Grave goods: objects and death in later prehistoric Britain

Lead Research Organisation: University of Reading
Department Name: Archaeology


This project focuses on material culture in graves (and other formal mortuary contexts) in Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age Britain, c. 4000 BC to AD 43. Many of prehistoric Britain's most impressive artefacts have come from graves - from the polished beaver incisors at Duggleby Howe, to Bush Barrow's rich collection of gold plaques and pins, imported bronze daggers, fossil stone macehead and carved bone shaft-decorations, to the coral-encrusted chariot-gear of Wetwang Village. For large parts of the Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Ages in Britain, a focus on burial is a necessity, as settlements can be difficult to identify archaeologically, ensuring that mortuary evidence is often the best and sometimes only information available. It is also the period when burials became a key arena through which communities negotiated socio-political change. An understanding of how the lives of people and objects were intertwined will help us to investigate the dynamic role of materials and technologies that shaped prehistoric life and death.

At present, British prehistorians have only an approximate idea of how grave goods changed through time: during the Neolithic burials were only rarely associated with material culture; the Early Bronze Age saw a dramatic rise in the quantity and significance of grave goods; the Iron Age witnessed the introduction of new and more varied classes of objects, but also significant blank spots where burial is invisible archaeologically. The Grave Goods project aims to shift our understanding of this broad-brush sequence from one that is impressionistic to one based on a solid, empirical understanding of the record. The project also seeks to evaluate and understand more fully the character and role of 'everyday' grave goods, in addition to the spectacular objects that so often capture archaeological attention. We will do this by constructing a database of all material culture found in formal mortuary contexts during the Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age within six key case study regions across England, Scotland and Wales (see Case for Support for details). Once mapped and analysed using a GIS, this information will enable a new level of understanding of burial practice, and the ebbs and flows of material culture change, over that period. Building on the large-scale picture that the database provides, we will move on to investigate specific sub-regions, sites and graves as case studies. We will bring to this material a sophisticated new theoretical and methodological approach, pioneering a gold standard of funerary interpretation. The culmination of our research will be an authoritative and detailed book about objects and death in later prehistoric Britain, as well as academic papers and two conferences.

The Grave Goods database will be an invaluable, rich resource for others to use, in future academic research projects but also in the commercial heritage sector. Our research will have an impact on planning decisions, regional policy documents and museum practice. We will disseminate our findings to the wider public for years to come by using our research to inform a major re-design of the British later prehistory gallery displays at the British Museum (launched with a public conference) and talks in regional museums across Britain. We will also produce six schools' information packs on prehistoric burial. In addition, a mini-project will involve internationally renowned children's poet Michael Rosen who will produce three poems inspired by prehistoric burial and grave goods to capture the imagination of both adults and children. Via these outreach pathways, we also hope to begin to breach the British public's contemporary cultural silence on mortality, by reflecting on past humanity's ways of coping with death.

Ultimately, the Grave Goods project will revolutionise archaeological and public understandings of the role that material culture played in life and death in later prehistoric Britain.

Planned Impact

We expect a wide range of people to benefit from the project's findings:

1. Visitors to the British Museum
Visitors to the British Museum (BM) will benefit - for years to come - from a permanent re-design of the British later prehistory gallery displays. Given that the majority (approximately 50%) of the objects currently exhibited within the relevant galleries are grave goods, our project will be able to make a substantial and long-lasting contribution to the public interpretation of this internationally important collection. A public conference at the BM timed to coincide with the opening of the new displays, aimed at a popular audience and free to all, will ensure that those interested in prehistoric (and contemporary) death and burial can find out more in an academic yet accessible context.

2. Museum professionals (and visitors elsewhere)
One of the main outcomes of the project will be a deeper understanding of the material culture associated with burial across Britain. In many cases, this will provide museum professionals with substantial new information, enabling them to contextualise more fully many of the artefacts within their collections, thus enhancing existing and future displays. In making our information packs available via local museums, we will provide museum professionals with an additional resource to use in outreach activities. In addition to the London-based events described above, the project team will give talks at museums across Britain within our six case study areas. These will be regionally focused in their subject matter, ensuring that the national significance of each region's archaeology is highlighted.

3. Teachers and school children
Prehistoric archaeology has recently become part of the National Curriculum in England (DfE 2014) and forms an important element of primary teaching in Scotland and Wales. The provision to schools of engaging information about the prehistoric past is currently extremely limited, and is thus be seen by heritage agencies as a 'critical priority' (English Heritage 2010); the issue is also currently under review by the Prehistoric Society. In creating six information packs, focusing on a prominent kind of burial in our case study regions, we will provide a valuable new resource for teachers. Each pack will include artistic visualisations of three key prehistoric burials, created by the archaeological artist Aaron Watson. A poetry project - inspired by prehistoric burial and grave goods - targeted at children will also be included, featuring three new poems by Michael Rosen, the internationally renowned children's poet. These will both bring the past to life and ensure wide relevance right across the school curriculum.

4. National/local government agencies and the commercial sector
In providing a new accessible resource, delivering high quality evidence about mortuary traditions in six key regions across Britain, our research will benefit archaeologists working in government and the commercial sector. The synthesised information made available in our database will have potential to inform practice at a regional level, and to guide future policy documents and research strategies locally and nationally. We will design our database in collaboration with the HERs in our case study regions so that we are able to feed enhanced information directly back to them. Finds-related data are currently very variably recorded within HERs; this project will change this in one key area of especial interest.

5. The general public interested in prehistoric Britain
In addition to the public events set out above, the project website will make our research widely available to all. It will be written in accessible language and targeted primarily at a non-academic audience, featuring an interactive Google Map which allows people to find out about burials anywhere in our case study areas. We will publicise the project's events and key findings in local and national media.


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Description Friday 2 December 2016 - talk at British Sociological Association's 'Social Aspects of Death, Dying and Bereavement Study Group' Annual Symposium on 'Mediating death in the museum - the 'Continuing Bonds' and 'Grave Goods' Projects' (Karina Croucher and Melanie Giles) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Audience engaged with project
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
Description Monday 19 December 2016 - talk at the Theoretical Archaeology Group conference, University of Southampton on ''Grave Goods' and 'Continuing Bonds': The Impact of Archaeology on Modern Perceptions of Death, Dying and Bereavement' (Karina Croucher and Melanie Giles) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Mainly academic audience engaged with project
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
Description Wednesday 22 February 2017 - talk at University of York Archaeology research seminar on The 'Grave Goods' Project (Melanie Giles) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Departmental research seminar - academic audience engaged with project
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017