The Middle Bronze Age (c. 1600–1150 cal bc) in Britain is characterised in broad archaeological narratives by the major expansion of settlements and bronze and gold metalwork hoards throughout Britain, as well as the construction of field systems in central and southern England (Darvill Reference Darvill1996, 108–32; Bradley Reference Bradley2007, ch. 4; Yates Reference Yates2007; Cunliffe Reference Cunliffe2013, 266–7). Contemporaneously, the funerary record is overwhelmingly dominated by cremation burials. The presence of certain Middle Bronze Age cremation sites such as Itford Hill, Sussex (Holden Reference Holden1972); Stansted Airport, Essex (Cooke et al. Reference Cooke, Brown, Phillpotts, Allen and Nichols2008); Harehope, Peebleshire (Jobey Reference Jobey1980); and Black Patch, East Sussex (Drewett Reference Drewett1982) in close proximity to contemporary settlements has encouraged interpretations that they contain entire communities from these nearby settlements (eg, Bradley Reference Bradley1981; Reference Bradley2007, 185; Darvill Reference Darvill1996, 116–17; 2010, 222). The interpretation that Middle Bronze Age funerary sites throughout Britain are representative of community cemeteries – groups of cremation burials that are associated with a specific community and contain all members of that community – can be traced back to a seminal paper by Ellison (Reference Ellison1980). However, despite the immense increase in the excavation and radiocarbon dating of Middle Bronze Age cremation burials over the last 35 years, and the refinement and widespread application of osteological analyses on cremated bone, there has been no reappraisal of the community cemetery interpretation. Similarly, there has never been an analysis of Middle Bronze Age cremation burials that goes beyond a region larger than southern Britain.
In the last few years, there has been a substantial advance in the analysis and interpretation of cremated human remains. In particular, there has been an increasing emphasis on: the standardisation of recording (McKinley Reference McKinley2004); the development of new analytical and experimental methods (eg, Marshall Reference Marshall2011; Depierre Reference Depierre2014; Kuijt et al. Reference Kuijt, Quinn and Cooney2014; Snoeck et al. Reference Snoeck, Lee-Thorp, Schulting, de Jong, Debouge and Mattielli2015; Thompson Reference Thompson2015); as well as an understanding of the highly varied chaîne opératoires in the creation of superficially similar cremation burials (eg, Rebay-Salisbury Reference Rebay-Salisbury2010; Marshall Reference Marshall2011; Appleby Reference Appleby2013; Depierre Reference Depierre2014). There is also now a broader recognition of the importance of analysing this funerary phenomenon which has been far too frequently overlooked in broader mortuary studies due to it being less visible in the archaeological record (see Rebay-Salisbury Reference Rebay-Salisbury2010; Kuijt et al. Reference Kuijt, Quinn and Cooney2014; Barceló et al. Reference Barceló, Capuzzo and Bogdanović2014; Capuzzo & Barceló Reference Capuzzo and Barceló2015; Bradbury et al. Reference Bradbury, Davies, Jay, Phillip, Roberts and Scarre2016; Cerezo-Román et al. Reference Cerezo-Román, Wessman and Williams2017).
This paper investigates all available evidence for Middle Bronze Age cremations in Britain in order to evaluate the characteristics of cremation burial during the period and whether cremation cemeteries represented the majority of Middle Bronze Age people. It explores the size, duration, distribution, and associated structures of Middle Bronze Age cremation cemeteries, and subsequently analyses individual cremation burials, both in terms of their associated material culture and the osteological evidence relating to demography. Finally, this paper analyses the cremation burial process, encompassing the evidence for pyres, the burning of the deceased, and the collection and deposition of the remains.
URNS, INVADERS, & COMMUNITIES – PAST SCHOLARSHIP ON MIDDLE BRONZE AGE CREMATIONS IN BRITAIN
The earliest studies of prehistoric cremation burials in Britain focused on their chronology. Cremation burial in cemeteries was debated as being a Bronze Age tradition from the early 19th century (Miles Reference Miles1826; Bateman Reference Bateman1861, 279–87; Lubbock Reference Lubbock1865, 313; Stanley Reference Stanley1867; Pennington Reference Pennington1875). During this time, numerous sites containing urned and unurned, as well as single and multiple, cremation deposits were being identified (eg, Miles Reference Miles1826; Bateman Reference Bateman1861). It was initially thought that urned cremation burials had been deposited in an earlier phase of the Bronze Age, although this was based solely on the relative paucity of their grave goods. These social evolutionary interpretative schema were soon supplanted by the development of a Bronze Age temporal framework based on pottery typo-chronologies. Abercromby’s (Reference Abercromby1912) landmark corpus of British and Irish pottery formalised many Bronze Age pottery types and identified an ‘overhanging rim’ type, which later became the Collared Urn type (see Longworth Reference Longworth1961; Reference Longworth1984) and the ‘Deverel-Rimbury’ forms (Abercromby Reference Abercromby1912, 7–14). These were attributed to the Middle and Late/later Bronze Ages, respectively, and both contained cremation burials. The identification of these two ceramic types provided the foundation for all subsequent scholarship on Middle Bronze Age cremation cemeteries in Britain. As was typical in the late 19th/early 20th century, the cemeteries were interpreted within invasion-based paradigms (eg, Clay Reference Clay1927; Kendrick & Hawkes Reference Kendrick and Hawkes1932, 107; Childe Reference Childe1947, 188). There is little osteological detail in the late 19th or early 20th century research on the cremated remains, many of which were not retained.
It was not until the advent of radiocarbon dating in the mid-20th century that the deposition of cremations within broader cemeteries was shown to pre-date the Urnfield funerary tradition in continental Europe (Ellison Reference Ellison1975, 373; Barrett Reference Barrett1976; cf. Sørensen & Rebay-Salisbury Reference Sørensen and Rebay2008). During the late 20th century, the greater chronological accuracy achieved through increasing radiocarbon dating and refining typo-chronologies (eg, M.A. Smith Reference Smith1959, 155–9, 185; I.F. Smith Reference Smith1961; Calkin Reference Calkin1962) did not substantially change the relative temporal sequence of funerary practices in Britain. Cremation cemeteries in Britain with Collared, and occasionally Food Vessel, urns were dated to the Early Bronze Age: Needham’s Period 3 (2050–1700 cal bc) (Needham Reference Needham1996, 130–2). Subsequently, the widespread use of flat and barrow sites with Deverel-Rimbury urned and unurned cremations occurred during the Middle Bronze Age: Needham’s Period 4 and 5 (1700–1150 cal bc) (Needham Reference Needham1996, 132–4). This Middle Bronze Age pottery and practice was suggested to continue until the Late Bronze Age (1150–800 cal bc) (Atkinson Reference Atkinson1972, 115; Burgess Reference Burgess1980, 158–9; Brück Reference Brück1995; Bradley Reference Bradley2007) at which time, as Brück (Reference Brück1995, 264) has demonstrated, cremations shift their location far closer to settlements and take on a different, less formalised role.
It is notable that few works before the 1980s attempted a dedicated synthesis or explanation of Middle Bronze Age cremation burial practice in Britain. Instead, research identified the generalities of this burial form. In summary, burials were found with increasingly fewer grave goods, often in larger groups, and their pottery potentially represented certain groups with shared identities. Early contextual analyses were limited to suggestions of a preference for the placing of cremations in the southern section of barrow sites and the recognition that cremation cemeteries were found both in barrows and flat sites (Preston & Hawkes Reference Preston and Hawkes1933).
It was only with the work of Burgess (Reference Burgess1980) and Bradley (Reference Bradley1981) that the landscape context of cremation burials was studied more thoroughly – albeit with the analyses being published only in summary. These two scholars looked at the geographical location of Middle Bronze Age cremation cemeteries in southern England and concluded that many were found on good agricultural land and were geographically distinct to the burials of the Early Bronze Age Wessex tradition. This pattern was interpreted as a means to express property rights over preferable land ‘at a time of more intensive farming’ (Bradley Reference Bradley1981, 103). In contrast, Ellison (Reference Ellison1980) focused on analysing the immediate character and locations of Middle Bronze Age cremations within the cemeteries themselves. This highly influential paper investigated the size, demographics, and funerary contexts of 48 multiple cremation sites, within a broader database of 480 sites and 608 urns across southern England, dated largely through the presence of Deverel-Rimbury pottery (Ellison Reference Ellison1980). However, the majority of the underlying data and data analysis was only available within her unpublished doctoral thesis (Ellison Reference Ellison1975) and, as with Bradley’s (Reference Bradley1981) paper, this relative inaccessibility has prevented a thorough re-evaluation of those original findings. Both Bradley’s (Reference Bradley1981) and Ellison’s (Reference Ellison1980) research suggested that the rise of cremation cemeteries heralded a new social dynamic within Britain that lacked evidence of social distinctions. They highlighted the challenge of reconciling this funerary tradition with the settlement evidence and metalwork hoards that demonstrated new hierarchies (see papers in Barrett & Bradley Reference Barrett and Bradley1980).
