Morecambe Urn

This 4,000 year old ceramic vessel was found during DigVentures excavations at the site of the Morecambe Hoard in 2016

The urn had been filled with cremated human remains, closed with a clay bung, and then buried upside down and sealed in place with three large stones. This 3D model shows the urn while it is still upside-down in the ground, just after the stones had been removed, and before it was prepared for lifting. On it, you can see several rows of imprinted decoration around the neck.

Bronze Age cremation urns often contain more than one individual, but analysis indicates that in this case, the bones probably belonged to a single individual.

Once the urn had been lifted, it was taken to a local hospital to be x-rayed (still upside down). The x-rays showed that it was filled with bone, as well as a few other as yet unidentifiable objects. The urn was then taken to a conservation lab, and turned the ‘right way up’, ready to have the clay bung removed and its contents investigated.Based on the fusion of the bones, the development of the teeth, and a few surviving pieces of jaw and pelvis, the individual is thought to be a young, adult male who may have been in good health. The bones have since been radiocarbon dated to 1,600BC, and samples have been sent for further analysis in an attempt to determine the geographic origin of the individual.

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From The Lab: Did Bronze Age Brits Bury Their Dead In Food Vessels?

Bronze Age people often buried their dead along with ceramic containers known to archaeologists as ‘food vessels’. But how useful is that term, and what did these often beautifully decorated vessels really mean?

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Site Diary: What We Found Inside The Morecambe Urn

The Morecambe urn is a rare discovery, full to the brim with an unusual quantity of extraordinarily well-preserved human bone. Here’s what we now know about who they belonged to.

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From The Lab: The Curious Case Of The Burnt Stone

This flint tool was one of the only artefacts found inside the Morecambe burial urn. But was it from the same cremation as the body?

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From The Lab: Did Bronze Age Brits Bury Their Dead In Food Vessels? Bronze Age people often buried their dead along with ceramic containers known to archaeologists as ‘food vessels’. But how useful is that term, and what did these often beautifully decorated vessels really mean?

The people of the Bronze Age may be famous for constructing huge monuments and burying spectacular hordes, but in northern Britain they also buried their dead along with ceramic containers known to archaeologists as ‘food vessels’. But how useful is that term, and what did these often beautifully decorated vessels really mean? Neil Wilkins, the British Museum’s Bronze Age Curator, has some of the answers.

In July 2016, I was lucky enough to be in Lancashire when DigVentures discovered a curious ceramic vessel near Morecambe Bay; curious because it had been buried upside down, and sealed in place with three large stones.

First we excavated the base, then the body, and finally the neck. As more and more of it emerged, it was clear that someone had decorated it by pressing something – possibly the tip of their thumb – into the clay over and over again, to create several rows of imprints running around the neck of the pot.

Judging by its shape, its distinctive decoration, the fact that it was buried upside down, and by the thick, coarse clay it was made from, this vessel was something pretty special; a distinctive type of pottery placed with the dead mostly in northern Britain and in Ireland during an early part of the Bronze Age (2,200 – 1,800 BC), and which archaeologists have until recently generally referred to as ‘Food Vessels’.

But were they really food vessels? Early archaeologists first coined this term in order distinguish them from the drinking cups we now call Beakers. To them, the rim of these ‘food vessels’ seemed too thick to serve as a good drinking vessel and, they deduced, they were more likely to have been made for holding food.

Today, the name is as unhelpful as it is unimaginative, as it disguises what is actually a pretty remarkable pottery tradition. It gives the impression that they were primarily functional or domestic vessels, when really most of them have been recovered from rather special contexts, usually graves. The moniker really doesn’t do justice to just how interesting and special these ceramics can be.

Morecambe Neil Wilkin Burial Urn
Neil takes a look at the base of the vessel, which is just starting to emerge from the earth.

Firstly, there are different sizes of these so-called ‘Food Vessels’. The smaller ones, which are usually less than 30cm tall, are often found in graves with unburnt bodies (inhumations), while the larger ones tend to contain cremated remains, and are never found placed with unburnt bodies. Strict rules applied!

Secondly, the timing of when these vessels start to appear in Bronze Age burials is interesting. Beaker pots (as found near Stonehenge in the grave of the famous Amesbury Archer) were brought over to the British Isles by people from the European continent, along with new beliefs and technologies, including metalworking.

When Food Vessels appear in the archaeological record a few hundred years later, they are the first vessels to be found placed with the dead after Beaker pots. These ‘Food Vessels’ seem to be the first British and Irish replies to those new concepts and practices, and presumably also their associated beliefs about the afterlife.

