Funerary Practices

In contrast to the relatively few Chalcolithic graves in this part of Scotland, the funerary record for the Early Bronze Age is more substantial and varied, and some clear patterns and trends in funerary practice can be seen.

The Middle to Late Chalcolithic practice of individual interment in a short-stone cist, with the body laid on its side in a contracted position, continued down to the 19th century BC, if not later. From the 22nd century BC, however, the following changes in funerary practice can be discerned:

1. Interment in both cemeteries and graves.

While no demonstrably Chalcolithic example of a cemetery has yet been found in Perth and Kinross, there are several Early Bronze Age examples of graves grouped together in cemeteries. These are either in ‘flat’, ie unmounded, cemeteries such as at Almondbank (MPK2064; Stewart and Barclay 1997, 24–33) or under round mounds such as at Beech Hill House, near Coupar Angus (MPK5042; Stevenson 1995) and in the massive, final-stage monument at Sketewan (MPK5380; Mercer and Midgley 1997). There are also examples of apparently isolated graves, as at Abercairny (MPK1519; Rideout et al 1987). The Almondbank ‘flat’ cemetery, overlooking Methven Loch, comprised 11 short-stone cists; unburnt human remains, in varying degrees of incompleteness, were found in at least six of them and had probably been present in all 11. Other Early Bronze Age ‘flat’ cemeteries containing cist graves in the region include Loanleven (MPK2114), less than half a kilometre to the west-south-west of Almondbank, and established within a pre-existing ring-ditch (Russell-White et al 1992). Other examples are Gairneybank, near Loch Leven (MPK5639; Cowie and Ritchie 1991) and Westhaugh of Tulliemet, in Strathtay (MPK1654; Stewart and Barclay 1997, 34–41). A ‘flat’ cemetery including cist graves was also found at North Mains (MPK1359; Barclay 1983). Here, part of the cemetery lay under the Class II (double-entrance) henge monument (Barclay 1983, fig 3). Calcined bone from ‘burial A’, a cist underlying the henge bank, produced a radiocarbon date, for the National Museums Scotland’s radiocarbon dating programme, of 2196–1920 cal BC (at 95.4% probability [GrA-24007]; 3665±45 BP). This provides a terminus post quem for the construction of the henge.

2. Round Barrows and Cairns

Round barrows or cairns of varying sizes, including massive examples, with some kerbed, and some not, started to be constructed to cover individual graves or groups of graves. Round barrows or cairns covering individual graves include White Cairn, Glen Cochill (MPK1593; Stewart and Barclay 1997)  Beech Hill House, near Coupar Angus features a group of graves (MPK5042; Stevenson 1995). Often such mounds were situated in prominent locations in the landscape, such as the Fairy Knowe at Pendriech, near Bridge of Allan (Alexander 1868). It is assumed that they were designed to draw attention to, and monumentalise, the individuals buried underneath. The massive and imposing mounds at Sketewan (MPK5380; Mercer and Midgley 1997) and North Mains (MPK1358; Barclay 1983) have diameters of 20m and 40m respectively and heights of 1.3m and 5.5m (Barclay 1983, 189). Each have a complex sequence of construction that includes a phase when the mound was ring-shaped, before the central area was filled in to form a solid mound. It may be that the builders of these ring-mounds were aware of the Clava ring-cairns in and around Inverness (Bradley 2000); the relative chronology of these monuments is consistent with such a possibility. The kerbed ring-cairn at Sketewan, some 19.5m in diameter, enclosed and partly covered a cemetery of seven polygonal cists in which the cremated remains of at least 21 individuals were buried. It was set around the remains of a funerary pyre on which some of the individuals are likely to have been cremated (Mercer and Midgley 1997). A massive rectangular short cist (cist 1), probably housing an unburnt body and containing a Food Vessel, plano-convex flint knife and large amounts of meadowsweet, was then added to the centre of the area enclosed by the ring-cairn (Mercer and Midgley 1997, 295–7, phases VII and VIII). It was covered by a cairn of its own, before both it and the ring-cairn were subsumed in the final-stage, large cairn. Subsequent funerary activity included the construction of three ring-groove palisades outside the massive cairn, each enclosing a deposit of cremated human remains. Full details of the sequence, and of the associated radiocarbon dates, are presented in the report (Mercer and Midgley 1997). At North Mains, a terminus post quem for the construction of the barrow is provided by sherds of a Food Vessel (Barclay 1983, 217). Further Food Vessels from graves cut into the barrow provide termini ante quos, thereby placing the barrow’s period of construction between the 22nd and the 20th centuries BC.

