Kirkhaugh cairns

The Kirkhaugh cairns are two, or possibly three, Bronze Age burials located in Kirkhaugh, Northumberland. The two confirmed graves were excavated in 1935 and re-excavated in 2014. The first grave, dubbed Cairn 1, contained grave goods consistent with a high-status metalworker. These included two of the earliest gold ornaments, and one of the earliest bell beakers, known in Britain. The second grave was empty.


Colour photograph of a gold ornament discovered in one of the Kirkhaugh cairns
One of the gold ornaments

The Kirkhaugh cairns were excavated over five days in 1935 by Herbert Maryon,[1] then master of sculpture at Durham University's Armstrong College.[2][3] Maryon was interested in archaeology, frequently carrying out excavations with his students; in a second career, after retiring from Armstrong, he was hired by the British Museum to conserve the objects from the Anglo-Saxon Sutton Hoo ship-burial.[4][5] At Kirkhaugh Maryon was assisted by Joseph William Alderson, carrying out the excavation on 18–21 September, and on 12 October.[1][6]

Upon removal of the turf from the first mound, Maryon found what he described as "a continuous layer of flattish stones" underneath.[1] These were piled on top of each other, and varied in size from several inches in length to two feet; the larger stones weighed between 50 and 100 pounds.[1] Beneath the stones was a mixture of light earth and small stones.[7] No body was found, but near the centre of the cairn, where a body might have been placed, were patches of greasy clay on the rock surface.[7] Also in the centre were found the majority of the grave goods.[8] Maryon described these as a crushed food vessel; "1 gold ear-ring"; "1 flint arrowhead"; "1 flint saw"; "6 worked flakes of flint" ; "2 flint cores, and a number of unworked flakes"; "1 whetstone, or hone"; "1 coarse rubber of sandstone"; "1 rough nodule of glazed ware"; "1 vase or mug handle"; and "a fragment of coarse pottery, a nodule of iron pyrites, and some pieces of charcoal."[9] With the exception of the food vessel, found about four and a half feet from the centre, and some of the charcoal, all of the finds were in the central area about three or four feet in diameter.[8]

The crushed food vessel identified by Maryon has subsequently been termed a bell beaker, and as one of, or perhaps the, earliest type yet found in Britain.[10] What Maryon termed an earring has also been re-identified, as a hair braid;[11] it is one of the oldest metal objects found in the country.[6][12] In 2014, during a re-excavation of the cairns using community volunteers, four boys—two of whom were great-grandsons of Alderson—discovered a matching hair braid.[6][12]