4.0 Patterns in individual foci of analysis 3500bc-AD43

4.1 Introduction

The purpose of this section is to present evidence for broad patterns of change in individual foci of analysis among the three areas: south west, south and south east over the whole timespan of 3500bc to AD43. The categories are examined independently at this stage. The full account of definitions of terms used such as 'settlement', 'open site', and 'monument' is given in the section on research methods.

Select the links at each section for more detail.

4.2 Disposal locations

4.3 Monument characteristics

4.4 Monument orientation

4.5 Body orientation

4.6 Rite incidence

4.7 Disposal method

4.8 Sex incidence

4.9 Burial incidence

4.10 Age incidence

4.11 Personal grave goods

4.12 Animal associations

4.13 Domestic refuse

4.14 Single and multiple disposal modes

4.15 Physical burial containers

4.16 Observations, Issues and Questions

This survey of individual disposal characteristics through time has sought to find evidence for broadly observable patterns, points of change, seeming preferences, and linkages at a high level. Although at times the numerical base for this has been small, there are some suggestive trends and combinations which can be taken forward. This short final section draws attention to the more notable. The section retains the main analytical divisions of location, monument and process of disposal.


The most notable occurrence is the sharp change from 8/700bc from the open site location to the settlement location for disposals, and from the same point of time in the reduction in disposal site visibility. It is from this time that the use of the four types of site (settlement - structured and unstructured, and open - structured and unstructured) begins to be much more even than in previous periods. This must raise questions about the causes. Are they to do with the evidence being incomplete because there is an archaeologically unexplored disposal location like the 'wet place', a place for disposal which falls into the open site category and has not been counted? Was there simply no extension of disposal locations, but rather the greater favouring of an existing type, prompted by necessity or belief?

The south west is ahead of the other areas in the use of open unstructured sites from 14/1300bc. The south west and the south east have a higher tendency to use unstructured sites throughout. The south area also used settlement sites for disposal to a greater extent than the others over the Iron Age. The south east area seems, in the period of continental transition, to swing back from using settlement sites to open sites. These differences raise questions which may bear on social and economic development issues in different areas in different periods as much as on rite. Can these tendencies be explained by hypotheses concerned with internally generated expansion of peoples and economies in some periods, and in others by the influence of external peoples and economies? The geographical patterns of the sites themselves are suggestive, if the dramatic expansion from the Earlier Neolithic site foci into those of the Neolithic-Bronze Age interface is taken as just one example.


Where they are recordable, the monument orientations of NW-NE and NE-SE are most popular, and the subsequent orientations are less popular in clockwise order. This may suggest that the orientation was determined more often by astronomical than locational factors, given the relative consistency across all areas, especially when one includes body orientation which tends to follow the same pattern. There are divergences from the norm in the period 14/1300-8/700bc towards the generally rarer SE-SW orientation, for which some explanation must be attempted.

The site visibility varies considerably between the areas, the immediate cause being the type of container used: earlier periods made more use of mounds, cairns and chambers, which are more visible than the pits whose use grew over the whole timespan and eventually became predominant. The south west and the south differ from the south east quite markedly in the two earlier periods, and congruence only begins to develop from 8/700-100bc. The ready availability of certain materials may be an immediate cause, but this is a superficial response, since the earthen mound is constructible in any area, and some earthen barrows and multichambered tombs were built in the south east which never favoured them much. This raises the issue of monumental practice, and why the south east should be so different in the Early Neolithic and Neolithic-Bronze Age interface periods. A second issue centres on questions such as why the effort was not expended on building visible burial monuments in later periods. Is it possible that something had made visibility of the monument a less important requirement of the disposal process, and in which case what was that element?

