When Archaeologists Dug Beneath This Skate Park, They Unearthed Evidence Of Age-Old Burial Rituals

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The Foundations Archaeology team carefully sweeps a swathe of land in South West England, knowing the territory they’re examining will eventually become a skate park. As they sift through the dirt, they realize they’ve made the right choice in exploring the area prior to construction commencing. They’ve found something that brings to life the ancient burial rituals of civilizations from thousands of years ago.

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Experts have long known that, beneath the surface of its lands, the U.K. has ancient stories to tell. The Bronze Age started on the British Isles more than 4,000 years ago, in fact. Continental Europeans arrived with their skills in bronze crafting. And with them, they brought their ancient rites and rituals, too.

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Researchers have learned about all of this through careful excavations of Bronze Age sites across the U.K. But during the Lechlade dig, they didn’t uncover a run-of-the-mill remnant of the country’s ancient past. Instead, they found evidence to detail the civilization’s burial rituals – and it was a chilling discovery, to say the least.

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Europe’s entry into the Bronze Age came about 100 years after the period began in 3300 B.C. in ancient Sumeria, which is located in what today we call the Middle East. The era period began when people started to ditch their stone tools and weapons in favor of those made of bronze. Britain had plenty of the raw materials required for the latter material, which is comprised of nine-tenths copper and one-tenth tin.

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Europe’s Bronze Age started on the continent, though – specifically, in Greece in 3200 BC. Indeed, it took about 1,200 years for the era’s advancements to make their way to the British Isles. And evidence has shown that it was Europeans who brought their newfangled tools with them when they traveled to the U.K.

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Ancient graves have proven that a new population arrived in the U.K. in time to bring Bronze Age advancements to the islands. Experts have found differences in the skull shapes of skeletons from the Stone Age and those dated to the Bronze era. As such, they can deduce that new people – and new thinking – traveled to Britain between the two time periods.

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In fact, evidence has come to show that one particular group of Bronze Age people arrived and supplanted the residents of Britain who’d walked before them. After analyzing hundreds of ancient human bones, a research team from the U.K.’s National History Museum found that the country’s Stone Age inhabitants mostly disappeared once the Beaker people arrived.

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Research leader Ian Barnes explained via the museum’s website in 2018 just how he and the team had come to such a conclusion. “We found that the skeletal remains of individuals from Britain who lived shortly after [the Bronze Age] have a very different DNA profile to those who came before,” he said. “It seems that there is a large population turnover.”

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The Beaker people came from Iberia, the peninsula that encompasses modern-day Spain, Portugal, Gibraltar, Andorra and parts of Southern France. They didn’t physically migrate into Central Europe in large numbers, but their ideas did. And they received their name from the cups from which they’d drink, which were beaker-like in shape.

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It was the Central Europeans who’d been influenced by the original Beakers who subsequently moved around the continent – and carried the Iberians’ ideas with them. In approximately 2500 BC, the Central Europeans made it all the way from the continent to the British Isles. With them, they brought their Bronze Age advancements – and quickly wiped out the Stone Age way of life.

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In just a few centuries, these Beaker tribes had supplanted Britain’s original inhabitants, according to the Natural History Museum’s DNA study. The new arrivals looked different to the islands’ Stone Age inhabitants, too. These earlier residents typically had dark eyes and hair, for example, and olive-toned flesh.

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In contrast, Britain’s new population had blue eyes, paler flesh and blonde locks. These characteristics were increasingly prevalent among the British Isles’ residents. Moreover, the Beakers had no trouble intermingling with the populations they encountered – even the ones they came to replace.

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In Britain, it’s clear that the Beakers happily co-existed with the people who were already living on the islands. For example, the former made improvements to Stonehenge in 1500 BC, an important temple constructed during the Neolithic period some 1,500 years earlier. They also piled up earth to create a peak at Silbury Hill, and they constructed a stone monument at Avebury, too.

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The Beaker people’s presence changed Britain’s early society, with the onset of the civilization that’s since been called Wessex Culture. It revolved around their burial sites, which they filled with valuable items of the era. Archaeologists have found everything from gold ornaments to battle axes and intricately decorated daggers in while excavating these barrows.

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These items don’t just indicate the Bronze Age people’s ability to create sophisticated artifacts. Some of the preserved pieces show that they likely had trading routes with other flourishing civilizations of the era. For instance, a number of the buried gold vessels link the Wessex Culture to the Greek population, who manufactured very similar chalices during the same time period.

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On that note, the first Bronze Age burial site to contain gold was the final resting place of the so-called “Amesbury Archer.” Archaeologists unearthed the remains ahead of the construction of a residential estate. And their dig took place just a few miles from Stonehenge, which is why some called the discovery the “King of Stonehenge,” too.

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A team from Wessex Archaeology uncovered the burial site in the summer of 2002, and they found approximately 100 objects hidden within the earth. Among these were gold strands of hair, a number of arrowheads, several pots and some knives made of copper. But perhaps most astonishing was the Amesbury Archer himself, a complete skeleton of someone who died more than 4,000 years ago.

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The Amesbury Archer’s tomb was also noteworthy because it contained significantly more Bronze Age items that archaeologists would typically find in such a barrow. Moreover, the gold contained within the grave was from around 2500 BC, making it the oldest-ever remnant made of the material that experts had unearthed in the U.K.

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Further tests revealed more about the man buried just outside of Stonehenge. The Amesbury Archer had likely lived to be approximately 40 years old. He’d suffered injuries to his mouth and knee, the latter of which likely left him in near-incessant discomfort. And by examining his teeth, experts could determine that he’d come to Britain from Central Europe, just like the other Beakers.

