Iron Age Multi-Burial Contains People From Different Centuries


Here’s something new in burial archaeology!

In 2008 a cremation burial of the Pre-Roman Iron Age was excavated at Skrea backe near Falkenberg in Halland province. It’s unusually rich for its time, being housed in a continental iron-and-bronze cauldron and containing three knives, an awl and 5.3 litres of burnt bones from a lamb, a sheep, two pig’s trotters, a bird and three people.

I’ve never seen a knife-handle like that before, with an iron-rod frame, but I’ve never really worked with the period nor with Halland so that counts for little. A bizarre detail though is that a foot bone from the sheep has two pieces of thin iron tube inside. I think they may be the remains of two solid iron rods whose surface layer was altered by the pyre’s heat, their innards rusting away.

All of this is very nice but not unheard-of before. What’s new with this burial is that the excavator has had bones from all three buried people radiocarbon-dated, and they turned out to have died at different dates over a span of about a century! A man of ~35 and an adolescent of 10-14 have been disinterred and cremated along with a woman of ~55 around 150 BC, long after the first two people died. Or their bones were curated above ground. Cool!

(A 100-year gap is too long among Iron Age porridge eaters to represent a marine reservoir effect.)

Update 4 February ’11: Writes Per Wranning, one of the excavators: “… there are two (identical) dates from the child, one from the woman and one from the man. The first date we got was for the child, but selected from non-determinable material [i.e. they knew the sample was from the child but not which bone in its body]. As this date was slightly confusing — the person in question appeared to have died at least half a century before cauldrons like this appeared — we decided to re-date all three individuals. Our funds at the time could only cover one analysis per individual.”

Read osteologist Anna Kloo Andersson’s report on-line. Thanks to Niklas Krantz for the tip-off.

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37 thoughts on “Iron Age Multi-Burial Contains People From Different Centuries

  1. Seems a little hasty conclusion to my mind. How many radiocarbon datings done per individual? You cannot really draw such conclusions from single samples. I have plenty experience of dating burnt bones with RC and in each case at least some strange things turn up… The method is not that accurate in my opinion. /Fred the sceptic


  2. I agree with Fredrik, The carbon found in the bone fragments may derive from different ages but that carbon may have derived from volatile carbon compounds liberated by the heat, transported into the bone and carbonized there.

    The old carbon may have come from trees used as fire wood or maybe marine derived fat used as fuel?

    I wouldn’t trust a carbon date from bone unless the carbon containing compound was isolated in pretty pure form before carbon dating.


  3. Radiocarbon dating of cremated bones is a pretty new technique, but I believe it’s largely immune to the caveats you mention. They extract carbon from apatite chrystals that form from collagen and calcium in the bone during cremation.


  4. This is too cryptic for a layman.

    How do iron rods get inside a sheep’s footbone? How do iron rods get corroded from the inside outwards? That doesn’t happen.

    And what does “A 100-year gap is too long among Iron Age porridge eaters to represent a marine reservoir effect” mean? The remains were together inside a cauldron. Which is actually pretty weird, now that I think about it. Where does “marine reservoir” come in? And what is the relevance of porridge eaters? They had small gaps or what? What kind of gaps? I hate porridge, I don’t blame them for wanting < 100 year gaps and disliking marine reservoirs.

    I ran all the stuff through Google translate and it came out reasonable, but I still don't get this discovery at all.

    I'm sorry, brother, maybe this post means something to you, but it is utterly unintelligible to me. They found some remains in a cauldron, or the corroded remains of a cauldron, which are separated by 100 years – that alone seems very weird, but I don't get anything else.

    You mean cauldrons formed sub-marine reservoirs and remains from different time periods got washed in? No, I'm not getting it at all.


  5. RC scientists will say their techniques are rather immune to flaws. But from personal experience I know that samples taken from the same chunk of wood or from bones from the same cremated individual will probably indicate slightly different dates. In my opinion, a single sample may be of great interest, but more than one is needed to be able to argue something with any confidence…


  6. And from the photo, that looks to me like a grain sickle, of which there seems to be no mention. And a couple of knives. I get a connection between a grain sickle and porridge eaters (poor bastards). What am I missing?


  7. Are you suggesting that this is a reverse of the later immigration of scandinavians to the UK, and that in fact you are all decended from the Scots! och laddie thems fighting words.


  8. Sorry Sandy, sloppy reporting on my part.

    The iron rods/tubes were inserted into the bone post-mortem. Nobody knows why.

    If you heat a piece of iron, under certain circumstances the surface layer will become corrosion resistant. It’s called “fire patination”. The metal inside this durable shell will then typically corrode, because water and oxygen enters holes in the patination. You end up with a perfectly preserved, very brittle and very light-weight object.

    Reservoir effect:

    What interests me about this grave, apart from it being richly furnished, is that its three inhabitants may have died very far apart in time and then been collected for burial

    What looks as a sickle is actually an awl lying on top of a curved leather-working knife.


