Bronze Age Huntingdonshire

Bronze Age occupation in the County of Huntingdonshire in England

 

The transition from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age is marked by the appearance in Eastern and Southern Britain of a new type of pottery, the beaker. The folk who made this pottery were a round-headed people, a mixed Nordic-Alpine race which may have originated in Eastern Central Europe, but whose culture was, in part at least, derived from Spain. Crossing probably from the mouth of the Rhine, this people reached Eastern Britain about 2000 B.C. They had then, it would appear, no metal tools, but the existence of copper was doubtless known to them, and objects of copper or bronze of the earliest types occasionally appear in their graves in this country. It is, therefore, convenient to commence our study of the Bronze Age with an examination of the remains attributable to this people. Fengate, Peterborough, on the Northamptonshire bank of the Nene, has yielded interesting evidence of the transition from Neolithic to Beaker Culture 1; and it is probable that the gravel terraces of the Nene valley, both on the Hunts and Northants sides, at the point where the river leaves the uplands and enters the Fens were sites of very early settlement by the invaders. 2

These folk buried their dead and commonly placed their characteristic pots, beautifully made and decorated, by the heard or shoulders or behind the knees; and beakers, probably or certainly associated with skeletons, have been found close to the course of the Nene on a gravel hillock (probably a tumulus) at Ramsey St. Mary, and on the gravel spur bordering the Ouse at Somersham (two). Though none have been found on the banks of the latter river in the county south of this point, it is probable that settlements of the beaker-folk once existed, for a beaker (now in the Huntingdon Institute) was found at Sefford, Bedfordshire, a few miles further up the valley.

The beaker found in fragments with a skeleton at Ramsey has been reconstructed in fig. 5. One element of its decoration, the indentations produced by a toothed wheel or quadrant, is characteristic of the style; the other, a close band of thumbnail markings, is of special interest as emphasising the unity of culture in the Fen basin. The same ornament occurs on contemporary vessels from Peterborough and Rothwell (Northants) on the western side, and from Fordham (Cambs), East Winch and Ingham (Norfolk) on the eastern side. Of nine examples showing this motif known to the writer, seven are from the Fens and their borders.

The two beakers from Somersham also merit description. Each is unique. They are exhibited in the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. One, ‘a giant among beakers,’ 10.8 in. high, is figured on Plate I, no I; and also by Abercromby (Bronze Age Pottery, I, pl. ix., fig. 76). In form it is late, and since its ornament has parallels in pottery from the Long Barrow at West Kennet, Wilts (in British Museum), it may reflect the absorption of the invaders by the aborigines, which appears to have taken place. The second beaker is handled; this is a feature of rare occurrence outside Yorkshire and the Fenlands.3 Its chief claim to attention lies in its ornament, which consists of a ‘small, deep cylindrical holes, very regularly and evenly distributed in horizontal bands.’ The closest parallels to this style of ornament outside the Fen basin are in the Baltic area. 4

Plate I

Pottery of the Bronze and Early Iron Ages found in Huntingdonshire

Pottery of the Bronze and Early Iron Ages found in Huntingdonshire

 

Key to Plate I

1. Beaker from Somersham

5. Urn from Woodstone

2. Food vessel from Fletton

6. Iron Age urn with finger-tip ornament from Somersham

3. Urn with overhanging rim from Fletton

4.Urn with overhanging rim from Somersham

7. Iron Age pot from Woodstone

 

There is anatomical evidence – though not from Huntingdonshire – that the beaker-folk in Britain were absorbed by the long-headed aborigines, presumably mainly of Mediterranean race, whom they had only partially displaced. Their typical pottery forms disappeared, though these left their mark on the ceramic types which followed. This disappearance, marking the close of the Transition period, may be dated about 1700 B.C.

Fig 5

Beaker (Abercrombie Type "C") from Ramsey St. Mary's in Huntingdonshire

Beaker (Abercrombie Type "C") from Ramsey St. Mary's in Huntingdonshire

Transitional Period - Peterborough Museum

 

The unbroken typological sequence of weapon and tool forms which developed during the Early Bronze Age (characteristic forms, dagger and flat axe) c. 1700-1400 B.C. and the Middle Bronze Age (rapier and palstave), 1400-1000 B.C. suggest that during the second millennium the conditions in Eastern Britain were fairly stable and peaceful. The Late Bronze Age (c. 1000-500B.C.) is marked by the appearance of the leaf-shaped sword, replacing the rapier, and the socketed axe, replacing the palstave; and there are grounds for believing that the change is due to an invasion, the brunt of which fell on Eastern Britain.5 Some think that the new-comers were Goidels, the first Celtic-speaking peoples to reach these shores; the present writer accepts this view is probable.

