Birkside Fell Collared Urn

Drawing of the Birkside Fell collared urn.
Source: Reproduced from Tolan-Smith 2005 (p63).
Copyright: C. Tolan-Smith.

Birkside Fell Ring-Cairn

View northwards over the Birkside Fell cairn, after excavation and reinstatement.
Source: P. Frodsham.
Copyright: P. Frodsham.

The Tortie Stone
Original Location: A ring-cairn at Birkside Fell, Blanchland
Current Location: Great North Museum, Newcastle
Theme: Ritual
Period: Bronze Age
Date: c.1850 BC

What is it?
A finely decorated collared urn found during the excavation of a Bronze Age burial cairn in 1996-7.

What is its relevance to the North Pennines?
Although many apparent burial mounds of presumed Bronze Age date are known from the North Pennines, few have been excavated in recent times and subjected to modern scientific analysis. This ring cairn was excavated by Chris Tolan-Smith and colleagues from Newcastle University. The monument consisted of a sub-circular paved area contained within a ring of  loose stone and earth, the containing ring having an inner kerb of large boulders. Two of the boulders in the ring’s southern arc are of white quartz, which may be significant.

The urn was found upright within a pit, sealed beneath the paved surface of the cairn interior. It was off-centre, suggesting that other burials may also have been present, but no further evidence of burials was found during the excavation. The urn is 43cm high and is well decorated with filled triangles on its collar with impressed herring-bone decoration on the upper portion of the body beneath the collar. Within the urn was cremated bone from two adults; one thought to be aged 35-44 and the other 20-40. Due to the nature of the surviving bone, and the way it was all mixed up together, it is not possible to be certain of the sex of each individual, but one of them was apparently a robust male. Combined burials like this are not particularly unusual; they presumably result from two bodies being cremated, perhaps on the same pyre, after which the ashes are gathered up and placed in the urn – it does not seem to have been necessary for the entire cremation to be included, just some of the cremated bone together with charcoal. The reasons why these two people were cremated and their ashes interred here together at Birkside will remain forever a mystery. It is possible that contemporary settlements may survive in the area, but further investigation is needed before we can be sure about this.

Why is it important?
This is a fine example of a collared urn, given extra importance through its associations and accurate dating. Many other such burials are known from northern England, but this is the only known example from this part of the North Pennines.

Further Information
    Text References:
  • Tolan-Smith, C. 2005. A Cairn on Birkside Fell. Excavations in 1996 and 1997. Archaeologia Aeliana 5th Series, Vol. 34 (p55-65).

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