Case Study: Armadale Cist Burial and Stone and Timber Ritual Complex

Susan Kruse

An important Early Bronze Age cemetery was excavated at Armadale (MHG60879) near the pier in 2009–10. It revealed a complex history. Scattered flint and bloodstone lithics from the site showed activity during the Mesolithic period, while Neolithic activity is represented by a hearth and a cremation pit. The latter is a rare example for the Highlands of a dated late Neolithic burial.

Postholes suggest a timber henge on the site, followed by a stone circle. Neither is dated but could feasibly date to the Neolithic and/or Early Bronze Age. A large cist was situated in the centre (Cist 3), containing a degraded inhumation, beach pebbles and molluscs, but no other obvious grave goods. Three in situ standing stones may have been part of the stone circle, and other stones from the circle may have been used to construct Cist 3. After the dismantling of the stone circle, another six cists and five cremation pits were placed both inside and outside the circle. Some reused holes from the dismantled stone circle while one in particular (Cist 7) lay a fair distance away. The later restructuring of timber post and stone circles, using new stones is also known from Machrie Moor, Arran and Temple Wood, Kilmartin in Argyll.

Overhead photo of the holes from the timber and stone circles, as well as several cist burials.
Figure 1: The burial site at Armadale under excavation (image: RoCAS)

The other cists contain a mixture of cremation and inhumation burials. Three had food vessels and one had a number of pot fragments. Cist 7, an inhumation burial placed away from the others, had three barbed and tanged arrowheads and two flint scrapers. Cist 4 also contained degraded human remains, with a food vessel and a steatite archer’s bracer (wristguard). This appears to have been reused as a pendant. Other wealthy Early Bronze Age burials from the Highlands contain archery equipment, including a burial from Corry near Broadford on southern Skye (MHG13995). All the cists and cremation pits contained lithics with the exception of Cist 6. The mixture of cremation and inhumation, in pits and cists, and the inclusion of different grave good assemblages is reminiscent of Seafield West near Inverness (MHG3944).

Two flint scrapers and three barbed and tanged arrowheads.
Figure 2: Flint tools from Cist 7, Armadale (image: RoCAS)

The final phase on the site is represented by a kerbed cairn, but it had been much disturbed by later electricity cable trenches. It had beach cobbles of various sizes, overlying degraded large schist slabs. The cairn may have been robbed in antiquity or may have extended in an irregular shape.

The radiocarbon dates have been analysed using Bayesian modelling, providing a good case study in the advantages the approach offers when combined with stratigraphic information to tease out detailed chronology. In this case, developments at the site are proposed at a generational level. It suggests that the cemetery was used infrequently, perhaps reserved only for special occasions and elite individuals.

Few sites in the Highlands have given us such detailed information of the use of Neolithic timber and stone circles and their subsequent conversion into cemeteries in the Early Bronze Age. Most evidence for Early Bronze Age cist burials has focused on the east coast. While we have evidence of a couple dozen cists from Skye, most are either old finds or not investigated, and only seven, including Armadale, are known to have included pottery. The final report is eagerly awaited.

Further information

Peteranna, Mary 2011 Excavation of a Bronze Age Burial Site at Pier Road, Armadale, Isle of Skye. Data Structure Report. Excavation summary and preliminary findings. RoCAS (Report attached to MHG60879)

Krus, Anthony M and Peteranna, Mary 2016 ‘Bayesian Modeling of an Early Bronze Age Cemetery at Armadale, Isle of Skye, Scotland’, Radiocarbon 58, 693–708.