Bioarchaeology on the Isle of Man

Author: Michelle

Hello! Michelle here again to share with you a bit more about the osteology and what kind of work we’re doing here with the Round Mounds project. You may remember from previous osteo posts that I have taken you through the process of assessment and some of the results of the initial assessment, so I thought now I would take you through some of the theory and practice which directs what we are doing here with the Manx bones. There are many different ways to approach archaeologically derived human remains, this is why I strongly believe in co-operative work and sharing resources, and why one of the important parts of this project is the creation of an osteological database for the Manx Museum. By generating basic inventories for this project and lodging them at the Manx Museum, it provides a jumping off point for future researchers who may want to approach the skeletal material with different research questions. In the long run the data is also being lodged with the Archaeological Data Service so that other archaeologists can access it online.

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Datasheet from the research. Image: Michelle


In previous posts, we have gone through some of the questions we can and are asking of this skeletal material, but how are these constructed? To understand this, a bit of history helps (if you want more history on the evolution of this stream of science, Buikstra and Roberts (2012) The Global History of Paleopathology or Buikstra and Beck (2006) Bioarchaeology: The contextual analysis of human remains  are good starting points).

Bioarchaeology book cover pic 2

The analysis of human remains in archaeology has a very long history, rooted in the various anthropological disciplines, and more specifically Physical Anthropology. This discipline studies the biological aspects of humans and their evolution, including our primate relatives and early hominid species. It is also known as Biological Anthropology, and is based around the collection of metric and non-metric data from humans and primates, exploring things like growth, development and evolution. It is within these principles of data collection that we get the scales of assessment I mentioned in an earlier post, to evaluate the age-at-death or biological sex of an individual.

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Measuring the bones. Image: Chris


There are many different streams of research which use human remains from the past to explore questions about the past, whether it be far back or more recent. Depending on where you are in the world, you will hear different terms used, and each has a slightly different meaning. Biological Anthropology is now more or less equated with Physical Anthropology, and as noted above, uses biological data to discuss questions of human evolution and development. Bioarchaeology, is the methodological framework which I work within to try and answer questions about the prehistoric people on the Isle of Man.

In the first osteo blog post I defined what osteology is (study of bones) and what the bioarchaeological framework is and how we apply it to the study of past human remains. I will expand a bit on that here. Bioarchaeology, as a term is a bit contentious within archaeological circles, as in many places it is taken as it was originally intended, to encompass the study of all biological material from archaeological contexts. This means, it also includes faunal (animal, bird, and fish bones) and botanical (plant seeds, textiles, pollens, and any other plant-based remains) research. However, in the late 1970s in the U.S., the term bioarchaeology was re-defined and places human remains in the centre of exploring cultural-historical questions about the past. It focuses on human osteology (study of bones) and palaeopathology (study of past suffering/disease), alongside material culture (artefact analysis), zooarchaeology (animal bones), archaeobotany (plant remains) and contextual research to answer problem-oriented questions about the past. For example, this means that we are no longer asking, ‘how tall were people in Bronze Age Isle of Man?’; we are asking, ‘what can the estimated stature of individuals from Bronze Age Isle of Man tell us about their general health status?’ Or, ‘what are the implications of the estimated stature of individuals from Bronze Age Isle of Man in regards to child rearing and health?’ We now want to explore, as much as possible, the life and lifeways of individuals in the past.

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One of the Killeaba cists displayed at the Manx Museum. Image: Michelle


I have to say here, this does not mean that we don’t still need to focus on our methods of biological analysis. There is still a long way to go in regards to clarifying and refining the currently accepted scales we apply to the skeletal material. The methods of age assessment, sex determination and stature estimation are constantly being up-dated and refined for different populations. Dedicated researchers use collections where the individuals within the collection have a known age-at-death, and sometimes even the medical records are known. These collections provide an invaluable resource for those in forensics (science used for the detection of crime), forensic anthropology (physical anthropology applied to a legal setting), medical anthropology (study of health, disease and medicine), not to mention bioarchaeologists.

So what does this mean for our work on the Isle of Man? Well, both Chris and Rachel are well-known and strong theoretical archaeologists, meaning that they apply various philosophical theories and methods to archaeological material to draw a more in-depth understanding of human actions and motivations in the past. As the bioarchaeologist, I can contribute to their discussion of burial practices (the actions around the burying of the bones), funerary practices (the actions prior to, and including, the burying of the individual), and population demographics. When we know more about the people that were buried, where they were buried, and how they were buried, we can start to think about why they were buried in a particular manner or place or with certain objects. Therefore, by incorporating the biological data into the archaeological context, as best I can (some of the excavations were done in the 19th century!), we can gain a greater understanding of the Neolithic and Bronze Age populations.

King Orry’s Grave. Image: Michelle

If you like Human Osteology and Bioarchaeology, I can recommend these great blogs:

Powered by Osteons by Kristina Killgrove

These Bones of Mine

Bones Don’t Lie


What the Staarvey pommel adds to the regional picture

Authors: Chris, Michelle and Rachel

A few weeks ago on Friday 10th November the Round Mounds project delivered a research paper at the Bronze Age Forum conference in Cork. This conference happens every two years and is the biggest Bronze Age conference in Britain and Ireland – it is the key venue to share research with other Bronze Age scholars so we were really pleased to be there talking about the project. Our paper focused on the Staarvey pommel and is based on an article we are preparing for publication. We won’t give you the full script of our talk (it is too long for a blog post at 2781 words!) but we are going to give you a bit of a summary!

As you might remember from our previous posts the Staarvey Farm site was uncovered during ploughing in 1947 and quickly excavated by Basil Megaw. The excavation notes, files and finds were examined and published for the first time by Jenny Woodcock in 1999. The burial consisted of a large amount of cremated remains placed in a cist with two inverted pottery vessels. It seems likely that the cist was covered with rocks to form a cairn but when the site was excavated the only trace that remained in the otherwise relatively level field was a layer of rocks over the cist. One of the pottery vessels was surrounded by a ring of quartz (and one slate) pebbles.

Staarvey Plan and Section Illustrator
Plan of the site, based on an illustration from Woodcock, 1999. Re-illustrated by Rachel


Michelle examined the cremated remains from the site last autumn. Her work revealed that the remains of four people were in the cist: two adults, one of who was likely male, an adolescent aged c.10-15 years when they died, and a young child aged between 1 and 3 years when they died. She also discovered the suite of bone objects that had not been noticed by the excavators.

One of the finds was a bone pommel – the first that has been found on the Isle of Man. The pommel would have been attached to a bronze knife or dagger blade (and probably also a wooden handle). We recently had the pommel examined by the expert who has identified it as being made from the bone of a large terrestrial animal (i.e. cow or sheep).


Pommels, like many archaeological objects, are classified into different types. Ours is what archaeologists refer to as Type 3 pommel. Only 20 of these are known from Britain and they are usually associated with Collared Urns and Food Vessels. It is rare to find this particular type of pommel alongside the bronze blade it would have been joined too. Of the 20 previously known pommels from across Britain and Ireland 14 are made of bone and antler and these focus around the West of the Irish Sea and were all found with cremated remains (just like our one from Staarvey). The other pommels are made of different materials such as cetacean bone (whale, dolphin, and porpoise), bronze and amber. These pommels in other materials are more common in the south of England

Pommel Map
Map of Class 3 Pommels. Those in bone, like the Staarvey pommel, are marked by a diamond. Map: Chris


Chris used this difference in material and geographical distribution around the Irish Sea to consider whether the pommels might reflect regional differences in burial practice at the time. It turns out that there are more similarities between our pommel from Staarvey and some of the others from around the Irish Sea. For example the vessels from some of the other sites have very similar designs on them. The combination of a type 3 pommel and a Collared Urn (the pottery vessel found with the burial) is also quite specific, other kinds of pommels are very rarely buried with Collared Urns. Burying a Collared Urn in a cist is quite rare when we consider the practice across the whole of Britain but seems to be a real trend when it comes to burials with pommels and Collared Urns combined.

Broken Bone Pommels Map
Map to show bone class 3 pommels. The blue rings highlight all those that have a break along their axis. Map: Chris


Our pommel is also broken along one side. This is also the case with a number of the other pommels from this same Irish Sea region, they too have similar breaks. There are several ways the break could have happened. The pommel is burnt some one cause of the breakage could be the way the bone pommel fractured when it was burnt on the pyre alongside the dead. Another option is that the break occurred accidentally as the blade, handle and pommel were being separated. A third option is that it was broken on purpose before the cremation, breaking the pommel away from the blade could have been a symbolic act with the mourners retaining the blade but the pommel being burnt with the dead. It is hard for us to tell which of these possible sequences is most likely but what we can tell is this breakage pattern is not a one off, it re-occurs in other burials with Collared Urns, containing cremations, placed in cists.

In short, we are suggesting that the combination of pommel, Collared Urn, cist and cremation was a regional tradition around the west of the Irish Sea. It wasn’t the only way to bury the dead at the time but it does seem to represent what we might think of as a kind of regional tradition. So, our burial has links to others across the Irish Sea on Anglesey, in Wales and the Pennines.

See the pot exacavation!

Author: Rachel and Michelle

In our last blog we shared with your the details of the pot excavation. This week we are sharing the link to a video of that excavation. The wonderful people at MNH (specifically Allison and James) set up for the excavation to be recorded via a timelapse video. They then interviewed us and have edited together a really great video all about the project. In the timelapse you can see Michelle carefully excavating the fragments of bone and Rachel recording the pot sherds as they come out.

Many thanks to MNH for making such a wonderful video of us!

We hope you enjoy it!

Watch the Video

Excavating our burial from the 2017 dig

Authors: Rachel and Michelle

On October 16th and 17th we excavated the Collared Urn we found this summer during the excavation. You might remember that Chris and Eloise block-lifted the Urn this summer from within the cist. They extracted the pot and a block of the earth that surrounded it and wrapped it to hold it together so it could be transported to the Manx Museum.

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Pot exposed in the cist. Image: Chris

Michelle and I spent the final 4 days of our visit to the island working in the museum, primarily on the excavation of the pot. The hope had been that the pot would contain a cremation but it was very hard to be certain. Chris was worried there might be no cremated remains at all as they hadn’t found any in the rest of the cist. We do find cists that seem to have contained no burial at all – these are often referred to as ‘cenotaph burials’ – whether that is what they actually are is much harder to say. Rachel was worried the disturbance to the cist and the local soil might mean that any remains that had been placed in the pot had been damaged or destroyed. So, it was with a great weight of expectation (at least on Rachel’s part) that we began the excavation.

You might remember the Urn was inverted, so the part of it facing upwards was actually the base. Excavation revealed that the base is in fact completely missing from the vessel but we do have a large number of body sherds from it. The top of the cist was very near the surface and it seems like that though the top of the pot was damaged the knocked away – ploughing is perhaps the most likely explanation for this.

Michelle hard at work. Image: Rachel

We do have a large proportion of the body sherds present and all of the collar of the vessel. We had some sense of the decoration of the pot from what we had observed this summer when we excavated the cist. Our work in the museum revealed the geometric decoration was even more intricate than we had perhaps imagined. The rim of the vessel is decorated with a herringbone pattern and the collar is decorated with infilled triangles – a common design for the period.

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One of the Collar Sherds. Image: Rachel

From the location of the pot sherds it appears that the pot collapsed in on itself at some time in the past. This is unfortunate in that it means we do not have a complete vessel but, it was fortunate in that it served to effectively seal the deposit contained within the pot. As Michelle slowly dug through the pot she was able to see that within the collar sherds there was a separate context (see the past blog on contexts) from that surrounding the rest of the sherds. It was within this context, indicated by a different colour and slightly different texture, that we began to find cremated remains.

Before we got down to the cremated bone. Image: Rachel

We didn’t find a huge amount of cremated remains. The remains present in the Urn do not represent all of the individual and because of how well sealed the context was, we believe that only a small proportion of the burnt remains of the individual were ever placed within the Urn. It is not uncommon for us to only find partial deposits of the deceased there is good evidence in the Bronze Age that sometimes communities retained parts of cremated remains of the deceased.

Excavating the bone deposits. Image: Rachel.

Michelle’s osteological analysis was able to shed further light on the remains. They are the bones of an infant, who was aged under 18 months when they died. Not only that but the cranial fragments that Michelle was able to identify showed signs of significant porosity which effected the cranial vault in particular. This suggests that the individual may have suffered from a metabolic or haemolytic disease or disorder during their life: the deceased infant had suffered a nutritional deficiency (such as anaemia) that resulted in their bones failing to develop properly.

Cleaning and sorting the sherds. Image: Rachel

It is truly fascinating to have this new piece of information about the dig. During the Early Bronze Age, a community, mourning the loss of a young infant, who had been sick during their short life, came to the side of a hill with views across the sea to Ireland and Scotland to bury their loved one.

A link to the Isle of Man newspapers article about the excavation of the pot:

Digging for Bones Workshops

Authors: Rachel and Michelle

Following our adventures in Archallgan Plantation we spent a week running workshops for primary school children. We visited a number of schools across the island: Onchan, Braddan, Ballacottier, Kewaigue, Peel Clothworkers, Foxdale, St Johns and the Bunscoill. The workshops we designed were adaptable to suit different ages (we worked with students from year 1 (5-6 years old) through to year 6 (10-11 years old). Our main aims with the workshops were to teach the students a little about archaeology and burials on the Isle of Man and to learn about skeletons and what sorts of things archaeologists can learn from skeletons. We also wanted to make sure they had fun!

Michelle and ‘Boney Tony’ (kindly loaned to us by MNH). Image: Rachel

The workshops started with a discussion of what an archaeologist is and where archaeologists might work. We mostly let the children do the talking and tell us what they knew – and they knew lots! After this we got on to the really fun bit – we put them in teams of two and gave them a washing-up bowl full of soil and some tools. Hidden within the mud there were animal bones for them to find and excavate. We taught them how to excavate slowly (not like a dog!). Afterwards they had to record the bones they had found – they did drawings, wrote descriptions and measured them. Using all the information they had gathered they had to try and deduce what animal the bones were from and which bones they were.

Digging for bones! Image: Rachel

After all the mud was cleared away the students got the change to draw on Michelle’s expertise to learn all about human skeletons. We talked about how we can distinguish humans from other animals by their skeletons and how we are able to work out the age and sex of the dead by looking at the bones.

Year 1 and 2 students at Kewaigue pose for a photo with ‘Boney Tony’. Image: Rachel

The workshops were generously funded by Culture Vannin alongside Michelle’s research into the human remains held by the museum. We’d like to thank all the schools and teachers that invited us to come and visit them and, of course, the students for their enthusiasm and attention! We both absolutely loved our week working with the schools and meeting so many curious young people but we were both exhausted by the end!

Follow this link to see the article about the workshops from Isle of Man Newspapers.



2017 Site Report

Authors: Rachel and Chris

In this blog we are going to post a copy of our site report which you can download. The site report is a technical document that gives the detail of what we found during the excavation this summer and how we are understanding and interpreting the site. The document was officially lodged with Manx National Heritage two weeks ago – they will keep a copy of it for posterity. We also sent a copy to all of those that volunteered their time on the dig and helped out with the project.

The document is an interim report – it summarises the findings as they stand. We are still busy doing lots of post-excavation research – looking at the finds, carrying out flotation and waiting for reports from soil scientists. You might also notice that we highlight the things we do not currently understand about the site and we suggest how we might be able to resolve this in the future.

If you have any questions or comments about the report then feel free to post below and we will try and answer them for you. Happy reading!

Download the report here:

Cronk Guckley Berk Farm excavation report 2017

We’ve been on a mound hunt!

Authors: Rachel and Michelle

Regular followers will note there has been a slight hiatus – Rachel and Michelle have been on the Isle of Man doing lots of project work and the blog has had to take a back seat these past few weeks.

Mound Hunters. Image: Michelle

On Sunday 8th October in the afternoon Michelle and Rachel took part in the Heritage Open Day scheme on the Isle of Man. We ran a mound hunt in Archallagan plantation – the event was free but ticketed and all the tickets sold out beforehand which was very encouraging.

A mossy mound. Image: Michelle

Regular readers will know that the project has done geophysical surveys on part of the mound cemetery that extends from the eastern edge of the plantation into the agricultural fields on the east. We met the 30 participants in the plantation on a rainy afternoon (the trees kept us dry!) and showed them the 1860s map of the area. We showed them how hard the mounds were to spot in the field where we had done the geophysics and shared the results of the geophysical survey with them.

Mound Hunters trying to pick out the lumps and bumps on the plantation floor. Image: Michelle

We next handed them a map made from the LiDAR survey results and the 1860s map of the plantation. We highlighted 8 mounds on the map and helped to orient the mound hunters within the plantation and then set them loose to try and find the mounds!

Image: Michelle

The event was designed to be family friendly – hidden on each mound was a clue to collect to enable the mound hunters to solve a small archaeological puzzle at the end! We both really enjoyed the event and were impressed with the young participants in particular who are surely future archaeologists!

Putting the clues together. Image: Michelle

After a busy Sunday afternoon we spent the next week continuing the outreach work on the island with lots of workshops for schools and some special lectures for the Friends of Manx National Heritage – we’ll be talking more about the school workshops in the next blog!




Image: Michelle