  9. Reminds me (albeit vaguely) of the Huron Feast of the Dead. Deceased villagers were placed in temporary graves, above or below ground. Periodically the remains were collected, the bundles opened, and the bones defleshed if necessary, and redeposited in a large common ossuary. All accompanied by a communal feast. Sometimes a number of villages got together for this, making the ritual even more spectacular. It was their main religious ceremony, performed when a village (or villages) and the surrounding cornfields were about to be abandoned. So, could your thing be a kind of secondary, multi-generational funeral of some sort?


  10. They extract carbon from apatite chrystals that form from collagen and calcium in the bone during cremation. But apatite does not contain any carbon. How do you mean?


  11. Wow.
    That one’s going to keep me awake. I’m trying to imagine the thought behind the ceremony and I just can’t. The iron rods were baffling as well, until stripey_cat said “nails” I was imagining something different, but that makes some sense depending on the orientation of the rods.
    Seems a waste of perfectly good iron unless there’s a ceremonial significance,though, rather that a utilitarian one, or am I off base?


  12. Regarding the carbon dating:
    The “apatite” refered to actually “bio-apatite”, a poorly crystalized inorganic material (calcium phosphate) found in collagen. It contains a small amount of carbonate substituting for phosphate in the crystal lattice. It’s has it’s origin in blood bicarbonate and is derived primarily from carbs and fats in the diet, and so isn’t as suseptible to marine reservoir effects as bone collagen, which is derived mostly from protein. Plus it does tend to recrystalize after cremation, whereas the collagen itself does not survive.


  13. I found a couple of papers on the technique.

    A range of dates spanning over 100 years are possible even with the same analysis site on the same sample.

    The recrystalization of the apatite during heating might incorporate carbon from the fire. The technique doesn’t seem to be precise enough to conclude these bones are of different ages. But maybe they are.


  14. Thanks Martin. Yes, I get it now.

    Deborah’s story about the Hurons reminded me of something. My mother-in-law was buried for 15 years in a Catholic cemetary, then her bones exhumed and cremated, then we took the ashes and placed them in an urn in a wall in a Buddhist monastery. The ceremony required that the family members be present during the exhumation. It was pretty weird seeing my mother-in-law’s skull, someone I had known well in life. My wife said “Her skull is very round.” My brother-in-law said “Shandong people are like that.” This struck me as a pretty funny conversation in the circumstances, but probably an accurate observation.

    Even more weird – she was buried wearing some nice pieces of jade, and when she was exhumed, the family removed the pieces of jade from her skeleton and took them home because they would bring good luck.

    And this strange Chinese ceremony was in our modern age, it was explained to me, and I still couldn’t really see the point of it, instead of just having her body cremated in the first place. So what was in people’s minds in the Iron Age, who knows?

    What made me laugh was while the grave diggers were exhuming the bones, my sister-in-law began burning offerings beside the grave, and asked me to help her. So we were burning all this stuff together. One of the grave diggers looked up and said very disapprovingly “This is a Catholic cemetary.” My brother-in-law gave him a hard look and said “But we are Chinese.” The grave digger looked at me, very puzzled. (I am of course not Chinese.)


  15. Stripey & Dogteam, they may be nails, though such tend to be rectangular in cross-section, not round. The iron tubes/rods were inserted lengthwise into the bone’s marrow cavity post-mortem.

    Dogteam, excellent info on bio-apatite, thank you!

    Daedalus, the interpretation must depend on the number of samples run per individual. If there’s just one date per individual, then it’s probably just a statistical accident and we may assume that all three died shortly after each other.

    Sandy, that’s fascinating! Was the Catholic congregation aware at the time of the primary burial that you guys were Buddhists using their cemetery as an excarnation facility?


  16. Heh.

    It was even more confusing than that, because Mother-in-law had a Taoist funeral at the funeral parlour, but was then interred in the Catholic cemetary.

    From my close observation, it served well as an excarnation facility – all that remained of the flesh was some sort of black stuff, and there was no smell at all. The wooden coffin had disappeared completely.

    In life, Ma happily mixed her Catholicism with elements of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, so I guess it’s consistent. That is, consistently inconsistent.


  17. Well, the thing is that while anything goes in popular Chinese religion, Catholicism is doctrinally intolerant. I don’t think Rome would like the local bishop if they knew.


  18. OK, thanks to Martin and dogteam I now understand what a marine reservoir effect is, and the relevance of this to Iron Age porridge eaters – presumably because they were not fish eaters.

    Which means that there was really likely a very significant time gap. Even if it was only half the estimated 100 years, that is really unusual, it seems to me.

