Looking back (Archaeology of People) Part 3

Monuments and remembering

The recent literature on monuments is considerable (e.g. Bradley 1993; 1998a; Edmonds 1999; Thomas 1999; Tilley 1994; 1999) and has brought many new insights into the character and meaning of monumental constructions of a very wide variety. They stand for this or that idea, their conceptualisation enables other views of the world, and they shape human experience and link it to other realms in profound ways. What is still missing from many accounts, however, is a sense of their temporality. How and at what intervals did they come into existence? This brief discussion is about the temporal rhythms that may be seen in some monuments, particularly as an insight into the way in which rememberings in general may have been played out.

Final monumentality is often preceded by modest beginnings. For every monument that went on to be embellished, there may have been other constructions, much harder to recognise, which were short-lived or even ephemeral. In the area around Avebury in north Wiltshire, for example, it is striking how many of the investigated monuments have unspectacular starts. The West Kennet long barrow might have begun as a small sarsen and earth mound, the Horslip long barrow as a series of intercutting pits, the Beckhampton Road long barrow as a setting of sarsen stones and bone deposits, and Millbarrow as a small timber structure.There are both renewal and selection. Continued construction may also be piecemeal. We think easily from a modern architectural perspective of the completed project, but it is possible that the sequence of building was often much more protracted, with successive stages as significant in their own right as the final form. Chambers in some barrows may have been freestanding for a while. There are hints of this at Hazleton, itself overlying a place made significant by occupation or middening (Saville 1990), and new radiocarbon dates from the West Kennet long barrow also allow this possibility.3 In the case of Wayland’s Smithy long barrow,there are also indications from new radiocarbon dates that the second, more elaborate version of the monument was effected in stages, the stone chambers freestanding for a while within the trapezoidal area defined by the stone kerb, but with the mound taking much longer to fill in.4 It has been customary to refer to barrows 1 and 2 here, but really the whole sequence right from its start can be extended into a whole series of punctuated events. The same perspective could also be applied without difficulty to the Windmill Hill enclosure.


Can we get any closer to the circumstances which triggered particular events and renewals? The need is all the more acute in those cases when the apparent span of remembering is considerable. I have already referred to the chronology of the enclosure idea. The case of barrows with transepted chambers is another example. There are circumstantial and typological arguments for seeing these as relatively late in regional sequences of construction. New dates from Wayland’s Smithy along with those from other monuments more or less confirm this view. From this a different perspective emerges. An idea, a way of doing things, was kept in memory for a very long time, over centuries, or a significantly old and rare practice was revived, after a considerable interval. There may be a powerful combination of timelessness and specific circumstance. Ritual tradition may exist in its own time, transmitted from generation to generation in stories and myth, to be enacted at intervals felt to be propitious, or simply contingent upon the actions and intentions of particular individuals. There may also be an important element of creativity in the renewal of tradition.

None of this need be surprising. It is compatible with the earlier discussion of the creative and selective nature of rememberings, and the ways in which these are woven into daily life and into different temporalities. We do not find it problematic that longhouses in the LBK evidently had very varied biographies, some surviving longer or being built and extended in more elaborate forms than others (see Bradley 2001). It is easy to envisage – at least in a general fashion – histories of individuals, marriages, households and alliances, sequences of growth and decline, and runs of success and failure. But while successive longhouses were the product of particular circumstances, their renewal also honoured an idea, of social formation and continuity. Perhaps this kind of perspective needs to be taken to the study of monuments, to bring a sense of the particularities of lived existence to a realm partly characterised by its abstractions.

