Looking back (Archaeology of People) Part 2


It may seem a considerable leap from memories to myth, but I want to consider them both in the context of looking back, of making reference to a past or the past, which is often sharply defined but also timeless. Myth is important, though rarely explicitly considered by archaeologists. It is powerful, widespread, deals with themes of recurrent if not central importance, is often or perhaps normally public, and it straddles the distinction made by Connerton (1989) between inscribed and incorporated performances. It often takes the form of narrative, delivered in words to an audience. Connerton sees the delivery of a myth as structurally different from the performance of a ritual; ‘to recite a myth is not necessarily to accept it’ (1989, 54). However, I have already noted difficulties with this view of ritual, and the bodily aspect of the performance of myth, or some myths in some settings, should not be overlooked. It involves a speaker and an audience, standing or sitting in perhaps prescribed postures and in a defined physical setting.

Connerton has called both ritual and myth ‘collective symbolic texts’ (1989, 53). There is uncertainty, however, about just what sort of collective symbolic texts these may be. James Weiner (1994; 1995) has outlined two possible positions. The majority view, expressed in different ways by both functionalists as far back as Malinowski and structuralists including notably Levi-Strauss, has been that myth serves to ‘unify and coordinate the worldview and morality of a community’ (J.F. Weiner 1994, 388). It obviously does so in different ways, for the functionalists by directly linking the content of myth with social practice, to offer accounts of origins, while for the structuralists by explaining the conceptual underpinning of the social world, but in both cases ultimately providing kinds of charter for what can be seen in any present situation (J.F. Weiner 1994, 388—9). The differences between these variations, however, may be extreme. Levi-Strauss classically analysed myth, in his four volumes of Mythologiques, in relation to other myths, as analysis of the form of classification. Weiner has elsewhere (1988, 12, 155) stressed the concentration by Levi-Strauss on the structure of signs rather than on the metaphoric content of myths. On the other hand, it is possible to see myth as simply another version of language in a world in which culture and convention are not pre-given, such that all utterances including myth are potentially subversive, since they differentiate the world anew:

Each [mythical] story provides an insight, an oblique and novel perspective that disabuses us from the normal, everyday habit of taking our world, our descriptions of it, our way of acting in it, and our beliefs as true, natural and self-evident.

Whether the second position, challenging though it is, can be applied to all myth remains to be seen. Indeed, one of the problems in discussions of this kind is that, once again, a wide range of tellings and lookings back are lumped into a single, universal form. There are certainly indigenous distinctions between kinds of narrative. The western Apache, as we have seen, distinguish between ordinary talk, prayer and narrative or story, the latter divided on the basis of time and purpose into gossip, historical tale, saga and myth. Myths deal with events that occurred ‘in the beginning’, ‘to explain and reaffirm the complex processes by which the known world came into existence’, and they are performed only by medicine men and medicine women (Basso 1994, 34). Here already is regularity and convention. The Foi and Daribi of New Guinea also make distinctions between kinds of tales, stories, moral tales and origin myths (J.F. Weiner 1988, 150-1; Wagner 1978). Among the Foi, the context in which myths are performed appears also hedged about by convention, and although there are many myths (J.F. Weiner 1988, passim), their style is strongly recurrent. More variation and creativity, in fact, may reside in magical spells owned by individuals and in memorial songs for particular people ( J.F. Weiner 1988); but while connected to myth, these are not myths themselves.

Two interesting examples, the Lugbara and the Foi, may help to illustrate the relevance of this discussion to the themes of this topic. The Lugbara lived across the Congo-Uganda border (J. Middleton 1960). A society described as composed of tribes, clans, territorial sections and lineages can be seen at different levels, from the linking relations of authority of those who hold statuses in these ‘units’, to the immediate world of family and inner lineage, which regularly conceives the surrounding world as hostile (J. Middleton 1960, 230 and 236). The wider social network is conceived of in terms of clans, and clans are conceived of in terms of myth (J. Middleton 1960, 231). These go back in a line of descent from ancestors recognised in genealogies, which may often change (J. Middleton 1960, 12), to the founders of clans, who were the sons of a pair of hero-ancestors, who were the descendants of a line of siblings put on earth by God the creator (Figure 5.1). The scheme slides from genealogy to myth, and from human figures to not-quite-human figures such as the hero-ancestors and their predecessors. In the intimate world of the family and lineage, genealogy is a principal focus of concern, men especially manipulating the cult of the dead as the means to authority. Lineages are the agnatic (or uterine) core of a territorial section, and the means to think of that as unchanging, whereas in reality there is change all the time within and between lineages and territorial sections (J. Middleton 1960, 7-13).

