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Draft Osteology Report

Malin Holst, Field Archaeology Specialists. 2003.


Osteological analysis was undertaken by Field Archaeology Specialists during September 2003 on the calcined and unburnt bone assemblages recovered from three phases of archaeological watching brief at Nosterfield North Yorkshire (SE 7661 0886) on behalf of Mike Griffiths and Associates for Tarmac North Ltd.

Nineteen assemblages of cremated bone were the subject of osteological analysis, which identified that eight of these were non-human and were subsequently omitted from the analysis. Ten of the cremations were part of a small scattered cemetery, which is provisionally dated to the Middle Bronze Age. The cemetery contained both urned and unurned burials, some of which contained grave foods in the form of animal bone. The group included individuals of all ages, suggesting that the cemetery may have served a small community or family. 

Another assemblage of cremated bone, as well as two inhumations were recovered from a discrete area. The assemblage included the cremated remains of an adult female, who might have been interred in a box, located within the perimeter of a large ring ditch. Two unusual inhumations were found in pits close to of the ring ditch. Both graves only contained long bones arranged beside one another, with a skull placed on top. These burials probably represent secondary interments, following exposure of the body with subsequent loss of some bone to animal attack; the surviving bones were then collected and placed in pits. The burials contained a mature adult female buried in an isolated pit, and a female middle adult who had been placed in a pit of a pit-alignment that cut the ring ditch.


Field Archaeology Specialists Ltd would like to thank Dr Matthew Collins for his advice on the excarnated skeletons. FAS would also like to thank Karen Barker for the excavation of the skeletal remains contained from the urns.


Human remains were uncovered during three phases of watching brief at Nosterfield , North Yorkshire (SE 7661 0886). These comprised a small cremation cemetery assemblage and two inhumations excavated in 2002 (Intervention 5), as well as four deposits of calcined bone excavated in 1999 (Intervention 1) by Field Archaeology Specialists Ltd. Three further assemblages of calcined remains were excavated in 1997 by Mike Griffiths and Associates. In September 2003, osteological analysis was carried out on the calcined and inhumed remains from all three phases of excavation.

Two inhumed skeletons (C1617 and C1642) had been interred near the perimeter of a large ring ditch (F264) in Intervention 5. The skeletons were found in unusual positions; only some of the long bones, the skulls and a small number of bone fragments representing the trunk were recovered from these burials. The position of the long bones laid out beside one another, with the skull placed on top of the bones, as well as the apparent lack of some skeletal elements, implies that the individuals must have been skeletonised prior to burial. A cremation burial (F269) was found in a square cut within the area enclosed by the ring ditch and may have been associated with the inhumations.

A small cremation cemetery was discovered in the central part of Intervention 5 and contained ten burials, which were dispersed around a small ring ditch. Four of the burials had been interred in urns and two of these may represent a double burial (F92 and F93), although their relationship was not clear upon excavation. Dating evidence from four urns and pottery sherds recovered from the cremation cemetery date these burials to the Middle Bronze Age (approximately 1300 BC), while all other deposits are undated.

The remaining assemblages of calcined bone derived from scattered pits and scoops.

Aims & Objectives

Initially, the assessment aimed to identify whether all calcined bone recovered from the site was human. The skeletal assessment then aimed to determine age, sex and stature, as well as any pathological conditions from which the individuals may have suffered. Information was also sought regarding the cremation techniques and the unusual funerary ritual of the two inhumed individuals.


The inhumed skeletons were analysed in detail, assessing the preservation and completeness of each skeleton, as well as determining the age, sex and stature of the individuals and any pathological conditions.

The cremated bone was first analysed to determine whether it was human or non-human. The human bone was subsequently sieved through a stack of sieves, with 10mm, 5mm and 2mm mesh sizes. The bone recovered from each sieve was weighed and sorted into identifiable and non-identifiable bone. The identifiable bone was divided into five categories: skull, axial (excluding the skull), upper limb, lower limb, long bone (unidentifiable as to the limb). All identifiable groups of bone were weighed and bagged separately. 

Bone colour, fragmentation, preservation and rate of cracking and warping resulting from the burning were recorded in order to obtain information on cremation processes and subsequent funerary rituals.

