Fine wines, dog-horses & ‘dead’ pots

Excavations at a rare Iron Age ‘banjo’ enclosure have uncovered some interesting finds.

Excavation of a skeleton and a pot in a storage pit

Banjo settlements are named so because of their shape – a circular area approached by a long track. They are late Iron Age in date and were probably used as a farming settlement combined with some form of animal enclosure.

Due to extensive ploughing over the centuries the archaeological features of banjo enclosures are extremely rare; that’s why the well preserved site near Bere Regis in Dorset is so exceptional.

Now in its third season of excavations, the project, known to Bournemouth University students and academics as the “Durotriges Big Dig”, is yielding some interesting finds.

The team have excavated 53 pits within the enclosure area, which were probably used to store agricultural produce. But it’s their subsequent use that is perhaps the most intriguing. After the agricultural season the pits were backfilled with special ‘placed deposits’, including complete pots, animal limbs and sometimes people. Some of the pits contained pieces of different animal limbs placed together to form a whole body, like dog, horse and cow.

Dr Miles Russell, Senior Lecturer in Archaeology at Bournemouth University said: “The original inhabitants seem to have been dismembering the bodies of cow and horse, only to reassemble the body parts at the bottom of the disused pits. This seems bizarre to a modern audience, but to the original inhabitants it would have made perfect sense: offerings to the gods to ensure the increased success of the tribe and fertility of both crops and animal herds”.

And it’s not just the animal carcasses that have a pre-burial ritual. The pots that are deposited in the pits have holes drilled through them and there’s an interesting theory on why this might be. “It would appear that there was an attempt to render the pots unusable, effectively ‘killing them’ prior to burial” says Dr Russell.

So excavations of the banjo enclosure have raised as many questions as have been answered. But what has become apparent and will be surprising to many, is the relationship between the Iron Age inhabitants of this settlement and the Romans.

At the end of the pre-history period most settlements in Devon, Dorset and the South West were thought to have been very anti-Roman. History tells us their army were met by conflict and resistance in each settlement. But archaeological evidence shows this site was far less resilient to the Roman way of life than its neighbours. Findings show they were already trading in wines and oils from the Mediterranean, showing perhaps they were more forward thinking and pro-civilisation.

As Paul Cheetham, Senior Archaeological Lecturer and Co-Director of the project said: “The skeletons demonstrate that these people did a lot of manual work, but they certainly didn’t live a barbaric lifestyle. We’ve uncovered evidence of pottery containers for fine Italian wine olive oil and decorative artwork. It seems that this was an elite farmstead, with wealthy, forward-thinking settlers”.

“This is an important period,” concludes Dr Russell “at the very end of prehistory and the beginning of Roman Britain. The skeletons that we have been recovering are of people who first saw the armies and administrators of Rome arrive in their lands. These are people who have no voice and of whom we possess no written record. It is only through archaeological excavation that we can recover something of their forgotten lives.”