Death in Ancient Britain

Grave goods included food, drinking vessels and body ornamentation. In richer burials, gold sheet work was attached to clothing, and later still pins, tweezers, and razors were found. Women in death might wear fine jewellery, while men were laid out with their weapons.

In 1822, Reverend William Buckley, Oxford’s first professor of Geology made rather an interesting discovery. Excavating the deeper recesses of a cave in South Wales, Buckley came across a massive mammoth skull and digging further unearthed a skeleton, dyed red with ochre, draped with seashell necklaces and surrounded by grave goods believed to have been of ritual significance: bone, antler, and ivory rods.

At the time Buckley believed that no skeleton could be found that was older than the Great Flood recorded in the Bible, and that it was the body of a woman, (he postulated a Roman prostitute or witch) which he named the ‘Red Lady of Paviland.’ Since then it has been discovered that the ‘Red Lady’ was in fact a man and studies have shown that he may have lived 26,000 years ago. This makes the find the oldest ceremonial burial discovered in Western Europe and of immense significance in the history of death.

Death in the ancient world is difficult to study. Without written records archaeologists have to rely on what they can physically find, which may be purely circumstantial. Methods of burial such as the scattering of ashes and where bodies are buried in certain conditions may be barely traceable after rotting for several millennia. However, that which archaeologists are lucky enough to unearth can give us real clues to the beliefs and customs of prehistoric people.

The ways our ancestors dealt with death across the British Isles have varied across the different peoples who have inhabited our islands and across time. Like the Red Lady of Paviland, many Palaeolithic burials at this time involved skeletons dyed with red ochre and provided with tools and weapons. Burials were mostly in caves, but as time went on moved gradually to open ground.

As people started to live a more settled life in the Neolithic period, funerary structures emerged. These could be huge earth mounds or ‘barrows’ found in the South of England, or the stone chambers found in the East. Sometimes these were designed with astronomical features in mind, for example with holes that aligned with the sun over the winter solstice. The bodies in Bronze Age barrows have been found in several states. Sometimes the bodies are simply interred, while others have been found partially cremated, with the bones picked out of the pyre to be placed in a wooden box. Still more have been found where ‘excarnation’ had taken place, a practice in which the corpse was laid out for birds of prey to strip the flesh from the bones. The bones would then be collected into boxes, possibly to be taken out at the time of feasts.

4,700 years ago the Bronze age ‘Beaker’ people would bury their dead in a crouched position. Burials were accompanied with the laying down of grave goods including food, drinking vessels and body ornamentation. In richer burials, gold sheetwork was attached to clothing, and later still pins, tweezers, and razors were found. Women in death might wear fine jewellery, while men were laid out with their weapons, be they finely knapped arrowheads early in the period, or wrought bronze daggers in later decades. Late Bronze Age people tended to cremate their dead, a tradition that carried on into the Iron Age. However this swung back in the middle Iron Age to the interring of the dead, sometimes alongside carts to speed them into the afterlife. Grave goods had also modernised by this time, iron swords for men and bronze mirrors for women of wealth.

A certain amount of ceremony seems to have taken place in many of the burials. One beaker burial was discovered with the stacked bones of at least 184 cattle which suggests that sacrifices may have occurred. After death, bones may have been used in ritualistic activities as seen from cases where bones were found all jumbled up or with the head in a separate enclosure. The fact that so many bodies were laid out with food and drinking vessels seems to suggest that our ancestors believed in some form of life after death at least, and that not only were the dead thought to be capable of enjoying their grave goods, but that the afterlife required tools and trinkets very similar to those used when they were alive.

Did you know?

In the 1980s and ‘90s, three 14,700 year old skull cups were uncovered by archaeologists in Gough’s Cave in Somerset. These painstakingly crafted vessels required a detailed knowledge of human anatomy in their construction and were possibly used in rituals.