The use of completion processes and special materials is biased in the record towards the earlier periods. This may be a feature of change in the type of monuments used, but in fact these practices dropped steadily, even through revivals of previous disposal methods. The meaning of the completion process itself perhaps needs examining. It has tended to be seen as implying some dramatic finalising stage for the local society, perhaps prompted by a cultural upheaval (Darvill 1987a, 75-7), but this assumption needs questioning. Completion was indeed an important ritual act, and an important stage for the community's dead of maybe many generations, but it may not necessarily relate to wider social upheaval as some have inferred.

The use of special materials also may have a variety of explanations. Such materials are not commonly used, far less commonly than domestic refuse, for example - but any act which involves deliberate choice of anything other than the obvious and convenient must express a special intention. It is notable that bright colours like red, orange and yellow are not unusual components of such materials. In the same category come carvings, incisings, materials displaying fossilised creatures, and deposition of unusual objects.

Finally some attempt needs to be made to explain why sites were reused more continuously over 2500-8/700bc, except in the south west during the earlier part of that period. This may be due as much to the population and settlement patterns as to disposal customs.

Process of disposal

Multiple phase disposal and ritual activity is more evident in the earlier periods, and yet the single phase rite appears dominant throughout. It will be important to establish further the more particular circumstances of these disposals and activities. The relationship of rite to disposal process must be established if possible, and the purpose of the activity related both to the community of the dead and to the surviving members of the society for which they are assumed to have had meaning. Ritual activity itself should yield important clues to attitudes to disposal if it can be reviewed more deeply in the special studies. The activities which did take place concern both those before, at, and after the disposal event itself, and also those in multiple phase disposals, again both centring on the individual and on the previous dead.

While all areas share the general trends of inhumation and cremation incidence, it would seem that the south west was in advance of the other two areas in moving to cremation as the more frequent rite. The south east also shows a variation in a much higher cremation only incidence in the final period. Whether there are external influences at work in the last period of the continental transition, which again are influencing practice, must be an issue, and the extent of the south west's seeming earlier advance to adopt cremation needs more detailed examination in the special studies. It is also a curious point that the numbers of sites holding both cremations and inhumations rapidly dropped from 14/1300bc. Were these different practices confined to specific areas or were they intermingled geographically? Finally the issue of token disposals and their meaning arises. There would seem to be more incidences of part body disposals in 8/700-100bc, but detailed studies need to confirm that this is the case, and whether there is any correlation with the place of disposal - and whether the contexts provide evidence to explain the practice.

In an area of investigation where the base of data is small, there may be social significance in the different patterns of sole and mixed burials, and in the fact of low child only burial incidence. The incidence of sole male and sole female biases in some areas and periods may also be worth an attempt at interpretation.

Although there seem to be common tendencies to deposit particular goods in all areas, there are variations at certain times that may reflect social structure, or attitudes and beliefs about the dead or their destiny at that time. Can one be sure that the correlation of cremation incidence and lower incidence of grave goods is indeed genuine and not concealing continued practice? There are also regional variations in the placing of these goods which are of some considerable interest (the south east and south west in 100bc-AD43 for example).

The use of animal bone deposits and of domestic refuse shows a mostly regular pattern throughout the whole period of study. These deposits need explaining since their presence takes a variety of forms, and the possibilities are numerous. Whether a pattern can be constructed that satisfies a general model for one period or for the whole will be worth examining. The usual assumption is that the refuse deposits express a wish for fertility to be granted to the community. It is clearly the case with some of the deposits that they have been kept for a time before setting down, and that sometimes such deposits have been set down out of the context of human burial. Attaching a meaning to this action in the different contexts in which it happens must be attempted, since the event must have a significance.

Finally, the great variety of containers for the burial, together with their contexts, offers the chance to consider disposal attitudes against a wide spectrum of social, economic and historical possibilities. There is a considerable ebb and flow of choice, and much area difference at times. These cannot have been chance happenings, and have their roots in some explanation. It is likely that the explanations (and several might apply for different times) will involve the drawing in of other partial patterns that may possibly emerge from the other foci of analysis.


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