1. Introduction

The European Early Bronze Age (EBA) witnessed profound transformations in human technology, exchange and ritual, reflecting the gradual remodelling of the society itself. In Central Europe, burials represent a major part of the empirical evidence for this period (Buchvaldek et al. 2007). Hoards are also relatively abundant (Moucha 2005); houses and settlements, on the other hand, have been discovered less often and therefore lack detailed studies. Although the cause of this imbalance in the archaeological record remains unclear, it seems that specific ritual activities in this period, such as the act of burial and hoarding, left behind substantially stronger evidence than tasks of a more secular character.

Some cemeteries discovered in the wider Carpathian region (including Little Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Austria, and Ukraine) contain hundreds of graves (Vladár 1973; Točík 1979; Kadrow and Machnikowie 1992; Neugebauer-Maresch and Neugebauer 1997; Bátora 2000), thus representing a good opportunity to employ advanced analytical techniques. Unlike the more typical prehistoric small burial grounds of Central Europe, such larger cemeteries, an example of which is studied in this article, provide ample data for an investigation of repetitive behaviour resulting in a well-structured archaeological record. Spatial and formal patterns revealed on sites of this size have obvious advantages for quantitative analysis and statistical treatment. From 'informed guesses' and qualitative judgements we can possibly move on to the exploitation of the new ways of pattern visualisations that are implicitly embedded in current research tools such as Database Management Systems and Geographical Information Systems, but little used today. Using formalised computer techniques, this article aims to investigate main patterns related to the questions of relative chronology, social perception of temporality and social structure within a late Stone Age to Early Bronze Age necropolis, the site of Holešov in east Moravia, Czech Republic (Figure 1).

Figure 1
Figure 1: A map of central Europe showing the location of the site in its geographical setting. Image credit: L. Šmejda.

As the site lacks a reliable source of chronological and cultural affiliation for most burials (such as pottery) it has not, until now, been prioritised for detailed interpretation despite its significance in other aspects. It perhaps seemed not very attractive for scholars working in well-trodden paths of culture-historical approaches. Interpretations derived from this material were usually based on a relatively simplistic, descriptive approach. I argue that the availability of computers and software such as GIS and statistical packages set the scene for in-depth research into the mortuary variability and related ritual behaviour in this specific cultural context. Although these modern tools cannot be regarded as a panacea for solving important theoretical questions of current archaeology (Ammerman 1992), they may reveal significant structures in the data, assess probabilities of competing hypotheses and, eventually, contribute to the theoretical debate. The subjective evaluation of empirical material can thus be balanced by control mechanisms that handle even large datasets with ease. The quantitative approach is also relatively amenable for use as part of various theoretical frameworks and the respective tests can be repeated whenever needed. Tensions between 'technological' and 'philosophical' approaches will undoubtedly continue in archaeological practice (Gidlow 2000; Ingold 2010, 75). This study aims to favour neither perspective but rather, seeing the tensions as a source of fruitful debate, to contribute to the discussion.

While this article is mainly concerned with methodological issues, it also contributes to the general debate on mortuary practices pertinent to social sciences (e.g. Sosna 2009). This work deals with data collected several decades ago (so called 'legacy data'), which as yet remain without an in depth analysis and synthesis (see also Allison 2008). In the following study I return to and review the original hypotheses proposed by the excavators that address the spatial development of Holešov cemetery and the reflections of the social structure in gender-specific attributes present at the cemetery (Ondráček 1972).