Understanding death, burial and commemoration among the early farming societies of the European Neolithic is almost always a challenge when dealing with small samples of data from a handful of sites for any one locale or region.
Prior to the regular deposition of cremation in urns, and in association with cairns and mounds during the Bronze and Iron Ages, cremation can appear in many different archaeological contexts both connected and disassociated from formal disposal areas (aka ‘cemeteries’) and monuments during the Neolithic.
For example, in Western Britain and Ireland, cremation found in the Early Neolithic and associated with the ‘portal dolmen’ tradition of megalithic architecture. The problem is: this might be an erroneous association for one or more of the following reasons:
- while data can show – if deposits are radiocarbon dated – that cremation was practised by groups building and/or using these monuments, sometimes the deposits reflect the later biographies of these sites (i.e. they relate to Bronze Age or later activities on these sites).
- the acidic soils of these regions cannot always prove an exclusive preference for cremation in the Neolithic, even for sites with cremation practices dated conclusively to the Neolithic phases of these sites. By this I mean that the presence of cremation in itself is not a full insight into Neolithic communities’ mortuary programmes and whether (for example) cremation operated alongside other disposal strategies.
- ‘cremation’ embraces many different technologies for utilising fire in relation to the human body, and burnt human bone in itself doesn’t reveal a uniform tradition.
These issues are explored and illustrated by the recently published results from excavations at Carreg Coetan Arthur, Pembrokeshire. The modern visitor experience of visiting Cadw-managed site of the Neolithic chambered tomb of Carreg Coetan Arthur is in stark contrast to the hillside location with sweeping visitors and prominent rock outcrops that figure in the nearby tomb of Pentre Ifan or the coastal vistas afforded from Carreg Samson. Situated on the outskirts of coastal town of Newport, Pembrokeshire, the site is low-lying and close to the Afon Nyfer estuary. The tomb is open to visitors daily and now sits in a placid plot adjacent to bungalows.
The site consists of four orthostatic uprights and a capstone, all of different size, shape and orientation but each of local igneous silacious stone. The capstone is supported by two of the four (the SW and E). There are three gaps between the capstones. While not a ‘portal dolmen’ in the formal sense, the two southern orthostats almost touch each other, forming a southern micro-facade that suggests that the tomb’s approach was from this direction.
Excavations which took place in 1979 and 1980 directed by Sian Rees are now published in the journal of the Cambrian Archaeological Association: Archaeologia Cambrensis volume 161 for 2012. Her study enhances our understanding of the surviving stones’ morphology and relationship to the tomb’s architecture, notably the association with a stone cairn. Sian’s excavations also confirmed the date-range of the monument. Key to the interpretations of the report are the deposits and scatters of cremated human remains.
Four principal areas of cremation deposits were identified through the excavations. These were on the old ground surface outside the chamber in two areas, one beneath an inverted pot and with charcoal dating the deposit to C. 3620-3020 cal. BC. There were also a more dispersed cremation scatters were found to the south-west of the chamber and associated with Carinated Bowl sherds, possibly subject to disturbance , dating to C. 3090-2900 cal. BC. Finally, cremated bone was also found in disturbed contexts within the chamber itself.
Rees argues that, rather fragments of once-larger cremation deposits, we are looking at ‘token’ deposits added to an ‘ancestral tomb’. This doesn’t mean that the chambered tomb was primarily or exclusively a tomb, and this evidence doesn’t indicate that other disposal strategies were also in operation at this site but not lost due to the acidic soils. However, the evidence is sufficient to demonstrate that cremation was practised by groups building and using the site in the 4th millennium BC (reviewed in pp. 95-7).
Rees goes on to explore parallels, including the small piece of cremated bone found at Carreg Samson and elsewhere in Wales where cremation predominates, although inhumation in various forms seems to have been practised alongside cremation in later sites and in the Cotswold-Severn chambered tomb tradition.
Whether we call these monuments ‘tombs’ or not is, for me, less important than thinking about their long-term association with various different rituals and practices, including the deposition of cremated human remains. As such, it is surprising that while the landscape situation and association with routes of movement and topography have been carefully considered, I wonder if more thought is required to theorise the multiple stages of cremation practices in relation to the location and form of these fascinating chambered tombs.