Bronze Age barrow cemetery discovered in Salisbury

Recent excavations by Cotswold Archaeology in Harnham, along Netherhampton Road on the western edge of Salisbury, have uncovered a large barrow cemetery, consisting of at least 20 burial mounds. While several Bronze Age barrow cemeteries have been identified in the nearby protected areas of Salisbury Plain and Cranborne Chase, this is the first major cemetery (a few other barrows are known) to have been found in Salisbury proper, adding to our understanding of how this landscape was used in prehistory.

While ploughing and other agricultural activity over the centuries have flattened the barrows, so the mounds are no longer apparent, their outlines can be seen as cropmarks in the fields, indicating ditches that survive below the topsoil. As the project was carried out in advance of a new residential housing development by Vistry, only the areas that will be affected by the construction were excavated, including five of the round barrows.

Of the barrows excavated by the team, three of them appear to have undergone some remodelling over their lifespan: two appear to have been substantially enlarged, while the third seems to have started as a sub-circular ditch. Based on the shape and Beaker burials within, this ring-ditch would have had early Bronze Age origins, before being replaced by a near-circular ditch – more in keeping with the other mounds on site. A mass grave was found near the centre of this unusual barrow, containing the remains of both adults and children. Radiocarbon dates for the remains are awaited.

The ditch of the sub-circular barrow was found to have cut through earlier, Neolithic pits containing a number of red-deer antlers. While post-excavation analysis is yet to take place, a provisional examination indicated at least one had been shed and both had signs of burning. While there are no clear signs that these antlers had been modified into digging tools, such as picks and rakes, antler and red-deer bone were frequently worked into objects such as combs and pins, as well as weapons – for example, maceheads.

A small number of human burials were discovered in the other four barrows, but due to the truncation of the mounds many other interments may have been lost. One of the barrows contained two Beaker burials with the characteristic pottery, while another contained a number of cremation burials, both inside and outside the ditch. The last barrow was positioned on a slight break of the slope, which would have made it more visible from the River Nadder valley below, with evidence suggesting the barrow was levelled in the late Bronze Age. The skeletal remains of a child were found in its centre, along with a handled ‘Yorkshire’ Food Vessel (above). This type of pottery is rare in the south, and handled pottery food vessels are rarer still, although they have been found in other materials: notably the two gold cups from Rillaton and Ringlemere, others in amber (Hove), and the shale cups of the early Bronze Age. It is uncommon, but these sometimes contain cremated remains and occasionally the bones of neonates (such as the one from near Old Sarum). For this reason, Cotswold Archaeology have had the vessel CT scanned and, following micro- excavation, they will be conducting residue analysis. The inhumed bone itself will allow for various analyses, such as isotopes and aDNA, so more information on this burial should be coming soon.

In a second area of excavation, the team unearthed what appears to be the remains of a late Iron Age cultivation terrace, or ‘lynchet’, which is relatively rare in Wiltshire, as well as a condensed area of 300 discrete features, most of them post-holes related to settlement and agricultural use, which most likely represents a settlement that was in use from the late Bronze Age through to the early Iron Age (above). Post-excavation analysis of the contents of the pits is ongoing, but many appear to have been used as rubbish dumps or for the storage of cereal grain. It is hoped that more details about this site will unfold as the analysis continues.

Photos: Cotswold Archaeology