Middleton stressed that such a scheme was never related to him as a single narrative (1960, 232), and it was certainly flexible enough to include the historical appearance of Europeans, their strangeness represented in the fact that they walked upside down, as the people of the myths in the time before the hero-ancestors also did (J. Middleton 1970, 39). Myths ranged from the first creator to the two hero-ancestors. They often took the form of narratives of sequences of events, connecting listeners in the present with understanding of how their landscape had been shaped (J. Middleton 1970, 39), and were performed with considerable drama and energy (J. Middleton 1970, 38). The myths often have a fragmented quality, and there is much that requires a mythopoeic rather than a literal approach (Middleton 1970, 37). But in Middleton’s accounts, these myths were extremely important, being a means by which Lugbara made sense of many basic features of their present society: ‘statements about social relations that the Lugbara saw as being so important that they had to be stated symbolically and mythopoeically’ (J. Middleton 1970, 38).

In his detailed account of Foi mythology, Weiner (1988) offers an overlapping interpretation, though with much greater attention to the relation of one myth to another.

Lugbara (central Africa) categories of social space and time.

Figure 5.1 Lugbara (central Africa) categories of social space and time.

Myths are for public narration in the communal setting of the longhouse (J.F. Weiner 1988, 13, 296). They cover a great range of subjects, usually providing narrative sequences in a timeless past, or vaguely in the beginning, in which representative figures work through a series of encounters and problems. The myth of the heart of the pearl shell (J.F. Weiner 1988, 279—82) concerns the search of a young man for possession of the literal heart of the pearl shell, whose importance in exchange relations however resides in its movement or flow between and among people. Weiner sees Foi mythology as a linkage between their key conceptual analogies (J.F. Weiner 1988, 5), as ‘the poetic or aesthetic revelation … of fundamental paradoxes’ (J.F. Weiner 1988, 16), and as providing the cosmological and moral closures that ordinary life does not permit (J.F. Weiner 1988, 16); ‘myth provides a transient, fleeting, and incomplete structure for those people whose reality it encompasses’ (J.F. Weiner 1988, 16—17). It operates, by obviation or alternating substitution or contrast, as a ‘series of successively embedded metaphors’ (J.F. Weiner 1988, 285), open therefore to many interpretations and meanings, and in this sense fluid and potentially subversive (J.F. Weiner 1988, 289; 1995, xx).

If myths reveal ‘what is fundamental to Foi conceptualizations of morality, intention, consequence, agency, and personhood’ (J.F. Weiner 1988, 149), can we see anything of their operation in the archaeological evidence for Neolithic central and western Europe? At first sight, the outlook is bleak. Both Middleton and Weiner could listen, as field anthropologists, to the narration of myths and indigenous commentaries.But there are features of the archaeological record which I believe we can think of in mythical terms, and it is even possible that there is an informative pattern or structure to their distribution and sequence.

There is abundant evidence to suggest the working of memory. The often quoted link between longhouse and long mound is a case in point. Given the chronology of the fifth millennium BC, and the demonstrable juxtapositions or proximities in situations such as north-central Poland, where Sarnowo is not far from Brzesc Kujawski, and now the demonstrable direct overlays of long enclosures over long houses at Balloy in the Yonne valley of the Paris basin (Mordant 1997), it is possible to argue for extended memories of some kind as the medium in which the transference or transformation of ideas was made. In the case of enclosures, this becomes more difficult. There are far fewer enclosures in the fifth millennium BC in the western part of Europe than there were in the later part of the LBK; the weight of the distributions of Stichbandkeramik and Lengyel enclosures is further east, from Bavaria eastwards.It is probable that enclosures in southern Britain do not belong to the earliest Neolithic (and therefore start in the early centuries of the fourth millennium BC), and yet the concept can still plausibly be seen as going as far back as the fifth or even sixth millennium BC continental antecedents; there are also more local and contemporary possible sources of the practice.In this case it is more than likely that direct memories had transmuted into tales, sagas or myths, and without further distinguishing between these (see above), I suggest that the idea of enclosures was transmitted in the realm of myth. Indeed, Bradley (1998a, 82) has discussed southern British enclosures as mythical settlements which hark back to the world left many generations before. Having already discussed some of the decorated menhirs of Brittany in the last topic, I want now to consider the so-called portal dolmens of the Irish Sea area, and Spondylus shells in the LBK. These further examples also raise the possibility of significant change through time.

