5.5 Funerary and Burial evidence

Map showing early Beaker non-cist graves in Scotland (definite and possible examples)

Burial architecture and monuments

A rich variety of types of Bronze Age burials structures and monuments are found in Scotland, showing both temporal and regional variation (see section 2, section 5.1, section 5.2 and section 5.4). In common with the rest of the British Isles, the burial record is rich in relation to other types of site, and so had formed a key, if not dominant, role in writing about the Bronze Age. The burial record is on the whole in keeping with types and traditions from the rest of British Isles, especially northern uplands, with some exceptions such as large reusable cists, and corbelled structures. 

Beaker burials occur in pits and cists, with some of the earliest examples in Britain, for example Sorisdale on Coll (section 2.2; Ashmore 1996). As has been noted above, there is great regional diversity in the occurrence of Beaker burials, with earliest Beakers being numerous in North‐East Scotland, and in the Hebrides with pottery occurring in graves and in domestic contexts.

Complexity of monuments and longevity of use characterises varying types of Early Bronze Age burials. At Broomend of Crichie, Aberdeenshire, the construction of a small Class 2 henge around a Beaker shaft grave was but the latest in a series of monuments constructed perhaps either to high‐ranking individuals or esteemed ancestors, the others including a Beaker cist cemetery, a recumbent stone circle and an avenue of standing stones (Bradley 2011). Large cists (e.g. Sandfiold, Orkney;  Mill Road, Linlithgow) some of which were constructed in a way as to be re‐enterable can contain mulitple burials, show re-use, and sometimes a mix of inhumation and cremated remains. The example from Sandfiold (Dalland 1999) was first used c.2500BC and continued to have burials added until the later Bronze Age..

Throughout the Early Bronze Age ‘rich’ individual burials were interred, with men, women and children being buried with weapons and jewelry (above), in cists or pits, sometimes covered in large cairns as epitomized in Kilmartin Glen, and sometimes inserted into earlier monuments such as chambered tombs (e.g. Isbister, Orkney); These ‘rich’ burials were more numerous in the North‐East, Soutth‐West and parts of East Scotland, and almost absent in some places – North‐West, and Northern Isles. In common with the rest of UK, cremation became much more common than inhumation during this period.

Cists were utilised more frequently through the Bronze Age thans pits - often called ’short cists’  usually a term to describe burials not obviously marked by cairn or barrow. Burials in cists and pits were often not covered by monuments but were inserted into natural knolls or earlier monuments. Cemeteries of both inhumations and/or cremations were sometimes enclosied by ditches, banks or ring cairns, and were in other instances not enclosed at all.

Cairns are a more frequent form of burial monument in Scotland than barrows – this almost certainly related to availability of stone in comparison to soil. Cairns were occurred as single monuments or in groups (e.g. Archan and Claggan Argyll). Clava cairns have a very particular form of wide ring cairn, and kerb cairns are a distinct Scottish type, found mainly in Argyll and Perthshire. Ring cairns usually containing or surrounded by pits containing cremations (eg Portlethen, Aberdeenshire;  Cloburn Quarry, Lanarkshire) are also found – and both kerb and ring cairns cover a broad period from earlier into middle Bronze Age.

Corbelled burial structures occur that may be distinct to (west) Scotland (e.g.  Rosinish, Benbecula).

Barrows  although less common than cairns, can vary from single monuments to large cemeteries and, as with cairns, individual barrows often associated with many burials (e.g.  Barns Farm, Dagety, Fife; Linga Fiold, Orkney, Knowes of Trotty, Orkney). Examples of very large and complex burial mounds comparable with thoe in southern and middle England have been excavated, such as North Mains, Perthshire where a line of posts and fences created bays which were filled by turves and topsoil to form a large bank which was covered in turn by a mound which had two inhumations with food vessels and eight cremations set into it (Ashmore 1996).

A wider range of mortuary rites are apparent than those that resulted in ‘formal burials’, and it is perhaps increasingly diverse mortuary practices that cause the burials to become less common though the later part of the Bronze Age. The finding  of mummified remains at Cladh Hallan is instructive in alerting us to a form of mortuary practice that was hitherto unknown, and which may often leave little trace. In addition, the Cladh Hallan burials were located within the houses; where preservation levels are equally good and large enough areas are examined such as other parts of the Western Isles and the Links of Noltland, Orkney inhumation and cremation burials have been found in close proximity to houses and date to the earlier Bronze Age – indicating that burials of various forms can have been situated within or in close proximity to dwellings throughout the Bronze Age.