These two publications represent the last dedicated projects studying Middle Bronze Age cremations beyond site specific reports or county summaries. Subsequent scholarship appears in regional syntheses of Bronze Age burial practices (eg, Allen et al. Reference Allen, Harman and Wheeler1987; Mullin Reference Mullin2003; Robinson Reference Robinson2007; Cooper Reference Cooper2016) or, in one case, as part of a broader synthetic analysis of later prehistoric funerary practices in southern Britain (Bristow Reference Bristow1998; Reference Bristow2001). The publications emerging from the many Middle Bronze Age cremation cemeteries excavated since 1981 are, with the exception of the monograph on the site of Eye Kettleby, Leicestershire (Finn Reference Finn2011), typically sections within broader monographs, site reports in county journals, or unpublished interim reports. Prior to this paper, no studies have re-analysed all sites across Britain excavated before and after 1981 together or challenged substantially the interpretations of Bradley (Reference Bradley1981) and Ellison (Reference Ellison1980).
The purpose of this study is to reassess all Middle Bronze Age (c. 1600–1150 cal bc) cremation sites in mainland Britain as well as those islands in close proximity, including the Isles of Scilly and Isle of Wight, the Western Isles, Shetland, and Orkney (Appx 1). The aim is to evaluate whether existing community-based models of cremation cemeteries are appropriate.
Initial data collection identified over 7000 cremation burials – defined as a single cut feature containing cremated remains from one or more individuals – from 1696 sites in Britain that had the potential to be Middle Bronze Age in date. This potential was based on the burial sites’ features, material culture, or radiocarbon dates. Many sites had little or no diagnostic information to prove the sites’ period of use. As such, a key challenge to this study was filtering this corpus down to only those sites where at least one cremation burial could be placed within the Middle Bronze Age with a high degree of confidence.
Of the 1696 cremation burial sites that had the potential to be Middle Bronze Age, 417 sites had at least one radiocarbon date associated with a cremation burial. Only 47 of these 417 sites contained burials that could be confidently assigned to the Middle Bronze Age through a direct radiocarbon date, rather than a phase that crossed into either the Early or Late Bronze Age.
It has been shown that radiocarbon dates obtained from cremated human bone can be offset by the inbuilt ages of the material used in the cremation pyre (Snoeck et al. Reference Snoeck, Brock and Schulting2014; Reference Snoeck, Lee-Thorp, Schulting, de Jong, Debouge and Mattielli2015). This effect can be negligible if the material used is of a similar age to the individual, but can also distort the date of a cremation significantly in other cases, particularly if old wood, coal, or peat was used. Consequently, 21 cremation burials (at nine sites) were reclassified as Middle Bronze Age (their dates being only slightly older than 1600 cal bc), as there was also evidence for other Middle Bronze Age cremation burials on the site. This consideration in mind, the number of cremation burials sites containing at least one burial radiocarbon dated to the Middle Bronze Age rises to 56.
Of the 1696 potentially Middle Bronze Age sites, the remaining 1640 cremation burial sites which did not have at least one burial directly radiocarbon dated solely to the Middle Bronze Age were investigated for associations with typo-chronologically diagnostic material. There were 321 cremation burial sites that lacked sufficient diagnostic material and so were discounted from this study. The remaining 1319 contained at least one cremation burial which could be confidently dated to a typo-chronological range. There were 322 sites that contained at least one burial whose associated material is dated, according to current typo-chronological schemes, to the Middle Bronze Age.
When combined, the number of individual sites that contained at least one cremation burial confidently dated by radiocarbon (56 sites containing 673 individuals) or typo-chronology (322 sites containing 2460 individuals) to the Middle Bronze Age is 378 (see dating criteria details in Appx S1). These 378 sites contain 3133 individual burials, representing a minimum number of 3242 individuals that may be confidently dated to between c. 1600 and 1150 cal bc. These are the securely dated Middle Bronze Age cremation burial data which form the analytical core of this paper. Notably, these 378 sites also contained 1319 further burials which could not be confidently dated to the Middle Bronze Age.
The paper’s results were created using a database designed to record each cremation burial site identified by their individual burials. This is accessible in the online supporting material (Appx S1). Where possible, each cremation burial was categorised according to: the funerary structure (eg, barrow, ring ditch, settlement, etc.); burial arrangement (eg, container, grave markings, grave goods etc.); and osteology (minimum number of individuals [MNI], sex, age, bone quantity, bone colouration), all of which were recorded using a standardised lexicon of terms. Each site was investigated as thoroughly as possible using the available records of each site. If these records did not provide information on the characteristics being recorded, the field was left blank rather than inferring a potential value.
Evaluating Middle Bronze Age Cremation Sites
The 378 Middle Bronze Age cremation burial sites contain a mean number of 12 individual burials, dating to all periods, per site (Fig. 1). However, the mean is highly skewed by the presence of 19 (5%) large cemeteries containing over 50 cremation burials, such as at Simons Ground, Dorset (White Reference White1982); Bromfield, Shropshire (Stanford et al. Reference Stanford, Bayley, Colledge and Holgate1982; Hughes et al. Reference Hughes, Leach and Stanford1995); and Vinces Farm, Essex (Erith & Longworth Reference Erith and Longworth1960) (Table 1). On the other hand, there are 210 (55%) sites that contain fewer than five individual burials. The number of burials recorded on these sites may be under-represented, as it has not been possible to confirm whether the excavated area of the cemeteries and the number of cremation burials excavated from them represent the full extent and number of burials placed on these sites. Having said that, there are still 117 (31%) sites that contain only a single cremation burial with only one individual, such as at Alwynds, Surrey (Germany Reference Germany2010); East Harting Farm, Sussex (Aldsworth Reference Aldsworth1983); and Dishley Grange, Leicestershire (Walker Reference Walker2009). This indicates that, despite the aforementioned biases against identifying and dating such sites, single burials remained a major feature of Middle Bronze Age funerary practices and that the majority of Middle Bronze Age cemeteries are far smaller than would be expected to contain an extended family.
Of the 3133 Middle Bronze Age cremation burials found, there are only 94 incidences (3%) of multiple individuals being placed within the same cremation burial (Table 2). The largest of these exceptional cremation burials with multiple individuals are: Shouldham, Norfolk, with a MNI of five (Wells Reference Wells1976); Vinces Farm, Essex with a MNI of four (Erith & Longworth Reference Erith and Longworth1960); and Ring Ditch 4, between Linch Hill and Stanton Harcourt, with a MNI of three (Hamlin & Case Reference Hamlin and Case1963).
The utility of the MNI when studying cremation burials is partially restricted due to the fragmented nature of the remains, which may lead to the identified number of individuals being lower than the actual number deposited in the past. Similarly, it is equally possible that a single cremated individual may have had their remains separated into more than one token deposit (see commentary in Lynch & O’Donnell Reference Lynch and O’Donnell2007, 110). These caveats aside, it is proposed that, regardless of the size of the cemetery, Middle Bronze Age cremation burial practice overwhelmingly favoured the burial of single individuals within burials. This is significant, as the presence of burials with multiple individuals shows that cremation easily facilitates the mixing of human remains within relatively smaller receptacles than might otherwise be required. Similarly, one can envisage the possible symbolic gestures that might be achieved by the mixing of a homogenised cremation material. Yet, these mixing options were almost always rejected in the final deposition of human remains.
There are 97 Middle Bronze Age cremation burial sites which have at least one radiocarbon date, although only 56 of these sites’ radiocarbon dates place individual cremation burials within the Middle Bronze Age. Unfortunately, too few sites have suitable spatial and temporal details to allow any comment on the shifting use of cremation cemeteries as seen elsewhere in Europe (eg, De Reu et al. Reference De Reu, De Mulder, Van Strydonck, Boudin and Bourgeois2012).
Only 30 of the 97 cremation burial sites have at least three separate burials that have been radiocarbon dated. Three of these sites have reports that use Bayesian modelling (citing Buck et al. Reference Buck, Cavanagh and Litton1996) to determine their duration. At Papworth Everand Bypass, Cambridgeshire (Hounsell Reference Hounsell2007, 20), this modelling determined that the cemetery’s span of use was between 1 and 140 years. Assuming that the radiocarbon dates reflect the full span of use of the cemetery and that the cremation burials were evenly placed through time, this would require at least one cremation burial to be placed within the cemetery every 2 years (minimum number of burials: 57; MNI: 67). At Eye Kettleby, Leicestershire (Finn Reference Finn2011, 56–8), the duration of all funerary activity is modelled to be between 220 and 400 years. Following the same assumptions as stated above, this would require at least one cremation burial to be placed within the cemetery every 4 years (minimum number of burials: 95; MNI: 101). At St Osyth Lodge Farm, Essex (Germany Reference Germany2007, 102), the time span for the Middle Bronze Age activity was reported to be between 1 and 200 years indicating that one cremation burial had to be placed within the cemetery at least once every 17 years (minimum number of burials: 12; MNI: 15).
