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Monumental function in British Neolithic burial practices
The high-risk rate of survival for the non-megalithic series of Neolithic funerary monuments, recently re-emphasized by Piggott (1973: 34), introduces a further variable into the deductive study of burial practices. In Britain and Europe the overall distribution of monumental forms present both lacunae and a marked preponderance of cairns over earthen mounds which are in ill accord with the known or predicted land-use concentrations of early farmers. The significance of the monumental form might be established through regional comparison in analysis of capacity and achievement, but such efforts can only produce statements persistently qualified by unguessable destruction rates and the high variable of archaeological discovery. However, the assumption that the normal burial form is monumental can be seriously questioned. If wide-scale post-Neolithic erasure of earthen mounds has occurred in the barren areas, like the lowland mass of East Anglia or on the river gravels, then pre sumably these mounds lacked either the quarry ditches almost invariable to the form or substantial timber elements, for these features are markedly absent on the familiar palimpsests revealed by aerial photography. On this point it should be noted that these barren areas, and particularly the alluvial zones, have received more attention from the air than any other specific habitat. Equally, attention might be drawn to the effective absence of any form of mound in much of south-west England, especially in the area of important focal sites such as Hembury and Haldon, a situation which argues for a persistent background of non-monumental burial (pace Powell 1969: 270). Before pursuing the question of the non-monumental component and its corollaries, the possibility of a monumental series to be associated with the developed Neolithic exploitation of alluvial soils should be noted. In both the Avon valley (Webster and Hobley I964) and south-east Essex (Erith 1971), aerial photography has revealed the ditches of narrow sub-rectangular enclosures immediately reminiscent of the form of mortuary enclosure established at Normanton Down (Vatcher I96I). Two examples sited on gravel have been excavated: that at Dorchester appears to have hstentad only an internal bank (Atkinson et al. 195I: 60), but the Charlecote example (Ford I971) seems to have enclosed a long mound. In the monumental tomb regions such enclosing ditches recur at West Rudham and Therfield Heath along the Icknield Way, occurrences perhaps significant for the East Anglian lacuna. Even if these examples are acceptable as being in the full Neolithic tradition and of monumental status, they still fail to provide any sense of an overall and consistent practice. Within the known monumental forms two observable situations are relevant. At several sites, such as Dalladies and Thickthorn (Piggott 1973; Drew and Piggott I936), substantial mortuary structures have yielded little or no evidence of burials. At others, notably West Kennet, selective bone removal has been inferred (Piggott I962). Ancestor worship has been invoked in explanation (Brothwell I96I: 305-6; Smith 1965: I37), the implicit assumption being that tombs are so intrinsically important in a then-as-now situation that removal can only have been for reasons of overriding, and perhaps only occasional, ritual. It may be that a place of temporary storage, whether properly transient or arrested, has been regarded as the place of burial. Even in monu mental aspects the chamber could therefore represent only one, perhaps not invariable, stage in a prolonged process. It is even possible that preservation and utilization, in the broadest sense, of the skeletal remains are the norm, and that burial, in the sense of disposal, has been wrongly invoked in place of permanent or arrested temporary storage. It seems reasonable to see monumental mound function as distinct in long-term intent from that of the burial area proper. Such separation provides an explanation for the visible phasing of NM (non-megalithic) structures such as Nutbane, with its succession of free-standing enclosure elements (Morgan I959), and for the non-existent or vestigial mounds associated with presumptive early forms in the megalithic series, notably those of the portal dolmen series. Equally, the final imposition of long mounds on pre-existing structures, apparently demonstrated on sites such as those at Mid Gleniron (Corcoran I970), can be rationalized without resort to a reanimation of moribund typologies. The assertion that the monumental aspect represents only an occasional final practice of discrete function leads to doubts as to the accuracy of comparative size as an index of importance in terms of call on the energy budget (Fleming 1973). The familiar dichotomy of mound-size versus funerary area might provide some clue. If mound-size and location is an