Pennine Collared Urns - (c.1900BC)

In the Early to Mid Bronze Age the practice developed of cremating the dead and placing the cremated bones in a specially constructed funeral urn, which would be inverted and inserted into a clay-lined pit and often sealed with a stone slab. A mound of stones, a cairn, would then be constructed over the burial. It is common to find several further burials inserted into cairns at later dates, each one contained in its own urn. A particularly fine example of an Early Bronze Age Pennine Collared Urn from Harden Moor is shown below: radiocarbon assay of the remains of oak charcoal from the original cremation pyres found with urn fragments in various burial pits have provided dates of c.3500BP (c.1900BC) (BM-2573-6).

collared urns

Such cairns or ‘round barrows’ are distinctive Bronze Age monuments and litter both the Pennines and the North Yorks Moors. One particularly common type of cairn in the Pennines is the so-called ring cairn, where a flat central area is surrounded by a ring of stones built into a raised bank. Burials usually begin at or close to the centre of the cairn, with later burials found inserted into the ring bank. Quite frequently, the ring bank has a break or an ‘entrance’ built into the bank, flanked by two portal stones on either side. Where there have been multiple burials, it seems unlikely, any more than in funeral ceremonies today, that Bronze Age people merely inserted their cherished dead at random into the funeral structure, but placed the urn carrying the cremated remains with care and deliberation into a specially chosen part of the moment. This might perhaps explain why in a good number of cases, the burials seem to follow a particular alignment. This may not have been fortuitous but intentional, suggesting that this may well have been a significant alignment of the monument (towards the rising sun perhaps?) either at the time of construction and/or during its subsequent reuse for the insertion of secondary burials. Where such curious burial geometry exists, it seems unlikely to have been due to mere chance, particularly when the rest of the cairn remains empty where the insertion of further internments would have been much less likely to damage or disturb any earlier burials. On the analogy that a Bronze Age round cairn or barrow was in a very real sense a ‘house for the dead’ and therefore be designed along very similar lines to roundhouses of the period, it too had an ‘entrance’ facing anywhere between E and SE so that at the start of each new day the sunlight could finds it way into the centre of the cairn and illuminate the dead, just as in a roundhouse it did for the living. Alternatively, or in addition, the proximity of the various internments could reflect the kinship of the dead when alive: the deliberate act of placing them in a line indicating their family or similar lineage, the most senior member dying first and being placed at the centre of the monument. The order of insertion therefore was not only a record of their chronological order of death but also of their order of seniority within the family or kinship group.

This is not to assert that such criteria were instrumental in the design of all such cairns, still less that it constituted a cornerstone of Early Bronze burial tradition, even within the local Pennine area, as the record shows that such an alignment of internments is relatively uncommon. 8 of the 11 burials occurring in the ring cairn on Harden Moor all occur in a narrow band ESE of the central primary pit. In this context it is highly significant that the most remarkable multiple cremation burial of the Early Bronze Age in the Pennine area, that uncovered in the 19th century at Blackheath, near Todmorden, with no less than 15 recorded Urn burials in two concentrations, one clustered about the centre and the larger group distributed up to 3m from the centre, has a similar SE alignment to that at Harden. A search of the literature soon reveals other examples of a similar SE alignment for multiple Collared Urn internments but these could only really be taken as noteworthy rather than due to mere chance if they were found to occur significantly more often than any other.