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SCOTLAND - Experts Aghast As Police Disturb Bronze Age Tomb

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« on: March 18, 2009, 08:11:27 pm »

                                   Experts aghast as police disturb Bronze Age tomb

Mike Wade
March 17, 2009

Police officers in northern Scotland have been accused of vandalising a Bronze Age site through ignorance after they removed bones and textiles from the 4,000-year-old burial chamber, apparently because they thought they were investigating a crime scene.

The burial chamber, or cist, was discovered intact, in a field near Oykel Bridge in Sutherland. The area is rich in Bronze Age remains, but this find was of huge importance to archaeologists. Unlike the vast chambered cairns of the earlier Neolithic period, burials from the metal-working people of the Bronze Age are modest affairs with artefacts such as pottery most commonly found.

Inside the cist was a skeleton in the foetal position, an unusual “crouched burial”, and - rarer still - the chamber contained well-preserved items made of woven materials.

Oblivious to the importance of the site - described as unique by one authority - police removed bones and other materials from the grave for forensic analysis, in actions which were described as “clumsy and “incompetent” by critics.

Jonathan Hampton, the farmer and archaeology enthusiast who found the cist in January, had behaved impeccably on making his discovery.

As soon as a mechanical digger pulled back a slab, he realised he was looking into a 4,000-year-old tomb. After punching the air in delight, he secured the site and covered it with a tarpaulin, before contacting National Museums of Scotland and Historic Scotland and, fatefully, notifying the police.

The trouble, however, started late in the afternoon of 29 January,

shortly after police officers arrived at the scene. A constable and a

detective insisted on seeing the burial chamber, recalled Mr Hampton.

“They hummed and hawed and made telephone calls and it all went on for some little time. It was getting dark and I was cold and tired. I eventually asked: ‘What are you going to do?' and they told me they were going to take a couple of photographs. I said that was fine, take them and cover the site up,” he said.

Later, he spoke to the police as they left and was aghast to learn they had interfered with the grave. “It is a pity to lose our heritage like this, it was such an ignorant thing to do,” said Mr Hampton, who also has a 2,000-year-old vitrified fort on his land.

Historic Scotland defended the police actions, and said the force had “an obligation to investigate an unexplained death”, adding that the site was not a scheduled monument, and so was not subject to the heritage organisation's protection.

A spokesman for Northern Constabulary said that all materials had been handed over to Historic Scotland.

“Following consultation with the Procurator Fiscal Service it was agreed the site would be photographed and the visible bones recovered for forensic analysis. Historic Scotland's later involvement in this matter identified further remains at the site as being from a historical burial site,” he said.

The Procurator Fiscal said it was “not immediately obvious in the circumstances and poor lighting” that this was an archaeological site, a statement bitterly contested by Mr Hampton, who said police arrived in daylight. Though the bones have subsequently been handed over to Historic Scotland, the farmer remains adamant that some of the textiles, and basket-like materials have been lost.

While police sources have confirmed that no foul play is suspected, many archaeologists were aghast at the force's behaviour. Jim Crow, Professor of Archaeology at the University of Edinburgh said that a find of textiles in a Bronze Age grave was unique in Scotland and extremely rare anywhere in Britain. The police behaviour seemed “a little incompetent”.

“If they were dealing with a real crime, they shouldn't disturb the scene in any case. But in any circumstances, people take human remains very seriously and there are a whole range of concerns, not just among archaeologists but among society at large. There are very strict procedures, whether the remains are ancient or modern,” Professor Crow said.

One archaeologist who has visited the site condemned the police actions: “From a professional perspective, it is astonishing. Everyone who hears about this incident says, ‘They did what?' They cannot believe the police have been so stupid,” he said.
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