expression of social and territorial cohesion as an identifiable 'central place' within the local polity, should this intent be given interpretative primacy over that of housing the dead? Archaeological technique may be incapable of testing any such difference, although the erstwhile cenotaphs, such as South Street and Beckhampton Road (Smith and Evans I968), may suggest otherwise. The background for basic structural elements is now emerging in a form capable of rationalization. The development of early agricultural society in Britain is essentially insular, but its origins are continental. It remains questionable whether the earlier phases of agricultural colonization have been identified on any broad basis, but the evidence increasingly demonstrates a mid- to earlier fourth millennium B.C. date for the begin nings of this process. The north-west European situation at this time presents the emergence, by a process of regional adjustment and crystallization, of the ci-devant Western Neolithic cultures, in particular the discrete zones of the TRB, Michelsberg and Chassey groups. These are the fruition of the colonizing mode inherent in any development of the dynamic but restricted Bandkeramik of five hundred years before. Fundamentally a progressive uptake of preferred lands, the situation suffers in our understanding by lack of adequate knowledge of the intervening period, vaguely expressed by the Roessen group. It is clear, if only by radiocarbon chronology, that the colonization of the British Isles is an integral part of Western Neolithic formation. The search for direct material parallels to the British Bowl cultures in analogous groups of equally obscure derivation seems foredoomed. In terms of burial practices the immediate need is to provide a reason and genealogy for the practice of chamber or enclosed-space interment which above all defines Western Neolithic custom. A functionally plausible antecedent has been identified in the Band keramik, a logical source for the bases of Western belief and practice. Among the flat graves in cemeteries such as that at Elsloo, some involve enclosed-space interment, being pits lined and roofed with timber or brushwood. Their final infill with occupation debris from adjacent settlements is of interest for subsequent situations. The Roessen evidence reveals neither perpetuation nor rejection of this mode, and its full realization is not apparent before the next phase. Here, the range of simple chambers across the North European plain is essentially parallel to the insular pattern. The basic box form is reproduced in a variety of techniques normal to a prosperous peasant system, as timber, orthostatic or dry stone structures set above or below ground. Frequently a long mound provides a final monumental aspect, a form whose ancestry is vital to the resolution of insular problems. The ground plans, and probably the elevation of Bandkeramik long houses, provide a direct structural affinity, and the later emphasis of the domestic division to provide a trapezoid outline seems yet more specific, but aggrandisement of the functional end of long mounds could represent no more than a parallel development. These tombs may be broadly defined in three main groups. The simplest, and probably earliest, of the Baltic dysser are set within minimal round mounds whose prime function could be little more than that of structural support. An emergent series of sites lacks mound cover, being simple timber structures or trench-graves such as Konens Hoj and Bonnieres (Sturup I965; Basse de Menorval 1953). The recent discovery of two such structures beneath a single long mound, with a third nearby, at Lindebjerg is worthy of note and recalls the multiple arrangement at sites such as Bondesgarde (Becker I966) where the monumental aspect is lacking. The third group, distinguished by a long or trapezoid mound, seems attributable to a desire for monumental emphasis within a form sanctioned by cultural tradition. Long-houses are notoriously absent in Neolithic Britain, but it should be remembered that by this time they were effectively obsolete on the continent; the long mound concept seems to be part of the basic body of imported tradition. The details of the agricultural colonization of Britain are unknown, and its process a matter of conjecture. The initial period of adjustment is unlikely to have seen the con struction of monumental tombs, but the simple post-framed or box form may well have been an integral feature. The available evidence indicates two broadly distinct spheres of cultural adaptation: eastern Britain and the Irish Sea region. In the latter the earliest demonstrable form is a simple orthostatic box beneath a small or minimal round cairn, a form unfortunately named 'proto-megalithic' in the Clyde province (Scott i969: i8i). Further south the evidence from Dyffryn Ardudwy (Powell 1973) suggests that the portal dolmen is a prime component in the formation of a functional and taxonomic