There is ample evidence that suitable sites in our county were occupied during every phase of the Bronze Age. The occurrence of pottery of the Transition period has already been noted; the rarity in Britain generally of metal objects of the period renders their absence from recorded finds in Huntingdonshire readily explicable. The stone axe with expanded blade (fig. 3) from Ponds Bridge is almost certainly an imitation of a metal form and may be of this period, as may also be the granite axe-hammer referred to in the previous section (fig. 4). Some at any rate, of the surface stone industries (especially small finely chipped flint tools with an almost glassy look) which commonly occur in the Nene valley and elsewhere, belong, it is probable, rather to the Transition that to the true Neolithic age. And it may here be noted in parentheses that tanged flint arrowheads which are recorded in Huntingdonshire both from the Nene and Ouse valleys were in use throughout the Bronze Age in East Anglia.

The practice of inhumation continued throughout the greater part, if not the whole, of the Early Bronze period. The characteristic sepulchral pottery is the food vessel, derived ultimately from the Neolithic bowl (of which specimens were found on the Fengate site already referred to). An example (Plate I., 2) 4.25 in. high, from gravel pits at Fletton, in the Bodger Collection at the Peterborough Museum, is of special interest. In its rim form it harks back to the Neolithic , and to beakers such as that figured by Leeds6 from Fengate; and it foreshadows the development of the overhanging-rim urn characteristic of the subsequent phase (Plate I., 3). The cuneiform incisions which ornament the upper part of this vessel are met with elsewhere on early wares in the Fen basin, while the deep'ish circular holes on the shoulder provide a needed local link with the similarly decorated beaker from Somersham already referred to.7 The holes on both vessels were made with a hollow reed; in the case of the Fletton pot the cone produced by withdrawing the reed with its little cylinder of clay from the hole is visible at the base of several of these. We have here perhaps an interesting type of ornament directly connected with the environment of the potters. Reeds from the fen probably served many purposes, including that of thatching their huts.

Plate II

Implements and Tools of the Bronze and Early Iron Ages found in Huntingdonshire

Implements and Tools of the Bronze and Early Iron Ages found in Huntingdonshire

 

Key to Plate II

1. Axe with slight flanges from Whittlesey Mere

5. Palstave from Horsey

9. Socketed axe from Pidley

13. Socketed spear head from Warboys Fen

2. Socketed axe from Horsey

6. Spade hilted rapier from Pond's Bridge

10. Socketed axe from Eaton Ford

14. Ferrule of horn for a spear shaft from Fletton

3. Socketed axe from Whittlesey Mere

7. Palstave from Hartford

11. Socketed axe from St. Neots

15. Axe of horn from Fletton

4. Palstave from Ramsey

8. Palstave from Hartford

12. Socketed spear head from Warboys Fen

16. Hafted Iron knife from Fletton

A skeleton was found ‘near’ this food vessel; of another found in Elton gravel pit about 1888 the information is similar but more definite. This vessel is about 3.5 in. high, cup-shaped, of rough reddish pottery decorated near the rim with toothed implement impressions, and has an ear or lug; it was found ‘between the skulls of two skeletons,’ and is in the Peterborough Museum. The variety of ceramic ornament in the early Bronze Age is attested by a third vase, 4 in. in height, also in the Peterborough Museum (Walker collection), found at Stanground; this has a raised cordon separating body rim, rows of depressions made with a smooth (bone?) tool below, and vertical grooves above.

The paste of the last-mentioned pot, like that of the one referred to in the footnote, contains large pieces of flint; and in texture, Abbott remarks, is similar to the typical Neolithic round-bottomed bowl.

Bronze tools of the period are scanty; a flat axe from Yaxley Fen, and one with slight flanges from Whittlesey Mere (Plate II., 1) are on record. The former has been analysed by Gowland and found to be of bronze.

The Middle Bronze Age

The Middle Bronze Age was prosperous period in East Anglia8 and fine bronze weapons were common. A fine spade-hilted rapier, 13.4 in. long (Plate II., 6), was found in the peat with its point sticking in the underlying clay at Ponds Bridge, on the boundary between Ramsey and Whittlesey (Cambs) parishes; it is now in the Peterborough Museum.9 Palstaves from Ramsey and Horsey (Stanground) (plate ii., 4, 5) are also in the local museum; and two (plate ii., 7, 8) from Hartford on the Ouse are in the Huntingdon Institute. One of the latter (an unfinished casting) is of debased type, without loops. (It is possible that such tools, which are not uncommon in East Anglia, were made and used for currency at a later date, when the palstave had been for practical purposes replaced by the socketed axe.) Socketed spearheads with loops are characteristic of the Middle Bronze Age; the loops (by which the blade was affixed to the shaft) are at first high upon the socket as in a specimen from Conington Fen (penes Dr. J R Garrood). At a later date these loops became ornamental, being merely holes at the base of the blade; such spears, with ‘protected loops,’ as they are termed, are not uncommon in Huntingdonshire. Specimens from Horsey (Stanground) and Whittlesey Mere are in Peterborough Museum, and from Warboys Fen (plate ii.12) in the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology. A chisel formed like an elongated palstave, from Ramsey Fen, is in the Wisbech Museum.