As found in other parts of UK and Ireland, bodies would also have been interred in bogs and other wet places; the process of arresting decay to mummify the bodies found at Cladh Hallan appears to been affected through putting the bodies in a bog for a period of time. The human remains found at The Sculptor’s Cave, Covesea (see the ScARF Case Study: Sculptor's Cave) are indicative of other forms of mortuary practices wherein display of human remains, and the use of human remains in ritual alongside a range of other materials and artefacts, is apparent.

Funerary rites

The same generalizations have been made for Scotland as for the UK regarding Bronze Age burials: that Neolithic ‘collective’ rites were succeeded by inhumation burial of individuals in the early Bronze Age, to be replaced by cremation as a rite, grouped in cemeteries in the later Bronze Age. There was, however, considerable regional and chronological diversity in mortuary practices.

Cremation in Scotland, as in the rest of UK, was widely practised. Cremation is evident during the Neolithic (e.g. in Quanterness tomb Orkney) but has, in the past, been overlooked, and conversely inhumation could have been quite widely practised throughout during the Bronze Age - so the dichotomy between the two is overstated. For example, the inhumation and cremation burials at Cnip, Uig, Isle of Lewis, appear to be roughly contemporary and were both deposited in the mid second millennium BC (Dunwell et al. 1995). Survival affects the visibility of inhumations, as burials often disappeared in acid soil conditions, but instances of inhumations appear in cists and pits, and in the middle and later Bronze Age, can be stratigraphically above cremation burials. Recent discoveries in the Western Isles and the Northern Isles (at the Links of Noltland) have revealed inhumation burials from the earlier Bronze Age.  At the Links of Noltland, Orkney a cemetery of 15-16 burials was discovered. if conditions of preservation had not been so favourable only evidence of cremation, and not inhumation, would have survived.

‘Individual’ burial is rarer than was thought previously; large cists can be re-entered and re-used over long periods of time (e.g. Sandfiold, Orkney) and contain a variety of individuals, cremated and inhumed, and cairns and barrows (and pyres) are frequently multiple - as increasingly detailed analysis is revealing. In some cases, ‘token’ cremation burials and partial inhumations (suggesting either the deposition of only part of the body or the later removal of pieces of bone from the mortuary context) suggest very different concepts of the body and the self to those prevalent today. Analysis undertaken in the past few decades is also revealing that animals are often buried too – Gavin MacGregor (2003) has postulated a predominance of pigs associated with inhumations and sheep with cremation. Thus, although rich single burials are known, perhaps suggesting the appearance of an elite, this is unlikely to have been the case in every region or during all periods of the Bronze Age. Most Scottish Bronze Age burials comprise small deposits of burnt bone without grave goods suggesting that the expression of personal status was not always a major concern and that other aspects of social identity may have been equally important.

Burial Technology

Both inhumation and cremation are forms of burial technology; both serve to transform the body from one state to another, by the media of earth in the former, and of fire in the latter. Cremation is a rite which is more immediate, more visible, and over which the technologists has the most control, and moreover cremation may have been considered the more effective in completely reducing the body and eliminating polluting elements.

Inhumation and cremation also both produce remains which are fragmented or partial, and which can subsequently be subjected to further, secondary, rites, and/or deposited in a range of different contexts and places. In the Bronze Age, it would appear that inhumation and cremation burial rites were both primary burial rites – although in the case of cremation the stages of the rite could be protracted. That is to say that inhumations were interred and not subsequently moved – unless to be pushed to the side if a cist was re‐entered – and that cremation was undertaken on fleshed bodies (rather than bodies wich had been interred for a period of time before cremation took place). There are significant differences though in the way inhumations were deposited usually whole and complete, whereas deposits of cremated bones rarely comprise the expected weight of a whole person – and are thus often referred to as ‘token’ deposits.

