Burial

Despite the regular occurrence of stray fragments of human bone on settlements, formal Iron Age burials are notoriously rare in Britain prior to the first century AD By the end of the Bronze Age cremation was the dominant burial rite throughout Britain, the ashes often being placed in pots, pits or cairns. Around 700 BC, however, cremations more or less disappear from the archaeological record.

Some indications are now appearing, however, to suggest that some simple burials and small cemeteries may date to the first millennium BC. Just outside the fort at Broxmouth in East Lothian, for example, lay nine rough oval grave pits, some lined with stones. The dead were placed on their sides, crouched or with their legs lightly flexed, and seem to have been buried during the last three centuries BC. Similar graves from the nearby palisaded enclosure of Dryburn Bridge may date from two or three centuries earlier.The Argyll cave burials, mentioned earlier, may represent another local variant in this tradition of small community cemeteries. Before the advent of radiocarbon dating, such small cemeteries lacking grave goods could not have been ascribed to any particular period, so many more may have gone unrecognized.

This tradition of small community burials fits in well with the wider picture of society during the middle centuries of the millennium. This, after all, was the period of social fragmentation, when communities kept to themselves and when so much labour was spent on building forts, enclosures and other, essentially communal projects.

These cemeteries, however, cannot account for all Iron Age deaths. Burial at sea, or in rivers, might accord with the Celtic veneration of watery places and would leave little or no physical trace. Similarly, cremation might have simply continued to be practised, but the ashes scattered rather than buried (although we might expect to find some evidence of funeral pyres).

Celtic Cist Burial Excavation
78 A cist burial under excavation at Moredun, Edinburgh, in 1903. Crown copyright: RCAHMS.

Another possibility favoured by many archaeologists is excarnation, where the dead are exposed (for example on scaffolds or trees, or in enclosures or caves) until the flesh has rotted from the bones. Such rites, aimed at freeing the spirit from the body, were practised until quite recently by native Americans and can be discerned among the first farming groups in Scotland. However, no obvious Iron Age excarnation sites have been found and many burials manifestly have not been subject to exposure. Indeed, if this rite had persisted into the Roman period it is likely that Caesar and others would have highlighted it as a further example of Celtic barbarity.

Our understanding of Iron Age burial practices in Scotland has been considerably augmented by two very recent finds. The excavation in 2003 of a long stone cist at Alloa, in Clackmannanshire, revealed the body of an adult male buried with a sword and spear, as well as other metal objects (76). The sword is of a La Tene type, certainly predating the Roman period and perhaps as early as the first century BC, although it may not of course have been new when buried. Nonetheless, this burial currently stands alone, representing a high-status male 'warrior', buried with full ceremony, at a time when most of the dead were being disposed of rather differently.

Equally dramatic was a discovery made in 2001 at Newbridge near Edinburgh (80). Here was a human burial accompanied by a complete and intact chariot, or elaborate cart, set in a specially dug 'chariot-shaped' pit. Although the remains were poorly preserved, they are of considerable significance. Chariot burials are found in only one other part of Britain; a limited area of East Yorkshire, where they form the highest-status rite within a wider tradition of burial in square barrow cemeteries. Yet the specific details of the Newbridge burial, and in particular the deposition of a complete rather than dismantled chariot, link it more closely to chariot burials in continental Europe, especially those of the Belgian Ardennes.

Cist burials of the early centuries AD

A great many more burials can be ascribed to the first and second centuries AD, most comprising inhumations, or very occasionally cremations, in cists. These were essentially stone boxes lining pits or occasionally built into cairns, reviving a mode of burial common in the Early Bronze Age.

By far the most unusual of these burials was found at Lochend in East Lothian, where a large stone cist was found, containing the bones of at least twenty adults and a child. The under-representation of children contrasts with the situation in the rather earlier Sculptors Cave and the Oban cave cemeteries and reflects a new selectivity

Ackergill Cemetery Excavation

79 The square barrow cetnetery at Red Castle, during excavations in 1997. The most prominent of the barrows lies to the centre left. The central grave pit is clearly visible, as are the gaps in the ditch at each corner.

Crown copyright: RCA HMS.

79 The square barrow cetnetery at Red Castle, during excavations in 1997. The most prominent of the barrows lies to the centre left. The central grave pit is clearly visible, as are the gaps in the ditch at each corner.

