4.15 Physical Burial Containers

The last analytical focus is on the medium that encloses, holds or supports disposals of human remains. This may be at the simplest the natural ground surface for a bone fragment found lying casually in (say) a settlement gully, or remains set on the ground then covered by a mound. It may be a manufactured enclosure like an urn, wicker basket or wooden box, and the term then extends to further enveloping media like pits, cairns, chambers and mounds. Many disposals are contained by a sequence of these media, for example being in an urn which was set in a pit and then covered by a mound. In these cases each medium is recorded as an incidence. As elsewhere in these analyses, a characteristic is recorded only once although it might be in evidence several times in a period on a site.

The burial containers are of 23 types as follows: open surface as described above (151), a mound of largely earthen material, definitely identified or assumed by the excavator (152), a pit up to 1.5m deep of any shape and unlined by stone (153), a cairn (154), a chamber which is generally above ground and distinguished by its massiveness from a cist (155), a cist of stone slabs below or above ground (156), a coffin of shaped wood (157), a plank under or over the disposal (158), a platform or paving usually of stone slabs or cobbling, but occasionally of other material such as spread sand or clay (159), a pyre or pyre site holding or close by the disposal (160), an urn associated with the disposal (161), a bag containing the disposal (162), a tree trunk usually unshaped and simply split containing the disposal (163), a box (164), a basket woven usually from willow (165), a shaft or pit deeper than 1.5m (166), a mortuary house (167), binding, wrapping or bundling of the human remains (168-170), a setting of stones around or over the remains which is less than a cist (171), a bucket (172), and an urnfield which may be independent or be set into a monument serving other types of deposition (173).

The three areas of south west, south and south east have been examined for all five periods from 3500bc-AD43, and the relevant results are set out in Tables 406-420. The section treats physical burial containers starting from the broadest picture for the whole geographical area over the whole period.

Overall patterns 3500bc-AD43

The summary picture

A number of these characteristics are of such low incidence (Table 419) that they will not be returned to save in a few instances, and the description will mostly concentrate on the remainder. These low incidence types of container (1-2%) are coffin, plank, bag, tree trunk, box, basket, shaft, mortuary house, binding, wrapping, bundling, and bucket. In the last case, the container is uncommon, and normally an element of rich interments exclusive to the period 100bc-AD43. In the case of many of the others, the container is organic and once decayed may either be untraceable, or needs high levels of scientific or interpretative skills to deduce its former existence: hence few of those instances are reported. This leaves shafts, which are (up to AD43 at least) a rare phenomenon.

Over the whole period 3500bc-AD43 there are wide differences in the extent to which the three areas used the more frequent burial containers. The pit as a burial container is of highest overall site incidence at 66%, with the three areas varying considerably, from the south west at 43%, the south at 70% to the south east at 84%. Mounds follow next at 56% incidence overall, the south east area least favouring them at 30% incidence, the south west being about average and the south most at 72%. Urns come next at 36% overall, but there is a much more even usage among the areas, all being in the 30% range, with the south highest at 39%.

Following some way after these media for burial containment come open surface disposals (18%), cists (12%) and cairns (11%). There are area variations within these too. The south west has greater incidence of open surface disposals at 23% than the two others, which are the same at 16%. The south west far outstrips the other two areas in the use of cists at 32% (compared with 4% each), and also has heaviest occurrence of cairns (23% compared with the south at 10% and the south east at 2%). It is worth noting that nothwithstanding the overall low incidence of chamber containers(3%), the south west again is far ahead of both the south and south east (11%-1%-1%).

The extent to which the variations so far noted have more to do with local geophysical conditions, which is the most obvious reason, rather than other considerations, will be taken up later.

Otherwise among the lower incidence types, sites with pyre containers are evenly distributed at 4%, sites with platforms or paving supporting the disposals are twice as prevalent in the south west area at 8%, and the south has the highest incidence of urnfields at 7%, with the south west very low at 1% and the south east in the middle.

Table 420 gives the proportionate distribution of container types through the five periods. There are no more comments to add to those relating to Table 419.

The period pictures

Table 416 breaks down the overall picture into those for each of the five periods. Taking pits first, the overall average is seen to conceal a growing use of the pit from 35% incidence in 3500-2500bc, rising to 66-67% over 2500-8/700bc, thence to 72% in 8/700-100bc and on to 82% in the final period. The next overall highest category, the mound, shows a partly complementary opposite pattern, starting high at 53% incidence in 3500-2500bc and then a rise to 69% in 2500-14/1300bc, dropping to 59% incidence (still a very high incidence nonetheless) in 14/1300-8/700bc, but then sharply declining to 14% and 8% over the two periods covering 8/700bc-AD43. Urn incidence shown by the same table starts very low in 3500-2500bc at 2%, is at its highest points in the two succeeding periods (34-80%), falls dramatically again in 8/700-100bc to 5%, and recovers to 24% in 100bc-AD43.

The lower incidence types also show considerable variations through the five periods. Open surface disposal is much more prevalent in 3500-2500bc and 8/700-100bc than at other times. Cists have highest incidence in 2500-14/1300bc, as do cairns, but the latter continue strongly into the next period. Urnfields are almost wholly confined to the period 14/1300-8/700bc at 22% incidence compared with 1% incidence in the periods immediately before and after. Chambers likewise are largely confined in incidence to 3500-2500bc at 30%, and occur at 0-2% in later periods. The platform/paving characteristic follows a similar pattern but with lower percentage incidence in 3500-2500bc (19%) and a later range of 0-5%. Pyre incidence is low but occurs more often over 3500-8/700bc than later.

Mortuary houses

Mortuary houses have not been mentioned for any area so far. There are few recorded instances: the south west has 5, the south 19, and the south east 9. They all occur in the periods covering 3500-14/1300bc except for one in the south in 14/1300-8/700bc. The majority (19) occur in 2500-14/1300bc, with the south having most at 9 incidences.

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