8.4.3 Burial traditions and belief

The most abundant evidence for early medieval settlement in the SESARF region is in the form of graves and cemeteries. Maldonado’s (2011) database lists at least 80 sites with certain or possible early medieval burial in the region, representing about 15% of the known early medieval burial places in Scotland. It is the densest concentration of burial evidence in the country, and with some of the largest population sizes. Examples confirmed by excavation include 116 at Parkburn, Lasswade and 111 at Thornybank. Population sizes grow potentially into the multiple hundreds at ecclesiastical cemeteries such as the unexcavated cropmark sites of Sprouston and Philiphaugh.

black and white photograph of an excavated burial site.
Parkburn, Lasswade cist burial © HES
Black and white aerial photograph showing cropmarks in the fields.
Cropmarks at Whitmuirhaugh, Sprouston © HES

Of these 80 sites, 72 are listed as possible or confirmed long cist sites. Long cists are graves lined with unmortared stone, generally consisting of upright slabs, in which the cadaver is placed. This was the most common burial rite in early medieval Scotland (Maldonado 2013). Long cists were used from prehistoric times through the medieval period, but they are most characteristic of the 5th to the 7th centuries. It is in this window of time that the best-excavated examples can be found, including Thornybank, Lasswade and the Catstane.

One prominent example may stand as a type-site. At the Catstane, Edinburgh, 51 cists were orientated W–E (that is, with head to west, facing east). The Catstane itself is an early inscribed stone which acted as a focus for the cemetery (SESARF 8.4.2 Early inscribed stones). Originally excavated in 1864, it has been noted that the plans produced at the time are not reliable in terms of scale and measurements (Rutherford & Ritchie 1975). The uncovered cists were paved with flat stones, except for one ‘short cist’ which was built of ordinary stones and featured evidence of burning. The paved cists contained poorly preserved human bone but no artefacts were recovered. Further excavations were carried out in 1977 and uncovered four rows of long cists, including some that had been previously investigated. A badly denuded kerb was detected around the base of the Catstane, with some cist burials arranged around what appears to be a ploughed-out mound at its base. If the inscribed stone and the cemetery were consciously reusing a Bronze Age kerbed cairn and standing stone, it means the memorial may not in fact stand to mark the specific grave of ‘Vetta’, but the wider cemetery in the name of a prominent leader, patron or ancestor. The cists were constructed of either shale or sandstone, both available locally. Maldonado (2011) suggested that these corresponded to different clusters, perhaps family groupings. This could perhaps now be tested with stable isotope analysis or paleogenetics.

Photograph of excavations of a burial site. In the foreground, there are four graves, two of which have skeletal remains. At a separate excavation spot in the background, three people can be seen digging.
View of Cat Stane long cist cemetery during excavation in 1969 © HES

While in general the region benefits from fairly recent open-area excavations published with large suites of radiocarbon dated individuals such as Thornybank and Auldhame, the majority of identified sites remain unexcavated and/or dated. This is a problem mainly due to the visual and morphological similarity of cist burial over long periods of time. Iron Age cist burials in the region come in a variety of forms (eg Dalland 1992; Armit et al 2013), some of which may have been mistaken for early medieval cists before modern excavation techniques. Radiocarbon dating at Castle Park, Dunbar reveals that long cists were occasionally used in the later medieval period as well (Perry 2000). This may explain reports of cist burials around later medieval monasteries (eg Turner 1866), and overall, more work is needed at such ecclesiastical cemeteries.

Photograph of an excavated skeleton
Skeleton 801 from Auldhame © HES

Long cists were not the only form of burial used in the early medieval period. The large cemetery of Thornybank, Midlothian was roughly half long cists, alongside 45 graves with an organic lining argued to have been log coffins, made from a hollowed tree trunk (Rees 2003). Two of the burials were further embellished with square-ditched enclosures which may represent either low barrows similar to Pictish burials north of the Forth, or fenced mortuary houses as seen amongst contemporary British burials in SW England and Wales (Longley 2009). A grave with a four-post arrangement is also indicative of an above-ground timber structure. A similar mix of cists and log coffins can also be seen in at early medieval Whithorn in Galloway, where above-ground markers and fenced enclosures were also suggested, and it seems clear that both were part of the Britons’ funerary ritual repertoire (Maldonado 2019).

