Difficult individuals (Archaeology of People) Part 2

Individuals on the Great Hungarian Plain: Early Neolithic to Early Copper Age

Here I will use the regional evidence to try to document changes in the way individuals were represented. Though the overall interpretation is difficult, at least it should be clear that individualism in the sense discussed above was not static, timeless or universal. Not only is the archaeological record of the region exceptionally abundant, it also offers an unusual combination: a series of individual burials, and a series of representations of the human form, including the face, through a well-documented sequence, which offers a good sense of changing context (Sherratt 1982a; 1982b; 1983; Chapman 1997b; 1997c).2

In the Koros culture, from about 6000-5500 BC, people were dispersed through the river systems of the southern part of the Great Hungarian Plain.We do not know whether these were immigrants or indigenous people, although, whatever their descent, they were in a real sense colonisers, since the area seems to have been at best little visited in the preceding millennia. The lifestyle certainly involved a range of new practices, but even if the population migrated in, in a filtered or piecemeal kind of way from the south, it is not clear that the presence of domesticated animals or cereals necessarily engaged people in a wholly sedentary existence. Site stratigraphies are thin, and few substantial structures have been found. The overwhelming majority of sites are found alongside water, in the active river courses, in the alluvial deltas fringing these, and in the older but still wet alluvial deltas and meanders of the late Pleistocene landscape. The vast majority of occupied locations were strung along ridges and levees overlooking water, some of these linear spreads being extensive, but it seems in most cases that the unit of occupation in use at any one time was quite small. We do not yet know whether places were occupied year-round, though some may have been, and we do not know the absolute length of time over which places were used, whether seasonally or permanently. It has been suggested that places became ‘timemarks’ rather later in this sequence (Chapman 1997c), but it is possible that even short-lived or seasonally occupied locations acquired significant symbolic charge. Though maps of the situation which represent ‘sites’ as single dots appear to present a populous landscape, it may be that the situation involved a scattered population, with much coming and going, in repetitive and structured ways.


Pottery was used in abundance in these locations, from fine-ware bowls to large jars presumably for storage. The larger vessels are quite profusely decorated with incised, impressed and applied decoration, together with surface alterations, but it has been classically difficult to find clear evidence of chronological development in this, and it does not seem that this material culture was being used to mark strong difference, either between sites or areas, or with neighbouring cultural areas (such as the northern Starcevo or Cri§ cultures, to the south and east respectively). This seems compatible with a landscape of some movement and fluidity. Part of the abundant use of fired clay is a series of anthropomorphic figurines, though we know little of the circumstances in which they were made or used, since they normally occur as fragments in infilled pits and other contexts. Though this circumstance may imply a process of enchainment between people (M. Strathern 1988; Chapman 2000a), and while there are unresolved issues of whether these figurines represent ancestors, spirits, forebears or other known or remembered individuals,my interest here is in the nature of representation. The great majority are of female form, indicated by modelling and delineation, admittedly often schematic, of large backsides, pubic triangles and breasts. The great majority also have to our eyes rather anonymous, featureless faces, with nose, eyes and sometimes mouth (hair is also sometimes delineated) summarily executed. This may raise the issue of whether masks are being represented (cf. Seip 1999). Many figurines have elongated necks, and variations of this style of ‘rod-headed’ figurines extend far south into the Balkans and Greece. It has been suggested that such Greek figurines are sexually ambiguous, since in profile they also appear strongly phallic (Kokkinidou and Nikolaidou 1997). This seems to apply also in the Starcevo and Koros cultures. Whatever the figurines may ultimately signify, it is striking that they take human form and that further they seem to offer a fundamental ambiguity to do with female and male gender. By contrast, slightly earlier representations in the region, belonging to local populations in the Danube Gorges, were of a combination of human and fish-like creatures, without sexual characteristics.

