Human remains and burials

Iron Age inhumation burials

Until recently there was very little archaeological evidence for Iron Age burial practices in South Yorkshire, due in part to the lack of excavated sites and significant problems with bone preservation in the often-acidic soils.

In other areas of Britain, from the late Bronze Age onwards formal burials seem to have disappeared from the archaeological record (Brück 1995). Most of the human dead might have been excarnated, exposed on timber platforms or on the ground surface (Carr and Knüsel 1997), or disposed of in rivers, lakes and bogs. Some disarticulated human remains found on some late Bronze Age and Iron Age settlements might have been selected and circulated amongst the living prior to deposition (Brück 1995). During the mid to later Iron Age East Yorkshire had the square barrow and inhumation burial rite, but much of northern England was once regarded as having isolated pit or cist burials (Mackey 2003; Whimster 1981). The archaeologically visible Iron Age burial practice in West Yorkshire consisted of isolated crouched or flexed inhumations within pits in corners of enclosures, just outside enclosure ditches, or next to field ditches and trackways. The social meanings associated with boundaries may therefore have been important in some instances. In general, as only a relatively small number of Iron Age burials have been excavated in northern England, most members of the Iron Age population are still clearly missing from the archaeological record.

Just a few hundred metres north of the South Yorkshire county boundary at Enclosure B, Barnsdale Bar East, an enclosure ditch terminal was found to have cut through or across the position of a crouched inhumation burial. This was of an adult male 45+ years in age and radiocarbon dated to 380–170 BC (Grassam and Ford 2008: 5). This suggests either knowledge of the original burial, or recognition of it as a surface feature. The ditch was later recut and incorporated within a field system.

On the Magnesian Limestone of South Yorkshire at Bilham Farm near Brodsworth, excavations by the Universities of Sheffield and Hull in 2009 revealed the skeleton of a young male around 18 years old buried in a prone, flexed position, and with pierced pendants made from a boar’s tusk and a dog or wolf canine. Shortly after burial the body appears to have been partially exhumed and the torso moved (McIntyre 2009). This burial, the uncalibrated radiocarbon date of which suggests death occurred most likely sometime during 200–100 BC was within a double-ditched trackway, north-east of a funnel-shaped entrance into a ‘banjo’ enclosure with little evidence for domestic inhabitation, but probably associated with livestock herding (C. Merrony pers. comm.). The location of the grave and identity of the deceased were probably known to those who moved the body. The burial of a 5-6-year-old child in a crouched position was also found nearby in 2010 (McIntyre 2010). This important site remains unpublished, and no calibrated radiocarbon date has been disseminated.

The burials near Brodsworth might seem to be in unattractive positions beneath the passage of feet and hooves, yet these are paralleled by other graves in West and East Yorkshire (Chadwick 2016b: 102-5). It is possible that these were liminal places where those who had transgressed social norms or had died unlucky deaths could be safely interred without harming the living, but it is equally possible that these were honoured places, linking the deceased to the livestock on which life and status depended. The human dead could have kept watch over the herds and flocks of the living (Chadwick 2016b: 105; Giles 2012: 223).

Cremated Iron Age remains

Cremated human bone and pyre debris was recovered from a single posthole at Sutton Common, located 12m west of one of the ‘mortuary ring’ structures. The bone was from a subadult person more than 13 years old, but it was not possible to identify it any further (McKinley 2007: 156-7). A series of small pits and postholes associated with the mortuary rings also produced cremated or charred animal bone and charcoal. It is unclear if the animal remains were food offerings placed on cremation pyres; or if these animals had been accorded some form of relational equivalence to humans after death. All features had been heavily truncated by ploughing, but in addition only a few narrow sections appear to have been excavated across the small gully structures (cf. Chapman and Fletcher 2007, figs 8.2-8.4). It is unclear why these features were not 100% excavated when it was suspected that they might have a funerary purpose. It thus remains unproven whether these features had a connection to mortuary rituals, though with artefacts such as the glass beads and the gold bar being found in this same general part of Enclosure A at Sutton Common, it does seem likely. Cremated remains might have been placed within the gullies on the old ground surface, or at the base of marker posts, which is why little survives. No cremated human bone of possible Iron Age date has been found elsewhere.