Portal dolmens

Portal dolmens are widespread in the Irish Sea area, especially in eastern and northern parts of Ireland and in western parts of Wales and south-west England. They are characterised by substantial capstones of varied shapes. Some are thick and rounded, while others are thinner but often spectacularly tilted; all are supported by uprights forming a more or less rectangular, simple chamber (Figure 5.2). It is plausible to see many of these as early in their regional sequences,though this is not the place for detailed discussion. Bradley (1998a; 1998b; 2000) and Tilley and Bennett (2001) have already discussed with reference to south-west England how these constructions appear to draw on and mimic features of the natural landscape such as tors and hilltops.

Pentre Ifan, Pembrokeshire, with Carn Ingli and the sea behind.

Figure 5.2 Pentre Ifan, Pembrokeshire, with Carn Ingli and the sea behind.

Bradley (2000, 109—10) has drawn attention to how the building of monuments can add new meaning to already significant natural places. Tilley and Bennett have developed this point, to suggest that ‘in elevating large stones, these people were emulating the work of a super-ancestral past’ and ‘the dolmens . . . were the tors dismantled and put back together again to resemble their original form’ (2001, 345). Further:

West Penwith is one of the few places in Britain from which the sun can be seen to have a watery death and birth at important points in the solar calendar . . . elemental cosmological themes of fire, water, stone, birth, death and the regeneration of life, may have had a particular resonance and symbolic power.

In turn I want to suggest a further, specifically mythical dimension to these constructions. Whether dolmens resemble tors or vice versa, I believe there is more to the relationship than imitation or emulation. Construction involves transformation. Three features help to support this claim. Some portal dolmens have pits below their chambers (Cummings 2001), and these constructions therefore involve more than just the recreation of a tor or hill. Though it has often been supposed otherwise, there is little evidence for the original presence of surrounding and concealing cairns, and there is good evidence in some cases for deliberately and carefully built platforms of smaller stones, from which the uprights appear to emerge. Thirdly, most capstones have a slope or tilt, formed either by the form of their upper sides or by the whole stone being literally tilted, sometimes dramatically. In several striking examples this arrangement mimics locally visible hilltops, such as the convincing link between Pentre Ifan and Carn Ingli in south-west Wales (Tilley 1994; Cummings 2001). In some cases, the link may be to a general resemblance to tors, as argued for Chun Quoit in West Penwith (Tilley and Bennett 2001, 346). In yet others, there may be no such reference, and it is possible therefore that the tilt has a significance of its own. This might be referred to some feature of daily life in forager or early farming existence, such as tents, but it may be more plausible to think of what the raised stones actually stood for. Archaeological language and convention predispose us to call these stones ‘capstones’ or ‘roofstones’, but this is far too general, and misses what the architecture emphasises, that the stones have been raised.

Where there is a probable link between raised stones and tors or hills, it is plausible to think of the mythical agency of those natural features themselves. Mountains were a prominent feature of Lugbara mythology, for example, being a reference point or starting point in stories about creation and human origins (J. Middleton 1970, 36-9). In far western North America, mountains can be seen as male in relation to female locations with rock art (D.S. Whitley 1998). Tors and hills in the landscapes of the Irish Sea zone could be seen in this light as having a significance of their own, and there is thus a potential dialogue between natural places and built constructions, perhaps even an ‘obviation’ or alternation in Wagner’s and Weiner’s terms. The raised stones of portal dolmens might also, in conjunction with pits and platforms, have had a more general metaphorical or mythical significance. They could be seen as a version of creation, in which the earth was raised to the sky, or an account of how earth and sky were once joined. One Lugbara myth was about a time when people could move between the earth and the sky via a rope, a tree, and a tower; when these gave way, people were scattered over the earth into their present locations and social groupings in the world (J. Middleton 1970, 36).

