The daily course of prehistoric life inevitably involved dealing with death. This case-study focused on a large prehistoric cemetery consisting of four distinguishable chronological phases. It is generally accepted that the cemetery was founded as a small burial ground during the period of Bell Beaker culture, which assumption is confirmed by a handful of stratigraphical observations. All the early graves (i.e. those of Bell Beaker culture and the following Chłopice-Veselé group) are located in the northern part of the site. This conclusion is further supported by the distribution of typologically early artefacts as well as by the spatial and quantitative patterns of stone and metal objects.
A model of temporal development has been constructed, supporting the idea of continuity in the burial customs and the long-term usage of the site, which expanded to the south and east during the Nitra and Únětice cultural phases. The exploration of a large amount of data by means of GIS procedures and statistics has been fundamental to the argument proposed in this article. The contribution of GIS tools is considerable, since they made it possible to support – by the exploitation of mass data – the validity of some earlier hypotheses formulated on the basis of a few chronologically valid observations by the excavator in the 1970s (Ondráček 1972). Such tools were also instrumental in raising new questions, which seem to be highly relevant for the study of large archaeological sites.
At this site they have served to bring to light the underlying rules in the deposition of artefacts that were associated with gender and status. Although the interpretation of these regularities is not straightforward on the basis of results of the methods presented, they prove the existence of structured mortuary behaviour. Such strong patterns of burial rite must correspond to well-organised mental concepts and performed practices of ritual transformation of the dead during the funeral. The dead underwent a passage (van Gennep 1960) from a community member to a stylised ancestor whose appearance in the grave had to fit the commonly shared mental image of such social persona. While some traces of remaining individuality can still be discerned in the overall variation of the archaeological record, the major part of it consists of a repeated application of two distinct cultural templates of gendered burial evolving through time. We can estimate the degree of such regularities by the amounts of total variance represented by factors #1-4 in Table 3 (they cumulatively account for slightly more than 50% of the overall variability).
Although the burials in Holešov show a high degree of normativity and citation of earlier funerary rituals that happened within the same local cultural context, the possibility cannot be excluded that some reflection of social standing of the deceased and relationships with other members of the community can be rendered from the data accessible to archaeologists. The variation and clustering in burial complexity, as revealed by the methodology applied in this article, can be explained partly by the evolution of funerary customs during the Stone Age/Bronze Age transition period, but in other ways seems to depict an outline of social categories such as gender, age and status. The repeated, ritualised acts of burying, during which respect is paid to appropriate social categories and rules, is a structured practice running in its specific rhythm within a formally delimited part of the cultural landscape designated as a burial ground or cemetery. Such a place develops in time and space and this process is inseparably interwoven with the continuously transforming social fabric of the community that uses it. Thus the cemetery has its temporality as a specific kind of taskscape (Ingold 2010).
The community conducting the rites of passage that centred on a dead body was at the same time itself undergoing a ritual transformation (Gansum and Oestigaard 2004). The impact of individual deaths on the living and the roles they played in the necessary rituals must have depended on their contextual relationships (were they relatives, peers, close/distant friends, enemies, members of the same/different institutions, socially superior/inferior etc.). Even if the living were not touched directly, they participated in the social network, where any change can shift the distribution of tensions across the whole structure. The dynamics of such collective transformations, if taken into account, raise questions about the discernibility of an individual's social identity in burial, which can best be spoken of as relative and relational rather than absolute and fixed (Bruck 2004). We probably cannot hope for more than occasional insights into personal identities and life histories in prehistoric data, but we are certainly able to study culturally shared mental concepts of general social categories (their ideal types or archetypes) as they are portrayed in their material metaphors, e.g. in graves. The variability in the cultural construction of physical entities that we call burials in archaeological terminology can be studied in many ways (Ekengren 2013); in my intra-site case-study I have explored the benefits provided by the visualisation of complex data in the Geographical Information Systems.
It has been argued in this article that the concept of 'fact space'– which is a union of spatial and formal dimensions (Šmejda 2008) – has promising potential for future research. Maps of the kind presented in section 8.2 were based on this concept. They are not commonly used today, despite all the information they can offer. Having developed this approach, I suggested a departure from well-trodden paths of archaeological reasoning based on GIS software. The problem of technological (and methodological) determinism certainly is a serious issue in contemporary archaeology (Gidlow 2000). I believe that our research (while accepting its necessary interdisciplinary character) should rely on critical assessments of original archaeological data. Visualisations of patterns are in many cases more self-explanatory and easier to understand for the general archaeological audience than highly specialised numerical methods of data analysis, although it must be acknowledged that the former largely build on the latter and they cannot be separated. Also, they cannot fully replace numerical methods where the computation of statistical significance of results is required, as they are mainly exploratory tools.