4.5.1 Human remains

Early Medieval Burials

See also Medieval Section 3.4 Demography and also Science Section 2.2 Human Remains

In terms of quantity, the archaeological record for early medieval Scotland is dominated by burials. At present, the National Monuments Record contains over 150 confirmed early medieval burial sites in Scotland, against a wider background of unconfirmed antiquarian reports and cropmark sites; in all they represent thousands of individuals. This body of data has yet to be exploited in a systematic way (cf. Maldonado 2011).

Burial sites in Scotland are plagued by poor bone preservation due to acid soils. Where preservation is suitable, radiocarbon dates and studies of health and disease are now undertaken as a matter of course. Dates for these cemeteries cluster mainly in the 5-7th centuries, as elsewhere in Britain. As far as can be discerned, the skeletal evidence indicates that the cemeteries were mainly used for adults, as children and infants are underrepresented. In terms of health and disease, it seems very few of these individuals suffered a violent death or physical trauma other than the strains of a pre-modern agrarian lifestyle (Maldonado 2013).

But generalisations like these mask some slowly emerging discrepancies. An increasing number of inhumations have been dated to the early centuries AD, showing the Iron Age origins of the mortuary rites involved (see above). Yet few studies have compared populations across the first millennium AD, making it difficult to see what, if any, continuities from the Iron Age to the early medieval period exist. Most of the discussion of these sites focuses on the square barrows and long cists of the developed mid-first millennium tradition (eg. Alexander 2005Williams 2007Maldonado 2016). Some comparison to Iron Age and, at the other end of the chronological spectrum, to Viking Age burial populations is still needed.

Within the mid-first millennium floruit of cemeteries, the potential to extract yet more information from the skeletal evidence remains relatively untapped. While individual sites have been carefully analysed for date, demographics, diet and disease, these results have not been synthesised on a regional basis. Furthermore, the numerous burials excavated before modern scientific techniques were widely available have not been re-examined, with a few notable exceptions, e.g.Lundin Links, Fife (Greig et al. 2000).

As a result, discussions of these sites still revolve on the old narratives of conversion to Christianity and ethnicity, even though studies of early medieval cemeteries have proven time and again that burials are poor markers of religious or political affiliation. The focus of study has largely turned to what they can reveal about relationships within populations, or rather, perceptions of age, gender and other socially-determined identities (Lucy 2002). Skeletal analyses of sites in the 4-6th centuries in England, bridging the traditional boundary between the late Roman and Anglo-Saxon period, have begun to emphasise the way grave goods marked age and gender differences rather than ethnic identities (Gowland 2007). The lack of grave goods in Scottish burials has been seen as a barrier to such bio-cultural studies, but the variety of grave types known here show similar potential e.g. , the distinctions between log coffins, long cists, cists reusing Roman masonry, cists made with carefully worked slabs, square-ditched graves and post-defined graves, all found in the cemetery at Thornybank, Midlothian (Rees 2002), are unlikely to be random choices.

The study of trace elements in tooth enamel to identify diet and geographical origins is also beginning to throw up new and unexpected insight. For instance, island populations like those of Orkney seem to have avoided eating fish until the influx of Norse settlers from the 9th century (Barrett and Richards 2004). Discoveries like these may help to identify ‘indigenous’ people in future explorations, but not until it is recognised how mobile these people were. Preliminary stable isotope analysis of the cemetery near the royal hillfort of Bamburgh, Northumberland indicates non-local origins for the deceased, some of whom may have come from as far as western Scotland (Groves 2003); similarly, the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ community atWest Heslerton, East Yorkshire may have had more migrants from Western Britain than Scandinavia or the Low Countries (Budd et al. 2004). Within Scotland, these kinds of scientific analyses are mainly employed in sites believed to incorporate migrant populations, like the Viking-period cemeteries of the Orkneys. In pre-Viking Scotland, however, research is still largely ignorant of internal social distinctions. For instance, the apparent clusters of shale and sandstone cists at the Catstane, Midlothian (Cowie 1978) may well be to do with the different geographical origins of the deceased, but little is known of the ‘catchment areas’ of these cemeteries. Without more rigorous scientific studies across a number of sites, there is lacking a clear control group for determining what a migrant would look like in the first place.

Another gap is the funerary ritual itself. If the ‘catchment area’ of a cemetery is quite wide, a long procession should be posited, and such effort is likely to extend to an elaborate burial rite including the use of organic materials like faunal and floral deposits. Despite regular excavation of long cist and other graves in Scotland, low survival of organic materials means little is known of what, if anything, was actually deposited in the grave. A hint of what may be found comes from Hermisgarth, Orkney, where a long cist was found to contain evidence for a bundle of cloth, calling to mind the soft linings of many Anglo-Saxon graves (Downes and Morris 1997; Harrington 2007). Only careful excavation will reveal more such finds; Bronze Age graves have been excavated with the help of dedicated conservation teams, often by lifting entire grave fills as box-samples for excavation in laboratory conditions (ie., Hunter 2000). Pollen analysis of these soils may reveal organic materials that were part of the burial ritual, allowing new questions to be asked of the seemingly simple funerary remains.

The strategy for the future study of medieval burial must then be two-pronged.

  1. Account must be taken of museum collections to see what early medieval skeletal material still survives in storage. These should then be sampled and submitted to specialists for radiometric, bio-cultural and isotopic analysis. These data would ideally be synthesised on a regional or chronological basis, including targeted studies of age and gender correlated with burial type (long cist, dug grave, barrow, cairn, etc)
  2. Any future excavation of human remains will need to operate to a set standard devised with the advice of osteologists and other specialists. Funding should be provided for box-excavation of entire grave fills, especially on sites where bone preservation is low. Dedicated studies of trace elements and biometric markers should be commissioned with a view to comparing sites across regions and time periods.

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