Life and death in Iron Age Wales – Dr Adelle Bricking
The study of human remains provides us with our most direct window onto the Iron Age population in Wales, but burial evidence from Wales has been understudied compared to areas such as Yorkshire and Wiltshire. However, a recent reappraisal of the literature on excavations of Iron Age sites has shown that the quantity of burial material in Wales is much larger than previously recognised. Using new data collected at two sites – RAF St Athan in the Vale of Glamorgan and Dinorben in Conwy – the aim of this project is to directly address how we understand mortuary practices, and to reveal new insights into life through diet and origins of later prehistoric populations in Wales.
Dr Adelle Bricking first defined her PHD interest as being Iron Age burials from 880 BC to AD 43, and then explained some of the burial variations that have been found in Britain – such as the cist or stone-lined burials in Cornwall, cremation in the south east, and the dismantled chariots in Yorkshire.
An intriguing version found in the south west was burials within circular grain storage pits. Elsewhere post-holes for houses and middens were also used. We were then introduced to excarnation where bodies were left, perhaps on a platform, to sub-aerial exposure and rapid decomposition. This practice is still known in Tibet. Wales proves to be one of the least studied areas, partly because acidic soils break down bone remains, and coastal erosion may have removed better-preserved artefacts in limestones.
Bricking’s Welsh project was to pull together previous studies, then develop some case studies so that she could address burial practices, and gather information about diet and the geographical movement of individuals. Her two case studies were at RAF St Athan in the Vale of Glamorgan and Dinorben in Conwy. The former was a small lightly defended enclosure excavated in 2002-3, where the remains of five individuals were found as disarticulated bones that had been buried. At Dinorben all site remains have been lost to quarrying but records exist from digs from 1912 to 1922, and from 1950 to 1970. Many skulls had been found plus impressive finds suggesting status or power—for example decorative brooches and a bracelet.
Bricking’s research methodology involved radiocarbon dating to establish a chronology, and the analysis of isotopes. Carbon and nitrogen isotopes give an indication of the individual’s diet, while strontium and oxygen isotopes suggest where individuals had grown up. An in-depth examination of the bones provided information on what had happened to them after death.
At Dinorben five new date ranges were established with three giving a mid-Iron Age date, but two in the range 246BC to 382 AD suggest that Iron Age burial procedures continued well into the Roman period.
Plotting the isotopes gave dietary ranges contrasting the consumption of meat with plant material. Evidence of meat consumption suggests individuals may have been of high status. More work is required to take soil and plant samples to establish where individuals had lived. The post-death analysis of bone deterioration focused on cross section examination of the rate of collagen decay by bacteria. The bones at St Athan had poor preservation, but at Dinorben the better preservation suggests the bones had been dug up some time after burial and re-buried within the hillfort.
Conclusions indicate that all bones had been exhumed but that there was no evidence of excarnation. In essence there appeared to be considerable consistency between the two sites. The strontium analyses are still awaited.