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Cremated bones in 4000-year-old cist burial - Scotland

Cremated bones in 4000-year-old cist burial found hanging from Scottish cliff

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Archaeologists have discovered cremated human remains in a Bronze Age cist burial hanging precariously from a cliff edge on Scotland’s Isle of Arran. One of the bones has been dated to between 2154 and 2026 BC and contained evidence of an osteoma benign tumour, a condition in which a new piece of bone grows on another piece of bone.  The tumour would have caused the bearer distress but would not have been the cause of death. The discovery provides insights into burial practices in Scotland 4,000 years ago.

The finding follows a series of ‘cliff edge discoveries’ in recent months, which have emerged due to a spate of bad weather and an ongoing process of cliff erosion occurring along British coasts. For example, last month, the 800-year-old remains of a medieval monk were found poking out of a cliff face in South Wales.

The latest discovery was found within a quarry at Sannox on Scotland’s Isle of Arran, which is one of the most southerly Scottish islands and has been continuously inhabited since the early Neolithic period. 

The bones were secured in a daring rescue mission on the eroding face of a sand cliff at Sannox, on the Isle of Arran, where experts used a mechanical cherry picker and balanced on harnesses to remove two cists.

Recovery of the burial cists

Recovery of the burial cists. Photo credit: UARD Archaeology Ltd

In addition to human remains, archaeologists discovered a food vessel decorated with half-circle motives along the rim and a sharp knife, made with Yorkshire flint.  The decorative motifs on the vessel match those typically found on the east coast of Scotland, suggesting that the object may have been traded.

The food vessel found in the cist - Scotland

The food vessel found in the cist. Photo credit: GUARD Archaeology Ltd

Beverley Ballin Smith, an archaeology researcher who works with National Museums Scotland, says the discovery of the vessel is unusual. “In the suite of Bronze Age funeral ceramics, food vessels are not as common as beakers and urns and are less well known,” she explains. “In mainland Scotland, they are frequently associated with cists with cremations.”

An analysis of the human remains, which belonged to an adult of indeterminate gender, revealed cracks and warping of the bones.  This suggests the body still had its flesh when it was cremated, and was therefore cremated swiftly after death before decomposition had taken place.  The individual appears to have been created on a large pyre in a service accompanied by a large quantity of burning wood.

The discovery of these cists confirms a long tradition of burial practice in the area which extended from the Neolithic throughout the Bronze Age. The cists, human remains, and grave goods have “provided a window into the complex and variable early Bronze Age mortuary practice. The ritual of cremation was an important rite and the one most frequently practiced during the Bronze Age,” wrote the study authors in a report published online . At a time when wood was a scarce resource in Scotland, the size of the pyre shows the importance given to funerals by Bronze Age society. A “good ceremony” could have enhanced the status of the individual or their community.

Featured image: Cist 1 shows the location of the cremation and imprint of the food vessel, facing south. Photo credit: Guard Archaeology Ltd.

By April Holloway

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