Early Bronze Age Funerary Practices

The tradition of inhumation, usually of single bodies in a contracted position, in a short stone cist continued after the introduction of bronze around 2200 BC. The use of Beaker pottery continued, and from the 22nd century, a new style of pot, the Food Vessel, started to be used in graves in the same way as Beakers. From around the 22nd century, cremation gained in popularity as a funerary rite, with the cremated remains usually buried in a cinerary urn or an organic container such as a bag. By around 1800 BC this was the dominant rite. The cremation burials at Ness Gap, Fortrose, only had evidence of oak charcoal, raising the possibility that this was a deliberate choice for cremation pyres at this site (Woodley et al 2020).

Distribution map of Beakers and Food Vessels in the eastern part of the Highland Region. Note their uneven geographical distribution. (c) Richard Bradley (2000, illus 181)

Short stone cists, were mainly used for inhumations of unburnt bodies, but were also sometimes used to house deposits of cremated remains, as in the case of Acharn, Lochaber, cairn 2, cist 1 (Ritchie and Thornber 1975: Sheridan 2008, 201). In addition, polygonal cists and especially simple pits are attested for the burial of cremated remains (Datasheet 6.1). Interment within or immediately outside a pre-existing Neolithic monument is also found (Map 6.7; Datasheet 6.7), for example, at the Tulach an t’Sionnaich passage tomb where the cremated bones within a small pot were dated to 2200–1970 cal BC.

Map 6.7 Chambered Cairns

Use your mouse or touchpad to zoom in and out of the map. Click on the data point for more information about the site and a link to the HER record. 

This map is based on the information in Datasheet 6.7 (please note that some sites in this datasheet may be missing from the map, for example where there are no co-ordinates for antiquarian finds, so please view the datasheet for the further information)

There is one example of a log coffin in the shape of a boat at Seafield West, near Inverness (MHG3944; Cressey and Sheridan 2003; Case Study Seafield West Bronze Age Cemetery). A possible second example of a log coffin at Dalnavie, Stittenham, Easter Ross, is known only from an antiquarian description (MHG8159). Abutting the log coffin grave at Seafield West, was also a timber ‘cist’ that contained an Irish-style bipartite Bowl Food Vessel. All these wooden funerary structures contained inhumations, with no trace of the bodies surviving other than an enhanced soil phosphate reading in the wooden ‘cist’.

In some cases, Early Bronze Age graves were not covered by any mound, while in others, they were sealed under round mounds. The Clava ring-cairns and passage tombs around the Moray Firth and along the River Nairn (Case Study Clava Type Cairns) offer a specific and elaborate form of funerary monument (Bradley 2000).Details of Clava type cairns in the Highland region can be found on Datasheet 6.6. Excavations have concluded that the Balnuaran of Clava Northeast passage tomb was constructed around 2000 BC (Bradley 2000, 119, illus 106), and that the identical passage tomb at Balnuaran of Clava Southwest and the central ring-cairn at the site are likely to be contemporary. The funerary rite associated with the initial use of these monuments could have been inhumation, although no unburnt bone was found. As for the fragments of calcined human bone found associated with Clava cairns (Boyle 2000), these are too small to be used for single-entity radiocarbon dating. However it is clear that in some cases they relate to the secondary, Late Bronze Age reuse of the cemetery and, in the case of the small ring-cairn Balnuaran of Clava South, to its construction and use between c 1000 BC and 800 BC.

Map 6.6 Clava-type Cairns

Use your mouse or touchpad to zoom in and out of the map. Click on the data point for more information about the find and a link to the HER record.

This map is based on the information in Datasheet 6.6 (please note that some finds in this datasheet may be missing from the map, for example where there are no co-ordinates for antiquarian finds, so please view the datasheet for the further information).

The Clava-type cairns are distinctive with their graded stones and surrounding stone circles. They have a limited distribution, bounded by the Spey to the east, Glenurquhart to the West, Aviemore to the south and the Black Isle to the north (Map 6.6; Datasheet 6.6; Bradley 2000, fig 1; Case study Clava Type Cairns). Certain elements of the burial tradition can be traced elsewhere, as in recumbent stone circles in Aberdeenshire, but it seems to represent a local tradition – and perhaps a local identity – in the Early Bronze Age (ScARF Bronze Age section 5.4.2). There is some debate about whether the surrounding stone circles were built at the same time as the cairns. Bradley (2016a, 114) suspects they were later, and perhaps as part of the closing ritual for the site, as were the platforms.

Since Bradley’s work and publication on the Clava Cairns, there has been little additional work on this monument type. The Bronze Age section of National ScARF highlighted the need for additional dating for further insights into when these monuments were first constructed and whether this was before or after bronze was introduced to Scotland (ScARF Bronze Age section 2.2). Other monument types such as recumbent stone circles or ‘four poster’ circles found to the east and south of the Highland area are absent in the Highlands.

Burial Rituals

From modern investigations, archaeologists can get a glimpse of burial rituals in the Highland Region.

