Creative relations with the dead: beaker and food vessel burials, 2250-1900 BC

The twenty-fourth century formed the prelude for an impressive diversity of craft and burial assemblages. After 2250 BC, around the same time that tin-bronze became available, burial was emerging as an increasing feature of mortuary rites. The frequency of burials and their diversity makes it feasible to recognise burial assemblages throughout Ireland and Britain and define regional traditions (Cleary 2016). The few tens of excavated burials dated to the twenty-fourth and twenty-third centuries BC are a tiny fraction of the numbers who died. Most people were buried in ways that meant their remains did not survive within archaeological deposits. This situation began changing from the late twenty-third century BC, when more of the population were buried at the close of mortuary rites, and with greater proportions of female and child burials than had been the case during the preceding centuries. These changes coincided with diverse and regionalised styles of beakers, and a new ceramic style, the food vessel, which was widespread in Ireland and became common in Britain from around 2100 BC (Brindley 2007; Wilkin 2014).

Stuart Needham (2005, 209) characterises 2250-1950 BC as a period of acculturation and diversification, in which the exclusive rites associated with early beaker burials were adopted throughout Britain. This process began, Needham proposes, with a ‘fission horizon’ lasting around a century when there was rapid diversification both in burial practices and in the styles of the pottery vessels, with the pots and accompanying objects having a less exclusive association with European networks and ideas. The bracers, which seemed so important for male burials in the preceding century, were rarely included as grave goods. Flint daggers and jet buttons, on the other hand, were a feature of burials after 2250 BC. The inhumation burial beneath Irthlingborough Barrow 1, Northamptonshire, offers an example of both earlier and later beaker objects assembled together (Harding and Healy 2007). Sometime during the twenty-second or twenty-first century BC, kin buried an adult male in an oak-lined grave with a collection of objects at the man’s feet: a long-necked beaker, jet buttons and a flint dagger, together with a boar tusk and a bracer made from Langdale tuff. The bracer was a heavily worn fragment and the calibrated radiocarbon measurement on the boar tusk makes it at least three centuries older than the burial.

The emergence of regional traditions constrained by British and Irish shores can be miscategorised as a form of insularity. People maintained relations both along the Atlantic coast and eastwards onto mainland Europe. Comparable representations of the sun appear in motifs on gold, bronze and ceramics across western and northern Europe, and the sun was referenced in the alignments of burials and monuments (Cahill 2015; Carlin 2018, 209-211). Catherine Frieman argues that the flaked-stone daggers, which have a markedly eastern distribution in Britain during 2250—2000 BC, were either derived from or emulated Dutch examples (Frieman 2014). In this respect they were a means of connecting with an ‘ancestral’ beaker identity and situating the daggers’ wearers (living and dead) within a wider value-system signified by daggers.

Regionalisation takes different forms. Burials with beakers are found in notable clusters in Wessex, the Thames Valley, the Peak District and northeast Scotland. In the regions where beakers were less visible, there was an early adoption of bowl-shaped food vessels: north and east Ireland and the west coast of Scotland. The food vessels accompanied both inhumation and cremation burials, some single-graves and others with multiple interments, placed in stone cists and pits, and sometimes in flat cemeteries and mounds. The University of Groningen’s programme of radiocarbon dating concluded that the burials accompanied by bowls span 2150-1950 BC (Brindley 2007). The vessels are small and ornately decorated with a variety of complex designs, which the potters impressed into the clay using a comb or small triangular implement. Their forms may have derived inspiration from earlier impressed wares and contemporary organic containers (Wilkin 2014, 49).

Keenoge, County Meath, is a large cemetery with early food vessel burials (Mount 1997) (Figure 2.6). Twenty-six individuals were buried in fourteen graves, both pits and stone-built cists, which were dug into a low, natural mound. The people inhumed at Keenoge were placed in the graves on their sides and tightly flexed, with the bowls, where present, by their heads. This arrangement has parallels with beaker burials in Britain. The majority of the burials were adult men and women. A few children were represented but only one was the primary burial in a grave. A greater proportion of the male burials contained bowls, and more of the cremated remains were male (Mount 1997).

