Reconstruction of a typical Iron Age stone-walled round house - Northumbria, UK.

During the past year several intriguing and unusual Iron Age discoveries have been made in the West of England. The first is a unique Iron Age burial on the Island of Bryher in The Scillies. The details of the Iron age burial on Bryher were supplied by Jeanette Radcliffe, Project Manager of the Cornwall Archaeology Unit, and were compiled by English Heritage.

“Intensive studies have begun on a 2000 year old bronze mirror at English Heritage’s Centre for Archaeology at Fort Cumberland, Portsmouth. The rare mirror was unearther in October 1999 in an Iron Age burial site on Bryher Island, one of the Scilly Isles, by archaeologists from the Cornwall Archaeological Unit, following the discovery of an iron swors in a bronze scabbard. Graves with mirrors in them are extremely rare, as are those containing swords, and this is the only known example of an Iron Age grave in North West Europe to contain both a sword and a mirror. What makes the find even more extraordinary is that it is generally assumed that swords are associated with male burials and mirrors with female burials. (The well-known Portesham mirror is an example of the latter, discovered in 1994 in West Dorset in an Iron age burial of a female aged about 45 years…Ed).

The Bryher Mirror – the mirror effect being achieved by a highly polished bronze surface – is only the third to be discovered outside mainland Britain and is one of of only about 40 or so bronze mirrors ever to have been discovered in the world. Sword burials are equally rare. This is only the tenth burial with a sword to have been excavated in the British Isles outside of East Yorkhire (an area rich in Iron Age burials where 22 swords have been found in graves). The Bryher sword is believed to date from between 250 and 125 BC. If this dating is accurate and the sword was placed in the grave relatively soon after it was made, then the Bryher Mirror is probably the earliest bronze mirror so far known. If the Bryher Mirror does date to the 2nd century BC, it raises important questions about the origins of this type of object and the style of decoration, suggesting that they arise independently of the major social developments that were occurring in the south east region of mainland Britain during the Later Iron Age.

Excavation of the grave revealed the fragmentary remains of a human skeleton, lying on its right side in a crouched position (as was the Portesham burial…Ed). The bronze mirror was found lying on the west side of the skeleton next to where the buried person’s face would have been.

Jeanette Ratcliffe, Project Manager at the cornwall Archaeology Unit, said “This is a phenomenally exciting find of international importance. Mirrors are assumed to have been women’s objects, while in the case of sword burials, the remains have generally been found to be male. That a sword and a mirror should be found together raises important questions about sex and gender in the Iron Age. DNA testing of the human bones will hopefully determine the sex of the buried person.”

The grave was first discovered by a local farmer in March 1999, when one of his tractor wheels sank into a hole in the ground. To free it he had to remove a stone below which he found a large cavity, closer inspection of which revealed a stone-lined grave or “cist” and, reaching inside, the farmer found the sword.

The site was designated a Scheduled Monument and English Heritage has funded the excavation of the cist and the ongoing analysis of the grave’s contents removed from the site. The investigation is being carried out by Cornwall Archaeology Unit with specialist archaeologists from English heritage and elsewhere, including the British Museum, which will conduct detailed research on the mirror and the sword.

Due to its extreme fragility, the mirror was removed within a block of soil and is now in English Heritage’s Centre for Archaeology where it is being examined using new X-radiography equipment which reveals the hidden details of construction before the soil is carefully removed.

Tye mirror appears to be made in two parts; a cast bronze handle attached to a bronze mirror plate. The plate is oval in shape, measuring approximately 150mm wide by 130mm high. Bronze mirrors of this type are usually decorated on the back with complex patterns engraved into the bronze surface (See Celtic Connections Issue 26 for some well known examples…Ed). At present there is no indication that this mirror has similar decoration but it is hoped that X-radiographs and careful conservation might establish this.

It is intended that after conservation, the sword and mirror and other artefacts retrieved from the grave will eventually be displayed in the Isles of Scilly Museum on St Mary’s. The majority of known British and Irish Iron Age swords have been recovered from rivers, lakes and other natural features. This is the only burial outside of East Yorkshire that contains a bronze scabbard.”

The second Iron Age excavation is in the village of Portesham in west Dorset, two miles from where Celtic Connections magazine is produced. The area is well-known for its Bronze Age and Iron Age occupation, and viewers of Channel 4 TV’s programme Time Team will have seen earlier this year the excavation of an Iron Age round house from c.500 BC right here in our back garden at Waddon.

The Portesham excavation is still continuing at the time of writing, and AC Archaeology from Shaftesbury will be producing a detailed report in due course. AC’s Project Manager John Valentin released the following comments about the site. “We have found a stone hut from the late Iron age which suggests there was a settlement here at that time. The discovery is significant because the foundations of the building are made of stone (as was the one in our garden…Ed) which is very rare in Dorset – usually they would be wooden.“

It is thought that the hut was part of a village of about 10 round houses, centred on a natural spring that was used as a water source. The people living there would have been alive around the time of Christ and the Roman invasion of Britain – the settlement has been dated between 50BC and 50AD.

Six human burials and three animals have also been excavated. Most of the skeletons were found accompanied by pottery vessels, which would have contained wine and food as well as items of jewellery such as bronze brooches (we found examples of two of these bronze brooches on the site here at Waddon…Ed).

The most unusual discovery was a grave with the skeleton of a man together with a horse’s head. The archaeologists believe he was buried in a wooden coffin (this is rare for the Late Iron Age…Ed) with the horses head placed on top.

John Valentin said “Iron Age people would have been buried with familiar objects to take with them into the afterlife. They are sometimes found with their favourite animal, and the horse is the most common. The skeleton found was quite large and probably a man, and the fact that he was buried with a horse would suggest that he was quite wealthy.”

Two dogs and another unidentified animal have also been uncovered – it is thought that they may have been domestic pets.

The archaeologists have subsequently found evidence of an earlier Iron Age settlement on another part of the site, dating from around 500BC (the same date as the round house here at Waddon…Ed). A number of food storage pits, where grain and seed would have been kept during the cold winters, have been uncovered in this area.

Experts will now examine the pottery and artefacts in greater detail before a comprehensive report is published next year.

- © David James