One particular treatment of the body was noted at Langwell, Strath Oykel (MHG51530; Case study Langwell Cist Burial), where the body of a young female, dated to 2200–1960 cal BC, had been wrapped in a cattle hide and also possibly covered by matting of woven or twined plant material (Harris 2014; Walton Rogers 2014). Unfortunately, the cist was disturbed shortly after discovery in 2009 when the police moved the contents. Histology on the bones was undertaken to check whether the apparently arrested decay of the body had been due to mummification, as attested elsewhere in Bronze Age Britain (Booth et al 2015). While this was considered as a possibility, it appeared equally likely that it had been due to waterlogging of the cist shortly after the burial act (Booth and Hollund 2014). The presence of animal hides in Early Bronze Age graves catalogued by Watkins (1982) is one indicator of the special status accorded to certain members of Early Bronze Age society.

The sex-based alignments and positioning of bodies which were seen in the Chalcolithic, gradually cease to be observed in the Early Bronze Age. Further attention should be given to which side of the body a corpse was laid and the orientation of inhumed remains to see if the pattern noted for northeast Scotland also occurred in the Highland Region (Shepherd 2012).

Grave Goods

In addition to Beakers and Food Vessels which accompanied some but by no means all of the unburnt remains, the evidence indicates continuity from Chalcolithic practice where archery equipment associated with a number of individuals, both inhumed and cremated (Datasheet 6.1; Table 6.10). Examples of unburnt remains associated with arrowheads include Holm Mains Farm cist 1 of final Chalcolithic or Early Bronze Age date: two arrowheads, among a wider array of grave goods (MHG32414) and the putative log coffin at Dalnavie, Stittenham: three arrowheads plus ‘shale disc’ (MHG8159). Examples of cremated remains associated with arrowheads include Seafield West: three burnt arrowheads plus a fragment of a mandible from a dog or fox (MHG3944; Cressey and Sheridan 2003) and Inverlael: one burnt arrowhead plus other lithics and mussel shell (MHG7838). All the arrowheads from these sites are of the barbed and tanged type. Where the sex of the individuals associated with archery gear has been reliably determined, it has been male; although at Seafield West, the cremated remains have both male and female characteristics, making a definitive identification difficult. In the case of the Inverlael individual where there is the presence of just one arrowhead, one cannot rule out the possibility that that person buried here had been shot with it. Unfortunately the cist had been disturbed, so it is impossible to tell whether additional arrowheads had been present.

Beaker restored from numerous fragments, along with associated grave goods – a stone Bracer or wristguard of green stone with four bronze or copper rivets with solid conical heads with sheet gold caps over them. a bone toggle, barbed and tanged arrowheads, amber bead and possible strike-a-light from from a cist at Culduthel Mains, 2300 – 1800 BC. ©National Museums Scotland

Just as archery gear indicates the expression of a particular persona in death, other grave goods in the Early Bronze Age were also used to indicate or portray the special status of the deceased.

Male graves associated with bronze daggers – prestigious weaponry – form part of a wider phenomenon, with roots in Chalcolithic practice and its heyday during the Early Bronze Age (Henshall 1968; Baker et al 2003). Three examples are known from the Highland Region: at Seafield West near Inverness (MHG3944; Case Study Seafield West Bronze Age Cemetery), a dagger of Butterwick type was found in its scabbard in a boat-shaped log-coffin; no trace of the associated individual survived. An initial date 1872–1533 cal BC (Cressey and Sheridan 2003) from the cattle-skin outer layer of the scabbard was found to be faulty. Redating of the scabbard in 2004 produced an average date for the skin and the wood of the scabbard of 2040–1820 cal BC (Sheridan 2004a), which is in line with the dating of this dagger type.

Corroded bronze dagger blade.
Dagger from the log burial at Seafield West after conservation. ©Susan Kruse

At Bught Park, Inverness (MHG3757), a dagger of Masterton type was found in a cist along with the unburnt remains of a male aged around 50 (Henshall 1968, 19, fig 40). The human remains were dated as part of the comparative aspect of the Beakers and Bodies Project to 2200–1970 cal BC (Curtis and Wilkin 2012, 254). Finally, at Craigscorrie (also published as Craigscorry, MHG42151), a dagger was found in an oval rock-cut grave along with the partly burnt bones of an individual that was not retained and two burnt flint objects: a barbed and tanged arrowhead and a plano-convex knife (Callander 1925; Henshall 1968, 190, fig 43; Baker et al 2003, 116). While it is not possible to radiocarbon date this grave, it can be dated through comparison with dated daggers of the same type elsewhere to c 1750/1700–1500 BC (Needham 2015).

Richly equipped female graves appear to be a novelty of the Early Bronze Age, and they may signal a change in status of some women. The necklaces of Whitby jet and of other materials that visually resemble jet found in high-status female burials are discussed in Chapter 6.4 (Table 6.9).

