Between 1815 and 1817, a group of Yorkshire antiquaries investigated a monument at Arras Farm, near Market Weighton, in East Yorkshire. Their discoveries included two burials containing the remains of chariots. One was dubbed the ‘King’s Barrow’ on account of the richness of the harness fittings and the two horses buried in the grave. Another was named the ‘Charioteer’s Barrow’. A third grave – the ‘Queen’s Barrow’ – contained the remains of a woman buried with a gold ring, bronze brooches, iron mirror, and glass-bead necklace.
Exactly 200 years later, in 2017, another chariot burial was found at Burnby Lane, Pocklington, some seven miles north-west of Arras Farm (see CA 327), and another followed in 2018, at The Mile, a different site on the northern edge of Pocklington. The latter grave was particularly spectacular because the chariot had been buried intact and the two horses pulling it were interred in a standing position, while the male occupant of the grave had been laid on the floor of the chariot, on top of a highly decorated shield.
These astonishing interments are characteristic of what Vere Gordon Childe described as the Arras Culture, named after the place – once a medieval village but now reduced to a farm and a few cottages – where the first chariot burials were found. The earliest description we have of the Arras cemetery is contained in a letter dated January 1699 from Abraham de la Pryme, curate of Hull’s Holy Trinity church, to his friend, Dr Gale Dean of York, in which he says, ‘I saw on my journey to York many hundreds of tumuli, which I take to be Roman, at a place called Arras, on this side [of] Wighton, not mentioned in any author, which I intend next summer to dig into.’ (It appears that he did not follow up on his intentions, as there is no further mention in his diary.)
The reference to ‘many’ hundreds of tumuli might at first appear to be an exaggeration, but Stephen Briggs discovered a map in the British Museum archives, dated 5 August 1816 and accurately surveyed by William Watson in the course of the 1815–1817 excavations, which shows more than 50 tumuli in three distinct groups. Then in 2017, the bicentenary year of the first excavation, a remote-sensing survey of some 23ha around the farm found evidence for around 200 barrows. All have now been levelled by agricultural activity, but they can still be seen clearly in satellite, drone, and aerial photography after the Arras Farm fields have been freshly ploughed.
The term ‘square barrows’ refers to the fact that many of these burials are contained within a rectangular or sub-rectangular enclosure – typically 8m to 11m across, but sometimes up to 20m. Thousands of square barrows have now been recorded in eastern Yorkshire, mainly as cropmarks forming large cemeteries, and more than 1,000 have been excavated, with particular concentrations around the villages of Wetwang and Garton. Chariot burials are the exception, though: in most cases, the deceased was interred with a shield, and sword and decorated sheath. In addition, there are some 25 ‘speared corpse burials’, so named because it was thought that spears were thrown into the grave as part of the funeral rite, sometimes piercing the body of the deceased. Careful examination suggests that some of the spears were in fact carefully placed in the grave, though, and that some had been symbolically broken first.
Not all of the people buried in this fashion were male: some of the most elaborately decorated chariot fittings have come from the graves of women, including two of the four Wetwang Farm burials excavated in 1971 and 1984 (see CA 51 and 93). One of these later featured in the BBC’s Meet the Ancestors TV series (‘Chariot Queen’, first shown in November 2007), while the other included some outstanding grave goods: a copper alloy canister decorated with red enamel and engraved with a La Tène-style motif, an iron mirror, and an iron brooch embellished with coral and gold.
Of the 30 chariot burials now known from Britain, all but three were found in East Yorkshire (the outliers being from Ferrybridge in West Yorkshire – see CA 191; Newbridge, on the edge of Edinburgh; and Pembrokeshire, west Wales – see CA 349 and 355). Such rich and complex funerary rites contained within a well-defined landscape between the Humber, the Ouse, and the North Yorkshire moors encouraged Vere Gordon Childe and others to point to the similar burial rites of the people of the Aisne-Marne region of northern France and the Belgian Ardennes. Christopher Hawkes went further in seeing the Arras Culture as evidence
of an invasion by people from those parts of continental Europe. Dr Ian Stead, former Deputy Keeper in the Department of Prehistoric and Romano-British Antiquities at the British Museum, was prompted to carry out excavations in the Ardennes and Champagne regions of France to investigate the similarities.