Interpretation of the findings from the Orkney barrows sites indicates, through the inversion of materials, that properties were assigned to substances and materials, and the manner in which they are categorised and ordered speaks of a close relationship of people with the land, perhaps within which land was inalienable. The construction of the burials and the burial monuments can be seen as a re‐ordering of the world to restore onological security against the chaos that death can bring. Moreover, cremation can be viewed as part of the cycle of reproduction, and the particular configuration and use of the land in the barrow ties this practice into the resource of the land, and is indicative of an indissoluble link between people and land. In the context of the Bronze Age in Orkney, cremation can be seen as a technology which transforms one thing into another, and thereby creates new things. The practice of cremation is about regeneration and a strategy for continued fertility, cremation produces a series of substances – including cremated human bone ‐ with powerful generative properties. The strategic deployment of human remains in the context of barrow cemeteries could be seen as a strategy for continued fertility and reproduction of society (Downes 2009).

As has been detailed (above) there is a great deal of variety in the forms of burials and burial monuments , and variety also in the types of treatment of the dead and funerary rites (as well as obvious changes through the period of the Bronze Age and regional variation). The deployment of cremated remains in barrow (and cairn) cemeteries in a strategy relating to fertility and regeneration may well have been just one strategy for the disposal of human remains, which could perhaps be contrasted with the insertion of burials into earlier monuments, and natural features; here a concern with claiming and stressing links to significant ancestors , or to scared places, may have been paramount. It is apparent that there is a great deal of complexity to mortuary rites which cannot be interpreted simply as relating to one’s status or role in society – and in which contingency and ritual efficacy would have played important roles. The burial evidence from Scotland has enormous potential to answer some of these questions fundamental to our understanding of the Bronze Age.

Further research and analysis

Funerary and burial evidence from Scotland is a rich and varied archaeological resource, with some levels of preservation and unique types of burials that make the evidence outstanding in a UK context. This resource has been enhanced and increased in recent decades through development work, and more particularly through the HS funded ‘human remains call-off’ contract – and although this may have skewed distribution of finds (for eg through roads development and coastal erosion respectively), there is great potential for research into the material.

National Museums Scotland has begun to bring the material together into a Scottish human remains database; their ongoing programme of radiocarbon dating also continues to illuminate changing burial practices, although to date this has focused on burials with diagnostic forms of material culture. Stable isotope and DNA analysis have now become much cheaper and more reliable and have much to offer in terms of understanding patterns of human movement in the past, diet, kinship, etc. Such work needs to become a more routine element of mortuary analysis in order to build up a nation-wide picture. At present, for example, only a small percentage of Scottish burials (predominantly dating to the Beaker period) have been subject to stable isotope analysis and it is therefore impossible to assess whether the patterns of movement and dietary preferences identified were the norm for the Scottish Bronze Age.

Some topics for further research:

  1. Reassessment of earlier finds of cremated burials remains (pre-1980's) – routine identification of number of individuals, sex, also check for animal bones, cut marks etc.
  2. C14 dating of a wider range of cremated human remains - will help to ascertain chronology for burials without gravegoods, or with artefacts that are difficult to date for example 'flat rimmed ware'.
  3. Collation and analysis of information – better informed characterization, chronological resolution, and assessment of regional variability and traits
  4. Analysis of context and setting of various types of burials
  5. Study whole range of vessels in burials – including early BA urns, steatite urns, flat rimmed etc - assessment of sourcing of vessel material, use etc
  6. Detailed collation and reanalysis of cremation burial data – to cast light on changing ways of treating the body, cremation technologies, depositional practices, etc.
  7. Radiocarbon dating of burials/human remains from settlements/domestic contexts.
  8. Introduce stable isotope and DNA analysis as a routine element of mortuary analysis

See also the ScARF Case Study: Cremation technology and burial



Most Scottish Bronze Age burials comprise small deposits of burnt bone without grave goods suggesting that the expression of personal status was not always a major concern and that other aspects of social identity may have been equally important.

Equally possible is the suggestion of Harry Fokkens (1997) that the act of burial is to display the rank of the living and a lack of differentiation among the dead might argue for enhanced sensitivity about display and’conspicuous consumption’ among the living (look at us today).

SAIR 16:The excavation of a mound and three cist burials at Ferndale, Rendall, Orkney

by Paul RJ Duffy, with contributions by Bob Will, Caitlin Evans, Jennifer Miller, Susan Ramsay, Gavin MacGregor & Tony Pollard and illustrations by Gillian McSwan, Caitlin Evans & Jill Seivewright.

As part of the Historic Scotland Human Remains Call Off Contract, Glasgow University Archaeological Research Division (GUARD) undertook an archaeological excavation of an artificial mound and associated cists containing human remains of mid-Bronze Age date, at Ferndale, Rendall, Orkney.