The age and sex of the dead contributed to subtle distinctions between individual assemblages (Haughton 2018). When beaker vessels were present in graves, there were codified ways to treat men and women during mortuary rites and these varied somewhat between regions. Joanna Sofaer analysed the beaker


CT adult male 9 adult female c/ unknown adult ® infant O cremation • urn/bowl X cist slabs


flint tool bone beads

flint tool

  • ?chert flake
  • ?polished haematite



Plans of the excavated cist cemeteries at Keenoge, County Meath, and West Water, Peeblesshire. Adapted from Hunter 2000 and Mount 1997

FIGURE 2.6 Plans of the excavated cist cemeteries at Keenoge, County Meath, and West Water, Peeblesshire. Adapted from Hunter 2000 and Mount 1997.

burials in the Thames Valley and identified differences between the ways the graves of men and women were assembled (Sofaer Derevenski 2002). Men were buried both in flat graves and in round barrows, laid on their left side and oriented to the north or northwest, in grave cuts of a common shape and size, and located either in the centre or completely outside monuments. The lack of variability in the form of burial, according to Sofaer, indicates that male identities were relatively fixed by sexual characteristics. The ways of expressing masculinity in mortuary rituals were limited and inflexible. Burials sexed as female, by comparison, were almost always within monuments and in a variety of positions, with a tendency for older individuals to be buried in more peripheral locations. The shapes of the grave cuts were also more variable than for men, with no pattern in the orientation of the graves, although there were strong preferences for laying bodies on their right sides. Sofaer argues that female identities were constructed in multiple ways, with greater complexity and potential for variability than male gender. The grave was not a passive reflection of a person’s identity; it was a mediator through which identities were defined.

Alexandra Shepherd (2012) studied the beaker burials from east Yorkshire and northeast Scotland. Here the burials followed an east-west alignment, differing from the north-south arrangements in southern Britain and amongst beaker graves in western Europe: the women were laid on their right sides, with their heads to the west, and men on their left sides with heads to the east, both women and men facing south. There were small differences in this pattern. A quarter of the male burials in east Yorkshire (4 out of 16) were laid on different orientations. Otherwise the principles were reproduced consistently. Alexandra Shepherd proposed that the pots accompanying the burials were made or chosen in relation with the sex of the dead person. The shorter, squatter pots were more commonly placed with females (particularly children), and the pots placed with males tended to be taller. Shepherd accepted the patterns were far from clear or consistent. Biological sex, as defined by osteological analysis, formed an aspect of how genders were created. At Broomend of Crichie, Aberdeenshire, one of the cists contained a male and an infant, with the taller, broader pot accompanying the man. Another cist included two males, laid alongside one another and with their heads oriented in opposing directions. The pots accompanying the men were a complementary pair: one taller and the other squatter.

Shepherd (2012, 262) compared her results with the food vessel-accompanied burials in east Yorkshire. The bodies with food vessels were arranged in more diverse alignments when compared with the beaker-accompanied burials. There remained a slight preference for east-west alignments with the bodies facing towards the south, with more variability than burials with beakers. The positions of the pots in the graves differed depending on whether the bodies were buried with beakers or food vessels: beakers were behind the head, and food vessels were placed in front (Lucas 1996, 110). In Ireland, where small numbers of inhumation burials were accompanied by bowl food vessels in cists, there are no discernible patterns in the arrangement of the bodies (Waddell 1990, 18-19). Chris Fowler and Neil Wilkin (2016) noted variability in the arrangement of the bodies that were accompanied by food vessels in north-east England and south-east Scotland. They propose that choices about the orientations of cists and the bodies they contained were made according to local distinctions and connections with regions elsewhere. The north-south aligned burials in the north and east Cheviot Hills are one example of a local tradition. The predominately older male burials with copper-alloy daggers and knife-daggers in northern Britain form a wider regional grouping (Baker et al. 2003).