Burials are also a feature of many sites (Trogmayer 1969; Chapman 1994). These are mainly simple individual graves, some barely cut into the subsoil, with varied body positions, and minimal or no grave goods; some instances of partial bodies are known, and stray bones also occur in occupation deposits and pits. So far, no separate burial grounds have been found, and graves or burials occur mainly on the edges of occupied areas; a couple are known inside burnt houses or structures. It has been suggested that deaths may have been one cause of settlement relocation (Chapman 1994). Strikingly, the majority of Koros culture burials are of women and children. Men were presumably disposed of somewhere out in the landscape.

Can we link these features to obtain some sense of personal identity and self at this time, but at the same time avoiding a characterisation that comes too close to offering what used to be called in social anthropology the personality of a culture (e.g. Benedict 1934; Kuper 1999, 66—7, 124—5)? There is both fluidity and structure in the landscape, comings and goings and yet also places regularly used and some perhaps permanently recognised. There is some sign of gender differentiation in mortuary ritual, and considerable sexual ambiguity in the representation of the human form. Of the possession of individual agency there is no doubt, but we could suggest that individuals themselves had some of these characteristics. The individual may on the one hand have been independent, flexible, partly mobile, able to detach herself or himself from particular situations and relationships and to join others, but on the other hand anonymous in the sense of being able to merge into larger wholes, male and female defined in relation to each other only in certain circumstances, notably the dissolution of death.

Things did not stay the same in the next five hundred years (down to about 5000 BC or soon after), though there was much that is still familiar. For a start the Linear Pottery culture of the Great Plain or AVK3 extended the distribution of settlement right across the Plain to its northern limits (Kalicz and Makkay 1977), and there is evidence for clearance in the woodlands of the hills beyond (A. Gardner 1999), and for contact with populations in the hills seen in continued raw material exchanges. According to surface survey data, many AVK occupations were more dispersed and perhaps smaller, though basically still strongly riverine. Little more is known in detail of AVK settlement structure than that of the Koros culture. Recent motorway excavations in the north of the Plain have, however, shown the existence of longhouses at Fuzesabony-Gubakut (Domboroczki 1997). These are substantial structures up to nearly 30 m long, though they have three main rows of posts rather than the usual five of the classic LBK construction. In another instance revealed by the motorway project nearby, at Mezokovesd-Mocsolyas, there were also house or structure remains, from 9 by 12 m to 7 by 12 m in extent, defined not by postholes but by spreads of burnt wall daub (Kalicz and Koos 1997). The site at Mezokovesd-Mocsolyas belongs to the earliest AVK and might be seen as both traditional and transitional, but there is also the possibility that large longhouses were known mainly in the north of the Plain, closer to the area of the classic LBK in Transdanubia and areas to the north. On the basis of present evidence (which includes excavations of much smaller extent than in the northern motorway project), larger buildings only appear to the south in the late AVK Szakalhat phase.

A striking feature of both the Fuzesabony-Gubakut and Mezokovesd-Mocsolyas sites are the abundant anthropomorphic and perhaps zoomorphic figurines (Figure 3.1). These still involve, to our eyes, rather anonymous faces, with triangular heads and schematically modelled eyes, nose and mouth. Some were part of small flat figurines, others certainly part of footed models resembling animals. It is not always clear whether the face on these creatures is human or animal. Other such figurines are known over the broader distribution of the AVK across the Plain, but the considerable majority appear to come from the northern part of the Plain (Kalicz and Makkay 1977, fig. 4). As with other AVK sites, both Fuzesabony-Gubakut and Mezokovesd-Mocsolyas have simple burials. At Fuzesabony-Gubakut these were barely cut into the ground, with children most numerous, but with men better represented among the adults than was normally the case in the Koros culture. Beads, including of Spondylus, and a pot in one case, constituted the grave goods (Domboroczki 1997). At Mezokovesd-Mocsolyas, a larger number of burials lay in a semi-circle around the structures, some with beads and bracelets, and in three cases out of 25, a pot (Kalicz and Koos 1997).

Less is known of burial rites in the Szakalhat phase to the south, but another striking development is the appearance of quite large pots with human faces incised and partly modelled on their upper parts. One of the best examples is a group of at least twenty-two such vessels from a (?deliberately) burnt house at Battonya, with which were also found models of human feet (Goldman 1978).

