The Burial That’s Changing British History

There are a few notable archaeological finds and sites that fall under the category of the ‘Pompeii Effect’. They are the type of thing every archaeologist hopes to discover once in their life. The ‘Pompeii Effect’ is when everything, or most everything, at a site is preserved. It is based on the discovery of Pompeii’s Roman city, where the volcanic eruption caused the preservation of an entire city in action. It is a rare finding of intact human remains, with thousands of details about what happened and who they were. Another great example is Otzi the Ice Man, preserved in ice with a number of objects, and frozen so well that his tattoos were maintained and his stomach contents could be examined. One last example is King Tut’s tomb, a rare discovery of riches and an intact mummy. All of these are exceptional finds, not necessarily because the archaeological work was exceptional, but because they held more clues to the past than most archaeological sites, and offered more evidence for interpreting behavior in the past. A burial found in Britain is proving itself to be an increasingly important find and, like the discoveries above, may be quite revealing about its time period due to the amazing preservation.

White Horse Hill Cist, via Dartmoor National Park

Excavating the White Horse Hill Cist, via Dartmoor National Park

Ten years ago in Dartmoor, located in the South West of England, an individual was out walking on White Horse Hill when they noticed an end stone to a cist that had fallen out of a peat hag. The grave was first surrounded by a protective wall to prevent damage to the cist until archaeological work was deemed necessary. Further erosion and the fear of damage to the site led to an excavation in 2011. The base stone and the contents of the cist were removed and taken away for analysis, remaining stones were left in place. Following the removal of the cist items and conservation of the base stone, the stone was returned to White Horse Hills.

The burial contained the remains of a single individual, with charred scraps of the burial clothing or shroud, and wood from the funeral pyre included with the remains. The bundle was placed into fur, and with some possessions, was placed into a basket which was buried at the top of White Horse hill in a stone cist. The grave includes the remains of a young adult, 15-25 years old, and while sex has not been determined, based on the lack of swords or weapons, it is being called a ‘her’ (personally, I’m not comfortable with the gender designation, but we’ve talked about this issue of gendered assumptions before).

What at first appeared to be a routine excavation and analysis of an Early Bronze Age burial in Dartmoor, is now revealing much more information about burial and life in this period than was previously thought. The burial contained a myriad of treasures unique for this period. Here is why this is such an important find…

  • Earliest evidence of metal-working in the South West of Britain: a single tin bead was found, along with 34 tin studs
  • Earliest evidence of woodturning in Britain: wooden ear studs of different sizes
  • Items preserved that haven’t been found before or best condition for this age found: nettle fiber belt with a leather fringe, basket that all of the items were found within
  • Long distance trade items: jewelry including amber from the Baltic and shale from Whitby
  • Fur of extinct bear: wrapped around the human remains was the fur of an extinct species of bear

The find is so important because it gives us so much more evidence than we had previously for burials in this period. As conservation and examination continues, we may learn more about why this individual was buried on an isolated hill, with fabulous artifacts, even though they died at such a young age.

For a more extended discussion of the background of burial practices in this area, see an earlier post I wrote on the burial: Bronze Age Cist Burial Found in Britain

Works Cited

Dartmoor National Park 2014. White Horse Hill Burial

Kennedy 2014.4,000-year-old Dartmoor burial find rewrites British bronze age history. The Guardian.

7 responses to “The Burial That’s Changing British History

  1. Very exciting. So, those are in fact wooden ear plugs; would they have been worn in a similar fashion to how people in the Americas did/do?

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