A Bronze Age cist burial, located on the foreshore of Sanday in Orkney, was excavated in advance of coastal erosion during 2000. The cist was constructed from large beach flags and contained an incomplete crouched inhumation of a female of approximately 40 to 50 years of age, within a midden-like fill. The report was published in 2016 by GUARD Archaeology and is available at http://www.archaeologyreportsonline.com/PDF/ARO19_Lopness.pdf

The discovery of two Bronze Age cists in a disused quarry in Sannox, Isle of Arran by the landowner and a local resident prompted their rescue excavation under the Historic Scotland’s Human Remains Call-off Contract (HRCC). One of the cists contained a human cremation accompanied by a tripartite Food Vessel and scale-flaked flint knife while the second was empty. A radiocarbon date of 2154 - 2026 cal BC was obtained from the cremated bone dating it to the early Bronze Age. A charcoal fragment from the second cist was dated to 3520 - 3368 cal BC; which was thought to correspond to earlier activities in the area. This article sets out the results of the rescue excavation and its subsequent post-excavation analysis. The interpretation of the two cists is constrained by the circumstances of their discovery. They may not be contemporary or have the same function, and we do not know how many other cists have been lost to previous quarrying or remain undetected in the area. However the Food Vessel is of note because the majority of such pots have been found in eastern Scotland. the report can be found at http://www.archaeologyreportsonline.com/PDF/ARO10_Sannox.pdf

In March 2012 GUARD Archaeology Ltd conducted a rescue excavation, under the terms of Historic Scotland's Human Remains Call-Off Contract, when a cist was discovered during landscaping works in West Torbreck, south-west Inverness. A crouched inhumation burial of a female adult individual was recovered from the cist, along with a plain Beaker vessel and seven fragments of flint. Radiocarbon dating of the individual provided an early Bronze Age date of 1982-1889 cal BC (3592+/-22) consistent with the dating of the Beaker and lithic artefacts. The report can be found at http://www.archaeologyreportsonline.com/PDF/ARO8_WestTorbreck.pdf

Archaeological investigations at Blairbuy Farm, Dumfries and Galloway revealed evidence that cists in the Bronze Age may have been tailored for individuals during their lifetime, possibly from early in life. During investigation of a cist containing a juvenile inhumation, accidentally damaged by ploughing in April 2012, two additional empty cists were uncovered. The cists were constructed differently in terms of both material and form. Samples from all three and the surrounding subsoil were tested using multi-element analysis and this implied that the two empty cists had never been used for the burial of human remains. The skeletal remains were that of a juvenile individual with an age estimate of approximately nine to twelve years old. This child suffered malnutrition, indicated by dental enamel hypoplasia (DEH) and cribra orbitalia, both childhood stress indicators. A radiocarbon date of 2027 to 1886 cal BC (2σ) was obtained from the left ulna, placing this individual's death in the early Bronze Age period. The report can be found at http://www.archaeologyreportsonline.com/PDF/ARO6_Blairbuy.pdf

A short cist was accidentally discovered in September 2011 during the construction of a septic tank at Keas Cottage, Spinningdale, Sutherland. The cist, built within a substantial pit, contained the remains of a crouched inhumation of a middle-aged adult female (35-50 years) with signs of spinal joint disease. A tripartite food vessel urn was placed to the west of her skull and some wool or sheep skin was also recovered from under the skeletal remains. A radiocarbon date of 2051-1911 cal BC and 2151-2018 cal BC was obtained from a bone and charcoal fragments respectively, placing the cist in the early Bronze Age period. The report can be found at http://www.archaeologyreportsonline.com/PDF/ARO5_Keas_Cottage.pdf

Between November 2010 and June 2011, archaeological investigations were carried out on the summit of Soutra Hill in advance of a proposed extension to the existing Soutra quarry. The investigations revealed an Early Bronze Age burial cairn at the summit with the remains of a small timber circle nearby. The cairn contained a cremation burial, fragments of two Beaker pots and evidence of at least two phases of use over a prolonged period of time. The newly emerging archaeological context for Soutra Hill suggests that this was a significant place overlooking the Lothian plain in the Early Bronze Age landscape of south-east Scotland. The report can be found at http://www.archaeologyreportsonline.com/PDF/ARO3_Soutra.pdf