Remembered forebears: the multiplicity of ancestors

One of the abstractions which I have so far discussed very little is that of ancestry and descent, which I will use as a final example of selective remembering. Even a few examples from the considerable range of practice recorded by ethnographic fieldwork should reinforce a sense of unease with the simplistic way in which ancestry and descent are often treated in current archaeological interpretation. Kopytoff’s discussion (1971) of practice among the Suku of Congo is instructive. It is convenient to quote his summary of the sub-Saharan context:

Ancestors are vested with mystical powers and authority. They retain a functional role in the world of the living, specifically in the life of their living kinsmen . . . African kin-groups are often described as communities of both the living and the dead. The relation of the ancestors to their living kinsmen has been described as ambivalent, as both punitive and benevolent and sometimes even as capricious. In general, ancestral benevolence is assured through propitiation and sacrifice; neglect is believed to bring about punishment. Ancestors are intimately involved with the welfare of their kin-group but they are not linked in the same way to every member of that group. The linkage is structured through the elders of the kin-group, and the elders’ authority is related to their close link to the ancestors.

Not only are the ancestors not the generally benevolent force imagined in much of the archaeological literature, it becomes clear in the case of the Suku, and of other people in the region, that the key distinction is not between the living and the dead but between elders and non-elders. The Suku setting is the corporate matrilineage (Kopytoff 1971, 130). In this, juniors owe respect to seniors, and older seniors, or living elders, look to the dead for guidance and help in times of crisis; of necessity the dead must be approached differently from the living (Kopytoff 1971, 133). Contact is formalised, but the setting of contact appears to be less so: at the graves of people older than their supplicants, or at the intersection of paths; there are no separate or special burial grounds (Kopytoff 1971, 130). Kopytoff concluded (1971, 140) that ‘the term "ancestor" sets up a dichotomy where there is a continuum . . . African "ancestors" are more mundane and less mystical than the dead who are objects of "worship" should be in Western eyes’.

Among the Lugbara, mythology and genealogy elide. The scope and content of their mythology have already been described above. The wider social network is conceived of in terms of clans, and clans are conceived of in terms of myth, as noted above; but ‘clans are dispersed and are not corporate groups’ (J. Middleton 1960, 7). The smaller and segmented descent groups are lineages of varying scope. Within the Lugbara lineage different kinds of ancestors are recognised (J. Middleton 1960, 32—4).5 On the one hand there are all forebears, including on occasion the living, who form a collectivity in which individuals are not important; the dead are the focus of ritual sacrifice, since they send sickness to the living, and collective shrines are set for them. On the other hand there are individual forebears, who are recognised as direct and significant ancestors (or ‘ghosts’ in the terminology which Middleton adopts) by agnatic descendants, with whom they are in personal and responsible contact, through the provision of individual shrines. The living make offerings to the varying categories of dead at shrines, since the dead may send sickness to express displeasure with actions seen to weaken or disunite the lineage. The shrine and the cult of the dead become the focus of central values to do with lineage and kinship (J. Middleton 1960, 34—5).

Lugbara shrines are varied and powerful, though they often take the form of simple arrangements of stones, and they are situated in a range of settings from within the settlement to outside it (Figure 5.4). Although ancestry as defined here is so important in Lugbara life, there appears to be no rite of collective burial as described for parts of Madagascar (e.g. Bloch 1971; Mack 1986). The world of the dead lies ‘somewhere beneath the surface of the world’ (J. Middleton 1982, 150).

 Simple but powerful stones: a lineage shrine of the Lugbara, placed in the bush. The nearer part is a house for lineage ghosts, and the farther setting, an old grinding stone, is a fertility shrine.

Figure 5.4 Simple but powerful stones: a lineage shrine of the Lugbara, placed in the bush. The nearer part is a house for lineage ghosts, and the farther setting, an old grinding stone, is a fertility shrine.

The dead are feared as well as revered (J. Middleton 1960, 201; 1982), and as so often elsewhere, funerals are occasions for gatherings, licence, and the important business of realignment (J. Middleton 1960, 202-4; 1982). The dominant rite seems to be individual inhumation, within houses, compounds and elsewhere, and some elders are given burial trees, figs planted at the head of their graves, which become sacred and are referred to in the same term which is translated as collective ancestor (J. Middleton 1960, 66; 1982).

