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Bronze Age burial reveals bone secrets

A box containing cremated prehistoric bones dug up in 1947 has found to be harbouring more ancient secrets. Small bone objects that had not been noticed by the excavators have been identified by archaeologists studying Neolithic and Early Bronze Age human remains in the Manx Museum collection for the ‘Round Mounds of the Isle of Man’ project.

Bronze Age burial reveals bone secrets
The Staarvey Farm pommel [Credit: Roundmounds]
Osteologist Dr Michelle Gamble made the thrilling discovery. She said: ‘The first step of the osteological analysis is to clean and sort the bones, so that we can determine the number of individuals present and any age or sex information.

"Within this burial, we have four skeletons, very fragmented and mixed together – two adults, one of which is a male, an adolescent and an infant. The bone objects were burned as well and mixed in with the cremated human remains."

The bones had been buried almost 4,000 years ago at Staarvey Farm in what is now German parish. The site was excavated by Basil Megaw, who was director of the Manx Museum from 1945 to 1957. Mr Megaw had been contacted by the farmer who had hit a large stone during ploughing.

Excavations revealed a stone-built cist (a box made out of stone slabs) containing fragments of burnt bone, two flint tools and two collared urns (Bronze Age pots) buried upside-down. But it is only now that the bones have been studied in detail.

Dr Chris Fowler, co-director of the Round Mounds of the Isle of Man project, said: "I opened my email to find a photograph of an extremely rare Bronze Age object – a bone pommel from a bronze knife. This would have been fitted to the very end of the hilt. There are only about 40 surviving knife and dagger pommels of this period from the British Isles, and none have been found in the Isle of Man before! The size and shape suggest it was once attached to a small knife which archaeologists call a ‘knife-dagger’, and have been found buried with both males and females. Several other bone objects were found among the cremated bone. One is a burnt bone point or pin. A recent study of such objects found that few showed evidence of wear on the tip, suggesting that these were not tools, so it will be interesting to examine the end point of this example closely to see if there is evidence of use wear. Some of the other objects may be burnt bone beads, and there are four enigmatic worked bone strips which we are still working to understand."

Allison Fox, from Manx National Heritage, said: "The reassessment of finds from earlier excavations is always worthwhile. Modern scientific techniques can now give a lot more information about these finds, but so can the low-tech approach of a skilled pair of eyes examining the finds in detail."

Round mounds are found throughout the British Isles and in Continental Europe. In the British Isles the earliest round mounds appeared in the Neolithic period, after 3,800 BC. More were built periodically over the next 2500 years or so.

The current project aims to investigate what these sites and their associated burials, people and artefacts can tell us about life in the Isle of Man and interaction with other communities across Britain, Ireland and potentially beyond.

It includes analysis of the landscape location of the mounds, geophysical survey at several sites, and re-analysis of both previously excavated remains and records of previously destroyed or excavated sites.

The project, which began in September, is directed by Dr Rachel Crellin (University of Leicester) and Dr Chris Fowler (Newcastle University) and has received funding and support from Culture Vannin and Manx National Heritage. Culture Vannin will also support a series of workshops for school children that will be delivered by Michelle and Rachel in 2017 across the island.

For more information about the project visit:

Source: IOM Today [December 11, 2016]

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