While Food Vessels do seem to reference these earlier Beakers, they are also a new departure. In the face of new technologies and beliefs, we can just imagine people asking: what’s next, what do we believe the dead need, or what can we give them now? It’s fascinating to see how they took something successful, changed it and made it their own. It’s even more fascinating to ponder whether they were even aware of that change taking place, or whether it happened slowly and without anyone realising it.

Their regional distribution is interesting too. Broadly speaking, they’re only found ‘up North’, and this northern distribution may be a reflection of a regional identity – not all parts of Britain had the same connections and networks of trade and exchange at this time.

One factor is the closeness of Northern Britain (especially Western Scotland) to Ireland, where Food Vessels were also popular and may have first been made. Other networks – such as trade in bronze and beautiful black jet jewellery from Whitby in Yorkshire – may also have played a part in the spread of objects and ideas. Some of the vessels that have been found are extremely similar, despite coming from graves many tens or hundreds of kilometres apart, suggesting long-distance networks of trade and exchange long before the introduction of roads or high speed communications.

In terms of their cultural or cosmological significance then, they may reflect a regional identity – a sense of being from a particular area. But identity then wasn’t necessarily inward looking, because it clearly extended across the Irish Sea and often referenced other traditions from Europe and the past.

With all that said, these Food Vessels may very well have been used in everyday life to store and serve food; something that could be investigated with analysis of any remains stuck to the pot’s inner surface. If that’s the case, they may also reflect a belief that the dead needed sustenance and provision for the journey to the afterlife or for the afterlife itself.

How people lived during this early part of the Bronze Age is still quite an enigma. Very few houses are known (probably because people were still quite mobile and had quite low population densities) and the little we do know about people is mostly through their cemeteries and burials.

That’s why these vessels are so important, and this one particularly so because not that many have been found in the area, despite it clearly being well positioned for connections along the Irish Sea and into Yorkshire.

Whether or not they were used for storing food during life, these ‘Food Vessels’ were important enough to be placed with the dead by their mourners. And they were important for a really momentous part of the Bronze Age, when people were first dealing with the implications of the new technology of metalworking, its trade and exchange.

These vessels give us a window into that world, and have been underappreciated for too long. I hope this new discovery, and its continued analysis over the coming months, helps to further our knowledge about their significance, in Lancashire and in the rest of northern Britain.

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Site Diary: What We Found Inside The Morecambe Urn The Morecambe urn is a rare discovery, full to the brim with an unusual quantity of extraordinarily well-preserved human bone. Here’s what we now know about who they belonged to.

 

The discovery of a Bronze Age burial is a rare occurrence in northwest England. Some researchers have assumed this to be because there wasn’t much happening in the region at the time, and that it was a bit of a Bronze Age blankspot. But was that really the case?

Bronze Age in the northwest

Actually, the relative lack of prehistoric burials found in the region probably isn’t because they never existed, but because fewer people have gone looking for them. The area’s industrial past might be part of the explanation, but there’s also the fact that the burial monuments which have been identified so far (including Whitelow, Astley Hall, Noon Hill, Whitehall and Borwick) tend to be less obvious constructions, like ring-cairns, platform-cairns and other more subtle mounds. Suddenly, it seems that given the right attention, there might be a whole landscape of Bronze Age activity lurking just below the surface, waiting to be discovered.

So you can imagine our excitement when we discovered an early Bronze Age cremation urn buried upside down on top of a hill near Morecambe Bay. And where there’s one, there’s often many. In short, this find could lead to more, and trigger a change in the whole idea that the northwest was a Bronze Age blank spot.

Inside the urn

Back in October, we livestreamed the delicate process of micro-excavating the urn. If you watched the proceedings, you’ll remember that as soon as we opened it up, we found it to be brimming with cremated human bone. At the bottom, we also found a single flint tool and two pottery sherds.

But who did the bones belong, and how many of them were there? More ambitiously, could we use the remains to reconstruct any of the funeral proceedings, like whether they were placed inside in a particular order?

Of course, analysing cremated bone is quite different to analysing bones from a normal burial. Aside from having been burnt, scorched, and generally reduced to much smaller fragments, the remains also been gathered up and placed in a jar, instead of still being neatly laid out in their anatomical position. Going through every fragment of bone, examining each one for tell-tale clues is a painstaking process – you’d be surprised at how much an experienced osteoarchaeologist is able to recognize!

