The Early Bronze Age Cist Burial at Newtownstewart Castle, Co.Tyrone
by Ruairi O Baoill and Eileen Murphy
An archaeological excavation was undertaken at the seventeenth century plantation castle of Newtownstewart, Co, Tyrone, during the period between July and October 1999, as part of an Environment and Heritage Service programme designed to make the castle more accessible to the public. During the excavation an undisturbed early Bronze Age burial was uncovered, seven metres to the west of the castle. This took the form of a segmented (chambered) long cist inserted in a sub-oval grave cut. On the removal of the capstone, estimated to weigh one quarter of a ton, the cist was found to consist of two chambers. The smaller chamber was designated as Chamber A while the larger chamber was referred to as Chamber B. Each chamber contained a substantial quantity of cremated bone positioned adjacent to a highly decorated bowl food vessel pot. In addition, a hollow-based flint arrowhead which displayed signs of burning was recovered from among the cremated bone contained in Chamber A.
The total weight of the bone fragments greater than 2mm in size recovered from Chamber A was 1351g, and 35.8% of the bone fragments were identifiable. In all, 46.7% of the bone fragments were greater than 10mm in size, 32.6% of the fragments had a size of 5-10mm, and 20.7% of the fragments were 2-5mm in size. Since the majority of the fragments were greater than 10mm in size it is unlikely that the remains had been subject to any form of deliberate pulverisation prior to their deposition in the cist. The cremated remains are considered to represent the complete or near-complete skeleton of a 12-15 year old adolescent.
The total weight of the bone fragments greater than 2mm in size recovered from Chamber B was 1296.8g, and 48.3% of the bone fragments were identifiable. A total of 59.8% of the bone fragments were greater than 10mm in size, 22.1% of the fragments had a size of 5-10mm, and 18.1% of the fragments were 2-5mm in size. Since the majority of the fragments were greater than 10mm in size it is probable that the remains had also not been subject to any form of deliberate pulverisation prior to their placement in the cist. The cremation was considered to represent the complete or near complete cremated skeleton of a female who had died in her forties or fifties. A number of palaeopathological lesions were apparent, including ante-mortem loss, possible ivory osteomas and vertebral degenerative joint disease. A fragment of distal radius displayed lesions which were considered to be indicative of degenerative joint disease and/or non-specific infection or a fracture.
The vast majority of the bone fragments recovered from both Chamber A and Chamber B of the Newtownstewart cist displayed a marked uniform pale grey or white colour. Experimental studies have been undertaken on modern animal bones to determine the variation in bone colour with different temperatures by a number of researchers including Mays (1998, 217). The results of his study have indicated that bone changes to a white or pale yellow colour at temperatures of between 645oC and 1200oC, while black and grey discoloration generally occurs at temperatures of between 285oC and 525oC. This finding would suggest that the two individuals buried in the Newtownstewart cist had been cremated at temperatures of between 645oC and 1200oC.
The two cremated skeletons buried in the segmented cist should be considered as those of high-status individuals. Mount (1997) undertook a study of 225 Early Bronze Age burial sites from south-east Ireland, a corpus of sites which included 23 burials containing two individuals. The analysis revealed that in twelve cases adult remains were associated with other adult remains and that in eleven cases an adult was buried with the remains of a child. Mount also noted that male adults (n=4) tended to be associated with children more frequently than their female adult counterparts (n=1) (ibid.,161-162). In light of this the burial information obtained from the Newtownstewart segmented cist is an important addition to the corpus of double burials of females and children in Ireland.
Double chambered long cists are a very rare class of funerary monument and less than 20 have been recorded for the whole of Ireland. The burial at Newtownstewart may originally have been part of a Bronze Age flat cemetery, although no other graves or evidence for a cemetery boundary were found within the excavated area. The position of the grave, on a well drained gravel ridge overlooking the River Strule, is a typical location for an Irish Bronze Age cist burial. The implication is that there must have been a Bronze Age settlement situated somewhere in the environs of modern Newtownstewart - and one that still awaits discovery.
Mays, S., 1998: The Archaeology of Human Bones. London, Routledge.
Mount, C., 1997: 'Early Bronze Age Burial in South-East Ireland in the light of Recent Research', Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 97C, 101-193.