Among the Tiv of northern Nigeria, a belief in genealogy was at the heart of social relationships (Bohannan 1952). ‘To know things Tiv one must know Tiv genealogies’ (Bohannan 1952, 301), as these were a constant topic of casual and serious discussion, relevant to kinship, marriage, settlement, ritual and other aspects of social existence. While the general belief was that all the many Tiv were descended from one man, Tiv himself, through fourteen to seventeen generations, the more constant concern with descent was played out in the more immediate setting of the lineage and territorial segment, consisting of some 200-1,300 people. In that context, ‘three fathers’ is the normal range of individual genealogical memory of particular ancestors, beyond which more anonymous ancestors provide a genealogical charter to link back to Tiv (Bohannan 1952, 313). Both genealogy and more general ancestry can be seen as charters, to validate present social relationships, which in turn prove the genealogies (Bohannan 1952, 312, 315). The key criterion is consistency. Genealogies are learnt according to context, need and the accidents of personal contact among kinsmen; the resulting ‘ramifications of personal genealogical knowledge . . . vary enormously from one individual to another’ (Bohannan 1952, 303). They also change and develop through the course of individual lives. Differences in genealogical knowledge can be seen in the expanding awareness of 10-year-olds, youths of 15, and young men of 25. In Bohannan’s account (1952, 304):

A man over 25 feels that he ought to be able to place every adult male in his minimal lineage in terms of living fathers, in terms of compounds, and in terms of segments-within-the hut. Within his own segment-within-the-hut he can give a fairly complete genealogy in the male line. He is most unlikely to know his father’s father’s sisters, their marriage guardians, marriage exchanges, and so forth. Many Tiv acquire no more genealogical knowledge. Old men who know no more than this are called ‘those of little importance’.

From listening to discussions at moots, inquests and funerals, ambitious men of early middle age can learn much more, and may go on to be recognised as genealogical experts in older age (Bohannan 1952, 304), and ‘it is the political leader who is credited with the greatest knowledge of genealogical data in all their ramifications’ (Bohannan 1952, 307).

Mortuary practices on Madagascar have been much cited as a point of comparison in the British literature on Neolithic ancestral traditions (cf. J. Whitley 2002). As a specific instance of the process of secondary burial (Hertz 1960), the famidihana rites at collective tombs of the Merina of central Madagascar (Bloch 1971) have had particularly strong impact. The details suggest a more complex situation. The Merina tombs are or were often placed as a symbol of endurance well away from the foci of daily life (Bloch 1971, 105, 114), the choice of location being further contingent, depending in part on self-interest and practicality (Bloch 1971, 120—2). Some of the groups involved with tomb use may be or have been patrician (Bloch 1971, 45), but defining such groups as permanent corporate descent groups is problematic, since individual choices and circumstances lead to considerable variation and flux (Bloch 1971, 114—20). At a more general level, while there is a descent group ideology, it is hard to capture any fixed sense of descent groups on the ground (Bloch 1971, 216—22).

The Merina tombs themselves often accumulated a collectivity of dead, some of the dead going straight to them and others after temporary burial elsewhere. The occasion of fresh depositions is often the setting for famidihana, brief removals, re-wrappings and parades of corpses, which may be much more to do with personal and emotional links with the individual dead, and the conquering of the fear of death, than with the importance as such of undifferentiated ancestors (Bloch 1971, 168—71), important though these razana are as an organising principle and even as the basis of moral behaviour (Bloch 1971, 67).

