|23 September 2003
Earliest British Cemetery
Aveline’s Hole, a cave near Burrington Combe in the Mendip Hills (England), has been scientifically dated as the earliest known cemetery in Britain. Radiocarbon dating of bone fragments originally removed from the cave in the early years of the 20th Century has confirmed a dating between 10,200 and 10,400 years old. Dr. David Miles, Chief Archaeologist of English Heritage which commissioned the dating, said: “The dates show that some people in Britain were burying their dead in a cemetery in the Early Mesolithic period, 4,000 years earlier than had been previously thought. Although late Mesolithic cemeteries have been found on the continent, none have been recognised over here”. The age of the specimens means that Aveline’s Hole was of international significance and would revise ideas about society during the Mesolithic.
A sealed cave with 70 – 100 skeletons was first recorded in 1797. In 1914, when the University of Bristol Spelaeological Society began excavations, remains from only 21 individuals were found. Early reports were of a ‘ceremonial burial’ with a skeleton on a disused hearth, together with red ocre, animal teeth (some perforated for use in ornamentation) and fossil ammonites. The specimens were displayed in the UBSS museum but most of the collection and the excavation records were destroyed by bombing in 1940. The new radiocarbon measurements were part of a comprehensive re-analysis of the remaining specimens by a team headed by Dr. Rick Schulting of Queen’s University, Belfast.
“We know very little about Mesolithic society as so few remains have been found that supply sufficient information. Aveline’s Hole is giving us the opportunity to reconstruct something of the diet, health and life-style of these enigmatic people,” says Dr. Schulting. Strontium levels show that the people came from close by. Tests have also produced evidence of malnutrition. Adults in the group, which also included young children and two infants, were only about five feet tall and slightly built. Molar wear indicates a short lifespan, with none of the extreme wear expected from elderly hunter-gatherers. There are signs of osteoarthritis in one elbow, and lines in teeth indicate periods of poor nutrition or chronic illness in childhood. There is little evidence of fish in their diet, even fresh water varieties.
The burial dates to the time when Britain was emerging from the last Ice Age and the world’s oceans were rising. Even so it is thought that there was still a land bridge between Britain and France and that it would have been possible for local people to have walked across what is now the Bristol Channel to Wales.
(Editor’s note: Burrington Combe is the valley immediately north of Cheddar Gorge. In 1903 Cheddar Man, the oldest complete skeleton ever found in Britain (circa 7150 BCE) was discovered in Gough’s Cave in Cheddar Gorge. In 1997, mitochondrial DNA tests revealed that a descendant of Cheddar Man (a history teacher!) still lived in the village of Cheddar, less than a mile from Gough’s Cave.)
Source: BBC News (23 September 2003)
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