Contextualising Bronze Age burials on the Isle of Man

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This bone pommel is the first to be found on the Isle of Man. CREDIT: Crellin, Fowler, and Gamble, Antiquity Publications Ltd

Recent assessment of a unique burial assemblage from the Isle of Man has helped illuminate a rare type of funerary practice also found in parts of Wales and northern England. This new work provides a blueprint for moving away from traditional single-object typologies towards a more holistic approach that takes into consideration multiple forms of evidence in order to get a clearer picture of varying cultural practices across different regions.

The assemblage in question was found within a short cist burial at Staarvey Farm on the Isle of Man. Excavated in 1947, two ceramic vessels containing human remains and flint tools were recovered. The human remains, curated in the Manx Museum, were examined by osteologist Michelle Gamble as part of the ‘Round Mounds of the Isle of Man’ project in 2016. Among the bones, she discovered a rare bone knife pommel, 14 bone bead fragments, a toggle, a bone point, and four enigmatic worked bone artefacts (which have been dubbed ‘bone oblongs’). As this is the first bone pommel to be found on the Isle of Man and the bone oblongs have no known parallel, researchers from the University of Leicester and Newcastle University were spurred on to explore these objects more closely in order to understand how they fitted within a wider Early Bronze Age funerary context.

As the researchers explain, their approach ‘examines each mortuary assemblage as a combination of traits, comparing one deposit with others that share several such traits. By considering the type and location of the burial feature, the range of artefact types present, the form, material, and decoration of such artefacts, and the treatment of human remains and artefacts, it is possible to identify similar burial assemblages and then consider the specific differences between them.’

By comparing all the characteristics of the Staarvey Farm cist with those from other Bronze Age burials across Britain and the east coast of Ireland, the team identified assemblages with overlapping traits in north Wales, the north of England, and the Isle of Man, suggesting that this may represent a regionalised burial practice. They suggest that this overlapped with other contemporaneous funerary practices found in Ireland and Scotland, as well as on the Isle of Man, and indicates differences from the funerary uses of pommels in southern Britain, which were also made of more exotic materials.

The full results of the study were recently published in Antiquity journal:

This news article appears in issue 371 of Current Archaeology. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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