British Archaeologists Find First Ever Evidence of Cremation in Mesolithic era
Archaeologists have just a few ways to study how humans lived in the distant past; one of them is how people handled bodies after their loved ones died.
In southeast England about 7,600 years ago, researchers think the survivors of a dead person burned the body in a very hot fire. This is the first case of cremation archaeologists have found from the Mesolithic period in Britain.
“Burnt material, including 118g (4 ounces) of cremated bone, was placed into a pit with a diameter of about a metre (3.2 feet), and then backfilled with soil,” says the website of Oxford Archaeology, which conducted the dig in the Langford, Exxex, area. “Three radiocarbon dates, two from bone fragments and one from charcoal, have confirmed a date of 5,600BC for the deposit. Dr Louise Loe, head of burials at Oxford Archaeology, analysed the bone and determined that it represents the remains of at least one adult, although the total weight of bone is only about 7% of what would be expected from a complete individual. This, together with the large amount of charcoal present, suggests that the material represents a deposit of some of the remains from a pyre, and not all of the cremated bone from it.”
Only about 20 human bones from the Mesolithic age, 10000 to 4000 BC, have been found in all of Britain. None of these bones had been cremated.
Remnants of burned bones from 7,600 years ago in Essex, England (Oxford Archaeology)
“We were expecting this cremation to date to the Bronze Age: we were so surprised when the first radiocarbon date came back as Mesolithic that we did two more to double-check,” said Nick Gilmour, who headed the dig.
Three struck-flint tools were found in the burial pit and others on the site nearby. None was a finished tool but all were sharp and could have been used for cutting.
The burial pit was found when Oxford Archaeology was examining the area in preparation for construction of a water pipeline. During the course of the examinations, the investigators also found a Bronze Age burial mound, a Roman site, Saxon settlement and a building from the medieval period.
“This significant find sheds new light on early human society in Britain,” says Oxford Archaeology. “The Mesolithic was a time when people were largely nomadic hunter gatherers, before farming had arrived and little is accurately known of their beliefs. This deposit shows that people had the required understanding of fire and pyre technology to achieve the high temperature required for complete combustion of the corpse – probably greater than 600 degrees centigrade (1,112 F). It also hints at a belief system where the dead were sufficiently respected that they were not simply abandoned (as has been previously believed), and that time and resources were invested in funerary practices despite a mobile hand-to-mouth existence.”
Bones, antlers and stones were used to make tools during the Mesolithic. These artifacts and shells from middens or garbage heaps were found in Scotland. (Nachosan/Wikimedia Commons)
While these are very old bone remnants, they are far from the earliest humans in the British Isles. The British Museum did studies a few years ago by dating stone tools and showed early humans settled in Britain about 800,000 years ago.
“A trove of flint tools found near Happisburgh in the eastern English county of Norfolk marks Homo sapiens' earliest known settlement in a location where winter temperatures fell below zero degrees Celsius (minus 32 degrees Fahrenheit),” Discovery reported.
“The discovery implies our ancestors some 26,000 generations ago survived climates like those of southern Sweden today, perhaps without the comforting benefit of fire or clothes, the study says. Until now, almost every archaeological site testifying to habitation across Eurasia during the Early Pleistocene period, 1.8 million to 780,000 years ago, has been below the 45th parallel, suggesting a natural temperature barrier to further northward expansion. All these sites were either tropical, savanna or Mediterranean in character.”
This Paleolithic cave painting is the only one from that early that shows people clothed. It is from the Magdalenian period of 17,000 to 12,000 years ago. This painting predates the cremation of 7,600 years ago in Britain. (Wellcome Images/Wikimedia Commons)
By the time of the Mesolithic, rock art in various places shows some people clothed. In warmer regions they may be depicted with loincloths. Because clothing is made from extremely soft organic material, it deteriorates quickly and none of it from the Mesolithic has ever been found. So researchers can only speculate about what people wore in what is now Britain, though it is probably safe to assume if people had the technology to make bows, arrows and other stone tools they could have fashioned some sort of clothing out of the skins of animals they hunted.
Scientists say there was a land bridge in prehistoric times between what are now southeast England and northwest France, so nautical technology was not necessary for humans to have made it to Britain ages ago.
Featured image: Vision of Iron Age cremation. Credit: Niels Bach
By Mark Miller