Human remains are able to furnish an extraordinary variety of information in terms of birth experience, ethnic origin nutrition, lifestyle, belief systems, trauma undergone, the ageing process and manner and cause of death and funerary deposition. In recent times, however, there has been a reaction that has seen the close questioning of precisely how this information can be interpreted and used. It is clear now that the mode of burial (e.g cist burial in the 1st mill. AD) cannot be used as a safe indicator of date (as has been demonstrated by C14 dating) or of ethnic affiliation, and neither can the inclusion or replication of objects, procedures or rites in funerary process be simplistically interpreted as necessarily indicators of individual adherence to an organised belief. Slabs of stone and token stone inclusion is widespread in the protohistoric period, in contexts that suggest their proponents are no strangers to British or Christian ideas, but no direct evidence for their being either (Carver et al. 2009). However, burials certainly reflect less well-defined allegiance, for example, “identity” or “ideological alignment” – terms which can strengthen where the evidence appears to be stronger. This framework regards it as key to study burials for their own message, not for their conformity.
The cult of relics. This is said to have been a Christian importation and most commentators have followed Charles Thomas (1971, 1973) in treating it as such. That this may not be the case may be suggested, both because the practice does not seem to relate specifically to the teaching of Christ, and because of the appearance of apparently related deposits in earlier, prehistoric, contexts in Britain ( e.g. Ann Woodward’s study of Cotswold-Severn tombs where she seems to define a cult of relics in the Neolithic (1993). The “virtue’ inherent in holy remains seems close to sympathetic magic (which is not a Christian invention). Christianity defined its own sense of holy places and holy persons, evolving the cult of saints as another aspect of the magic/priestly divide, many people reasonably expecting that, if God existed, then they ought to be able to experience him in direct ways. Christianity habitually built on prior attitudes and human practices and, therefore should not be defined only by its orthodox position but by how it was actually practiced within and by recipient communities and those observing them.
This implies three things:
- Higher standards of grave and cemetery excavation, because archaeologists may find themselves having to argue on the basis of a detailed reconstruction of the the whole process and sequence of acts from shrouding the corpse to back-filling the grave, the precise degree to which the ritual reflects variety within or around the Christian core. The type of stones included, size of grave, whether the body or the stones went in first, whether any bones are missing that might have been curated as relics, and so on – matters that require very careful dissection;
- A far greater emphasis on contextually scrupulous radiocarbon dating following the precepts by Patrick Ashmore on behalf of Historic Scotland.
- Protohistoric and early medieval burials needs to be examined in the context of the prehistoric burials of the same area, to discern and interpret the differences and similarities between them.
In the west and east parts of Scotland the whole study of protohistoric burial, and thus the utility of casual discoveries, has been gravely inhibited by the lack of any developed cemetery archaeology. Scotland has no equivalent to Cannington or Spong Hill. The Hallow Hill, St Andrews excavation was not a designed project, and Pictish and Scottish burial in general has barely been explored. The cemetery at Ackergill, famous in its day, is a national disgrace, having never been properly written up and then chronically pillaged since. Meanwhile there are sites of great potential that are protected, but not properly studied: e.g. Whitebridge and Garbeg. Large scale excavation may not be appropriate at such precious resources, but research could be advanced by using non-destructively using precision survey, caedmium vapour magnetometry and soil sounding radar, and then testing selected anomalies by excavation with microstratigraphic and chemical plotting – all well developed techniques.