The remaining 27 Middle Bronze Age cremation burial sites with three or more radiocarbon dates (minimum number of burials: 1027; MNI: 1073) lack any modelling, and therefore comment on the length of use of these cemetery sites can only be generalised. The average maximum span of use of these 27 sites is 866 years, such that on average one burial must have been placed across these sites every 59 years. This contrasts strongly with these same sites’ minimum average span, which is only 200 years, such that on average one burial could have been placed in these sites as regularly as every 12 years. Without modelling, the maximum length of these sites’ duration, seen purely from the radiocarbon dates, is likely to be exaggerated, as will the number of years between the placement of each burial at these locations. Equally, it is unlikely the 12 sites (or 14 if including those sites that have used Bayesian modelling) which have radiocarbon dates (Table 3) that would allow for their cremation burials to be buried within a single year were used for so short a time. It does appear that the larger cemeteries’ span of use is extended by the presence of a minority of burials dating either earlier than the majority of the burials, such as at Eweford West, East Lothian (MacGregor Reference MacGregor2008) and Moverons Pit, Essex (Clarke & Lavender Reference Clarke and Lavender2008), or later than the majority of the burials, such as at Western International Market, London (Bradley Reference Bradley2003; Boyer Reference Boyer2007); Handley Hill, Dorset (Barrett et al. Reference Barrett, Bradley, Green and Lewis1981); and Simons Ground, Dorset (White Reference White1982).
Minimum and maximum durations have been calculated using the earliest and latest radiocarbon dates (at 95.4% probability) from cremation burials on the site. Key: *Those sites which have had Bayesian modelling. **Due to their proximity, the three sites at Bromfield (Bromfield Quarry, Bromfield Cemetery C1, & Bromfield Quarry Cemetery C3) and the four sites at Simons Ground (Sites B, C, F, & G) have been grouped together for the purpose of this table. ***Manor Farm, Borwick was not studied, as it contained no radiocarbon dates placing a burial in the Middle Bronze Age. ADS=Archaeological Data Service.
Yet, there are also, generally smaller, cemeteries which show a low number of burials that were placed intermittently over a long period of time, such as at Whitton Hill Henge, Northumberland (Fowler Reference Fowler2013); Heathrow Terminal 5, London (Framework Archaeology 2010); and Dallam School, Cumbria (Platell et al. Reference Platell, Vyner, Caffell, Elliot, Mole and Jones2013). Similarly, of these 27 sites with three or more radiocarbon dates, there are at least seven cremation burial sites that must have been used over more than 200 years. As such, it is clear that there is no set rule for the length of cemetery use or the regularity at which burials were placed at these sites.
The Middle Bronze Age cremation burial sites included in this study are distributed throughout mainland Britain and the nearby islands (Fig. 2). They are found far more frequently in southern England, and in particular are most densely concentrated around the south Dorset and Hampshire region, but are strikingly and inexplicably absent from the High and Low Weald of East Sussex, an absence that is paralleled in the Bronze Age settlement record (Caswell Reference Caswell2018). There are relatively few sites in Wales, although this might be due to the relatively lower level of fieldwork and lack of sufficiently well dated sites. There are notably few cremation burial sites in northern Britain, particularly in the region spanning north-east England and south-east Scotland (Warden et al. Reference Warden, Caswell and Roberts2016). When the distribution is analysed from the perspective of cemetery size, the most northerly Middle Bronze Age cremation burial cemetery with over 50 individuals is at Bromfield, Shropshire (Stanford et al. Reference Stanford, Bayley, Colledge and Holgate1982; Hughes et al. Reference Hughes, Leach and Stanford1995). Whilst the uneven distribution of excavations and research needs to be considered (see Green et al. Reference Green, Gosden, Cooper, Franconi, ten Harkel, Kamash and Lowerre2017), this north–south division is nonetheless striking.
Middle Bronze Age cremation burials are found primarily in three funerary contexts: barrows (195 sites, 52%), ring ditches (60 sites, 16%), and flat sites (defined as having no features visible on the ground surface) (122 sites, 32%). It is certainly possible that a proportion of the ring ditches are the remains of barrows which have been subsequently ploughed out. Sixteen (<4%) sites contained detail in their reports suggesting an association with field/enclosure features, and 36 (<10%) made mention of nearby settlement features, although these were placed up to 1 km away.
The 3133 cremation burials within the 378 cremation burial sites reveal very limited evidence for the marking of burials with visible, above ground, markers. For example, there is evidence at a few sites such as Itford Hill, Sussex (Holden Reference Holden1972), where each cremation burial had an associated post-hole which was interpreted as a marker to prevent intercutting. However, the evidence for the presence or absence of grave marking is not consistently interpreted and can be difficult to identify (see Evans & Knight Reference Evans and Knight1998). There are examples where both intercutting and the lack of intercutting have been interpreted as indications of above ground grave markers. At Briar Hill, Northamptonshire (Bamford Reference Bamford1985), the cremation burials were found to intercut with one another, leading to an interpretation that their locations must have been marked. At Broom, Bedfordshire (Cooper & Edmonds Reference Cooper and Edmonds2007), four cremation burials were each associated with a post-hole, yet were intercut by other cremation burials, leading to an interpretation for the absence of grave marking.
Evaluating Middle Bronze Age cremation burials
Funerary containers and grave goods
Of the 3133 Middle Bronze Age cremation burials, 844 (27%) show no evidence for a burial container – whether ceramic vessel, stone cist, or wooden coffin – and a further 211 (7%) have no record of this information in their reports (Table 4). Of the remaining 2078 cremation burials, 2058 (66%) were excavated in a container, 2036 of which are ceramic vessels. Where the information for position of the ceramic vessel holding the individual cremation burials was available, it showed that ceramic vessels were almost evenly found inverted (460 burials) and upright (485 burials). Thirty-five sites had a mix of individual cremation burials in both inverted and upright ceramic vessels, indicating that the choice of urn direction was not dictated by burial site. Finally, there are 20 burials where the clustering of the cremated bone and ash led to the inference of an organic bag, such as at Latch Farm, Kent (Piggott Reference Piggott1938); Briar Hill, Northamptonshire (Bamford Reference Bamford1985); and Eye Quarry, Cambridgeshire (Patten Reference Patten2004; Reference Patten2009).
There are 1003 cremation burials (32%) which contained no surviving accompanying artefacts (such as ceramic vessels, flint, metalwork, or animal bone) that might be regarded as grave goods, although animal bone may be under-represented due to the difficulties of distinguishing fragmented human and animal bone. Beyond the presence of a ceramic vessel or ceramic sherds, which might indicate a vessel and both of which constitute grave goods, 2996 (96%) of the 3133 individual cremation burials are devoid of any other archaeologically visible associated artefact. The remaining 137 (4%) cremation burials have yielded artefacts ranging from bronze pins/awls to flint flakes to animal bone pendants (Fig. 3).
Of these 137 burials, there are 43 cremation burials from 23 cremation burial sites which contained burnt objects, presumably also gathered from the funerary pyre. These were predominately flints, such as at Itford Hill, Sussex (Holden Reference Holden1972); Game Farm, Suffolk (Gibson Reference Gibson2004); Barnes Urnfield, Isle of Wight (Dunning Reference Dunning1931); and Pokesdown, Kent (Clay Reference Clay1927). There are also examples of: molten bronze as at Eye Kettleby, Leicestershire (Finn Reference Finn2011); animal bone as at King’s Hill, Bedfordshire (Cooper & Edmonds Reference Cooper and Edmonds2007); and flint arrowheads as at Standlake ring ditch 1, Oxfordshire (Riley Reference Riley1946) and Colne Fen, Cambridgeshire (Evans & Appleby Reference Evans and Appleby2013). In 24 of these 43 cremation burials, the burnt objects were found associated with ceramic vessels, which suggests that these objects were selected for inclusion in the burial.
In the last three decades, osteological analyses have typically followed the framework outlined by McKinley (Reference McKinley1997; Reference McKinley2000). However, before the 1990s, osteological reports were far more varied, such that it is not uncommon for certain traits of skeletons or whole assemblages to be unrecorded. Osteological analyses have allowed estimation of the sex of 196 individuals from 190 cremation burials across 70 sites, and the age ranges of 991 individuals from 884 cremation burials across 150 sites. In total, 840 (85%) of the burials that were aged and 159 (81%) of the burials that were sexed were detailed in reports published in or after 1980 (Figs 4 & 5) and are therefore regarded as reliable for the purposes of this study.
Of the 154 individuals where sex has been estimated, only 54 individuals have been confidently sexed as females (30 individuals) and males (24 individuals), an almost even division. In the remaining 104 individuals where the sex estimation is less certain, there is a slightly higher number of possible females.
Of the 740 individuals that have an osteologically determined age range, all osteological age ranges are represented, but 414 (49%) of the individuals are adults (25–40 years). It is possible that children (3–11 years) and infants (0–2 years) are under-represented due to their smaller bone size or preferential destruction rate for this age group. Recent experimental research suggests cremated child remains should remain archaeologically visible (Holck Reference Holck1997; Jæger & Johansen Reference Jæger and Johansen2013); therefore, the low proportion of burials might reflect a cultural bias (Lewis Reference Lewis2007). Whilst these age ranges and categories can be osteologically determined, it is acknowledged that the social recognition and relevance of these ages could well have been different in the past. These caveats mean that any statistically significant correlation between age range or sex and the presence or absence of grave goods (beyond ceramic vessels) found in Middle Bronze Age (c. 1600–1150 cal bc) cremation burials in Britain should be treated with caution.
