Early Bronze Age

The Early Bronze Age funerary assemblages held by the Wiltshire Museum are of international importance and many of the most well-known and significant objects in the Museum collections are amongst them. The core of these collections is the Stourhead Collection, purchased by the Society in 1883 and consisting, largely, of the various artefacts excavated from Wessex barrows by William Cunnington I and Richard Colt-Hoare in the early 19th century. Fortunately, the pair kept detailed records for the time, and the majority of the approximately 500 objects can be attributed to particular barrows and burials, and often relatively detailed accounts of their depositional contexts can be reconstructed (e.g. Needham et al. 2010; Higham and Carey 2019). This collection contains many notable grave groups, including early graves such as Mere G6a and Milston G51, but with a clear majority attributed to the ‘mature’ Early Bronze Age, most famously of course being the ‘Golden barrow’ (Upton Lovell G2e) and the exceptional Bush Barrow (Wilsford G5).

This initial collection of objects has been supplemented by further excavations and chance finds of Early Bronze Age sites and burials undertaken in the 19th and 20th centuries, but especially in the post-War period. These excavations include the Cunningtons’ excavation of Roundway G8 (Cunnington 1856), the ‘Manton Barrow’ (Preshute G1a, Cunnington 1907), The Sanctuary, Avebury (Cunningham 1932), two separate internments at Nethavon Flying School (Grinsell 1957: 70), and Oliver’s Camp (Cunnington 1907b), as well as numerous barrows excavated between 1950 and 1975, including Milton Lilbourne G1-5 (Ashbee 1986), Wilsford G36-39 (Grimes 1964), Wilsford G51-54 (Smith 1991), Avebury G55 (Smith 1965), Winterbourne Stoke G43 (Ozanne 1972), Avebury G6b (Smith 1966), Amesbury G39 (Ashbee 1981), Amesbury G51 (Ashbee 1978), Lamb Down (Vatcher 1963) and the numerous barrows examined as part of Nicholas Thomas’ excavations on Snail Down, in Collingbourne Kingston and Collingbourne Ducis (Thomas 2005). The Museum also holds archives relating to the unpublished excavations of Bishop’s Cannings G61 and G62 and West Overton G44. Whilst it must be said that the bulk of the grave goods in the collections originate in earlier excavations, the collection as a whole represents a large and extremely diverse assemblage of grave goods covering much of Wiltshire as well as the chalklands of Dorset.

Unfortunately, the Museum’s collection of Early Bronze Age human remains is less extensive. Cunnington and Colt Hoare did not typically retain human remains, and the Museum holds only a single secondary cremation from the Stourhead collection, from Wimborne St. Giles G2, Dorset. Similarly, the human remains from a number of later excavations, such as those at Woodhenge by Maud Cunnington and Amesbury G39 by Paul Ashbee were deposited with other institutions such as the Duckworth Laboratory, Cambridge, separate to the rest of the archive. Although it is not intended to be a complete list, Table 1 shows the correspondence between human remains, funerary vessels, and other grave goods at a selection of sites, and illustrates the relative scarcity of grave assemblages in the collections that combine two or more of these categories. In summary, 281 MODES records of human remains are attributed to the Early Bronze Age specifically, although this will perhaps include some secondary cremations which post-date 1500 BC. The usefulness of this number in terms of quantification is doubtful, as, for instance, the three Beaker-period flat burials excavated by Peter Fowler at Overton Down XI (Fowler 2000: 82-86) are recorded across 29 MODES records. Nonetheless, the Museum holds human remains from approximately 35 different archaeological sites or barrows, representing a significant collection of material. This includes unpublished material such as that from Bishops Cannings G61.

The Museum’s collection of ceramics from the Early Bronze Age is also of note. The Stourhead collection contains twelve substantively complete beaker vessels, ranging from finely decorated examples such as that from Durrington G36 (Figure 4.1), through to more crudely executed vessels such as those from Wilsford G51 and G62. This total has been expanded greatly by subsequent excavations of prehistoric barrows and other sites, such as those listed above as well as Paul Ashbee’s excavation of the Early Neolithic West Kennet Long Barrow, which was found to contain two finely decorated early Low-Carinated beakers. Excluding field walked and chance find assemblages such as those in the Owen Meyrick and Andrew Sewell Collections, the Museum MODES database holds 376 records relating to excavated beaker sherds or assemblages, attributed to 54 different sites. Whilst a number are funerary vessels, perhaps a majority are loose sherds found within the barrow mounds or pre-mound layers probably relating to domestic occupation. One important assemblage in this vein is an assemblage of c. 500 beaker sherds recovered in pre-barrow features relating to a probable settlement on Snail Down, Collingbourne Kingston and Collingbourne Ducis (Thomas 2005). Further domestic beaker assemblages were recovered by Chris Gingell during the Marlborough Downs project, excavated at Bishops Cannings Down and Dean Bottom (Gingell 1980; 1992). A group of sherds from the latter was recovered in the fill of a pit which is associated with a radiocarbon date of 2460-2140 cal BC, and is an important assemblage for dating Needham’s (2005: 188) Tall Mid-Carinated group of beakers. However, Dean Bottom also illustrates that the number of sites identified in this report is likely an underestimate; this important assemblage was recorded with only a broad ‘Bronze Age’ classification, with no reference to either beakers or the Early Bronze Age.

Figure 4.1: The Durrington G36 beaker.

In addition to beakers, the Museum also holds a large collection of 40 miniature funerary vessels, often interpreted as incense cups, again from both the Stourhead collection and more recent excavations, as well as 60 records relating to collared urns recovered through excavation, attributed to 35 sites. Whilst the latter number excludes a small number of chance finds, it seems likely to be an underestimate, as it is again dependent upon these vessels and fabrics being identifiable within the Collections Management System, although it may also be a reflection of the general lack of evidence for domestic settlement in Wessex during the post-Beaker period prior to the development of Deverell- Rimbury fabrics (Pollard and Healey in Webster 2007: 83). That there is apparent continuity of occupation at both Dean Bottom and Bishops Cannings Down between the beaker and Deverell-Rimbury phases implies that both assemblages may cover the period c. 1900-1600 BC (Gingell 1980; 1992).

Figure 4.2: Gold-studded dagger pommel and dagger from Bush Barrow. Image: David Bukach/University of Birmingham.

Figure 4.3: Detail of preserved gold studs. Image: David Bukach/University of Birmingham.

Many of the more recent excavations listed above have also produced assemblages of worked flint (although in many cases the bulk of the assemblage may related to late Neolithic pre-barrow occupation), however, these assemblages have been less consistently discussed than their ceramic counterparts, for instance, an assemblage of c. 600-800 worked flints attributed to the excavation of Avebury G55 was not discussed by Smith and Simpson (1966). Unfortunately, unless worked or included as a grave good, animal remains do not appear to have been retained at the majority of these sites, and the only relevant assemblages, from the excavations at Wilsford Down (Grimes 1964) and Steele’s unpublished excavation of Codford, are both relatively small.

Table 1: Table showing the correspondence between Human Remains, Funerary vessels, and other grave goods in the collections. Abbreviations: MV= Miniature vessel; B= Beaker; FV= Food vessel; CU= Collared urn; O= Other/Unknown.

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