seminal publication (Piggott 1938). It served to recognise that funerary accompaniments of the mature Early Bronze Age in central southern Britain (the Wessex region) included a new range of specialist equipment involving varied, often exotic, materials --such as amber, jet, faience, gold, tin--and new levels of craftsmanship. The 'Wessex series' featured both ornament-dominant graves, presumed to be those of females (most were recovered by antiquarian excavations) and dagger-graves, presumed to be those of males, as well as less easily categorised graves. Piggott was able to show that the emergence of the 'Wessex Culture' was linked to the appearance of similar 'rich' graves in certain other parts of Europe, notably Armorica (ancient Brittany) and Central Europe, and that the phenomenon in general related to the emergence of elites capitalising on inter-regional trade in metals and exotics. He also ventured that the Wessex graves represented an elite that had imposed itself from Armorica, where very similar styles of dagger have been found, but the notion of wholesale introduction has found less favour in more recent decades (e.g. Needham 2000).

When Piggott was writing, the chronology of the Early Bronze Age in Britain and Europe was condensed and still wholly dependent on a chain of regional interconnections to the historically-dated cultures of the Eastern Mediterranean. It was only some while after the advent of radiocarbon dating that it became clear that the links used for cross-dating were sometimes spurious and that the beginnings of the Early Bronze Age in Europe reached back centuries earlier than Piggott could then have envisaged. Even so, today many important series of graves are still relatively poorly dated. Sometimes, as in Armorica, this is because of the decay of critical skeletal materials in adverse environments, and sometimes this is because diagnostic burials were mainly found by early barrow diggers who did not retain the skeletal remains, or who saw little purpose in recording them well. Fortunately, however, occasional pioneering excavators, such as Thomas Bateman, John Thurnam and John Mortimer in Britain, kept and labelled at least the skulls. Their respective collections, well curated for over a century, now offer a rich harvest of information with the development of more refined radiocarbon dating and a range of other new analytical techniques, not relevant to this paper but central to the BPP (see papers in Larsson & Parker Pearson 2007: esp. Chapters 8-10; Jay et al. in press).

Radiocarbon programmes

Over the course of the later twentieth century radiocarbon dates have accumulated in an ad hoc fashion from new excavations of burial sites and have proved to be of varied quality and sometimes disputable relevance. Some are individually good results, nevertheless, and have helped in the building of an outline chronology (Table 1), but few have had any direct bearing on the chronology of the 'Wessex Culture' which therefore continues to rely on typological comparisons and association patterns. Opinion has been divided on both the longevity of the 'Wessex grave series' and the extent to which the distinction between 'Wessex 1' and 'Wessex 2' first suggested by Arthur ApSimon (1954) was truly a matter of chronological sequence. The first date dealt with below is salient here. Similarly, there has been uncertainty over whether there was significant temporal overlap between the early stages of 'Wessex' and the burials of the climax Beaker phase (Period 2 in Table 1) some of which are early bronze dagger burials lacking a Beaker. …

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