Everyone will know the fabulous article in the Antiquaries Journal 57(2) from 1977, by Peter Donaldson, reporting on the excavations carried out by the Department of Environment and the Nene Valley Research Committee with the scintillating title: ‘The Excavation of a Multiple Round Barrow at Barnack, Cambridgeshire, 1974-1976’.
No? Why not?
Oh? You don’t have access to a library with this prestigious and scholarly journal?
No way?! You don’t have access behind the Cambridge University Press digital pay-wall?
Too bad sucker!
Seriously, don’t despair. For while you might not know the publication, you may well have met one of the skeletons uncovered by this excavation. I say this because the British Museum, surely the institution with the highest visitor figures of any UK museum (with c. 6 million people passing its doors ever year) contains the ‘Barnack burial’ in the Weston Gallery – room 49 – as part of its Prehistoric Britain display. Adjacent to the Mold Cape, I visited the skeleton recently. I noted how it attracts people, everyone wants to look down at the skull as it stares upwards. Hence, I would propose that the Barnack burial is the most viewed skeleton of any date or provenance in a UK museum.
If you have never visited the BM, you might still have seen this Barnack skeleton at both the start and end of the music video by PJ Harvey: The Last Living Rose. The camera looks from behind the Barnack skull and on to visitors moving past the Mold Cape. This prehistoric person looks out at us, walking by…
What do we know about this Bronze Age burial? The excavations followed aerial photographic evidence revealing crop-marks in areas due for gravel extraction. The excavations revealed three concentric ditches, with two stake circles between the inner and middle ditch, outer quarry pits surrounding a mound covering a series of 23 bodies, 19 in 16 graves plus four fragmentary traces from the base of the ploughsoil. They date to the Chalcolithic/Early Bronze Age. There were also a series of small features of no discernible function. The entire monument was huge: the outside diameter of the outer ditch was 50m.
The individual on display in the British Museum is from the primary grave (28) of this complex burial mound. The excavation report describes this central burial as male, aged 35-45, found lain on his back with flexed legs, buried at a huge depth of 1.85m within a flat-bottomed sub-rectangular grave-pit 2.2m by 1.4m large, orientated NNE-SSW.
The inference of the report was that the head might have originally been slightly elevated (hence the reconstruction in the museum of an upwards facing skull).
The person was accompanied by a series of artefacts. Down the right side was a thin layer of oak charcoal. There were also charcoal fragments beside the neck. At the feet was a crushed Beaker on its side, with ‘a distinctive yellowish soil spilling out from its neck over the left foot bones’. Another feature was a copper dagger surrounded ‘by blackened soil’ beside the left below. This dagger was associated with a sea-mammal ivory pendant. A 9-holed gold-capped stone wrist guard was positioned over the left forearm. Two graves – cremation burial 71 and adult male crouched inhumation grave 37 – later cut into primary grave 28.
Now, the museum display case offers a series of texts that try to explain the context that is absent. Still it is notable that the multi-phase monument, the other graves, and the grave context are not discussed at all. Still, we’re given the date-range of 2330-2130 BC, that the grave-goods are typical ‘early Beaker’ and might be possessions or provisions needed for the afterlife journeying of the dead person, perhaps reflecting the individual identity of the person in society. We’re informed that some might have been used by this person, others could be gifts from mourners. The Beaker might have held alcohol, itself significant in the funerary ritual.
The text explains that the artefacts tell us he was ‘well-connected’ – with far-reaching networks. Recent stable isotope analysis tell us he was a local chap, even if some of his grave-goods arrived ‘with new people from continental Europe’. The copper from the dagger was probably from mainland Europe, the wrist-guard’s gold from Cornwall, the stone from the Lake District. Burning a piece of the bier or coffin with the body was a local custom of eastern England, perhaps a rite of purification during the burial process.
We are told the objects are copies, not originals, but the skeleton is indeed original. Grave-goods from an infant burial found close by are located in a nearby case, we are told.
So now you appreciate something of the connection between a 1970s excavation report and Britain’s most-viewed skeleton. He’s very much the international man of mystery. Women want him, and men want to be him! He is intriguing, silent, suave and sophisticated, well-connected but home-grown! Very much the ideal for the pre-Brexit 21st-century Briton.