I’ve recently returned from several days working at the Iron Age hillfort site of Fin Cop overlooking Monsal Dale in the Peak District of England. The Cranfield Forensic Institute was running a ten-day field school for students in conjunction with Archaeological Research Services and local volunteers. It was my first time excavating in Britain and – despite being Canadian – I was poorly prepared for camping and working in cold, windy and wet conditions. I’m more accustomed to working in hot and dry countries, so it took some adjusting to! Despite the weather, it was an immensely enjoyable experience. The Peak District is a very rugged and beautiful region of England and the views of the countryside from the site are spectacular.
The excavations focused on exposing a section of the defensive ramparts and ditch enclosing the hillfort. Previous excavations in 2009 and 2010 uncovered the remains of eight individuals (two adult females, one adult of indeterminate sex, one adolescent, one child and three neonates) along the bottom of the Iron Age ditch. They appear to have been thrown into the ditch and covered with stones from the rampart. Some individuals were at least partially articulated, while others are represented only by a few loose bones strewn about the bottom of the ditch. These finds have been interpreted as evidence for a large-scale massacre of women and children occurring at the same time as the destruction of the hillfort itself. A further skeleton dating to the same period, that of a child, was found in a cave below the site in 1911 and may be related to the same event.
This year’s excavation trench was placed further south along the enclosure in the hopes of finding more evidence of violence and destruction at the site. I must admit that I was extremely doubtful of finding more human remains in the ditch so far from the original excavations. The entire enclosure is nearly 400 meters long and the odds of hitting human remains for a third time seemed remote. On the second last day of excavations, however, we found a disarticulated human clavicle belonging to an adult. A bit later we began to find bones from at least two neonates scattered throughout the lower fill of the ditch and by the end of the day we had uncovered an articulated lower left leg and two feet belonging to an adult.
On the last day we uncovered more of the articulated adult skeleton, although the cranium, pelvis and upper legs are missing. The missing skeletal elements suggest that the body must have remained exposed for enough time to allow scavengers to carry away parts of the body. Based on the fusion of the epiphyses the skeleton is that of an adult, but without the pelvis and cranium it is difficult to estimate the sex of this individual. By the end of the excavation we had recovered bones from at least two adults and two neonates. Detailed analysis of the skeletal material will take place in the lab at Cranfield Forensic Institute in the coming months.
The recovery of additional human remains at a third point along the length of the enclosure ditch provides further indications of violence and destruction at the site – perhaps on a very large scale. Could it really be possible that the entire length of the ditch is filled with bodies? It seems hard to believe, but the evidence for such a scenario is mounting. On the other hand, perhaps the presence of bodies in the ditch simply represents a rather unceremonious way of disposing of the dead; but then where are the adult males? The loose, scattered nature of the neonate and infant remains suggests they were not put in the ditch as fleshed bodies. Could they have been buried elsewhere and then disposed of in the ditch at a later date (a form of secondary burial)? Much about the site remains to be understood and I confess that I have a lot to learn about Iron Age burial practices in Britain!
More photos can be found here