When construction workers at a site in northern England stumbled across a trove of ancient artifacts, they called in archaeologists to explore further. And what the team ultimately unearthed has the potential to completely redefine what we know about the Iron Age in Britain.
And the find certainly doesn’t mark the first time that something of archaeological significance has been revealed at an unlikely location in the U.K. In 2012, for instance, the skeleton of King Richard III was found buried in a parking lot in the English city of Leicester. Neither is it unusual that construction workers first dug up the relics, since that has been the case with many items of historical importance unearthed in the U.K.
This particular discovery, however, took place in Pocklington, a town in the northern English region of Yorkshire. David Wilson Homes had initially been looking to build houses on the site; then, when the artifacts were revealed, the company had to employ the services of the nearby MAP Archaeological Practice.
In Pocklington, builders had found a vast array of ancient wares: pots, jewelry and even a sword and a shield. Furthermore, the oldest of these discoveries were dated to 500 BC – meaning they were in excess of 2,500 years old. And although these relics are impressive enough by themselves, the archaeologists would eventually dig up something even more incredible.
The excavation at Pocklington initially began in 2014. And for most of the dig, there were between four and ten archaeologists working under site director Mark Stephens. During one point in the work, though, 20 researchers were at the grounds.
And in 2017 Paula Ware, MAP’s managing director, would describe the early process of the dig to Current Archaeology magazine. At first, the archaeologists began by digging some trial trenches. The first reveal was not overly exciting, however, as the square barrow – or burial grave – excavated had been ravaged by ploughing. Still, the team began to map the area further.
Eventually, though, the archaeologists began to realize the scale of what they had found. This was not a minor gravesite: there were 164 burials and 74 square barrows in total. Ware would even reveal of the work, “It ended up being the most extensive exploration of a square-barrow cemetery for 30 years.”
And upon further examination, the team managed to piece together some information about the dead they had revealed. It turned out that the bodies in the cemetery belonged to more or less equal numbers of men and women. In addition, there were children buried at the site; this suggested in turn that there may once have been a whole community living in the vicinity.
There was a notable division to the cemetery, however. One part of the burial ground could be found on the other side of a trackway, and this was the location of the “richer” graves. There, some individuals had been laid to rest alongside some of their most treasured belongings, it seemed.
At this point, the excavation was significant because of its size and location. Not only was the graveyard bigger than expected, but it was in a part of Yorkshire not expected to possess an Iron Age feature of this kind. Indeed, while speaking to Current Archaeology, Ware would call the discovery “totally unexpected.” But there was still more to find.
And, in fact, it was not until 2017 – during the last part of the dig – that archaeologists located something special. At the cusp of the proposed housing development – and in a verge that disappeared into the nearest road – lay the rarest and most significant discovery to be unearthed from that particular excavation.
Yes, the archaeologists’ trench revealed something that hadn’t been seen in Britain for 200 years. Ultimately, the remains of an important Iron Age figure, their chariot and, even more importantly, the two horses that pulled that chariot were uncovered. And while interred chariots themselves are not often found, the steeds made this a truly spectacular discovery. Why? Well, of the 20 or so chariot burials discovered in the U.K. during roughly the last 100 years, no others have had horses discovered alongside them.
And, excitingly, the equine skeletons were practically whole. That made the find even rarer, as the sets of bones were more intact than those that had been found in the ground two centuries ago. As a result, then, archaeologists may be able to analyze how the horses died, how they were buried and the rituals that may have surrounded them.
Of the animals, Ware told Current Archaeology, “We don’t know how the horses were killed, but as they both died at the same time it seems safe to rule out natural causes. They were much smaller than modern horses. We don’t have the exact measurements yet, but people are already saying that they are more like ponies.” She added, “We’re planning to do isotope analysis on their teeth, too, to find out whether they could be local.”
Not all parts of the chariot were as well-preserved as the horses, however. Waterlogging may have damaged a number of skeletons at the site, but the phenomenon could very well have conserved the chariot. As there had seemingly been little or no waterlogging in that section of the site, though, the parts of the chariot that had been made of wood had simply rotted away.
And while once there had been two iron-rimmed wheels, only one had survived; the other, Ware has surmised, was destroyed by a medieval farmer and his plough. Plus, the degradation to the charioteer meant that it was hard to tell if the skeleton is male or female. Still, radiocarbon dating should reveal roughly when the individual was buried compared to those in the rest of the cemetery.
Furthermore, it is thought that the chariot belongs to the Arras culture; square barrows and chariot burials are some of the clearest indicators of an Arras presence, for example. And, interestingly, similar burial practices have been previously found to have taken place in northern France – implying, perhaps, that the French once made their home in Yorkshire.
As for the people who lived during the Iron Age? Well, they are known to have been farmers, cultivating crops such as wheat and beans and raising pigs and cattle. Two cow skeletons were also found in pits in the separate part of the Pocklington cemetery, and the position of the animals may ultimately help us understand any customs behind Arras burials.
Analysis of the human skeletons may tell us more about how they lived too. How much time did they spend on manual labor? What kind of diets did they eat? And does their DNA match that of those from northern France? With new technology that previous archaeological expeditions could not access, there may finally be answers to these questions.
And in recent years, the Iron Age has not arguably been a primary topic of research for historians. The discovery at Pocklington, then, could dramatically increase both interest and understanding in the historical period. And as such, the cemetery and its contents may very well be of importance not only to Yorkshire, but also to the U.K. as a whole – or even, indeed, the world.