Human remains are frequently discovered in caves, but their primary contexts are often uncertain. Aldhouse-Green et al. (1996), summarizing direct radiocarbon dates for prehistoric human skeletal remains from nine caves in Wales, drew attention to the radiocarbon dates' clustering in the 8th and 5th millennia b.p. The second of these clusters, in the early and middle Neolithic, invites comparison with the observation by Gilks (1973) of numerous depositions of human remains in caves in northern England during the Neolithic. A large sample of direct radiocarbon dates for human bones from caves throughout Britain is currently available, due largely to the research programme of the Oxford AMS radiocarbon laboratory. The purpose of the present contribution is to examine this larger data-set for evidence of clustering in time.
Radiocarbon dates in the time-range 10,000 b.p. to 2000 b.p. were collated for human remains from caves, fissures and rock-shelters in the British Isles. The limiting dates were chosen to exclude Palaeolithic and Romano-British sites respectively, as the burial of human remains in caves is a recognized and well-investigated tradition in those periods (Stringer 1986; Branigan & Dearne 1992). In addition to the sites identified by Aldhouse-Green et al. (1996), an additional 23 Holocene direct dates on prehistoric human remains from caves and fissures are available, mainly from the published Oxford laboratory date-lists (TABLE 1). Where multiple dates are available for a single site, they are grouped as effectively contemporaneous if with a range of less than 400 radiocarbon years. At five sites where multiple radiocarbon dates have a much wider dispersion (Gough's Cave, Kent's Cavern, Mother Grundy's Parlour, Pontnewydd Cave and Robin Hood's Cave) the dates are treated as evidence of separate periods of cave usage for mortuary activities.
The expanded data-set, including the dates from the nine Welsh sites listed by Aldhouse-Green et al. (1996), is given in TABLE 1. These data show a sudden and marked incidence of deposition of human remains in caves after 5000 b.p. which contrasts with the almost complete absence of cave burials during the previous two millennia [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. Ten dates fall between 5035 and 4495 b.p., a period that coincides with the practice of collective inhumation in chambered tombs and earthen long barrows (Kinnes 1992). The frequency of dates seems to decrease after 4500 b.p. (TABLE 1), a phenomenon noted previously by Green (1989), who saw a decline in the number of cave burials reflecting the shift from a tradition of collective inhumation to single-grave burial in the Early Bronze Age. The dates in the 8th millennium b.p. identified by Aldhouse-Green et al. (1996) appear part of a continuous temporal distribution of cave burials that extends back to the beginning of the Holocene.
Does the pattern reflect changes in prehistoric funerary behaviour? There are other explanations. Clusters of uncalibrated radiocarbon dates can occur at 'flat' portions of the radiocarbon calibration curve, but these features have a duration of at most a few hundred years (Stuiver & Pearson 1993); they are unlikely to be responsible for biases on a millennial scale. Have …