Back to Book Reviews

From Cairn to Cemetery. An archaeological investigation of the chambered cairns and early Bronze Age mortuary deposits at Cairnderry and Bargrennan White Cairn, south-west Scotland, by VICKI CUMMINGS AND CHRIS FOWLER
British Archaeological Report (British Series) 434, Oxford, 2007. 188pp, 165 b&w figures and photographs. pb. ISBN 978 1 4073 0039 9 (34.00)

In the summer of 1949, having completed the excavation of the Clyde tombs Cairnholy 1 and 2 unexpectedly early, Stuart Piggott and Terence Powell turned their attention the typologically different cairn at Bargrennan. In the two days or so available their work was necessarily limited (Piggott & Powell 1949, 104-06, 144-53). That rather cursory piece of excavation, together with an equally perfunctory exercise at Water of Deugh by A. O. Curle in 1928 (Curle 1930) was, before the work reported here, the only excavations of a Bargrennan cairn. Subsequently, Audrey Henshall provided a survey of the known examples of this type and the type has been further discussed by Jane Murray (Henshall 1972, 1-6, 249-56, 278; Murray 1992).

Consequently, our knowledge of these cairns has not been extensive. They are located in south-west Scotland but with a distribution pattern markedly different from that of the Clyde tombs of the area. Vicki Cummings and Chris Fowler chose to excavate a previously untouched cairn at Cairnderry and to return to the site of Piggott and Powell’s efforts at Bargrennan. Their choice seems to have been largely dictated by pragmatic considerations, particularly their proximity to a road. But, given the paucity of available information, can such a pragmatic approach be gainsaid? This was then a commendable effort to add to our knowledge of Bargrennan cairns. But did they succeed?

The answer to that question depends very much on whether you believe that this type of cairn is Neolithic in date. This is undoubtedly the view of the excavators. Despite their findings they do not discuss the cairns in terms that allow any other date for them. Indeed, the volume’s title says as much. This is, I think, rather surprising given that all the significant finds and all but one radiocarbon date falls clearly into the Bronze Age. The exceptional date, 3770–3640 cal BC, derives from material recovered from beneath the kerb of the cairn at Bargrennan. In other words, from a context that can have no demonstrable relationship with the construction of the cairn other than to pre-date it. There is, of course, a very real problem in defining contexts for radiocarbon samples that might be said to date the construction of the monument. But it is equally clear that no such contexts were recovered in these excavations if one believes that the cairns must be Neolithic in date. On the other hand, there are a number of radiocarbon dates from both sites that might be thought to point to a construction date after 2000 BC. In particular, there are three such dates from Pit 2 at Cairnderry which lies partially under the kerb of the cairn. The excavators explain this by claiming that the pit ‘was found right up against and partly tunnelled underneath one of the kerb stones’ (p. 20) although no section is provided. Now, it is clearly impossible to rule out the interpretation that the diggers of the pit were so perverse as to give themselves unnecessary extra work by tunnelling under the kerb. But a more straightforward explanation might be that the kerb was not there when the pit was dug.

The failure to consider these monuments as Bronze Age is rather surprising for two main reasons. First, Richard Bradley’s work on the Clava Cairns around the Moray Firth had already raised the idea that some monument types considered to be Neolithic might actually have been constructed and used somewhat later in prehistory (Bradley 2000). And second, the excavations at both Cairnderry and Bargrennan produced a remarkable range of cremation burials accompanied by two battle axes and a bone belt hook in addition to cinerary urns. This is an outstanding collection of material relative to the generality of Bronze Age finds from south-west Scotland. Sadly, this is not well developed in a poor discussion of the Bronze Age that fails to build on Alison Sheridan’s excellent report on the objects accompanying the burials—quite the best part of the whole volume. Rather than exploring the possibility that these rich assemblages are central to our understanding of the cairns, the authors dismiss them as ‘later uses of the cairn’ (p. 23).

More generally, it has to be said that the size of this volume is difficult to explain in terms of the scale of the excavations undertaken and the information recovered. The deadening hand of the RAE exercises seem evident here. Certainly, if one is going to produce a volume that, like this one, is the work of many hands, there is a responsibility to undertake sound editing of the text. That is missing here. Let me quote just two examples by way of illustration. In the discussion of the sherds found by Piggott and Powell at Bargrennan, the following statement is made on page 26: ‘fragments of cremated bone and incised later Neolithic pottery were recovered from above the slabs lining the passageway.’ As well as referring the reader to Piggott and Powell’s report, one is also directed to Alison Sheridan’s report in the appendices. Unfortunately, she does not identify these pieces as incised later Neolithic pottery. Indeed, on page 38, the same writers note, ‘the re-examination of a number of sherds of pottery recovered by Piggott and Powell from the passage, and by Jane Murray in a visit prior to our excavations, indicates that these come from early Bronze Age urns.’ Again they quote, this time correctly, Sheridan’s report. More prosaically, figure A10.1 claiming to be ‘the calibrated calendar age ranges for the Cairnderry samples’ is, in fact, a repeat of figure A10.2 showing the same information for the Bargrennan samples.

This is a report that describes some unexpectedly rich discoveries given how little previous excavation had yielded from these sites. But the opportunities that were thereby created have not been taken. The principal authors have shown insufficient flexibility in their interpretations and a rather sloppy approach to marshalling and presenting their evidence.

David Clarke
Department of Archaeology
National Museums Scotland

References

Bradley, R., 2000. The Good Stones: a new investigation of the Clava Cairns. Edinburgh: Society Antiquaries Scotland Monograph.
Curle, A.O., 1930. Examination of a chambered cairn by the Water of Deugh, Stewartry of Kirkcudbright, Proceedings Society Antiquaries Scotland, 64(1929-30), 272–75.
Henshall, A.S., 1972. The Chambered Tombs of Scotland. Volume 2. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Murray, J., 1992. ‘The Bargrennan group of chambered cairns: circumstance and context’, in Sharples N., & Sheridan A. (eds), Vessels for the Ancestors: essays on the Neolithic of Britain and Ireland in honour of Audrey Henshall. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 33–48.
Piggott, S. & Powell, T.G.E., 1949. The excavation of three Neolithic chambered tombs in Galloway, 1949, Proceedings Society Antiquaries Scotland, 83 (1948-49), 103–61.

Review submitted: May 2008

The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.



Home Page The Prehistoric Society Home Page