However, it is worth stating that individual infant cremation burials are treated in the same or similar manner to adult cremation burials found elsewhere, such as at Butcher’s Rise, Cambridgeshire (Evans & Knight Reference Evans and Knight1998); Aldham Mill Hill, Suffolk (Everett & Boulter Reference Everett and Boulter2010); and King’s Dyke, Cambridgeshire (Knight Reference Knight1999). Whilst there are probable female individuals buried with infants, such as at Broad Chalke 1, Wiltshire (Grinsell Reference Grinsell1957) and Oliver’s Battery, Hampshire (King Reference King1989), there are also probable male individuals buried with an infant, such as Burial 2257 at Papworth Everard Bypass, Cambridgeshire (Hounsell Reference Hounsell2007; Gilmour et al. Reference Gilmour, Dodwell and Popescu2010). As such, it is clear that neither age nor sex provided an insurmountable barrier to the various forms of cremation burial practiced during the Middle Bronze Age.
Burning the bodies: Pyre evidence
The colour of cremated human bone was recorded for 306 cremation burials with the vast majority being described as ‘well calcined’ or ‘buff white’. This indicates that human bone was burnt in pyres with temperatures exceeding 600°C (Shipman et al. Reference Shipman, Foster and Schoeninger1984). The complexities involved in the preservation and identification of Bronze Age cremation pyres in Britain have recently been addressed systematically and in depth in three experimental replications inspired by the excavation of pyre evidence under the Early Bronze Age barrow at Guiting Power 3, Gloucestershire (Marshall Reference Marshall2011).
Pyres are typically inferred from evidence such as burial scorching, where the soil surrounding the cremation burial has been burnt, such as at Claggan, Arygll (Ritchie & Thornber Reference Ritchie and Thornber1977); Zionshill Copse, Hampshire (Entwistle Reference Entwistle2001); and Kalis Corner, Hampshire (Dacre & Ellison Reference Dacre and Ellison1981). It has also been inferred from the burning of pottery, suggesting that the ashes were deposited when still hot, such as at Imperial College Sports Ground, London (Powell et al. Reference Powell, Barclay, Mepham and Stevens2015); Temple Guiting 8, Gloucestershire (O’Neil Reference O’Neil1967); and Swanmore, Hampshire (Dunning Reference Dunning1931). Of the 378 Middle Bronze Age cremation burial sites, there are 43 that have in situ evidence for burning that indicates either that a pyre existed at the site, or that the remains of a pyre were deposited at the site whilst still in a state of combustion, implying that the original pyre had been nearby.
Considering that 3133 cremation burials have been studied, it is reasonable to expect that more evidence for pyres would have been identified, assuming that cremated remains were not being brought to their place of burial from elsewhere. Furthermore, it would be expected that if in situ evidence for burning had existed at these sites, it would have been found in larger quantities, especially at the largest cremation burial sites. It has been suggested at sites such as Eye Kettleby, Leicestershire (Finn Reference Finn2011); Butcher’s Rise, Cambridgeshire (Evans & Knight Reference Evans and Knight1998); and Mockbeggar Lane, Hampshire (Coles Reference Coles2004), that funerary pyres were potentially cleaned away after their use due to the high collection rates of bone excavated in the cremation burials. However, there are 32 pyre sites that exist at cremation burial sites; these are invariably simple spreads of ash and charcoal, which show no signs of cleaning beyond the collection of human remains.
COLLECTING AND DEPOSITING THE CREMATED DEAD
Whilst taphonomic issues should not be ignored, the published data reveal that there was no standard practice for the quantity of human remains that underlie their collection and burial during the Middle Bronze Age in Britain, as there are significant variations from every perspective.
There are 859 cremation burials from 104 cremation burial sites which recorded the cremation deposit weight of the excavated human bone (Fig. 6). The mean cremation deposit weight of human bone from these is 374.6 g, although it should be noted that truncation might have reduced the quantity of bone recovered at certain sites. These weights vary significantly (with a standard deviation of 561.7 g) (Table 5). For instance, 635 (74%) of the cremation burials weigh less than 500 g, and 370 (43%) cremation burials weigh less than 100 g (Fig. 7). Only 17 (2%) cremation burials weigh over 2 kg. The most widely cited experimental study which recreated Anglo-Saxon pyres found that the cremation of an adult could be expected to produce between 1.5 and 2 kg of bone residue (McKinley Reference McKinley1997).
The extensive presence of cremated human remains weighing significantly less than 1.5–2 kg implies the partial collection of human remains for burial. Unfortunately, too few osteological reports recorded the cremation deposit weights by fragment size, as recommended by McKinley (Reference McKinley1997; Reference McKinley2000) to enable further comparative analysis. An alternative method based on the volume of cremated human remains has been proposed that seeks to provide a more reliable representation of the completeness of the human remains that were originally buried (Harvig & Lynnerup Reference Harvig and Lynnerup2013). However, none of the publications on Middle Bronze Age cremations in Britain used by this paper employed this new methodology.
When the cremation deposit weights within 66 cremation burial sites are investigated, 56 sites show a relatively higher internal consistency than the total population of weighed burials. For instance, within the 32 cremation burials at Kingsborough, Kent (Allen et al. Reference Allen, Leivers, Ellis, Stevens, Clelland, Bayliss, Butler, Gale, Gibson, McKinley, Knight, Mepham, Scaife and Stevens2008) and the 11 cremation burials at Coton Park, Warwickshire (Maull Reference Maull2001), there is a remarkably consistent selection of less than 100 g in the quantity of bone being buried, which cannot easily be explained by issues of taphonomy and differential recovery. Such consistency has also been recognised within separate clusters of potentially chronologically distinct cremation burials (Finn Reference Finn2011, 66).
Identifying the visible dead of Middle Bronze Age Britain
The database assembled for this paper recorded 378 cremation sites containing at least 3133 burials that can be confidently dated to the Middle Bronze Age (c. 1600–1150 cal bc). It is a very near comprehensive corpus of this feature type and represents the majority of archaeologically visible funerary evidence for the period. The analysis of the Middle Bronze Age cremation sites and burials demonstrates no bias towards particular sexes or age ranges. Neither is any social, ritual, nor political differentiation made explicit in the funerary remains – in stark contrast to monuments and grave goods which characterise the archaeologically visible Early Bronze Age (c. 2200–1600 cal bc) evidence (see Woodward Reference Woodward2000; Garwood Reference Garwood2007; Needham Reference Needham2011; Wilkin Reference Wilkin2011; Fowler Reference Fowler2013; Melton et al. Reference Melton, Knusel and Montgomery2013; Hunter & Woodward Reference Hunter and Woodward2015; Jones Reference Jones2016; Nicolas Reference Nicolas2017). Where it exists, the evidence for Middle Bronze Age barrow construction is far less substantial in scale, investment, and complexity (eg, Bradley & Fraser Reference Bradley and Fraser2010). Similarly, Middle Bronze Age personal ornaments were not placed with the dead as grave goods, but rather were worn and subsequently removed from the body and placed unburnt elsewhere (see Roberts Reference Roberts2007; Davies Reference Davies2012; Wilkin Reference Wilkin2017; O’Connor et al. Reference O’Connor, Roberts and Wilkin2017). There are only three poorly excavated Middle Bronze Age cremation sites where bronze ornaments have been found potentially in association (Roberts Reference Roberts2007, 149). It is certainly possible that ornaments could have been removed from the body as part of the funerary process. However, as particularly large ornament hoards, such as at Wylye, Wiltshire; West Ashling, Sussex; and Monkswood, Somerset (Smith Reference Smith1959; Roberts Reference Roberts2007; Wilkin Reference Wilkin2017; O’Connor et al. Reference O’Connor, Roberts and Wilkin2017), demonstrate, there is no straightforward equation between ornament hoards and individuals.
