The cist on the foreshore

The Cist on the Foreshore at Lopness prior to excavation, Sanday, Orkney Lopness, Sanday, Orkney © ARO.

The Cist on the Foreshore at Lopness prior to excavation, Sanday, Orkney Lopness, Sanday, Orkney © ARO.

Analysis of finds from the archaeological excavation of a cist burial located on the foreshore at Lopness on Sanday in Orkney have revealed new evidence for Bronze Age burial practices.

Site location © ARO.

Site location © ARO.

The cist, which was in danger of being eroded by the sea, was excavated in September 2000 as part of Historic Scotland’s Human Remains Call Off Contract by Orkney Archaeological Trust and on behalf of the then Glasgow University Archaeological Research Division (G.U.A.R.D.). The cist was constructed from large beach flags and contained the skeleton of a middle-aged to elderly woman. The osteological evidence points to a woman who led a physically demanding life, which involved repetitive actions over time and who at the time of her death was suffering from the crippling effects of osteoarthritis. During her working life she may have spent much of her time at a loom, but other activities, such as net fishing may have contributed to her osteological profile. The radiocarbon data, taking into account the marine reservoir effect, indicates that the woman was buried probably between 1890 and 1520 BC.

The cist also contained a relatively large amount of animal bone as well as fragments of shell, lobster/crab, sea urchin/starfish, and fish bone. This is not a common phenomenon and the vast majority of this material is likely to have been ‘incidental’. Lithic material and pottery were also found overlying the skeletal remains. The lithic material was predominantly knapping debris, which suggests it derived from elsewhere. Lithic artefacts recovered from prehistoric funerary contexts are commonly ‘prestige goods’ such as flint knives and scrapers and are not normally the waste from the manufacture of such objects. The Lopness lithic artefacts are thought to date to the early to middle Bronze Age. At least two pottery vessels were identified but it is unlikely, given the small number of sherds, that whole vessels were ever present. Stylistically the assemblage ranges from the mid to late second millennium BC. Botanical evidence, comprising carbonised barley cereal grains was also recovered from the cist deposits. These remains, together with the lithic artefacts and pottery are indicative of waste or midden material forming the upper fills of the cist.

The inhumation fully excavated © ARO.

The inhumation fully excavated © ARO.

The most likely sequence of events involves the burial of a deceased female in a cist without surviving grave goods in the early to middle Bronze Age,‘ said report author Lorna Innes. ‘Accumulations of midden material, possibly from a slight mound capping the burial, subsequently fell into the cist with the collapse of its lid. The cist had become damaged and the burial was disturbed, and it is likely that the situation may have been rectified by the deliberate introduction of offerings (lamb bones and limpets) into the grave. However, there does not appear to have been any attempt made to repair the cist lid, even though the cist was likely to have been recognised as a grave. However, the subsequent collapse of midden into the cist brought with it the pottery and the lithic artefacts.’

Plan of the excavated cist © ARO.

Plan of the excavated cist © ARO.

There are few parallels for the Lopness cist burial in Orkney. At Sand Fiold, a rock cut burial chamber in Sandwick, Orkney, contained the remains of two inhumations (foetal and sub-adult) and two cremated adult males. One of the cremated remains was contained within a Food Vessel Urn while the other formed a discrete pile in the centre of the cist. The radiocarbon dates from Sand Fiold suggest longevity of use of this burial place with cremation and inhumation rites taking place during the same period. The sub-adult inhumation within the Sand Fiold cist is of comparable date to the Lopness inhumation and together bear testament to the continued use of inhumation into the Bronze Age on Orkney despite the adoption of cremation. They also suggest the broadly contemporary use of two very different types of funerary rite, sometimes even within the same burial as at Sand Fiold or at the middle Bronze Age barrow cemetery at Linga Fiold on the Orkney Mainland. There are considerable differences between cremation and inhumation rituals and use of one rite over another strongly suggests that quite different attitudes to the dead were involved.

The full results of this research, ARO19: The Cist on the Foreshore at Lopness, Sanday, Orkney by Lorna Innes, has just been published and is now freely available to download from the ARO website – Archaeology Reports Online.