Crazy mixed-up people

I was trying to revise a paper about Neolithic cave burial this week and after about two days of fruitless tinkering with the words I gave up and decided to spend the day drawing diagrams instead. When I was in primary school they used to tell us to draw a picture and then write a story about it. It is surprising how often this is a successful tactic in adult life too.

I took all the unwieldy mass of vaguely related facts about all 43 Neolithic burial caves from the first part of my paper and tried to encapsulate they key points in one graphic. The draft paper is very much too long, so I very quickly realised that more than one picture was going to be needed. This is my first go at one of them. One of my themes has been to try to look at what was going on in different regions over the Neolithic. So, in this diagram I have tried to show what cave burials were like in each region. Here we are looking at evidence to do with where people chose to bury the dead. What was special about particular caves? Which parts of caves were chosen for burial? What was already in the cave when the burial took place?

Summary places

I’m quite pleased with this as a tool for getting my thoughts straight. To me, it looks as if it is best to think of Neolithic cave burial as a range of related traditions. So, there was not a single ‘cave burial rite’ in Neolithic Britain, but there were a lot of recurring themes which would get combined together in slightly different rites in different regions and at different times. For example, the geographical location of the cave chosen often seems to have been important, but it wasn’t always the same choice being made for the same reasons. In Scotland, West Wales and Devon coastal caves were popular, while around the Severn Estuary nearly all the caves chosen faced north. Over in North Yorkshire, the group of caves around Settle mostly face towards the south. Here you can get some inkling of the reason for this choice by looking at all the available caves in the region. This bit of the Yorkshire Dales is full of caves and lots of them have human remains in of various dates but all the Neolithic burials are clustered along the south-western edge of the limestone uplands. For Neolithic burials, only those caves with that particular kind of view would do.

Similarly, at different times and places we can see people making various choices about whether it was important to bury deep inside a cave or out in the open entrance. One interesting trend, which seems to cover most of the country, is that burials in vertical shafts in the limestone (these are technically known as dolines) are late. Burials in these sites are usually either very Late Neolithic or Early Bronze Age. This is one reason why I am keen to dig some of them at New Laund Farm, where there are both lots of dolines and lots of Early Bronze Age finds.

I’ve also had a go at making more specific diagrams about just one aspect of burial. This is my summation of the regional evidence for the different ways people treated the body after death. One of the defining characteristics of British Neolithic burials, from all kinds of sites, is that the bodies are usually in bits when they are found. When you have more than one body they are all mixed up together.

There has been an awful lot of ink spilt on precisely why Neolithic people were so keen on death as a communal experience. There has been almost as much debate about how these mingled, mixed up burial assemblages were created. When someone died in the Neolithic what did they do to break them into bits?

People who study Neolithic chambered tombs have suggested a whole range of different possible techniques and different explanations have been fashionable at different times. When I was an undergraduate there was a lot of discussion of excarnation – the practice of leaving a body somewhere do be picked clean by animals and the elements – before the bones were carried into the tombs. More recently, bone specialists have suggested that the most common and plausible method was the bodies were placed into tombs intact and left to decay there. They then only became mingled with earlier bodies after decay because people were repeatedly coming into the tomb and moving bones around. Sometimes this was to deliberately create the mixed burials and sometimes it may just have been a product of trying to make room for the next one to come in. The technical term for this practice is ‘successive inhumation’

Summary bodies

As you can see from the chart, there is lots of evidence from caves for successive inhumation, it seems to be the main method used over the whole country. But there were other things going on too. In Yorkshire and Derbyshire there is good evidence that the only bit that went into some caves was the skull. This should be clear evidence for excarnation, at least in the Early Neolithic. Also in Yorkshire there seem to be some people who were not having anything to do with this communal burial nonsense. One body (or sometimes an adult and infant together) was placed in one grave.

There is also one burial from West Wales which seems to have been re-assembled from bits of three different people. This is why it says ‘mummifcation?’ on the chart. This is not definitive proof of mummification in the way that, say, preserved skin or a powerful curse is. But it is highly suggestive of a body that has been preserved, kept as some sort of talisman and repaired over a long period of time. Precisely this kind of mummification was demonstrated through a detailed dating programme from the Late Bronze Age site of Cladh Hallan in the Hebrides.

Most Neolithic cave burial shared the overall Neolithic obsession with breaking people down into bits and mixing them up together but it seems to have gone about it, especially in the Early Neolithic, in a whole range of different ways.



  1. Did the living co inhabit the same spaces of their dead? I wonder, if so, if deeper burials were determined by necessity, ie larger populations?

    The practice of excarnation and cranial interment reminds me of the pagodas of skulls used by Buddhists during the Cambodian killing fields. I think, again, this practice was necessitated by space and need.

    • Hi Joe – I don’t think they were living in these caves. A lot of them are too small. I think the caves would have been places people came back to on a fairly regular basis but not actual habitations.

      There are lots of different cultures around the world where cranial display is used as part of secondary burial. The tricky thing with most of these sites is proving that it definitely took place from a very fragmented set of bones. The Yorkshire sites are the best documented as they were the subject of a really detailed osteo-archaeological study by Stephany Leach who first spotted the head thing going on. I think it was probably more common than we think – there’s the same problem with mummification too.

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