An Early Bronze Age Cemetery at Kilmagadwood

By Grace Woolmer-White, with assistance from Alison Sheridan and Derek Hall

In wintery conditions during December 2012, an archaeological trial trenching evaluation was undertaken by Derek Hall to satisfy a planning condition for the construction of two houses at Kilmagadwood, near Loch Leven (MPK3013). Discovered in one of the trenches were a number of deposits of cremated human remains in cinerary urns, dating to the Early Bronze Age. Further phases of excavation were carried out in 2013 focussing on this area, and these revealed one the largest Early Bronze Age cemeteries currently known in Scotland.

The first discovery

The first hint of the existence of the cemetery was discovered in 1946, in the adjacent field to the north west (Stevenson 1947). Whilst ploughing a sloping knoll, a horse sank its hoof into a hollow and into the base of an upturned Encrusted Urn containing cremated remains. This had been buried in a paved pit on a low knoll, and although this knoll was stony, it was unclear whether a cairn had covered this grave. The urn and its contents were acquired by the then-named National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland (now National Museums Scotland; accession number NMS X.EA 232) and in 2018, Principal Curator Dr Alison Sheridan obtained a radiocarbon date from a fragment of human bone from the urn, as part of NMS’ ongoing programme of radiocarbon dating objects in its collections. The date of 2026–1892 cal BC (at 95.4% probability; SUERC-79487, 3600±26 BP) confirmed an Early Bronze Age date for the grave and is in line with other dates for this type of cinerary urn.

Black and white image of an urn, with an open top and pointed bottom, A zig-zag pattern is carved into the rim.
The 1946 Encrusted Urn © NMS

The 2012-2013 field excavations

The fieldwork that took place 60 years later, 100m to the southeast of the knoll, unearthed a total of 23 further urned deposits of cremated human remains (EPK995/MPK18535). Densely distributed in an area measuring only 20 square meters, these urns varied in style, size and burial depth, and it was clear that they were part of a cemetery that had been in use for some time. A Vase Urn is likely to have been the first to have been deposited, with six Collared Urns buried next, clustering around the Vase Urn in the north east of the area. The cemetery then seems to have expanded with the addition of six Cordoned Urns, then eight. Bipartite Urns and a possible Bucket Urn. All but three of the urns had been placed inverted (upside-down) into pits dig directly into the sandy sediment. Most of the pits were unlined. In four instances, the pits had been disturbed with the later insertion of another urn; this gave valuable clues to the sequence of burials in the cemetery.

Digital plan of locations where urns were excavated, denoted by red and green dots on a blackand white trench plan
Plan showing group of excavated urns: inverted urns are red, upright urns are green and the small blue circles indicate the position of broken urns © Derek Hall

In addition to the urned deposits, three un-urned deposits of pyre debris were also discovered. Among the charcoal were fragments of calcined (burnt) bone and burnt stones. The edges of these deposits were sharply defined, suggesting that they had been buried within organic containers, such as bags. A charcoal-rich area was also noted, but as it lay outside the footprint of the proposed houses, was not fully excavated. It may have represented the remains of a funerary pyre or another un-urned deposit of pyre debris, although it was possibly too small to be the former of these.

During the excavations, the urns and their contents were wrapped and carefully lifted. They were then stored until funding could be secured for the excavation and analysis of their contents.

A person kneeling on the ground, excavating an urn from the trench. It has been exposed on allsides and is surrounded by measuring tapes and a scale.
One of the Urns being carefully wrapped prior to lifting © Derek Hall

In the lab

In 2016, the urns were excavated under laboratory conditions in the National Museums Collection Centre, Granton, at the invitation of Dr Alison Sheridan, and the cremated remains contained within them were subject to osteological analysis by Dr Aida Romera of Edinburgh University. Twenty-nine individuals were identified, of whom 12 were adults (including 4 female and 4 male), 13 were non-adult (including 1 foetus, 3 infants, 8 children and 1 adolescent) and 4 were of indeterminate age. Most of the urns contained one individual, with the exception of three urns which contained multiple individuals comprising an adult and non-adult remains. One of the un-urned deposits also included more than one individual. Evidence of illness in life was detected for several of the individuals, which included diet-related metabolic diseases, joint diseases, dental diseases and tendon or ligament problems.

