Dead end – prehistoric burials at Wangford quarry

Wangford quarry is located near the Suffolk coast, several miles inland from the resort of Southwold. The quarry occupies a south-facing gravel terrace, overlooking the River Wang and has been a focus for prehistoric archaeology since the Early Neolithic period. Nine Beaker flat grave burials (dating between 2250 and 2100 BC) and a Middle Bronze Age cremation cemetery were some of the most significant results from the excavations.

Archaeologist recording a Beaker grave
Archaeologist recording one of the Beaker graves at Wangford

The Beaker flat graves were found in two groups occupying the highest parts of the quarry area. In the eastern group a large rectangular ‘shaft’ grave had a probable wooden revetment and a timber or wickerwork chamber at its base. At least one other grave was inserted into the top of this ‘shaft’. A small oval pit next to the large grave contained a Beaker ‘cup’ and another diminutive Beaker. Staining across the base of this small grave might represent a body stain. Ground conditions at Wangford were acidic and did not allow the preservation of human bone but the graves were inferred from their shape, size and the presence of whole Beaker pots placed as grave goods.

Beaker burial from Wangford with Beaker 'cup', post ex photo with 1m scale bar
Beaker burial from Wangford with a Beaker vessel

Also part of the eastern group were two substantial, intercutting graves. Both of these graves contained thick dished organic stains across their bases, probably representing coffins (fashioned from hollowed tree trunks?). In each grave a single Beaker pot had been placed. This distinctive highly decorated, orange to red coloured type of pottery (with its elegant sinuous profile) was a feature of the beginning of the Early Bronze Age. The restrictive range of decorative techniques (all over cord or comb impressions or alternating horizontal panels of impressions with blank zones between) suggest an earlier date in the Beaker period. Wangford has also revealed concentrations of Beaker pits with similar styles of pottery decoration, some have been radiocarbon dated to between 2250 and 2100 BC.

The western group of Beaker flat graves was far less well preserved as this area was subject to intense use and disturbance in later periods. The most elaborate grave in this group revealed a rectangular tray-like organic stain, interpreted as a bier or platform for the body. Two complete Beaker pots were placed in this grave. At some point during the subsequent Early Bronze Age, a ring-ditch was dug, probably to create a burial mound (although unfortunately the majority of this monument was located beyond the limits of the excavation). Interestingly, this ring-ditch had cut and damaged the two-Beaker grave (indicating that the precise location of the grave had been forgotten – but the significance of the general area for purposes of burial might have been remembered).

Archaeolgst prepare a Middle Bronze Age urn to be lifted, the urn is wrapped and cling film and a cushioned box in next to them
Archaeologists prepare a Middle Bronze Age urn to be lifted

It appears that the ring-ditch (or its burial mound, now ploughed flat) became the focus for a Middle Bronze Age cremation cemetery with groups of cremation burials located to the south-east of the former monument. This cemetery has been radiocarbon dated to between 1300 and 1100 BC. Nearly forty burials were uncovered and there is a strong likelihood that more cremation pits extended beyond the excavation area.

Nearly half of the cremated remains had been placed within large, bucket and barrel-shaped urns, belonging to the Ardleigh pottery tradition (normally associated with Essex and south Suffolk, so these represent northern outliers). Many of the urns were decorated with fingertip or finger-pinched designs,sometimes with applied horizontal strips or ‘cordons’. Many of the urns had been ‘inverted’ (placed upside down) so some kind of lid or organic stopper must have been placed over their openings. Those burials not within urns were probably placed in organic containers.

Middle Bronze Age cremation urn under excavation
Middle Bronze Age cremation urn under excavation

Detailed analysis of the highly fragmented and burnt human bone by Sue Anderson has identified at least fifty individuals. Although most burials contained just a single individual, some contained two or more people. One cremation burial held four or five individuals. A whole community appears to have been represented here with infants, juveniles and adults present. Many of the adults could be sexed, with roughly equal splits between men and women. Young, mature and elderly adults of both sexes were also recognised.

No pyre sites have so far been identified so the individuals may have been cremated elsewhere and their remains brought back to their ancestral resting place. The use of this location at Wangford for over one thousand years of burial, from the Beaker period to the Middle Bronze Age, shows the significance of the place for past communities who brought their dead to be buried alongside their kinfolk.

The excavations were part of a planned programme of archaeological works for the quarry operator. The current analysis is being funded by Breedon Group.

Jezz Meredith
Senior Publications Officer

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