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The process starts by delicately putting the remains through a series of sieves in order to sort and weigh the fragments by size, usually 10mm, 5mm, 2mm, and residue. Then, we organise the fragments into areas of the body (legs, pelvis, spine, skull etc) and, wherever possible, identify them to the individual bone. We also look at the colour of the bones, and the fracture patterns, which can give us a range of temperature for the funeral pyre. Finally, we’ll attempt to examine any elements that survive well enough to give us an indication of the individual’s age, sex or health.

Three people, or one incredibly heavy one?

Over the last few weeks, that’s what I’ve been doing. So what have I found?

The first surprising thing about the urn’s contents was the sheer volume of bone inside; nearly three whole kilos! Even when a vessel contains the remains of several people, it’s rare to find an early Bronze Age cremation weighing more than a kilo or two.

Against all our initial expectations, the Morecambe urn did not turn out to contain more than one individual. Instead, the extreme weight of the remains seems to be down to the fact that the bones are extraordinarily well preserved. Even many of the spongy bones (like the pelvis and vertebral bodies), which are usually destroyed on a pyre, have survived in large, identifiable chunks.

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Judging by the extent to which the cranial bones had fused together, and by a visible open foramen on some of the tooth roots, the person was clearly young adult, but whether they were male or female is much harder to tell. The skull doesn’t strongly suggest either, and only the mandible and pelvis suggest the individual was slightly more likely to have been a male.

The long bones seem to have been relatively large, but not particularly robust. Likewise, the muscle attachments don’t seem to be heavily developed, all of which adds to the impression of a younger adult.

A healthy young adult?

Overall, they seemed pretty healthy too. The bones didn’t show much sign of any pathological alteration associated with age or disease, although it can be much harder to pick up on cremated remains. The only visible signs was some porosity on fragments of cranium which could be a sign of possible malnutrition, and a little bit of extra bony growth on a few of the phalanges (finger or toe bones).

Finally, the bones themselves were pretty well cremated – they were mostly tan to white in colour, which indicates that the pyre probably reached temperatures of around 600°C.  A few small fragments were darker brown or black, which suggests they only reached a temperature of 300°C. This variation is pretty standard for a cremation, as the outskirts of the pyre often reach a lower temperature than the centre.

In summary, the Morecambe urn contains the remains of someone who seems to have been a relatively healthy young adult. After they were cremated, their bones were carefully picked out from the remains of the pyre and placed in the urn, along with a flint tool and some pottery.

These remains are important in both their rarity, their completeness, and the information they can give us about the people of the northwest, all of which can help to build a new and better informed view of Bronze Age Britain.

There is still plenty more we can learn from these extraordinarily well-preserved bones. Were they gathered up in a particular order? Why did they survive so well? And will additional scientific analysis reveal more about the person, like where they were from?

I’m looking forward to seeing what else the study of this precious urn and its contents will reveal, and to returning to Lancashire this summer to see if DigVentures’ excavations can help reveal the truth about Bronze Age life in the northwest.

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From The Lab: The Curious Case Of The Burnt Stone This flint tool was one of the only artefacts found inside the Morecambe burial urn. But was it from the same cremation as the body?

Careful examination of the stone tool found inside the Morecambe burial urn raises a surprising question about the body it was buried with, says lithic specialist Alex Whitlock.

We’ve heard a lot about the rare Bronze Age burial urn found by DigVentures’ crowdfunders on top of a hill overlooking Morecambe Bay, but I’m here to tell you about all the little pieces of stone found on the dig too. That’s right, not the beautiful ceramic vessel or the cremated human bones it contained, but the one single stone tool that was placed inside the urn with the body, and the many other stone artefacts from across the site. Individually, they may seem like little more than curious pebbles, but bring them all together and they start to provide some of the most interesting evidence we’ve got about this Bronze Age burial mound so far.

Bronze Age stone use in north west England

During the Early Bronze Age, people all over the British Isles were still using stone for making tools (and for other less tangible purposes as we shall see), but the stone working culture of the North West has only just started to receive the attention that other areas of Britain have had. What is quickly becoming evident from these studies is that even in prehistory the North West went its own way.

Northerners, for example, continued to use microliths (extremely tiny stone tools) for much longer than people further south. They also started using the larger, broader tools associated with the early Bronze Age quite a bit sooner, and they often used chert, which was more readily available to them than flint.

Our crowdfunded excavation on the hilltop overlooking Morecambe Bay largely conformed to these patterns, but there were a few things that made it a bit special too.

