bronze age

Case Study: Cremation Technology and Burial

Detailed study of cremation technology and cremation burial has been undertaken in Orkney (under the auspices of the Orkney Barrows Project funded by Historic Scotland) at a range of barrow cemeteries, in particular Linga Fiold, using an approach aimed at investigating the spatial and temporal aspects of funerary rites rather than focussing simply on burial (Downes 2005; forthcoming). Cremation technology was found to be efficient; using predominantly boggy turves as fuel excessively high temperatures were achieved. Cremation pyres, identified through geophysical survey in advance of excavation, were set close to the edge of barrows, or on the side of existing barrows. Several examples of more than one person being burnt on the pyre at once were found. Very few burials contained a quantity of burnt bone that matched what would be expected in weight for a whole body, but instead it was found that other elements of the pyre remains were being buried – that is charred wood and ash, cramp (fuel ash slag), burnt turf and scorched earth ‐ and that there was a careful order to how the burials were constructed. In the case of primary burials that were central to a barrow, it could be seen that cremated bone would be interrred first, followed by cramp, followed by burnt turf and charcoal, followed by scorched earth. This order reversed the order that the remains appeared on the pyre upon completion of burning. This order could not be interpreted as being interred simply in the manner the pyre might have been dismantled, for elements were carefully sorted and cleaned before being placed in the burial cist or pit. Soil micromorphology was emplyed to investigate the barrows structure: the barrows were then constucted in the reverse order of the natural stratigraphy, with turves on the lowest layer, loose topsoil next, followed by clay subsoil, and sometimes capped with stone. Thus the burial and barrow comprise an unbroken inverted sequence in which the human remains comprise the lowest part, and in which the whole of the natural order is inverted. This careful and purposeful re‐ordering of the world is seen as indicative of a cosmology or world view – detailed by Kristiansen and Larsson (2005), and expressed in the Nebra disc ‐ in which the world is ranked vertically in three tiers – the lower domain or underworld, a middle domain which humans and the living occupy, and an upper world of the sacred of gods and ancestors (Downes 2009; Downes and Thomas in press).

In the many instances of cremation burials added subsequently around the barrows, some of these replicated the same vertical ordering of the cist or pit content, whereas in others the various types of pyre debris were spread between two or three cists or pits – sometimes with cleaned human bone in one feature, cramp in another and charcoal and burnt turf, or even burnt soil in another. What is striking about these findings is that parts (or ‘tokens’) representative of the whole pyre, not just the individual person or people, are being interred. What was apparent also was that some cremated bone was left on the pyre – the amount selected for burial being a deliberate choice, and a rapid series of actions taken immediately after quenching the pyre, and not a factor of leaving the pyre to cool for some days and having the remains disperse through eg wind and rain before collection. The methodological implication of this work are clear: using geophysical survey over a wide area is key to putting a burial monument in its context – for example locating pyre sites, mortuary structures, paths and approaches to burial sites; use of soil micromorphology in combination with pollen and charred plant analysis was important in determining methods of pyre technology, and burial and monument construction. The excavation and analysis of the contents of a whole range of features, irrespective of whether they contained human remains or not, provides lessons for future approaches to the recording and analysis of burial sites.


Return to Section 5.5 Funerary and Burial evidence

Case Study: Teasing out regional settlement traditions

Pope (forthcoming) has identified three major regional traditions of settlement for parts of the Scottish mainland through the synthesis of the C14 dated roundhouses (currently c.100 dated structures): 1) unenclosed platform settlements, in the southern uplands; 2) ring-ditch settlements, predominantly along the eastern coastal plain; and 3) coastal houses in the north and west (largely Caithness and around Argyll). These broad regional traditions exist across the Bronze Age, but seem to reach their ‘peak’ during the Middle Bronze Age.

Within these broad settlement traditions Pope has identified three main Bronze Age architectural types: 1) ring-banks; 2) post-built structures; and 3) polygonal ring-grooves. Of these, the ring-bank was the major house type in some areas of Scotland. With later Neolithic origins, the ring-bank is first found at unenclosed platform settlements. From here the ring-bank went on to become a very versatile architectural form with diversity in both use of materials and building practices: largely upland, but also found in coastal lowlands; popular in the far north; and found in a real variety of landscapes during the Later Bronze Age.

The second key house type in Bronze Age northern mainland Britain was the post-built structure. Jobey was correct in re-asserting Steer's (1956) belief that post-rings were a Bronze Age type (contra. Feachem 1965). Now known to have Early Bronze Age origins on the lower slopes (120-130m) of hills in the north and west, post-built structures became a key feature of the eastern lowlands throughout the Later Bronze Age, increasing in size and circularity after 1200 BC. The question now is whether it is possible to see post-built structures as a structural variant of the more usual ring-bank type.

Both Feachem and Jobey saw large double-ring structures as an Iron Age development. In fact, it is now recognised that they have clear Early Bronze Age origins and became particularly common in the southern uplands, as simple rings remained popular in the eastern lowlands, particularly at older sites (Pope forthcoming). Similarly, Feachem and Jobey both saw the third house type – the ring-groove – as an Iron Age development. Whilst circular ring-grooves are an artefact of the Later Iron Age, the northern Bronze Age reveals a polygonal pre-cursor.

The 17th century BC origin of the polygonal ring-groove house heralds, simultaneously in  a phase of real architectural innovation, simultaneously in upland and lowland landscapes, a phase of real architectural innovation. Ring-grooves, however, became a key feature of the lowlands – contemporary with the formation of the first ring-ditches. Unlike more traditional types (ring-banks and post-built structures), lowland ring-grooves survived social change around 1400 BC; however by the 13th century BC they had become rare, replaced by the more traditional post-built structure as the main lowland type. At the same time we see repeated rebuilding at coastal sites in the north and west and a return to upland platform settlements.

The distribution of settlement is now hard to reconstruct. Subsequent land use seems to have eroded almost any upstanding settlement at lower altitudes (say below 100m OD) but in general most buildings do not occur much above 300 m OD.


Return to Section 3.3 Settlement, Landuse and Resources