Aerial photograph of an excavated cemetery. Several dozen graves can be seen.
Thornybank (Newton) long cist cemetery © HES

There are also rare instances of furnished burial, that is, burial dressed and/or arrayed with grave goods. It may be that these are signs of pagan practice, but the link between unfurnished burial and Christianity remains unproven (Maldonado 2011), especially given that the majority of pre-Christian Iron Age burials in the region were also typically unfurnished (Armit et al 2013).

One grave in particular forms the clearest example of an Anglo-Saxon-style furnished inhumation in the SESARF area, but also shows the difficulties of ascribing religious belief to burial practices. The burial of an adult individual at Hound Point, Dalmeny was discovered wearing a beaded necklace at the neck (Baldwin Brown 1914–15). The most diagnostic beads have parallels among early Anglo-Saxon graves elsewhere in Britain, some as late as the 7th century. At the centre of the necklace was a fragment of Roman glass, a folded rim of clear blue vessel, dateable to the 2nd century AD (Blackwell 2018, 247). There are numerous instances of Roman glass and other objects being repurposed as amulets in Anglo-Saxon graves (Williams and Eckardt). Along with the date of the latest beads, a 7th-century date for the burial is most likely (Blackwell 2018, 104), making it among the most northerly examples of the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ furnished burial rite. However, it does not follow from this that the individual was buried as a pagan. Grave goods were becoming less frequent already by the 7th century, and an inhumation facing east was typical of the Lothian area for centuries by this point. There are other occasional small finds from long cists in the region, like an iron knife and a fragment of shale bangle from Lasswade, which are hardly diagnostic of cultural affiliation. This suggest instead that personal objects could sometimes be included in funerary rites regardless of religious affiliation (Maldonado 2011, 114–16).

Photograph of a necklace made from glass beads in blue, yellow, black, yellow and brown
Necklace of eleven glass beads of Anglo-Saxon type from Hound Point, Dalmeny © NMS

There are potentially earlier Anglo-Saxon-style furnished inhumations in the region, discussed most recently by Blackwell (2018). Late Roman and Anglo-Saxon weapons and other finds around the Roman fort site of Newstead suggest occupation into the 4th and 5th centuries here, and match well with similar finds from the hillfort of Traprain Law (ibid., 296–7). A burial in a long cist with a part of an iron spearhead from Easter Ferrygate Gardens, North Berwick was recently radiocarbon dated to AD 555–644 (Knight and Maldonado 2022, 209). More recently, a fragment of a Style I-decorated great square headed brooch was discovered through metal detecting near Chirnside, Scottish Borders (TT18/19, now NMS X.2021.31), and other similar finds found in topsoil contexts may have originally been deposited in burials since ploughed away.

A number of evocative stray finds of elite Anglo-Saxon gold objects have been found in the Lothians (Blackwell 2018). They include a domed gold and garnet cloisonné sword mount from East Linton (NMS X.1992.5), a pyramidal gold and garnet cloisonné sword mount from Dalmeny (NMS X.FE 50), a gold and garnet cloisonné fragment from a pendant cross from Dunbar (NMS X.1997.529), a gold and glass cloisonné mount from Auldhame (NMS, unregistered), and a disc-shaped gold decorative fitting from Dalmahoy (NMS X.FE 86). It is only a small group but remarkable collectively. They have parallels with ‘Final phase’ Anglo-Saxon grave goods from Kent, and in some cases represent the only examples of their kind north of the Humber. They can all be broadly dated to the 7th century. Their clustering in the Lothians suggests that this region may have been wealthier and more well-connected to the world of princely burials such as Sutton Hoo than previously suspected, ‘a hitherto unrecognised royal/political heartland’ (Blackwell 2018, 304). Metal detecting has turned up one more find from this group in the Scottish Borders, a gold pendant with purple glass cabochon inset from Old Cambus, Cockburnspath (TT 80/18, now NMS X.2022.25).