A single stone was placed with the body inside the urn

First of all, there was the beautiful burial urn. One of the wonders it contained, among nearly three kilos of burnt human bone, was a late Neolithic or early Bronze Age flint tool. Other than a few sherds of pottery, this was the only artefact placed inside the urn along with the cremated remains.

Although badly damaged, the flint tool was once roughly D-shaped, and is what archaeologists would usually call a scraper – a tool used to clean up the insides of animal hides, but which probably had many other uses too.

Flint tends to change colour and texture when heated to high temperatures, and this one had become white, grainy and glassy in parts, which suggests it had been subjected to some pretty considerable heat, probably in excess of about 1000 °C.

This is where the plot begins to thicken, because when Sam the osteoarchaeologist examined the human remains inside the urn, it seemed that the body had been cremated at temperatures ranging from 300-600 °C.

While the temperature of cremations can vary greatly across the pyre, it does beg an interesting question: if the flint had been subjected to much higher temperature, was it necessarily during the same cremation as the body it shared the urn with? What if it came from an earlier cremation? It’s not that unusual to find bits and pieces from different cremations in the same burial urn, so perhaps it was included as a symbol of continuity with the occupant’s ancestral history and the people’s ties to the land. It’s an interesting idea.

Rock crystals, jet and quartz

This glittering piece of rock crystal was just one of many found scattered across the hilltop.

But the urn wasn’t the only place we found interesting bits of stone that add to the story. Scattered across the rest of the site, we also found a small but nonetheless significant number of stone artefacts, some of which seem to date back to the Mesolithic (10,000-5,500 years ago), and some of which were typical examples late Bronze Age and early Iron Age stone-working traditions, which together suggest that people were visiting this little hillock overlooking Morecambe Bay for something like 6,000 years.

Among the many practical artefacts, like flint tools and the chippings from their production, we also found pieces of jet (that gorgeous black stone derived from fossilised monkey puzzle trees), glass-like rock crystal, quartz and other bits of white stone whose purpose is a little more… intriguing.

Stones like these have a long history of being associated with funerary sites, so it’s perhaps not surprising to find them and they were probably associated with burials on the hill. Just like many modern cultures today, it may simply have been the ‘spirit’, or the ‘specialness’ of these items that made them important to deposit as part of a burial.

The difference between flint, and ‘poor man’s flint’

A piece of grey chert, most likely a core (a piece of stone you can chip sharp flakes off to use as blades)

In the North West a great deal of the stone artefacts are made of chert, rather than flint. Chert forms in limestone in much the same way that flint forms in chalk. There’s certainly plenty of limestone in the North West, but no chalk.

Chert seems to have been regarded as lower status – like every day stainless steel cutlery compared to the silver dinner set – a sort of poor man’s flint. Flint and chert can be hard to tell apart, but generally flint is more translucent and chert can look quite waxy. While the majority of what we found is knapping waste (the debris and leftovers from making stone tools, rather than the tools themselves), and most of it was dark grey or black chert, there is a very strange pattern among the tools that we did find.

Not the tools you’d expect

A piece of flint that has been chipped (or ‘knapped’) off a larger piece to create an incredibly sharp, multipurpose tool.

What’s missing from the stone finds so far are any really high status pieces and projectile points. This is where the plot thickens once again. While we found plenty of scrapers, like the one inside the urn, the hilltop doesn’t seem at all suitable for butchery or hide preparation, whereas as it does seem to be pretty ideal for hunting and observing the surrounding countryside – vegetation permitting.

Evidence of a cultural intersection

What’s even more interesting is that some of the stone could well come from as far afield as southern Scotland and the south of England. It includes stone only rarely found in a worked form in the area, like an attractive orange and silver chert like stone that may have travelled all the way down from Scotland.

All this suggests that the hilltop had a significance beyond being just a burial site. Its prominence may have made it a point of reference for those approaching from both sea and land, while the stone artefacts tell us that the site served as meeting point of different materials, which could very well be a reflection of a cultural and social intersection as well.

Whatever its uses, the site retained its significance for a considerable length of time. The collection of stone tools (or, in archaeology slang, the ‘lithic assemblage’) from this site shows that people kept coming back to it from the Late Mesolithic through the Bronze Age, and probably into the Early Iron Age.

There is so much more to learn from this isolated hill. While each individual artefact is interesting, it’s the bringing them all together that’s really starting to give us the clues to help us read this story written so many thousands of years ago.