Picket Twenty – a Bronze Age stake-out

The excavation of a small Beaker and Early Bronze Age (2250–1500 BC) round barrow cemetery at Picket Twenty in 2017-18 was certainly one to catch the eye, and the site has become an iconic image for CA Andover.

The main four barrow ditches uncovered at Picket Twenty
The main four barrow ditches uncovered at Picket Twenty

Apart from the barrow ditches, there was also evidence for a small number of non-barrow structures, features, burials and pits, including a 14m-wide penannular ring of 73, evenly spaced, stake-holes, which had a 6.5m wide entrance to the north-east.  The placing of a stake-circle outside of a barrow is an unusual occurrence as most examples are found within barrow ditches. There are other examples of stake-circles from early prehistory that appear to form houses and, although these are not common, they do occur from the Mesolithic onwards (9500 BC).

The stake-circle (with stakeholes flagged) and central pit
The stake-circle (with stakeholes flagged) and central pit

Stake-circles are more commonly found beneath barrow mounds, especially on the Chalk. Some belonged to a separate pre-barrow phase; others were integral to the barrow construction and may have fenced off associated graves, perhaps both to shield the burials and to control the movement of mourners and what could be viewed during the funerary activities. Some stake-circles may simply have been a frame for a wattle revetment to a mound of turf, soil and chalk. This would have given the mound a more stepped or cylindrical shape originally, rather than the softer, rounded profiles of earth that we find today. Not all barrows have preserved stake-circles, although some may have been removed by centuries of ploughing. At Picket Twenty none of the five recorded barrows had preserved stake-circles or mounds.

One of the reasons that we found the stake-circle is that modern excavations look at the spaces between and beyond known barrows. We now know that barrows formed only one element of such cemeteries: they can have earlier non-barrow elements (such as Neolithic and Early Beaker pits and flat graves – before 2150 BC), and evidence for the contemporary use of the spaces in between the barrows, as well as later referencing of the barrows, especially in the later Bronze Age, Roman and Anglo-Saxon periods.

Plan of the stake-circle and posthole row, in relation to two of the barrow ditches
Plan of the stake-circle and posthole row, in relation to two of the barrow ditches

The Picket Twenty stake-circle was also attached to one of the barrows by a row of postholes, which may have screened off part of the cemetery. Only a small pit was found at the centre of the stake-circle. That the stakes perhaps supported a fenced structure is indicated by the occurrence of small pits just outside the stake-circle, some of which contained deposits of cremated human bone and pyre debris.  The central pit also contained small fragments of cremated human bone, but not enough to suggest a formal burial deposit.

What does this space represent? Well, our current thinking is that it acted as a mortuary house and somewhere perhaps where cremated remains were brought from a pyre site and housed prior to the actual burial stage of the funeral. Its discovery shines more light on the complexity of the Early Bronze Age funerary process.

Alistair Barclay

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