Early Bronze Age

Cist Burials at Fatfield

By Audrey Fletcher

It was in 1907 that the Lambton Colliery Company completed building two streets of houses at
Fatfield: Castle Street and Victoria View, each of the two rows consisting of thirty houses.
They were built facing each other with front gardens for vegetables and hens, and a street
down the middle. The land had never previously been built on; it had always been farmland
and part of the Lambton Estate.

The two rows of houses were built in a south-easterly direction, following the lie of the land
which sloped down to the River Wear. To the north-west was a high ridge.
The two rows of houses were built in a
south-easterly direction
Map by R H Jeffreys 1907
Finally the houses were completed and it was time to put in the new street which separated the
two rows of houses. However this was not easy going as there was a hump in the would-be
road which needed to be removed in order to make the road level. It was while this hump in the
the road was a mound or barrow.
The site of the mound and three burial cists
between Castle Street and Victoria View
Map by R H Jeffreys 1907  
The word cist is derived from the Latin “cista” meaning “chest”. In burial practices it is a grave
lined with flat stone slabs. The body, and sometimes grave goods, were placed inside. Finally
another flat stone slab, known as the cap stone, was used as a cover, thus forming a stone
tomb, or cist. The following photo is an example of a cist burial at Ballimenach, Argyll, Scotland.
An example of a cist burial at
Ballimenach, Argyll, Scotland
Courtesy of Archaeological Data Service
The first two cists at Fatfield were hurriedly opened by workmen on October 8th and 9th 1907.
In each case, the cap stone was removed to reveal the sides of the grave lined with single
stone slabs.  When the covering of sand was dispersed the skeleton was exposed.
The workmen thought that they had come upon buried treasure and as a result of their
enthusiasm the contents of the cists were completely broken. The skull from one of the cists
was placed on a wall, but being picked up by children they dropped it, causing it to break into
fragments. By the time
Mr. R.H. Jeffreys came on the scene the bones had been scattered
among interested parties, but he managed to get some of them back. He wrote:
“Amongst them you will find the right parietal and a portion of
(the latter showing the magnum foramen), the upper part of a tibia,
the lower half of a femur, what appear to be portions of a fibula
and a humerus, a meta-tarsal bone, the rounded head of a femur,
two well-preserved teeth, and a few fragments. In this case the
lower jaw also, so I am told, was intact, and a very beautiful
and well-preserved set of teeth was in it.”
Robert Hall Jeffreys was the local Headmaster at the Fatfield Elementary School. He was born
about 1867 and lived at the Fatfield School House with his wife Elizabeth (a retired
headmistress) and their only child, Harold, who was to later become a renowned geophysicist
and statistician.

A pottery vessel found alongside one of the skeletons, was also broken into pieces. The
presence of the pottery vessel in the grave suggests to me that these were
Beaker People.
Beaker People of the Early Bronze Age, often buried their dead with a pottery vessel
alongside them in a cist … and built a mound, or round barrow, over the grave site.
These cist burials were usually reserved for people of high status. AF.
Fortunately some of the pieces of the vessel were given to Mr. Hall, one of the builders. The
unbroken vessel had been described to him by one of the workers.
“The height of the vessel was7 inches, and its diameter 4 inches,
while the thickness of its walls was half an inch. Only its outside has
been thoroughly baked, being reddish brown, while the inside is of
an ordinary dry-clay colour, the interior being black. The figuring
consists of thin parallel lines around the vessel, with thumb-marks
between. These thumb-marks, however, do not produce any definite
design, and are arranged promiscuously, except that they keep in
line with one another.”
The vessel is naive and unaffected, yet I find the thumb-marks on the pottery of particular
interest as they echo the earlier Windmill Hill culture. Could there have been an overlap or
fusion of cultures on the banks of the River Wear at Fatfield? The burial is in the tradition of
the Beaker People but the vessel is reminiscent of an earlier culture.