Crown copyright: RCA HMS.

about which members of the community were entitled to particular modes of burial. The bodies had been put into the cist one by one over many years. On each occasion one of the slabs was raised, the new burial was inserted and covered with a thin layer of earth and stones. Earlier burials were pushed back into the corners, creating a mass of jumbled bones. Right from the start this seems to have been intended as a burial 'vault' (rather than a single grave which simply grew and grew), since the first burial, a woman in her forties, had been tucked into a fairly small part of the cist floor. Most of the Lochend bodies had been buried without obvious grave goods, but two iron pins and a red enamel stud found within the grave suggest that some of the burials took place in the first or second centuries AD. The communal nature of the burial rite, and the mixing up of the bones in the cist, conies as something of a surprise for this period, recalling as it does the burial practices of the earliest farming communities in Scotland, around 3000 years earlier (see Patrick Ashniore's Neolithic and Bronze Age Scotland in this series).

Elsewhere, multiple cist burials are very rare. At Moredun in Midlothian two adults were buried together in a short cist along with jewellery dated to around the second century AD (78), while a cairn at Ackergill in Caithness contained at least four individuals, one wearing a chain of likely first- or second-century AD date. The closest parallel for Lochend, however, was found almost 50 miles south on the Northumbrian coast at Beadnell, where another cist tomb was found to contain the bones of around eighteen people.

Many simpler cist burials date to the same general period as Lochend. A recently excavated inhumation from Gabon in Lewis was accompanied by a small vessel with incised decoration, similar to material from wheelhouses of the first centuries 13C and Al). Another, found some years ago during the construction of Stornoway airport, was accompanied by three pots, a weaving comb and spindle whorl. At Camelon, beside a Roman fort just north of the Antonine Wall, a crude stone cist contained the remains of a man buried with an iron sword. The sword was probably a Roman infantry gladius, although the owner may well have been a Celt. Two further corpses from the same area were found buried with two spears, a sword and the remains of a shield.

Perhaps even more intriguing than these warrior burials was a long cist at Burnmouth. in Berwickshire, which contained an adult laid out on his right side with a joint of pork, an iron knife and two bronze spoons (77). These spoons were of a distinctive form similar to pairs from France, Ireland and England, and seem to date to AD 5(>—1 (H). In every case, one of the spoons is perforated while the other is incised with a cross, and the handles bear curvilinear Celtic decoration.The virtually identical design of these items, in the absence of any functional explanation, seems to argue for a shared religious symbolism and perhaps similar religious rites across a wide area. Perhaps the dead man at Burnmouth was involved in the ritual life of his community; perhaps he was even a Druid.

Barrow cemeteries

Most of the cists described above have been found singly and with no indication of above-ground markers, covering mounds or barrows. However, in recent years numerous barrow cemeteries have been discovered in eastern Scotland, north of the Forth. The ditches of round and square barrows are visible from the air as cropmarks, often in small clustered cemeteries (79). Square barrow cemeteries dating to the Iron Age have long been known in eastern Yorkshire and in northeast France. In both areas the dead were buried with their prized possessions, occasionally including dismantled chariots. More recently, barrows of similar appearance have been found as far afield as Slovakia and Hungary.

At Boysack Mills in Angus one square barrow was found to have covered a deep central grave pit. At the base lay a wooden coffin containing a skeleton, laid out flat with an iron pin that had formerly held

80 Excavations on the outskirts of Edinburgh in 2001 revealed Scotland's only known chariot burial. It dates to around 520-510 BC. The photograph shows the burial pit, cut to fit the complete vehicle. Unfortunately, other than a fragment of human tooth enamel, there was no trace o f the corpse, which had long since decayed. Burials of this type are very rare in Britain, aside from a cluster in eastern Yorkshire where the dead were often buried with grave goods as well as the chariot itself. Otherwise chariot burial is essentially a continental European rite, with concentrations in northern France. The burial of the complete chariot at Newbridge links it more closely to French and Belgian examples, since the east Yorkshire vehicles were usually dismantled before burial. Like the Alloa 'warrior' burial (76) the Newbridge grave was associated with a long-disused Bronze Age cemetery. © National Museums of Scotland.

81 Tlie floor of the wlteelhouse at Sottas contained a mass of pits filled with votive offerings. Some were probably foundation deposits, dug when the house was built while others, particularly those containing sheep, cattle and pigs, were placed in small pits under the sand floor while the building was occupied and may have marked particular events or projects in the life of the community.

Sheep

Cattle

Cattle

Artefacts

• Burial ° Partial Burial Cremation

■ Pot o Bone Obj 0 Other its clothing in place. Although this pin dates to the first or second centuries Al). detailed comparisons with upstanding square and rectangular cairns, found mostly in northern Scotland, suggest that the use of these cemeteries may extend well into the post-Roman period, as is the case for the recently excavated site of Red Castle in Angus (79).

• Burial ° Partial Burial Cremation

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