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Changing Times | The Iron Age Cemetery at Westhampnett

In November, 1991, an archaeological evaluation along the course of the impending A27 Westhampett bypass revealed no less than five sites with rich archaeological remains, mainly from the Prehistoric and Roman periods.

 

Full-scale excavations along the route of the bypass then began in January, 1992, and took ten weeks to complete. A total of five main areas were excavated by a team of 70 people.

 

One of the areas excavated was the Westhampnett Iron Age cemetery. In contrast to the Mystery Warrior, found at North Bersted in 2008, all of the burials at Westhampnett were cremation.

 

The cemetery at Westhampnett was found to be one of the most important sites in Europe for the study of Iron Age ritual and religion. This is because of its size – 161 graves were found, making it the largest known cemetery of its kind, as well as the presence of numerous pyres (a structure made of flammable material, usually wood, built to burn bodies during funeral rites).

 

The pyres discovered at Westhampnett were the first Iron Age examples to have been found in Britain and allowed a unique insight into funerary rites at the time. About one ton of timber was required for each pyre. Analysis of the charcoal found that they were constructed of oak and ash. Maple and cherry, which gave off a wonderful aroma when burned, were also utilised.

 

When the excavation report was written in 1997 it was not possible to radiocarbon date the cremated bone. Instead, the brooches and pots found in the graves suggested that the cemetery was only in use for a few generations between circa 90-40 BC.

 

Radiocarbon dating of Iron Age sites has become more common in recent decades. In 2016, thanks to funding from the Natural Environment Research Council, more than 50 samples of cremated human bone as well as seed and nuts were taken in order to try to better establish the dating of the Iron Age cemetery at Westhampnett.

 

The results suggest the cemetery was in use for about 85 years from around 125 BC – 40 BC. The number of burials shows that the cemetery was used by the wider community. Women, men and children of all ages were buried there.

 

The layout of the cemetery was carefully considered, the burials originally having been laid out in an arc. No burials were made within this arc, however, a number of post holes provide evidence for some form of feature or structure. The pyres, which were reused several times, were situated around the perimeter of the cemetery.

 

Further away to the east, two small square buildings, dated to the Iron Age, may have been shrines.

 

The graves were probably located using some form of marker, as although they were all buried within a relatively small area, none of them disturbed other burials close by.

 

Rather than being placed in pots the human remains were found as scatters of bone on the bottom of the grave. It is thought they were originally deposited in a cloth bag, which did not survive.

 

Only a small proportion of the bone had been collected for burial after cremation.

 

Grave goods placed in the burials alongside the cremated remains included pots, including jars and bowls, which were sometimes finely decorated. Although locally made, they were modelled on pottery from the continent. Jewellery and other personal effects discovered both in the graves and in the pyre sites suggest that individuals were cremated in full costume.

 

Social status was not displayed prominently at Westhampett. Most burials were quite simple, but a minute fragment of a gold neck-ring from one shows that women and men of high status were also buried in the cemetery. Even though some men must have had the status of a warrior, unlike at North Bersted, their weapons were not buried with them.

 

Animal bone, including sheep and pig, was also discovered within some burials which suggests that ritual sacrifice or ritual feasting was possibly a common occurrence in the funerary ritual at that time.

 

The rite of burial, the beliefs which accompanied it, and some of the pottery indicates strong continental influences, particular with northern France (Normandy).

 

Visit The Novium Museum to see a selection of objects from the Iron Age cemetery at Westhampnett on display as part of our new exhibition ‘Mystery Warrior: The North Bersted Man, open now.

 

The exhibition has been made possible thanks to the kind donation of the finds by Berkeley Homes, a £50,000 grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and signature sponsorship from Irwin Mitchell.

 

Thanks to generous funding provided by The National Lottery Heritage Fund, The Novium Museum has programmed a range of wonderful, free activities and events to accompany the exhibition.

 

These include a fantastic programme of lectures by experts in their field, family activity days bringing the Iron Age to life at The Novium Museum, and community days celebrating the story of the Mystery Warrior at the heart of where the discovery was made in North Bersted.

 

To find out more please visit: thenovium.org/mysterywarrior

 

By Amy Roberts, collections officer at The Novium Museum
Pic: Wessex Archaeology

 

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