Other Middle Bronze Age funerary rites in Britain are evidenced, although these comprise less than 3% of the total number of burials from this period. A new comprehensive survey of non-burnt human remains dating to the Middle Bronze Age has only identified 92 individual burials from 45 sites which emphasises the dominance of cremation based practices at this time (Cormack Reference Cormack2018). The sites include inhumations in bogs, as at Ashton Moss, Lancashire (Mullin Reference Mullin2003; Nevell Reference Nevell2015); in rivers, as shown by the dating of skulls (Bradley & Gordon Reference Bradley and Gordon1988; Schulting & Bradley Reference Schulting and Bradley2013); in water holes, as at Striplands Farm, Cambridgeshire (Evans & Patten Reference Evans and Patten2011); in ditches, as at Tormarton (Osgood Reference Osgood2006); and settlements, as at Gwithian, Cornwall (Nowakowski Reference Nowakowski2004, section 3, 26, appx 11). Many sites with inhumations also contained cremated human bone, which is sometimes in greater abundance than the unburnt bone, such as at Weymouth 34, Dorset (otherwise known as the famous Rimbury cemetery that defines the Deverel-Rimbury ceramic type) (Warne Reference Warne1866); Milborne 16h/i, Dorset (Grinsell Reference Grinsell1959); and Berwick St John 10, Wiltshire (Grinsell Reference Grinsell1957). Within our study, cremated and unburnt human bone was found at 40 of the 378 cremation sites. This indicates that these cemeteries were not exclusively used for one funerary rite, although cremations form the vast majority of the Middle Bronze Age funerary remains visible in the archaeological record. In summary, the archaeologically visible cremation burial practice in Middle Bronze Age Britain can be characterised by: the placing of individuals of both sexes and all ages; variable quantities of bone; associated with few grave goods, barring ceramic vessels; either in unmarked flat sites or earlier monuments.
Is there a Middle Bronze Age cremation horizon in Britain?
There is no easily identifiable temporally distinct appearance of a Middle Bronze cremation tradition at 1600 cal bc. Brück (Reference Brück2014, 130) asserts that the apparent dominance of cremation burials over inhumation burials occurs in Britain from c. 2000 cal bc. A similarly placed transition in north-east England–south-east Scotland is also suggested by Fowler and Wilkin (Reference Fowler and Wilkin2016, 126) at 1900 cal bc. Needham’s chronology (2011; see also Needham et al. Reference Needham, Ramsey, Coombs, Cartwright and Pettitt1997) for the entirety of Britain recognises that a transition is hard to pinpoint, suggesting that the cremation rite becomes more frequent towards the end of his phase two (2300–1950 cal bc) and only becomes the ‘predominant burial rite’ by his phase three (1950–1500 cal bc).
There are numerous radiocarbon dated funerary sites, containing multiple cremation burials, whose use spans the 2nd millennium BC. These include the sites of: Meldon Bridge, Peebleshire (Speak & Burgess Reference Speak and Burgess1999); Ewanrigg, Cumbria (Bewley et al. Reference Bewley, Longworth, Beckett, Huntley, Varndell, Craddock and Freestone1992); Biddenham Loop, Bedfordshire (Luke Reference Luke2008); Kimpton (Kalis Corner), Hampshire (Dacre & Ellison Reference Dacre and Ellison1981); and Eye Kettleby, Leicestershire (Finn Reference Finn2011). There are also large cremation burial sites that have been radiocarbon dated exclusively to the Early Bronze Age (c. 2200–1600 cal bc) such as Skilmafilly, Aberdeenshire (Johnson & Cameron Reference Johnson and Cameron2012) and Over, Cambridgeshire (Evans Reference Evans2016). It should also be noted that cremation cemeteries are also found in Late Neolithic–Chalcolithic (c. 3000–2200 cal bc) monuments, such as Stonehenge, Wiltshire (Parker Pearson et al. Reference Parker Pearson, Chamberlain, Jay, Marshall, Pollard, Richards, Richards, Tilley and Welham2009; Willis et al. Reference Willis, Marshall, McKinley, Pitts, Pollard, Richards, Richards, Thomas, Waldron, Welham and Parker Pearson2016) and Forteviot, Perth and Kinross (Noble & Brophy Reference Noble and Brophy2017), and have also been identified in the Mesolithic as at Langford, Essex (Gilmour & Loe Reference Gilmour and Loe2015; Gray Jones Reference Gray Jones2017). It is therefore important not to overstate a Middle Bronze Age funerary transformation towards cremations or cremation cemeteries.
Furthermore, exemplary research on the recently excavated and published barrow cemetery at Over, Cambridgeshire (Garrow et al. Reference Garrow, Meadows, Evans and Tabor2014; Evans Reference Evans2016) cautions strongly against overstating any linear transition to a largely cremation dominated funerary rite. Chronological modelling using Bayesian statistics revealed sequential funerary phases starting with inhumation, followed by cremation, then inhumation again, then further phases of cremation burials, all within an Early Bronze Age cemetery (Evans Reference Evans2016, 444, 448).
How comparable is the funerary record in North-west Europe c. 1600–1150 cal bc?
There are currently no in-depth comparative analyses of Middle Bronze Age funerary practices across North-west Europe – or even between communities across the Irish Sea, North Sea, or Channel/Manche. This contrasts with the wealth of recent cross-border scholarship comparing Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age funerary evidence (eg, Needham Reference Needham2000; Reference Needham2005; Reference Needham2009; Vander Linden Reference Vander Linden2006; Hammond Reference Hammond2010; Fraser Reference Fraser2013; Ripoche Reference Ripoche2016; Wilkin & Vander Linden Reference Wilkin and Vander Linden2015) and, to a lesser extent, Middle Bronze Age metalwork, ceramics, and settlements (eg, O’Connor Reference O’Connor1980; Ehrenberg Reference Ehrenberg1983; Marcigny et al. Reference Marcigny, Ghesquière and Kinnes2007; Bourgeois & Talon Reference Bourgeois and Talon2009; Kleijne Reference Kleijne2010; Needham et al. Reference Needham, Parham and Frieman2013). The main explanation for this lack is that the characteristics of the surviving funerary evidence from 1600 cal bc in North-west Europe are less conducive to broader comparative analyses. In addition, the complexities and different sub-divisions of typo-chronologies and their respective terminologies can prove obstructive (see Roberts et al. Reference Roberts, Uckelmann and Brandherm2013), as can the varying practices of archaeological fieldwork in the region (eg, Webley et al. Reference Webley, Vander Linden, Haselgrove and Bradley2012). However, the similarities and differences in mid–late 2nd millennium BC funerary practices have been discussed in the broader context of North-west European later prehistoric archaeology (eg, Bourgeois & Talon Reference Bourgeois and Talon2009, 39–42; Bradley et al. Reference Bradley, Haselgrove, Vander Linden and Webley2015, 195–205; Marcigny et al. Reference Marcigny, Bourgeois and Talon2015, 231; Webley Reference Webley2015).
The closest and most widespread parallels to the Middle Bronze Age cremation burials in Britain are found to the west, in Ireland. The wealth of recent excavations and radiocarbon dates means that the funerary framework proposed by Grogan (Reference Grogan2004), of a phase (c. 1500–1300 cal bc) of burials placed with Cordoned Urns and grave goods followed by a phase (c. 1300–1000 cal bc) of cremations placed in coarser urns, is in need of substantial chronological revision. The recent modelling of radiocarbon dates by Brindley (Reference Brindley2007) and Bayliss and O’Sullivan (Reference Bayliss and O’Sullivan2013) has confirmed that the use of Cordoned Urns had ceased by c. 1500 cal bc. It also appears that razor knives, faience, gold, and amber grave goods were only included in burials pre-dating 1600–1500 cal bc (Waddell Reference Waddell2010).
A recent review of all accessible reports on later Bronze Age (c. 1600–600 cal bc) cremation burials found along road schemes in Ireland has found that following c. 1600–1500 cal bc, the evidence of funerary practices is dominated by small cremation deposits, usually unaccompanied, but sometimes placed within coarse ceramic vessels (Spillane Reference Spillane2017). Other than ceramic vessels, or later typically only ceramic sherds, the objects placed with these cremations included only the occasional burnt or unburnt flint flakes and animal bones. These burials were predominantly found in flat, unmarked pits, either as isolated features or in small clusters (Lynch & O’Donnell Reference Lynch and O’Donnell2007; McQuade et al. Reference McQuade, Molloy and Moriarty2009, 141–6; Troy Reference Troy2015; Cooney Reference Cooney2017).
These Irish cremation burials are placed in similar locations to those seen in Britain, having been found deposited in barrows, ring-ditches, and occasionally in close proximity to Bronze Age settlements (Spillane Reference Spillane2017). In some cases, it seems as though cremation depositions in the Middle Bronze Age became focal points for domestic settlement in the Late Bronze Age (Spillane Reference Spillane2017, 47–8). Furthermore, and as seen in Britain, the majority of Middle Bronze Age cremation burial sites contain only a few individuals, though there are occasional larger cemeteries, such as at Templenoe and Derrybane, Co. Tipperary; Manusmore, Co. Clare (Bermingham et al. Reference Bermingham, Hull and Taylor2012); and Rathglass, Co. Galway (Doody Reference Doody2008; Kiely & O’Mahony Reference Kiely and O’Mahony2011; Péterváry Reference Péterváry2009). These larger cemeteries are generally specific to the Middle Bronze Age, after which isolated pit burials become the dominant form (Spillane Reference Spillane2017, 37–8).
Middle Bronze Age pyres are rarely associated with these burials, although some examples such as Newford, Co. Galway or Coolmore, Co. Kilkenny contain pit features with indications of intense in situ burning, along with small deposits of burnt bone, which could be an indicator of pyre structures. Such evidence has led Becker (Reference Becker2014, 14) to suggest that the small amounts of cremated remains located near these pyres represent the intentional deposition of pyre material rather than formalised burials.