Adding fuel to the idea of a cultural link with the near Continent was the statement by the 2nd-century AD geographer Ptolemy, who said that the people inhabiting this part of Britain were called the Parisi, a name that some linguists think means ‘the spear people’. Naturally, it was concluded that they must be related to the Parisii of northern France, after whom the French capital is named.
Such neat conclusions, based on circumstantial evidence, are difficult to prove scientifically, and the newly published volume The Arras Culture of Eastern Yorkshire, edited by Peter Halkon, marking the bicentenary of the first chariot burial discovery, questions this thesis (see ‘Further reading’ on p.27). Fraser Hunter, for example, warns against the trap of thinking that chariots were only made and used in East Yorkshire. It is the burial of chariots within square ditched enclosures that is exceptional, he argues, not the chariots themselves. Finds of bridle bits, straps, linchpins and terrets (the rings attached to the yoke of a horse-drawn vehicle to stop the reins becoming entangled) are so widely distributed and so numerous (many of them reported through the Portable Antiquities Scheme) that there must have been a long and extensive tradition of chariot use across Britain in the last four centuries BC.
Tim Champion reminds us that Caesar gives a vivid account of chariot use by the Britons who opposed his attempted landing in 55 BC: ‘the barbarians, upon perceiving the design of the Romans, sent forward their cavalry and charioteers, a class of warriors of whom it is their practice to make great use in their battles, and following with the rest of their forces, endeavoured to prevent our men landing’ (The Gallic War 4.24). Caesar also claims that his second expedition, of 54 BC, was met by some 4,000 chariots under the command of Cassivellaunus – another exaggeration, perhaps, but the implication is that chariots were common in this part of Britain.
In his account, Caesar describes the ways in which chariots were used. ‘Firstly’, he writes, ‘they drive about in all directions and throw their weapons and generally break the ranks of the enemy with the very dread of their horses and the noise of their wheels; and when they have worked themselves in between the troops of horse, leap from their chariots and engage on foot. The charioteers in the meantime withdraw some little distance from the battle, and so place themselves with the chariots that, if their masters are overpowered by the number of the enemy, they may have a ready retreat to their own troops. Thus they display in battle the speed of horse, [together with] the firmness of infantry; and by daily practice and exercise attain to such expertness that they are accustomed, even on a declining and steep place, to check their horses at full speed, and manage and turn them in an instant and run along the pole, and stand on the yoke, and thence betake themselves with the greatest celerity to their chariots again’ (The Gallic War 4.33).
Caesar admits that his men were surprised and disconcerted by the novelty of this fighting method, which suggests that chariot use had long ago disappeared from the Continent. This brings us to the question of dating. The Newbridge chariot burial was found in 2001 by Headland Archaeology prior to new developments near Edinburgh Airport. Its intact chariot was different in style to the Yorkshire examples and much more like French and Belgian examples in key respects. The latter are dated to the period 450 to 400 BC, so, writes Fraser Hunter: ‘there was little surprise when our radiocarbon dates on wood preserved in the two wheels came out in exactly this period, a good 200 years earlier than the majority of the scientifically dated Yorkshire examples.’
Innovation or immigration?
This is, however, no simple tale of migration from the Paris Basin to Edinburgh. The wheels of the Newbridge chariot were made using a sophisticated technique whereby a continuous hoop of iron – of just the right size when hot – was fitted round the wheel rim so that it shrank and tightened the wheel when it cooled. This innovative technique is not encountered on the Continent for another century or more: there, the usual method was to nail the iron tyre to the wooden rim. Interesting questions therefore arise about who invented what, when; and who influenced whom: could this wheel-building technology have been a British innovation, drawn on by Continental chariot-makers?
