Last week I talked about the Neolithic history of one of my favourite round mounds – Killeaba. This week we move on to discover what happened at the site during the Early Bronze Age.
The start of the Early Bronze Age is marked by a significant change in burial practices in the Isle of Man. Late Neolithic burial on the Isle of Man is characterised by cremation, these cremated remains appear in a variety of contexts, sometimes they are buried in pits, sometimes they are placed in stony spreads, and occasionally they are placed in Earthfast Jars. It is rare that we find any objects placed with the remains of the dead. Cremated remains were usually placed at relatively simple sites without the architectural elaboration we associate with the Early and Middle Neolithic (consider sites like Meayll Hill and Cashtal yn Ard).
At the start of the Early Bronze Age on the Isle of Man we see a variety of new practices emerge. Many bodies are buried in cists – cists mark a real change from the Late Neolithic and are a very different way of thinking about containing (and maybe accessing) a body. Some bodies are still cremated but other bodies are buried un-burned. In addition we see that people deposit objects alongside the dead. Many of the burials from the earlier part of the Bronze Age are accompanied by pottery bowls and vases we refer to as Food Vessels (more details on these in The Cottier’s Field blog from Jan 13th), later in the Early Bronze Age Collared and Cordoned Urns are frequently used to contain the cremated remains of the dead.
At Killeaba we can identify several different parts of the Early Bronze Age sequence of events at the site. At the start of the Early Bronze Age three large holes were dug into the mound and three cists were constructed within them. One of the cists contained the cremated remains that were discovered by the antiquarians I mentioned last week. A second cists contained a ‘crouched inhumation’ – an unburned body placed inside the cist – sadly no bones from this burial remained but instead a ‘soil shadow’ indicating where the body had lain. This is not uncommon on the Isle of Man – the slate geology of the island results in relatively acidic soils which often ‘eat away’ at the bones leaving only a soil of a different colour to indicate where the body once lay. The third cist contained another crouched inhumation. In this cist the bones remained and were accompanied by a Food Vessel – radiocarbon dating dates this body to 2201-2011 cal BC (OxA-26995). These three burials are a real break from the Late Neolithic practices – we see the use of cists, the inclusion of pottery vessels and bodies both burned and un-burned being deposited.
Another Food Vessel was buried in the mound in a small pit associated with a scatter of cremated remains. The inclusion of the Food Vessel in this burial indicates it occurred within a similar time range to the cists but the use of a pit marks a difference in practice. There is also another timber-lined pit placed in the mound – the pit contained a flint arrowhead and a cremation contained within an organic bag (note the similarity with far earlier practices here) this cremation has been dated to 2044-1894 cal BC (OxA-27113). There is also another cremation placed within an organic bag that we know is later than the remains from the cist with the Food Vessel. All these different burial practices occurred in the Early Bronze Age and demonstrate to us the variety of practice that occurred at this time. Much as today, there is no single right way of dealing with the death of a loved one – during this period in prehistory they could be buried in cists, pits or timber-lined pits, they could be cremated or not, and they could be accompanied by grave goods or not.
There is a shift in practice after this and we see the use of ‘miniature cists’. Three smaller pits are dug into the mound to contain three miniature cists (c. 20cm x 15cm x 10cm; 43cm x 25cm x 30cm; 50cm x 35cm x 35cm). Two contained cremated remains and one cist contained no remains (again this is probably a result of the acidic soils) – one of these sets of cremated remains has been dated to 2136-1945 cl BC (OxA-27114). There are no grave goods accompanying these burials. I find the decrease in cist size quite interesting. Initially cists are quite large and this was probably because they had to contain inhumation burials, however by the latter half of the Early Bronze Age (roughly from c.1900 cal BC onwards) inhumation burials are rare in Ireland and on the Isle of Man and it is around this time that we begin to see a decrease in cist size – when they no longer have to contain unburned bodies it seems that their size decreases.
Killeaba is a unique site on the Isle of Man – it is rare to get a site re-used in so many differing ways as a burial monument for over a thousand years. It is a brilliant site from the archaeologist’s point of view as it helps us understand changing burial practices. Marshall Cubbon was an excellent Manx archaeologist and his careful excavation and publication of the site allows us to learn a lot from Killeaba. Personally, it is one of my favourite sites: I have written and published quite a bit about it and used it as a case study in a number of lectures. I like the amount we can learn about it, the understandings we can gain form it, and that it is sat nestled in between a cul de sac of houses in Ramsey!