Food for thought at Netherhampton Road

Whilst excavating at Vistry’s new residential development near Salisbury, Steve and his team uncovered a small Bronze Age barrow cemetery in an unexplored funerary landscape of over 30 ring ditches. The site is located to the south of Netherhampton Road, on the very edge of the World Heritage site of Stonehenge and the chalklands of Cranborne Chase.

Aerial imagery of Area 2, showing the two ring ditches and swathes of pits
Aerial imagery of Area 2, showing the two ring ditches and swathes of pits

Their site has produced considerable quantities of worked flint, several bone pins, and pottery from the Late Neolithic, Bronze Age, and early medieval (5th‒8th century AD). Neolithic pits have yielded quantities of burnt hazelnuts, a rare scallop shell, and a purposefully pierced oyster shell, and the faunal remains include impressive tools created from red deer antler. Among the pottery was a complete ceramic vessel, which is an interesting and remarkable find for several reasons. It was uncovered intact and sitting upright next to the skeletal remains of a child that had been buried in the centre of one of the barrows.

Yorkshire food vessel, before being lifted, soil kept around the vessel to protect it while lifting

The shape of the pot is termed a ‘food vessel’, although this does not imply that it was used for holding food (it is simply a term used by archaeologists to complement the use of ‘Beaker’); it has a single handle and a carination, or shoulder. On the exterior, the impressed decoration of short notches has been carefully distributed in horizontal lines, and the interior bears a concentric line of notches encircled by double lines. The interior also revealed a black residue, stronger near the base, which suggests it was used prior to being placed in the burial. The vessel appears to have been placed empty and with care by the side of the child.

CT scan of Yorkshire food vessel

The team carefully block-lifted and returned the vessel and grave remains to our lab at Andover. Prior to micro-excavation of the contents, the food jar was CT scanned at Southern Counties Veterinary to reveal what may be inside – occasionally these vessels hold cremated remains, the bones of neonates, or small grave goods. The scan images were exceptionally good and it was possible to see the outline of the jar still buried in its block of soil, as well as its contents, details of manufacture, and decoration. The infill did not seem to contain any artefacts or cremated bone but, to be thorough, Post-excavation Supervisor Gemma completed a painstaking micro-excavation. This confirmed the contents were sterile and, after the excavation and cleaning, the pot remained complete and intact.

Time-lapse footage of Gemma Micro-excavating the food vessel

This type of vessel dates to the Early Bronze Age and its closest parallels are with vessels produced in north-east England, especially around Yorkshire and Northumberland, where the best documented examples have mostly been recovered from graves. Food Vessels in general are very rare finds in the south-west and in southern England, and those with more elaborate decoration (of Yorkshire type) and handles are rarer still. Their distribution seems to indicate the existence of complex networks and relations across the country during the Early Bronze Age, with some authors also proposing that social identity could be articulated using burial goods such as this.

In its Wiltshire setting, our pot must either have been made some 400km away and transported, or a potter with the skills and knowledge of a non-local style must have made it locally, perhaps to be deliberately different in its appearance. This jar was also quite large for a child, and so as a grave good this could have signaled the ‘wealth’ or status of the family of the deceased, as well as possibly their ‘northern’ associations. Hopefully some of these questions will be addressed as further post-excavation analysis and research of the pottery vessel and the skeletal remains continues to progress.

Alejandra Gutiérrez and Alistair Barclay 

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