Braised and confused

In a radical departure for Sheltering Memory as a cave archaeology blog, two consecutive posts about the archaeology of caves. Indeed, two consecutive posts about the archaeology of the same site, George Rock Shelter in South Wales. There were lots of other things deposited here besides the worked stone I was discussing last week. I had intended to analyse the prehistoric pottery next. I wanted to see whether the pottery filled in some of the gap between people placing tools and waste in the shelter in the Late Mesolithic (probably around 5000-4500 BC) and then more people doing exactly the same thing in the same place in the Late Neolithic (about 2900-2400 BC). The plan was to draw and record all the pottery and see if that filled in or otherwise made sense of the pattern.

GD06_G440 crem boneUnfortunately I had a bit of a brainwave and/or rush of blood to the head on Monday night concerning the burnt flint. This is a human skull fragment from the site which has been cremated.There is quite a bit of cremated bone amongst the finds from George Rock Shelter. Burnt flint and burnt bone from the same site, surely there must be a connection? So instead of getting on with the pot report as planned, I thought it would be interesting to see how the distribution of cremated bone related to the distribution of burnt flint.

 Goldsland site G plan crem bone and lithics

Here it is in plan. As you can see, the cremated bone was found all over the bit of the rock shelter we dug. But then, so was the burnt flint. the plan doesn’t really help us that much, except perhaps to show quite how much cremated bone we had. The next stage was to look at it in section to see if we could see the same pattern of two distinct events as with the stone tools.

Goldsland site G section crem bone and lithicsAs you can see, no, we can’t. The cremated bone and the burnt flint look to be completely unconnected. If we take this drawing at face value it seems to suggest that our cremated bones are the remains of many many burials extending from the Late Mesolithic into the Early Bronze Age. There is no concentration of cremated bone at either the Late Mesolithic or Late Neolithic level.

Unfortunately, cave archaeologists have spent a lot of time over the past ten years proving that you can’t usually take stratigraphic relationships at face value in cave deposits. Loose, open scree deposits like those at Goldsland allow objects to move around to an inconvenient degree. The pattern of burnt bone could easily be formed from the disturbed and re-worked remains of a very small number of Early Bronze Age cremations, especially if they were originally dug into the top of the scree.

Of course, if this is the case, then we have to explain how the stone tools were preserved in nice coherent layers while the cremated bone got all mixed up. When we were excavating the cremated bone we assumed it was Early Bronze Age. This was only because a lot of prehistoric cremations are that date. Now I come to look into it I have discovered that Early Bronze Age cremations from caves are very rare. Indeed, apart from our discovery at Fairy Holes last spring, I only know of three other sites: Goatscrag and Corby’s Crags in Northumberland and Ash Tree Hole in Derbyshire.

So, despite the problems, I think that the best explanation is that our cremations do date from a fairly wide range of dates. Almost certainly they began relatively early in the Neolithic and it looks as if they lasted into the Early Bronze Age.


Thanks to Nicole who did the original cremation analysis and took the photo of the burnt occipital fragment

  1. I remember finding that bit of occipital 🙂

  2. Pingback: HARN Weblog

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