Osteological Analysis

Osteological analysis is concerned with the determination of the demographic profile of the assemblage based on the assessment of sex, age and stature, as well as measurements and non-metric traits. This information is essential in order to determine the prevalence of disease types and age-related changes. It is also crucial for identifying gender dimorphism in occupation, lifestyle and diet, as well as the role of different age groups in society.


All calcined bone assemblages recovered from Intervention 1, as well as those excavated in 1997, were found to be non-human. Additionally, the uppermost backfill of pit F103 from Intervention 5 contained calcined bone, which was non-human (Table 1). The eight assemblages of animal bone have been omittedthis report. Ten burials originating from the cremation cemetery and a single cremation burial as well as two inhumations are discussed here.

Table 1 Summary of the assemblage preservation

Area Context No Feature No Feature Type Human/Animal Inclusions Bone State Preservation Age Sex Weight (g)
1997 1075 - - animal - white poor - - 68.1
1997 1306 - - animal - white poor - - 0.5
1997 7081 - - animal - white good - - 1.2
1 1174 116 pit animal - white poor - - 1
1 1186 125 scoop animal - white moderate - - 122
1 1200 134 pit animal - white moderate - - 14
1 1195 142 scoop animal - white poor - - 0.7
5 1134 90 burial human charcoal white poor - - 0.6
5 1135 91 burial human charcoal, pottery, hoof white good 2-6 - 104.4
5 1136 92 burial human urned white good 13+ - 90.4
5 1137 93 burial human urned white moderate - - 1.7
5 1140 96 burial human urned, animal bone white good 36+ ?male 1301.7
5 1143 98 burial human charcoal, pottery white/blue/black moderate 16+ - 5.4
5 1144 99 burial human charcoal white/brown poor - - 0.3
5 1145 100 burial human charcoal white very poor - - 1.3
5 1149 103 pit animal - white/blue moderate - - 37.7
5 1156 105 burial human charcoal white/blue moderate - - 73.8
5 1157 106 burial human urned, charcoal white/blue excellent 16+ - 216.8
5 1617 253 inhumation human - unburnt very poor 26-45 female -
5 1642 267 inhumation human - unburnt very poor 46+ ?female -
5 1647 269 burial human charcoal white good 16+ female 206.2

Skeletal preservation depends upon a number of factors, including the age and sex of the individual as well as the size, shape and robusticity of the bone. Burial environment, post-depositional disturbance and treatment following excavation can also have a considerable impact on bone condition. Preservation of human skeletal remains is assessed subjectively, depending upon the severity of bone surface erosion and post-mortem breaks, but disregarding completeness.

Preservation was assessed using a grading system of five categories: very poor, poor, moderate, good and excellent. Excellent preservation implied no bone surface erosion and very few or no breaks, whereas very poor preservation indicated complete or almost complete loss of the bone surface due to erosion and severe fragmentation.

Preservation varied considerably throughout the bone assemblages (see Table 1). The severity of erosion and fragmentation depended to a large extent on the degree of disturbance by ploughing, which is estimated to have truncated the features by around 0.30m. The use of chemicals in agricultural activities and leaching from rain water may have exacerbated degradation. Few of the cremation burial pits survived as more than 2cm of the base of the burial pit. The degree of truncation of the features was illustrated by some of the cremation vessels, where little more than the base had remained intact, with the exception of the urn in F106, which was inverted and had remained intact. Nevertheless, the presence of the urns had protected the bones from the effects of leaching and erosion. This was illustrated most effectively in burial F106, which contained bone fragments up to 70mm long and showed no evidence for erosion. Cremated bone recovered from outside the cremation vessel on the other hand, was fragmentary and had suffered from severe erosion. The extent of the truncation had therefore not only caused significant bone loss, but also considerable deterioration to the surviving bone.

The inhumation burials were also truncated, resulting in loss of parts of the skulls, which were uppermost in the burial pits. These unburnt bones were extremely porous, and disintegrated upon removal from the grave. Erosion had destroyed the bone surface entirely. Furthermore, none of the spongy parts of the bone, such as the vertebrae or long bone joints were preserved. It is possible that the bones had already been weakened as a result of exposure before burial, which would have allowed weathering of the bone, as well as the possibility of fungal, mammal and bacterial attack.