Huntingtower Bronze Age barrow ©️ Perth and Kinross Heritage Trust

3. Food Vessels

Food Vessels started to replace Beakers as the vessel of choice to be deposited in cists alongside unburnt bodies. However, Beakers also continued to be used as grave goods for several generations after Food Vessels appeared (as, for example, at North Mains, Burial F: MPK1359; Barclay 1983). Food Vessels and Beakers would have contained sustenance for the deceased’s journey into the Afterlife. Pollen analysis of organic residue inside one of the North Mains Food Vessels suggested the former presence of a cereal-based ale, perhaps flavoured with meadowsweet (Bohncke in Barclay 1983, 178–80). However, it should be noted that not all cists or other graves with unburnt human remains contain a pot.

4. Cremation

Cremation started to be used as a funerary rite, then gained in popularity so that by the 19th century BC it seems to have been the dominant rite.

The use of associated pottery also changed, from an accompaniment to the cremated remains such as at North Mains Burial F to a cinerary urn. These were used to contain the remains. Examples include the large cemetery at Kilmagadwood (MPK18535; MPK3013; Sheridan et al 2018a); Shanwell (MPK1816; Anderson 1885) which like Kilmagadwood, was close to Loch Leven; Haugh of Grandtully (MPK6035; Simpson and Coles 1990). Cremated remains were deposited in various ways:

  • unaccompanied, in a pit dug to receive a standing stone on top of the Neolithic round barrow at Pitnacree (MPK1714); calcined bone dated to 2340–1960 cal BC (at 95.4% probability [GrA-21744]; 3740±60 BP; Sheridan 2010a, 44–7). Note that the association of this grave with a prominent mound makes it more likely that the interment took place during the Early Bronze Age, rather than the Chalcolithic period;
  • unaccompanied, in a short-stone cist – as in the ‘triple cist’ that was probably an addition to a pre-existing Chalcolithic monument, consisting of concentric segmented ring-ditches, at Forteviot (MPK1888; Brophy and Noble 2020, 252–6). A fragment of calcined human bone from the southernmost compartment of the cist has been dated to 2030–1885 cal BC (at 95.4% probability [SUERC-45557]; 3600±29 BP; Brophy and Noble 2020, 256); 
  • accompanying a late Beaker or Food Vessel in a short-stone cist, such as, for example, at North Mains Burial F, with a late-style Beaker (Barclay 1983), or at Westhaugh of Tulliemet cist 2, with a Food Vessel (Stewart and Barclay 1997, 35); at Forteviot Henge 2, the cremated remains were accompanied by a Food Vessel in a stone-lined pit
  • inside a cinerary urn, buried in a simple pit or a stone-lined polygonal cist, as at Kilmagadwood, for example (Sheridan et al 2018a);
  • unaccompanied, in a simple pit, as in Deposit 115 in the Kilmagadwood cemetery (Sheridan et al 2018a, 5).
Forteviot Henge 2 Top: photo of stone-lined pit with funerary deposit (Brophy and Noble 2020, fig 6.20); bottom: drawing of the Food Vessel ©️ Marion O’Neil

Graves with cremated remains can be found individually, as at Pitnacree, but are more often found in cemeteries, either flat or mounded. In some cases, such as the Forteviot double-ditched monument and the Moncreiffe ‘mini-henge’ (Moncreiffe House; MPK3163; Stewart 1985), such graves were added to pre-existing monuments. The large ‘flat’ cemetery at Kilmagadwood (Sheridan et al 2018a) is one of the biggest in Scotland; it is only smaller than Southfield in Fife. It contained 23 urned deposits of cremated human remains, plus three deposits of pyre debris, which also included cremated human remains. Overall, at least 29 individuals are represented.  Its span of use is bracketed by the radiocarbon dates for a Vase Urn (Encrusted Urn) found in 1946 (2028–1889 cal BC at 95.4% probability [SUERC-79487]; 3600±26 BP) and for a Bipartite Urn (Urn 18), discovered during Hall’s excavation in 2013 (1737–1542 cal BC at 95.4% probability [SUERC-76278]; 3357±24 BP).

