Were Bronze Age Burial Practices All That Different?

Bronkham Hill

Bronkham Hill barrow cemetery

As archaeologists, we use the term ‘Bronze age burial’ to describe a range of burial practices that date from the Bronze Age. But what does that actually mean? Why are archaeologists so fascinated by the them? And are they really all that different to what came before, or afterwards?

Before the Bronze Age was the Neolithic period. The Neolithic period is generally broken up into early, middle and late, but encompasses the date range 6000-4700 years ago. Many burials from the Neolithic period are characterised by being housed in man-made monuments. It’s been suggested that this could have been reflective of the general settling of the population, as the dominant culture shifted from the hunter-gatherers of the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods, towards agriculture and therefore the need to build permanent settlements. Styles of burial monument vary from region to region, from the long mounds associated with southern and eastern England, to the Cairns and passage graves of Ireland, but many of their key features are similar.

Most of the tombs from this period house multiple bodies. In many cases, the bones show evidence of being exposed above ground prior to their burial, which is a process known as excarnation.

Although many of the burials that archaeologists have excavated are man-made tombs, there is evidence of some interments in graves as well, although far fewer of these have been found.

We aren’t sure how or why certain individuals were chosen for tomb burials, but it may have had something to do with wealth, status or the manner in which the person died. And what happened to the people that didn’t get buried in tombs? We know that there aren’t anywhere near enough tombs to prove that all of the dead from the Neolithic were being interred there. It’s been suggested that those who were not interred in the tombs during the Neolithic period, were simply excarnated and then their bones scattered above ground, which is why we don’t see any record of them (bones don’t last very long out in the open).

So as the Neolithic period gave way to the Bronze Age, what started to change? The transition from the Late Neolithic to the Early Bronze Age isn’t entirely clear, but it’s generally accepted that the date range for the Bronze Age is from 4700 years ago to 2600 years ago.

Carrow Keel

Carrowkeel Neolithic passage tomb

Around about 4700 years ago, we see the first evidence of ‘Beaker culture’ begining to emerge in Europe, and the early burials associated with Beaker culture are found with the distinctive Beaker style pottery. A little later in the period, other grave goods, such as beads, weapons and jewellery start being found in graves with the dead. We’ve even proved that some of the people that were buried in such contexts in Britain actually grew up on mainland Europe, for example the Amesbury Archer, who probably lived much of his early life in the Alpine region, before travelling to Britain.

Barrows and burial mounds also became increasingly prevalent in the Bronze Age. Barrows were incredibly popular in the southwest of England, with many more than 260 within a two-mile radius of Stongehenge. Sometimes, barrows or mounds contained cremated remains. Because barrows were quite easy to spot, many were ‘excavated’ during the 19th and early 20th century, before archaeology as a scientific discipline had really developed, and therefore much of our understanding of them has been limited. However, every so often, new undisturbed barrows come to light, for example the recently discovered mound near Morecambe Bay in Lancashire, where DigVentures will be running the first scientific excavation of a Bronze Age burial mound in the northwest of England for more than 50 years.

The main characteristic of Bronze Age burials is the focus on the individual, rather than the collective dead. By adorning the deceased with precious goods the living were signifying the status or position in society of their loved ones, as opposed to honouring their ancestors as a group.

As the Bronze Age ended, and the Iron Age began, cremation continued to be a popular method of burial, but there was also later a shift towards using cemeteries to bury the dead. Human sacrifices such as the Lindow Man were practiced, although they do seem to be relatively rare, with animal sacrifices being more common. Occasionally, burials in pits at the bottom of hillforts have been found, or even the odd chariot burial, associated with the Arras culture found mainly in East Yorkshire.

During the Iron Age, settlements became more permanent, and the ability of the people to farm and exploit the land was improving. The emergence of hill forts as a common structure indicates that socio-political tensions may have been rising between groups during this period. It’s also thought that migrations of European’s from the continent were influencing other established cultures in Britain, which may explain the increasing variety of burial practices in this era.

So really, when we talk about Bronze Age burial practices, we’re really talking about the shift in focus from ancestors as a collective, to a focus on the individual. And maybe this is why Bronze Age burials are so special to many archaeologists in the present because it’s something we’re more able to relate to. It’s easy to feel like you’re really getting to know the individual being uncovered with a Bronze Age burial, how they were viewed by their peers and loved ones, and their position in the society in which they lived.

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Harriet Tatton

Written by Harriet Tatton

Harriet is one of DigVentures' community archaeologists. She loves museums, skeletons, and a good cup of Early Grey. Her first dig was at Bennachie, in Aberdeenshire, and since then she's never gone digging without her signature flowery wellies.

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Comments (1)

  1. Richard C. Cottrell says:

    Dear Harriet,

    I much enjoyed your opinion piece as I am new to this subject. I am researching the Dorset Bronze Age axe hoard found in Langton Matravers, as I am currently Cutodian of the Museum here. Your comment that weapons were sometimes buried with individuals during the bronze age makes me wonder whether the Langton hoard could have been intended for that purpose. This could explain the metal content of the axes found. If they were two soft for routine use, perhaps they were deliberately made of an impressively shiny form of bronze to look good in a ‘once only’ use – for a burial?

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