Archeology students have discovered the 2,000-year-old remains of five bodies on land near Britain’s first recorded town. The historic cemetery which dates from around 100 BC. was discovered by university students on farmland at Winterborne Kingston, near Blandford, Dorset.
The site is believed to have been an outcrop of the prehistoric city of Duropolis, named after the local Iron Age tribe, the Durotriges. The town, which was discovered in 2008, was older than Colchester and Silchester, which were considered Britain’s first towns.
The oval-shaped settlement of four round houses on the outskirts of Duropolis was later abandoned by the group of 40 people who lived there. Decades later, their descendants returned and ceremonially laid their dead to rest.
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The bodies were interned in ditches, originally used to store grain, along with sacrificial animals given as offerings to their pagan gods. The one-acre cemetery was discovered by students from Bournemouth University last September. After months of planning and research, the excavations began three weeks ago. So far they have found the remains of three women and two men buried at the site which consists of around 75 ditches, between 3ft and 8ft deep.
They will contribute to constructing a “unique and unprecedented picture” of the life of Iron Age people. Dr Miles Russell, an archaeologist at Bournemouth University, said: ‘Iron Age settlements have been found all over the country before, but finding the people who lived there is truly unique. so unusual site because Iron Age people didn’t tend to bury their dead but here in Dorset it was very different. We can see that the people of Dorset buried their dead but we don’t know why.
Dr Russell continued: “These skeletons provide a whole range of information that you won’t find anywhere else in the country. Along with the other 50 skeletons we’ve found in the area over the past decade, they’re helping us build an unprecedented dataset. .” The oval-shaped settlement was built about 100 years before the Roman invasion of Britain. The pits were originally used to store grain, but were converted into burial units after the abandonment of the closes around 30 BC.
The discovery sheds new light on the unique burial rites of Iron Age settlers in Dorset. As an offering to their pagan gods, the relatives of the dead placed animal sacrifices under their bodies at the bottom of the ditches. Dr Russell said: “The bodies we found here were buried after the site was abandoned between 30 and 10 AD – the day before the Roman invasion.
“They were probably descendants of the people who lived on the farm and were taken there to be close to their ancestors. The pits were originally used to store grain or as cold stores for food. they are just a sample of what is below the surface and we hope to find more bodies in the coming weeks.
“It would have been a small settlement, actually a prehistoric suburb of the larger Duropolis. We will do DNA analysis of the skeletons to see how closely they were related to bodies we found elsewhere in the area.” adding: “We hope to cross time to establish lines of descent, interpersonal relationships and a common ancestry. Once we are done, we rebury them in the landscape that they would have known.
“This work will give us a vital understanding of ordinary people and their daily lives and religious practices. At the bottom of the pits are sacrificed horses and cows. They were cut into sections and a cow’s torso is said to have the head of a horse attached to it.”, “It’s a strange macabre puzzle of sacred animals offered to their gods. It’s information we wouldn’t find anywhere else.”
First discovered in 2008, Duropolis was a huge open occupation visible for miles around, at a time when hill forts were still common. It is the largest unenclosed settlement yet discovered in the UK and had over 150 round houses in an area of four hectares, together with storage facilities, animal enclosures and agricultural outbuildings.
The site shows that the cities were not introduced by the Romans, as many believed, but existed at least 100 years before their invasion. The newly discovered farm is about half a mile northwest of Duropolis.
Once the 65 undergraduates are finished at the current site, they will use sophisticated technology to scan the surrounding areas for new archaeological structures.
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