The fragment size of cremated bone is frequently attributed to post-cremation processes. This is because skeletal elements retrieved from modern crematoria tend to be comparatively large before being ground down for scattering or deposition in urns. However, bone is also prone to fragmentation if it is moved while still hot (McKinley 1994, 340) and it may be this process which contributed to the fragmentation of the cremated bone from Nosterfield . It is probable that truncation affected bone degradation, which is illustrated by the comparative difference in skeletal fragment size from urned burials F96 and F106. Burial F96 contained the greatest quantity of bone in the best preserved, though truncated vessel. Nevertheless, the bone fragment size from this burial was considerably smaller than the size of fragments from F106, an inverted burial that had survived intact.

Bone fragment size varied between and within the eleven cremation burials. However, the majority of bone recovered derived from the 5mm sieve (Table 2). Bone smaller than 5mm was often not separated from the fine gravel residue, and therefore constitutes only a small proportion of the total assemblages. In 55% of burials, one third or more of the assemblages constituted bone fragments larger than 10mm. These were mostly assemblages which contained a more substantial proportion of bone. However, only in two burials (18%) was the majority of bone larger than 10mm. The majority (64%) of assemblages contained bone fragments that were between 5 and 9mm in size. Two burials which had suffered from particularly severe truncation and contained less than 4g of human bone contained bone fragments which were retained predominantly in the 2mm sieve.

Table 2 Summary of cremated bone fragment size

Feature No 10mm (g) 10mm (%) 5mm (g) 5mm (%) 2mm (g) 2mm (%) Residue (g) Total Human (g)
90 0 0 0.6 100 0 0 162.1 0.6
91 28.7 27.5 65.9 63 9.8 9.5 1225.0 104.4
92 35.3 39 45.2 50 9.9 11 0 90.4
93 0 0 1.7 100 0 0 0 1.7
96 583.2 45 432.7 33 285.8 22 83.8 1301.7
98 1.4 26 4 74 0 0 321.3 5.4
99 0 0 0.3 100 0 0 235.9 0.3
100 0 0 0 0 1.3 100 394.4 1.3
105 3.2 0 1.4 44 1.8 56 73.8 3.2
106 132.2 61 73.7 34 10.9 5 0 216.8
269 72.3 35 124.9 61 9 4 960.7 206.2

The quantity of cremated bone per burial varied considerably from 0.7g to 1301.7g (see Table 1), with an overall mean weight of 175.6g. The quantity of bone retrieved from the burials weighed considerably less than that produced by modern crematoria, which tends to range from 1001.5g to 2422.5g with an average of 1625.9g (McKinley 1993). Wahl (1982, 25) found that archaeologically recovered remains of cremated adults tend to weigh (between 250g and 2500g), as a result of the commonly practised custom of selecting only some of the cremated bone from the pyre for inclusion in the burial, thereby representing a symbolic, or token, interment. In a study of Bronze Age cremation burials, McKinley (1997) also observed that the entire cremated remains were rarely, if ever, interred in the burial. Most burials from Nosterfield produced less than 10% of the quantity of bone expected to remain following burning, and only burial F96 contained the amount of bone similar to the quantity expected to survive cremation. The only intact cremation burial (F96) only contained 216.8g of cremated bone, which supports the idea of a token interment. Nevertheless, it is improbable that the small quantity of bone in some of these burials was solely the result of post-cremation selection, but is probably also influenced by the severe truncation of the burials.

The cremated bone from Nosterfield was very well burnt, causing the complete loss of the organic portion and producing a white colour throughout most assemblages. One assemblage (F99) also contained brown bone elements (see Table 1). Brown colouration of cremated bone is generally associated with haemoglobin, or soil discolouration (Correia 1997, 276). Some of the bone fragments from burials F98, F105 and F106 exhibited a bluish hue, which occurs when the organic components of the bone are pyrolised. According to McKinley (1989), the body requires a minimum temperature of 500 degrees Celsius over seven to eight hours to achieve complete calcination of the bone.