If the ‘constant invoking of the ancestors and ancestral practice’ (Mack 1986, 17) is widespread, it seems to be because the idea of the ancestors is here linked with the concept of what is ‘morally desirable or appropriate in social relations’ (Mack 1986, 64). Other beings are recognised, from a creator or god, to the Vazimba or original inhabitants, legendary figures and ‘secondary divinities’, but it is the ancestors who are the most frequent point and concept of reference (Mack 1986, 64), permeating daily routine as well as guiding special occasions, and converting cattle, for example, from ‘mere beasts into a channel of communication’ with this other dimension (Mack 1986, 66; cf. Parker Pearson 2000). Studies of groups in Madagascar other than the Merina (e.g. Mack 1986; Parker Pearson 1992) also make it clear how much variation there is to be found, even given the comparatively short known history of human occupation on the island. Burial practices, which are one domain in which the ancestors are encountered, created or invoked, are very varied, involving different modes, techniques and sequences of deposition. Tombs and memorial places vary in their visibility or relative concealment (Mack 1986, 81). Within the practice of secondary burial, there are differing sequences: among the coastal Betsimisaraka and southerly neighbours the retention of the body, collection of materials of decomposition, and then separate burial of these and the skeleton; among the Merina and Betsileo in the centre of the island the speedy burial of the body, unseen decomposition, and then exhumation of bones and their placing in an ancestral tomb (Mack 1986, 72). Bloch has also noted much variation within Merina practice (1971, 155-8). Underlying a wide variety of primary and secondary burials, however, may be a recurrent concern with impurity and pollution (Mack 1986, 70).

Difficulties and possibilities

Ancestors have been much in evidence in the British archaeological literature over the last few years, operating as legitimators of present position and standing for corporate identity. They have not, however, been much discussed in their own right, and are in danger of being over-used (J. Whitley 2002). Ancestors can be defined quite simply, if broadly, as any forebears who are remembered (Bloch 1994). It has been argued that ‘claims of communication between the dead and their descendants are universal’ (Steadman et al. 1996, 63), though it is unlikely that this is in fact the case. Dealings with forebears, however, are extremely varied (e.g. Bloch 1994; Newell 1976), and my examples and discussion here aim above all to re-introduce a sense of the possible diversities back into archaeological interpretation, linking these in turn to the spectrum of rememberings already considered.

The simple models of ancestry and descent in use in much of the archaeological literature seem to derive partly from our understanding of our own modern world and partly from the historically limited models which have been anthropology’s response to the diversities found in the field (Kuper 1988; M. Strathern 1992b). Two linked archaeological interpretations have been dominant. First, there are generalised or anonymous ancestors, often linked to what have been called ‘corporate descent groups’ and acting as legitimators of resource control for them in processual and neo-Marxist theory (I. Morris 1991; Meillassoux 1972). In the collective deposits of many western European monuments from the fifth to the third millennium, many bodies have by one process or another been transformed into disarticulated, incomplete and broken remains, which it has been found convenient to connect with Hertz’s notion of secondary burial (1960) and in turn with a transformation from living individual to anonymous but powerful ancestor. These collective emphases are then often seen to be replaced at some stage, normally in the third or second millennium BC depending on region, by more closed and individualised systems of descent, focused more on genealogy and specifically remembered individuals. Last (1998a) has given a powerful account of a possible genealogical history in the sequence of burials in a mound at Barnack in the Welland valley.

There are many difficulties with this set of views, and some can be explicitly noted. To filter both anthropological and archaeological observation through the lens of our own world is limiting. The three variables of the Saxe/Goldstein hypothesis — corporate descent groups, scarce resources and formal disposal areas — are only very loosely defined, and even as such do not occur universally together (I. Morris 1991). While the transformation of skeletal remains in archaeological deposits from the fifth to the third millennium BC is certainly a fact, and perhaps an important motif, it is by no means clear in many specific cases that secondary burial as such was the rite in question; in situ transformations, disturbance by succeeding depositions, and circulation of remains are all competing possibilities. The Merina example indicates the difference between descent group and descent group ideology. The Lugbara and Tiv examples suggest that generalised ancestry and specific genealogies can be part of a single spectrum of reference to the past. Among the Merina, ancestry may be as much a moral principle as a system of reckoning descent, and here as elsewhere much of immediate concern is to do with relations with remembered individuals, and dealing with other powerful notions such as impurity and the fear of death. Ancestors and systems of descent can be seen as ideologies, open to selective use depending on context, and as ideals often departed from in practice, just as ‘kinship-based societies’ rely on endless fictions about kinship and operate on the basis of residence and alliance as well as of kinship (Kuper 1988; Scheffler 1966; 1985).

