Grave Goods

This project focuses on material culture in graves (and other formal mortuary contexts) in Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age Britain, c. 4000 BC to AD 43. This project’s title – Grave Goods – is an intentional play on words. These are objects in burials; but they are also goods, material culture, that must be taken seriously.

Many of prehistoric Britain’s most impressive artefacts have come from graves – from the polished beaver incisors at Duggleby Howe, to Bush Barrow’s rich collection of gold plaques and pins, imported bronze daggers, fossil stone macehead and carved bone shaft-decorations, to the coral-encrusted chariot-gear of Wetwang Village.

For large parts of the Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Ages in Britain, a focus on burial is a necessity, as settlements can be difficult to identify archaeologically, ensuring that mortuary evidence is often the best and sometimes only information available. It is also the period when burials became a key arena through which communities negotiated socio-political change. An understanding of how the lives of people and objects were intertwined will help us to investigate the dynamic role of materials and technologies that shaped prehistoric life and death.

At present, British prehistorians have only an approximate idea of how grave goods changed through time: during the Neolithic burials were only rarely associated with material culture; the Early Bronze Age saw a dramatic rise in the quantity and significance of grave goods; the Iron Age witnessed the introduction of new and more varied classes of objects, but also significant blank spots where burial is invisible archaeologically. The Grave Goods project aims to shift our understanding of this broad-brush sequence from one that is impressionistic to one based on a solid, empirical understanding of the record.

The project also seeks to evaluate and understand more fully the character and role of ‘everyday’ grave goods, in addition to the spectacular objects that so often capture archaeological attention. We will do this by constructing a database of all material culture found in formal mortuary contexts during the Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age within six key case study regions across England, Scotland and Wales. Once mapped and analysed using a GIS, this information will enable a new level of understanding of burial practice, and the ebbs and flows of material culture change, over that period. Building on the large-scale picture that the database provides, we will move on to investigate specific sub-regions, sites and graves as case studies.