12 August 2010
Britain's prehistoric funerals
You might never have heard of Irthlingborough, in Northamptonshire (England), but an excavation there revealed some pretty spectacular archaeology: a round burial mound with cremations buried in the sides. Below the cremation burials, there was a lattice of rotted cattle bones, which had been placed on the top of a heaped stone cairn. Below the cairn was a wooden platform, and below the platform was a chamber, with a man's body inside. He was curled up on his side, and was surrounded by grave goods. And along with the 184 cattle heads that had been placed on top of his grave, there was one other addition: the body of an adult male, in a crouched position, placed in a small pit next to the first body.
The Neolithic moves into the Bronze Age in around 2400 BCE, when metalworking first comes to Britain. This is a time of massive cultural change: for starters, they went monument crazy - they built the massive stone rings, beautiful passage graves, huge mounds and of course Stonehenge. By the mid 3rd millennium we also start to find a totally new style of pottery, called Beaker ware. Beakers are most often found in graves, the earliest with adult men, but then increasingly with women and children's burials too. These new style of graves are called Round Barrows, small, circular mounds that cover an individual burial or cremation. Often they got used again to deposit later cremations, but the early Bronze Age is the first time we see individual people getting individual burials.
The Neolithic was all about communal burial - they built Long Barrows, tombs that held the bones of many people, jumbled together, and added to with every generation. These tombs were places where the world of the living met the realm of the ancestors. A fantastic example of a Neolithic tomb is the West Kennet Long Barrow, about twenty five miles from Stonehenge. Constructed in around 3600 BCE, it's within a rectangular mound, 100m long, with ditches on each side. There's a central passageway, with five stone chambers inside. Bodies weren't placed in the tomb whole - instead, the Neolithic farmers followed a process called excarnation, where the bones are defleshed before putting them into the tomb. Only selected bones went into the tomb, and there's an odd shortage of skulls and thigh bones. The ones that you do find in long barrows look worn and polished - which means that they were carefully used for something - perhaps they were taken in and out of the tomb, carried around, and used in rituals in the community.
But then at West Kennet, around 2400 BCE, the decision was taken to fill and block the tomb. After more than a thousand years in existence, the people ritually closed-in the ancient ancestors - they filled the whole tomb with soil and stone, and then rolled three massive sarsen boulders across the front entrance. The archaeology suggests that different local communities brought their own deposits to fill each chamber - a sign of an agreed and systematic process.
Life was changing, and probably the new society was interested in commemorating individual people, not collective ancestors. There was a new way of burying the dead - an exotic, high status style, from the continent. The man in Irthlingborough got it, and so did the most famous Bronze Age burial of them all: The Amesbury Archer. Oxygen isotope testing shows us he grew up in Alps and travelled in the UK as an adult. He'd sustained a serious leg injury, but been well cared for. He was rich and important. And he was buried in his own grave, with all his burial bling, remembered as an individual - with a name, a personal story and a personal grave.
But, as always with prehistoric archaeology, there are sites that appear to break all the rules: The Boscombe Bowmen were discovered in 2003, seven individuals in one grave. The grave contained the bodies of three men, a male teenager and three young children. The oldest man was curled up, with the bodies of two children nestled at his head, with the cremated remains of the third. The skulls of the men were placed at his feet, and their bones were mixed up, both above and below his body. The weird thing is that these bones appear worn, as if they've been used elsewhere first, and the adults' bones have been roughly grouped together by type within the grave. These are features of a Neolithic collective burial, but they've all been placed into one individual's grave - which is typically Bronze Age. And the date? About 2300 BCE. The start of the Bronze Age.
What's clear is that things were changing rapidly, and in many areas of life. Isotope analysis shows that the Boscombe Bowmen grew up in Wales, and we've already identified that the Amesbury Archer was from continental Europe. People, artefacts, and ideas, were moving rapidly. This, is the start of the world of metal, and wealth, and perhaps it marks the rise of the individual.
Source: Heritage Key (5 August 2010)