The remarkable discovery of the 2200-year-old ornate bronze remains from a chariot and what appears to be horse-care tools have been unearthed in Britain in what has been described as a once-in-a-career find.
The archaeologists who found the treasures, which include harness fittings and a linch pin, are said to be shell-shocked by the enormity of the discovery.
The decorated fittings from an Iron Age chariot appear to have been buried as a religious offering. The researchers also unearthed what appeared to be equestrian tools, including an object that was probably a curry comb and two curved blades which may have been used in the care of horse hooves.
The discovery was made by students from the University of Leicester’s School of Archaeology and Ancient History.
Analysis confirms the parts came from a 2nd or 3rd century BC chariot.
They found the remains during their ongoing excavation of the Burrough Hill Iron Age hillfort, near Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire.
The school has led a 5-year project there since 2010, giving archaeology students and volunteers valuable experience of archaeological excavations.
Burrough Hill is owned by the education charity, the Ernest Cook Trust, which has also funded site tours and school visits to the excavation site.
While digging a large, deep pit near the remains of a house within the hillfort, a group of four students found a piece of bronze in the ground, before uncovering a concentration of further parts nearby.
Taken together, the pieces are easily recognisable as a matching set of bronze fittings from a mid to late Iron Age chariot. As a group of two or more base-metal prehistoric artefacts, the discovery is covered under Britain’s Treasure Act.
After careful cleaning, decorative patterns are clearly visible in the metalwork, including a triskele motif showing three waving lines which is similar to the flag of the Isle of Man. The parts include chariot linch pins and other fittings, including rings, strap junctions and what was described as a barrel-shaped harness fitting.
Nora Battermann was among the students who made the discovery.
“Realising that I was actually uncovering a hoard that was carefully placed there hundreds of years ago made it the find of a lifetime,” she said.
“Looking at the objects now they have been cleaned makes me even more proud, and I can’t wait for them to go on display.”
The pieces appear to have been gathered in a box before being planted in the ground on top of a layer of cereal chaff and burnt as part of a religious ritual.
The chaff might have doubled as a “cushion” for the box and also the fuel for the fire.
After the burning, the entire deposit was covered by a layer of burnt cinder and slag, where it lay undisturbed for more than 2200 years until the team uncovered it.
The archaeologists believe the chariot would have belonged to a high-status individual, such as a nobleman or warrior.
The team believes the burial may have taken place to mark a new season, or the final closure or dismantling of a house at the fort.
Dr Jeremy Taylor, who lectures in landscape archaeology at the university and is co-director of the Burrough Hill field project, said: “This is a matching set of highly decorated bronze fittings from an Iron Age chariot – probably from the 2nd or 3rd century BC.
“This is the most remarkable discovery of material we made at Burrough Hill in the five years we worked on the site. This is a very rare discovery, and a strong sign of the prestige of the site.
“The atmosphere at the dig on the day was a mix of ‘tremendously excited’ and ‘slightly shell-shocked’,” he said.
“I have been excavating for 25 years and I have never found one of these pieces – let alone a whole set. It is a once-in-a-career discovery.”
The co-director of the project, John Thomas, said iron tools were placed around the box before it was then burnt, and covered in a thick layer of cinder and slag.
“The function of the iron tools is a bit of a mystery, but given the equestrian nature of the hoard, it is possible that they were associated with horse grooming.
“One piece in particular has characteristics of a modern curry comb, while two curved blades may have been used to maintain horses hooves or manufacture harness parts.”
The parts have been taken to the University of Leicester’s School of Archaeology and Ancient History for further analysis. The archaeologists hope they will be put on public display in due course.
Before then, they will be on temporary display at the Melton Carnegie Museum, Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire, from October 18 to December 13.
The Burrough Hill excavation was undertaken to a detailed research design with the consent of the Department for Culture Media and Sport, with site management by the Leicestershire County Council. The work is carried out with the permission of the Ernest Cook Trust, which owns the land.