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Dates on human bone

[This analysis is intended to demonstrate the potential of the database's 'sample material' field it should not be read as a definitive interpretation of the information held in the database.]

Across the study area, over 470 radiocarbon dates have been generated from human bone. Dates on human bone are often used to chart the recolonisation of the country after glacial downturns. In more recent periods, for which human presence in Britain can be assumed, they are better used as evidence for specific burial rites and of modern academic interests.

Number of dates from human bone which potentially relate to each 50 year span from 13000 BC to the present (dates, n = 469; each appears more than once)

Two specimens have produced dates earlier than those shown in the distribution above. The first, The 'Red Lady' of Paviland is a deliberate burial found on the Gower peninsula in 1823 by William Buckland. This skeleton has been dated repeatedly:

1968: BM-374 18460+/-340bp (Oakley 1968).
1989: OxA-1815 26350+/-550bp (Hedges et al 1989).
1998: OxA-8025 25840+/-280bp (Aldhouse-Green and Pettitt 1998).

The 'Red Lady' was dated again in 2007 with considerable press attention reporting a revision of the chronology by over 4,000 years (Oxford University Press Release). At the time of writing, this date has not been published, so the 'Red Lady' is not included within this analysis.

The second, early date on human bone is from Eel Point, on Caldey Island, Pembrokeshire. Three dates have been obtained from this specimen (Schulting et al 2005), two are noted as being possibly contaminated (OxA-11015 and OxA-11543), while the third (OxA-14164 24470+/-110bp) calibrates to between 22745 - 22315 BC. Since this is the only available date prior to 13000 BC it is not included in the chart, in order to focus attention on more recent periods where the concentration of dates occurs.

12700 - 11300 BC: This is the first cluster of human bone dates after the end of the last glacial maximum. It consists of eleven dates from three sites, two in Somerset (Gough's Cave and Sun Hole Cave) and Kendrick's Cave in Gwynedd - although notes attached to some of these dates suggest that contamination might be an issue in some cases. The hiatus at the end of this phase presumably corresponds to the climatic deterioration of the Younger Dryas.

8800 - 4300 BC: There is a surprising peak in the number of radiocarbon dates related to the period around 8300 BC. This peak might, in part, be a consequence of a steepening of the calibration curve in this area, but the important point is that so many Mesolithic 'bodies' have been dated. Indeed, within the study area, the number dated is comparable with the concentration of inhumed bodies dated in the Early Bronze Age (see below). It could be argued that a Mesolithic 'inhumation tradition' was in evidence but it should be noted that nineteen of these dates are derived from a single site (Aveline's Hole, Somerset).

What is more remarkable is the shortage and then absence of human bone dates from 7000 - 4300 BC. This absence has been noted by several authors (Aldhouse-Green et al 1996; Chamberlain 1996) and still holds true ten years after their analyses. It seems unlikely that the hiatus represents a cessation of human occupation in the study area since no clear reason for this can be discerned. But it presumably reflects a decrease in the use of caves as burial sites.

4200 - 2200 BC: The Neolithic practise of inhuming their dead in tombs is amply illustrated through the strong peak in dates around 3650 BC, with a subsequent tailing-off as less-visible burial rites were adopted. Very few remains have been dated to the early part of the third millennium.

2200 - 1650 BC: The prevalance of burial mounds dating to this period is well-known, as is the transition from inhumation to cremation. This transition is well-illustrated with a peak in the number of dated remains between 2150 - 1800 BC and a subsequent slow decline as cremation became the dominant burial rite. This decline in the distribution is a consequence of the historic difficulties in dating cremated remains. It is likely, now that these difficulties have been overcome, that this part of the distribution curve will change significantly.

1650 - 0 BC: Very few human remains have been dated to this period, supporting the widely-held perception that burial rites at this time did not involve deliberate deposition of skeletal remains. But there is an increase in the number of dated remains after 400 BC, albeit derived from just nine sites.

AD 0 - 2000: The rapid rise in the number of dates for the first millennium AD is a consequence of the convenient habit of Christian burial in cemeteries, and the inconvenient habit of omitting datable grave goods with the remains. This has provided both a rich resource for radiocarbon dating, and an archaeological need to use radiocarbon dating to provide chronological resolution.

The decline at the end of this period is presumably a consequence of the growing confidence of archaeologists focusing on recent periods where documentary records can assist in providing chronological resolution.


Aldhouse-Green, S. H. R., Pettitt, P. and Stringer, C. (1996) 'Holocene humans at Pontnewydd and Cae Gronw caves'. Antiquity 70, 444-7.

Aldhouse-Green, S. H. R. and Pettitt, P. (1998) 'Paviland Cave: contextualising the "Red Lady"'. Antiquity 72, 756-72.

Chamberlain, A. T. (1996) 'More dating evidence for human remains in British caves'. Antiquity 70, 950-53.

Hedges, R. E. M., Housley, R. A., Law, I. A. and Bronk Ramsey, C. (1989) 'Radiocarbon dates from the Oxford AMS system: Archaeometry datelist 9'. Archaeometry 31:2, 207-34.

Oakley, K. P. (1968) 'The date of the "Red Lady" of Paviland'. Antiquity 42, 306-7.

Schulting, R. J., Trinkaus, E., Higham, T. F. G., Hedges, R. E. M., Richards, M. P. and Cardy, B. (2005) 'A Mid-Upper Palaeolithic human humerus from Eel Point, South Wales, UK'. Journal of Human Evolution 48, 493-505.