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The Amesbury Archer’s impressive burial ground and rich background have led experts to believe that he was a member of the ruling class during the Bronze Era. He may even have had a hand in constructing Stonehenge, too. Although the site itself was marked during the Stone Age, the world-famous rock circle appeared around 700 hundred years later.

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In all, the Amesbury Archer’s grave was, at the time, the biggest-ever Bronze Age find the country had ever seen. The sheer amount of artifacts there impressed archaeologists, as did the meaning behind them. They theorized that the King of Stonehenge had so much in his grave because people of his era thought that he’d need such tools and treasures during the afterlife.

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Since then, more evidence has come to light that sheds further light on the nature of Bronze Age burial rituals. The riverside town of Lechlade-on-Thames, for example, held onto a similar secret for thousands of years. But in 2017 the local council green-lit a project to renovate a damaged civic building. It tacked some skating facilities onto the project, as well.

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In fact, the site of the construction had already intrigued archaeologists. It sat opposite an area that was thought to contain an ancient barrow. In addition, the surrounding territory had already yielded Stone and Bronze Age treasures, so they had good reason to be interested in digging there.

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So, before construction began on the Lechlade civic hall and skate complex, archaeologists took the opportunity to excavate the area that they believed to contain an ancient barrow. They focused on a strip approximately 100 feet in length and 30 feet across. Within those parameters, they dug only about 8 inches into the ground before they struck something of interest.

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Indeed, the future construction site featured a pair of Neolithic trenches just below the surface. Each one was almost 5,000 years old and contained bones, flint and pottery. The pits would eventually be filled and, around six centuries later, the ground was used for an important grave.

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The body in question lay in a deep and narrow pit. Inside, experts from Foundations Archaeology found the remains of an adult male laying on his left side in a hunched stance. Surrounding the skeleton, they found a slew of artifacts, just as archaeologists had with the Amesbury Archer. But this man’s cache – including one rather eerie inclusion – showed just how important he was to the community that buried him.

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Normally, the Beaker people would inter bodies of their elite beside a rug-like cowhide. The Lechlade man, however, had four of them – and the cattle’s feet – tucked into his burial site. Foundations Archaeology’s Andy Hood said the team took this as a sign that he likely outranked the others who were buried with a solitary hide in their graves.

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“All previous examples here [in the U.K.] have been single cattle burials, so the Lechlade burial is unique in this regard,” Hood explained to Live Science in 2020, On top of that, he speculated that all of the animals may have died for the chieftain’s goodbye. He said, “There’s a chance that these animals were slaughtered as part of a ceremony related to the burial.”

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The Beakers had also buried this man – thought to have been a chieftain – with other valuable items from his era. For instance, they placed a stone bracelet and a metal dagger in the grave with him, too. Hood added, “It’s quite a significant investment of wealth to go into the ground.”

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However, for all of these supplies and offerings, one major component was absent from the chieftain’s grave. Beaker burials tended to incorporate their signature pot, but there wasn’t one with the skeleton. “We think that this individual was a revered ‘specialist’ within Beaker society,” Hood said. “Somebody who wasn’t associated with the direct symbolism attached to the Beaker pot itself.”

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Beaker pot or not, the Foundations Archaeology team still had plenty to unpack at the Lechlade site. They had more to uncover than just a chieftain surrounded by riches, after all. Within the same burial circle, they found another man interred in a seated position. And his close proximity to the chief raised many questions.

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The experts could deduce that the man had been at least 50 years old at the time of his death. Considering this, they believed him to have been a religious official of some kind, as other people with a spiritual role have been buried in the same way during the Bronze Age.

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“One of the mysteries is: what was the relationship between those two men?” Hood explained. Because the supposed shaman was laid to rest near to the chieftain, the experts believed that the men may have shared a close relationship. Others, however, speculated that the cleric hadn’t just been buried alongside the leader – he may have been sacrificed.

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Hood pointed out that these hypotheses weren’t necessarily backed by what the team had found in the graves, though. “The idea of him being a ‘shaman’ was postulated by some British newspapers,” he said. “[But] there is no evidence that he was sacrificed.” Nonetheless, he also said the theory wasn’t necessarily implausible, either.

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But the archaeologists may well never be able to determine the shaman’s cause of death either way. “It’s not provable because the upper half of the remains has been chopped away by [a] plow,” Hood explained. Still, he did point out that sacrifice was a “distinct possibility,” although it would probably never move further than being a hypothesis.

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Hood added that the suspected shaman’s seated posture did create questions because it’s so uncommon. “He was buried in an unusual ‘seated’ position,” the archaeologist said. “His legs were present extending downwards towards the base of his grave pit. We haven’t found a direct parallel elsewhere in Bronze Age Britain.”

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What the archaeologists can say for sure is that the site was important for at least a millennium before the chieftain’s and shaman’s burials. There was once a half-mile-long stretch of earthwork called a “cursus” at the site, which served as an ancient monument. As such, the location had great prestige for the Bronze Age residents of Lechlade.

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And even after the Bronze Age concluded, people continued to create graves in the land there. Indeed, archaeologists have found bones dating to the Iron Age, as well as the remains of Anglo-Saxons. In total, the items found around the skate park site span five millennia.

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All of this has come from a single three-year excavation of the site in Lechlade. What started as a pre-skate-park dig has become something much more. According to Smithsonian magazine, the land has “one of the longest burial histories in Britain” – a history that will likely retain many of its secrets.

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The Foundations Archaeology team has finished its post-excavation report – compiled by volunteer professionals – and will eventually publish a full rundown of its findings. And in a press release, it noted just how special that spot in Lechlade was. The statement read: “The archaeological works have indicated that ‘The Barrow’ Skate Park at Lechlade is likely to be one of the most historically interesting skate parks in Britain!”

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