|25 November 2004
Bronze Age cemetery unearthed in Scotland
Archaeologists have hailed the discovery of an early Bronze Age cemetery as one of the most significant in Britain after new technology enabled them to pinpoint the date of graves. The remains of more than 35 men, women and children who lived between 1900 BCE and 1600 BCE have been uncovered at a previously unknown settlement at Skilmafilly, north-west of Peterhead in Aberdeenshire (Scotland).
Among the cremated bones, which were buried in pottery urns, scientists found a wide range of artefacts which signify that the community had widespread trade links with other parts of Britain and probably shared a common belief in an afterlife.
With no previous indications of the burial site, either from ground-level observations or aerial photographs, the cluster of 29 cremation pits was found were stumbled on by chance by workmen constructing a gas pipeline. The project - which has already uncovered the foundations of an even earlier ritual timber circle believed to date back to about the same year as Stonehenge and an iron ore ringditch house - was suspended while archaeologists conducted an in-depth survey.
The investigations have revealed several important artefacts from the period. An ornate stone bead was found, as were bone pins and antler toggles, probably used to fasten the garments of the deceased, which went on the pyre with the person. A skilfully crafted flint leaf-shaped knife was discovered with the ashes of an old man, and two golden eagle talons were found in an urn containing the remains of a child and two adults. It is the first time the talons of a golden eagle have been found in a Bronze Age burial site, and experts believe it indicates that the community believed in an after-life, with their purpose perhaps being to protect the child in the journey to the next world. It also serves to indicate the prestige in which the bird was held at the time, possibly being revered and serving as a religious totem.
"This is really a very significant and exciting find, as it is the most comprehensively carbon-dated Bronze Age cremation cemetery in Britain," said Melanie Johnson, post excavation manager at CFA Archaeology, who carried out the work. "We have a whole range of people buried there, from children and adolescents to adult males and females. Another pit contains a man older than 45, which in those days would have been quite old. It is a good cross-section of the community and, overall, it appears that they weren't really in that bad a shape for the time."
Previously unused radio carbon dating techniques developed at Groningen University in the Netherlands allowed researchers at CFA Archaeology in Musselburgh to date the ashes and bones accurately. Dr Melanie Johnson said: "The fact that we have dated every single person that we found cremated is hugely significant in archaeological terms. We do not stumble across sites like this very often, and it also helps with dating all the objects that were found with the deceased." Many of those buried were suffering medical ailments, including cranial pitting, dental disease, spinal degeneration and arthritis, all of which were relatively common at the time and do not indicate that the community was in uncommonly poor health.
The remains represent burials over several generations who probably farmed the area and lived in roundhouses big enough for six or seven people. Combined with evidence from other excavated sites, archaeologists are able to piece together how trade links between communities were forged. "We know they were making bronze in Scotland from tin, which would have been imported from Devon or Cornwall," said Alison Sheridan, the head of prehistory at the National Museums of Scotland. There are huge gaps in our knowledge but by carbon-dating Bronze Age burials we will be able to get a better chronology of who was doing what in the second millennium BCE."
The pottery urns are now being kept at Marischal Museum in Aberdeen while the rest of the artefacts are at the CFA Archaeology headquarters in Musselburgh.
Sources: The Scotsman (24 November 2004), ic Scotland,The Independent (25 November 2004)
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