Representations of human faces in the Neolithic sequence of the Great Hungarian Plain: parts of vessels from the AVK site of Fuzesabony-Gubakut.

Figure 3.1 Representations of human faces in the Neolithic sequence of the Great Hungarian Plain: parts of vessels from the AVK site of Fuzesabony-Gubakut.

These faces have sharper delineation of eyes, nose and mouth, and some rendering of ears and hair. A prominent M-motif under the face is a recurrent feature, which has been taken as a female signifier (Goldman 1978; Pavlu 1966).

The extent of change compared to the Koros culture is still unclear, but there are intriguing possibilities.It is possible that the dispersal and size of AVK occupations indicate a greater degree of short-term sedentism, and this may have been reinforced by the appearance of larger houses, at differing times in different parts of the Plain. As part of this, there was a continued and perhaps heightened interest in human appearance, a possible blurring of human and animal identity, some emphasis on child burials, and at least in the south, some possible attention to gender or sexual difference. Individuals could perhaps still come and go as before, but changing circumstances began to define slightly differing senses of identity, and perhaps vice versa.

In the next five hundred years on the Plain (from c. 5000-4500 BC: the Late Neolithic or Tisza and other cultures), the context was varied. Much research has concentrated on tells or mounds which became now a feature of parts of the landscape. These were in fact, however, not very numerous (Chapman 2000a, 155). They were hardly uniform in either distribution or formation, being more frequent in some eastern parts of the Plain and almost absent in others, and varying in height, extent and rate of formation (Raczky 1987a). Tells varied in character, from some of the lower and broader examples further south, in which there were discernible shifts of focus through time, to the small conical tells of the eastern Herpaly group, to the northerly ditched roundel of Csoszhalom, tell-like and with some occupation on the mound, but accompanied by a large open settlement a little distance away (Raczky 1987a; Raczky et al. 1994; 1997a). Some of these sites may have been deliberately planned ‘timemarks’ which drew on an ideology of deep ancestral time, the aim of a deliberate strategy carried out by limited local interest groups (Chapman 1997b; 1997c), rather than part of a grand plan to manage plains-fringes relationships including flows of goods and cattle (Sherratt 1982a; cf. Shanks and Tilley 1987, 37-41). However, it is also possible that some of the mounds in question were rather more the outcome of social practices than a predetermined effect, the unplanned result of prolonged occupation of one place: in itself hardly a new development. There were also plenty of ‘flat’ sites in the landscape, from smaller to larger, as at Kiskore-Damm in the upper Tisza valley, a little to the south of Fuzesabony (Raczky et al. 1994, color table III; Korek 1989; Chapman 2000a). Well-constructed buildings have been found in greater abundance in this phase, both in tells and flat sites, probably to be connected with a greater degree of permanent occupation. Houses seem not to be markedly differentiated by size or contents (the latter now including rich assemblages of decorated pottery and figurines). Cattle became the most important animal. There were flows of exchange within the plain and with the fringing highland, involving perhaps both animals and material valuables (Sherratt 1982a).

The dead were again present among the living. There are many instances of burials in between (as well as occasionally under) houses. The dead buried in such contexts were generally given only a few more marks of individual identity, largely in the form of necklaces, strings of beads around the middle, and bracelets. In the case of the rather isolated tell at Veszto-Magor, south of the Koros river, the number of grave goods appears to have increased in later phases of occupation (Hegedus and Makkay 1987, 99). This kind of treatment can be seen in both tell and flat sites. The dead were given more careful treatment to the extent that coffins now appear in many instances, for example at Veszto-Magor. There are signs of small groups, both within tells as at Ocsod, another isolated tell south of the Koros river (Raczky 1987b), and Veszto-Magor, and on flat sites, such as Kiskore-Damm. These could perhaps be seen as family or kin groups but this is difficult to substantiate. There are again adults of both sexes in roughly equal numbers, in many cases with little to strongly differentiate them in terms of grave goods, or body position. In the settlement beside the tell at Polgar-Csoszhalom-dulo, however, the most northerly on the Plain, men were normally found on their right sides and women on their left, and men’s graves can be distinguished by the provision of stone axes, boar mandibles or boar tusk plates, and women’s by strings of beads around their middle, as well as in the area of the head, perhaps from having been part of hair ornamentation (Raczky et al. 1997a). In the case of Berettyoujfalu-Herpaly, by contrast, in the easternmost part of the Plain, the great majority of the burials were of children (Kalicz and Raczky 1984). The overall picture is one of considerable variation.

