4. Critical Appraisal of Problematic Aspects

It is generally accepted that the main sources of variability in prehistoric cemeteries are: chronology, ritual practices/customs, gender, and status of buried persons, but also conditions of death and other factors. Nevertheless, it is by no means easy to identify, classify and interpret the individual facets of mortuary behaviour due to the fact that human groups have been producing an almost limitless variety of approaches to the disposal of the dead that have been documented by ethnography, history and other relevant disciplines (Ucko 1969; Chapman et al. 1981). Unfortunately, researchers have sometimes been rather too prompt to recognise chiefs, rich and poor commoners, shamans, warriors, and craftsmen, and these views still proliferate in the archaeological literature, regardless whether such a reading of the material record is plausible, as if it was the direct reflection of social reality (criticised in Kristiansen 1984 and Bruck 2004, among others). Although the parameters of a dynamic living culture should be leading our investigation of the static archaeological sources on ancient burial practices, we still face daunting challenges in order to unravel the history of the site.

We can expect that it will be possible to reveal some patterns in the data, reflecting intentional behaviour of people in the Early Bronze Age, and discuss their meaning (Jensen and Nielsen 1997). The symbolic character of burial rituals and their incomplete material record actually present a major problem for archaeologists, because they are no longer directly linked to their original cultural context and hence can be decoded only in part (see for instance Pader 1982; Neustupný 1995).

According to the site catalogue (Ondráček and Šebela 1985), approximately one-third of the graves contained no preserved grave goods and the precise dating of the graves is therefore difficult to assess. Furthermore, a low frequency of chronologically sensitive artefacts is typical of the rest of the burials. Pottery in particular is very scarce here, which is a serious factor, limiting the traditional typological analysis. Despite these complications, the excavator could recognise an accumulation of earlier graves in the northern part and a handful of later ones scattered along the south-east edge of the site (Ondráček 1972). The first two stages of mortuary activity at the Holešov cemetery (Bell Beaker and early Epi-Corded Ware culture) seem quantitatively under-represented at first sight, but in fact we know very little about the precise duration of the subsequent phases and the sizes of population related to the site, which are the main quantitative variables controlling the accumulation rate of burials on any site. Another factor that should be considered is that only the lower parts of funeral structures (usually consisting of a burial chamber or a simple grave pit) were preserved in the archaeological record. We cannot exclude the possibility that the dead were also subjected to other means of disposal, e.g. they could have been interred into earthen mounds erected over earlier burials (which were later destroyed) or exposed in a wooden structure built on the surface. A range of other burial types are known from ethnography, including a number that are archaeologically undetectable (Ucko 1969). It is beyond the scope of this article to present a full discussion of the potentially missing evidence in the completely excavated cemetery, but careful interpretation of the data, taking such factors into account, is certainly necessary.

Figure 4
Figure 4: Holešov: an archival photograph showing the progress of excavation in the 1969 season. A view at the north part of the cemetery with several graves superimposed. Used with permission, courtesy of the Archaeological Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences in Brno. (Not covered by CC-BY licence. Permission will be required for any further use)

From the methodological point of view we can make the following statements about the general nature of the site in order to select appropriate methods for its analysis:

  1. Over time, the cemetery expanded horizontally, rather than in vertically accretive layers;
  2. Individual features (grave pits) can be spatially delimited by well-defined, non-overlapping polygons (only in a few cases do minor parts of the features overlap, touch or disturb one another: Figure 4).
  3. There is a relatively broad range of finds, intentionally grouped into burial assemblages that can be unambiguously linked to the individual features (grave pits).

These observations make it apparent that looking for spatial patterns in the data will be of key importance. Furthermore, in the section devoted to multidimensional analysis, I will demonstrate how we can explore the various concepts of 'space' (see also Low and Lawrence-Zúñiga 2003). The choice of this approach appears even more suitable when we take into account that in reality there was no clear-cut division between the final Stone and Early Bronze Ages and the individual archaeological cultures associated with this period of prehistory. Hence, we can take as our starting point the assumption of a more or less smooth spatio-temporal development and continuous use of this funerary site. I am aware that it would be difficult to prove an uninterrupted continuity of use of this cemetery, because the archaeological knowledge of the fine chronology of prehistoric artefacts is rather coarse-grained. However, it seems there could not have been any excessive interval of time between any pair of subsequent burial events. In other words, all the excavated burials were added to the already existing funerary area that was being recognised and used as such by several succeeding cultural groups in the course of half a millennium.