The skeleton on Kilspindie golf course
In December 1929, greenkeepers at Kilspindie were digging a new bunker when they found human remains. The police were called, and then the archaeologists – and it turned out they had found Aberlady’s earliest known resident…
Artefacts of the early bronze age in Scotland, from an article written by J Graham Callander in 1923.
ON DECEMBER 12, 1929, greenkeepers at Kilspindie golf course were excavating a new bunker between the second and fifteenth greens when they uncovered a shallow, stone-lined grave – empty but for the sand that had been blown into it by the wind. They continued their work, and came across a large stone slab, which they lifted to uncover a second grave – this time containing a human skeleton.
Mr Robert Marr, the head greenkeeper, contacted PC Lamb, the village constable, who advised him to replace the stone lid and leave everything alone. Before long, the officer was on the phone to Edinburgh to speak to J Graham Callander, Director of the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland (now part of National Museums Scotland). The next morning, Callander arrived in Aberlady to investigate.
Callander was an expert on the bronze age in Scotland, so he was ideally placed to make sense of the men’s discovery and he was delighted to find it undisturbed. The grave was a ‘short cist’ burial, typical of the bronze age. It took the form of a box (‘cist’ or chest) built from stone slabs and measuring about 3 ft 6 in (105 cm) by 18 in (45 cm), with the occupant buried in a ‘crouched’ or ‘flexed’ position – on their side, curled up, almost as if in the womb.
The skull of the skeleton found at Kilspindie, and the tiny ‘food vessel’ from the other grave.
The grave of Aberlady’s earliest known resident was aligned roughly south-west to north-east and the skeleton lay on its right side, with its back to the north, facing towards the south. Callander thought the skeleton was ‘probably that of a woman, from forty to forty-five years of age and 5 feet 2 inches [1 m 57 cm] in height’. He noted that the skull was ‘round-headed’, there being a widely held belief among archaeologists of the time that bronze age people were physically different from the ‘long-headed’ neolithic people who had lived in Britain previously.
It also turned out that the sand-filled first grave was not empty, after all. It contained the pieces of a small clay cup or bowl, compared by Callander to the ‘food-vessel type of urn’ familiar from the collections in his museum but ‘of unusually small size’, just three and a quarter inches (8 cm) high.
Bronze age people
The folk of the early bronze age have been called Beaker People after the pottery cups that often accompanied their burials. These were not like the ‘food vessel’ from Kilspindie, but a distinctive design with rounded bottom, narrow waist and wide lip, often called bell beakers because they look a little like an upside-down bell. Beakers may have been used for drinking beer, and the growing of barley appears to be another notable habit of Beaker folk.
Archaeologists of Callander’s era assumed that different material cultures – ways of making and decorating objects such as arrowheads, knives and pottery – meant different groups of people, and that new cultures usually meant new, invading people.
Later researchers, in the 1960s and 1970s, tended to believe that ideas, fashions and techniques could spread without the movement of people, and certainly without invasions. But now, it looks like the earlier archaeologists might have been closer to the truth.
A handsome bell beaker from Bathgate, and an early bronze age ‘flat’ axe of 2450 – 2100 BC.
In 2007, for the Beaker People Project, a team led by Mike Parker Pearson of Sheffield University used modern dating techniques on bronze age skeletons across the UK, beginning in Scotland. The Kilspindie burial was dated by radiocarbon to between roughly 2200 BC and 2000 BC.
The project showed that beakers were used in Britain from 2500 BC to 1800 BC, and in Scotland from 2300 BC to 2000 BC. This places the Kilspindie skeleton – who, by the way, turned out to be male, not female – firmly in the Beaker era.
The study also showed, through chemicals in teeth and bones, that the Beaker diet was omnivorous with a lot of meat, although they tended to avoid seafood, even in coastal areas; and that there was a great deal of mobility among the Beaker population, primarily within the UK, but also from abroad.
The Beaker surprise
Then in 2018, a massive DNA study by an international team of more than 100 archaeologists and geneticists compared ancient people from before, during and after the Beaker period in a number of European countries. The study had a good sample from Britain, featuring 37 people with Beaker associations and 118 from before and after.
Dramatically, this study showed that from the start of the Beaker period, about 2450 BC, the population of Britain changed almost completely. Before that date, the people had an exclusively neolithic genome; after it, they were mostly central European Beaker folk, with just a little neolithic mixed in. As a fascinating and detailed article by Kathryn Krakowka in Current Archaeology put it: ‘There is no evidence to suggest a hostile invasion, although it does, of course, remain a possibility.’
Other possibilities are numerous, including that the original neolithic people were wiped out by disease or that their ways of farming and providing themselves with food proved to be inadequate, perhaps because of (natural) climate change.
As an aside, even though we know that Britain has been changed by waves of incomers, including the Angles, Saxons and Vikings, we also know that there can be a remarkable degree of continuity. Back in 1997, one of the first studies of ancient DNA found that a mesolithic man buried in a cave in Cheddar, Somerset, in roughly 8,000 BC actually had several relatives still living in the area.
Certain genes are linked fairly clearly to skin colour. Our Beaker man from Kilspindie had paler skin than his neolithic predecessors, who were quite dark-skinned. Also, he would not have been fond of milk, butter or cheese: genes for lactose tolerance were not common at this time or, indeed, until after 1500 BC. His closest relatives in Europe were from West Frisia in the Netherlands.
We don’t know how our Beaker man from Kilspindie lived, but the culture of which he was a part appears to have valued individual status (the solo burials), technology and well-designed implements (copper and bronze axes and daggers, bows and arrows, beautifully crafted archer’s wrist guards), bling (gold ornaments) and drinking (the beakers). So… perhaps not so very different from today?
September 4, 2020 • by Damien Noonan
Beaker from Bathgate © National Museums Scotland
Flat axe © National Museums Scotland
Early bronze age artefacts from ‘Scottish bronze age hoards’ by J Graham Callander
journals.socantscot.org/index.php/ psas/ article/ view/ 7574
‘Two short cists at Kilspindie golf course’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland vol 64, 1930
journals.socantscot.org/index.php/ psas/ article/ view/ 7786
Pottery food vessel from Kilspindie Golf Course, Aberlady, NMS collections
Radiocarbon dating results from the Beaker People Project, 2007 (PDF, 156 KB)
‘Beaker People in Britain’, Antiquity vol 90 issue 351
www.cambridge.org/core/ journals/ antiquity/ article/ beaker-people-in-britain-migration-mobility-and-diet/ F059DDC58404792160DF1790B67C898D/ core-reader
‘Prehistoric pop culture’, Current Archaeology, April 5, 2018
www.archaeology.co.uk/ articles/ prehistoric-pop-culture-deciphering-the-dna-of-the-bell-beaker-complex.htm
‘The Beaker people’, News, Natural History Museum, February 2018
www.nhm.ac.uk/ discover/ news/ 2018/ february/ the-beaker-people-a-new-population-for-ancient-britain.html