6.6.1 Funerary Practices

Chalcolithic and Bronze Age funerary practices in the Highland Region show some similarities with practices elsewhere in Scotland. For example, there is a tendency for cremation to be the dominant practice by c 1800 BC (ScARF Bronze Age Section 5.1, 5.4). There are also some differences between the practices in the Highlands and elsewhere, however, not least in the construction of monumental graves in the Clava Cairn tradition towards the end of the third millennium BC and in the emergence of local styles of cinerary urn.

A variety of funerary practices are attested in the Highland Region over the c 1,700 years covered by the Chalcolithic and Bronze Age periods; individual inhumation within a stone cist is the most common, or, at least, the best-attested, practice during the Chalcolithic and the earliest part of the Bronze Age (Datasheet 6.1). The range of Bronze Age practices include:

  • Burial within ancient Neolithic monuments (Map 6.7; Datasheet 6.7)
  • Cremation and subsequent deposition in a cinerary urn or organic container
  •  Other treatment of the cremated remains
  •  In a Clava ring-cairn or passage tomb
  • Deposition of unburnt human remains in long-lived middens like at Sand, Wester Ross (MHG35892; Case Study Sand)
  • Within a rock shelter as found at An Corran, Skye (MHG6497; Saville et al 2012, table 36; Case Study An Corran)

To date, no proven examples of mummification, long-term curation of the dead, or rearrangement of human remains, as attested at Cladh Hallan, South Uist (Booth et al 2015), or Cnip, Isle of Lewis (Lelong 2018), respectively, have been found in the Highland Region, but archaeologists should be on the look-out for these and other variant practices.

The evidence for funerary practices is uneven both chronologically and geographically (Map 6.1). The Early Bronze Age has produced a disproportionately large amount of evidence when compared with the Middle and Late Bronze Ages, and there are relatively few finds from the northwest Highlands – just a dozen or so cists, for example (Datasheet 6.1). The reason for the chronological imbalance is likely to be the changing nature of funerary practices and their variable archaeological visibility: a switch to the practice of scattering cremated remains as opposed to burying them, for instance, will leave no archaeological trace. As for the scarcity of evidence from the northwest, this is likely to be a combination of the paucity of fieldwork, including developer-funded, in the more remote parts of the Highland Region and perhaps the lower population density during prehistory. A priority for future research should be targeted survey in the under-researched parts of the region, perhaps starting by investigating the findspots of antiquarian discoveries where the finds no longer survive (Datasheet 6.1).

In the southwestern part of the Highland Region, there have been significant recent finds on Skye thanks to developer-funded and research-project archaeology. The Early Bronze Age cemetery at Armadale (MHG60879; Peteranna 2011b; Case Study Armadale Cist Burial), with its seven cist graves, has extended the distribution of Food Vessel pottery northwards along the west coast of Scotland (Sheridan 2011a). It has also strengthened the evidence for links with Ireland (Chapter 6.5). Meanwhile, the Ardnamurchan Transitions Project has revealed evidence for Early Bronze Age secondary funerary activity at a Neolithic chambered cairn, including a cist containing fusiform jet beads (Table 6.9).

Just as most information on funerary practices comes from Early Bronze Age finds (and to a lesser extent Chalcolithic finds), most of the research that has been undertaken on human remains also concentrates on these first few centuries. The Beakers and Bodies Project, initiated by Neil Curtis and Neil Wilkin with the late Ian Shepherd and with Alexandra Shepherd and focussing mainly on Beaker-associated individuals in and around Aberdeenshire, included some human remains from the Highland Region in its purview (Curtis and Wilkin 2019). The results of this project were integrated with those from Parker Pearson’s (et al 2019) Britain-wide Beaker People Project. The research undertaken for these projects includes radiocarbon dating, osteological examination and isotopic analysis. The National Museums Scotland’s long-established radiocarbon dating programme, the results of which are published annually in Discovery and Excavation in Scotland, has included several sets of Early Bronze Age human remains from the Highland Region. Further dates and osteological information have come from developer-funded and rescue excavations, including those covered by the Historic Environment Scotland’s (HES) Human Remains Call-Off Contract such as work at Langwell, Strath Oykel (Lelong 2014).

Isotopic analysis of the adult male from Culduthel was undertaken for the TV programme ‘Digging for Britain’ in 2010, and the female buried at Achavanich has been the subject of an extensive research programme, including isotopic and aDNA analysis (Hoole et al 2017; Case study Ava). The male buried at Acharole (MHG1980), not far from Achavanich, is currently the subject of a similarly thorough examination. Other aDNA analysis was attempted for the individual from Fyrish, Easter Ross, as part of a Wellcome Trust-funded project based at the Natural History Museum, but insufficient aDNA survived. See Sheridan et al 2018 for a list of all individuals found in Scotland who had been analysed for aDNA up to January 2019 and see Datasheet 6.1 for a list of all the analyses that have been carried out on Chalcolithic and Bronze Age individuals from the Highland Region.

There are now over 30 findspots of human remains in the Highland Region where radiocarbon dates are available (Datasheets 2.1, 6.1; Sheridan 2007b). In some cases, more than one grave or set of human remains has been dated. However, the evidence is weighted firmly towards the east, with only four sites from Skye, four sites from Lochaber and the midden near Sand, Wester Ross (Datasheet 6.1). Only a handful of individuals so far can be shown to date to the Chalcolithic period: those buried in cists at Achavanich, Caithness (MHG13613; Hoole et al 2017), Dornoch Nursery, Sutherland (MHG11738; Ashmore 1989), Fyrish, Easter Ross (MHG8104), Slacknamarnoch, Inverness (MHG52994), Broadford Medical Centre, Skye (MHG55636), and the individual found in a midden at the multiperiod rock shelter at An Corran, Skye (Saville et al 2012; MHG6497). The calibrated date range for the Achavanich individual (2460–2140 cal BC) spans the Chalcolithic–Early Bronze Age transition period, as does the date (2280–2020 cal BC) for the Beaker-associated male from Culduthel (MHG3776). One cist at Ness Gap, Fortrose (cist 030), also produced a Chalcolithic date, but since this date was determined from oak charcoal, the actual date of the interment may be later (MHG54306; Woodley et al 2020, 29). Similarly, a Chalcolithic date from oak charcoal associated with a deposit of cremated remains inside a ring-ditch at Seafield West should be regarded with suspicion as it may significantly pre-date the actual date of the grave (MHG3944; Cressey and Sheridan 2003, 52–3, 77; Case study Seafield West Bronze Age Cemetery). These cases provide a warning for the interpretation of other graves where dating is dependent on charcoal.

There are, of course, many other graves that belong to the Chalcolithic and Bronze Age periods, with over 300 cist graves reported in the Highlands by surveyors during the Ordnance Survey in the late 19th century (Map 6.1; Datasheet 6.1). In most cases, any finds from these cists have not survived. Care must also be taken when considering reports of cists since some references to ‘stone coffins’ could also relate to early medieval long cists, though there is less evidence for these (see Chapter 8.6). Antiquarian records recording ‘urns’ could refer to Beakers, Food Vessels or cinerary urns, and it is only in lucky circumstances where the finds survive or were illustrated are archaeologists able to differentiate. Chalcolithic Funerary Practices Early Bronze Age Funerary Practices Middle Bronze Age Funerary Practices Late Bronze Age Funerary Practices

Case Study: Sand


Case Study: An Corran


Case Study: Ava


Case Study: Seafield West Bronze Age Cemetery


Case Study: Armadale Cist Burial

Leave a Reply