A range of cinerary urn types are also associated with Early Bronze Age cremated remains; they were used to contain cremated remains and usually buried in an inverted position. These have been described and discussed in Chapter 6.4. As noted above, an overlapping chronological sequence can be traced from the Encrusted Urn in the Food Vessel tradition found at Dalmore, near Alness, Easter Ross (MHG6311; Cowie 1978, ROS 1), through the two Collared Urns found at Auldearn, Nairnshire (MHG7059), and Kilmote (Loth), Sutherland (MHG9950; Longworth 1984, 305, nos. 1905–6), as well as the several Cordoned Urns such as from Ness Gap, Fortrose (MHG54308; Woodley et al 2020), and Bipartite Urns from Fortrose and Rosemarkie (MHG60875; Fraser 2014; Sheridan 2014a; Case study Fortrose and Rosemarkie WWW).

The existence of other urns that do not fit within this classificatory scheme and which seem to be locally developed styles have also been noted, see Chapter 6.4 for details. Finally, not all of the ceramic containers for cremated remains were sizeable cinerary urns. The small, relatively thin-walled pot containing remains that was found just outside the entrance to the passage tomb at Tulach an t’Sionnaich (MHG926) is more likely to have been an undecorated Food Vessel or even a late Beaker; the cremated remains produced a date of 2200–1970 cal BC (Sheridan 2005).

Grave goods associated with deposits of cremated remains tend to be less common and include fewer examples of ‘prestige’ objects than those found in Early Bronze Age graves that feature unburnt remains. Simple pins and toggles, which had secured a funerary garment are the most common finds, as discussed in Chapter 6.4. Simple lithic tools such as scrapers have also been found. In one case at Seafield West, a large accessory vessel may have been included in the grave, which could have been used to carry burning embers to light the pyre. (Cressey and Sheridan 2003, 65–6; Case Study Seafield West Bronze Age Cemetery).

Rhomboid shaped toggle with two wholes in the centre.
Bone toggle from Stoneyfield (Raigmore) cairn (Inverness Museum and Art Gallery). ©Michael Sharpe

Barbed and tanged flint arrowheads that have been found with cremated remains have been discussed (Chapter as well as a dagger found with the incompletely burnt remains of an individual at Craigscorrie (Chapter  At Ness Gap, Fortrose, a segmented faience bead, a rare and prestigious item of jewellery, was found in an urn (broadly belonging to the Cordoned Urn tradition) containing the cremated remains of an adult, probably female (MHG54308; Woodley et al 2020, 24, 31, illus 19; Chapter Bronze razors, as found in the local-style urn at Balnalick, Glen Urquhart (MHG2673; Grant 1888, fig 2), are generally thought to be a male-associated grave good, although at Ness Gap, Fortrose, two possible razors were associated with two sets of human remains identified as ‘possibly female’ in one case and ‘probably female’. The razor associated with the probable female is thinner than normal razors (Woodley et al 2020). A copper alloy awl has also been found in a Bipartite Urn at Fortrose and Rosemarkie Waste Water Works (MHG60875; Fraser 2014; Sheridan 2014a; Case Study Fortrose and Rosemarkie WWW); an awl was found with the unburnt body of a female at Culduthel (MHG3782).

 There is one claimed association of a Neolithic carved stone ball with an Early Bronze Age grave: this was a cist discovered at Bruchaig near Kinlochewe in 1898 (MHG6304). It contained a Beaker and, according to relatives of the farmer who discovered it, a carved stone ball, which is now in Gairloch Museum. Carved stone balls are Late Neolithic objects and are normally stray finds (as discussed in Chapter 5). It is impossible to tell now whether the account is correct, or whether two discrete finds were conflated. If this was genuinely a case where an ancient object, the stone ball, was deemed to be special many centuries later in the Early Bronze Age, then a parallel can be cited with a carved stone ball found in the crypt of the medieval church at Portmahomack (Carver et al 2016, 74, 77).


As with Chalcolithic graves, Early Bronze Age graves could occur singly or else as part of a cemetery, be they ‘flat’ or covered by a mound. Examples of relatively sizeable cemeteries are tabulated below:

Dalmore, near Alness, Easter RossER18 graves, all but one being cistsMHG6311; Jolly and Aitken 1879
Fortrose and Rosemarkie WWW*ERPits containing two urned and two un-urned deposits of cremated remainsMHG60875; Fraser 2014; Case study Fortrose and Rosemarkie WWW
Ness Gap, Fortrose*ERCists and pits, urned and un-urned deposits of cremated remains. Note: Woodley wrongly attributed the cremated remains to the Middle Bronze AgeMHG54306; MHG54308; Woodley et al 2020
Raigmore (Stoneyfield)ICists and pits, with at least one late Neolithic deposit and at least one LBA depositMHG45834; Simpson 1996a; Copper et al 2018; Case study Stoneyfield / Raigmore
Seafield West*IWooden log-coffin, wooden ‘cist’, stone cist, pitsMHG3944; Cressey and Sheridan 2003; Case study Seafield West Bronze Age Cemetery
Armadale, Skye*SkyeSeven cists and at least four pitsMHG60879; Peteranna 2011b; Sheridan 2011a; Krus and Peteranna 2016; Case study Armadale Cist Burial
Table 6.12 Examples of Early Bronze Age cemeteries featuring at least three graves (* recent excavations)


Case Study: Seafield West Bronze Age Cemetery


Case Study: Clava Type Cairns


Case Study: Langwell Cist Burial


Case Study: Fortrose and Rosemarkie WWW

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