Earlier this week, an early Bronze Age burial cist containing cremated bones and material dating back 4,000 years was excavated at Dartmoor in Britain. The Bronze Age in Britain was a period dating from 2700 to 700 BCE, and is defined by the use of bronze and copper for tools, as well as the introduction of agriculture. This was also the period where megalithic monuments were being produced, such as Avebury, Stonehenge and Silbury Hill. The burial cist found is particularly important because mortuary evidence rarely survives from this period. While a large number of the burial cists have been recovered, it is rare to find the materials within them intact. The practice of cremation in burial cists was only practiced for a brief period of time between 4000 and 3200 BCE, and cremation as a form of burial was gone by 2800 BCE.
The archaeologists recovered a stone built burial cist filled with ashes and cremated remains, as well as a woven bag or basket, and a number of amber beads. The cist was lined with an animal hide and a woven textile. Within the basket were shale disc beads, amber spherical beads and a circular textile band. The materials from the dig are surprisingly intact, and overall preservation is good. The peat and pollen surrounding the cist will be analyzed to look at vegetation and climate during the burial period. Two wooden stakes were recovered next to the walls of the cist, embedded within the peat.
In depth analysis of the basket and grave goods may reveal the process of the funeral, as well as how the items were made. A wealth of information can be gleaned from this excavation about the more general funerary rites. Jane Marchand, senior archaeologist on the project, said: “This is a most unusual and fascinating glimpse into what an early Bronze Age grave goods assemblage on Dartmoor might have looked like when it was buried, including the personal possessions of people living on the moor around 4,000 years ago.”
The Bronze Age was a period of transition with major changes in tools and subsistence practices. Along with this was a change from monumental tomb construction in the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze, to barrow burials in the Middle and Late Bronze Age. Unlike the collective burials of the Neolithic, the Bronze Age were primarily single individuals within their own container, such as the cists, buried with only a few simple grave goods and food. While it was traditional to place burials around mounds, they reused previously constructed ones instead of creating new ones.
Cremation burials for this period are primarily found in collared urns, notes both Taylor and Anderson. However, a number of burial cists have been recovered where the urn is present either within the cist over inverted over it. There is a similarity to many of cremated remains found in urns and the burial recovered from Dartmoor. Taylor notes that cremains within the urn were often wrapped in cloth or animal hides, such as the burials from Mutlow Hill, Wimborne St. Giles, Winterbourne Steepleton and West Overton. These were often held close using bone or metal awls. This practice seems similar to the Dartmoor burial where the remains were laid upon the hide. Perhaps further investigation of the hide will reveal that it was once sealed up in a bundle, rather than serving as a base only. Jewelry has been recovered from a number of cist and cremation burials for this period for both men and women, as well as children. An interesting trait for Bronze Age burials is that they are often found near, or with Neolithic sites. Individuals are often buried in Neolithic mounds, and a number have been found holding Neolithic artifacts. Taylor suggests that this represents respect for past ancestors, although they could have easily been interpreted as exotic and mysterious, or een a threat.
For me, the most fascinating part of this find is how intact it is. There is so much information that can be taken from a site like this. Carefully studying the soil can show the pattern of how the cist was buried within the ground. Looking at the pollen and plant remains can reveal season of burial as well as potential food that could have been placed within as an offering. Examination of the bones will help us learn more about the individual; their age, sex, pathologies, and lifestyle. Beyond the grave itself, looking at the mortuary landscape will also be important. The archaeologists at Dartmoor note that over 200 cists are located in this area. Given that Dartmoor does contain a number of megaliths from the Neolithic, it would be interesting to see a comparison of spatial relationships of megaliths and burials. Only by looking at a wide range of evidence at a number of scales can we begin to interpret the funerary practices of these past cultures.
Anderson, Sue. 2011. Spoilheap Burials. http://www.spoilheap.co.uk/burial.htm
Taylor, Alison. 2001. Burial Practice in Early England. SC: Tempus Publishing.
Dartmoor National Park Authority. 2011. Prehistoric Dartmoor Excavation. http://www.dartmoor-npa.gov.uk/aboutus/news/au-geninterestnews/prehistburial