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Special Report: Riding Into the Afterlife Volume 57 Number 2, March/April 2004
by Damian Robinson

A well-preserved Iron Age chariot, warrior aboard, surfaces in northern England.

[image]British archaeologists recently found the skeleton of an Iron Age warrior buried with his chariot. (Oxford Archaeological Unit Ltd.) [LARGER IMAGE]

Archaeologists in northern England have uncovered the best-preserved chariot burial ever found in the U.K. The discovery was made during an excavation near the town of Ferrybridge in advance of a new highway that will link London to the northeast of England.

"As soon as we'd stripped the topsoil from the site we could see the first traces of an iron tire," says Angela Boyle, the excavation's leader. "It was the most amazing thing I have ever seen in twenty years of archaeology." Not only did the grave--in a large oval pit--contain a rare chariot burial, but the vehicle was placed upright in it. Chariots were typically dismantled before being interred.

As the soil filling the grave was removed, it became clear that the chariot was well preserved. Not only did archaeologists discover the remains of its iron tires and bronze and iron fittings, but they were also able to trace the stains in the soil of long-vanished wooden elements. Within the chariot box, they found the skeleton of an adult male, who had been in his forties when he died. He was sent into the afterlife armed with a spear, perhaps indicating that he belonged to a warrior elite.

Chariot burials in Britain are rare. Most of them have been found in a cluster to the east of the city of York, about thirty miles from Ferrybridge. Archaeologists feel that the people who lived here between the fifth and early second centuries B.C. belonged to one group, known today as the Arras Culture. These people differed little from their Iron Age neighbors in other parts of Britain except for their exotic form of chariot burial.

The practice of burying people in chariots is more common in continental Europe. This has led some archaeologists to speculate that the leaders of the Arras Culture were settlers or invaders from parts of modern-day France and Germany who brought their burial rite with them. The style of the chariot's bronze fittings matches those found in continental Europe and indicate that the chariot, or at least its fittings, may have originated overseas. Consequently, Oxford Archaeology, the firm that oversaw the excavation, is undertaking isotope analysis on the man's teeth that will help to determine where he was born. "Whatever scientific analyses reveal will be fascinating," says Boyle. "Even if he turns out to be local, how did he come to own a chariot with foreign fittings?"

Damian Robinson is a British Academy postdoctoral fellow at the University of Bradford. Oxford Archaeology's website is www.oxfordarch.co.uk.

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© 2004 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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