An interesting Bronze Age burned mound was excavated at a gravel mining quarry north of Leicester, England. The site lays within an area of open parkland at the Watermead Country Park bounded by nature reserves either side of the River Soar.
How Human Skulls Brought Notice Of The Mound
Attention was first drawn to the site when park wardens discovered two human skulls in debris from the quarrying. Leicestershire Museum Services were notified and they duly contacted the Archaeological Services department of Leicester University. A small archaeology group from the University visited the site and spoke with the machine operator at the gravel pit. He explained to circumstances surrounding the skulls’ excavation and it was established that the material encompassing the skulls was from a peat deposit approximately two metres below the present ground surface level.
In light of the potential significance of the unearthing of human remains deposited in a British peat bog, English Heritage was immediately contacted. They approved funding of a archaeology programme to pursue environmental sampling in the area of the location of the human skulls.
Digging Begins At The Bronze Age Mound
Local volunteers then assisted a small archaeology team from the University of Leicester Archaeological Services and began the programme of limited excavation recording all accessible areas within the peat bed. While the team was undertaking quarrying work they happened to expose an upright timber post, the top of which appeared to have rotted off at the height of the peat layers, suggesting that it was either contemporary with the peat bed or pre-dated it in the past.
This discovery prompted excavators to expand their exploratory investigations in the hope of uncovering more posts or other artefacts. The alluvial clays were machined off over an area of some 200 square metres and a number of features were revealed and identified. Archaeology concluded that the first single post was really part of a five-post structure, with two parallel rows of apparently pile-driven posts, possibly part of an ancient bridge. Further archaeology site survey investigations revealed that previous quarrying with heavy machinery had cut away a continuation of the same line of posts that had once extended across the quarry site. The unfolding ‘bridge’ appeared to be crossing a peat-filled canal, conceivably an old course of the Soar River.
What Was The Burned Mound?
On the cut banks of this former waterway were found what likely represents the remains of domestic cooking activity. Archaeology remains of this nature are commonly referred to as a burned mound by archaeologists. The feature consisted of a stone hearth; a circular trough with a base lined with timber planks and with its sides consolidated using a withy basketwork lining; another charcoal-filled pit, smaller than the first; a gully and ditch; and a large spread of fire-damaged flints and quantities of ash but no real artefacts.
The ditch appeared to have been re-dug on several occasions having been in filled each time with rich organic material, peat-like, which may have taken some time to have decayed, suggesting a degree of longevity in the use of the ditch.
Full environmental sampling was undertaken that included bulk and column samples for insects, plant macro fossils, and pollen cores that would help date mound activity.
Studying the Human Remains At The Excavation Site
Palaeontologists are particularly interested in the study of the human remains from this excavation site. The bones examined by experts have identified two young males, either buried or deposited in the peat bed. Further close analysis exposed three fine cut marks on the back of one of the spinal vertebrae of one person, caused by a sharp tool. As the bone cuts demonstrated no signs of healing, the examiners point out that they were very likely sustained at the time of death and could possibly be the cause of death. The cuts are not evidence of decapitation. The light depth of the cut into the bone suggests more a slicing of the muscle cluster at the bottom of the neck. However, archaeologists add that it is not inconceivable that the marks reflect de-fleshing of the thick musculature that would facilitate an easier decapitation.
What Does The Burned Mound Site Mean?
This site is the first Bronze Age burned mound found in Leicestershire, England. Few peat bog sites have been fully excavated and their exact purpose remains poorly understood. Burned mound sites are normally interpreted as being cooking places. While domestic cooking is the activity that best fits the accessible evidence it has also been suggested that the site’s purpose was steam production. The steam, produced by thrusting hot stones into baths of water, could have been used for sweat lodges or saunas, similar to those used by North American Indians. Bronze Age burned mound sites are always located beside large supplies of water and there is consistently a total lack of animal bone debris artefacts from the sites themselves.