It appears probable that to the Middle Bronze Period ought to be ascribed the majority of the burials by cremation, usually in barrows, associated with overhanging-rim urns, which are among the most characteristic remains of the Age in our museums. Cremation occurs in long barrows in Yorkshire of late Neolithic period, and sporadically in the Early Bronze Period in Britain; its universal adoption in the present period is to be ascribed to the resurgence of aboriginal custom rather than to Continental influence. The overhanging-rim urn, moreover, is a purely British type, and this fact strengthens the preceding argument.

There is very little evidence of the existence of Bronze Age barrows in our county. Cremation burials of the period have usually been found in arable districts, and it is, of course, possible that overlying mounds have been levelled. Mounds, presumably sepulchral occur, however, on dry islands in the Huntingdonshire fens, and future research may establish the Bronze Age date of some of these.10

In the parish of Woodstone, near the Cross Keys Inn north of the Oundle road, an interesting burial of the period was found during gravel digging. A shallow pit contained burnt human bones and ashes; these had probably been thrown in when hot, for the sides of the pit showed evidence of burning.11 Five unburnt beads of Kimmeridge shale, and an urn of overhanging-rim type, inverted, were found on the ashes;12 the urn (Plate I. 5), which is typologically late (biconical) and shows notched ornament,13 was broken as a result of secondary Saxon interment. The beads were of two kinds, long and short; they were keeled, each resembling two truncated cones placed base to base. Mortimer found jet beads similar in form in a Yorkshire burial, and they are not uncommon in Britain generally, but are usually associated with objects indicative of an earlier date in the Bronze Age than the present burial. That our beads should be of shale and not of jet is interesting as confirming the writer’s opinion14 that at this period the cultural connections of the Fen basin population were with Wiltshire rather than Yorkshire; with the south-west rather than the north.

Cist burials-interments enclosed by four upright slabs of stone, with a covering slab-rarely occur in Eastern Britain. They are of special interest as representing the last phase of a very ancient tradition in burial custom, the origin of which is to be sought in Neolithic times. Such a burial is recorded in V. C. H. Northants, I., p. 142, as from Wansford Paper Mills; but Mr. Wyman Abbott states that the site is on the Huntingdonshire side of the river, in Stibbington parish. There was an urn in the cist, together with brunt bones; this urn, which is a fine and early example of the overhanging-rim class, is now in the Northampton Museum. Other overhanging-rim urns have been found at Fletton (Plate I., 3) and at Somersham (Plate I., 4); but the associations of these are unknown.

Cremation was the rite employed apparently universally in the Late as well as the Middle Bronze Age; determination of the racial type of the invaders, whom we have postulated to account for novel elements which appear in the culture of the last phase of the Age, is therefore impossible. The writer is of the opinion that the ‘flat’ cemeteries containing pail-or bucket-shaped urns (usually plain but occasionally showing a new type of ornament-impressions made with the tip of the finger), which are met with in Essex, Hertfordshire, Middlesex and Suffolk- as well as in South England- are of this period. None has as yet been found in our country, and it is not impossible that some of the Huntingdonshire burials associated with overhanging-rim urns are of the Late Bronze Age.

No leaf-shaped sword, the most characteristic weapon of the Late Bronze period, is known from the county; but the socketed axe is widely distributed, occurring at Horsey (Stanground), near Peterborough, Whittlesey Mere, Pidley on the uplands, and St Neots in the Ouse Valley. These are illustrated (Plate II., 2, 3, 9-11) in order to show the wide variety of form which the socketed axe presents, a variety the chronological or cultural significance of which in Britain is as yet unknown.

The socketed spearhead, without loops but with a rivet-hole for affixing the shaft, is a type associated with the leaf-sword, socketed-axe complex; a fine example, 11.6 in. long, from Warboys Fen (Plate II.13), is in the Cambridge Museum.

The sudden appearance of founders’ hoards-broken implements and rough metal-is characteristic of the last phase of the Bronze Age in East Anglia. It is possible that the leaf-sword folk had a more elaborate social organization than had hitherto been present in Britain; as in the Teutonic Heroic Age, every chieftain may have possessed a store of arms, and the bronze-smith may have been an essential member of his household.

