Case Study: The Beakers and Bodies Project (University of Aberdeen Museums)

The Leverhulme Trust funded Beakers and Bodies Project undertook radiocarbon dating, stable isotope analysis (for diet) and constructed updated typo-chronologies and regional narratives. Some forty AMS radiocarbon dates were obtained primarily for Beaker burials but also for Food Vessel, bronze dagger and ‘unaccompanied’ burials (Curtis et al. 2008; Wilkin et al. 2009), the material being in the care of a number of museum collections. In addition, sufficiently preserved short-cist skeletons from eastern Scotland were studied by Dr Margaret Hutchison.  The skeletons were analysed for sex, age-at-death, general anatomy and pathology and also to look for regional and temporal variations.  Some of the project’s findings were also incorporated into Alexandra Shepherd’s important work (forthcoming) on the gendered position and posture of bodies in northern Beaker burials. Stable isotope analysis for diet was also undertaken. The results were consistent across grave-good traditions and did not show any noticeable regional patterns. Detailed discussion of these results by Dr Mandy Jay are incorporated within the AHRC-funded Beaker People Project.  Finally, the high presence of white inlay on Beaker vessels in the collections of the University of Aberdeen was studied and initial chemical analyses were undertaken, identifying the material as calcium hydroxyapatite - the major inorganic constituent of bone (Curtis et al. 2010).

A dataset of all known Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age burials in the study area was compiled in order to bring these various strands of data together. Regional comparisons between the development of funerary practices in North-East Scotland, the Moray Firth region and East-Central Scotland were developed (Curtis and Wilkin forthcoming a). Moreover, the data was used to approach typo-chronology of funerary Beakers with respect to a range of contextual factors (Curtis and Wilkin forthcoming b). The Bayesian modelling of these dates was incorporated into the construction and interpretation of these narratives.

Future avenues of research include drawing out the temporal and socio-cultural relationships between the now well established dataset for Beaker burials and less thoroughly charted traditions, including Scottish Food Vessel burial, Beakers from non-funerary contexts and recumbent stone circles. Additional work on the presence and identification of the chemical composition of white inlay in Beaker vessels is being pursued by members of the project team and has been initiated in other regions of Britain (Alistair Barclay pers comm.; Mary Davis pers comm.).

The Beakers and Bodies Project (Leverhulme Trust grant F/00 152/S) team, led by Neil Curtis with Neil Wilkin as Project Researcher, also included Dr Margaret Hutchison, Dr Mandy Jay, Ray Kidd, Alexandra Shepherd, Ian Shepherd, Dr Alison Sheridan, and Margot Wright.

Return to Period 3: the rest of the Early Bronze Age, 20th century – 1700/1600 BC