Glossary of some of the
Archaeological terms used in this website.
A fossilised tree resin sometimes used to make jewelry such as beads.
These are smallish pottery vessels that are often known as 'drinking cups' because of their general resemblance to modern cups, beakers or mugs and were often decorated with incised chevrons and hatching or by pressing twisted cords into the wet clay. Often found in association with burials it is thought that they originated in Europe and it is suggested that different styles were brought over by successive waves of settlers during the late Neolithic or early Bronze Age onwards, they give their name to the 'Beaker Culture' that these incomers introduced to the British Isles.
Beaker / Drinking Cup                         Beaker / Drinking Cup
A pair of beakers from Folkton, North Yorkshire
An alloy of copper and tin first used in Britain towards the end of the 3rd millennium BC for tools, decoration, axes, daggers, swords and pins and giving its name to the period we now know as the Bronze Age. The two material were mixed in the quantities of 88% copper 12% tin and heated to around 1200 degrees centigrade before the molten metal was poured into clay or stone moulds. These were then broken open and the item polished, ground or sharpened to make the finished article.
Bronze Flat Axe   Bronze Spearhead
Bronze Flat Axe
Bronze Tanged and Collared Spearhead
Bronze Age
In Britain the Bronze Age is estimated to be about 2300BC to 700BC when bronze was the major material in the construction of tools and weapons, it can be roughly divided into Early (2300BC-1400BC), Middle (1400BC-1000BC) and Late (1000BC-700BC) phases. Many of the innovations of the Neolithic are continued, farming becomes more intensive and whole areas of productive land are set aside with banks, ditches and dykes marking out 'field systems'. The building of stone circles and erecting of standing stones continues although this tradition seems to die out around 1200BC while the Neolithic custom of communal burials in long barrows gives way to smaller round barrows often with only a single burial or occasionally secondary burials inserted into the side of the barrow mound. It seems that the status of the individual becomes more important at this time and some burials are accompanied with rich grave goods and it could be that we are seeing the emergence of a powerful elite group of chieftains and warriors that later become the well known tribes of the Iron Age.
The Bronze Age was preceded by the Neolithic (New Stone Age) which started around 4500BC and was followed by the Iron Age which ran from 700BC to the coming of the Romans in AD43.
A mound of stones or small rocks sometimes covering a burial. Most common in stone-rich areas or upland where they are often found instead of earthen round barrows or long barrows. Long rectangular mounds of stone are known as 'long cairns' The term comes from the Gaelic 'carne' meaning a mound of stones.
A large boulder or stone slab placed on top of a burial chamber. Often precariously balanced, these stones can weigh several tons.
Carved Rocks - See Rock Art
Chambered Tomb
This term can be used to describe a wide range of stone monuments dating from the Neolithic period that are characterised by the use of stone slabs and/or drystone walling and capstones to create a box like 'chamber' intended to house the bones or cremation remains of the dead. These tombs are then covered with earth or stone and rubble to create either round mounds, long barrows or cairns. They are most commonly found in upland or stone-rich areas and there are identifiable regional styles. The simplest form of the monument is the 'portal tomb' or 'dolmen' and consists of a pair of upright side slabs (the portals) with a smaller stone to the rear supporting a large capstone and a further upright slab of variable height at the front of the monument creating a blocking door between the portals - although this stone is often missing from surviving tombs. The monuments can become more complex with the addition of further large stones and when a low narrow stone lined passage leading to the chamber is added this creates a 'passage grave' these are most commonly covered by round mounds while in 'gallery graves' the passage is often wider, taller and longer and is more likely to have a rectangular or trapezoidal covering mound. In both cases there may be additional side chambers which give these monuments the name of 'transepted' or 'cruciform' graves. Not all of these chambers were necessarily used for burials and in some cases it seems that the chambers were kept accessible for long periods of time for fresh burials and that previously deposited bones were often removed, perhaps for some kind of ritual activity, before being redeposited in the tomb.
Chambered Long Barrow Plan
Plan of a Chambered Long Barrow - Hetty Pegler's Tump, Gloucestershire
A rectangular or square stone grave, sometimes excavated in rock or laying above the ground, with a stone lid and often covered by a barrow.