Two finds of rough metal have been made at Horsey (Stanground), one over two pounds, the other about seven pounds in weight. Two axes, already referred to, were found at Pidley during land-draining, one perfect and the other imperfect. The site, in the forest, is such as the bronze founders frequently chose,15 and these implements probably formed part of a hoard. A group of broken axes and other bronzes preserved in the Huntingdon Institute also probably formed part of an unrecorded local hoard. All these group finds are of the Late Bronze Period.

The general distribution of the remains of the Age may briefly be considered. Finds in the Nene valley and in the Ouse valley attest settlement on the banks of the rivers and those on fen islands settlement in the Fens. Horsey, in Stanground parish, has yielded a variety of objects; and the Fletton urns may represent the burial place of this fenside folk. Bronzes found along the course of the Nene in the Fens point to the use of the fen waterways. Monoxylous canoes of oak were used in the period, as the discovery of such a one with a bronze rapier lying in it attests;16 and the fine examples of these vessels found in Warboys Fen17 and Whittlesey Mere may be referred to the Bronze Age. Trade and intercourse carried on by such means accounts for the unity of culture in the Fen basin to which attention has been drawn.

Occupation of the Somersham spur is attested throughout the Age; and the finds at Pidley are probably to be associated with the settlers here. Finds at fords of the Ouse-at Eaton Ford in Bedfordshire18 and at St Neots, which is situated on the opposite bank, and Hartford-are very significant; but out knowledge is insufficient to determine the direction of the track ways which led to these ancient river crossings.

 

Footnotes

  1. G. Wyman Abbott, Arch. Ixii, 352; E. T. Leeds Antiq. Journ., ii,222.

  2. Since this article was written a beaker (figured on plate iii) has been discovered on the site of the Old Manor House in Stanground, a parish on the Huntingdonshire bank of the Nene opposite Fengate. The beaker is of Abercrombie's B type, seven inches high; its ornament is of a character commonly met with at Fengate (G.W.A.), but the rib on the neck is unusual. Of this feature, doubtless, the slight ridge on the neck of the Somersham beaker (plate I) is a survival. Its origin may be found on the Continent; compare the well-marked ridge on the neck of a cord-beaker from Waldorf, near Mannheim on the Rhine, figured by Schliz, Zeitschfift fur Ethnologie, 1906, 313. In form there is a close English parallel from Folkton, Yorks, illustrated by Greenwell in Arch,. Iii, 16. The chief interest of the find is that it shows that the right bank of the Nene in the neighbourhood of Peterborough (as well as the left) was occupied by the round-headed invaders.

  3. Evidence of close cultural association between Yorkshire and Fenlands in the first half of the second millennium B.C. has been noted by Fox (op. cit., p. 39).

  4. This beaker was the subject of a special note in Antiq. Journ. Iv, 131-133, and is there illustrated.

  5. Fox, op. cit., 19, 57.

  6. Antiq.  Journal, ii. 225.

  7. Bowl-shaped food vessel in the Peterborough Museum (Walker Collection) which was found by the Peterborough-Whittlesey road (? Stanground parish) is probably nearly contemporary; the upper half is ornamented by a series of small punched holes about 1/8 in. in diameter.

  8. Fox, op. cit., p. 51.

  9. There is some evidence that much of the peat in the Fenlands is growth of a later date than the Bronze Age; the position of this rapier suggests that the Ponds Bridge area was open water when it was dropped overboard and lost.

  10. The two round barrows beside the Ermine Street at Great Stukeley are probably of the Roman period (Fox, op. cit., p. 198

  11. Similar appearances were present in many secondary cremation burials in a barrow at Barton Mills, Suffolk, on the opposite side of the Fens, excavated in 1923 by Earl Cawdor and the writer. .(Proc, Camb. Antiq. Soc., xxvi., p. 30). In no case could the body have been burnt in situ.

  12. A bone necklace unburnt was found with the ashes of one burial at Barton Mills (loc. Cit., p. 34). It may be that this association is of frequent occurrence, and it may help to date the overhanging-rim urns. Beads are very easily overlooked in a mass of burnt bones and charcoal.

  13. This ornament, which resembles that characteristic of the beaker class of pottery, is seen on an urn from Mepal Fen, Cambs. (Fox, op. cit., pl. iii,3).

  14. Fox, op. cit., pp. 51-52, 317.

  15. Fox, op. cit., map ii and pp. 62-3.

  16. Evans, Bronze Implements,250.

  17. This is illustrated by Noble, C. and H. Arch. Soc. Trans., iii, 143. The canoe was 37 ft. long, to 3 to3.9 ft. wide, and the sides were 15 in. high. It was craftsman’s job; for transverse ledges were worked in the solid to give extra strength.

  18. The Eaton Ford axe, a fine socketed specimen, is figured on plate ii, 10.

 

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