Cremated or calcined animal bone is known from several other South Yorkshire Iron Age and Romano-British sites, including the ring gullies of roundhouses 2, 4 and 8 at Topham Farm, Sykehouse (Roberts 2003: 8, 10, 17), a pit at Pastures Road, Mexborough (Holst and Richardson 2008: 27), and from a stone-lined pit or cist at Roebuck Hill, Jump (Robinson and Johnson 2007: 9). A fragment of burnt bone found above one of the subrectangular gully features at Rossington i-Port has not yet been identified (P. Daniel pers. comm.). A deposit of cremated bone from the base of a ditch at Barnsley Road, Goldthorpe is not identifiable (Richardson 2015: 6). It is unclear if such bone resulted from the deliberate cremation of animals, or if it was an accidental by-product of intense cooking.

Disarticulated Iron Age human remains

At Sutton Common, the outer ditch terminal on the northern side of the east-facing gateway contained the fragmented remains of the skulls of two adult males aged 25-35, without mandibles and only traces of neck vertebrae (Knüsel 2007: 137-9). Some mandibular fragments, teeth and post-cranial bones were found in the same context, however. The inner ditch terminal on the northern side of the east entrance contained a human radius shaft fragment.

Human bones from Iron Age settlements might have been residual and accidentally incorporated into later features, but some may have been deliberately curated as mementos of individuals or more general ancestral relics. The two skulls at Sutton Common might have been deposited with the other objects and materials in the ditch terminal; or were originally set up above the entranceway. Finds of disarticulated skulls from Iron Age contexts across Britain suggest that significance may have been attributed to the head, either of relatives and revered ancestors or those of enemies (Aldhouse-Green 2004; Armit 2006, 2012; Armit et al. 2011).

During dredging of the Mother Drain and River Torne at Rossington Bridge Pumping Station in the 1950s, workers found human bones under a layer of peat, close to a series of waterlogged timber posts that were probably the footings of the Roman road bridge (Buckland, Hartley and Rigby 2001: 10). The human remains included cranial and pelvic fragments and were associated with much Roman pottery including kiln waste, animal bone, and leather remains of shoes and sandals. The bone might be derived from one or more disturbed inhumations (ibid.: 12), but some bones had been cut and modified. The presence of leather objects and iron artefacts such as a cauldron chain and poker, however, could also be indicative of a series of ritualised deposits at the same locale, some of which may even pre-date the Roman occupation. Animal and human remains might have formed a part of these. Radiocarbon dating of the surviving bones would be useful, which could be Iron Age or Romano-British. Such combinations of metalwork, ceramics, and disarticulated remains have been noted at other similar Romano-British ‘watery’ sites recorded elsewhere in Britain, including the River Thames near Kingston on Thames, and the River Tees at Piercebridge in County Durham (Bland et al. forthcoming; Heathcote 1990; Walton 2012, in press).

Romano-British cremations and inhumations

The Roman conquest of the north brought changes in burial practice, though how far these applied to indigenous people or were just associated with ‘Roman’ immigrants is still unknown. The most visible Roman-style burials have been excavated in and around Doncaster. At a national level, it has been recognised that Roman-period cremation burials were most common during the earlier Roman period, with inhumation gradually becoming the dominant rite by the late Roman period (Philpott 1991: 217-227; Smith 2018: 216-220), though there was much regional variation.