Along with sex, age is another biological characteristic that can be estimated through the analysis of human bone. Like gender, age emerged from the unfolding relations between kin and cultural traditions. Estimates of childhood mortality in prehistory place it at around 50 percent, meaning that half or more of a population would have been under 18 years of age (Lucy 2005). It is on these terms that some accounts of the Bronze Age have treated the burial of children as unproblematic and an expected albeit poignant ‘fact of life’ (Burgess 1980, 162). Despite the common occurrences of childhood death, during the twenty-fourth and twenty-third centuries only a few children were chosen for formal burial in ways that have become archaeologically visible, and it was rare for these children to be either female or infants. From the twenty-second century, people buried children’s remains more frequently and made distinctions during the mortuary rites according to the children’s ages. The age categories were not nearly as clearly defined as they were for gender. The decisions about when to enact the formal burial of children, as with other categories of people, were defined historically and culturally.

Barra O Donnabhain and Anna Brindley’s (1989/1990) review of the human remains, most cremated, from burials with miniature cups in Ireland shows that children under the age of 14 were not accorded individual burial with grave goods, but were in all but one case (Rathlin Island—inhumation of a child of about six years old in a cist (Wiggins 2000)) interred with an adult. O Donnabhain and Brindley suggest that the change at around the age of 14 marked the transition to adulthood. Paul Garwood (2007) identified changes through time in the ways children were treated at death during the early Bronze Age in southern England. He suggests that during 2400—2150 BC, children were not buried as individuals memorialised in death, but rather treated as offerings or part of the grave assemblage accompanying an adult: as at Boscombe Down, described above, and at Hemp Knoll, Wiltshire, where the body of a three-year-old child was placed on the ground surface next to the pit in which an adult male with a beaker was buried (Robertson-Mackay 1980). During 2150-1800 BC, burials of children, particularly infants and young children, were more common. These included many examples of children buried as individual persons, occasionally with grave goods. The types of artefacts associated with the burials varied according to the age of the child, with infants most commonly accompanied by a pot such as a handled beaker or food vessel, and children aged four to sixyears old buried with flint objects. Burials of children older than 13 or 14 were rarer during 2150-1800 BC, and all were found in secondary contexts within the burial monument. The few older children that were buried with grave goods seem to have been treated as adults. Children could be mourned and remembered in similar ways to adults, with puberty probably the important threshold into adulthood.

A child (five to nine years old) was buried in a cist at Doune, Perth and Kinross, accompanied by a miniature battle axe, a small food vessel and an abraded sherd from a larger food vessel (McLaren 2004). Dawn McLaren interprets the presence of the miniature battle axe as an indication that the child was a significant member of the community. Miniature versions of artefacts were as common in adult burials as they were with children. At Barbrush, Perthshire, the complete remains of a necklace made from local cannel coal beads with a jet fastener were sized to fit a juvenile or child (Holden and Sheridan 2001). A nearby cist contained the inhumation burial of a 9—12-year-old child accompanied with a food vessel. At West Water Reservoir, in the Scottish Borders, all the human remains that could be assigned an age were under 25 years old, and the youngest child, perhaps 3—5 years old, was buried with a disc bead necklace with a second strand of lead beads (Hunter 2000) (Figure 2.6).

Paul Garwood (2007) interprets the increase in burials of children in southern England during 2150-1800 BC and their common inclusion within barrows with multiple, related phases of burial as deliberate attempts to re-order relations amongst the living and ensure the successful reproduction of communities. The placement of burials in vertical alignment, one above the other, in the same mounds signalled a concern to symbolise continuity and growth, perhaps at times when communities were in other regards unstable or vulnerable (Figure 2.7). In a study of the beaker and food vessel inhumation burials in east Yorkshire, Gavin Lucas (1996) notes that more than half of the beaker-accompanied graves contained multiple burials, and this practice was less common with the food vessel burials. Across all types of interment, more than two-thirds of the primary burials in the sequences of multiple interments were male. The sex ratios were more equal for the subsequent, secondary, burials. The male burials, Lucas suggests, were founding events for constructing kinship histories during the mortuary rites. Commenting on the same east Yorkshire burials as Lucas, Koji Mizoguchi (1993) proposes that the sequence of male burials followed by a wider variety of persons narrated an idealised narrative for how a society was organised, and which materialised relations of dominance between different social categories.

