Case Study: Cremation Technology and Burial

Detailed study of cremation technology and cremation burial has been undertaken in Orkney (under the auspices of the Orkney Barrows Project funded by Historic Scotland) at a range of barrow cemeteries, in particular Linga Fiold, using an approach aimed at investigating the spatial and temporal aspects of funerary rites rather than focussing simply on burial (Downes 2005; forthcoming). Cremation technology was found to be efficient; using predominantly boggy turves as fuel excessively high temperatures were achieved. Cremation pyres, identified through geophysical survey in advance of excavation, were set close to the edge of barrows, or on the side of existing barrows. Several examples of more than one person being burnt on the pyre at once were found. Very few burials contained a quantity of burnt bone that matched what would be expected in weight for a whole body, but instead it was found that other elements of the pyre remains were being buried – that is charred wood and ash, cramp (fuel ash slag), burnt turf and scorched earth ‐ and that there was a careful order to how the burials were constructed. In the case of primary burials that were central to a barrow, it could be seen that cremated bone would be interrred first, followed by cramp, followed by burnt turf and charcoal, followed by scorched earth. This order reversed the order that the remains appeared on the pyre upon completion of burning. This order could not be interpreted as being interred simply in the manner the pyre might have been dismantled, for elements were carefully sorted and cleaned before being placed in the burial cist or pit. Soil micromorphology was employed to investigate the barrows structure: the barrows were then constucted in the reverse order of the natural stratigraphy, with turves on the lowest layer, loose topsoil next, followed by clay subsoil, and sometimes capped with stone. Thus the burial and barrow comprise an unbroken inverted sequence in which the human remains comprise the lowest part, and in which the whole of the natural order is inverted. This careful and purposeful re‐ordering of the world is seen as indicative of a cosmology or world view – detailed by Kristiansen and Larsson (2005), and expressed in the Nebra disc ‐ in which the world is ranked vertically in three tiers – the lower domain or underworld, a middle domain which humans and the living occupy, and an upper world of the sacred of gods and ancestors (Downes 2009; Downes and Thomas in press).

An aerial photograph showing a line of burial mounds and other stony features in a grassy landscape

The burial mounds at  Vestra Fiold was one of the sites investigated by the Orkney Barrows Project ©HES

In the many instances of cremation burials added subsequently around the barrows, some of these replicated the same vertical ordering of the cist or pit content, whereas in others the various types of pyre debris were spread between two or three cists or pits – sometimes with cleaned human bone in one feature, cramp in another and charcoal and burnt turf, or even burnt soil in another. What is striking about these findings is that parts (or ‘tokens’) representative of the whole pyre, not just the individual person or people, are being interred. What was apparent also was that some cremated bone was left on the pyre – the amount selected for burial being a deliberate choice, and a rapid series of actions taken immediately after quenching the pyre, and not a factor of leaving the pyre to cool for some days and having the remains disperse through eg wind and rain before collection. The methodological implication of this work are clear: using geophysical survey over a wide area is key to putting a burial monument in its context – for example locating pyre sites, mortuary structures, paths and approaches to burial sites; use of soil micromorphology in combination with pollen and charred plant analysis was important in determining methods of pyre technology, and burial and monument construction. The excavation and analysis of the contents of a whole range of features, irrespective of whether they contained human remains or not, provides lessons for future approaches to the recording and analysis of burial sites.

Return to Section 5.5 Funerary and Burial evidence

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  1. SAIR 8: Excavation of a Bronze Age urned cremation burialSAIR 8:Excavation of an urned cremation burial of the Bronze Age, Glennan, Argyll and Buteby Gavin MacGregor, with contributions by Michael Donnelly, Jennifer Miller and Julie Roberts and illustrations by Gary Tompsett and Caitlin Evans.As part of the Historic Scotland Human Remains Call Off Contract, Glasgow University Archaeological Research Division (GUARD) undertook an archaeological excavation of a prehistoric urned cremation deposit within a boulder shelter at Glennan, Kilmartin, Argyll and Bute (NGR NM86220097). 

  2. Cist burials at Sannox, Arran: GUARD Archaeology report
    The discovery of two Bronze Age cists in a disused quarry in Sannox, Isle of Arran by the landowner and a local resident prompted their rescue excavation under the Historic Scotland’s Human Remains Call-off Contract (HRCC). One of the cists contained a human cremation accompanied
    by a tripartite Food Vessel and scale-flaked flint knife while the second was empty. A radiocarbon date of 2154 – 2026 cal BC was obtained from the
    cremated bone dating it to the early Bronze Age. A charcoal fragment from the second cist was dated to 3520 – 3368 cal BC; which was thought to correspond to earlier activities in the area. This article sets out the results of the rescue excavation and its subsequent post-excavation analysis. The interpretation of the two cists is constrained by the circumstances of their discovery. They may not be contemporary or have the same function, and we do not know how many other cists have been lost to previous quarrying or remain undetected in the area. However the Food Vessel is of note because the majority of such pots have been found in eastern Scotland. the report can be found at

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