Iron Age Chariot Burials in Britain and the Near Continent

Review by Peter Halkon.

Chariot burials are icons of Iron Age Britain. Apart from those found near Edinburgh and in Pembroke, they are clustered in eastern Yorkshire, with an outlier at Ferry Fryston in West Yorkshire. The most spectacular were at Burnby Lane and The Mile, Pocklington. Remarkably, both burials featured a pair of horses, and, at The Mile, the animals were positioned as if pulling the remains of the upright and intact chariot (the base of which supported the crouched inhumation of a middle-aged male lying on the remains of a highly decorated shield). The inclusion of horses is paralleled in the so-called King’s Barrow, in a large cemetery excavated between 1815 and 1817 at Arras Farm, near Market Weighton, which gave its name to the Arras Culture. This culture’s distinctive burials surrounded by square enclosures around a low mound (known as square barrows) are also concentrated in eastern Yorkshire. Chariot burials are much more common on the near European continent, particularly in northern France and Belgium, and into Germany, and for many years archaeologists have tried to explain this connection, which is the major aim of this volume.

The book, by Greta Anthoons, is based on her Bangor University PhD thesis and provides the most comprehensive catalogue of chariot burials yet compiled. It begins with an up-to-date account of the Arras Culture chariot burials in their wider context and continues to discuss chariot burials in the Middle Rhine-Moselle region of Germany, the Netherlands, the Aisne-Marne region of France, Luxembourg, the Paris region, Belgium, and Normandy. Each section is carefully constructed, allowing comparison with the Arras examples. In terms of chronology, Anthoons identifies two main periods of chariot burial: one in the 5th to 4th centuries BC, focused on the Belgian Ardennes and Middle Rhine-Moselle, and a later 3rd- to 2nd-century BC phase, particularly in the Paris region. Radiocarbon dating using Bayesian statistical analysis places the bulk of the eastern Yorkshire examples in the latter group.

The similarities between the Arras Culture and continental finds were originally thought to be the result of invasion or migration, although this idea was subsequently disregarded, mainly based on the differences between the eastern Yorkshire chariot burials and examples from the Continent. Most of the eastern Yorkshire burials contained dismantled vehicles, with a crouched or flexed inhumation placed with the individual’s head to the north, whereas most continental chariots were buried intact, with supine extended inhumations oriented east-west. This distinction was somewhat blurred by the recent excavation of intact chariots at Ferry Fryston and Pocklington, and older discoveries at Pexton Moor and Cawthorn Camps. Dismantled vehicles are also present on the Continent, and although some eastern Yorkshire chariot burials appear spectacular, with elaborate terrets (rein rings) and linchpins decorated with coral, and swords in highly decorated copper-alloy sheaths, they seem somewhat impoverished compared with that from Warcq (French Ardennes) which included four harnessed horses and a chariot box embellished with gold leaf.

If invasion and migration are to be excluded as an explanation for the appearance of chariot burials in England, why are there so many in eastern Yorkshire? Anthoons argues that the Arras phenomenon is part of a wider trend of long-distance connections in the 3rd century BC, across near continental Europe, with ideas concerning ritual and burial transmitted through elite networks. Although some movement of people is possible, she suggests that similarities between Arras and the Continent should be even closer in the case of larger-scale migration. Whereas the chariot burials of the Paris region most closely resemble those of Arras in date and technology, such as single-hooped iron tyres shrunk onto the wheels, the Parisian examples are not generally surrounded by square enclosures. The Arras Culture square barrow cemeteries most closely resemble those of the Aisne-Marne region, but there are also subtle differences.

This is a very well researched, well written, and nicely illustrated volume, and is essential reading for all those interested in the archaeology of Iron Age Europe.

Iron Age Chariot Burials in Britain and the Near Continent, Greta Anthoons, BAR Publishing, £65, ISBN 978-1407316840.