ID: EMX_2019

TitleBronze Age Burial Urns found in Barrow complex in East Mersea
AbstractThe remains of two Bronze Age burial urns from East Mersea are now on display in Mersea Museum. The recent story goes back to the dry summer of 2017 when James Pullen, a local aerial surveyor, noticed some exceptional crop marks in a field near Fen Farm in East Mersea. At the time, James and others on Mersea were working closely with CITiZAN - Coastal and intertidal Zone Archaeological Network - who became very interested in James' film. It was thought that the circular ditches showing in the crop marks are evidence that the field once contained a Barrow complex and would have been used for burials. Arrangements were made with the farmer to access the field after the harvest and to dig some test pits.

A dig was organised for September 2019 and a group from CITiZAN and University College London, with a number of local volunteers, gathered at East Mersea. The dig had grant funding from the Society of Antiquaries. Camping in the field in a warm September within easy walking distance of the Dog and Pheasant did not seem to be a problem.

Buried just inside the edge of one barrow were found two partially complete cremation urns. They were upside down and the upper part had been removed by ploughing. The urns were decorated with fingerprints from adults and children. Each urn contained a small amount of bone - subsequent analysis revealed the bones to belong to adults.

The base of a Bronze Age cremation urn. It is inverted and the original base had been removed when the field was ploughed.

Another urn in situ.

The finds

Decoration showing finger prints.

The finds went to University College London and the world stopped soon after, because of Coronavirus. However, they were carefully recorded, researched and conserved, and returned to Mersea June 2023, where they are now on display in the Museum.

June 2023. The urns on display in Mersea Museum.

Urn 1 on the left
"Cremation was the principal burial rite in later Bronze Age Britain (across much of the 2nd millennium BC and into the early 1st millennium BC). Only the uppermost part of the vessel survives because, after the burning of the body and crushing of the cremated bone placed within, urns of this kind were placed upside down in the ground with ploughing having since destroyed the lower part.

"Analysis of the cremated bone at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London shows that less than half of a cremated adult was placed in the urn, which might suggest that bodies were either dismembered and cremated in more than one place, or that some of the cremated bone was kept by relatives rather than being buried. Given that the pots were placed upside down in the ground it seems likely that a leather or textile covering kept the cremated bone inside the vessel when it was placed in the ground.

"The decoration and the form of the vessel is typical of one of the most distinctive regional styles of pottery found in Bronze Age Britain, the so-called Ardleigh Style, named by the many discoveries there of highly decorated pots containing cremated human bone. Pottery of this kind is found in both Essex and Suffolk. The characteristic finger-tip decoration, seemingly by both adults and children, gives a rare inside into what is almost certainly a communal activity transferring knowledge to the young. The coarse and poorly fired nature of the clay may indicate that these pots were made for the specific purpose of contain cremated remains. Pots of this kind have been found in a similar cremation cemetery at Brightlingsea, the site of which is visible from this site in East Mersea.

Urn 2 on the right.
"This vessel dates to the same period as the better-preserved urn and was found next to it. Placing pots with contrasting decoration next to each other has been observed at other similar cemeteries, including at Ardleigh and Brightlingsea. This vessel represents the cruder end of the decorative range of the Ardleigh Style and the proximity of the two burials might indicate a family connection. The little that survives of this vessel is also due to ploughing. Like the better-preserved urn, this pot also contained the cremated remains of an adult."

The two vesse[s on display in the Museum were very kindly donated by the landowner Phillip Lale. The excavation took place with the permission of David Sunnucks. The cremated bone was studied by Carolyn Rando and Garrard Cole at the Institute of Archaeology. The vessels were drawn by Emma Holloway of the Colchester Archaeological Trust. The excavations were funded by a Margaret and Tom Jones Award, administered by the Society of Antiquaries of London.

Much background information is from Andrew Reynolds and Oliver Hutchinson who were key to the dig and getting the conserved urns back to Mersea. The photographs above are from James Pullen, Carol Wyatt, Tony Millatt and David Cooper.

Read More
Bronze Age Mersea by Oliver Hutchinson
Excavation of a Bronze Age Site East Mersea 1963-64

Reports available in Mersea Museum
(most of these are also available on the Internet)

Historic Environment Essex County Council - East Anglian Archaeology 126 2008 -
An Early Neolithic Ring-ditch and Middle Bronze Age Cemetery excavation and survey at Brightlingsea.

East Anglian Archaeology - Heritage Conservation Essex County Council 1999
The Archaeology of Ardleigh, Essex - Excavations 1955-1980 N.R. Brown

Essex Archaeology and History Volume 7, 1975
The Bronze Age Cemetery at Ardleigh;
A Further Consideration 1975
by Christine R. Couchman

Oxford Journal of Archeology
Volume 41 issue pages 350-372 first published October 2022
young hands at work. using finger impressions to explore the demographic constitution of early and middle bronze age pottery-making communities of practice"

UCL Institute of Archaeology
Conservation Treatment Record

SourceMersea Museum