This Article and the associated photos are the Copyright of Northamptonshire Archaeology, Northamptonshire County Council, and are reproduced here with their kind permission


At Gayhurst quarry, near Newport Pagnell and adjacent to both the M1 motorway and the River Great Ouse, trial trenching in 1997 showed that six out of seven ring ditches, discovered by local aerial archaeologist Ken Field in 1976, had had their central mounds ploughed flat by the end of the medieval period, if not earlier.

However, the largest, a double-ditched barrow 34m in diameter, which lay at the centre of the cemetery, still survived as a low earthwork and was well-preserved, although recent decades of ploughing had just removed the mound so that the central area was suffering regular plough damage. Also, a side branch of the river was cutting into the barrow, posing a longer-term threat. The planning archaeologist for Milton Keynes, Brian Giggins, decided that gravel extraction at the site could not be stopped, given the poor preservation of six of the barrows, and called for the excavation of all seven barrows in advance of gravel extraction.

Between 1998 and 2000, Northamptonshire Archaeology, working for GFX Hartigan Ltd, excavated the entire area. The six smaller ring ditches produced meagre results, with cremation burials surviving in only two. In contrast, at the centre of the largest barrow there was a massive grave pit, 3.5m long and 1.45m deep, with a sequence of five successive burials. An extended inhumation of an adult man within an oak-lined chamber, accompanied by only a foreleg of a small pig, was followed by a cremation, a crouched inhumation burial of an older man, also within a small chamber and accompanied by two flint knives and a red-deer antler, a second cremation and, finally, a cremation within a collared urn that had been damaged by ploughing. Radiocarbon dating places the burials between c 2100 and c 1900 cal BC, while the six satellite barrows date to 1800 to 1500 cal BC.

However, what made this barrow not only remarkable, but unique in Britain, was a deposit of cattle bones, perhaps containing the remains of some 300 animals, that had been deposited as part of an elaborate funerary practice at the time of the first burial.

A total of 183kg of bone, occupying 50 archive boxes, were recovered from the excavation of about a third of the inner ditch. This contains the remains of nearby 100 cattle, giving a figure of around 300 for the entire ditch. However, not just any bones were present. The deposit was dominated by the main leg, shoulder and pelvic bones, the best meat joints, followed by skulls and mandibles, with ribs and vertebrae only rarely present. This might suggest that the bones were largely the debris from a massive funeral feast, but the sparse presence of cut marks to indicate the animals had been butchered suggests that the majority may have been slaughtered and then left to rot, perhaps after skinning, as there were no foot bones at all. The lack of any gnawing also indicates that this vast mass of bone had been kept safe from the many predators that would have keen to obtain a free meal.

The animals may have come from a number of different herds, and there are a range of ages, so that each contribution to the deposit might represent a local family or tribe paying tribute to the tall young man, 5’ 10 “ tall and perhaps only in his mid-20s, at the centre of the barrow. The bone deposit therefore appears to be a symbolic rather than an actual feast, perhaps a feast for the afterlife.

The bones had been placed on the mound around the central burial, and appear to have been left exposed to view for a period of several weeks or a few months, resulting in some erosion and splitting of the bones through weathering. They were then dragged down into the ditch, where we found them, and were covered over. They were later completely hidden, when a new ditch was dug and the soil and gravel was used to enlarge the mound, hiding all traces of the original ditch and its contents.

Whatever the exact circumstances of the ritual, it is clear that in this instance it was cattle, and not material goods such as pots, knives and arrows, that defined the wealth and influence of the Bronze Age Lord buried at the centre of this mound next to the River Great Ouse between Gayhurst and Newport Pagnell.

The importance of this find has been recognised in receiving a commendation in the 2005 Developer-funded Archaeology Award sponsored by the magazine Current Archaeology. The analysis of the cattle bone deposit has been carried out in collaboration with the Department of Archaeology at Sheffield University.

Written by Andy Chapman, October 2005