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21 March 2009
Bronze Age burial site damaged by Scottish Police

Police officers in northern Scotland have been accused of vandalising a Bronze Age site through ignorance after they removed bones and textiles from a 4,000-year-old burial chamber, apparently because they thought they were investigating a crime scene.
     The Bronze Age burial chamber was accidentally uncovered on 26th January in a field at Langwell Farm (Sutherland). Farmer Jonathan Hampton immediately alerted Historic Scotland and also decided to notify police. But he claims officers completely botched up the find and is so angry that he has now decided to speak out. He says that when they were left alone at the site, the officers scooped up a number of the bones into a plastic bag, leaving part of the remains behind. And Mr Hampton alleges some important woven material he and others spotted in the grave has now gone missing. "I just couldn't believe it when I discovered what they had done. I was in the depths of despair," he said. Police declined to respond to Mr Hampton's allegations. Historic Scotland defended the police actions, and said the force had 'an obligation to investigate an unexplained death', adding that the site was not a scheduled monument, and so was not subject to the heritage organisation's protection.
     Though the bones have subsequently been handed over to Historic Scotland, the farmer remains adamant that some of the textiles, and basket-like materials have been lost. While police sources have confirmed that no foul play is suspected, many archaeologists were aghast at the force's behaviour. Jim Crow, Professor of Archaeology at the University of Edinburgh said that a find of textiles in a Bronze Age grave was unique in Scotland and extremely rare anywhere in Britain. "If they were dealing with a real crime, they shouldn't disturb the scene in any case. But in any circumstances, people take human remains very seriously and there are a whole range of concerns, not just among archaeologists but among society at large. There are very strict procedures, whether the remains are ancient or modern," Professor Crow said.
     A few weeks after the discovery, Historic Scotland called in Glasgow University Archaeological Research Division (GUARD) to excavate the grave. Dr Olivia Lelong arrived at Langwell on 6th February and worked on the site until 12th February. She said it was an exciting find. "Bronze Age burial cists are not extremely unusual finds, but they're not common either and it's very exciting to discover another. What makes this one outstanding and pretty much unique is all the organic material preserved with the bones," she said. "The bones were fairly intact but were covered with a white powder which we are trying to identify. It could be a product from the bone itself or it could be material that had been put over the body. There was really quite remarkable preservation of organic material in the cist. There was a basket-like material round the head and also the lower thighs and it is really rare to find that sort of thing. We also recovered fragments of wood." Dr Lelong said the bones would be radiocarbon dated in a bid to establish their exact age, but she estimated they went back to at least 2000 BCE. Tests are also to be carried out in the hope of determining the gender and height of the person. Dr Lelong said there could be other cists in the same area.
     Dr McCullagh of Historic Scotland said that Mr Hampton had followed correct procedure in contacting police in the first instance. However, he added that the pictures of the grave taken by Mr Hampton's digger driver differed markedly to those later taken by archaeologists.
     
Sources: The Northern Times (12 March 2009), The Times (17 March 2009)

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