Despite the fragmentation of bone elements, it was possible to identify skeletal elements in all cremated bone assemblages that weighed more than 1.5g. In three burials containing between 0.3g to 1.3g of bone, it was not possible to identify any bone elements (Table 3). In 55% of burials the majority of bone fragments could be identified. In all cases, the majority of identifiable bones were long bone shaft fragments or cranial fragments. However, other skeletal elements were also recovered from the burials, particularly vertebral articular facets and rib shaft fragments. Furthermore, burial F269 contained a number of intact finger bones (phalanges), including most of the bones in the finger tips. Large bone fragments, such as parts of the femoral shafts, the ear bone (petrous temporals) and parts of the lower jaw also survived well and were noted in a number of burials.

Table 3 Summary of identifiable elements in the cremation burials

Feature No Skull (g) Skull (%) Axial (g) Axial (%) U L (g) U L (%) L L (g) L L (%) UI L B (g) UI L B (%) Total ID (g) Total ID (%) Total UID (g) Total UID (%)
90 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0.6 100
91 51.4 54 8.5 9 1.4 1 2.6 3 31.1 33 95 91 9.4 9
92 17.2 24 3.0 4 8.0 11 22.3 31 21.4 30 71.9 80 18.5 20
93 0.3 18 0 0 0 0 0 0 1.4 82 1.7 100 0 0
96 148.7 22 55.0 8 15.8 2 108.2 16 358.9 52 686.7 53 615.0 47
98 0.9 20 0 0 0 0 0 0 3.8 80 4.7 87 0.7 13
99 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0.3 100
100 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1.3 100
105 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1.4 100 1.4 44 1.8 56
106 32.6 17 21.5 11 29.0 15 27.3 14 83.0 43 193.6 89 23.2 11
269 59 37 13.8 8.5 12.2 7.5 6.5 4 69.6 43 161.1 78 45.1 22

UL - upper limb; LL - lower limb; UIL - long bone (unidentified as to upper or lower limb); ID - identifiable bone; UID - unidentifiable bone

Four of the burials were excavated in spits which varied in size between 20mm to 50mm in an attempt to ascertain, whether the bone was distributed in a deliberate order, or whether it had been placed into the urn with no regard for skeletal element. Spit excavation showed that in the urned burials, the majority of bone was located in the upper part of the vessel, suggesting that water may have percolated through the burial, causing the base of the vessel to act like a silt trap, depositing smaller fragments of bone and silt at the base of the vessel, while the larger fragments remained in the upper parts of the urn. In the unurned burials on the other hand, the central of three spits contained the largest quantity of bone, implying that the lack of a vessel allowed more even distribution of the bone in within the cut. However, the complete lack of the upper parts, and often the majority of the burials means that this is merely a hypothesis. Excavation of the burials in spits did not determine any pattern of deliberate bone deposition in the burials.

Upon excavation of the matrix in one of the vessels (F106), it was noted that this included a number of air pockets, which are not uncommon and may point to the fact that organic material had been included within the vessel, which has subsequently deteriorated (McKinley 1997, 142).

Two of the burials (F91, F98), which were severely truncated, contained a small number of pottery fragments. It is possible that these burials had been interred in urns, or that pottery had been provided as grave goods. All of the unurned burials and one of the urned burials included a small amount of charcoal, suggesting the inclusion of some pyre material with the skeletal remains. According to McKinley (1997, 137) it is not unusual for pyre debris to be included in Bronze Age burials. However, pyre debris appears to have been deliberately omitted from the remaining urned burials.

Inclusions of animal bone were found in two burials: burial F91 contained a fragment of hoof, while burial F96 included one fragment of unidentified animal long bone. Both bone fragments were burnt and had probably been placed on the pyre with the deceased as a pyre good, to be selected later for inclusion in the grave.

Minimum Number of Individuals

A count of the 'minimum number of individuals' (MNI) recovered from a cemetery is carried out as standard procedure during osteological assessments of inhumations in order to establish how many individuals were represented by the articulated and disarticulated human bones (without taking the archaeologically defined graves into account). The MNI is calculated by counting all long bone ends, as well as other larger skeletal elements, such as the hip joints and cranial elements. It is not possible to calculate the MNI for cremation burials, because only a token selection of bone from the pyre tends to be buried. Double burials can be identified only if skeletal elements are duplicated, or if skeletons of different ages are represented in one burial. In this instance, no double burials were identified.

