Mementos for the Dead: Surprising Burial Customs in Iron Age Britain

A University of York researcher has developed a new framework for interpreting collections of everyday objects found during archaeological excavations, specifically at sites linked to Iron Age Britain.

Despite the absence of skeletal remains, Dr. Lindsey Büster believes that such caches in Iron Age Britain were created and buried as a way to remember and honor family members, close friends, or community leaders who had passed away. This idea is somewhat groundbreaking, since the collections of objects she is referring to were not found beside human remains. Her paper is part of the  latest edition of the  Antiquity journal.

Iron Age Britain: Collections of Buried Everyday Objects

Buried collections of personal and everyday objects have been frequently found at  Iron Age  (800 BC to 100 AD) and mid-to-late  Bronze Age  (1,800 BC to 800 BC) sites discovered on British soil. Some of the items found, like coins or jewelry, might have some value. But in most cases the artifacts recovered would have only been meaningful to those who’d owned and used them.

Like the artifacts traditionally found inside graves, these objects were considered valuable in Iron Age Britain because of their connection to loved ones who had died, Dr. Büster wrote in a research paper appearing in  the latest edition of the journal  Antiquity. They may have been buried immediately after a person’s death as of acknowledge the objects’ importance to the deceased, or the objects may have been kept by the grieving individual for several years, before finally being buried by that individual or by someone else.

The recent paper on burial customs in Iron Age Britain was the work of Dr. Lindsey Büster, a research associate at the University of York. (Commios Project)

The recent paper on burial customs in Iron Age Britain was the work of Dr.  Lindsey Büster, a research associate at the University of York. ( Commios Project )

Such items, which she refers to as “problematic stuff” because their presence is seemingly so mysterious, are not normally  associated with death  by archaeologists, Dr. Büster notes. This is because they are not found in graves located in cemeteries, or alongside human remains. Sometimes they aren’t buried at all but are found inside the walls or beneath the floors of ancient structures.

In her  Antiquity article, Dr. Büster declares her intention to demonstrate “that emotional value is a legitimate consideration in our understanding of cached objects in the archaeological record.” Only with this change in orientation, she asserts, will it be possible to properly understand why people living in  Iron Age Britain  2,000 to 3,000 years ago would have been collecting and burying everyday objects they had no obvious reason to bury. 

“A more integrated approach to the interpretation of  cached objects —one which does not prioritize the human body over other types of material—is necessary,” she writes.

An aerial view of Maiden Castle in Dorset from the west taken by Major George Allen in October 1937, which is part of the Ashmolean Museum's photographic collection. Like the Scottish hillfort Broxmouth settlement, Maiden Castle site has produced a range of everyday objects buried with or without the dead in sites dating from the Iron Age in Britain. (Major George Allen (1891–1940) / Public domain)

An aerial view of Maiden Castle in Dorset from the west taken by Major George Allen in October 1937, which is part of the Ashmolean Museum’s photographic collection. Like the Scottish hillfort Broxmouth settlement, Maiden Castle site has produced a range of everyday objects buried with or without the dead in sites dating from the Iron Age in Britain. (Major George Allen (1891–1940) /  Public domain )

Why Changing Burial Customs Matters in Archaeology

Starting around 1,800 BC,  British burial customs  began to change. Burial in graves became far less common. This practice was replaced in part by  cremation, but mainly by a custom known as  excarnation. In this process, the flesh and organs would be removed from the body and all of its various parts would be scattered in nature.

People began burying collections of everyday objects more frequently at sites dating from the Iron Age in Britain. Dr. Büster believes this was not a coincidence, but a reaction to the alteration in burial practices that often made it impossible to bury a person’s prized objects directly beside them.

As supporting evidence for her theory, Dr. Büster shows that the objects found in these isolated caches are similar to the types of objects found inside graves. In excavations of late Bronze Age and Iron Age graves found in Britain (there were some), archaeologists found collections of weapons, jewelry, personal toiletry and grooming items, and various odds and ends that seemed in no way related.