    The Japanese had to think up some special ways to warn succeeding generations of the cyclic occurrence of tsunami on the order of a hundred years or so (damaging tsunami occur due to submarine earthquakes of Magnitude > 8.0 on subduction zones at tectonic plate boundaries, which occur in regular cycles of the order of hundreds of years, because they require the progressive build up of stresses on the plate boundary until the stresses become large enough to overcome friction on the boundary and cause a large movement) – a Japanese researcher told me about one village in Japan where they built embankments and planted groves of trees to absorb the energy of tsunami, built monuments commemorating people who were heroes for observing the signs of impending tsunami waves and warning villagers to run for the hills, and instituting an annual holiday when school children visit the memorials, and writing the story of tsunami into the primary school curriculum, so that the succeeding generations of children would always remember that the tsunami would come back one day and would know how to recognise the warning signs of the impending arrival of very damaging translational waves (normal ocean waves are rotational and carry much less energy, of course).

    I apologise for raising this painful subject in this place -I am well aware that the worst natural disaster in Sweden’s history occurred on 26 December 2004 in southern Thailand.

    But think about it – how do you transmit knowledge or a memory 100 years into the future with certainty? Who cares enough about succeeding generations far removed to do that? Some village Japanese did, but who else?

    So it seems to me that this find is something potentially rather special – that cremated human bones separated by a gap of maybe as much as 100 years (possibly less or possibly more, but a significant gap) have been placed together. People really have to care about a past generation to do that – to curate the bones for so long, and then place the different generations of cremated bones together.

    But how do you balance that against Aboriginal claims of oral history going back as much as 40,000 years? I think the answer is you don’t believe the Aboriginals – yes they have some oral history and rock paintings, but to accurately transmit important information even over 100 years is difficult, unless it is constantly reinforced, like information on medicinal plants and preparation of food plants to render them non-toxic. The Aboriginals have rock paintings of Pleistocene megafauna, but no oral history of them, unless you believe that Bunyips were Thylacoleo carnifex or some such nonsense.

    Gee this archaeology stuff is difficult!

    I have no ambition to turn into an Australian version of Bob Lind, so I trust in Martin and others to steer me truly when I become too delusional.


  19. Living memory goes only a few generations back. But poetry can be transmitted amazingly accurately across vast time gulfs, as shown e.g. by Vedic literature. It wouldn’t have retained its linguistic form if people had felt free to make new stuff up.

    As for the Skrea backe burial, if the time gap is real, the mourners about 150 BC may simply have dug two individuals up who were buried without any plan of them ever being exhumed. I could take a bag of Bronze Age bones to my grave without the original owner having any say.


  20. Yes, absolutely – even over a few generations, only few details are transmitted, often inaccurately.

    But why would you do it? Why take a bag of Bronze Age bones to your grave unless they had some special significance to you, like relatedness? In which csse, you needed to know that and consider it significant.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think the Vedic literature was transmitted in writing.

    The Aboriginals and porridge eaters had no written record. Well, not entirely true, the Aboriginals had message sticks, which were a form of writing, in that they informed of forthcoming cultural events, transmitted over hundreds of miles (allegedly). I was given one as a child. But these were wooden objects, and they were not informative historically.


  21. Oh crap, I’m obviously wrong.

    “Transmission of texts in the Vedic period was by oral tradition alone, preserved with precision with the help of elaborate mnemonic techniques.”

    Which was your point.


  22. This is fascinating, Martin, thankyou for posting it.

    So it seems to me that this find is something potentially rather special – that cremated human bones separated by a gap of maybe as much as 100 years (possibly less or possibly more, but a significant gap) have been placed together. People really have to care about a past generation to do that – to curate the bones for so long, and then place the different generations of cremated bones together.

    Perhaps this is my early medieval training showing, but my first thought was some sort of religious conversion that changed the burial rite being retrospectively applied to ancestors. That’s probably anachronistic though. (But how would we know?)


  23. One way to start investigating that would be to check if the three individuals have been cremated at the same temperature or not. If not, then it is not a question of people suddenly deciding that inhumation is bad and cremation good.


  24. Another way might be to check if the bones were cremated when fresh, or if they had weathered first. Iron levels might indicate that. Fresh bones would (presumably, but this is not my expertise) have marrow which would oxidize to Fe2O3 where weathered bones would not.

    But being buried in an iron pot might obscure that.


  25. My expertise in these time periods & areas is close to nonexistent, but I have read a few things on the topic of “the past in the past,” in which going into older period graves, rather than acts of prehistoric plunder, could be seen as attempts to appropriate something from the culture’s own historical narrative—something that existed in oral history about the burial place of “ancient people” or legendary ancestors—in order to reinforce the significance of some current political or social event, or personal status.


  26. Yes, I think that’s a reasonable explanation. But generally, I feel that the po-mo fixation with how people in the past treated ancient monuments is a projection of archaeologists’ interest in such. I have colleagues who apparently think that ancient attitudes to archaeological sites is one of the discipline’s most important issues! This attitude is evident for example when the Museum of National Antiquities in Stockholm excavates the site of a 19th century reconstruction of Medieval Stockholm. Meta-archaeology. Tiresome.


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