style. In the eastern province the precise form of chamber has recently been a matter of great contention. The published interpretation of the structure at Wayland's Smithy i (Atkinson I965) has lead to the identification, notably by Ashbee (1966; 1970), of linear spacings of pits or postholes as the remains of substantial pitched-roofed buildings (Ashbee 1970, fig. 34). Objections to such an all-embracing view have been frequently voiced and need no general reiteration here (Simpson 1968; Ashbee and Simpson I969; Kinnes 1970). The recurring characteristics in the NM series is the provision of flanking banks to a narrow burial zone, itself segmented by axial pits or postholes. A simpler reconstruction might therefore be substituted. It could be objected that the east-west distinction is artificial and based on the differential preservation of stone and organic structures, but the demonstrable occurrence of both structural methods on the same site, at both Wayland's Smithy and Lochhill (Atkinson I965; Masters I973), argues for some genuine differentiation. There is a clear basic identity of function, but it seems that the durable nature of stone constructions is likely to enable or dictate divergences of function (and presumably ritual) on the basis provision as support for more elaborate superstructures. of longer accessibility to the chamber and the increasing necessity for immediate cairn ruined tombs, there has recently been a wide acceptance of multi-period hypotheses, On the evidence of a few excavations, and the interpretation of unexcavated and even providing a new rationale for old typologies (Scott I969, fig. 75). The evidence for long term usage and internal remodelling seen in timber structures at sites such as Nutbane and Aldwincle (Morgan I959; Kinnes and Jackson 1971) has not been seen as analogous to the situation of the stone chambers, and the net result for the state of tomb studies has been at the least obscurantist. A simple scheme of modular manipulation according to need and intent forms a plausible alternative to linear taxonomy qua typology. By utilizing a basic box form in three grouping patterns - linear, dispersed and agglomerate - the forms of insular tombs can be reproduced without the invocation of sub-Darwinian principles of evolution and reversion (fig. 7). An examination of the evidence for multi-period tombs leaves no necessity to resort for an explanation to successive waves of cultural influence. In most cases the acceptance of an original free standing phase for the chamber element would be sufficient (figs 8-Io). The closed chambers within Hedon Howe (Mortimer i905: 346-50), Nicholaston (Williams 1940), and West Woods (Passmore 1924) can be immediately linked to the elements at Notgrove (Clifford I936), and possibly Belas Knap (Lawrence et al. I867) and Tinkinswood (Ward I915; 1916). Were these of timber construction there would be no difficulty in their incorporation into the series of 'open' structures seen at sites such as Nutbane, Aldwincle and Whiteleaf (Childe and Smith I954). By extension the original features of the monuments at Balvraid, Achnacreebeag (Corcoran I972: 34-5, 36-8), Mid Gleniron and Dyffryn Ardudwy could be visualized as effectively free-standing, either set from the beginning in vestigial round cairns or equipped with such in the course of the construction of their final monumental aspect. The existence at Dyffryn Ardudwy of a forecourt with a central pit containing pottery suggests that extra focal elements might sometimes be an intrinsic part of the design, a situation broadly repeated at Nicholaston. The area was not, however, separately infilled, but covered by material uniform with the rest of the enclosing oval cairn, indicating that the whole of this latter is a later addition. Free-standing fa9ades are of course familiar within the NM series, as has recently been demonstrated at Lochhill, and comparable fore-buildings, as at Fussell's Lodge (Ashbee 1966), are not infrequent. The remaining multi-period example, at Tuloch an t-Sionnaich (Corcoran 1966), is exceptional in that the secondary long cairn has no chamber element, and in interpretation cannot be regarded as having had any burial function. It might be readily compared to the complex, albeit single-period, long mounds at South Street and Beckhampton Road, and, if speculations on unexcavated sites are acceptable, to the Scottish examples cited by Henshall (I972: 20-6). In these instances the function of the long cairn must be linked to roles elsewhere. In fact these instances demonstrate that it is not a matter of single, but of multiple function, and that in the 'normal' sites the cairn is not simply a supporting or enclosing structure of traditional form. The evidence from Kilham (Manby I97I) shows that both mound and free-standing chamber can form contemporary elements within the planned re-modelling of a tomb. Here, the distal part of the timber enclosure was infilled first, the proximal (burial) area being left uncovered until the end of funerary usage. The implications for multi-period explanations are obvious, and re-emphasize the individual but connected roles of monumental tomb components. A comparable situation may well have existed at East Heslerton (Vatcher i965). Before pursuing the resolution of these observations, some attempt should be made to place the monumental aspect in perspective. Tombs marked in this fashion have naturally been most prominent in the archaeological record, but the existence of many more undiscovered sites must be accepted. The lesson of the accidental discovery of critically important examples such as Stein, Konens Hoj and Bonnieres should not be forgotten. The first two were: discovered in the course of the excavation of known settlement sites, the third in quarrying. In each instance recording was due only to the presence of archaeologists at the time of discovery, the nature of these structures being such that little or nothing is likely to be noticed by untrained eyes. A review of the evidence for 'flat graves' in Britain shows that most consist of simple pits, but a site at Hartburn, Northumberland, is of more interest. Although undated, and regarded by its excavator as possibly Anglian (Greenwell 1877: 435), there are structural features which recall Neolithic practice in the provision of a rectangular stone setting and a trench which may well have held one or more timber uprights (fig. I ). It is questionable whether some currently free-standing stone chambers were formerly covered by cairns. Of a total of I 8 recorded chambers in north and west Wales, a figure which includes a number of ruined or destroyed sites excluded from consideration in this context, fifteen sites have no trace of a cairn. Among these latter the surviving structure ranges from substantial forms, like that at Longhouse, to improvised versions like the King's Quoit (Daniel 1950: figs 9 and 203); they tend to be of impressive aspect by reason of sheer size and/or dominant location. The likelihood that many if not all of the portal dolmen series were effectively free-standing underlines this observation. In these instances the aspect of the tomb itself must be accounted of sufficient impact to obviate any necessity for a further monumental element provided by a massive cairn. It is clear that in many instances long cairns are integral with the chambers which they enclose and support, a situation capable of easy demonstration, for example, when the stability of corbelled roof structures depends on interbonding with cairn material. Equally, in the Severn-Cotswold province, only eight chambers out of fifty-seven are markedly divergent in opening westwards, and in all cases this orientation is determined by their lateral siting in long cairns set to the north or north-east. In such instances this combination of function and intent in the immediate provision of the monumental cairn element would support two prime contentions: that the final addition of a large mound to original free-standing elements is part of a planned long-term concept, and that basic differences of constructional material will dictate functional - and hence perhaps ritual-changes in use. Further, there is reason to believe that function becomes ritual in the sense that the superficial appearance of 'multi-period' construction might be reproduced in an integral monument. The excavated sites at Sales Lot (O'Neil I966) and Bryn yr Hen Bobl (Hemp I935) both appear as round mounds with long tails, but were of single construction. An attempt has been made thus far to assess the relative roles of burial place and monumental marker in the context of cultural tradition. In social terms, analysis of the burial deposits proper provides a context for this assessment. The raw statistics of number, age and sex of individuals represented in these deposits must inevitably be qualified by the unreliability of the evidence from early excavations, but a broad outline can be provided. For the NM long barrow series between 3II and 319 individuals are recorded from 53 sites out of a known total of 265. The overall proportion of adults to children is I8I/6 : 51/2, and is obviously not a genuine reflection of the rate of infant mortality, particularly since twenty-two of these children are accounted for by one site. I966). The proportion of identified male : female is roughly even at 45: 37, although the deposits at Wor Barrow, Raiset Pike and Crosby Garrett CLXXIV appear to have been of adult males only. This broad representation indicates that the burial privilege was not restricted by age or sex, and seems likely to have been a dynastic right. As Atkinson (I968) has demonstrated, using an acceptable 40% mortality rate, the average tomb represents interment for a basic family unit of six for no more than three generations. These figures derive from exactly one-fifth of the known sites. Assuming a minimum figure for the timespan during which