Older finds of Roman-period burials within and around Doncaster are poorly recorded (Buckland and Magilton 1986: 27, 60), but one notable find was a probable burial mound removed in 1902 at Corporation Paddock, but which produced one or two complete ceramic flagons or jugs and a ceramic tetina – the latter objects have been variously interpreted as oil lamp fillers, specialist sauce dispensers or baby feeding bottles (Cool 2006). Close by in 1968, groundwork at the law courts at Waterdale, Glasgow Paddocks disturbed four complete ceramic vessels (a Black Burnished ware 1 jar, bowl and dish; and a white ware flagon) possibly associated with a small pit containing a few cremated bone fragments. Roman infant burials were found within the late Roman fort at Doncaster (Buckland 1986: 17) but remain unpublished. Near Templeborough, two urned cremation burials were discovered during construction work in the 1950s (Greene 1957b: 289-90, plate 4).

At Hallgate in 1995, five cremation burials and six inhumations were excavated by the South Yorkshire Archaeology Unit. The cremations were both urned and unurned, and one of the unurned examples was found in close association with a ceramic flagon (Atkinson and Cumberpatch 1995: 21-2). A cremation pyre pit was also excavated, with evidence for intense burning, heavily burnt human bone fragments and a complete and unburnt slip-decorated pot placed within it, perhaps as a closing part of the rite. Two inhumation burials were accompanied by grave goods, in one instance a small ceramic jar with an upturned dish covering it, near the left leg of the individual. The SYAU was disbanded by South Yorkshire Council before the Hallgate site could be fully analysed and published. At 8–10 High Street in 2003, AS WYAS excavated a double inhumation burial that contained the remains of two adult males – one individual was placed in a supine position on the base of the grave and the other on top, head to toe, in a prone position (Chadwick and Burgess 2008: 39-40; Holst 2008: 327-31). Their pathologies indicated degeneration of the neck joints, sinusitis, and a healed ankle fracture. Several iron objects found above the right clavicle and left shoulder of one individual may have been nails or shroud pins, but only a few fragments of brick or tile, mid to late 2nd century pottery sherds and one piece of glass were retrieved from the grave fill, though a pot base might conceivably have been a token of some sort.

At Doncaster Waterdale, a cremation cemetery contained 18 cremation burial deposits, in two groups of eight and one of two. Most were in a series of intercutting pits containing cremated bone, pyre debris, artefacts and other offerings (Davies 2013: 7-11). One burial group (Group A) was partly enclosed by a rectilinear gully, and had plant remains including pine nut, walnut, fig, grapes, lentils, a possible date fragment and cereals. Artefacts included five ceramic oil lamps (Griffiths 2013). The second Group B cremations were associated with a more limited range of artefacts and burnt food offerings. Group C contained only two intercutting pits with small quantities of burnt bone but numerous large fragments of partially burnt and broken amphorae (mostly from Baetica in Spain, but also from Narbonnensis in Gaul, and from Verulamium), remains of melted glass unguentaria vessels, and further foodstuffs including hazelnuts, possible pine nuts, figs, dates, grapes, apple and lentils (Davies 2013: 8). Oil from the amphorae may have been used to anoint bodies, and/or as accelerant. Large numbers of iron nails may have been derived from biers, coffins or objects placed on the funeral pyre, and hobnails from shoes and sandals were also recovered. Status and other social distinctions might have been marked by these differences in placement and grave goods – Groups A and B might have been late 1st to early 2nd century AD in date, broadly contemporary with the first fort in Doncaster; whereas Group C might have extended into the 3rd century. Ten single urned and unurned cremation burials were also recorded, and some buried vessels without cremated remains that may have been cenotaph deposits. A probable funeral pyre was separated from the cemetery by an arc of postholes from a fence or screen (ibid.: 11). There were also two inhumation burials on the cemetery site, both fragmentary and poorly preserved, and one with a coin of AD 268–269.

Detailed analyses of the human remains from Waterdale revealed that most cremation deposits only featured a small proportion of the likely bone from the pyre, and many burials were disturbed and truncated (Caffell and Holst 2013: 43), though this might also imply only token quantities of bone were collected from pyres in some cases. Small quantities of cremated animal bone were also noted, presumably from offerings placed on pyres. Due to the generally very high temperatures it is unlikely that aDNA will have survived. There was a mix of adolescents and adults, with three out of 32 features (or 9.4%) containing definitively identifiable non-adults under 18 years of age, and the same proportion (9.4%) of identifiable adults (ibid.: 51). Of the two inhumations, one was an adult aged 35+ years, whilst the other was an older adolescent or young adult (Caffell and Holst 2013: 51). It was not possible to determine the biological sex of any of the cremated or inhumed remains.