Anthropomorphic vessels, vessel attachments and figurines were part of a rich material culture. Their forms were now very varied, from the striking sitting figurines (male as well as female) of sites like Hodmezovasarhely-Kokenydomb, Veszto-Magor and Szegvar-Tuzkoves (Razcky 1987a), some of which are really vessels as well as figurines, to the much more modest small figurines of a site like Berettyoujfalu-Herpaly (Kalicz and Raczky 1987, 206—8). Faces are still to our eyes anonymous, and many of the vessels seem to have no head as such, which might have been provided by some organic attachment or addition. There are both identifiably female and male figurines, and some whose sex is ambiguous. It remains dangerous to try to read off identities from these representations, but their very diversity, compared with earlier times, might speak in a general way for a greater sense of individualism.

Neither figurines nor anthropomorphic vessels were placed in graves. It remains unclear in this phase whether they should be seen as ancestors, spirits, forebears or particular individuals. There is perhaps a greater sense of identity being defined in relation to particular places and social groupings, the presence of the dead reinforcing the importance of place. If at least some figurines represented an ancestral domain, there would have been differing presences, of the ancestors and other spirits among the living in the form of material objects, and the known, remembered dead forming a defined community at least in the dissolution of death.

There was both continuity and slow change in this phase. Tells did not emerge overnight, and are barely characteristic of the plain as a whole. Some of their occupants may not have been present on them all the time. People may have attended to their landscapes in very similar ways to their predecessors, though with cattle now becoming the animal of dominant concern. Individuals continued to belong to groups which had a concern for descent and belonging. But things were hardly exactly as before. Individual places were picked out for special occupation (cf. Chapman 1997c), and the business of living in closely spaced houses, even if only for seasons or for short runs of years, must have affected individuals in new ways; the effect, however, at least in specific places and at specific times, may have been to constrain individual action, at a time when figurines and burials might suggest greater individualism. The individual remains partly shadowy – or flexible and mobile – but is also now more tied to particular settings and perhaps roles.

Around the middle of the fifth millennium BC the pattern alters again, and many of those sites with previously prolonged reoccupations were now either abandoned or much less intensively used. From the Early Copper Age Tiszapolgar culture through to the Late Copper Age Baden culture, there seems to have been a long phase again of dispersal of small sites across the landscape. In the Tiszapolgar culture phase (c. 4500-4000 BC), just at the point when certain sites or groups could have created or reinforced preeminence, few tells remained in occupation. The break was not immediate. There were proto-Tiszapolgar burials at Hodmezo’vasarhely-Gorzsa (Horvath 1987) and Tiszapolgar burials at Veszto-Magor. The population seems mainly to have been dispersed once more in scattered small units and the social aggregations represented by the anyway far from common tells were replaced by something else. Now the public collectivity is represented by burial grounds, set apart from settlements or occupations; the classic but probably atypical example is Tiszapolgar-Basatanya itself in the north of the Plain near the Tisza river (Bognar-Kutzian 1963; 1972). Once again, this shift had been prefigured in the preceding phase; some of the burials at Berettyoujfalu-Herpaly, for example (Kalicz and Raczky 1987), had been placed at a distance from the tell. While it has been suggested that competing limited interest groups would actively have sought new ways of promoting themselves, and would thus have sought to make displays in this period through mortuary rites separate from occupations (Chapman 1997b), other explanations may apply. The costs of maintaining tell existence may have become too high (cf. Bogucki 1996), in social as well as economic terms. In another context, among the Foi of Papua New Guinea, considerable tension from the demands of close communal living has been recorded, to be contrasted with the greater freedom of more independent existence (J.F. Weiner 1991, 78). The flow of materials and goods through tells and open sites in this period (cf. Sherratt 1982a, fig. 2.5) might have produced tensions at odds with an otherwise communal ethos (cf. Hagen 1999), to be resolved once more by fission among the living. There are burial grounds of varying sizes, the smaller ones perhaps serving more local populations than the largest example, Tiszapolgar-Basatanya itself (Bognar-Kutzian 1963); the northerly position of that site in relation to flows of copper into the plain may have been significant (Sherratt 1982a). While some sites therefore may have had a greater range of artefacts at them, and been longer-lived, there is little other sign of differentiation within the length and breadth of the plain (Bognar-Kutzian 1972). Burial grounds both large and small seem to promote an ideology of commonality, now prolonged among the close community of the dead after its practice among the aggregations of the living on tells and large open sites in the preceding Tisza phase.