NM long barrows were constructed, a basic unit would be responsible for sixteen constructions in c. Iooo years, a calculation which suggests a population of c. 80 individuals at any one time. Modification to an exponential curve, to allow for population expansion, can hardly accept more than 250 as the maximum population which would have been responsible for all documented activities during one millennium over c. 60% of the available area of England. Comparison can be made with the figures for tombs in the Severn-Cotswold province. Reasonable evidence exists for 36 sites out of a total of about I80. The average number of individuals per site is c. 17, the range being 1-5I. The different types of chamber arrangement show a remarkably consistent pattern: terminal, transepted, lateral and transverse all average c. 17, indicating that an increased number of chambers or enlarge ment of the floor area involves no significant extension of the burial privilege, but rather a diversification of deposit. At both Lugbury and Ascott under Wychwood (Thurnam 1856; Selkirk I971) one compartment was empty, which might suggest a reservation for a particular group not fulfilled before the completion of use. The total population over one millennium in this region would be c. 3000 individuals, or, if an equivalent number of tombs was in use at any given time, an annual mortality of three individuals or a popula tion of c. io, exponentially not more than c. ioo. Again the burial privilege appears restricted to a specific group, and a basic unit of six could see the completion of the average deposit in not more than nine generations. These figures provide some support for contentions as to the relative timespan of usage allowed by the constructional forms of NM and stone-built tombs. In both instances the population figures seem far too low and those interred in this fashion must be only part of a larger system. The communal work and maintenance involved in these monumental undertakings would indicate that these individuals were socially dominant and the 'simple peasant' organizations which are a tenet of British archaeological thought must yield to a more hierarchical concept. The continental background of at least two millennia of evolution in peasant systems has more relevance in this respect than insular judgements based on equations of material culture and social organization. If this hierarchy is accompanied by the expected patterns of land tenure, additional force is given to suggestions that tomb siting might be related to the bounds of the con temporary uptake. Failure to assess this as a normal pattern might well be due to a palimpsest situation, since such boundaries will inevitably change in accordance with the movement of settlements or tenure reorganization. The sarsen boulders incorporated in mounds, for example at Wayland's Smithy and Lambourn, seem likely to be derived from agricultural clearance and might well lie at a contemporary margin. The South Street mound sited on previously cultivated land, and those at Ascott under Wychwood, and Bryn yr Hen Bobl over disused settlements, are situations which indicate some change of land-holdings. The monumental mound might thus be regarded as a direct function of a hierarchical system with its concomitant tenure patterns and powers of coercion for communal effort. The fact that it is not invariable within insular Neolithic society suggests that its ultimate role was that of central place within the local polity, a role which might elsewhere be fulfilled by other constructions or by chosen natural features. On this latter point the limitations of archaeological techniques become apparent. The tombs themselves are the physical result of motives and stimuli of which no account survives, and which were tempered by an interplay of transient social and environmental influences. Against this background it is necessary to provide explanations for observed features which are a function of engineering intent and skill, and less certainly, of cultural tradi tion. If the material evidence itself is subject to such qualifications, then models of intellectual reconstruction can only remain highly conditional, and the foregoing is offered subject to these reservations.
Equally, attention might be drawn to the effective absence of
any form of mound in much of south-west England, especially in the
area of important focal sites such as Hembury and Haldon, a
situation which argues for a persistent background of
The recent discovery of two such structures beneath a single long mound, with a third nearby, at Lindebjerg is worthy of note and recalls the multiple arrangement at sites such as Bondesgarde where the monumental aspect is lacking.
Of a total of I 8 recorded chambers in north and west Wales, a figure which includes a number of ruined or destroyed sites excluded from consideration in this context, fifteen sites have no trace of a cairn.
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