The greater numbers of male burials compared with females and young people could have reproduced a ‘relation of dominance’ for masculinity in society (Mizoguchi 1993). The more common sequence for multiple burials in some regions to begin with an adult male might have meant that kinship narratives were founded on senior male ancestors (Lucas 1996). These interpretations miss out the important precondition for the patterns, which was the tradition of


disarticulated adult male inhumation with beaker, four gold basket-shaped

flexed, supine probably adult male inhumation with beaker & flints

ornaments, gold bead, copper dagger, necklace of stone beads, flint & antler objects



barrow material collapsed into primary burial chamber

adult cremation in collared urn with flint & bone objects

adult cremation & pyre debris, flint, bone & antler objects, 2010-1765 BC

incomplete adult cremation, pyre debris & broken flint

primary timber burial chamber, adult male inhumation with 'food offering', c.2150-2100 BC

timber burial chamber, adult male flexed inhumation with flint knives & antler

FIGURE 2.7 The vertical placements of burials at Chilbolton, Hampshire and Gayhurst, Buckinghamshire. Adapted from Chapman 2007 and Russel 1990.

assembling graves around male burials began in the early beaker period. The male dead played prominent roles in grave assemblages after 2200 BC in the same regions, east Yorkshire being one, that beakers were important. The reproduction of beaker burial traditions required that the burials of women and men were assembled in difference with one another. In comparison, the food vessels in graves changed the conformity of the assemblages, and there was more variability in how male and female burial rites were performed.

The juxtaposition of burial deposits and their proximity to the centre or the principal alignments of the monuments will have enabled the dead to be placed with reference to existing social orders and to play a part in reproducing those orders. The excavation of a round barrow at Barnack in Cambridgeshire produced an exceptional but by no means unique series of burials, which Jonathan Last (1998) argues were spatially associated with one another in ways that defined each person’s individuality and built up a genealogical narrative for the community (Figure 2.8). The first person to be buried was a 40-year-old man. He was accompanied by a large finely made beaker, a copper or bronze dagger, a bracer decorated with gold and a bone pendant. The subsequent burial events within the monument took place over about 200 years, and each retained references to and created differences with the preceding interments. There was a tension between selves and community. There was perhaps a desire to deal with short-term concerns of mourning and remembrance, while also placing the dead within a longer history that projected the ongoing success of the community.

From the late twenty-third and twenty-second centuries BC, burial became an increasingly common rite. Burial occurred alongside other funerary rites, which are hinted at by the occasional finds of human bone in places such as caves and rivers. A dozen human skulls and other bones, fragments of wickerwork and animal bone were excavated in a former channel of the River Trent, and interpreted as the remains of an excarnation structure dated to the late third millennium BC (Garton et al. 1997). As burials became more frequent and geographically widespread, the assemblages increased in their diversity, with women

A plan of the burials within a barrow at Barnack, Cambridgeshire. Adapted from Donaldson 1977

FIGURE 2.8 A plan of the burials within a barrow at Barnack, Cambridgeshire. Adapted from Donaldson 1977.

and young people more commonly buried, and new pottery styles included in the graves. It was around this time that cremation became visible as a mortuary practice, most notably in Ireland. Cremation was probably practised routinely in preceding centuries, with the main change around 2200 BC being that the cremated bone was more commonly buried in a cist in a similar manner to inhumation burials. This larger and more diverse burial dataset has meant that prehistorians have reconstructed different categories of objects and persons, relating to sex and age, for instance, and the social order as it was represented in mortuary monuments.

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