There were several unusual features of the burials. The sherds from unburnt, non‐burial groups likely to come from associated commemorative rites included decorated samian (Leary 2013: 74), yet decorated samian is generally uncommon in cemeteries (Cool and Leary 2012: 313). Amphorae were generally scarce in other Doncaster contexts so the presence of several at Waterdale emphasises the ‘exotic’ and potentially higher-status nature of the offerings, along with the glass unguentaria.

It was rare in Roman-period cemeteries associated with rural and small urban settlements for glass vessels to be placed on pyres (Cool 2013: 89-90) and might indicate that one of the groups using the cemetery was military in origin. The pyre goods included at least six small copper-alloy hooked fittings that have only previously been found in numbers at Caerleon and from the Walbrook stream in London (ibid.: 90). These results are all tremendously important at a national as well as a local and regional level and so although an excellently detailed archive-standard report on the excavations has been produced, it needs to be fully published.

Outside of Doncaster, a Roman gypsum inhumation burial might have been destroyed during construction of the railway line near Newton in 1908 (Buckland 1986: 49), and a cremation of a 12–13-year-old child was found within a locally-produced Blaxton grey ware lid-seated jar at Barnsley Road, Scawsby (Buckland and Magilton 1986: 60, 183; Nellist 1986: 200). At Adwick-le-Street, Roman pottery and human skeletal remains were disturbed by workmen on a construction site. At least four inhumations were present, one possibly extended originally in a coffin or shroud; and another in a flexed position, possibly with its hands and feet cut off and removed peri- or post-mortem (Buckland 1986: 36, fig. 21; Buckland and Magilton 1986: 214-7). A cremation burial might also have been present, along with a hearth or pyre site. Much of the site was destroyed without any archaeological recording possible. The five Roman tombstones recovered from Templeborough (May 1922; see above) were re-used as masonry in later contexts, so were no longer associated with any burials.

Occasional cremation burials have been encountered elsewhere. One at Cantley was found close to some of the pottery kilns (Annable 1954), although it may possibly have pre-dated these; and a small quantity of un-urned cremated bone was discovered in a ditch that pre-dated the Roman road at Redhouse Farm, Adwick-le-Street (Upson-Smith 2002: 14). Three truncated pits containing extremely small quantities of cremated remains were excavated in Area A at West Moor Park, Armthorpe, within one of the small enclosures – both human bone and animal bone might have been present, along with pyre debris (Clough 2006: 24-5). This phase of archaeological work at Armthorpe has never been fully published, however. A deposit of cremated human bone from an enclosure ditch was excavated as part of the i-Port development at Potteric Carr near Doncaster, and returned a radiocarbon date of AD 50–220 (Daniel, Harrison and Powell 2014b: 16, 20, fig. 6) – this is likely to be within the Romano-British part of that range. The remains were of an adult and were well-sealed by silts and apparently undisturbed – it might therefore have been deposited in a small bag of leather or cloth. The very small quantity of bone recovered suggests that only a token amount of bone was taken from the pyre, and animal bone from possible sheep or goat was also identified.

At Billingley Drive, Thurnscoe, five large, flat-bottomed rectangular pits excavated alongside the enclosure ditches might perhaps have been late Iron Age or Romano-British graves, where human bone did not survive the acidic soil conditions (Neal and Fraser 2004: 24). In the future, great care should be taken to identify such possible grave cuts and investigate them as thoroughly as possible – even a few fragments of teeth, bone or hobnails might indicate an inhumation used to be present.