Not all Tiszapolgar mortuary rites were identical. Nor was the situation necessarily static. In the Early Copper Age some of the richest sites may have been near or on the edge of the plain, well placed for exploiting movements of copper (Sherratt 1982a). The small group excavated at the Veszto-Magor tell to the south of the Koros river were more traditionally furnished than elsewhere, with less variation in grave goods, but still some gender differentiation (Chapman 1997a, 143). From other instances, however, there seems to have been a very widely distributed common way of doing things. A proto-Tiszapolgar female grave at Hodmezovasarhely-Gorzsa, east of the Tisza and north of the Maros (Horvath 1987, fig. 23), was provided with a pot behind the head, abundant beads probably formerly in strings on the legs, hips and neck, and a bracelet on the right arm. By the early Tiszapolgar phase at Polgar-Nagy Kasziba in the north of the plain (Raczky et al. 1997b), there were a male, a female and two child graves (probably part of a larger burial ground) with differentiation by body side and by some of the grave goods, while both the woman and the man were accompanied by many pots. The adult male lay on his right side, with eleven pots by his head and feet. There was the lower jaw of a boar behind his head, as well as stone and bone artefacts, Spondylus beads and one copper bead. The adult female lay on her back, again with twelve pots at head and feet, and Spondylus beads in the area of the waist, probably from a belt. One of the child burials was of a young girl, on her left side, with four pots at head and waist, a pair of copper bracelets, and scattered Spondylus beads. The other child burial lay on its back, and had a pot and a copper bracelet. Even these four examples show traits that recur widely: undecorated pottery (only distinguished across the Plain by broad stylistic zones: Bognar-Kutzian 1972), an emphasis on objects to do with personal adornment and appearance, food remains, token animal remains, and differentiation by age and sex. Tools and weapons occur elsewhere, and there were no figurines in this phase.

