Bronze Age Cemetery at Windmill Fields, Ingleby Barwick

In late November 1996 builders cutting a new road found human bones in their spoil. Cleveland Police and Tees Archaeology were called to the site to investigate.

Initial examination showed that two individual burials had been disturbed. A piece of Beaker pottery dating to between 2100BC and 1700BC was also discovered. It soon became apparent that the human remains were extremely ancient and the site was subject to a rapidly organised salvage excavation.

The surrounding area was cleared and a large oval pit was discovered. The pit contained a rectangular block of darker material which appears to have been a former timber structure, possibly a large casket or cist. Inside the structure were the remains of two groups of human remains, each of which consisted of a skull and several long bones.

The groups of bones were the partial remains of two adult men. Mixed in with them were the fragments of three further skulls. This was an unusual burial of more than one person.

Nearby was a second oval grave. This contained the complete skeleton of an adult male lying on his side in a crouched position. Just visible in the picture is a stone mace head placed at his feet. The mace head was lying only inches from the access road which had originally disturbed the graves and could easily have been lost or destroyed. The grave of an adult male with mace head The mace head is a type of stone known as a diorite, meaning it is made from two types of crystals. In this case the white crystals are feldspar and the black are hornblende. This type of stone was probably imported from Scotland.

These finds prompted us to widen our search and a large area was stripped and hand cleaned. This led to the discovery of two more graves. One of these graves had been badly disturbed by ploughing but the other was in excellent condition.

The remains were those of a woman who was laid in her grave lying on her side with her hands brought up beneath her chin. The remains of a second group of bones had been placed close to the woman. These remains had been stacked into a small pile and represented the partial remains of at least four people.

Excavation of the female revealed that she had been buried wearing a range of copper jewellery. Working conditions were extremely difficult with short December days and hard winter frosts so it was decided to lift the torso of the skeleton as a single block. It could then be excavated under laboratory conditions.

The remains of the lady with jet and copper jewellery

To do this the block was frozen solid with dry ice, carefully lifted, x-rayed and painstakingly excavated by a trained conservator at the University of Durham. The excavation of this block led to the recovery of 41 copper tubular beads, 25 jet buttons and 79 very small jet beads. The woman had a plain copper bangle on one arm and a more substantial ribbed copper bracelet on the other.

The remains of the lady with the copper jewellery and the man with the mace head dated to around 1900 BC. However the plain burials and those in the mortuary structure were several hundred years earlier.

Recent analysis of the human remains from the site has demonstrated that one of the skeletons from the mortuary structure had been mummified prior to its burial along with one of the unfurnished burials disturbed by the builders. This suggests that the community kept mummified ancestral remains as valued possessions.

The mummies were eventually buried with their descendants several hundred years after their deaths. This type of phenomena is becoming increasingly apparent at Bronze Age sites and is known as the ‘Cult of the Ancestors’. The site remains one of the most intriguing archaeological discoveries to have been made on Teesside.

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Tees Archaeology provides archaeological services to the people and local authorities of Hartlepool and Stockton-on-Tees.

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