More from the bones…

Author: Michelle

Rachel has very kindly offered to let me write another two posts about osteology for the blog. Last time I took you through the basic steps of an osteological analysis, and some of the issues with working with primarily cremated skeletal material. So this time, I will try and show you some of the results of the analyses of the Manx Neolithic and Bronze Age bones. Rachel has been doing a really good job of going through the sites and giving an excellent overview of the excavations and results of the bone analyses and of the re-assessments that she and Chris have been putting together. I really recommend, if you haven’t had a chance yet, to go back through and read some of these posts, it will really give you a good idea of the kinds of sites which were included in the study and what archaeology has been done to-date on the island regarding the prehistoric monuments.

For now, I will give you an idea of what we looked at and some of the finds which were discovered with the bones, and hopefully, with analyses ongoing this year, we can create a complete inventory and synthetic report of all the human skeletal material from the Bronze Age and Neolithic periods on the Isle of Man. Overall, I was able to identify a minimum of 60 individuals from 28 sites across the island. Cremation seems to be the main method of processing a body in the Neolithic and Bronze Age on the Isle of Man. This is likely because cremation was the preferred practice, but it has to be considered that the acidic soil of Man is very bad for bone preservation and perhaps the bones which weren’t burned simply didn’t survive as well. The remains of 44 cremations and 7 unburnt contexts were examined. Amongst this collection, 30 of these individuals were identified as adults and 13 as infants, children or adolescents (it was not possible to determine the age-at-death for the remains in 17 cases). The large number of cremations and poor preservation of the bones made determining the sex of the skeletons difficult; however, it was possible to identify 5 probable males and 9 probable females.

IMAGE 1Strandhall unburned teeth of subadult
Unburned teeth from Strandhall. Image: Michelle


What questions did we answer?

This is a tough one as we are still processing some of the data, but in general terms, we have learned that neither age nor sex determined whether an individual was cremated or not, as we have children of various ages and adults of both sex. We can say that there were different methods of depositing cremated remains in the prehistoric periods – sometimes in pots, sometimes just in pits, sometimes they were left on the cremation pyre as at Ballafayle. As Rachel has described earlier, the sites all date to the Neolithic and Bronze Age periods and cremation and inhumation were both practiced. As well, we can now say that children and adults of both sexes were deposited in a variety of methods across these prehistoric periods. We already knew that there were cremation cemeteries, like that a Ballateare, but now we know that both adults and children were deposited within this type of environment. We can say with certainty that some objects were burned with the individual in some cases, and we can start discussing what these objects may indicate for that individual.

The bone pommel from Staarvey has had some attention in a previous blog post by Chris and Rachel, but other cremations also contained objects; mainly small pieces, often of bone, such a beads or toggles, pins or needles, and stones or flints and pottery. Sometimes these objects were burned and sometimes not, indicating they were not pulled from the pyre with the skeletal material, but added afterwards.

IMAGE 2Tip of a bone pin from The Cronk Upper Lherghydhoo Cist 1
Tip of a bone pin from The Cronk Upper Lherghydhoo. Image: Michelle


In terms of the burial practices, since many of the cremations did not contain much charcoal, it seems likely that the bones which were buried in these discrete deposits are what could be collected from a pyre in a different location. This can have a significant effect on the size of the fragments of bone, as their method of collection and re-deposition can impact their preservation. Bones which are raked or disturbed while still hot will fragment to a greater degree than those which are cool. Some of the cremation deposits include a significant amount of small parts of the body, such as tooth roots or finger bones, while others don’t. The inclusion of these small bones reflects careful and comprehensive collection of the skeletal material from the pyre to the secondary vessel (be it organic or ceramic). When the cremation deposit contains only the partial remains of an individual there are several possible reasons for this: the collection of the skeletal material from the pyre was incomplete, either deliberately or accidently; the cremation deposit excavated may represent one of several for a single individual who was buried across several deposits; the lack of a substantial container for the remains allowed taphonomic and environmental processes to remove some of the material; or, given the excavation methods of earlier periods, some of the skeletal material was not recovered or retained. Unfortunately, there is no way to determine which of these situations may be the cause of a partial cremation burial. Further excavation with modern methods could shed some light on this, and at least rule out excavation methodology as a cause for missing material.

IMAGE 3Sciatic notch from Knocksharry inhumation indicating a probable female.jpg
Sciatic notch on the skeleton from Knocksharry – indicates this individual was probably female. Image: Michelle


Typically, unburned bones will be able to provide more information regarding age and sex, stature, health and disease for past populations. However, with the prehistoric Manx material we can only talk about the unburned bones to a limited extent, as we have a small sample group of 6 individuals. Of these 6 individuals, only one was a subadult – a child aged 9-12 years at death, 3 were young adults (aged 18-35 years at death), 1 was an adult aged 35-40 years at death, and the final one could not be assigned an age estimation. Since sex cannot be determined for children, of the 5 adults, 2 were probable males and 1 was a probable female, while sex could not be determined for the other 2. What this tells us, with this small sample, is that like with the cremations, neither age nor sex seems to indicate burial practice. Unfortunately, one of the unburned individuals, a young adult, probable female, has been previously radiocarbon dated to the Medieval period and therefore does not contribute to our understanding of the prehistoric periods on Man.

IMAGE 4Port St Mary R side of mandible - note alveolar recession
Alveolar Recession on the jaw of the skeleton from Port St Mary. Image: Michelle


The palaeopathological analysis was hampered by the heavy fragmentation of the cremated material and the very poor preservation of the unburned skeletal material. Of the unburned skeletal material, two of the young adults displayed evidence of dental disease with alveolar recession (this is the recession of the alveolar bone which holds the tooth in place, and is associated with periodontal disease like gingivitis), calculus (mineralised tartar deposits) and in one case, evidence of physiological stress in childhood with grooves in the enamel where enamel formation had been effected by the nutritional or physical stress as the tooth was developing. From the cremated remains, the types of skeletal changes which can be observed are more limited, and tend to be based on changes which involve bone growth or non-metric traits. For example, at several sites osteophytes (small projecting bone growths) can be seen on spine or long bone joint fragments, indicating osteoarthritic changes. In one case from Killeaba (CV), a young, probable female, adult displayed two different cranial non-metric traits – with at least one extrasutural bone (an extra bone within a cranial suture) and a parietal foramen(a hole through the parietal bone, typically near the sagittal suture at the top of the head). Neither of these traits would have been felt or had an impact on the individual. Interestingly, this young female was buried with an infant aged 6-12 months at death. Non-metric traits can be used to help identify genetic ties between individuals, but unfortunately only a small amount of the infant skeleton was present.

IMAGE 5Occipital fragments from Killeaba CV - extrasutural bone at top of photo
Occipital fragments from Killeaba. Image: Michelle

3 thoughts on “More from the bones…

  1. Are any of these early individuals part of a genomics project?
    It’d be interesting to know Man was genetically insular or if they participated in marriage exchanges with the larger islands.


    1. Hi there Enthusiast, We are hoping to send some samples off for aDNA analysis soon. We have our fingers crossed that it will be possible to extract DNA from the samples!


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