There is currently much debate over the introduction of Beaker pottery and a set of associated artefacts, including copper objects, into the British Isles between c. 2500 and 2300 BC, but the same kinds of objects were found across large areas of Europe in these centuries and the decades before. A small number of burials have been found very widely dispersed across Britain during this period –some of the most famous are the Amesbury ‘archer’ (who grew up on the Continent) and the Boscombe ‘bowmen’, found near Stonehenge. . . . its worth noting that these early Beaker burials were seemingly not usually covered with a round mound.
This new burial practice, in which bodies were buried in the ground unburnt, seems to have kick-started a range of other local new local burial practices – most notably . . . across northern Britain people started to bury their dead in what we call ‘short cists’ (boxes averaging about 1m long, made from slabs of stone) with a style of pottery that was inspired by those early Beakers. Many, but not all, of these cists contained just the burial of just one person. Occasionally these were covered with low mounds. Sometimes they formed small groups of two or three burials, and sometimes such groups were then covered with a single round mound.
In Ireland burial practices involving Beaker pottery were very different to in Britain, but a tradition of burying cremated remains in cists had also developed, associated with a new style of pottery – which archaeologists call Food Vessels. Similar vessels were adopted in parts of Britain too, particularly the north.
Not all round mounds necessarily covered burials, although this was the case for the vast majority in most regions. Some Early Bronze Age round mounds in the south-west of England seem to have been built without covering any human remains, and some ‘ring’ or ‘kerbed’ cairns in upland parts of Britain had open ground in the middle (imagine a doughnut made of stone) which might have been used for other purposes before human remains were buried in their interiors. Mounds also cover a range of features left by activity other than burying the dead.
After c. 2100 BC round mounds often covered small groups of such burials. These mounds were generally around 10-12m in diameter, but could be as large as 24m, and increasingly they were added to and enlarged. Such enlargement seems to have often happened when later burials were added to their periphery in the early second millennium BC, and by this time cremation had become predominant again across much of Britain. The recently-excavated burial cairn at Low Hauxley, Northumberland, which Chris worked on, gives a good example of this sequence.
In the south of England, for instance, circles of stake-holes have been found buried under mounds. These may derive from circular fences, for instance, enclosing a central area which was then used to bury the remains of the dead, before a mound was built over the top. . . . Furthermore, the material used to make round mounds is highly worthy of study. In a few cases excavators have noted the special selection of different types of soil, clay, and other materials in layers within a mound. There are a couple of intriguing mentions of layers of different materials in some nineteenth and early twentieth century reports of excavations of Manx round mounds that we will consider, for instance. The use of different materials may have been meaningful in varied ways – for instance, perhaps bringing soil from a place where a person grew up to a place where they lived and died after marrying into a different family, or perhaps significance derived from the colour of the material.
Finally, exactly where mounds were built in a local landscape is also very interesting, and again this varied regionally and sometimes more locally. In some parts of Britain, for instance, Early Bronze Age mounds clustered into groups around major monuments (as at Stonehenge), sometimes arranged in lines along hill ridges. In other areas mounds were more dispersed. In some cases mounds were built in prominent landscape locations such as hilltops, in others they were on the gentle slopes of hills or placed just below a hilltop.
A shift to cremation coincides closely with the arrival of Indo-European cultures in India, Iran, Turkey, the Balkans, Greece, and Italy, to name a few. It also associated with the arrival of the "Urnfield culture" that preceded the Celtic people in much of Western Europe. So, I am inclined to think that cremation is a litmus test of a shift to an Indo-European culture replacing a previous non-Indo-European culture, that practice inhumation.
The fact that early Bell Beaker people in Britain employed inhumation in cists is another small piece of evidence to suggest that they were non-Indo-European linguistically and culturally.
But, the pre-Bell Beaker Neolithic use of cremation in Ireland, which persisted into the Bell Beaker era, undermines the usefulness of this litmus test there, and the reappearance of cremation to Britain ca. 2100 BCE, several hundred years after the earliest appearances of the Bell Beaker culture there, is notable.
Some sort of cultural or religious shift caused this to happen. Why did this cultural or religious shift occur?
Did local circumstances make cremation more practical than it had been before? After all, the transition from inhumation to cremation in Britain coincides with the 4.2 kiloyear event in Europe which was a time of aridity, crop failures and hardship in a swath of territory including much of Europe, the Near East, West Asia and the Indian subcontinent. This climate event may have also made disease more common which cremation might have controlled better.
Perhaps what looks like a cultural litmus test is really not a matter of migration causing a shift to the culture of the incoming people, but common causation. Climate and scarcity may have made cremation more practical than inhumation, and that same climate and scarcity may have weakened existing regimes thus making Indo-European conquest more feasible.
But, outside Britain, the timing of the shift to cremation seems to be a century or two after the climate shift, and in places like Italy, much later, so a cultural causation theory may still make more sense.
In an alternative wild possibility, did missionaries bearing Indo-European religious beliefs appear and have an impact before the Indo-Europeans themselves arrived? This seems unlikely, but stranger things have happened and it would not be unprecedented in human history.