This matches perfectly with the types of object collections that have been recovered from Iron Age sites where no human burials were found.

Objects including bone spoons, quernstones and gaming pieces were incorporated into the walls of this roundhouse at Broxmouth in NE Scotland in Iron Age Britain. (Broxmouth Project archive / Antiquities Publications Ltd)

Objects including bone spoons, quernstones and gaming pieces were incorporated into the walls of this roundhouse at Broxmouth in NE Scotland in Iron Age Britain.  (Broxmouth Project archive /  Antiquities Publications Ltd )

For example, at the Scottish hillfort settlement called Broxmouth, which was occupied continuously from 640 BC to 210 AD, objects of many different types were found hidden in the walls and beneath the floors of houses. This settlement went through at least six separate stages of remodeling, renovation, and new construction. Following each of these stages, new personal objects were added to the growing Broxmouth collection. It seems the occupants of this settlement were marking the passage of time by paying tribute to the generations that came before them, by using the objects that they’d owned and cherished.

If it is assumed that Broxmouth residents were connected across time by family relationships, the reason for preserving such possessions seems obvious. It was related to grieving and the desire to remember.

Tellingly, in some instances these Iron Age British collections have included human bones.

At a location in Dorset known as  Maiden Castle , a weaving comb and a copper object were found buried together with a human femur. In one house at Broxmouth, a single game piece of some type was found inside a burial pit. At the base of a wall archaeologists found two more game pieces from the same set, but these pieces were buried alongside a piece of a human cranium and part of a human mandible. The second burial had taken place a couple of generations later than the first, meaning the memory of the person who’d owned the game pieces had been preserved for quite a long time.

Dr. Büster’s “continuing bonds theory” argues that people will keep objects associated with deceased loved ones for a long time, to help keep the bonds of love fresh and alive. And frequently some of these objects are also buried with the deceased as may be the case in this touching funeral image. (Dallas / Adobe Stock)

Dr. Büster’s “continuing bonds theory” argues that people will keep objects associated with deceased loved ones for a long time, to help keep the bonds of love fresh and alive. And frequently some of these objects are also buried with the deceased as may be the case in this touching funeral image. ( Dallas / Adobe Stock)

Büster’s “Continuing Bonds Theory” Goes Deeper

To add psychological support to her ideas, Dr. Büster has adopted a concept from modern grief studies known as the “continuing bonds theory.” According to this theory, people will keep objects associated with deceased loved ones for a long time, to help keep the bonds of love fresh and alive.

Assuming people who lived 3,000 years ago had the same emotions as we have, they also would have wanted to preserve their bonds with the dearly departed, Dr. Büster argues. With no gravestones or funerary monuments to visit, they might have chosen instead to keep and preserve everyday objects that would have been meaningful to their loved ones.

They might have kept the objects for a few years or months, before finally burying them. Or they might have kept them indefinitely, leaving it up to their loved ones to dispose of the objects when they had passed away.

Dr. Büster is not suggesting that all everyday objects recovered by archaeologists be classified as burial objects. But she thinks the idea has strong merit in many cases, especially in settings (like those of Iron Age Britain) where traditional burials are rare.

What she is calling for, in her words, is an “interpretation and reassessment of whole categories of material culture that have been overlooked for their ‘mundane’ nature and non-funerary contexts of deposition.”

When large monuments, headstones, or other funerary structures were not an option, ancient peoples would have sought other means to create and preserve their continuing bonds with their deceased family members and friends. Saving the personal objects of their loved ones would have been a logical way to do it, first as mementos and then later for burial.

The full report will be available from June 22 from Antiquity,  https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2021.81.

Top image: Close up of an ancient crying angel statue with tears as a symbol of the end of human life. According to the latest research burial customs in Iron Age Britain frequently involved the keeping and burial of everyday objects associated with the deceased. Source:  zwiebackesser / Adobe Stock

By Nathan Falde

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