Cup Mark
The most common and simplest prehistoric rock carving. Cups consist of a small roughly circular depression chipped out of a stone using either an antler pick or hard hammer stone. They may have one or more surrounding rings around them and are then known as 'cup and ring' designs. Cups are found either singly or more commonly in groups often in association with other more complex carvings.
See also Rockart
A long track or avenue with parallel banks and external ditches and closed at the either end by further banks and ditches, they may be some kind of processional way. Built during the Neolithic they are usually associated with long barrows, the term 'cursus' was given to these monuments by William Stukeley and is Latin for 'racecourse'.
Dolmen - See Chambered Tomb
Often used for beads and similar jewelry, faience is made by mixing sand or quartz with lime or ash into a paste and then heating until the mixture fuses together into a glass-like material. During this process, known as sintering, other materials can be added for colouration, such as copper to create the bluish-green faience often found in Britain.
Flint is a hard fine grained rock formed in chalk beds that can be shaped into very sharp tools such as knives, scrapers and arrow heads by an experienced worker in a process called knapping. Flint was often mined in large quantities at places such as Grimes Graves in Norfolk and its strength and resilience means many fine examples have survived to the present day.
Food Vessel
These are more common in the east of the country and consist of a style of flat bottomed bowl-like pottery made of thick clay with a pronounced collar and rim and often covered with simple decoration. While they are often found as fragments they may survive intact within a burial mound - although they are sometimes found smashed instead, perhaps deliberately during the burial ritual.
Food Vessel                        Food Vessel
A pair of Food Vessels from Yorkshire
Unique to Britain, a henge is a Neolithic or early Bronze Age circular enclosure, up to 400 metres across with banks and usually an internal ditch. There are different types of henges: Class I have a single entrance, Class II have 2 opposing entrances and those that contain stone circles are known as circle-henges. Many henges have been found to have contained pits and burials as well as circles of timber posts while others such as Durrington Walls even seemed to have had timber buildings constructed within them.
Henge cross section
This term covers a variety of different structures that first date from the late Bronze Age but flourished during the subsequent Iron Age. They are characterised as fortified enclosures consisting of ditches and banks (ramparts) either of earth, wood or stone, or sometimes a mixture of all of these with one or more defendable entrances. Those with one set of defences are known as 'univallate' while 'multivallate' sites have two or more lines of ramparts and ditches. Hillforts are thought to have had many uses, as well as being symbols of prestige and power for local chiefs some were probably designed to offer protection during times of inter tribal tension and traces of dwellings have been excavated at some sites, while they could also have served as storage and distribution centres for surplus grain or the herding of livestock.
Incense Cups
Small pottery vessels from the Bronze Age that are sometimes found in association with urns and cremations. Most are small enough to fit in the palm of a hand, are plainly decorated and have holes in their sides. It has been suggested that they may have been used to burn aromatic herbs during burial or cremation rituals but their true purpose remains a mystery.
Incense Cup                        Incense Cup
A pair of incense cups from Aldbourne, Wiltshire
The act of burying a human body as opposed to cremation.
Iron Age
The Iron Age is considered in Britain to be the period from about 700BC to the coming of the Romans in AD43, it takes its name from the first use of iron as a material for weapons and tools although bronze continued to be used for many items. We begin to see close links with continental Europe and it has traditionally been though that Britain was subject to waves of invasion or immigration - these theories have now given way to the belief that it was the spread of ideas and customs that came into the country rather than a mass influx of people, although there is some evidence for settlement in southern England and East Yorkshire. The population was indeed increasing during this time though and we see the rise of regional tribal groups or chiefdoms as well as a continuation of the dividing up of land for either territorial reasons or for farming. There is also much evidence of settlement such as 'round houses' which sometimes formed small villages, ditched defended camps or farmsteads, brochs and crannogs in Scotland, and massive hillforts which may have had other uses such as regional trade centres, the storage of grain, or seats of power.
The previous traditions of building funeral barrows now ceases (except in parts of Yorkshire) and although graves are sometimes found it seems that cremation followed by a scattering of the remains is the preferred method of handling the dead. These rituals could have taken place in streams, rivers or wet or boggy places and these same places were also used for the deposition of what are thought to be 'votive' offerings to the gods or spirits of such things as shields and weapons. The ceremonies could have been officiated over by religious leaders we know today as druids - however what little we know of these people comes to use from Roman accounts and we must be wary of the fact that these descriptions may be subject to the political bias of the time.