The Kilmagadwood Early Bronze Age cemetery and some of the urns found there. Top L: location; top R: plan; bottom L: excavation in progress, 2013; bottom, centre: top: Urns 22 and 23 in situ; bottom: Urn 16 in situ; bottom R: the Vase Urn found in 1946. Most images from Sheridan et al. 2018a. Excavation photos, plan and map ©️ Derek Hall; 1946 urn photo ©️ NMS

5. Log Coffins

A new and prestigious type of funerary structure, the log-coffin, is attested at Dumglow, Cleish (Abercromby 1905). This log-coffin, made from a hollowed-out oak trunk – one of nearly 70 Early Bronze Age log-coffins found in Britain (Parker Pearson et al 2013) – was found under a cairn on the summit of Dumglow (MPK5596), in a prominent location. The remains of the coffin, which is part of the National Museums Scotland collections (NMS X.EQ 519), have been radiocarbon dated to 2197–1961 cal BC (at 95.4% probability; SUERC-49755 [3688±33 BP]; Sheridan et al 2013). Even allowing for an ‘old wood’ effect, this places the coffin firmly within the Early Bronze Age, and it is likely that it had contained the unburnt body of an individual.

6. Graves associated with Standing Stones

Some Early Bronze Age graves were marked by, or otherwise associated with, standing stones. This is the case, for example, at Pitnacree where a deposit of cremated human remains dating to 2340–1960 BC was buried in the pit dug to take a standing stone, on top of the pre-existing Neolithic round barrow (Sheridan 2010a, 44–7). Elsewhere, at North Mains, a large, and presumably ancient by the time of its deployment, cupmarked slab was found at the summit of the massive Early Bronze Age round barrow covering graves. It may well originally have stood upright, although 19th century disturbance to the mound made it impossible to judge whether this was the case (Barclay 1983, 199). At Balnaguard (MPK1705), just 100m from the massive mound at Sketewan, a cist containing a Food Vessel was discovered around 1887 near a single standing stone (Mercer and Midgley 1997, 285–6). In 1969 a further cist, containing a long-necked Beaker, was found 12m from the stone and was excavated by Stewart (Mercer and Midgley 1997, 287–8). Further excavations by Stewart around the stone uncovered cremated remains, pyre debris and the rimsherd of a possible Food Vessel, along with two prostrate stones that may have formed a three-stone alignment with the standing stone.  

7. Social Differentiation in funerary practices

Variability in the size of Early Bronze Age cists, of covering mounds and of grave goods (as well as in the location of graves) suggests that social differentiation was marked in funerary practices, particularly between the 22nd and 20th centuries BC. Moreover, for the first time, high status appears to be signalled for certain females. It may be that social differentiation had already existed during the Chalcolithic, with only a minority of the community accorded funerary rites that are visible archaeologically. This may well be the case, for example, with the probably male occupant of the Early Chalcolithic, Continental-style grave at Newmill (MPK2317). Nevertheless, the marked variability in the Early Bronze Age funerary record – particularly for the period between the 22nd and 20th centuries BC – indicates that funerary practices were very much the arena for underlining individuals’ status and power at that time.