Tiszapolgar-Basatanya itself has been the most analysed, since it is well published (including Sherratt 1982a; Meisenheimer 1989; Chapman 1997a; 2000a; 2000b; Derevenski 1997; 2000). Its use ran from the Tiszapolgar phase on into the succeeding Bodrogkeresztur phase, on into the fourth millennium BC; there were over 150 graves in all, mainly individual inhumations. Women, men and children are represented. The dead were set in rows and their graves were probably individually marked, their positions thereby subsequently respected over long periods of time. Though there is a wide range of grave goods, there is overall no clear sign of major material differentiation between individuals or groupings (the latter explored by Meisenheimer 1989) within the burial ground. There was clearly some emphasis put on gender differences, as emphasised by recent analyses (Chapman 1997a; Derevenski 1997; 2000). These change between the Tiszapolgar and Bodrogkeresztur phases, though it may be rather artificial to contrast only two such large blocks of time without trying to take account of changes from generation to generation (cf. Meisenheimer 1989). It may be more profitable to look again at the small groups within the cemetery suggested by previous analysis (Meisenheimer 1989), rather than to score the features and contents of individual graves, arranged in two large chronological blocks (and see now Chapman 2000b, concentrating on rows). In Derevenski’s accounts (1997, 887; 2000), the various objects in question are linked in the Tiszapolgar phase not only to gender but to age, creating a strong sense of life process, whereas in the Bodrogkeresztur phase there is a greater emphasis simply on female/male difference (reinforced by the slightly different analysis of Chapman 1997a, 138-43). While there is thus difference, there is hardly, in crude terms, discernible inequality evident in the mortuary rites, since women’s graves can be as abundantly furnished with goods as men’s, and children (at least in the Tiszapolgar phase when they are more common) seem often to be treated in anticipation of their future development. There seems to be increased emphasis throughout on the dead as though they were living. Thus women, men and children all receive food remains and quite abundant and varied pottery, though relative numbers may vary depending on age and gender (Derevenski 1997, fig. 2), and there are tools and other objects to do with dress and appearance. The last sight of the dead in the grave was of individuals furnished, in ways appropriate to their gender and age, for full, active participation in social life and the maintenance of long established commonality.

In this way, gradual shifts in the nature of individualism have been suggested. The model has been very generalised, and it would take a longer account to explore the extent to which the sense of variation in say the Late Neolithic could be examined as the effect of particular individuals or at least small social groupings, actively seeking to affect their circumstances rather than acting out roles and rules in ways or styles prescribed for them by tradition or custom. It is tempting to apply other models to this attempted case study in individualism. Thus at a general level, the scheme advocated by Mauss is interesting (though difficult) and potentially relevant. Mauss suggested that before the emergence of the Christian-erapersonne and the modern, autonomous moi, there had been first a sense of personnage followed by the development of persona (Mauss 1985; Rapport 1996, 299). Personnage was seen as a ‘tribal’ stage, with individuals holding names and roles within a clan setting, while the persona is more independent, with its own civic identity but still no individual inner life. Could all the examples described above be merely personnages, or could the figures seen at Tiszapolgar-Basatanya be regarded as personae? Mauss was thinking of a different timescale, with persona developing in the time of the early state. Especially he was working within the tradition set by Durkheim in which the collective was seen to determine and submerge the individual. It may therefore be more helpful to set this kind of scheme aside as prejudging the issues, and to use the kinds of analogies discussed earlier. Could we see, for example, in the material remains from the sequence on the Great Hungarian Plain anything resembling the difference between the bounded but permeable individual of south India and the partible person and performative identity of Melanesia (cf. Busby 1997)? It might in fact be legitimate to suggest elements of both. The people seen in the burial ground at Tiszapolgar-Basatanya, for example, appear from one perspective to be presented as bounded individuals, with a sense of mortuary treatment appropriate to age and gender (though what was considered or asserted as appropriate may have been far from rigidly fixed). At the same time, the individual may have had a partible dimension, suggested by the non-local objects such as Spondylus beads and copper artefacts. On the other hand, although many of the analyses have concentrated on looking closely at individual after individual, the context of belonging to small groupings remains striking (see also Chapman 2000b). There is more that unites in these mortuary rites than separates. Within the group context, there is also a strong sense of asserting at the moment of death a living identity shared by many. Here is the individual, young or old, female or male, presented as ready for social existence, appropriately dressed and recognisable, and able to provide food and drink. Perhaps this could be seen as a performative view of identity, in that the individual was only fully constituted in relation to others, and perhaps this model of relationships was only fully realised as the individual passed on to another world.


It has not been the purpose of this section to choose between the competing possibilities. It has been the aim to argue that what constituted individuals was a far more complex business than most archaeological interpreters have recognised, and that identity was probably varied in any one phase, and far from static through time (see also Bruck 2001; Fowler 2000; 2001). In the remainder of the topic, I want to look more closely at other dimensions of what held individuals together, focusing first on notions of society and culture, which leads to a discussion of the moral community, and then on household.

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