Although archaeologically, two distinct inhumation burials were identified, it is possible in this instance, that the burials did not represent discrete individuals, but may have contained an amalgamation of different individuals' bones. However, the complete lack of long bone ends did not allow the determination of an MNI. Neither was it possible to suggest, whether the shape and size of the bones in each grave were uniform and would have belonged to one person. However, it was possible to suggest that none of the bone elements in either grave were represented by more than their usual number, suggesting that each grave contained only one individual.

Assessment of Age

The determination of age relies on the development and degeneration of bones and teeth. Different stages of development and degeneration have been mapped using data gathered from individuals of known age (Cox 2000). Methods used to determine age rely on the preservation of the dentition and hips and are most precise when used to assess the developing skeleton, due to the fact that the growth of bones and teeth follows a relatively predictable course up to the age of twenty-five. However, the degeneration of the skeleton, which is assessed according to the severity of wear on the teeth, hips and ribs, depends on the sex, occupation, lifestyle and health of the individual analysed. The effect of wear on the teeth and bones tends to vary increasingly with advancing age; as a result, age cannot be reliably determined beyond 46 years. 

Age was divided into a number of categories, including foetus (up to 40 weeks in utero), neonate (around the time of birth), infant (following birth to 1 year), juvenile (1-12 years), adolescent (13-17 years), young adult (18-25 years), young middle adult (26-35 years), old middle adult (36-45 years) and mature adult (46+years). Age was determined using standard ageing techniques, specified by Buikstra and Ubelaker (1994) and Scheuer and Black (2000).

Because none of the criteria normally used for age determination were represented in any of the burials, it was not possible to estimate age in three of the cremated individuals. This meant that age determination was based on less reliable criteria. The dental development of F91 suggested that this individual was aged between two to six years, whereas F92 was over the age of thirteen. Age estimation was based on bone robusticity in burials F98 and F106, which suggested that these individuals were adolescents or adults. Possibly the oldest cremated individual was F96, who, based on the dental development and the presence of degenerative joint disease, was older than 36 years of age. This implies that the cremation cemetery held individuals of all ages and suggests that it may have represented a communal or family burial plot.

The cremated individual (F269) interred in the vicinity of the inhumations was at least sixteen years old, but no more than 25 years of age, based on the dental development, cranial suture fusion and fusion of the finger bone joints. 

The extremely fragmentary and eroded state of preservation of the inhumed skeletons allowed only tentative age assessment. This was based solely on dental wear, which is not an accurate ageing characteristic. The limited dental wear on the molars of F253 initially suggested an age of 26 to 35 years. However, the anterior teeth of this individual were severely worn, indicating that this individual may have been older. A wider age bracket, between 26 and 45 years has therefore been suggested for this individual. Similarly, the dental wear of skeleton C1642 varied considerably, with severe wear on one side of the jaws, and moderate wear on the other. However, such uneven wear may occur, when corresponding teeth on the upper or lower jaw have been lost ante-mortem, and it is therefore probable, that the more severe wear represents the individual's age, which is thought to be older than 46 years.

Sex Determination

Sex determination is a vital part of the analysis of human remains, because of the likelihood that different sexes followed different lifestyles as a result of varying occupations, child bearing, or other activities which may have affected their health.

Sex assessment relies on the presence of the skull and pelvis, the morphology of which are sexually dimorphic, as described by Mays (2000). It was possible to estimate sex in two cremated individuals, F96, who was a probable male, and F269, who is thought to have been female. None of the other cremated assemblages contained skeletal elements which were sexually dimorphic.

The mastoid process (bone behind the ear) from inhumation, C1617 suggested that this individual was a female, a diagnosis, which was supported by the gracile nature of this skeleton. The sex of the second inhumed individual could not be established with certainty. However, based on the gracile nature of the bones, it was thought that this individual may have been female. Sex could be assessed in two of the cremated individuals; while the individual from burial F269 was female, the largest burial (F96) contained a male. It is interesting to note that the two inhumed individuals, as well as the cremation associated with ring ditch F264, were female.

Metric Analysis

Cremated bone shrinks at an inconsistent rate (up to 15%) during the cremation process and it was therefore not possible to measure the bone from these cremation burials. The fragmented nature of the inhumed individuals did also not allow any metrical analysis.

