Death in the East: an integrated approach to burial evidence for the Iron Age of eastern England

Guest-blogger Michael Legge, PhD student at Cardiff and Exeter Universities is shedding new light on Iron Age burial practices.

The British Iron Age is a period with many mysteries. Despite years of research and excavation, much is still unknown about the period, and the people. Death in the Iron Age, is one avenue where the unknowns are especially intriguing.

For a long time scholars believed there were no major mortuary traditions in the British Iron Age, with a few key exceptions, like the Aylseford-Swarling cremation burials found in Kent and elsewhere in the south east. In 1964 Iron Age scholar Frank Hodson called it the lack of observable rites a ‘negative type-fossil’. Cremations, inhumation, and excarnation are all practiced, often at the same time. Disarticulated human bone is found commonly on Iron Age sites, all across Britain. These have been given many interpretations over the years, from careless rubbish, to the result of massacres, to the remains of human sacrifice, and even evidence of cannibalism.  In 1981 R.P. Whimster published the first major gazeteer of Iron Age burial practices, and identified several regional traditions that before people did not see were there. Pits are a common context for both disarticulated remains and complete inhumations in the British Iron Age. In 1995 J.D. Hill examined the finds found in these pits, including the human bone, and he discovered elaborate depositional patterns within them, where before people only saw domestic waste. It appeared that there were rules governing the objects, and the place and order of their deposition – for example articulated animal bones and human remains, when in the same pit, were rarely in the same layer/fill. This led to a re-examination of the place of these remains, and thinking about excarnation practices. Again, scholars have still tended to assume that cremation and inhumation would be the normative rites, and that the excarnated, disarticulated remains must represent unusual practices, such as the humiliation of defeated enemies. Opinion is changing however, and more people are considering that while one single prevailing burial tradition may not have occurred, excarnation may have been utilised just as normatively as other, more “traditional” burial rites.  There are still many unanswered questions though. Whimster’s gazetteer is now 36 years old, and the huge number of new sites uncovered in the last 20-30 years through commercial archaeology have yet to be added to such an overview. There is also somewhat of a Wessex-heavy research bias with regard to burial interpretation. Sites like Danebury and Maiden Castle provide a wealth of useful data, but they are overused, and unrepresentative of the whole period.

My PhD project hopes to tackle some of these issues, by providing a regional overview for east of England. It will form a gazetteer of inhumation and disarticulation sites in the region, for other researchers to access, and draw their own analysis from, as well as providing a comparison for Wessex-based sites, and investigating research questions on a large scale. For example:

  • Is there any evidence of regional burial traditions within the east of England, aside from the Arras burials, and Aylseford-Swarling cremations?
  • Can there be such a thing as one ‘normative’ rite for the region? Is it right to search for one?
  • How was excarnation practiced here, compared to Wessex? Was there one method or was it variable? External or in mortuary houses?
  • What selection choices are visible for settlement burial, as opposed to cemetery inhumation?
  • Are more men or women disarticulated? Is there an age bias?
  • Is individual personhood or group identity being expressed in these burial rites? Can we see it?
  • What other patterns will the data reveal?

The raw data will be gathered from existing syntheses, from site reports, HER‘s, edited volumes, grey literature, etc., coupled with some primary re-analysis of select assemblages, from the eight counties in my chosen region. Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire, Essex, and Kent will be included.  So far the project has gathered 145 sites, representing 3-400 articulated burials, plus the disarticulated bone. Cremation rites are not included as they have been more heavily examined elsewhere, and there is less that can be learned from them osteologically. Obviously they will not be ignored, and they will be mentioned when in the same sites or contexts, but they are not the focus of the project.

The project is in its early stages, but hopefully, all being well, there should be some exciting findings in the future!

Michael Legge is a first-year AHRC funded PhD student at Cardiff and Exeter universities, as part of the SWW DTP consortium. His research interests include death and funerary archaeology of all periods and places, osteology, human origins, experimental archaeology, and more. He is also part of a CRE funded community project examining pre/historic uses of antler, and skill-transmission. More can be found here:

Feature image: The Deal Crown and skull from an Iron Age burial at Mill Hill, Kent, dated 250-150BC. Photograph ©Trustees of the British Museum.


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