Wetwang: Story of a Dig

By Julian Richards
An Iron Age burial mound was discovered in the chalk hills of the Yorkshire Wolds. What would the excavations reveal? Julian Richards joins the dig.
The site at Wetwang, in the Yorkshire Wolds 

The excavation begins

Any excavation, no matter how large or small and of whatever period and type of site, can be an exciting and essentially unpredictable event. No matter how much preliminary research and investigation has been carried out, there is no certainty about what will be revealed until soil starts to be removed.

' ... the contours of the site were mapped and a geophysical survey was carried out ... '

In many ways the story of the excavation at Wetwang is a perfect illustration of this element of surprise. A small paddock in the centre of the village, which lies in the chalk hills of the Yorkshire Wolds, was identified by builders as being a suitable site for a small development of houses.

Owing to its location within the centre of an historic village, and with an awareness of the importance of the area for Iron Age studies, the local authority decided that the site needed to be investigated before planning permission could be granted.

This investigation was carried out by the Guildhouse Consultancy. Before the ground was disturbed by excavation, the contours of the site were mapped and a geophysical survey was carried out which showed ditches, pits and what appeared to be quarries.

Layers of antiquity

Image of the site
The Wetwang site before the excavations began
The first stage of excavation, carried out in 2000 by means of long machine-dug trenches, showed that chalk-built walls survived immediately below the surface, and the strategy was changed to investigate larger areas.

These revealed part of a Romano-British ditched enclosure, a medieval building dating from the 13th or 14th century, and the upper part of a huge well estimated to be about 50m deep. A large and more recent quarry occupied part of the site, and would have destroyed any earlier archaeological remains.

'... a square ditch enclosing a large rectangular pit was revealed.'

It was obvious at this stage that the site contained archaeological remains that, although not important enough to warrant refusing planning permission, would require full excavation before building could take place.

Consequently, the archaeological team returned to the site in 2001 to complete the work, this time excavating the line of the entrance road and the sites of the houses that were due to be built. However, due to a tree preservation order, the line of the road had been moved slightly and it was when this new area was stripped of soil that the outline of a square ditch enclosing a large rectangular pit was revealed.

This immediately rang alarm bells, as in this part of Yorkshire, something of this description is most likely to be a square barrow, the levelled remains of a burial mound built between 300 and 100BC. Many barrows of this type have been discovered and excavated in the area around the villages of Wetwang and Garton, most of them lying in the bottom of valleys. So this new discovery was unusual in that it lay on the top of a chalk ridge.

These barrows belong to a very localised Iron Age culture and, when excavated, some have been found to contain the dismantled remains of carts or chariots. This is a very rare phenomenon in Britain - only found once in another part of the British Isles (Newbridge, Edinburgh, in the spring of 2001) - but is more common in northern France and western Germany.

Scientific surveys

Image of the grave
A scan of the site is made using a metal detector
This new discovery, while very exciting, caused problems. Should attempts be made to preserve the remains of the barrow? Could it somehow be incorporated undisturbed into the housing development, or should it be excavated, and if so, how?

The funds provided by the developer for the excavation of the site, as it was originally defined, would not cover the excavation of this unpredicted - and potentially very expensive - addition, so who would pay for it and then deal with the fragile artefacts that it could well contain? As this was clearly a site of major importance, expert advice was sought from both English Heritage and the British Museum.

It was decided that as the site was so important a full scientific excavation should be carried out. English Heritage would provide the additional funds required, and the British Museum would send a team to help record the excavation, lift the artefacts and then carry out their eventual conservation back in the Museum's London laboratories. Given the potential for the grave to contain a wide range of fragile and complicated artefacts, this was a very generous offer.

'Subtle changes in soil colour ... could provide evidence of the internal structure of the grave ...'

The excavations took place mainly in March of 2001, in wind, rain and snow - and on a building site, as work had already started on the new houses. Once the outer square ditch had been examined, work concentrated on the grave itself, and a plastic tent was erected to keep out the worst of the weather.

Although previous experience suggested that the grave, and consequently the actual burial deposit, could be over one metre deep, its excavation had to proceed very cautiously. Subtle changes in soil [wetwang_story_fact_file.shtml#1] colour and composition, even at a comparatively high level, could provide evidence of the internal structure of the grave, or of funeral rites.

The soil was therefore carefully removed in thin horizontal slices, or spits, then photographed [wetwang_story_fact_file.shtml#2] and planned [wetwang_story_fact_file.shtml#3] as each level was exposed. Scanning the grave with a metal detector before excavation suggested that it contained large metal objects, but they were not interpreted as being the iron tyres from chariot wheels.

