By Geneviève Tellier
BAR Publishing, £39
Review by Susan Greaney
This book is a considerable achievement, being the first time that all available human burials from the middle Neolithic to middle Bronze Age in Wales have been catalogued, analysed, and presented in one volume. Tellier’s comprehensive PhD thesis starts with a succinct overview of the history of Welsh archaeology and a critical history of past approaches. There follows a chronological chapter, which usefully collates the relevant radiocarbon dates, but is the weakest part of the work. Although the study claims to include burials from 3600 BC onwards, a date chosen as the beginning of the use of Impressed Wares in the region, actually all the burials studied date after 3400 BC (which is also a better estimate for this type of pottery). Burials from long barrows, cairns, and portal dolmens are excluded. Although radiocarbon dates on cremations from ten early Bronze Age burial sites are ‘modelled’, there is no detailed description of the samples or the choices made to define the models, with each site represented as a single phase.
The real strength of this study is the osteological investigation, with more than 250 human-bone deposits analysed. The methodology is meticulous and provides a useful model for future work, particularly the analysis of cremations. Scrutiny of the data reveals some interesting results. For example, 22% of the early Bronze Age cremation deposits examined included domestic animal bone. Inhumations from this period are more likely to be adult males, whereas cremations represent all of society. Burials were also analysed in relation to grave goods: for early Bronze Age inhumations, only women were buried with bronze awls, whereas men were accompanied by bronze daggers and knives.
Importantly, the results refute the idea that analysis of prehistoric skeletal material from Wales is of limited value due to high levels of bone destruction from acidic soils. There is therefore much potential for further work on this material, particularly with new techniques of isotopic and DNA analysis. The book will provide invaluable data for comparative use with other current large-scale human burial projects, such as UCL’s ‘The Beaker People’ and ‘Grave Goods’ at Reading.