Even allowing for inimical geologies and soils, and taphonomic factors and later disturbance, it seems that cremation burials and inhumations were either uncommon on or around rural settlements or have not survived for other unknown reasons. If only token amounts of bone were taken from cremation pyres and were deposited in unurned burials without any accompanying grave goods, then the bone might easily have become dispersed or small shallow features truncated by centuries of later cultivation. Where Iron Age and Romano-British inhumations have been identified in single graves or small groups of burials as in West Yorkshire, there are still many people missing from the burial record. This is even more apparent in South Yorkshire. Perhaps bodies were indeed exposed in some way or placed in rivers and lakes; or were taken away from settlements to still unknown cemeteries. It could also be that most people in South Yorkshire had a genuinely different burial rite or sets of practices that have left little archaeological trace. In Doncaster, there is still insufficient data to identify any real patterning in cemetery organisation according to cremation and inhumation, age, gender and identity, and social status, though the Waterdale evidence does suggest the presence of several slightly different ‘Romanised’ social groups, perhaps military and civilian individuals and families.

Disarticulated Romano-British human remains

A human skull was found in a pit at Site DG in Frenchgate, Doncaster, along with large quantities of samian and coarsewares and seeds including apple and grape pips (Buckland and Magilton 1986: 48); but the skull might have been derived from an earlier feature. Another fragmented but substantially complete skull of a young male minus its lower jar was found in a pit at 8–10 High Street, and a human femoral shaft fragment in another pit (Chadwick and Burgess 2008: 34). The disarticulated human bones at Rossington Bridge have already been noted above.

Research questions

  • How can we identify Iron Age funerary traditions, and how were the dead disposed of? Was it through excarnation on platforms or in trees, or were bodies placed on the ground surface? Were bodies placed in rivers and lakes? Why were only some people apparently buried during the Iron Age, and who were these individuals?
  • Why, following the Roman conquest, were large numbers of people still apparently missing from the burial record in South Yorkshire? Were rural people still following Iron Age disposal practices?
  • Can we identify any further Romano-British cremation and inhumation cemeteries? Could a research-based project actively prospect for Roman burials in and around Doncaster and Templeborough?
  • Can we identify the possible deliberate retention and curation of human bones in archaeological contexts?
  • Can archaeologists identify any movements into the South Yorkshire area during the Iron Age and Romano-British periods?

Priorities and implementation

  • Greater care should be taken to identify potential graves and human remains when excavating sites on Magnesian Limestone areas of South Yorkshire. If suspected graves are encountered, these should be carefully excavated in spits and the grave fill 100% sampled. Any features or contexts with calcined bone should also be 100% excavated and sampled intensively. Running sections should be created within graves as excavation proceeds, so that any later re-visitations of the graves as happened at Bilham Farm, Brodsworth can be more readily identified. This technique has produced excellent results from prehistoric burials excavated elsewhere (q.v. Gibson 2013: 102, 104);
  • If bone condition permits, all inhumation and cremation burials must be radiocarbon dated as a matter of routine, and disarticulated human remains wherever possible especially if it has come from features with artefacts;
  • Where bone preservation allows, human remains of Iron Age and Romano-British date should have isotope and aDNA analyses to investigate the likely origins of the dead individuals, in order to assess if they spent much of their life in the local area or were ‘incomers’ from elsewhere. It may also prove possible to identify the relative importance of cereals versus animal proteins in their diets, and any changes in diets following the Roman occupation;
  • Where preservation allows, ‘biographical’ approaches to human remains should be adopted. This could include the identification of non-metric traits such as ‘squatting facets’ to try and establish possible tasks or even gender-specific activities performed by individuals in life. Where groups of inhumation burials are found, familial links between individuals should be sought;
  • GIS and geophysical survey could be used to target likely areas for small cemeteries. This could be another project undertaken with local archaeology groups and community volunteers, though one possible drawback might be the risk of potential looters finding out where potential burials are located;
  • The results of the Bilham Farm, Brodsworth project and its two inhumation burials need to be fully analysed, dated and published as a matter of urgency, as do the Romano-British cemeteries at Hallgate and Doncaster Waterdale – the latter is of national not just regional importance.