Archaeologists find lamb bone and limpet offerings in coffin of Bronze Age woman on Orkney island

By Ben Miller | 11 February 2016

Saved from the sea on the coast of an Orkney island, a cist contains a woman who had grave goods placed over her feet

A photo of a cist bronze age burial in orkney, scotland containing the skeleton of a woman
A cist made of beach flags contained the skeleton of a Bronze Age woman on Orkney© ARO
Bronze Age mourners left lamb bones and limpet offerings in the coffin of a crippled prehistoric woman after disturbing her grave, say archaeologists who believe the body buried on a Scottish island could have belonged to a loom worker or net fisher.

A “relatively large” number of animal bones and fragments of shells, lobsters, crabs, sea urchins and starfishes were discovered by experts in the Lopness cist burial on Sanday, where the middle-aged or elderly woman was interred between 1890 and 1520BC. Debris and pottery from a capping mound fell into the coffin when its lid collapsed.

“There does not appear to have been any attempt to repair the cist lid,” says Lorna Innes, an archaeologist investigating the burial which was saved from coastal erosion by the Orkney Archaeological Trust and Historic Scotland after being discovered in 2000.

A photo of a beach coast on sanday on the island of orkney in scotland
Lopness Bay© ARO
“The woman was initially placed on the floor of the cist, probably without grave goods or other deposits, and the cist was capped or sealed, most likely by a lid of comprising a number of slabs.

“The presence of a large piece of flagstone that partly crushed the skeleton suggests that no material had been introduced into the cist prior to the roof collapse.

“Sometime later the roof collapsed inwards, bringing with it overlying midden material. It seems, therefore, that the lid collapsed into the structure under the weight of midden deposits overlying the cist, or perhaps under the weight of a burial mound that contained midden or pyre material.

A photo of Sanday's Quoy Ayre beach on the island of Orkney in Scotland
Sanday is the third-largest of the Orkney islands© Chris Downer, geograph.org.uk
“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.”

Archaeologists say that the limpets could reflect the woman’s marine profession and the lambs may resonate with her role in farming or textile working. Scans showed that repeated physical exertion had caused her osteoarthritis.

“The human remains were in poor condition,” says Dr Julie Ann Roberts. “Although the skeleton was approximately 60% complete, it was in a fragmentary state with a large amount of surface erosion to the bones.

A photo of a beach coast on sanday on the island of orkney in scotland
A shipwreck on the bay© Beth Loft, geograph.org.uk
“The right forearm and hand and the left hand were entirely missing. It was also evident that the right-sided skeletal elements and dentition were in a more degraded condition than the left, presumably because the individual had lain crouched on her right side.”

Positioned over the woman’s feet, the goods could have been added by someone with an “intimate knowledge” of the grave in a ritual responding to the unscheduled disturbance, Innes says.

“It is possible that they were deposited within living memory of the burial, as an offering or act of remembrance, as we leave flowers by gravestones today.

“The Lopness cist is an interesting isolated feature but questions still remain as to where the community was located that constructed it, where the midden material came from and whether other cists were placed in close proximity.”

Few parallels to the burial existing in Orkney. A rock-cut burial chamber in Sandwick was found to contain the remains of a foetus, child and two cremated men, left in a food vessel and a “discrete pile” at the centre of the cist.

Carbonised barley cereal grains were also recovered from the deposits in the Sanday cist.


Three museums to find the remains of burials in

Brechin Town House Museum
A jet necklace from a short cist, found at Mains of Melgund in 1980 and dated to around 1800BC, is part of the collection at a venue which was once a shop, courtroom and debtors’ prison. Necklaces like this were a sign of affluence in the Bronze Age and a number have been found in the Brechin and Forfar area.

Museum of the Cumbraes, Millport
Housed within Garrison House, the Museum of The Cumbraes provides a fascinating glimpse into Cumbrae's past, from 4,000 year-old cists found on the Cumbraes and stories of smuggling in the 18th century to life during the second world war and on the island today.

Shrewsbury Museum and Art Gallery
Discover significant artefacts from excavations in York, including two Viking-age skeletons that were recently unearthed in the city, in the current Valhalla – Life and Death in Viking Britain. Until June 5 2016.
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