Pocklington’s recently discovered Iron Age burial ground on Burnby Lane is now recognised as being of international importance.
This was revealed by archaeologist, Paula Ware, who explained to a captivated Pocklington Arts Centre audience how her company’s dig started out without any real expectation that it would be something special. Aerial photographs had shown up a few cropmarks that indicated potential for some archaeology at the site, but the geophysical survey that followed did not show up anything really notable, just a likely trackway and possibly remnants of two square barrows. Even when Paula’s company, MAP Archaeology Practice, started excavating test trenches on the site, the first few trenches revealed nothing of significance.
Suddenly that all changed as the archaeological team started to discover one Iron Age square barrow after another, most containing an array of widely differing burials and grave goods. The site was quickly logged as being of regional importance, then rapidly had its status upgraded to national significance, and is now listed as internationally important and likely to become studied and interpreted for some years to come.
Paula described how the Pocklington site became so suddenly exciting when they reached the fourth of the 14 test trenches. She was in her office when she received a phone call from her archaeologist colleague, Mark Stephens. He was reporting back that the excavation was progressing well when his voice changed and he blurted out: “Oh, right, there’s another square barrow...and another square barrow...” From that point the discoveries continued thick and fast as the site continued to give up the secrets that had lain hidden under the surface for more than 2,000 years.
The site has so far yielded 38 square barrows and 82 burials of a whole range of types, some very rare and most intact and well preserved. Most had a main central grave but many had had secondary burials, possibly from the same family, inserted into the barrows in succeeding years. The current estimate is that the cemetery was created over some 200 to 300 years, but it is possible that as the finds are analysed that is extended to cover the whole of the Iron Age period of 880 BC to 43 AD.
The Burnby Lane site only contained burials, no domestic occupation, though there is evidence of the Parisi tribe living and working elsewhere at Pocklington across a wide area around the town. The cemetery predominately contains burials of local people, and it would have certainly stood out in the landscape, particularly to anyone travelling down from the Wolds.
What has made the excavation especially exciting to archaeologists are how many different types of burials have been discovered. The Parisi clearly had established, but various, burial and remembrance rituals through their era and the Pocklington site will be at the forefront of understanding them, though likely to question some previously held theories about Iron Age culture.
Many of the skeletons were crouched, but some were flexed, and there were men, women and children, with the men an average of 5 foot 7 inches in height and the women 5 foot 4 inches. Some faced east and some west (perhaps placed to look towards the sunrise or the sunset). Some had been buried in coffins or boxes, some in pits or laid on ‘mats’ of organic material, one thought to have been buried in a basket, and there were indications that some were just left on the surface to decompose. Some of the barrows were surrounded by enclosure ditches and some were without.
Several people were interred without any accompaniment, but several had a variety of grave goods, including brooches, bangles, pendants, glass beads, pots and weapons. The skeletons, grave goods and organic material have all been sent off for laboratory investigation, including isotope, DNA and protein analysis, and for cleaning and conservation.
One woman had died in childbirth, while a child was buried with a bangle on each of its four limbs, but perhaps the most exciting and unusual was a ‘speared burial’ of a young man in his late teens or early 20’s. He had been laid to rest with his sword at his side, but before his grave was covered he had half a dozen spears pressed ritualistically into him. Paula Ware described how this would have produced a mound with the spear shafts protruding “like the spikes of a hedgehog” visible for years afterwards.
She also stressed that her remit was an archaeological investigation of the site, not a historical interpretation. However, she described the project as “absolutely fascinating” and “an archaeologist’s dream”, volunteering: “Pocklington is a fantastic place to live in the 21st century, and equally it must have been a fantastic place to live 2,000 years ago.”
Paula also praised the role of the developers of the site, David Wilson Homes, and indicated that the Pocklington project is being showcased as an example of how planners, developers and archaeologists can work successfully together.
She went on to give an insight into what is likely to happen going forward. A committee of archaeologists, historians, osteologists and other expert academics will now review, analyse and interpret the archaeological information and then publish what they believe it tells us about the Parisi and what was going on the Iron Age in Pocklington more than 2,000 years ago.