‘Eagle’-eyed archaeologists uncover Iron Age settlement and rare Bronze Age artefact

A Middle Iron Age settlement and an important Early Bronze Age cremation burial of a child, containing an eagle-bone pin, have been uncovered during our excavations on the site of the A40 Science Transit park & ride at Eynsham, Oxfordshire. Our Milton Keynes team undertook the excavation for Balfour Beatty, acting on behalf of Oxfordshire County Council . As part of the planning application the County Council requested geophysical survey and evaluation trenching, which provided the first tantalising evidence for settlement remains in the eastern half of the site, and this was confirmed by our later excavations.

A piece of fragmented Golden Eagle phalanx, with a hole at the top. Scale is 50mm
The Golden Eagle phalanx

The Early Bronze Age cremation burial had been placed, unurned, in a shallow pit alongside charcoal from the pyre. Upon analysis, Sharon Clough (CA Osteoarchaeologist) and Matty Holmes (Consultant Zooarchaeologist) found a fragment of cremated worked animal bone amongst the child’s remains. This has subsequently been identified as a pin, and it’s understood this would have been included as a pyre good. The pin had been shaped from the phalanx (toe bone) of what is highly likely a Golden Eagle, making it the only example found in a funerary context in England. A hole in one end suggests it may have been worn suspended, perhaps using a fibre cord.

Most settlement activity at the site appears to have occurred during the Middle Iron Age. Evidence was found for roundhouse buildings, post-built structures, and probable livestock enclosures. Posthole groups across the site potentially indicate the presence of other buildings, and enclosures or fence lines separating distinct areas or zones. The roundhouses were defined by shallow ring ditches that represent drainage features enclosing a central building, and several pits and postholes were discovered within the interiors of two of these roundhouses, which would have held structural elements, such as posts for roof support.

Stylised plan of the site, showing the Early to Middle Iron Age activity
Plan of the Iron Age features on site

Together with a moderate quantity of Iron Age pottery, the site produced a small assemblage of fired clay. Particularly interesting are one near-complete triangular object and fragments of a second, likely of similar form, which were recovered from the postholes associated with two of the roundhouses. These objects are loomweights, for use on a vertical weighted loom, and therefore they may suggest that textile manufacture was undertaken, maybe even within the roundhouses themselves.

A man holds out the loomweight
One of the loomweight fragments

The archaeology identified during this excavation provides an insight into the organisation and use of a small, local, Iron Age farmstead, which potentially had a focus on textile production. The identification of the Bronze Age cremation burial with its Golden Eagle pin is, not just in its rarity, extremely exciting. The choice of eagle bone is likely to have been significant and it is possible such an object could have been considered talismanic, or was linked perhaps with afterlife beliefs, raising further questions about its use as a pyre good for a child. We’ll explore this more in a future article!

Jo Barker
Post-excavation Manager

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