In September 2017, the DigVentures team was perched on top of a hill with spectacular views over the glittering sands of Morecambe Bay. We were coming to the end of Barrowed Time: a two-week excavation we’d crowdfunded to find out more about life during the Bronze Age in the much understudied North West of England. At that very moment, we were busy preparing to lift a medium-sized urn out of the ground where it had been carefully deposited some 3,500-4,000 years ago.
We could already tell that it was a cremation urn – there were small pieces of human bone spilling out of some of the cracks, and we’d found a similar one the year before. But unlike last year’s discovery, this urn had company; tucked in right next to it was a small, ceramic vessel about the size of a teacup.
Archaeologists know that Bronze Age people often cremated their dead, and buried them inside urns. Sometimes (but not always), they buried the urn along with a small, ceramic cup.
About 800 have been found in Bronze Age burials around Britain. Each one is unique, and even if you’re not that into pottery or prehistory, you’ve got to admit they’re pretty captivating; they’re small, kinda cute, and often covered with striking decoration. But what exactly are they for?
To archaeologists, it has been a quiet little mystery for years, and scholars have forwarded all sorts of ideas. They’ve been claimed as drinking cups, oil lamps, incense burners, vessels for inhaling narcotics, and for carrying glowing embers to the funeral pyre itself… they all seem like pretty reasonable suggestions, but is any of them right?
Although they are enormously varied, there are a few sweeping trends to their designs. There are grape cups, which are decorated with clay bobbles. There are fenestrated cups, which have slots in the sides. There are dished vessels, which are shallow. There are biconical cups, which are more high-sided, and there are some cups that even have lids.
The fact that many of the cups have perforated holes in them in probably puts paid to the idea they were for drinking and so, desperate for another answer, archaeologists have thrown some fairly hefty science at the question.
Alex Gibson and Ben Stern at the University of Bradford used residue analysis on 25 cups from across Britain to see if they could find any trace of what the little pots might once have held. Only one cup from Whitford, Flintshire, had some possible traces of beeswax; the rest refused to give up any tell-tale signs of any liquids, oils, incense or other substances that they might once have held inside.
Meanwhile, Debbie Hallam, also from the University of Bradford, has studied over 200 cups from the north of England, examining what they looked like, what they were made of and what kind of burials they were in.
Her study noted that, unusually for grave goods, many of the cups are far from perfect; a significant number are burned, over-fired, or have firing spalls so bad it’s unlikely they were ever fit for use in the real world – many of them look more like attempts at firing that have gone wrong.
But why would people bury their dead with a firing waster? A more plausible suggestion is that they were actually placed, and perhaps some of them even fired, on the funeral pyre itself.
That still leaves us with the question of what these small cups / vessels / pots were actually FOR, and why some have also been found in burials where the body has not been cremated.
The truth is, we still have lots to understand about these ancient Bronze Age cups, and the burial rites they were obviously part of.
The good news is we have one more opportunity to find out… We’ll be examining both the cup and the urn we found this summer in the lab with experts Claire Copper and Sam Walsh, and we’ll be livestreaming everything so that you can watch along.
Claire (again at the University of Bradford) has been studying cups from across southern England, and is now bringing together a study incorporating pretty much every cup she can lay her hands on. Sam is a top osteoarchaeologist specialising in the analysis of fragmented human remains.
We can’t wait to see what they make of our discoveries, and to find out more about these enigmatic funerary cups. Think you know what they might have been for? We’d love to hear your suggestions in the comments.
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