Chalcolithic Funerary Practices

There is, so far, just one example of a simple grave consisting of an oval pit which characterises early Chalcolithic graves elsewhere in Britain, and that is from Beechwood Park, Raigmore (MHG48626; Suddaby and Sheridan 2006; Sheridan 2008b). No trace of human remains was found accompanying the undecorated Beaker. No radiocarbon date could be obtained, and it was also unclear whether there had been any wooden structure within the grave. Nevertheless, as argued elsewhere (ibid), the most plausible explanation for the feature at Beechwood Park is that it was an early Chalcolithic grave by analogy with better-preserved examples elsewhere and with reference to the typochronology of British Beakers.

Another candidate for an early Chalcolithic grave is the feature associated with the first-phase low cairn at Battle Moss, Caithness (MHG2187; Pannett 2005a; 2005b; Sheridan 2010a). Here, a crushed All-Over-Ornamented Beaker of a continental early Chalcolithic type plus parts of a second Beaker were associated with what may have been the remains of a stone cist under or in a low circular cairn. The later re-working of the cairn into a ring-cairn had disturbed this early activity. Once again, there is no radiocarbon date associated with this feature, although a sample of organic material from under the cist exists and should be dated to provide a terminus post quem.

The ‘cist’ found at Broadford Medical Centre, Skye (MHG55636), is a further example of an Early Chalcolithic grave, dated from alder charcoal to 2565–2299 cal BC and 2470–2212 cal BC (Birch forthcoming). It consists of oval stone-lined pit (Birch 2012, plates 18–25, fig 5). Two early-style Beakers were found within it, of which one is a kind of All-Over-Cord-decorated Beaker (Sheridan 2012e). The presence of more than one Beaker can be a feature of early Chalcolithic graves, although not every multiple-Beaker grave is as early as that. No trace of a body was found, but the grave would have accommodated an unburnt body. Early Chalcolithic parallels for oval, stone-lined pit graves include the one from Sorisdale, Coll, which also contained an All-Over-Cord-decorated Beaker (Parker Pearson et al 2019, fig 4.26).

Two pictures, one of a stone lined pit and the other of a pit with broken pottery at the bottom of it.
The cist at Broadford (left) with in-situ degraded Beaker pottery (right). ©West Coast Archaeology Services
A ceramic vessel with cord mark decoration on the body.
AOC Beaker from the cist at Broadford. ©West Coast Archaeology Services

Several Chalcolithic graves featuring rectangular stone slab-built cists, which represent a translation into stone from the rectangular wooden ‘chambers’ found in some early Chalcolithic graves, are known from the Highland Region, though not all are associated with Beakers. The cist containing the contracted remains of a senior adult female at Slacknamarnock, Inverness-shire (MHG52994), dating to 2470–2230 cal BC, had no grave goods. Among the cists with Beakers, including those where the calibrated date ranges straddle the Chalcolithic–Early Bronze Age boundary, the examples from Dornoch Nursery (MHG11738), Fyrish (MHG8104), and Culduthel (MHG3776) contained stone wristguards (Table 6.10). The Dornoch Nursery cist was associated with an All-Over-Cord-decorated Beaker which is the earliest of the three. The cremated remains of a young adult were found in this cist which have produced a date of 2460–2200 cal BC (Sheridan 2007a). This individual could have been buried at the same time as the unburnt adult, whose sex could not be determined but the archery-related grave goods have previously been used to suggest it was a male skeleton (Ashmore 1989). Not all cists were slab-built; the Achavanich cist was rock-cut, involving a considerable investment of effort (MHG13613; Hoole et al 2017; Case Study Ava).

Five arrowheads placed in an arc above a stone wristguard.
Barbed and tanged arrowheads and wrist guard from Dornoch Nursery (INVMG 1980.015-017). © Michael Sharpe

As for other evidence of Chalcolithic funerary practices, an ulna of an adult found in the rock shelter at An Corran (MHG6497; Case Study An Corran) and dated to 2566–2146 cal BC (Saville et al 2012, table 36) attests to the deposition of human remains at this kind of site. The early Beakers found in the Neolithic chamber tomb at Kilcoy South (MHG9017), which included one large storage vessel known in the Netherlands as a ‘Potbeker’ (Henshall 1963, 255, no. 7), were not directly associated with any human remains. Henshall has argued for a non-funerary context for their deposition (Henshall and Ritchie 2001, 71–3, 153–7; see also Wilkin 2016).

With just the one exception at Dornoch Nursery, no examples of the practice of cremation have been dated to the Chalcolithic period in the Highland Region and so it appears that inhumation was the rite. This is consistent with the evidence for Chalcolithic Beaker graves elsewhere in Britain (Parker Pearson et al 2019).

Shepherd (2012) noted for Chalcolithic Beaker-associated graves in northeast Scotland that males tended to be laid on their left, their heads to the east or in the eastern quadrant but looking south (LESM) while females were placed on their right, with heads mostly to the west, again looking south (RWSF). In the Highlands, there appears to be some correlation with males laid on their left and females on the right, but less consistency in their orientation. The late Chalcolithic/Early Bronze Age female at Achavanich, buried in a tightly contracted position, was laid partially on her right side, her head to the west-southwest, looking south, and so broadly conforms to the ‘RWSF’ arrangement. The female buried in the cist at Slacknamarnock had also been laid on her right, but her head was at the southeastern end of the cist looking east. The late Chalcolithic/Early Bronze Age males from Culduthel and Holm Mains Farm cist 1 were on their left side, but at the latter site the head was to the north, facing east. It is essential that any excavations of Chalcolithic (and Early Bronze Age) cists and other graves in the future record the ‘siding’ and orientation of the skeletal remains.

The presence of archery gear in the Chalcolithic and Chalcolithic/Early Bronze Age cists at Dornoch Nursery, Fyrish and Culduthel (see Table 6.10 for other locations) reflects a widespread practice across Beaker-using areas of Europe, the extent and significance of which has been discussed by the Beaker People Project (Parker Pearson et al 2019, Chapter 4). Certain males were portrayed in death as archers, be it warriors, hunters or both, and it is clear that prowess in archery conferred status and prestige. The wristguards at Dornoch Nursery and Culduthel were accompanied by sets of barbed and tanged flint arrowheads which may have represented a quiver full. There were five in the case of Dornoch Nursery and eight at Culduthel. As discussed in Chapter 6.4, the stone ‘wristguards’ were probably actually ornaments, designed to be worn on the outside of the wrist and attached to a functioning wristguard of animal hide.

Chalcolithic graves in the Highland Region tend not to be covered by mounds, with the exception of the low mound at Battle Moss, and they tend to be found individually, although some will doubtless have formed part of a cemetery. Fieldwork in future should focus on exploring the surrounding of individual graves to explore whether this was the case.

Case Study: Ava


Case Study: An Corran

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