Bury me in sheepskin

Ah yes – being buried in fleece is something which could all too easily happen to me if my stash were to fall over, but I’m not talking about me specifically here… I’m talking about something much older.  Someone much older. Ages older.

SpinningdaleIn late 2011 archaeologists excavated an undisturbed Bronze Age burial in Spinningdale, south-east Sutherland. Over 4000 years earlier a woman had been buried there, close to the water of the Dornoch Firth. She’d been placed in a metre-long stone cist (a bit like a large box made of stone slabs), lying on her side, her knees bent up, facing the south east and the open sea. A pot and a stone were put in the cist, probably before she was lifted into it herself, and were positioned so they lay behind her head. The top stone was put on and the pit in which it lay was filled in (parts had already been filled in, to support the sides of the cist). Then, four millennia later, and in a completely different world, a team of archaeologists arrived. Their results have just been published.

But it’s not only the fact that I knew the area – oh, and trained as an archaeologist – which interested me (Spinningdale was usually where my brother and I would first try to kill each other on car journeys to Inverness – my mother’s rule was only to interfere if there was blood; nature red in tooth and claw and the back seat of an old Ford Cortina). There’s a rather fine woolly element, too, and not just because of the textiley element in the place name.

As with many archaeological discoveries, the burial was found by accident – in this case, during the installation of a new septic tank – but the whole area has plenty of archaeological remains; just because it is comparatively unpopulated now doesn’t mean it always was. Initially, they found the cist in its big pit, but lifting the top stone revealed the skeletal remains of a person. The radiocarbon dates put the burial in the Early Bronze Age, some time between 2150 and 1910 BCE (2051-1911 BCE from the bone; others are from wood which may be older), so she – for it proved to be a woman – is over 4000 years old. She was also amazingly well preserved, and as a result we know a lot more about her than you might think.

cist burial

First, she was about 5 feet 6 inches in height and somewhere between 35 and 50 years old, possibly nearer to 45 to 50. There’s no visible cause of death (that would be asking a bit much, this isn’t CSI) but she did have ‘some degenerative changes’ to her lower spine – signs of osteoarthritis – and hints of a possibly genetic spinal condition, and very good teeth. She might not have been at the older end of the age range (and that would have been a respectable age in the time she lived, anyway); she could just have had a life full of hard work. And she probably looked after her teeth, or had a diet low in sugars. But it wasn’t just the bones that were well preserved.

When they were being lifted, traces of something else were spotted. Some of this proved to be the remains of her soft tissue, but some wasn’t – it was wool. There were two possible explanations for the wool, which were associated with traces of some more soft tissue: either she’d been wearing a wool garment or – and this has emerged as the favourite explanation – she’d been buried with a sheepskin. Out of the 35 fibres (average 21 microns) which were examined, some showed signs of pigmentation but most did not. Soays are highly likely to be the direct descendants of Bronze Age sheep and many have a brown body but a white underneath, and that white underfluff generally has some dark fibres in it, plus the micron size is similar. So, Soay then. Or similar.

Even though such a huge amount of time separates us from the Early Bronze Age, other burials have survived in which the body is wrapped in something. There’s one instance of a wool textile in the UK (Rylston in West Yorkshire), and a brown cattle hide was wrapped around another Sutherland burial, from Strath Oykel; there are others with hides. This, if it is a sheepskin, is the first. Sheepskin garments have been found in later Iron Age burials in Denmark, but never in the UK and not so early. Findings of fur or hide in graves tend to be linked to ‘rich’ burials, and are rare in Britain anyway. Of course, we just don’t know how much evidence has been destroyed or how much remains to be uncovered, but for now this is extremely unusual. So, mind you, is the size of the pit which was dug for the burial. It was large  (2.36m by 1.68m and more than a metre deep) and would have taken a considerable investment in time and energy to dig, especially with Bronze Age tools, so the woman buried there must have been respected by her community.

One other thing – it’s been suggested that she was placed to face the February and November sunrise, which would match the alignment of some other monuments in the area. For me – well, we just don’t know and we probably never will exactly what went on. But I do know one thing: I certainly wouldn’t mind being buried at Spinningdale myself, wrapped in a Soay sheepskin (er, or cloth) and facing the sea…

The photograph of Spinningdale is by Bill Fernie and comes from Caithness.org; the one of the burial is from GUARD archaeology. There’s a brief account of the dig in the November/December issue of British Archaeology, and the full report can be found at Archaeology Reports Online.


15 thoughts on “Bury me in sheepskin

  1. CityofLeedsRose

    There was a lady called Linda who set up a business called Burial Cloud which was a coffin made of fleece. She passed away and the business didn’t continue. As a Knitter it is something that appeals to me. I would love it if I could be wrapped in wool when I take my final journey. Oh and at my service everyone has to wear something knitted! 😉

    1. kate Post author

      I think I remember seeing some wool coffins at Wonderwool a couple of years ago – that might have been her, I suppose. It’s such a good idea and people were buried surrounded by felt in central Asia many, many, many years ago, so why not here too… A really, really good idea, so much nicer than wicker which creaks, looks like a cat basket (appropriate for one friend of mine but not for everyone) and which you can see through. Hmmm.

      Love the idea of the knitted things, hooray!

  2. Ellie

    Dear Kate
    A fascinating post. I am always interested in wool/felt which has survived for thousands of years – like the Mongolian burials in the permafrost or Egyptian swan figures made from felt which may have been made as grave goods. There are makers out there who create felted shrouds (Anne Belgrave is one who springs to mind) and in the latest felting magazine ‘Felt Matters’, produced by the International Feltmakers Association, there is an article from a maker who also creates felted shrouds. (I can add her name in later, if it would be of interest).
    Best wishes

    1. Ellie

      Dear Kate
      The maker creating the felt shrouds is Yuli Somme, who is based in Devon (www.bellacouche.com). I hope this is of some interest.
      Best wishes

    2. kate Post author

      Aren’t those burials amazing? And the colours are still so good, too – that’s what you get with the right conditions, shame they’re not more prevalent!

      How interesting about felted shrouds – and of course in the !7th century there were various Acts which made the use of wooleen shrouds mandatory (the ‘Burial in Woollen Acts’. The only valid reasons for not being buried in a shroud made of British wool were being destitute or having the Plague.

  3. croftgarden

    Fascinating. What a lovely idea – grow your own coffin/shroud. I had opted for a pyre on the beach but I might just think again. I wonder how many Hebrideans (sheep that is) I would need?

    1. kate Post author

      But the pyre on the beach is very Romantic Poet-y… OK, with Shelley it was the Bay of Naples, and the weather might have been reliable; here I think the rain might put the pyre out too quickly (ergh). Go for the Hebrideans! (I am SO glad you added the ‘sheep that is’…!)

  4. Lydia

    Ummm, yes, nestling down for that final sleep in a Soay fleece, sounds heavenly to me….. What an interesting article I do so love to discover more about how we have been so interlinked with our woolly friends for such a long long time…..

    1. kate Post author

      We have, haven’t we? It still touches me when I read something like this – you almost feel the past. But as the historian Bettany Hughes once wrote (very sensibly), ‘The past may hold out its hand to you but just because it does, don’t presume you can describe its face.’ We can’t really know their world, not really… indeed, can we know our own?

      OK, I definitely need my first coffee of the day!

      1. Lydia

        Very apposite of Bettany, I can see her glancing over her shoulder as she strolls around some ancient pillars and rocks in Greece…..


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.