Non-Metric Traits

Non-metric traits are additional sutures, facets, bony processes, canals and foramina, which occur in a minority of skeletons and are thought to suggest diversity and familial affiliation between skeletons (Saunders 1989). Each skeleton and cremated bone assemblage was examined for thirty cranial and thirty post-cranial non-metric traits selected from the osteological literature (Buikstra and Ubelaker 1994, Finnegan 1978, Berry and Berry 1967). Non-metric traits were not identified in the cremated or inhumed individuals.

Pathological Analysis

The analysis of skeletal and dental manifestations of disease can provide a vital insight into the health and diet of past populations, as well as their living conditions and occupations. However, only one individual (F96) exhibited skeletal manifestations of disease.

Joint disease is commonly observed in populations of all periods, especially in those where older individuals are well represented. Degenerative joint disease (DJD) is caused by a number of factors, including increasing age, mechanical factors, hereditary predisposition and endocrine stress. Different factors can affect different joints; Jurmain (1980, 1991) observed that DJD in the elbow and knee was more likely to be caused by functional stress, whereas the hip and shoulder were more likely to degenerate as a result of increasing age. DJD is expressed as additional bone formation around the joint margins (osteophytes), or through pitting of the joint surface. Evidence for DJD was observed in the spine of F96. Two vertebral articular facets were found to exhibit evidence for DJD: one of the facets showed pitting on the joint surface, while the second facet showed manifestations of joint disease in the form of additional lipped new bone formation (osteophytes) at the margin of the join (Plate 1).

Spinal joint disease is very common in most populations from archaeological contexts, because of stress exerted on the spine as a result of bipedalism. The intervertebral discs are the 'shock absorbers' of the spine, but these can degenerate as a result of gradual desiccation, which then causes transmission of the stress from the vertebral discs to the articular facets and ligaments (Hirsh 1983, 123). Spinal osteophytes form in response to the constant stress that is placed on the spine as a result of human posture (Roberts and Manchester 1995, 106). Increasing stress or activity can therefore lead to increased size and prevalence of osteophytes (ibid). The degree of joint disease is therefore graded from mild to severe. The severity of both the porosity and osteophytes suggests that this individual suffered from a moderate expression of the condition.

The small quantity of cremated bone recovered from Nosterfield , as well as the considerable fragmentation and erosion of the bone from both cremation burials and inhumations may explain the lack of further pathological manifestations from the site.

Dental Health

Analysis of the teeth from archaeological populations provides vital clues about health, diet and oral hygiene, as well as information about environmental and congenital conditions. Tooth crown and root fragments were recovered from burials F91, F92, F96 and F269. Unfortunately, little information could be gained from these teeth, because they were shattered into tiny fragments during the cremation process.

Few teeth survived in the graves of the two inhumed females, and even fewer remained in the jaw bones. As a result, it was not possible to determine, which of the teeth had been lost ante-mortem or post-mortem. 

Thirteen teeth (of a maximum number of 32) were recovered from grave F253, but two of the teeth (a mandibular molar and premolar ante-mortem) had been lost ante-mortem (Appendix 1). This individual had not suffered from any cavities or dental plaque concretions (calculus) adhering to the teeth, although it is possible, that the latter may have been lost as a result of post-depositional processes. It was, however, possible to determine that this individual had suffered from considerable periodontitis, which is an inflammatory disease affecting the soft tissues and bone surrounding the teeth. Periodontitis results in the resorption of the alveolar bone, which can lead to loosening of and eventual loss of the teeth and may have been responsible for the ante-mortem tooth loss of two teeth.

Neither of the jaw bones survived in the mature adult female (C1642). This individual had sixteen surviving teeth, which were all mandibular, with the exception of a maxillary canine and premolar. Four of the teeth exhibited thin or patchy deposits of concreted dental plaque. Additionally, the individual suffered from a moderately sized dental cavity on the right mandibular wisdom tooth. 

Dental wear tends to be more common and severe in archaeological populations than in modern society, being caused by a much coarser diet based upon contemporary corn grinding techniques. Severity of the dental wear was assessed using a chart developed by Smith (1984). Each tooth was scored using a grading system ranging from 1 (no wear) to 8 (severe attrition of the whole tooth crown).

