thinking about archaeology

Meadowsweeet to the grave

Photot Crown copyright/Historic Scotland

Now for something more positive about British archaeology (and British Archaeology). This morning Huw Williams, of BBC Radio Scotland’s Good Morning Scotland, reported the discovery of flower heads in a bronze age grave excavated at Forteviot, south of Perth, lying close to a bag and a small knife-dagger. The discovery came as work continues on the contents of the exceptional cist grave, whose large capstone was lifted in August to wide media attention. You can read the original story in the new British Archaeology.

The find settles years of controversy following the recovery of meadowsweet pollen from bronze age graves in Scotland and Wales. Some archaeologists had argued for flower offerings, but others suggested to the contrary that the pollen indicated alcoholic drinks such as mead or ale (entering the drink in honey as a sweetener and yeast promoter). But here we have actual flowers that had been lain with the body – beside the head. Huw Williams was able to report on Good Morning Scotland and the Radio 4 Today programme that these flowers are also meadowsweet, confirmed since the magazine was printed.

The bones of the body did not survive, so we cannot be certain whether it was of a man or woman, though the two knife-daggers (one very fine, with gold decoration) suggest it was male, judging by confirmed associations across the UK. BA reports the first radiocarbon result for the grave at 2140–1950BC.

What I find fascinating about this find is that the laying of meadowsweet flowers in the grave at this time seems to have been a tradition across a wide area. The first indications of this came over 40 years ago, when Camilla Dickson identified Filipendula pollen in a grave from Scotland, and suggested flowers as an explanation. But later her husband, James Dickson, came up with the alternative mead theory. Several more finds of meadowsweet pollen from Scottish graves followed, then in 2006 British Archaeology reported the first discovery of such pollen in a bronze age grave from Wales, in the Fan Foel cairn, Carmarthenshire. The burial was a cremation, but the pollen (both immature and mature) was not burnt, suggesting that it might have come from flowers in bud and in full bloom placed by the urn. Another cremation grave, on the edge of the stone burial mound, also produced meadowsweet pollen, and the charred remains of bulrushes.

Finding this pollen requires both special conditions at the grave to preserve it, and archaeologists sufficiently clued up to look for it. I don’t know of any yet found in English graves, but perhaps that will come soon.

You can read about the Welsh dig here, and James Dickson’s comments on it here (both in British Archaeology in 2006).

Lifting the grave roof slab in August 2009 (photos Historic Scotland/Strathearn Environs & Royal Forteviot Project)

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