The discovery of 3 cists found within close proximity to one another at Blairbuy Farm in Dumfries and Galloway, southwest Scotland, has intrigued archaeologists. One of the cists contained the burial of a juvenile, while the other two were completely devoid of human remains.

The investigation began in April 2012 after a rectangular stone cist was accidentally damaged by ploughing. Two more cists -one rectangular and one roughly oval in shape-were uncovered during excavation by a GUARD Archaeology team, led by Warren Bailie, which was sent to investigate by Historic Scotland.

Cist 1 contained the remains of a juvenile, placed in a crouch position, facing north with its head resting on the left hand and the right hand placed near the pelvis.According to GUARD Osteoarchaeologist, Iraia Arabaolaza the deceased was nine to twelve years old, too young to determine the sex. Although the cause of death is unknown, it was noted that the child had suffered at least two episodes of malnutrition in its short life, as indicated by dental enamel hypoplasia (DEH) and cribra orbitalia. Radiocarbon dating of the left ulna placed the individual into the early Bronze Age. No evidence of botanical offerings were recovered from the tomb.

Cists 2 and 3 were found empty. Still, samples from all three cists and the surrounding subsoil were tested using multi-element analysis and this demonstrated that the two empty cists had never been used for the burial of human remains, suggesting that they were possibly constructed in anticipation of use, rather than as and when required.

Warren Bailie, who led the archaeological team said, “Perhaps this was a conscious attempt by a group or family related to the young individual who was buried here, to set aside graves in the immediate vicinity for future use.

“The stress indicators on the skeletal remains may be indicative of a wider problem for the community at that time, perhaps a food shortage or onset of disease and this is a possible explanation which may have prompted the preparatory construction of the surplus cists. This implies that the community understood and planned an individual’s burial well in advance of that person’s death.

“The construction of the three cists may also have been a statement of ownership by a group, whereby the cists were constructed and set aside for a family, similar to modern day cemetery burial plots. The fact that the two cists were not used suggests the possibility that the group or individuals they were prepared for may have moved away from the area, or that the positions of the cist were lost due to the lack of permanent markers in the landscape. This may represent rare evidence of the possible movement of groups and the loss or abandonment of ritual sites in an otherwise settled landscape during the Bronze Age period.”

Previous attempts to establish the presence of human remains in empty cists have used phosphate levels alone. As Jennifer Brown, one of the contributors to the Blairbuy report notes, “other studies have found either no signs of phosphate accumulation in grave soils or no conclusive evidence. The Blairbuy results therefore highlight the merit of multi-element analysis and the advantages of using readings from an occupied cist as a signature for comparison with other potential funerary contexts in the proximity. This work also shows that we cannot assume that the construction of the cists we discover is necessarily contemporary with the burial of the bodies contained therein.”