The Mystery of Iron Age Burials


The research by Dr Mary Macleod Rivett raised several questions from a number of people on social media, concerning burial in Iron Age Britain generally and more specifically the significance of the face down burial.

The following is a brief synopsis of a conversation between Mary Macleod Rivett and Martin Carruthers at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and raises some interesting points about the role of the dead in Iron Age society. 

In terms of Iron Age face-down burials, I’m not aware of very many.  There’s one adult male from the in-fill of a souterrain at Bu, near Stromness in Orkney where he was buried on his front with his hands apparently behind him, head slightly tilted to one side.  He was also accompanied by a further half a dozen or so human individuals, in the same souterrain back-fill, of a range of sexes and ages, including some quite young children.  I wouldn’t want to jump to any sinister conclusion about what this configuration means, but it is interesting that the in-fill of the souterrain also seems to have been one of the final acts during the Iron Age period on this particular site.  It’s probably different from the burial described by Mary Macleod, I would suggest, as it doesn’t carry the same formality and the fascinating grave goods.

I suppose one of the things that is often thought to limit what we can say about burials from this period is that there are so relatively few of them (and traces of human remains more generally) and therefore it’s very uncertain how representative any of the burials actually are, in terms of a ‘normal’ or normative burial tradition as such.  The Early and Middle Iron Age burials that have been found are very diverse in terms of the treatment of the deceased.  There are inhumations like this one, cremations, semi-articulated portions of bodies, and completely disarticulated pieces of human bone (like the jaw found at The Cairns recently).

There are even pieces of modified human bone like the pierced femur heads from some sites where they seem to have been used as spindle whorls, or the pierced skull plates that seem to have been hung on strings for display.

And although there have been more Iron Age burials discovered in recent years, most regions of the UK (except parts of East Yorkshire, or the South East) still stubbornly refuse to give up anything like the volume of burials that we know must have gone with the relatively large population size during the Iron Age.

We still have a very long way to go to start putting these burials in a better contextual understanding.  However, that does actually mean that each and every new Iron Age period burial is very significant as they are such a relatively rare resource for understanding the treatment of the dead during the period.

Mary adds, “I also dug a prone, male, IA burial (no C14 date) several years ago at A’Cheardach Ruadh, Baile Sear, North Uist, but the body there had a twisted spine (scoliosis), and there may have been practical reasons for that one…”

Sounds like a good subject for a PhD!!!


One thought on “The Mystery of Iron Age Burials

  1. Bernie Bell Monday, February 13, 2017 (8:25am) / 8:25 am

    Here’s my tuppenceworth. I’m not an archaeologist, by any stretch of the imagination – too much like hard work. I’m just interested, very interested – what it comes down to is an interest in humanity and what motivates us.
    I sent this to Antonia Thomas when reading her recent book ‘Art and Architecture in Neolithic Orkney’. A sound piece of work, which I highly recommend. Here’s what I sent to Antonia………………………………

    “I’ve just read the section on Page 177 entitled ‘Robbing and beyond’.
    What occurs to me is – there’s a similarity between how the stones are treated, and how the bones are treated. When a person died, once the proper observances had been …observed – once the right things had been done, then, the ‘living’ were happy to muddle the bones up together, weren’t too worried if they were carried off by critters, and to ‘re-use’ them sometimes – for example, as with the arm-bone found under the small slab at Structure 10 last year – or, in a later time, the man placed in the whale bone at The Cairns.
    And I’m even reminded of the delightful picture of a Buddhist monk, playing a human leg-bone, as a trumpet? flute? which I sent you some years ago.
    Have every respect for the person, and for their remains, until the observances have taken place to aid their passing, then – use the bones to strengthen a place, or a sound, or an idea.
    Adding strength, physically, and/or symbolically.
    I’m also reminded, again in a different time, of the gaps in the building of the Broch of Mousa, which Martin said were to add strength, physically ( which makes total sense and solved something which had puzzled me for some time). He also said that some objects were found placed into the gaps. The gaps add strength to the structure, physically, and the objects – add strength in the other way.
    When the buildings had been closed down – put to rest, then the stones were ‘free’ to be used in other ways too. Maybe stones from somewhere which ‘mattered’ would be used in the next place which ‘mattered’.
    Once again – stones and bones, stones and bones.
    Doing the right thing, at the time of ‘passing’ mattered, then – they were free to be re-used.
    Just an idea – not explained very clearly. Best I can do, at the moment!”

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