A black material similar to coal formed by the fossilisation of wood under high geological pressure. Most famously found around the Whitby area of North Yorkshire it has been carved and polished to make jewelry since prehistoric times.
Jet Beads
Jet beads from the Fylingdales area
Long Barrow
This is a rectangular or trapezoid mound built during the Neolithic (New Stone Age) and nearly always associated with burial remains. Many are oriented with a higher end facing roughly to the east which contained either a timber mortuary enclosure or stone chambers. In many cases it seems that this ritual area remained open for long periods of time - sometimes hundreds of years, for the deposition or removal of remains. At some point these structures were sealed and covered with earth, rubble or turf dug from flanking quarry ditches and the structure extended backwards between 20 and 120 metres. Several regional variations in design and methods of construction occur which seem to be influenced by the availability of local building materials.
Mesolithic, Middle Stone Age
This is the time between the ending of the last Ice Age in Britain and the beginning of the Neolithic. The ice sheets that had covered much of Britain are though to have receded between 10000-8000 BC allowing groups of hunter-gathers to cross over the land bridge that existed between Britain and continental Europe, here the regenerated grasslands and forests provided fruit, nuts and berries for the early family groups who also fished and hunted animals such as deer and wild boar with spears and bows. They did not create permanent settlements or build earth or stone monuments but seemed to have moved around the countryside following the herds and creating seasonal camps which leave little evidence except flint and stone tools and bone waste. This transient lifestyle slowly gave way to a more settled form of living with the domestication of animals and the growing of crops starting sometime around 4500BC - the beginning of the Neolithic or New Stone Age.
Middle Stone Age - See Mesolithic
The Neolithic or New Stone Age is the period in time that saw the first move to a settled way of life for the inhabitants of Europe and the beginning of stock rearing and farming as well as the first use of pottery items, It is though to have started in Britain around 4500BC and continued until about 2300BC when the use of bronze for tools and weapons marked the dawn of what we now know as the Bronze Age. It was also the start of communities building and erecting earth or stone structures such as burial chambers, barrows, standing stones and stone circles.
New Stone Age - See Neolithic
Ogham, Ogam
This is a language that dates from the 4th -5th centuries and was used mainly in Ireland and Wales. It uses a series of lines that are often cut into the edge of an object such as a standing stone to represent letters with many of the remaining inscriptions being either memorials to the dead or territorial markers. Its use had died out by the 10th century AD.
Old Stone Age - See Paleolithic
A standing stone set apart from but seemingly related to a stone circle.
Paleolithic, Palaeolithic, Old Stone Age
This is the period defined in Britain as from 700000BC to around 10000-8000BC when the retreat of the ice sheets heralded the end of the last Ice Age. The oldest human remains in Britain, found at Boxgrove, date from about 500000 years ago but successive waves of intense cold and more temperate climate changes mean that there was never a permanent population of the country, rather that early man would migrate here during warmer periods retreating when cooler temperatures made the land uninhabitable. These early populations lived a 'hunter gatherer' lifestyle following such animals as woolly rhinos, mammoths, deer, horses and bison as well as collecting fruits nuts and berries from wild sources. Tools from this period include wooden spears, bone harpoons and many types of multipurpose stone 'hand axes', flint scrapers and knives. The only evidence we have for occupation or settlement sites is from occasional finds in caves.
Plague Stone
Hollowed out stones used during the Medieval period in times of plague. An infected village would leave coins in the vinegar filled hollow to pay for food and supplies delivered from outside in the belief that the vinegar would cleanse the coins and prevent the spread of infection.
Pygmy Cups - See Incense Cup
Cornish term for a chambered tomb - See also Chambered Tomb
Ring Cairn
This a style of monument that probably dates from the early to middle Bronze Age and consists of a circular low mound of rock or stone generally with a cleared area in the middle. Within this central area small pits are often found that contain charcoal or occasionally cremated remains. Sometimes larger stones were set within the inner or outer edges of the stone bank, these monuments are known as 'kerb cairns' and when these larger stones are left after later robbing of the cairn material it can be difficult to distinguish the monuments from small stone circles or other circular stone structures.