This is most clearly shown in the ‘dagger-grave’ cist at Forteviot Henge 1. The location of the grave shows the appropriation, and change in use, of a pre-existing sacred monument (Brophy and Noble 2020, chapter 5; see also Younger 2016). Here, at some time between 2285–2090 cal BC, it appears that the vegetation in the interior of the henge was burnt (Brophy and Noble 2020, 188). The burnt turves were cut and placed into the henge ditch, in preparation for the construction of a large stone cist with a massive, four-tonne capstone in the henge interior. The pit dug to receive the cist cut part of the ditch of the henge. This cist was constructed to house the unburnt body of an individual, who is almost certain to have been male, judging by the grave goods., They were accorded a special status in society, given the significant amount of labour and resources involved in the cist’s construction and the wealth of the grave goods. The underside of the capstone was adorned with an unusual design that is likely to have been pecked when the cist was constructed. Careful excavation and painstaking forensic examination of the cist and its contents has enabled a remarkably detailed account of this high-status grave to be produced. The floor of the cist was partly cobbled with river pebbles, leaving a ‘halo’ for the head, and plant material may have been strewn on the floor. The deceased was deposited in the cist, on the left side and with the limbs contracted, resting on a bier or mat of woven birch bark, with the head possibly resting on a ‘pillow’ of heather and meadowsweet. The body was probably wrapped in an animal hide. The grave goods consisted of a deliberately broken and bent bronze-bladed dagger, with whale-tooth pommel, gold pommel-mount, cattle horn hilt and sheath probably of calf skin, which was placed on the chest with the tip facing towards the chest. Behind the head a bronze-bladed knife, a net bag containing fire-making equipment, and a wooden bowl were deposited. A second wooden bowl found beside a small heap of sand in the stomach area may have been used to scoop the sand into the grave as the body started to decompose, releasing bodily fluids. Plentiful meadowsweet was placed into the grave, and the body was probably covered with birch-bark matting. Then the massive capstone was lowered over the cist, and covered over by a round cairn that overlapped the henge ditch as well as occupying part of the interior of the by-now transformed henge. Henge 2 at Forteviot was also restructured during the Early Bronze Age, probably when it, too, was appropriated for funerary use around 2000 BC (Brophy and Noble 2020, 219–223; 232).

Composite of images of the Forteviot ‘dagger-grave’ cist and its contents

Much still needs to be done to improve our understanding of Early Bronze Age funerary practices and traditions. A comprehensive round-up of the available information, including radiocarbon dates, needs to be undertaken, along with further radiocarbon dating – especially of the remains from Kilmagadwood cemetery – to refine our chronological picture (cf Sheridan 2007b; Stevenson 1999). Far too few human remains from this part of Scotland have been subjected to aDNA or isotopic analysis; just one individual, from Doune (now in Stirling), has so far been analysed for aDNA (Olalde et al 2018; Sheridan et al 2018b). Only one individual, from Gairneybank cist 3 (Cowie and Ritchie 1991) has been subjected to dietary carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis and to strontium, oxygen and sulphur isotope analysis, as part of the Beaker People Project (Jay et al 2019). The young male from Doune, in common with other Early Bronze Age and Chalcolithic individuals from Scotland and other parts of Britain, was found to have Continental steppe ancestry. This is a genetic signature associated with a 92% genetic turnover in the population of Britain between 2500 BC and 1500 BC, the mechanisms of which continue to be discussed (eg by Booth 2019 and Booth et al 2021). This does not mean that the boy from Doune was a Continental immigrant, however; just that his ancestors, several generations back, had been. The Gairneybank individual – an adult, possibly male, dated to 2140–1920 cal BC (OxA-V-2168-43; Parker Pearson et al 2019, table 2.1) – was interestingly found to be an immigrant to Perth and Kinross, probably from the Antrim Plateau in Northern Ireland (Jay et al 2019, 397). The Beaker People Project identified two other immigrants to Scotland from the Antrim Plateau: a Late Chalcolithic or Early Bronze Age man from Culduthel near Inverness and Late Chalcolithic man or woman from Kinaldie, Aberdeenshire (Parker Pearson et al 2019, 448). The Gairneybank person’s link with Ireland resonates with the fact that one of the Food Vessels found at Beech Hill House, Coupar Angus, was of Irish Bowl type (MacSween in Stevenson 1995, illus 11). Ireland was, of course, the source of the copper used in the Early Bronze Age bronze artefacts in this part of Scotland. The carbon and nitrogen isotope results for the Gairneybank individual show that, as with other Early Bronze Age and Chalcolithic individuals, their diet was terrestrial, with no evidence for the consumption of fish. Clearly there is scope for finding out a lot more about the diet and mobility patterns of Perth and Kinross’s Early Bronze Age inhabitants. Grave goods