Several artefacts were also present within the urns, and these were identified by Dr Alison Sheridan. These included a burnt bone toggle; a flint flake; burnt bone beads; an enigmatic bone or antler item; tubular sheet metal beads; a burnt metal razor and fragments of another; a burnt metal awl; and a burnt segmented faience bead. Green staining on some of the cremated bone also suggested the presence of other copper-alloy objects which were either burnt away during the cremation or did not survive the burial conditions. Most of the objects were found mixed in at various depths within the cremated remains in the urns, with the exception of the flint flake. This was found close to the mouth of the urn and was also unburnt, suggesting that it had been added to the urn after the cremated remains were gathered and placed within their container.

Traces of a number or organic items were also present. These included possible remains of animal hide, and also a small collection of individual strands of hair. The animal skins were unburnt and found at the mouth area of four of the urns, suggesting that they had been coverings for these which would have prevented the contents from spilling out when the urns were inverted. The hair strands, also unburnt, are comparable in fineness to human hair, and thus could rather remarkably be fragments of the deceased’s hair, possibly escaping from the burning by falling through the pyre.

Close-up image of brown hair, clumped at one end and separated into strands at the other
Fragment of hair from Urn 14 © Alison Sheridan

So far, only limited post-excavation analysis has been able to take place as funding of this has proved problematic due to the developer’s company going into liquidation. Much more post-excavation work remains outstanding, such as a systematic programme of radiocarbon dating and the reconstitution of several urns by a professional conservator. To date it has only been possible to obtain one further radiocarbon date – 1738‒1564 cal BC at 95.4% probability (SUERC-76278 (GU45635), 3357±24 BP, for bone from Urn 18, a Bipartite Urn containing a segmented faience bead), and this was commissioned by NMS as part of Dr Sheridan’s research into Early Bronze Age faience beads. Such essential post-excavation work would not only enable a better understanding of the date and development of the cemetery, but would also help to date styles of Early Bronze Age cinerary urns (especially Bipartite Urns) which are currently poorly dated.

Collage of four excavation images of urns in the trench, all upside down and excavated to their rims.
Excavated Urns (left to right): Urn 3; Urn 15; Urn 23; Urns 20 & 21 © Derek Hall

Further community-based investigations

Following the excavation and discoveries, further surveys were carried out to investigate the area. The first of these was a geophysical survey in 2017 by OTJ Heritage on behalf of Kinross Museum, as part of a community archaeology programme for the Our Portmoak Project. The aim of this was to test whether more graves were likely to exist between the initial 1946 findspot and the later discovered cemetery. A number or geophysical anomalies were detected, particularly towards the east near to the 1976 findspot, and towards the west were a number of pits and a possible roundhouse.

This geophysical survey was followed up with a fieldwalking survey by AOC Archaeology Group in 2018 (EPK1335/MPK20304). Also community based, this was commissioned by Perth and Kinross Heritage Trust and covered the same area as the geophysical survey. Finds included a fragment of a Neolithic axehead, a hollow-based flint arrowhead, a fragment of a cannel coal or shale bangle, medieval pottery, and five fragments of burnt bone, some of which may possibly relate to the Bronze Age funerary activity taking place in the area.

Photograph of field with a large tree, showing red flags where findspots were located. It is a cloudy and grey day.
Findspots from the fieldwalking © Perth and Kinross Heritage Trust

Although the fieldwalking finds did not clarify the geophysical results, they do suggest multiperiod activity in the area, and both surveys have shown that there is clearly much more waiting to be investigated at Kilmagadwood, relating to both the Early Bronze Age cemetery and other periods. Further work, such as excavation to verify the geophysical results would be desirable, and with a strong community base already established, further community archaeology projects would be a popular and enriching method to deliver this. The top priority, however, remains the completion of the post-excavation work, after which the assemblage can pass through the Treasure Trove process.

Information presented here is drawn from the TAFAJ article by Sheridan et al. (2018), with additions. This is available online for further details and information.  


Sheridan, J A, Hall, D, Romera, A, Welch, N, O’Grady, O and Engl, R 2018 ‘Kilmagadwood Early Bronze Age cemetery: excavation and initial post-excavation research’, Tayside and Fife Archaeological Journal 24, 1–20.

Stevenson, R B K 1947 ‘An Encrusted-Urn burial at Scotlandwell, Kinross-shire’, Proc Soc Antiq Scot 80 (1945–7), 145–6.