Mr. Jeffreys sent a full description and sketch of the vessel to Canon Greenwell, who replied
that it was a food vessel, though of poor workmanship and ornamentation. However he did
conclude that the food vessel dated back to the Bronze Age. The Bronze Age is defined as
that period in Britain when the technology of using bronze and copper for tools was introduced
from Europe, replacing stone and flint. The bronze alloy was created by adding molten tin to
molten copper.

Frustratingly the sketch of the vessel is not available.
Castle Street and Victoria View have long gone, to be replaced
by parkland. I have indicated the approximate location of the cist
burials on this aerial view of James Steel Park.
Photo courtesy of Google
There was a third cist, but due to the vandalism of the first two cists its existence was not made
known to the workers and local people. It was on Thursday 7th November 1907 that this cist
was opened before an invited audience from the Antiquarian Society. Mr. Jeffreys wrote:
“The top slab was only about 10 inches below the surface, and was
about 3 feet long by 2 feet wide and 4 inches thick. The interior was
lined with similar stones, each side being formed by two slabs, a long
and a short one, the short ones not being in line with the long ones,
but bending outwards a little, causing the grave to be wider at the foot
than at the head. The ends were closed by narrower stones, and the
bottom had no stone at all. The stones sloped outwards a little from
the bottom to the top, causing the top to be of larger area than the
bottom of the grave, which was about 2 feet in depth.”
Jeffreys considered that the stone lining and covering stone had come from the old quarry
over the burn on the Washington road, two or three hundred yards away.

The following photograph, taken by Mr. Parker Brewis, shows the position of the skeleton after
the covering stone, lining stones and sand had been removed.
Unfortunately the alignment of
the grave was not recorded.
The position of the skeleton in the third cist
which was opened on 7th November 1907
Photo by Mr. Parker Brewis
The skeleton, lying on its right side, head facing forward and in a crouched position with knees
drawn up to the chest is
typical of the Early Bronze Age. It was that of a man about five foot
four inches tall. His cranium was round in shape, as broad as it was long, which Mr. Jeffreys
confirmed typified men of the Bronze Age.
“The cranium, however, was a typically brachy-cephalic one
(round in shape) and as broad as it was long.
This class of skull is typical of the men of the Bronze Age;
their predecessors, the men of the Stone Age, being almost
without exception dolicho-cephalic, or long-headed, like a boat.”
Jeffreys considered the Bronze Age to have begun in Britain around “1500B.C. or 1400B.C.”
and therefore
estimated the Bronze Age man to have lived in “the earlier part of the
Bronze Period say 1,000 B.C.”

However more than a hundred years have passed since Robert Jeffreys recorded his findings,
and during this time the migration of the Bronze Age people from Europe into Britain has been
pushed back as early as 2,750BC. Taking into account the sophisticated burial, yet
unsophisticated pottery, I would suggest “the earlier part of the Bronze Period” to be around
2300BC. As far as I know neither the skeleton nor the pottery has been carbon dated.

Jeffreys also suggested that there was probably a large Early Bronze Age settlement in the
The Relationship of the Early Bronze Age Cists at Fatfield
with the Prehistoric Circles at Mount Pleasant
Photo courtesy of Google
The Fatfield Cist Burials together with my discovery of the
Prehistoric Circles, Banks and Ditches, at Mount Pleasant
is indicative of a large Early Bronze Age settlement in the area.

if the Prehistoric Circles are a Neolithic Henge
there would have been an even earlier culture
settled on the banks of the River Wear at Fatfield. AF.
You are invited to learn more about my discovery of the Prehistoric Circles at Mount Pleasant
by clicking on this link

When I explored the relationship of the Early Bronze Age Cists at Fatfield with the Prehistoric
Circles at Mount Pleasant I discovered that the Cists were on an East - West alignment with the
southern point of the Outer Ditch. However, when I further investigated, I found that the Cists
were also on a SW alignment with Worm Hill. I had already determined that Worm Hill and the
centre of the Bronze Age Circles were on an East – West alignment. Click on the link above.
I wonder, could there be Cist Burials on a SE alignment
from Worm Hill ... lying on the East - West
B D alignment?
Perhaps they lie in someone’s back garden!
Updated 2014


Audrey Fletcher


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