Finally, descent group need not necessarily denote closed descent group. For a start, while many peoples in Africa, for example, do represent their groups as strictly patrilineal or matrilineal, they also in fact recruit from the outside and show considerable flexibility in practice (Scheffler 1985, 9; Kuper 1988). Secondly, other people can be represented as members of ‘nonunilineal, ambilineal or cognatic descent groups’ (Scheffler 1985, 10; 1966). Unless only unilineally bounded groups are to be called descent groups at all, cognatic groups present particularly interesting possibilities for thinking about the possibilities of forms of descent in the Neolithic. Scheffler has defined (1966, 544) cognatic descent-constructs as ‘those in which sex of the linking kinsman at each step is immaterial for the tracing of the continuum [of relatedness] and the continuum itself is significant’. Whereas many African societies conceptualise or claim to conceptualise relationships, rights, obligations and membership in terms of a distinction between lineages and local groups, in highland New Guinea the groupings overlap (Scheffler 1985, 11).

There is no magic formula to be won from the difficult and contested ground of the anthropological literature. It is possible, however, to stress a much greater range of possibilities, an overlap or even conflict between differing concepts which may have been operating simultaneously, and at the same time some kind of linkage between the selective rememberings of descent and the rememberings which permeated everyday existence. People could be seen as having used both genealogy and a more generalised sense of ancestry, one or the other tending to be the dominant metaphor depending on context but neither fully describing actual practice. Members may have been recruited from male and female lines, and from outside any ‘closed group’, even if at times there is a projection of an idea of restricted belonging.


This might apply as well to LBK cemeteries as to the later constructions with collective deposits of human remains. Both cemetery of individual graves and monumental construction with collective human remains may have evoked or been associated with a number of differing principles or concepts. LBK grave may evoke LBK house, and graves as a collective may evoke the community of the living as well as its past (cf. Bradley 1998a, 46-8). That membership of the household was to some extent open, or open to recruitment from the outside, may be suggested by the strontium isotope analysis of burials from Flomborn and Schwetzingen, in this case interpreted as indicating that women of regional highland origin came into Rhine valley settlements (Price et al. 2001).

In the case of the collective deposits in the monumental and other constructions from the fifth to the third millennium BC, the interpretation in both early and indeed more recent descriptions of the human remains themselves is frequently in terms of close physical resemblances suggesting a more or less closed family relationship. This has never really been adequately tested against an explicit set of expectations or challenged, and it may be that researchers have been predisposed to see a family relationship because the notion of family is the currency of the modern world (cf. M. Strathern 1992b). On the other hand, the language of very recent interpretations in the British literature has been in terms of ‘the ancestors’, some of my own accounts included. A number of contrasts could perhaps now be offered. The formation of many (but there is no need to insist on all) collective deposits may have been the result of successive depositions of whole corpses, with subsequent disturbance, breakage, disarticulation, re-arrangement, and even circulation and removal. Interpretation has concentrated on the end result rather than the process of formation. That may speak much more for the immediacy of individual deaths, grief, funeral ceremonies and a marking of specific relationships which we can consider genealogical, than for ancestral veneration. Placings and groupings by age, sex or gender, and position within a construction (nearer to or further from the entrance, left or right, and so on: cf. Shanks and Tilley 1982; Thomas 1988), could also speak far more for an intense interest in the persona of particular individuals than in the generalities of ‘the ancestors’. The body itself may have been an important metaphor (Fowler 2000), linked to the further metaphor of transformation.It has also been argued that the dissolution of articulation was an important concept in such practices in eastern Britain, referencing relationships with others and marking the ‘temporality of dying’ (Lucas 1996, 104).