Rock Art
Rock Art is a general term for any prehistoric marking of a rock surface. These marks can range from a simple cup to complex designs featuring cups with gutters or ducts running from them, cups with rings, concentric circles, spirals, single or parallel sets of grooves, interlinking grooves, grooves that enclose areas and resemble maps, ladder motifs, chevrons plus other geometric or abstract patterns. The marks were made by chipping, or 'pecking' the rock surface with a hard tool such as an antler pick and while cups are the most common design several different types of design are often found grouped together on the same surface - these can be small or large boulders, outcrops of rock, standing stones or stones incorporated into barrows or cairns. There is some debate over when these carvings were created but current opinion is that the tradition started during the late Neolithic and continued into the middle Bronze Age although questionable earlier and later examples are proposed, for this website I've generally used a Bronze Age date for Rock Art unless the evidence suggests otherwise. What is even less certain is what their purpose or meaning might have been - there have been many theories suggested that include their use as ritual or astronomical symbols, shamanic visions, maps, grave markers, territorial markers or tribal totems.
Romano-British, Romano-Celtic
Remains, monuments or settlement sites that date from the Roman occupation of Britain between AD43 and AD410 but are not Roman in origin.
Round Barrow
A circular form of burial mound consisting of an earthen or earth and rubble domed structure often with a surrounding ditch and sometimes an outer bank. The mound would usually have covered a burial or cremation remains on or just below the original ground surface. These are the most common prehistoric remains in Britain and could number over 10000 individual barrows, some are clustered together in barrow cemeteries. Most date from the early and middle Bronze Age period although there are several large examples that were built during the preceding Neolithic. The most common examples are Bowl barrows, other rarer examples include Bell, Saucer, Disc and Pond barrows, sometimes referred to as fancy barrows."
A large block of tough sandstone sometimes used to build circles and burial chambers in the south of England. Examples are the Stonehenge Trilithons and the Avebury Circle
A piece of broken pottery.
Stone Circle
Begun in the late Neolithic period perhaps as early as 3300BC and continuing into the middle of the Bronze Age sometime around 1200BC, the stone circles of Britain were built over some 2000 years although they vary in diameter, size and number of stones and even shape - some are oval, others are set into earth banks. Depending on the area they were built in the type of stone also varies, from limestone to the huge sarsen blocks of Stonehenge and Avebury, while some circles incorporated special stones such as the quartz rich block that forms one of the Boscawen-un circle in Cornwall or cup and ring or spiral patterns like Long Meg in Cumbria. Many circles had associated outliers, often large single or double monoliths that stood either close to, or at some distance from the main circle, others had lines or avenues of stones that lead to the circle. These may have had some processionary value or have been used for astronomical sightings. That some of the stones in the circles were used for astronomical purposes cannot be doubted, some align with the rising and setting sun at significant times of the year, others with the course of the moon so it would seem that one of their roles was as ritual and meeting places to mark important times in the agricultural year.
Stukeley, William
Born 1687, died 1765. The Rev Dr William Stukeley was a Lincolnshire born antiquarian who was one of the pioneers in the study of British prehistoric monuments. Although Stukeley visited many sites he is most famous for his work recording (and speculating on the origins of) Stonehenge and Avebury which he published in the books 'Stonehenge, a Temple Restored to the British Druids', and 'Abury, a Temple of the British Druids' in the 1740's
Two upright stones with a horizontal lintel, such as found uniquely at Stonehenge.
A Latin word used to describe a burial mound. It is most often found on British Ordnance Survey maps to mark round barrows or cairns although it is sometimes mistakenly used to mark long barrows.
A large, flat bottomed, pottery vessel that is often crudely made with thick walls and simple exterior decorations dating from the early Bronze Age. They are often known as Cinerary Urns due to their association with cremated human remains where ashes and remnants of burnt bones were placed inside them and the urn then usually placed upside down in the grave. It is possible that this inverting of the urn was simply to protect the ashes when the grave was covered with earth or it could be a symbolic act of removing it - and its contents - from the realm of the 'living' world.
Biconical Urn                        Collared Urn
Biconical Urn (left) and Collared Urn (right)
A piece of stone used for sharpening tool edges by rubbing. During the Bronze Age it seems that they were sometimes hung from a cord as decoration although it could just be that this was a way of preventing such a valuable piece of kit from getting lost.
Scans of pottery and bronze items are from 'Recent researches in barrows in Yorkshire, Wiltshire, Berkshire etc' by Rev. William Greenwell 1890

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