Bronze Age Burial Cist in Britain

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 AveburyStonehenge 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.

Works Cited

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

5 responses to “Bronze Age Burial Cist in Britain

  1. “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.”

    Burial continuity is common through history in Britain. See this very apposite study for example
    Ancient Landscapes and the Dead: The Reuse of Prehistoric and
    Roman Monuments as Early Anglo-Saxon Burial Sites
    By HOWARD WILLIAMS
    archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/catalogue/adsdata/…/41_001_032.pdf

    Good sites for human settlement / associated burials in one period would generally still be good sites in subsequent periods. We parcel up prehistory and history into discrete periods which we label after step changes in technology / culture / rulers, but the reality is generally of continuity of the ordinary people, who very often stay where they are.

    Just because you’ve discovered bronze / iron / the Romans invaded doesn’t mean you’ll abandon where you lived when you / your family ancestors had farmland and neolithic tools / bronze / iron / before the invasion, and then up sticks and move some place completely different. Moving always involves very considerable costs and inconvenience. Humans like their own home place and continuity, and the relationships with and support of our neighbours.

    The continuity of use of many religious sites in Britain is part of this continuity of burial sites and is also well evidenced – pagan Celtic temple sites become Christianised by building a church on them and commemorating the dead continues. Circular graveyards around British parish churches are a common indicator. The death rituals and interment may change, cremation > burial, the burial orientation and use of grave goods or their discontinuation may change, but it’s very often a story of continuity of use / reuse.

    I live in the city of Manchester in Northern England. Burials and settlement evidence here are continuous from pre-historic, through Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Norman times, to the major city of the present. No great surprise – it’s on an ancient north-south land route, at a significant river crossing, on a navigable river, that leads to the nearby major estuary on the edge of the middle part of the Irish Sea, and is surrounded by good flattish agricultural land. The medieval Cathedral is built on the site of a Saxon Church from over 1000 years ago, and who knows what that stood on – it’s on a prominent riverside bluff, so would be a typical Celtic temple site. Why would anyone want to give up this ancient site of settlement and commemorating the dead?

    It’s the discontinuities in places of settlement / burial that are at least as significant and interesting. These are the ones where you are more likely to find the bones etc you are interested in. It is highly unlikely that anything would survive the regular rebuilding, extensions and new burials in the Manchester Cathedral area. This was the only parish church serving a wide sub-region and huge numbers of burials took place over the last 1000 years.

    What was particularly notable about the Bronze Age cist burial on Dartmoor, that you haven’t noted in this post, is how very isolated the site is (hence undisturbed). It’s in the middle of a very extensive tract of high moorland. My recollection of the prehistory in this part of SW England is that cultivation and settlement on Dartmoor was very short lived in the Bronze Age, because the period when conditions were favourable enough to live there was very short lived and was ended by climate change (the temperature dropped / rainfall increased which makes a big difference on high moors: it’s still not a place of settlement today); this led to rapid peat growth, which was probably the reason this cist’s contents survived so well preserved, and people also gave up cultivation on Dartmoor because of the rapid exhaustion of the poor soils on the hard granite rock that forms the moor.

    • Thanks for the impressive comment! I actually do know about the continuity of sacred spaces in Britain, although didn’t want to go too in depth yet (since its going to be a future post!). Thanks for the additional information about the site. It was difficult from the articles I found to discern what the broader area looked like. Indeed, the location of the site in the region, and its location in peat are both important factors that need to be considered.

  2. Pingback: The Burial That’s Changing British History | Bones Don't Lie·

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