When a distinctive form of pottery, known as beakers, came on the British prehistoric scene c.4,500 years ago, it heralded the arrival to these shores of a cultural phenomenon that had already spread widely across western Europe. As well as the bell-shaped vessels (often decorated with geometric designs created using combs and cords) that gave this development its name, the Beaker ‘package’ also included other innovative artefacts (stone wrist-guards, copper daggers, gold ornaments possibly worn in the hair) as well as new cultural practices, notably changes to funerary customs – typically featuring crouched burials accompanied by an eponymous pot. Archaeologists have been analysing these vessels and their rise to prominence during the late Chalcolithic and Bronze Age (2500-1700 BC) for decades, trying to deduce how beakers and the cultural changes that travelled with them were disseminated – and what exactly people used their beakers for.
The continued excavation and study of beaker finds adds to this complex picture, and scientific advances have added more pieces to the puzzle: recent DNA studies have transformed our understanding of how the Beaker phenomenon changed Bronze Age Britain, indicating that it also brought dramatic changes to the genetic make-up of the population (see CA 338). Such studies are possible because beakers are often found accompanying human remains – indeed, in Britain these vessels are more commonly found in a funerary context than a domestic one. Some of the most famous Beaker burials include those of the Amesbury Archer (CA 184 and 265) and the Boscombe Bowmen (CA 193 and 251), both laid to rest in the Stonehenge landscape and named after the archery-related paraphernalia, often associated with Beaker burials, that accompanied them. Beaker graves are known at sites from Orkney to Cornwall, however, and these pots were placed alongside individuals of both sexes and of all ages, including the very young – as we found during recent work just outside Salisbury.
In 2018-2019, archaeological contractor Headland Archaeology was employed to investigate an area to the north and south of Netherhampton Road, near Salisbury, to help inform a planning proposal for residential and commercial development of the site (the work was commissioned by the Environmental Dimension Partnership on behalf of Bovis Homes). It was already known that the area had high archaeological potential: the Wiltshire Historic Environment Record holds details of cropmarks scattered across the site and its surrounding landscape that hint at the presence of potential barrows, field systems, and enclosures, and new developments like this are providing excellent opportunities, providing funds to explore the history of local areas and uncover fascinating discoveries that otherwise would have remained unknown. Traces of Neolithic, Bronze Age, and Iron Age activity had also been identified during investigations ahead of the development of a livestock market to the immediate north-west of our site, while the findspot of the Salisbury Hoard (a large assemblage of later Bronze Age and Iron Age metal artefacts) also lay close by, and a Roman road runs just to the west of the site. All told, it seemed likely that our investigations would uncover significant finds.
The first step was to carry out a geophysical survey to the south of Netherhampton Road in April 2018, and this revealed a host of interesting anomalies. One of these was a substantial sub-oval enclosure, probably prehistoric in origin and containing dozens of possible pits, which was identified in the western portion of the site. It also had two smaller enclosures appended to its eastern side, and a sinuous potential trackway appeared to meander through its interior from the north-west to south-east. Across the central part of the site, a regular pattern of linear anomalies suggested an undated field system, while to the east and north-east of the enclosure we identified three clusters of ring-ditches: 12 in all, and most of them with internal features. These probably represent the footprints of long-vanished barrows, which may have once speckled the surrounding landscape; four more potential ring-ditches were spotted during a second phase of geophysical surveying to the north of Netherhampton Road.
These discoveries made it clear that further investigation was needed, both to confirm the geophysical results and to establish how much archaeology survived. A trial trench evaluation was the next logical step, and in total we opened 137 trenches across the site. These revealed extensive archaeological remains spanning the earlier Bronze Age to the post-medieval periods – and among them were several Beaker burials.
The first clues to Beaker-period activity came as we explored the remains of the 12 southern ring-ditches. This evaluation confirmed that they did indeed represent the remains of Bronze Age barrows, and within their ditches we found sherds of Beaker pottery. More came from a possible grave in Trench 73: the burial had been dug into a ditch that once surrounded a barrow, and yielded 17 ceramic fragments, seven of which were decorated with parallel lines of square-toothed comb impressions. Too little of this vessel survives for us to estimate its size or form when complete, but the patterns certainly indicate that it is a beaker.
Alongside these fragmentary finds, we also found one near-complete beaker – and, with it, the fragile remains of one of the people who may have called this site home, and who was laid to rest in the shadow of the burial mounds. While excavating one of the ring-ditches, we discovered an oval-shaped grave cut measuring 1.38m by 0.94m, and 0.78m deep. Its occupant was much smaller than these dimensions might suggest, though: the burial was that of an infant, who had been nestled next to an almost-intact Beaker vessel.
The skeletal remains were fragile and had only partly survived, so the burial was block-lifted and transported to Headland’s offices to be carefully excavated under laboratory conditions. There, we estimated that the infant was around nine months (+/−3 months) at the time of their death. Due to their young age, it was not possible to determine their sex, as indicative skeletal characteristics do not appear until after puberty. The majority of the surviving bone fragments came from the infant’s skull, together with two vertebrae from their neck, and their position in the ground suggested that the infant had been placed in the grave in a crouched position, though it is impossible to be certain due to the incompleteness of the remains. The same sleep-like posture is also commonly seen in adult Beaker burials; it appears that the loss of even very young members of the community was keenly felt and carefully commemorated with the same rites that were used to honour older individuals.
The Beaker accompanying the child was judged to be too delicate to risk further transportation to our pottery expert, and so high-resolution photos and a photogrammetry model were put together by one of our illustrators, and these were sent to the specialist, who determined that the vessel is most likely to be a Low Carinated Beaker. This was an exciting development, as such pots tend to be early in the beaker sequence, helping us to place the burial in the site’s past. It was decorated with comb impressions forming simple but clear geometric patterns: alternating rows of horizontal lines and chevrons.
Equally striking was the beaker’s size: at 146mm tall, it is a relatively small example of this kind of vessel. Might the fact that it was buried with an infant suggest that the pot had been carefully chosen in proportion to the tiny body it accompanied? A similar practice has been suggested at Porton Down, where excavation by Wessex Archaeology revealed the remains of an early Bronze Age infant and a baby aged under one month that had been committed to the Wiltshire soil accompanied by a miniature collared urn and a food vessel. (This investigation is discussed in vol.109 of the Wiltshire Archaeological & Natural History Magazine, 2016.) As at our site, their graves were associated with a segmented ring-ditch, probably the remains of a barrow, where fragments of early Beaker period pottery were also found. While we can only speculate on the meaning and the motivations that lie behind gestures like these, they do represent a very human connection to the distant past.
Beyond the Bronze Age
As mentioned above, our discoveries on the site stretch beyond the Bronze Age, encompassing later prehistoric features such as a large enclosure dating to the early Iron Age, and a smaller enclosure from the later end of this period. This latter find contained a complex mass of intercutting features, probably relating to occupation and probable domestic activity, though their precise purpose is yet to be unpicked. Another long-running thread from the site’s story is agricultural activity: we saw signs of the land being used in this way potentially as early as the Bronze Age, and continuing through to the medieval and post-medieval periods. As these finds come from trial trenching, they can only present a partial picture of what lies beneath the surface beside Netherhampton Road, but they do provide an exciting range of ‘hot spots’ for further targeted fieldwork in the future, and a fascinating snapshot of a small part of Wiltshire’s past.