A Woman's Burial from Wessex

Artist impression of Manton Barrow woman. Image © Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society Museum

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On a hillside overlooking the small hamlet of Manton in the parish of Preshute, lies the Manton Barrow. It was excavated just after the turn of the century, and yielded one of the finest female graves from the early Bronze Age, circa 1700BC.The barrow was excavated in 1906 by Maud Cunnington under her husband's name, to make it more acceptable to the archaeological world. It must have been quite poignant, for a woman to be excavating a woman. The barrow was quite disfigured, from previous attacks, and ploughed down to only three feet high. Amazingly the grave had survived intact.

Although the bones were re-interned in the barrow, they were examined by an expert, Dr John Beddoe who determined that the woman suffered from rheumatic arthritis, and was older than expected.

Bronze Dagger. Image © Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society Museum

Her grave marks her out as being a woman of great wealth and importance, with the prominent position of her barrow and the quality of her grave goods. These include two bronze daggers (one now lost) and a gold handled Halberd pendant, probably symbols of status: all too small to be of use, but may have been worn as tokens of her rank.

The three items of gold are particularly exquisite. The gold bound amber disc (ear ring) possibly a representation of the sun, is only 25mm wide.

Amber Disc. Image © Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society MuseumThe amber disc was turned on a lathe with six concentric grooves carved in a band only 5mm in from the edge on both sides. Then the gold foil was carefully worked into the grooves and around the amber disc with the centre cut out to allow the light through. In each groove in the gold foil there is a pin mark at1mm intervals, averaging seventy to each groove. So accurate is the spacing that you wonder if they had a magnifying glass.

Halberd. Image © Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society MuseumAmber was also used for the shaft of the Halberd, the pommel of the surviving dagger and five small beads, which were very decayed.

Bi-Conical Jet Bead. Image © Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society MuseumThe gold work on both the bi-conical jet bead (dress fastener) and Halberd pendant are similarly executed with grooves, but without the pin marks. It is most likely that the bi-conical jet bead was turned on some form of lathe as well. It is thought by archaeologists that one man was responsible for most of the fine gold foil work of this period that appears in the barrows that used to be called the Royal graves of Wessex 1 culture.

Jet Necklace. Image © Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society Museum

Jet was also used for the necklace, made from one hundred and fifty disc-shaped beads graded in size from 2mm to5mm and a single ribbed bead of jet. Other odd beads include one made from chalk, a ring bead of steatite and the stem joint of a fossil encrinite.

Clay Stud. Image © Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society MuseumThere was also a baked clay stud, which was found near her chin, which is portrayed as a lip stud on the image but it could have also been a dress fastener.

The grave also contained three small bronze awls, one of which was pointed at both ends, and one with traces of wood on the tang. Quite often the copper salts leach out of the bronze and preserve material like wood or cloth that are touching the blade at the time of burial.

It is interesting to note how far some of the materials had travelled: the jet is from Yorkshire and amber was from the Baltic region (northern Europe). The importance of this exotic import can not be underestimated, with the high number of amber finds (early Bronze Age) not be matched until the arrival of the Saxons 2000 years later.

The gold was most probably imported from Ireland, and the fact that a little was made to go a long way, points to it being very rare and expensive.

We know about the things that survived in her grave, but what about some of the things that perished? Where did her clothes come from, did she use scent and wear cosmetics, and what was the incense used in the burners? We get a few glimpses of this world with the partially preserved bodies from Danish coffin burials (Bronze Age) and in P.V. Glob's 'The Mound People.'
You can imagine her burial was quite an elaborate affair. Her body was laid on the surface on the hillside on a fine woollen cloth, her grave goods laid beside her head, others by her feet, maybe a second cloth covered her body. A large crowd of mourners had gathered to pay their respects, some throwing flowers on her, some leaving offerings of food and drink for the afterlife, with much crying and blowing of horns to signal her passing from this world.

They may have marked the barrow out and even started the first stage of its construction before she was laid out. The centre area was built out of stacked turf, and possibly reinforced with timber to support the turf above her body.

Incense Burner. Image © Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society MuseumThe two incense burners were added during the burial, being found somewhat higher than the body during the excavation, but when finished the white barrow, possibly sixty-six feet in diameter, twelve or more feet high, would have been seen for miles, to serve as a reminder to her people. There may have been stories about her passed down over generations that are now lost in time.

In her lifetime she may have seen the construction of the huge centre circle at Stonehenge, with sixty-ton stones hauled from the Marlborough Downs twenty-five miles away, participated in rituals and festivities at Avebury and walked though the ruins of Woodhenge at Durrington walls, and never considering that her dynasty would come to an end.

Bronze Age Craft is extremely grateful to the staff of the Wiltshire Heritage Museum at Devizes and the Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society for their assistance and the use of their images.