This possibility brings us to one of the central questions raised by the Arras Culture: if we accept that there is evidence of a connection between northern Gaul and north-east England, how did the techniques of wheel-making and the idea of chariot burial and square-ditched enclosures travel? A simple explanation based on the relocation of people from the Paris Basin to Yorkshire is difficult to prove unless one happens by chance to find the grave of a member of the founder population. In their chapter on ‘Isotopes and chariots’, Mandy Jay and Janet Montgomery describe the results of the analysis they carried out on skeletal remains from different cemeteries in Yorkshire. This showed that most of the deceased and their animals were locally born, or have isotopic values that can be explained as resulting from seasonal movement between places with different geologies. But one group of individuals stands out as having a very different range of strontium isotope values that are not consistent with the regional geology of East Yorkshire. Rather than rushing to the conclusion that these people are long-distance migrants, the authors warn that ‘the findings so far can be considered work in progress’. Whilst the results are ‘interesting [and] unusual’, they ‘require further research to understand’ and so ‘a conclusive interpretation has been delayed in order to consider the possibility that this [isotopic] signal might be identified somewhere in Britain’ – they think perhaps in south-west England or south Wales.
Manuel Fernández-Götz, who contributes an essay on the bigger picture of migration in Iron Age Europe, reminds us that mobility is a characteristic of many periods in human history and yet it remains little studied or understood. In the case of the Arras Culture, Manuel suggests that we think less of a large-scale population relocation and instead consider a much more limited combination of a local Yorkshire population and a small number of newcomers, perhaps from the Continent.
Fraser Hunter argues that we should not rule out formal trade or technological exchange as the mechanism for cultural transmission. He stresses the potential for ‘shared creativity’ across a ‘connective network’ that not only links Britain and the European mainland but is also influenced by wider European traditions of art, metalworking, and chariot-making. Realising this, he says, ‘demands a change in perspective in what has been a very insular-focused Iron Age scholarly tradition.’ The Arras Culture shows, he says, ‘knowledge of a wider world’ and ‘carries implications of a world of shared ideas.’ So-called ‘Celtic’ art shows us that you do not need a single source and a single channel of transmission for its creation, just ‘well-connected groups in different parts of Europe drawing on influences from different areas combined with their own visual heritage to create innovative and powerful decorated objects.’
Skills and status
The implication is that we need to distinguish between skills and their application. If the craft skills to make sophisticated metal and timber objects exist within a population, then we do not need migrants to bring the idea of a chariot and a set of instructions for building one: the idea alone is sufficient, and ideas can be spread through contact – they do not need people to migrate. In support of this is the fact that British chariots are not exact replicas of Continental ones and that there is considerable variation even within the British examples. They do display a high degree of craft skill, however, as do the swords and engraved scabbards, the mirrors, horse bits, harness fittings and terret rings, shield fittings, spears, iron tyres, brooches, bracelets, and necklaces found in Arras Culture graves. Some of the materials are exotic and imported (further evidence of connection with other communities), but the objects themselves tell us that the population of Iron Age Yorkshire included people with highly developed skills in working with different kinds of metal – as well as enamel, coral, glass, and wood – both at the scale of personal jewellery and larger projects like a chariot, armour, or a shield.
In addition to the craft skills involved in chariot-making, we should not underestimate the expertise involved in using a chariot – a skill not exclusive to men. Writing about the chariot burials at Wetwang and Arras Farm, Melanie Giles, Victoria Green, and Pedro Peixoto remind us that, of the nine individuals who have been osteologically sexed in a reliable manner, two are female. These authors draw a distinction between the individual prowess of the charioteer and the likelihood that chariots are community assets rather than personal possessions. Many households must have been involved in the specialised production of the chariots and horse-gear, and in the care, training, and stabling of the horses. Rather than being reserved exclusively for warfare, it is likely that the ‘noisy spectacle… the terrifying speed, flailing hooves, and brandished weaponry’ of the charioteer were all used to theatrical effect to enhance displays, equine events, competitions, and moments of ceremony, theatre, and oration. The charismatic charioteer might thus have held a high status within the community, a fact reflected in the choice of chariot burial for the few – the chariot burial rite itself being another theatrical event in which the entire community is likely to have taken part.
In her paper on terrets and the significance of their decoration, Anna Lewis suggest a further use for chariots, as a means of ‘asserting control over the land.’ We can, she writes, ‘imagine that chariots might have been used to patrol territories.’ This policing role, restricting movement in and out of a landscape and maintaining the integrity of the territory, again implies that the chariot is a symbol of authority and that those who use them are people of some standing within their community.
Why then was chariot burial so restricted in its geographical or territorial distribution? Surely if ideas can spread from the Continent to Yorkshire and vice versa they can spread to other parts of Britain. In fact, it is quite possible that there are other chariot burials waiting to be found. The discovery by metal-detecting enthusiast Mike Smith in February 2018 of a chariot burial in Pembrokeshire (the exact site is not being revealed) has alerted Cadw, the Welsh Archaeological Trusts, and the Royal Commission in Wales to the possibility that others await discovery. Geophysical survey work in and around promontory forts and hillforts in Wales has already found a number of candidate sites for further investigation.
Identity in Iron Age burials
Another answer to the question of why there is such a limited distribution of Arras Culture burials relates to the rarity of any kind of inhumation rite in the middle to late Iron Age, and the sheer diversity of burial practices demonstrated by inhumations where they do exist. Chariot burials and warrior inhumations within rectangular enclosures or small round barrows are just three examples amongst a whole range of ways in which the people of Iron Age Britain expressed their regional identity – ways that make one wonder whether being different was the primary aim, rather than emulating your neighbours. Mapping the distribution of Iron Age cemeteries across Britain and across Europe shows large periods of time and large swathes of the landscape entirely lacking in burial sites.
Although Iron Age burials are now found more widely than when Rowan Whimster published his pioneering survey in 1981, the numbers are still small: Scotland, for example, has 130 findspots, representing several hundred individuals, a number that is very low in comparison to the likely size of the population. These burials take many different forms: cremation and inhumation, supine burials and crouched, isolated graves and cemeteries, single and multiple burials, flat graves and tumuli, enclosed and unenclosed, and some with bodies that show signs of mummification and curation prior to eventual burial. Only 50 of the Scottish burials have grave goods – mainly clothing fasteners and personal ornaments.
Not only is finding entire individuals unusual, but recent research has emphasised that deliberately fragmented human remains at settlement sites is the norm. The phenomenon of skeletal fragmentation is widely recognised in many parts of Britain, and has been variously explained as a form of relic veneration or the shaming of a defeated enemy. This only serves to make the warrior and chariot burials of the Arras Culture all the more exceptional, but there are other regional differences: hillforts are relatively rare in East Yorkshire; this is an area of ladder settlements and farms.
The Arras Culture thus serves to highlight not just the often-rehearsed arguments about cultural mobility and migration but also on the potentially more rewarding theme of regional identity in the British and European Iron Age (as well as before and after), why and how it is created and why it is present at some times and in some places and not others. Fraser Hunter thinks it could come back to connections with the Paris Basin after all, but not in a simple migration model. Rather, if you have those connections, however they were forged, they become part of your regional identity – something special to your people, something to build on and celebrate.
And there are some relevant observations in an entirely different book, just published, on the influence of Eurasian art on so-called ‘Celtic art’ (see ‘Further reading’ below). This calls into question the idea of bounded cultural groups and instead proposes a series of overlapping interaction zones where cultural practices and ideas move so swiftly that it is impossible to identify a point of origin or say who influenced whom.
And an interesting fact emerges from the chapter in which Tess Machling and Roland Williamson interview 21st-century gold- and silversmiths, asking them what techniques they would use to make an Iron Age gold torc. This reveals that modern craftworkers study the work of their contemporaries and can identify the products of individuals from their techniques. If that is so in today’s crowded craft world, it is even more likely to be true of metalworkers in the past: it is possible that what we are in the habit of calling ‘regional identity’ results from artistic rivalry – skilled workers learning from the productions of their peers and striking out to create something new and original, which meets with their community’s approval to become the fashion of the day.
Peter Halkon (ed), The Arras Culture of Eastern Yorkshire: celebrating the Iron Age, Oxbow Books, £38, ISBN 978-1789252583.
Courtney Nimura, Helen Chittock, Peter Hommel and Chris Gosden (eds), Art in the Eurasian Iron Age, Oxbow Books, £48, ISBN 978-1789253948.