In arguing for the general possibility and plausibility of open descent groups, it is important to keep closed descent groups in mind. There are architectural arrangements which seem to demand a sense of contrast or opposition. Segmentation and bilaterality in chamber layouts have too often been treated in the long British literature as a matter of disembodied architectural evolution, on the path to greater or lesser spatial complexity. The lateral chambered Cotswold-Severn long cairns are a good case in point. It can be shown that there are general contrasts in the nature of the deposition of human bone between these and the other main two Cotswold-Severn architectural variants (Thomas 1988). But what are we to make of the often striking placing of chambers back to back, closely set but each accessible only from its own long side of the cairn, as at Hazleton or Ascott-under-Wychwood? Are these something to do with the mythical dimensions of group history or the territorial allegiances of the living, or could they also suggest demarcation in terms of membership?

In the Lugbara case described earlier, genealogy and ancestry were part of a single conceptual scheme, and in practice the Tiv remembered only those forebears and ancestors as suited the contingent situation. In the same way, it can be suggested that concepts of ancestry were themselves open to transformation from the sixth to the fourth and third millennia BC. A sense of beginnings and general descent may have been embedded in the patterns of daily routine in the LBK, reinforced by material exchanges or acquisitions from the east or south-east. Parts of the LBK house have been suggested as shrines (Bradley 2001), and in any case the Lugbara case indicates the general possibility of very small settings and even trees having considerable significance. Descent may have been partly tracked through the house, and it seems that there were different categories of remembered forebears as represented in settlement burials and cemetery burials. In the changing world of northwest Europe from the late fifth millennium onwards, there must also have been much variability. Memory, held especially in my view in myth and story, seems to have connected these two worlds, enabling the longhouse—long mound and enclosure links which have already been discussed. But though connected to long rememberings in this way, each was the setting for rather different kinds of interaction: on the one hand the playing out of ideas of relationship, in large part perhaps genealogical, but connected also to notions of transformation, and on the other hand the celebration of an intense sociality and new materiality. Ancestors in the general sense implied by much of the recent British literature may have come only gradually into the picture. Many early constructions may have had little to do with ‘the ancestors’. Many early constructions in southern Britain begin in a modest way, becoming monumentalised only at the end of their sequence. By contrast in western Britain and in Ireland, there were monumental if compact constructions potentially from an early date. It is hard to see a long history in the construction of portal dolmens and related monuments. These seem to have nothing directly to do with the longhouse memory, and may be related much more plausibly to indigenous ideas about the relationship of people to their landscape and its mythical history, and to their routine and other movements in the landscape (Bradley 2000; Tilley and Bennett 2001; Cummings 2001). Rather than generalised human ancestors, such constructions may have referred much more to the realm of myth, first inhabitants, spirits and creators.

The complexity of the situation should be underlined. If constructions such as portal dolmens were indeed early in western areas,6 why did they appear here and why at this time? Their hypothetically early date might be connected in some way to the other signs of early contact between Ireland and north-west France, such as in the movement of domestic cattle in the form of bones, meat or even live animals, but it could also be an indication of some kind of indigenous reaction or response to changes afoot also in southern and eastern Britain, where an element of intrusive population still cannot be excluded. In turn, monumentality in southern and eastern Britain may have been influenced by the prior existence of constructions of powerful renown to the west.

In complex histories such as these, with remembering in general a creative, selective and contingent process, not everything need have been held in memory simultaneously or revealed all at once. In discussing the issue of whether any people really lack a durational or linear sense of time, as well as having a concept of static or cyclical time, Bloch has referred to evidence from Bali, and to ‘the long conversation that is Balinese society’, in which ‘at some time, one notion of time is used, and others, another . . .’ (1977, 284). He suggested that static or cyclical time was something most often expressed in ritual contexts, whereas linear, durational time was encountered in the practical spheres of agriculture, village and politics. The contrasts suggested by the archaeology under discussion here may be more blurred, but there are powerful general notions of partiality, fragmentation, contrast, and overlap in the long conversations which might have brought a ‘Neolithic’ world into being.

My discussions in this topic have been both comparative and general, and in the next topic I will try both to pull together the different strands so far considered separately, and to link these to more detailed treatment of specific archaeological situations.

Next post:

Previous post: