Life and Death at an Early Bronze Age Cremation Cemetery

Collared Urn cremation during excavation.
One of the cremations being micro-excavated in the office.
The site with the ring ditch visible below the tree.

The discovery of nine cremations, four of which were found in Collared Urns, within the centre of an Early Bronze Age ring ditch in Lancashire has given us a glimpse into the life and death of the people who came to rest at this site.

We radiocarbon dated seven of the nine cremations and they returned dates ranging from 1915 – 1620 BC which places them within the Early Bronze Age. Ring ditch monuments are typical of this period, but they differ from earlier Neolithic ones, in that they are ‘family-sized’ and appear to be used by specific farming groups over several generations.

Analysis of the skeletal remains indicated that there was a mix of males and females, as well as children and adolescents and adults which reinforces the idea that the people buried in this cemetery over several generations were part of the same kinship group. Over 200 barley grains were recovered from one of the cremation pits and this indicates not onmly that cereals were being farmed by this group, but also that barley was being used as some form of offering, with its connotations of beer-making and sustenance, perhaps to help sustain the deceased in the afterlife.

A Collared Urn recovered during the excavations which contained one of the cremation burials.
Urn containing secondary inverted urn.

Skeletal analysis also afforded us an opportunity to see how the occupants lived and, in the case of one person, died. This particular individual, who showed evidence of having had osteoarthritis, likely died as a result of a deep wound to their thigh which was caused by a sharp-edged heavy object. As the bone did not show any signs of healing it means that this person sustained the wound around the time of their death. We can’t know for certain whether this was an accident, such as a failed amputation, or deliberate, for example sustained during combat.

The skeleton of another individual showed Schmorl’s nodes, which suggest that she may have suffered from trauma such as a fall from height, heavy lifting, or physical exercise during her adolescent years.

Perhaps the most interesting cremation was the remains of a young child contained within a smaller, secondary urn which had been placed upside down within a larger one. It is possible that the individual was deliberately placed within this secondary urn in order to symbolise the protection afforded to young people.

The radiocarbon analysis suggests that this cemetery may have been in use for as much as 400 years, but more likely around 150 years, before falling out of use at some point approaching the middle of the second millennium BC. The earth bank of the cemetery was pushed back into the ring ditch at some point following the abandonment of the site and was then ploughed over and the ground cultivated leaving the ground surface flat with no surface trace of the underlying burial ground. The site then remained hidden until our excavation in 2018.

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Archaeological Research Services Ltd