In northern France and southern Belgium, cremation cemeteries containing multiple individuals, some contained within ceramic urns and a few accompanied by additional grave goods, are found from c. 1500–1100 cal bc (Le Goff & Guichard Reference Le Goff and Guichard2005; Bourgeois & Talon Reference Bourgeois and Talon2009; Le Goff & Billand Reference Le Goff and Billand2012). The current dating of evidence across northern France, Belgium, and the Netherlands indicates that few barrows were constructed from c. 15/1400–1100 cal bc, with cremations from this time being inserted into older barrows, such as at Waben-Le Sémaphore (Desfossés & Bernard Reference Desfossés and Bernard2000; see also Bourgeois & Arnoldussen Reference Bourgeois and Arnoldussen2006; Bourgeois & Fontijn Reference Bourgeois and Fontijn2008; Bourgeois & Talon Reference Bourgeois and Talon2009; Bourgeois Reference Bourgeois2013). Given the similarities in the ceramic assemblages on either side of the Channel (see Marcigny et al. Reference Marcigny, Ghesquière and Kinnes2007; Kleijne Reference Kleijne2010), it is not surprising that a ceramic urn, closely related to the Deverel-Rimbury ceramic types, containing a cremation was found at Argoeuves-Le Moulin d’Argoeuves (Soupart Reference Soupart2009).
Further inland into Continental Europe, a section of the Seine valley has one of the most extensively excavated mid–late 2nd millennium bc funerary landscapes in North-west Europe. It contains a diversity of barrow monuments, co-existing inhumation and cremation funerary traditions, and a wide range of grave goods, providing a cautionary example to any straightforward narrative attempted in less well excavated areas (Delattre & Peake Reference Delattre and Peake2012; Delattre et al. Reference Delattre, Peake and Pradat2015; Rottier Reference Rottier2010). To the west, Middle Bronze Age funerary sites in north-west France are also dominated by barrows containing (where their preservation in the soil allows) both cremations and inhumations with ceramic urns and few grave goods; their chronologies remain poorly understood (Briard Reference Briard1984; Fily et al. Reference Fily, Villard-Le Tiec, Ménez and Lorho2012; Boulud-Gazo et al. Reference Boulud-Gazo, Melin and Nordez2017).
Funerary sites in north Germany and Denmark include occasional cremation cemeteries, such as at Lustrupholm, Denmark (Feveile & Bennike Reference Feveile and Bennike2002), on flat sites that display similarly equal proportions of ages and sexes to Middle Bronze Age cremation cemeteries in Britain. However, the vast majority of the archaeologically visible contemporary funerary activity comprises thousands of barrows, inhumations, and grave goods (see Bergerbrant Reference Bergerbrant2007; Holst & Rasmussen Reference Holst and Rasmussen2013).
The existence of shared practices connected by maritime routes throughout North-west Europe during c. 1600–1150 cal bc is not in doubt, as a major museum exhibition, BOAT 1550 bc (Lehoërff Reference Lehoërff2012), and numerous recent conferences have demonstrated (see Bourgeois & Talon Reference Bourgeois and Talon2005; Clark Reference Clark2009; Lehoërff & Talon Reference Lehoërff and Talon2017). However, the extent of similarities and differences in funerary practices has remained under-investigated and deserves further attention beyond the scope of this paper.
Identifying long term trends in the quantity of archaeologically visible burials throughout the Bronze Age in Britain
There is a substantial decrease across Britain in the number of funerary sites in the Middle Bronze Age (c. 1600–1150 cal bc) as compared to the Early Bronze Age (c. 2200–1600 cal bc), which is not adequately explained by its only slightly shorter duration (150 years difference). For instance, in the Tyne-Forth region spanning north-east England and south-east Scotland, there are over 130 Early Bronze Age sites (Fowler & Wilkin Reference Fowler and Wilkin2016), three Middle Bronze Age cremation funerary sites, and 12 Late Bronze Age burial sites, only six of which contained confirmed cremation burials (Warden et al. Reference Warden, Caswell and Roberts2016). Similarly, in Cumbria, north-west England, 100+ funerary sites have been dated to the Early Bronze Age, yet only one Middle Bronze Age funerary site has been confirmed (Evans Reference Evans2008; Platell et al. Reference Platell, Vyner, Caffell, Elliot, Mole and Jones2013, 53; Walsh Reference Walsh2013). Even in areas where there are relatively high concentrations of Middle Bronze Age cremation burials, such as in the Dorset–Hampshire region, there are far more Early Bronze Age burial sites (Grinsell Reference Grinsell1959; Bristow Reference Bristow1998; Reference Bristow2001).
The Late Bronze Age (c. 1150–800 cal bc) funerary record (inhumations and cremations) in Britain is even sparser than that of the Middle Bronze Age. In southern Britain, Late Bronze Age cremation burials are predominately found in roundhouses and associated ditches (see Brück Reference Brück1995; Roth Reference Roth2012; Davies Reference Davies2016), comprise smaller quantities of human bone, and are rarely accompanied by ceramic vessels. In northern Britain, similarly small quantities of cremated and unburnt human bone are found in settlements, caves, ditches, and in both earlier and contemporary funerary monuments (Thomson Reference Thomson2011; Melton et al. Reference Melton, Montgomery, Roberts, Cook and Harris2016; Warden et al. Reference Warden, Caswell and Roberts2016). The cremated remains in these studies (referenced above) also appear to be generally smaller in cremation deposit weight than the average Middle Bronze Age cremation burial. This reduction in the quantity of cremated bone being buried through time has also been demonstrated across the Early, Middle, and Late Bronze Age in Cambridgeshire (Evans Reference Evans2016, 429).
Reassessing the Middle Bronze Age community cemetery model in Britain
When considering all Middle Bronze Age cremation burial sites with at least three radiocarbon dates, it is possible that cremations need only have been deposited on each site on average once every 54 years (Table 3). The quantity of cremation burials can also be analysed on a national scale. The period of study encompasses 450 years such that, from the available evidence, only one archaeologically known cemetery site was created every 2 years. Furthermore, only seven deaths a year would then have resulted in a cremation burial being placed in one of these sites. While these numbers are likely to under-represent the number of individuals who were cremated and buried, it can only be concluded that a small minority of people in Middle Bronze Age Britain were buried in an archaeologically visible rite. For instance, the placing of cremated human remains in seas, rivers, lakes, and bogs or their scattering over the landscape would all be invisible to later archaeological investigation.
When compared to the contemporary settlement record, how few individuals received an archaeologically visible cremation burial is even clearer. There are c. 8000 substantial domestic sites in Britain, characterised by the presence of at least one roundhouse, which are dated to the Middle Bronze Age (1600–1150 cal bc), either by radiocarbon dating, associated material culture, or architecture (Caswell Reference Caswell2018). This contrasts with the 3133 cremation burials dated using the same methods identified in this paper. Even when allowing for the fragmentary evidence of other funerary rites, the comparative ratio is stark; there are 2.6 settlements for each cremation burial in the Middle Bronze Age in Britain. Even considering the multiple taphonomic issues, and the many more sites that are doubtless awaiting re-dating or discovery, these statistics must lead to a revision of the community cemetery model applied to all Middle Bronze Age cremation burials in Britain.
Middle Bronze Age funerary sites containing cremation burials are invariably interpreted as cemeteries for nearby communities (eg, Ellison Reference Ellison1980; Bradley Reference Bradley1981; Boyer Reference Boyer2007; Cooper & Edmonds Reference Cooper and Edmonds2007; Finn Reference Finn2011) due to two influential publications (Ellison Reference Ellison1980; Bradley Reference Bradley1981) which relied upon two observations.
Firstly, the size and clustering of these sites is similar to the assumed extended family unit of the Middle Bronze Age (Ellison Reference Ellison1980). The proposed spatially distinct clustering of cremation burials in groups of between ten and 30 individuals, as identified by Ellison (Reference Ellison1980, 122), suitably fits the estimated size of extended family units that are widely thought to be the social core of Middle Bronze Age societies. This identification of clusters has been made in many subsequent site monographs such as Eye Kettleby, Leicestershire (Finn Reference Finn2011); Daneshill, Hampshire (Millett & Schadla-Hall Reference Millett and Schadla-Hall1992, 91); and Oliver’s Battery, Hampshire (King Reference King1989, 22). However, this clustering is often only loosely defined methodologically and interpretatively, such as at Pasture Lodge Farm, Lincolnshire (Allen et al. Reference Allen, Harman and Wheeler1987, 210), and when not conforming to the size suggested by Ellison, the clustering is instead defined by smaller groupings of three per cluster, such as at Papworth Everand, Cambridgeshire (Gilmour et al. Reference Gilmour, Dodwell and Popescu2010, 22). A detailed analysis of 60 Middle Bronze Age cemeteries in East Anglia by Robinson (Reference Robinson2007, 51) found no evidence for clusters of cremation burials.