Spondylus shells

My final, brief example concerns Spondylus shells. Their origin in the east Mediterranean or Black Sea and their broad distribution far to the north-west are well known (Willms 1985). They appear not to be a marked feature of the earliest Neolithic of south-east Europe, but they appear in central Europe first with the LBK (and then far from everywhere or in regular quantities). The chains of exchange then extend from central Europe back into a cultural world for which there is little other evidence of connection; presumably a general orientation to the east or south-east was recognised. So although resembling many other objects or materials, in that they were acquired from a distance, perhaps beyond direct knowledge, Spondylus shells may have had an unusually mysterious quality. They might be taken as a material token of belief in the LBK world of a mythic origin in the south-east. This may be mirrored also in the general orientation of LBK longhouses (Bradley 2001; 2002). Neither need reflect the precise history of LBK origins, which as we shall see in the next topic may have been more a matter of events and fusions in the territory between the Danube and the eastern end of the Alps. Spondylus was regularly transformed into bracelets and beads, but it also frequently survived its long journeys and histories with surprisingly little modification. In the case of the LBK cemetery at Aiterhofen in Bavaria (Nieszery 1995), both women’s and men’s graves contained variously beads and bracelets, while some men’s graves also contained Spondylus shells with a distinctive V-shape cut out of them (Figure 5.3). It looks as though these items were a more prominent feature of the graves of less mature adults, as though by the time men had reached seniority, they had normally passed on these potent objects (Hofmann 2001), of perhaps mythic origin. This suggestion recalls the flow at the core of the Foi myth noted above about the heart of the pearl shell (J.F. Weiner 1998).

A history of histories?

Colin Renfrew (1976) once related the appearance of megalithic construction in what can be called Atlantic Europe to a shortage of land; after expansion to the west, populations had nowhere else to go and were forced to regulate their relationships by ritual constructions. A different perspective is possible in the light of this discussion of myth. The nature of myth may have changed during the course of the history of transmission to the west. People in the Koros culture may have referred to the south in aspects of their material culture and perhaps in their choice of sheep and goats as a preferred animal, as argued above. People in the LBK may have had a sense of being oriented to the east or south-east, imbued on a daily basis by the physical orientation of their longhouses and reinforced by the occasional acquisition of objects or materials such as Spondylus. By the time of fifth-millennium menhirs and fourth-millennium portal dolmens, these earlier reference points had themselves passed into mythic status, both rivalling perhaps and fusing with the mythologies of indigenous populations.

There are frequent references to the way in which new features can be incorporated into belief systems and mythologies. The arrival of Europeans, for example, was incorporated into Lugbara cosmology and categorisation (Figure 5.1) (J. Middleton 1960, fig. 9). In a generalising discussion of their religion and metaphysics, Guenther (1999, 426) has suggested that ‘hunter-gatherers regard nature as pervasively animated with moral, mystical and mythical significance’, and notes the prevalence among them of shamanism as a way of ‘entering and conceptualizing such a universe and . . . relating to, channeling and transforming its beings and forces for the benefit of humans’. Ecstasy and transformation pervade shamanic ritual, cosmology and cosmogony; mythical beings from the past such as the Trickster enable and also subvert creation, in a layered and temporally fluid universe (Guenther 1999, 427—30). In description of a specific hunter-gatherer group, the Nyaka of southern India, Bird-David (1999, 259—60) has noted belief in the co-existence alongside themselves of non-human persons including the deceased, former inhabitants of their area but of different identity, mythical ancestors, naturalistic spirits and non-Nyaka deities including Hindu ones. Contact is kept with these both simply by being in the forest and by annual rituals of possession.

Man's grave 28, from Aiterhofen-Odmuhle, southern Germany, with Spondylus beads, bracelet and notched shell, stone tools, bone point and flint artefacts.

Figure 5.3 Man’s grave 28, from Aiterhofen-Odmuhle, southern Germany, with Spondylus beads, bracelet and notched shell, stone tools, bone point and flint artefacts.

Recurrent themes in the archaeologies discussed here have included longhouses, the communal space between longhouses, animals both wild and tame, sky and earth, and axes, shells and other objects. The creativity and profusion of monumental contruction may therefore owe much to a history of histories, in an intensifying, proliferating and fusing mythic realm.

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