Re-Analysis and Death in Iron Age Britain

Written by: Katy Meyers Emery

Primary Source: Bones Don’t Lie

Re-analysis is an interesting phenomenon in archaeology. It can be both a good thing and a bad thing depending on the collection and type of materials. Re-analysis is exactly what it sounds like, looking at an archaeological collection after it has already been assessed, analyzed and reported on. People may go back and re-examine an old collection because they have a new technique or need different information from a collection. My Masters thesis was based around developing a new technique to diagnose residual rickets in a late-medieval population. In order to do that, I needed to return to a collection that had already been examined and apply this new technique. Re-analysis can be bad when a collection is overstudied- bones and delicate artifacts can break or fragment with over handling, and focusing on re-analysis too much can bias sampling. There is also a third kind of re-analysis, the re-examination of older collections to gain new information or correct imperfect information in order to fill in gaps in knowledge. Sometimes older excavations may not have done as complete a job as was necessary, or may have missed important details due to the techniques of the time- by going back we can improve the reports for the site and help create a better interpretation of it.

"Iron Age house reconstruction" by Chris Fleming from Flickr

“Iron Age house reconstruction” by Chris Fleming from Flickr

The re-analysis of the site of Broxmouth hillfort, in East Lothian, has the potential to be one of the more revealing domestic and funerary sites for the Iron Age in Britain (800 BCE – 100 CE). The site has both an associated cemetery and domestic contexts with deposition of disarticulated human remains. Armit et al. 2013 argue that this site may provide the most coherent and informative set of funerary remains for Iron Age Britain. The Iron Age in Britain remains a period where little is known about the way people lived and died. For the most part, the available evidence available is fragmentary and new sites are elusive to archaeologists.

Broxmouth hillfort was excavated from 1977–1979 in response to expansion of a neighbouring cement works which threatened to destroy it. It revealed a complex set of enclosed works, preserved Iron Age roundhouses, diverse artifacts, animal bone, and a cemetery. Post-excavation results were never published, and the site remained in a grey literature limbo. Re-analysis began in 2008 when the collections from the site were transferred to University of Bradford. The funerary remains fall into three broad categories: 1) small formal inhumation cemetery located outside of the hillfort, 2) four isolated inhumation burials found within the enclosure, and 3) disarticulated human remains found in a range of domestic contexts. All have been re-analyzed, subjected to AMS dating and isotopic analysis.

Armit et al. Figure 5, example of one of the burials from the cemetery

Armit et al. Figure 5, example of one of the burials from the cemetery

1) The cemetery consists of eight single inhumation graves and one double burial. They were buried in oval graves, and most were covered and lined with thin rock slabs which may have been supported by a wooden framework. One of the slabs belonging to a young adult male was decorated with pecked hollows. Most were poorly preserved due to root growth and water erosion. Of the adults, four individuals were male and six were female. Two sub-adults were not attributed sex, but were aged around 9-10 years and 12-13 years. The youngest individual was found in the double burial with an adult female. All the skeletons was in a crouched or flexed position, and no grave goods were found. Dating puts them around 360-40 BCE. The cemetery was located at the edge of the hillfort.

2) The four isolated burials consisted of three adult females and one adult male, all were estimated to be aged between 16 and 25 years old. One female had evidence of malnutrition and lung infection based on rib fragments. Another female had evidence of healed trauma. Only one grave, the youngest female, had evidence for slabs and creation of a formal grave. The last was the male who was buried much later than the other individuals. All were located within the hillfort.

3) 22 disarticulated human bone fragments were found throughout the domestic site, 13 of these are cranial or mandibular, and all but two fragments come from adults. What is interesting is that six of the bones have evidence of trauma, either cut marks or fractures.

Based on their re-analysis, they propose that there was a formal cemetery that fits the normative behavior expected for an Iron Age community. A range of ages and both sexes were present, and each received a well-constructed grave. However, the three female burials that are isolated and within the hillfort are different, further all of them show signs of pathology. There are multiple hypotheses: 1) they may have been women from this village who were married off to other communities and returned upon death- which would account for the types of burials they had, 2) they may have been sacrificed due to their low status, or 3) they may have been considered individuals to be feared such as witches and at death were isolated from the rest of the deceased. Their injuries and pathology point to them having a lower quality of life than other members of the group- however, more information is needed. Finally, the disarticulated remains may point to raiding and violence within the community, with the bones representing enemies- their presence on the domestic site meaning that they may have been kept as trophies.

Comparison with other sites from this period reveals that overall in this region in Scotland, there was a higher incidence of inhumation, but between communities there was variation in exactly how the deceased were buried and commemorated. Burial and treatment of specific individuals in one way and others in another is a clear sign that funerary treatment was an important was of signalling status, but also manipulating one’s own identity. Here at Broxmouth, we have a case of the in-group and out-group. However, much more information is needed on this period to fill in the gaps and better understand what these burial forms mean. However, it does show why re-analysis is needed.

Works Cited

ResearchBlogging.orgArmit, I., Neale, N., Shapland, F., Bosworth, H., Hamilton, D., & Mckenzie, J. (2013). The Ins and Outs of Death in the Iron Age: Complex Funerary Treatments at Broxmouth Hillfort, East Lothian Oxford Journal of Archaeology, 32 (1), 73-100 DOI: 10.1111/ojoa.12003

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Katy Meyers Emery
Katy is currently a graduate student studying mortuary archaeology at Michigan State University. Her academic interests are in mortuary and bioarchaeology, with a specific interest in connecting the physical remains to the mortuary context. Along with this, she is also interested in Digital Humanities, and the integration of technology into academia, as well as public archaeology and outreach.
Katy Meyers Emery

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