This study has shown that the vast majority of Middle Bronze Age cremation burials (2942, 94%) are found on a site with at least one other burial also dated to the period. However, it has been possible to confirm that a slightly larger proportion of Middle Bronze Age cremation burial sites (79 out of 118 cremation burial sites with only one burial, 21%) definitely contain only one cremation burial, while only 40 out of 378 (11%) Middle Bronze Age cremation burial sites contain 20+ cremation burials. This is despite the biases against recovering and dating single cremation burials, which makes it likely that the overall proportion of single cremation burials is under-represented. As such, despite Middle Bronze Age cremation burials frequently being found together, the majority of cremation cemeteries do not appear to meet the underlying requirement for demonstrating evidence for extended family units and therefore a larger community.
Secondly, Middle Bronze Age cremation burial sites are placed near, and have been linked to, contemporary settlements (Bradley Reference Bradley1981). The pairing of Middle Bronze Age settlements and cemeteries in Britain is frequently asserted (eg, Bradley Reference Bradley2007, 185; Darvill Reference Darvill2010, 222), usually on the basis of spatial proximity, such as at Down Farm, Cranborne Chase (Barrett & Bradley Reference Barrett and Bradley1980). There is also the frequent comparative analogy to Itford Hill, Sussex (Ellison in Holden Reference Holden1972, 110) where two sherds of pottery were found to re-fit – one from a Middle Bronze Age barrow and the other in a nearby Middle Bronze Age settlement. The spatial proximity argument for pairing settlements with cremation cemeteries is based primarily on Bradley (Reference Bradley1981), who asserts that the majority of Middle Bronze Age cremation cemeteries are found within 700 m of a settlement, with a peak between 50 m and 300 m (Bradley Reference Bradley1981, 100).
A pilot assessment of this assertion was made possible by comparing 372 of the 378 Middle Bronze Age cremation burial sites to the location of potential Bronze Age settlements known to all Historic Environment Records within mainland England, Scotland, and Wales, a database totalling 21,831 sites. The list of settlements (Caswell Reference Caswell2018) includes sites that might be Early or Late Bronze Age and some sites which are only speculated as being Bronze Age. It is therefore a generous distribution that would be expected to skew results towards a smaller distance between Middle Bronze Age cremation burials and Middle Bronze Age settlements. Six of the 378 Middle Bronze Age cremation burial sites were excluded from this analysis due to the poor settlement evidence available for their region.
This analysis found that there is a peak of 96 (26%) Middle Bronze Age cremation burial sites placed within 300 m of a potential Bronze Age settlement site – in both northern and southern Britain – which might in part support Bradley’s assertion that, in some cases, settlements are paired with cemeteries (Fig. 8). However, only 139 (37%) cremation cemetery sites were found within 700 m of a potential Bronze Age settlement, 201 (54%) cremation cemetery sites were located over 1 km away, and the average distance between these cemeteries and their nearest potential settlement was 1787 m. Therefore, from the data available to this paper it can only be concluded that Middle Bronze Age cremation burials do not show a universally strong spatial connection to occupation sites as has been suggested (Darvill Reference Darvill1996, 116–17; Bradley Reference Bradley1981; Reference Bradley2007, 185).
Furthermore, the contemporary chronology of settlements and nearby cemeteries is often assumed rather than demonstrated. Yet, similarly to cremation sites in Ireland (Spillane Reference Spillane2017), when the radiocarbon dates for well excavated Bronze Age settlements and cemeteries within 500 m in Britain are compared, they frequently reveal that it is Late Bronze Age settlements that are placed in close proximity to pre-existing Middle Bronze Age cremation cemeteries. This occurs at Dunch Hill, Wiltshire (Andrews Reference Andrews2006); Game Farm, Suffolk (Gibson Reference Gibson2004); and Biddenham Loop, Bedfordshire (Luke Reference Luke2008) and has also been observed across the Netherlands (cf. Gerritsen Reference Gerritsen2007). Directly contemporary Middle Bronze Age settlements and cemeteries in close proximity, such as at Shorncote Quarry, Gloucestershire (Barclay et al. Reference Barclay, Glass and Parry1995), are very rare according to the radiocarbon dates, are rarely discussed in site reports, and, bar the much-cited Itford Hill example (Holden Reference Holden1972), never directly evidenced through material culture.
As such, it is argued that neither Ellison’s (Reference Ellison1980) nor Bradley’s (Reference Bradley1981) observations can now be broadly supported. Consequently, the community cemetery model in Middle Bronze Age Britain should be revised.
How then should Middle Bronze Age cremation burials be understood? The preference for burying only individuals does suggest that the deceased individual was given some primacy during multiple stages of the funerary process. However, this primacy did not translate to the final burial stage, which tended to avoid both monumentalisation in the landscape or any material expression of identity beyond a ceramic vessel that frequently contained their remains. This relatively homogeneous and modest burial stage may well have extended to the burning of the individual, given the absence of burnt personal ornaments which are known to have been worn but are deposited unburnt elsewhere in Britain (Roberts Reference Roberts2007). On average, less than three-quarters of the human bone produced through the cremation process is recovered from Middle Bronze Age cremation burials. Given the low number of sites showing evidence for cremation pyres, it seems likely then that the human cremated bone was ‘created’ in a different location to the final burial place and that the majority of it was used and/or placed in ways that are no longer archaeologically visible. The intentions underlying these uses will be difficult to understand, as they are likely to have occurred in the transportation (and maybe redistribution) of the potentially symbolically charged cremated material in social contexts which now leave no archaeological trace (cf. Appleby Reference Appleby2013; Kuijt et al. Reference Kuijt, Quinn and Cooney2014; Bradbury et al. Reference Bradbury, Davies, Jay, Phillip, Roberts and Scarre2016). This understanding does not exclude Ellison’s (Reference Ellison1980) suggestion that cemeteries or grouping of burials represent kin groups, yet it should be stressed that the evidence above implies that the cremated human bone cannot have been used solely for this purpose, and probably was not in the majority of circumstances.
FUTURE RESEARCH: GOING BEYOND COMMUNITY CEMETERIES
This paper has identified that the archaeologically visible funerary rites in Middle Bronze Age (c. 1600– 1150 cal bc) Britain represent only a minority of the contemporary population. This can be further investigated through addressing the problem of chronological resolution. For instance, there are 421 cremation burial sites of the original 1696 sites identified during initial data collection, which contained at least 1145 burials whose date could not be confirmed. It has been shown how assumptions of date placed purely on the form of cremation burial can produce wildly inaccurate period classifications (De Mulder et al. Reference De Mulder, Creemers and Van Strydonck2014). As such, the radiocarbon dating of the remaining sites would assist in establishing whether certain absences in the funerary record, such as the northern England or East Sussex region, are reflective of the past reality. Similarly the regular use of Bayesian modelling and more substantial dating programmes on all cremation burial sites will allow a truer image of their life histories to be produced. There are substantial issues with the typo-chronologies of (Early–) Middle Bronze Age ceramics associated with cremations which would benefit from further study and dating. The recorded diversity of funerary practices indicates that there may well be far more sites than is currently appreciated – especially when funerary sites and burials assumed to be Early Bronze are taken into consideration. However, even if all of these burials were dated to the Middle Bronze Age they would still be far exceeded by the number of contemporary settlements and would thus still represent only a minority of the contemporary population.
This paper challenged the widely held assumption that Middle Bronze Age cremation burials represented entire communities (Ellison Reference Ellison1980) who were locally based (Bradley Reference Bradley1981). In this, it follows an earlier comparative analysis of Bronze Age settlements and funerary sites in the Netherlands, which also challenged successfully similar pre-existing models (Bourgeois & Fontijn Reference Bourgeois and Fontijn2008). This raises a fundamental question – where did the people who were subject to cremation burials in Middle Bronze Age originate?
The recent successful application of strontium isotope analysis to cremated burials (Snoeck et al. Reference Snoeck, Lee-Thorp, Schulting, de Jong, Debouge and Mattielli2015) now enables this question to be at least partially resolved by demonstrating whether those individuals buried had lived and died nearby and whether there is a coherency in the life histories of the dead within a cemetery. The recent results from the isotopic analysis of preceding Beaker burials spanning the Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Ages (c. 2500–1600 cal bc) highlight the co-existence in funerary treatment and contexts of both sedentary and mobile individuals, albeit within Britain (Parker Pearson et al. Reference Parker Pearson, Chamberlain, Jay, Richards, Sheridan, Curtis, Evans, Gibson, Hutchison, Mahoney, Marshall, Montgomery, Needham, O’Mahoney, Pellegrini and Wilkin2016). However, this has recently been challenged by the analysis of Neolithic–Early Bronze Age human aDNA which strongly implies a continental migration of people from Continental North-west Europe to Britain, apparently replacing nearly the entire indigenous population, during the same period (Olalde et al. Reference Olalde2018). The widespread adoption of cremation-orientated burial practices prevents any extension of comparably extensive aDNA research programmes into the Middle–Late Bronze Age (c. 1600–800 cal bc) in Britain. The materials and technologies in the Middle Bronze Age (c. 1600–1150 cal bc), most visibly in bronze and gold as exemplified by the Salcombe, Devon and Langdon Bay, Kent shipwrecks (Needham et al. Reference Needham, Parham and Frieman2013; Wang et al. Reference Wang, Strekcopytov, Roberts and Wilkin2016), would imply continuity in mobility across North-west Europe and beyond. However, the current interpretations surrounding the contemporary construction of roundhouses, enclosures, and field systems in Britain, both implicitly and explicitly, strongly envisage far more sedentary farming groups. The resolution of this major interpretative divergence on the same prehistoric population (cf. Roberts Reference Roberts2013), ideally through the widespread application of strontium isotope analysis on cremated human bones, would enable a far clearer understanding of the extent to which mobility shaped and defined Bronze Age communities in Britain.
This paper was supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council [AH/L503927/1] through the Northern Bridge Doctoral Training Partnership. It was first presented at the Bronze Age Forum, Belfast, Northern Ireland (November 2013) and a revised version was presented at the conference Le Bronze moyen et l’origine du Bronze final en Europe occidentale, de la Méditerranée aux pays nordiques (XVIIème - XIIIème siècle av. J.-C.) in Strasbourg, France (June 2014). We are very grateful for the invitations to present and for the subsequent discussions with conference participants. We would like to thank Anna Bloxham, Emily Carroll, Claudio Cavazzuti, Kerri Cleary, Anwen Cooper, Katie Cormack, Chris Fowler, Arjan Louwen, Mette Løvschal, Rebecca Peake, Ben Spillaine, and especially Ann Woodward (née Ellison) for reading and commenting on an earlier draft of this paper. We are especially grateful to the three reviewers and the editors. Any errors remaining are the responsibility of the authors.
To view supplementary material for this article, please visit: https://doi.org/10.1017/ppr.2018.9
APPENDIX 1. DATA COLLECTION details
Data collection method
Sites containing cremation burials which had the potential to have been created during the Middle Bronze Age were gathered from three national databases: Heritage Gateway for England (http://www.heritagegateway.org.uk/gateway/default.aspx), Canmore (https://canmore.org.uk/) for Scotland, and Archwilio (www.cofiadurcahcymru.org.uk) for Wales using a standardised lexicon of relevant search terms (Funeral Pyre, Cremation Pit, Cremation Grave, Cremation Burial, Cremation, and Cremation Cemetery) and a period filter (first Middle Bronze Age and then Bronze Age). The Reading University Grey Literature Archive and the Archaeological Investigations Project (https://csweb.bournemouth.ac.uk/aip/aipintro.htm) were queried using a similar methodology. Sites were deemed as having the potential to have been created during the Middle Bronze Age based on the presence of features, material culture, or radiocarbon dates that were indicated as being Middle Bronze Age in date in their report.
Further potential cremation sites were identified through a systematic search of the Archaeological Data Service (ADS) Radiocarbon Index (CBA 2012), Canmore’s Scottish Radiocarbon Database (Canmore 2014), and a list of radiocarbon dates known to the National Museum of Wales (Burrow & Williams Reference Burrow and Williams2008). These databases were merged, duplicate sites and values were eliminated, and calibrated ranges added where absent (using OxCal v 4.2 (Reimer et al. Reference Reimer, Bard, Bayliss, Beck, Blackwell, Bronk Ramsey, Buck, Chenge, Edwards, Friedrich, Grootes, Guilderson, Haflidason, Hajdas, Hatté, Heaton, Hoffmann, Hogg, Hughen, Kaiser, Kromer, Manning, Niu, Reimer, Richards, Scott, Southon, Staff, Turney and van der Plicht2013) and the IntCal 13 curve (http://c14.arch.ox.ac.uk/)). They were then filtered according to two criteria. The first criterion was that their calibrated range had to cross part of the timespan between 1600 and 1150 cal bc. The second criterion was that their descriptions had to include a reference to a series of terms that might indicate the presence of a cremation burial.
Each Historic Environment Record (HER) office in England and Wales was contacted with a request for a list, and PDF summary, of sites returned when searching these archives using a standardised lexicon of relevant search terms (Funeral Pyre, Cremation Pit, Cremation Grave, Cremation Burial, Cremation, and Cremation Cemetery) and a period filter (first Middle Bronze Age and then Bronze Age). While not all HER offices replied (see Appx S.1.5), only 44 sites were discovered through this latter search. All UK Regional and National Research Frameworks were consulted in order to identify key sites that may not have been recorded in the sources above (England: https://historicengland.org.uk/research/support-and-collaboration/research-frameworks-typologies/research-frameworks/; Scotland: https://www.scottishheritagehub.com/; Wales: http://www.archaeoleg.org.uk/intro.html). Finally, the doctoral research on burials in southern Britain from c. 3500 bc–ad 43 by Bristow (Reference Bristow1998; Reference Bristow2001), which provides a searchable gazetteer of sites, is a particularly useful publication that also identified numerous Middle Bronze Age cremation burials sites.
Taken together, these sources provide a comprehensive corpus of published and unpublished Bronze Age funerary sites in Britain to 2002 and a virtually comprehensive list of sites until 2015. Where possible, each of these sites’ original excavation reports was sourced. The details included within these reports were then recorded in a relational database (Microsoft Access 2013). Any further sites cited in these reports that had the potential to contain a Middle Bronze Age cremation burial were also added to the database and recorded when relevant.
Data selection criteria
Radiocarbon: Those sites with radiocarbon dates were evaluated according to: whether their absolute calibrated date range at 2σ lay solely between 1600 and 1150 cal bc; or where dates provided a terminus ante or post quem that overlapped 1600 cal bc or 1150 cal bc. Those sites with burials meeting these criteria were assigned to the Middle Bronze Age, while those sites with burials whose radiocarbon dates only overlapped with either the 1600 or 1150 cal bc temporal boundaries were deemed transitional.
This paper recognises the issue raised by Snoeck (2015) that most cremation burials are likely to suffer from the old wood effect to some degree. This would suggest that some burials whose date crosses the Early and Middle Bronze Age might in fact be Middle Bronze Age. A methodology for identifying the extent of this effect, or how best to treat cremated remains in this light, has yet to be produced. As a result only selected cremation burials were reclassified as Middle Bronze Age when their dates were only slightly older than 1600 bc and when there was evidence for other Middle Bronze Age cremation burials on the site.
Typological dating: Whilst typo-chronological schemes in metalwork, with a resolution of 150–200 years, are well established throughout the Bronze Age in Britain (Needham Reference Needham1996; Needham et al. Reference Needham, Ramsey, Coombs, Cartwright and Pettitt1997; Roberts et. al. 2013), there are very few bronze or gold objects that have been found in secure and well excavated contexts with cremation burials. The vast majority of the cremation burials that are typologically dated to the Middle Bronze Age) rely upon associated ceramics. However, ceramic typo-chronologies typically have a more extended temporal resolution. For example, Collared Urns (c. 1850–1500 cal bc) and Cordoned Urns (c. 1900–1550 cal bc) are made, used, and deposited in the first century of the Middle Bronze Age, but are predominantly Early Bronze Age types (c. 2200–1600 cal bc) (see Sheridan Reference Sheridan2003; Reference Sheridan2007; Brindley Reference Brindley2007). Biconical Urns (c. 1800–1400 cal bc) are more evenly divided across the Early–Middle Bronze divide (Tomalin Reference Tomalin1988), whilst Deverel-Rimbury (c. 1700–1200 cal bc) and regional variants such as East Anglian Ardleigh urns are predominantly, but not exclusively, Middle Bronze Age in date (Needham Reference Needham1996, 132–3; Woodward Reference Woodward2009, 265–70). However, it is recognised that the majority of Deverel-Rimbury ceramics can be placed in the Middle Bronze Age (Needham Reference Needham1996, 132–3; Woodward Reference Woodward2009, 265–70). A major challenge in chronological attribution has been the frequent revision of ceramic typo-chronologies as well as a wide variation in their adoption by key scholars. For instance, Grinsell’s (Reference Grinsell1959; Reference Grinsell1971; Reference Grinsell1987; Reference Grinsell1992; O’Neil & Grinsell Reference O’Neil and Grinsell1960) numerous corpora of barrows published by county, which have been exceptionally useful for identifying cremation burial sites, frequently mention ‘Late Bronze Age’ pottery types, many of which would now be typo-chronologically dated to the Middle Bronze Age. Similarly, records published prior to the use of radiocarbon dating in the mid-20th century which described ‘Middle Bronze Age’ pottery would now be placed within the Early–Middle Bronze Age range. In order to overcome this, typo-chronological adjustments had to be made on a site-by-site basis. To be fully transparent, all burials that have been judged to belong to a particular period include a reference that explains the reason they have been grouped this way in the Supporting Material (see column ‘ReasonForDate’ in Appx S.1.2).
Sites that contain Middle Bronze Age cremation burials that have not been assessed: Following the completion of this paper, a further 23 sites were identified which contained Middle Bronze Age cremations burials within them. These sites and their references have been listed in Appx S.1.6, however it has not been possible to study them to the same extent as the main dataset. As such, they are omitted from the statistics, analysis, and discussion within this paper.