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Radiocarbon dating the Westhampnett Iron Age cemetery

The Novium Museum's collections are frequently used by researchers and academics behind the scenes. At the moment one of our collections is being looked at in a new and exciting way, and the leading experts have told us about it below.

The Westhampnett cemetery, excavated in 1992 prior to the construction of the Westhampnett Bypass is one of the most important sites in Europe for the study of Iron Age ritual and religion. This is because of its size - 161 graves were found - the presence of numerous pyres (a structure made of flammable material, usually wood, built to burn bodies during funeral rites), and the seemingly short time that the cemetery was in use. The pyres discovered at Westhampnett were the first Iron Age examples to have been found in Britain and allowed a unique insight into funerary rites at the time. The archaeological archive produced by the excavations now resides in the collection of The Novium Museum, Chichester.

When the excavation report was written in 1997 it was not possible to radiocarbon date the cremated bone. Instead  the brooches and pots found in the graves suggested that the cemetery was only in use for a few generations between circa 90-40 BC. The large number of burials made in this time showed that the cemetery was a collective one, probably used by the inhabitats of the numerous farms that were dotted around the surrounding landscape. Since the excavation was published, the site has also become an important reference point for archaeologists dating other sites.

Radiocarbon dating of Iron Age sites has become more common in recent decades. This has revealed a discrepancy between the accepted typological dates (dating that results from a system of classification according to an objects physical characteristics) for some forms of Late Iron Age metalwork and the associated radiocarbon dates. Because the Westhampnett graves contained pots and brooches that were buried together on the same day, the burials have the potential to assess this discrepancy and provide indepedent dating for the finds.

Up to 54 samples will be dated thanks to a grant from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). The majority of the samples to be dated will be taken from small pieces of cremated human bone (as little as  2-5 g is required). The remaining 10 samples will be taken from short-lived materials such as seeds and nuts.

With the help of Amy Roberts, Collections Officer at The Novum Museum the samples for dating were collected from the Collections Discovery Centre at Fishbourne in the summer of 2015 before they were submitted to the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit for dating. The laboratory is expected to release the dates early in 2016 and the first chance to hear about the results will be in a lecture at the museum on April 28th 2016.

Andrew Fitzpatrick, Derek Hamilton and Colin Haselgrove

University of Leicester