Beaker Use and Funerary Practices

Although relatively sparse, the evidence for Chalcolithic to Early Bronze Age Beaker use and for Chalcolithic funerary practices thus far recovered from Perth and Kinross is important because it underlines the Continental background and the novel nature (in a British context) of both traditions. The earliest Beakers can all be paralleled closely with their Continental counterparts, as can the practice of burying the dead individually, on their sides, in a contracted position.

Chalcolithic funerary practices: an introduction

The earliest Beaker graves, such as the one at Newmill (MPK2317), feature roughly east-west orientated grave pits within which the unburnt bodies of the deceased were placed. In the case of Newmill, some kind of organic coffin or plank-built rectangular chamber was used (see Bradley et al 2016 on timber-lined Beaker graves in north-west Europe). The Newmill grave was surrounded by a ring-ditch and covered by a low pebble mound. Later, within a few generations, Beaker-associated graves consist of short rectangular stone cists, which were not covered by mounds. While such cists tend to be found singly, some are likely to have formed part of ‘flat’ cemeteries.

While inhumation appears to have been the norm that was introduced from the Continent, calcined bones were found in a Beaker-associated cist of Late Chalcolithic or, more likely, Early Bronze Age date at Balnaguard (MPK1705; Mercer and Midgley 1997). At Pitnacree, a deposit of cremated remains was found – without any artefactual associations – at the base of a standing stone erected on the summit of an Early Neolithic round barrow (MPK1714; Coles and Simpson 1965). One of the cremated bone fragments was radiocarbon dated, as part of National Museums Scotland radiocarbon dating programme, to 2340–1960 cal BC (at 95.4% probability [GrA-21744]; 3740±60 BP; Sheridan 2010a, 44–7). This date places the Pitnacree grave either in the Late Chalcolithic or the Early Bronze Age. However, given that the grave was prominently positioned on top of the mound with an imposing standing stone, it is most likely that Pitnacree belongs to the Early Bronze Age, when several ostentatious funerary monuments were constructed in Perth and Kinross.

The extreme paucity of extant, well-preserved human remains from Perth and Kinross has precluded the possibility of undertaking aDNA analysis. Nevertheless, the results obtained from Chalcolithic remains elsewhere in Scotland (and in Britain more widely: Olalde et al 2018; Booth et al 2021; Patterson et al 2022) has confirmed that Beaker users were indeed arriving from the Continent. They brought with them a distinctive range of Continental genetic signatures. The aDNA studies have also shown that, over several generations, these Continental signatures became dominant in Britain. It is strongly suspected that, had the human remains from Newmill and other early Beaker graves in the region survived, these, too, would indicate that the occupants, or their forebears, had been Continental immigrants.

The currency of Beaker use in Perth and Kinross extends from the 25th to the 20th or 19th century BC, thereby spanning the Chalcolithic and the early part of the Early Bronze Age. Most finds have come from funerary contexts, with a few from non-funerary monuments; to date, no settlement featuring Beaker pottery has yet been found in this part of Scotland. Newmill and other Early Chalcolithic Beakers Later Chalcolithic and EBA Beakers