Wear was slightly less severe in the younger individual, and ranged from two to six, with the least wear on the wisdom teeth (which are the last teeth to erupt and are therefore least likely to exhibit attrition). The wear of the mature adult (C1642) ranged in severity from moderate to severe, with the worst wear on the left mandibular molars.

The dental health of the two inhumed females suggests that these women practised relatively poor dental hygiene, leading to inflammation of the gums, tooth loss, cavities and plaque concretions.

Discussion & Summary

Nineteen deposits of calcined bone were recovered from Nosterfield between 1997 and 2002, eight of which contained solely non-human bone. Ten human cremation burials were found in the wider vicinity of a small ring ditch (F148). Four of these burials had been interred in urns and it is possible that two further burials, which contained fragments of pottery, had also been urned. Alternatively, sherds of pottery may have been included as grave goods in these cases. Evidence for possible grave goods was found in two burials in the form of single animal bone inclusions. Both bones were calcined, and had probably been placed on the pyre together with the deceased. Charcoal was found in all unurned and one of the urned burials, and may have been a deliberate inclusion in the burials, or may have been accidentally raked up from the pyre together with the human remains. It is possible that one of the burials (F106) also contained organic material, which had since deteriorated, but had left air pockets in the soil matrix in the urn.

The group included one possible double burial (F92 and F93), characterised by two urns in a poorly defined cut. Notably, the less truncated urn contained considerably less bone than the more severely disturbed vessel. This may suggest that one of the urns was an accessory vessel, or that the smaller quantity of bone may simply relate to differential bone deposition within the urn. Osteological analysis was not able to define, whether the bone derived from the same, or from different individuals and the tiny quantity of bone in F93 (1.7g) did not permit any conclusions regarding funerary ritual. 

Age determination was difficult in most cases, because of the lack of skeletal ageing characteristics in the burials. Nevertheless, it was possible to determine that the cemetery group included individuals of all ages, with an under-representation of children. Notably, even the single burial of a young child contained pottery, suggesting that archaeologically visible evidence for burial ritual was not affected by age. It was only possible to determine sex in one individual (F96) who was male; thus comparisons with funerary ritual and gender could not be made.

No pyre sites were observed during excavations at Nosterfield. Although Bronze Age pyre sites have been found in the vicinity of a number of cremation cemeteries, they tend to have been constructed on the ground surface (McKinley 1997, 132). In experimental case studies, heat effects of surface pyres penetrated no more than 0.10m below the surface (McKinley 1997, 134) and may therefore have been subject to the severe truncation of the site. Additionally, pyre sites were often cleared soon after use, so that little charcoal ash and cremated bone may remain in situ to identify the feature (ibid). A number of features containing charcoal and evidence of in situ burning have been located at Nosterfield and although none of these contained human bone, it is possible that they represent cremation pyres. 

Two inhumations and a further cremation burial were found in the vicinity of a much larger ring ditch (F264), which was situated 292m to the southwest of ring ditch F148. One of the inhumations was found in the upper part of the backfill of a pit in one of the pit-alignments. The skeletal remains of a middle-aged female had been interred in the pit after this had silted up, suggesting that the burial was secondary to its original use. The same alignment cut the ring ditch F264, implying that it is later in date.

The second inhumation of an elderly female was located immediately to the southeast of the ring ditch in a sub-oval pit. The inhumation burials were both thought to be secondary interments, following skeletonisation of the body. Only some bone elements, which included predominantly skulls and long bones, had been placed in an orderly, but not anatomical manner in the pits. The evidence suggests that the bodies had been left exposed and underwent normal processes of decomposition, as well as defleshing and attack as carrion, which may explain the lack of some of the bones. Any surviving bones were finally collected and interred in burial pits. Alternatively, it is possible that the bodies were defleshed deliberately and only token samples placed in the pits.

A cremation burial was found in a square cut within ring ditch F264, on the southern side of its centre. The burial had been severely truncated, and contained 200g of human bone, as well as a small quantity of charcoal. This individual was also a female adult, but her age could not be determined more accurately. It is possible, that the burial had been interred in a square container, which may explain the shape of the grave cut. Its location within the ring ditch suggests that this burial may have been associated with the ring ditch.

