A strange and intriguing burial of humans and animals
An Iron Age and Romano-British enclosed farmstead was partially excavated in 1974-76 by the Basingstoke Archaeological & Historical Society at Viables Farm on the southern edge of the town. Further work by the Hertfordshire Archaeological Trust took place in 1999. Enclosed farmsteads of this period are well known in the area due to good aerial photography coverage and discoveries made during the rapid urban expansion of the last fifty years.
The enclosure had an entrance in the south west corner and many internal features including post holes, pits and gullies were noted. The site may have been enclosed in the Late Iron Age (1st century BC) and this main phase of activity continued into the 1st century AD. After this the ditch gradually silted up but in the 4th century AD, timber-built structures were erected.
The early excavations identified a large pit (2m diameter) within the enclosure, which contained two adult females associated with a number of animal burials. Beneath all of these was a ‘cist’ (a small dug pit chamber) containing carved antler weaving combs and toggles, an antler terret ring (horse harness) and a silvered-bronze terret ring.
The two females were buried close together in an unusual way. Inhumation 2 was a young female, aged 25-30 years, lying face upward, with her right arm extended over a horse skull. Her head was resting on the neck of a sheep. Burial 1 was an older female, 35-40 years, placed in a crouched position with her head resting on the pelvis of Burial 2. Immediately beneath them were two complete sheep, parts of two horses and parts of two cattle.
The absence of butchery marks on the sheep bones suggests that the animals were buried whole. The horse skeletons, though incomplete, also showed no butchery marks, but the two cattle had been butchered. It is very unusual to find so many complete or partial domestic animals buried in one layer, particularly in association with humans. The animals appear to have been placed deliberately as grave offerings and represent a considerable investment, reflecting the importance of the two women.
Intriguingly, the grave goods, with the exception of some unfinished objects, consist of paired examples, although sometimes with a marked disparity in quality. This could reflect differing social status for the two women. The animals were also paired – a young and old sheep, a young and old cow and one horse more complete than the other. This might reflect the different ages of the human burials.
The relationship between the burial and the enclosure is uncertain. It is possible that the pit and its contents predate the digging of the ditch. However the location, in a strategic position inside the entrance, suggests that it may have been placed deliberately to symbolically protect the way into the site.
The Viables finds are displayed at the Willis Museum, Basingstoke.
An Iron Age burial from Viables Farm, Basingstoke, Archaeol J 139, 69-90 by Millett and Russell (1982).
The Iron Age and Roman site of Viables 2, Basingstoke, Hampshire Studies 59, pp 1-30 by Gibson.
Series by Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, with help from Stacie Elliot.