Hampshire Archaeology

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Buried in time – a bell barrow and funerary feasting.

In 1967-68 Barbara Applin excavated the site of a Bronze Age barrow at Buckskin, Basingstoke, beside a small chalk quarry off Kempshott Lane (now Berwyn Close). Twenty five years later, analysis of stored soil samples and animal bones enabled a greater exploration of the site’s history and provided evidence for the ceremonial activities that took place before the barrow’s construction.

buckcol1

Rescue archaeology on the outskirts of Basingstoke: the tide of houses approaches the site of the barrow; pegs mark the positions of Bronze Age stakes.

The excavation revealed a ‘bell barrow’ with a flat-bottomed ditch c.26m in diameter. The barrow was poorly preserved and only survived to a maximum height of 0.7m, having been truncated by agricultural activity and localized quarrying. No primary burial was found and there was a poor artefact assemblage, with little pottery and no high status finds.

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A ‘bell barrow’ has a small mound at the centre of the monument, separated from the ditch (and possibly bank) by a flat space or ‘berm’ – as in the background of this Mike Codd painting.

Re-examination of the few animal bones from the barrow found a phase of activity associated with burning and possibly cooking within a stake-ring enclosed area, with no comparable activity outside. Significantly, the bones represented high meat-yielding parts of a carcass, which may have been brought to the ritual area as prepared joints of meat. This could be interpreted as feasting, taking place as part of the cemetery’s ceremonials. The original soil samples were also carefully examined and showed that a pre-mound platform was comprised of turves. Charcoal fragments from the top of the clods showed evidence for in situ burning, possibly associated with the deposition of a Collared Urn during the Early Bronze Age.

Diggers in action, 1967: The Archaeological Group trowelling; Paul Laibach (student volunteer) busy with a broom; Miss Margaret McFarlane (Curator, Basingstoke Museum) excavating a posthole north of gully, Segment F, viewed from the west!

A detailed analysis of over 2000 land snails from the samples allowed a reconstruction of the site’s landscape history. Clearance of deciduous woodland in the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age was followed by a period of regeneration soon after the barrow was constructed. Further clearance occurred in the Middle and Late Bronze Age, probably associated with funerary rituals when secondary cremations were inserted into the monument. Radiocarbon (C14) dates from the cremations support this evidence, providing mid-2nd millennium BC readings. They show that this secondary funerary activity was taking place perhaps four hundred years after the mound was built. The site became overgrown again in the Iron Age, but by the Romano-British period there is evidence for farming activity which resulted in the initial destruction of the monument.

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The barrow ditch, scale 6 feet (1.8m). The different soil layers can be clearly seen. Snail shells, some microscopic, show which species were present at what period in the past and indicate whether the environment was open grassland, shady woodland and so on.

The Buckskin archive highlights the advantages of soil sampling. Material collected during the excavation was not gathered with C14 dating in mind and lay unprocessed for many years. And yet, it subsequently yielded high-quality data which has provided much greater detail regarding the chronology and possible function of the barrow. This provides a cautionary tale for archaeologists sampling for only specific or limited purposes and for museum curators tempted to dispose of bulky, unprocessed samples.

Further reading:

Allen M.J., Morris M. & Clark R.H. 1995. Food for the Living: a Reassessment of a Bronze Age Barrow at Buckskin, Basingstoke, Hampshire. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, 61:157-189.

Michael Allen  and Barbara Applin, 1996, The Story of the Buckskin barrow, Current Archaeology,  146, pp 52-56.

Archive: A1990.19; BWM 1967:289Hampshire Cultural Trust.

Series by: Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Jane King, Lesley Johnson, Peter Stone

 

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