Although there is no evidence to suggest that the inhumations were contemporary, this is assumed on the basis of the similarity in bone deposition and their vicinity to ring ditch F264, despite the distinct nature of the burial features. However, the burials may not be contemporary with the ring ditch itself, and the cutting of the ring ditch by two of the pits implies that there was at least some time lapse between the excavation of the ditch and that of the pits. Furthermore, their relationship with the cremation burial has not been identified. Although cremation burials and inhumations do occur contemporaneously at other sites in Yorkshire, particularly the Wolds (Woodward 2000, 23), it is equally possible that the burial features are several generations apart.

Prehistoric burials are frequently associated with liminal spaces, such as boundaries. In this case, at least one of the inhumations is directly associated with a boundary, through its interment in one of the pits from the pit alignment. Similarly, the smaller ring ditch is cut by a ditch which encloses a large part of the excavated site. The small cremation cemetery in this part of the site appears to be spread alongside the ditch, rather than distributed around the ring ditch, which may suggest a further boundary association. However, until the features have been subject to absolute dating, it is not possible to determine, which of these features may be contemporary with the cemetery and any attempts of interpreting these must be regarded as tentative.


Until targeted absolute dating has been carried out of the inhumations and some of the cremation burials, interpretations of the funerary treatment are mere speculation. Once their date is known, focussed research on mortuary behaviour of the period can be carried out, with the aim of identifying parallels for the funerary treatment of the individuals interred at Nosterfield . Dating may also contribute further information regarding the prehistoric land use and character of the landscape.

Furthermore, histological analysis of the inhumed skeletons may be able to prove scientifically, whether these individuals had been exposed prior to burial or had been deliberately defleshed. This will provide a further insight into the beliefs of the people interred at Nosterfield. 


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Appendix A ~ Osteological & Plaeopathological Catalogue

Skeleton Number F253
Preservation very poor
Completeness 15%; parts of the skull, shoulders, lower arms, legs, hands, vertebrae and ribs
Age 26-45, middle adult
Sex female
Stature -
Non-Metric Traits -
Pathology -
Dental Health parts of mandible present; moderate periodontitis; 13/32 teeth; considerable wear; two teeth lost am
  Right Dentition Left Dentition
Present - p - p p p p - - - p p p - - p
Calculus - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
DEH - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Caries - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Wear - 4 - 6 5 5 5 - - - 4 5 - - - 2
Maxilla 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
Mandible 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 1 2 3 4 e 6 7 8
Present - - am am - p - p - p - - p - p -
Calculus - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
DEH - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Caries - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Wear - - - - - 4 - 3 - 4 - - 5 - - -
Skeleton Number F253
Preservation very poor
Completeness 18%; parts of the skull, left humerus, lower arms, femora, tibiae, fibulae and pelvis
Age 46+ mature adult
Sex female
Stature -
Non-Metric Traits -
Pathology -
Dental Health parts of mandible present; 16/32 teeth; moderate to considerable wear; calculus on 5/16 teeth, moderate root resorption
  Right Dentition Left Dentition
Present - - - p - - - - - - p - - - - -
Calculus - - - Sa - - - - - - - - - - - -
DEH - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Caries - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Wear - - - 5 - - - - - - 4 - - - - -
Maxilla 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
Mandible 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 1 2 3 4 e 6 7 8
Present p p - p p p p p p p p p p - p p
Calculus - - - - - Fm - Fa - Fa - - - - - -
DEH - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Caries Mb - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Wear 4 4 - 4 5 4 4 5 5 4 4 5 4 - 7 7


Present - Tooth presence; am - ante-mortem tooth loss; pm - post-mortem tooth loss; p - tooth present; - - jaw not present

Caries - Calculus; F - flecks of calculus; S - slight calculus; M - moderate calculus; H - heavy calculus; a - all surfaces; b - bu February 6, 2004 ; l - lingual surface; o - occlusal surface

DEH - dental enamel hypoplasia; l - lines; g - grooves; p - pits

Caries - caries; s - small lesions; m - moderate lesions; l - large lesions

Wear - dental wear; numbers from 1-8 - slight to severe wear