A chariot burial

Image of the yoke void
Excavating the void where the yoke was buried
One of the first clues about what might really lie in the grave came when a green stain in the soil at one end of the grave was shown to be a bronze object. It was a complex horse bit, decorated with yellowish dots that were instantly identified by the British Museum conservation team as enamel.

A second bit was also found, together with a series of bronze rein rings or terrets, decorated with coral studs, through which reins would have passed. All this harness re-ignited the hopes that the grave would contain a chariot burial, but the delicacy of the objects prompted the thought that this could be the burial of a woman.

'... there were hints of long-vanished wooden objects, now recognisable only as very slight changes in the soil.'

The position of each bronze object was photographed and recorded, before each was supported by bandages and packing material and finally lifted from the soil. And as well as these solid artefacts, there were hints of long-vanished wooden objects, now recognisable only as very slight changes in the soil.

Under certain conditions, soil will form firmly around a wooden object before it rots away, taking the shape of the object that may then survive as a void or hole. Recognising such voids and distinguishing them from, for example, animal burrows is very important, as a cast can be made from them - after they have been carefully emptied of loose soil - by pouring plaster of Paris in to them. This should then take up the shape of the original wooden object.

A structure emerges

Image of horse bits
The iron horse bits emerge
By surveying and photographing the site, it was possible to locate and define several elements of the chariot that everyone was now certain the grave must contain.

The harness rings lay along a yoke that was joined to a long harness pole running back towards the rear of the vehicle. Although the whole length of the pole was impossible to retrieve, its shape could be determined from a short length where a recognisable void survived.

Further evidence was revealed in the conservation laboratory, where a small piece of wood was found adhering in the rust on the lower edge of one of the tyres. This gave the width as well as the position of the pole in the grave.

At the other end of the grave from the harness fittings there had always been a puzzle about why the grave pit widened out. The answer was found when a further void was located, which on casting proved to be a very substantial piece of timber, the chariot axle. It had obviously been buried complete, and was so wide that the grave pit needed to be widened to fit it in.

A woman's body

Image of pig bones and skeleton
Pig bones were found buried next to the skeleton
If further proof was needed, it arrived in the form of the wheels that overlapped in the central area of the grave. Here, there were no traces of wooden spokes - the wheels survived as no more than a pair of nave bands, a badly decayed iron tyre and a linchpin.

The tyre now consisted almost entirely of rust and iron-stained soil, containing insufficient metal to give a signal on the metal detector - an explanation for why they were not located from the surface of the grave. So, all the components of a chariot were now in place, but the question remained - whose burial was it?

'... there were the remains of parts of a pig, food for [a] journey, and an unusual iron mirror.'

There were strong indications of where any skeleton was likely to lie in the grave. After the first few layers had been removed, a rectangular patch of soil, different in colour and texture from that in the rest of the grave, appeared, and it remained visible in the same place, layer after layer. It was suggested that this could mark the position of the bodywork of the chariot, perhaps - as the vehicle had been dismantled - placed over the body.

This theory proved to be correct, as the rectangular mark was found to enclose a skeleton, lying on the chalk floor of the grave, in a crouched position - and providing more surprises for the archaeologists.

As soon as the skeleton was cleaned it was apparent that it was that of a woman, and that she had been provided with more than just her chariot for the next life. With her in the grave there were the remains of parts of a pig, food for her journey, and an unusual iron mirror.

Chariot queen?

Image of Julian Richards
Julian Richards uncovers one of the chariot's wheels
Human remains require extremely careful excavation, not only out of respect for their humanity, but also because they may contain many subtle clues about belief, burial practice and the health or cause of death of the buried [wetwang_story_fact_file.shtml#4] person.

The skeleton of the woman from Wetwang was the last thing to be removed from the grave pit, the true scale of which was only finally apparent when it was emptied of archaeologists, surveying equipment, tools and buckets.

'... a complex site was reduced to a collection of objects, plans, notes ... and bags of soil.'

With the sample excavation of the surrounding square ditch complete, the excavation was over - and the complex site was reduced to a collection [wetwang_story_fact_file.shtml#5] of objects, plans, notes, context records, photographs, digital co-ordinates and bags of soil. But these, together with the memories of all those who worked on this fascinating site, are the building blocks from which a picture of the past has emerged.

Without this archive the site may just as well have been dug up by the builders’ bulldozers. Without this level of recording, and the skill of all those involved, we would have had no clear picture of the enigmatic woman of Wetwang and her elegant chariot.

To a casual observer the end of the excavation marks the stage at which the site is fully understood, but in many ways this is only the beginning. The processes of conservation analysis, study and comparison will probably take five times as long as the excavation itself, and as our techniques of analysis become more sophisticated, this ratio may well increase.

Published on BBC History: 2005-01-25
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