5.2 3500-2500bc: The Earlier Neolithic

Devon Dorset Somerset Wiltshire Hampshire Cornwall Scilly Hampshire Sussex Surrey Kent Berkshire Gloucestershire Gwent Oxfordshire Buckinghamshire Bedfordshire Powys Middlesex West South

Distribution of sites from Earlier Neolithic period
Figure 5.2-1: Distribution of sites from Earlier Neolithic. Select map to retrieve all sites (by county).

The period is represented by 129 sites in all with disposal evidence, 47 in the south west, 42 in the south and 40 in the south east, a reasonably even distribution for comparisons although the numerical base is small. The Gazetteer itself contains another 26 sites of this period without burials but with features of interest usually of a ritual nature. It is clear from Tables 1, 2 & 3 how the disposal locations in 3500-2500bc are very biased towards open sites, and to open structured sites in particular. The south west and the south have a few settlement instances, but the south east has just one: the south east shows another slight difference in that archaeologists have found open unstructured sites there much more often than in the south and south west.

Taking monument characteristics next (Tables 31, 32 & 33), very few sites in any area are set on former occupation areas (5-6%), and the people even less often used special materials in monument construction, such as stone or clay carried in from some distance. The people of the south and south east appear to have continued to use only one site in ten into the next period, whereas the south west peoples reused sites at three times that rate. The south and south east similarly differed from the south west in their employment of formal completion processes to mark the closure in use of a monument, only 5-8% of their sites having such evidence compared with 23% of the south west sites. This slightly contradicts the evidence for continuity, since probability (if it operates here) would suggest the reverse should be the case.

There is a further parting of the ways in both single/multiple design and in visibility. The three areas fan out, the south east peoples using sites which had a single design three times as often as using a site then redesigning it again one or more times. In the south west, the single design site is nearly seven times more frequent than the site which has been subject to redesign. Then in the south, geographically in between, the peoples seldom (7%) redesigned a burial monument. These results are again slightly unusual, if one expects long site usage (that is across more than one period) to produce more variation in design. One might also have expected, for example, the south and south east to be similar on those grounds, but they are in fact at the opposite ends of the spectrum of incidence of multiple design.

Site visibility is the other distinguishing feature between the three areas. All areas favour the building of sites that were meant to be visible, but only 7 out of 10 south east sites comply, compared with just over 8 out of 10 south west sites and 9 out of 10 south sites. These results for multiple/single design and visibility may well correlate with south east disposal location types, which include a higher proportion of open unstructured burial places (Table 2) than the south and south west. These locations tended to be less visible, as for instance isolated pits.

Patterns of orientation of monuments (Tables 61, 62 & 63) and of bodies (Tables 91, 92 & 93) for 3500-2500bc are in the main very similar. The NE-SE quadrant is clearly favoured for both monument and body, and in all areas. This is also fairly true for the second favourite, NW-NE, both for monument and body. The recorded number of body and monument orientations for the other two quadrants are very small (especially bodies), and the picture is more ambivalent. Incidences of recorded body orientation are not high in this period, and in particular the south and south east had higher proportions of disposal sites which did not have any orientation.

Disposal sites may have instances of both single and multiple disposal rites on them in the same period. During 3500-2500bc, the peoples of all three areas most frequently used a single phase disposal (85-90% incidence), and the peoples of the south west and south east used a multiple phase rite on roughly one in five sites (17-18%). However, the south area peoples used multiple phase rites to a much greater degree than elsewhere and on 43% of the area's recorded sites. They had also had the highest incidence of evidence for ritual activity on their disposal sites at 60%. This period is in fact very high in incidence of such activity, with both the two flanking areas also strongly represented (south west at 43%, south east 50%).

In considering disposal methods (Tables 151, 152 & 153), there are some interesting area differences. To start with the main similarity, however, the most frequent and consistent occurrence everywhere was the site with just inhumation burial (70-76%). The south west peoples carried out both inhumation and cremation on a site much less frequently, but still to a greater degree than the south and south east (23-14-13%). Cremation only sites were more unusual in the south west than in the south and the south east (6-10-18%). What is clear is that cremation was by no means as infrequent as may have previously been supposed for 3500-2500bc: in the south west it appears on 29% of sites, in the south at 24% and in the south east at 31%. Excarnation examples are most frequent in this period, the south providing the majority, the same people who used multiple phase rites and ritual acts to a greater degree than those of the south west and south east. The south also, as will be seen, provides more examples of the mortuary house, part of a multiple phase disposal rite. Finally, the evidence for differentiating between the areas on part body, whole body, and mixed part and whole body disposals, shows broad similarities in what has survived, except the south east has more and the south west fewer examples of part body disposals.

Sites with burials of both sexes (Tables 181, 182 & 183) are the major group overall in this period, but the south west has easily the highest proportion at 38% incidence, more than twice the rate of each of the south and south east which are roughly the same. The south leads in male only burials (29%), but the south west is very low in these and the south east about average. Both the south and south west are very low in incidence of female only burials, but the south east is relatively high at four times the rate of the others. In the surviving record the south east provides the most even representation of sole male, sole female and burials of both sexes.

There is some correlation between this evidence and that for burial groups (Tables 211, 212 & 213), where the south west peoples mostly buried adults and children in the same disposal site, and much less frequently buried adults alone (40% and 9% incidence). The south favoured the same pattern, but with a lower incidence of adult and child burial and a higher adult only burial (31-12%). Evidence suggests that the south east peoples were different, with more sites confined to adult only disposal, and fewer to adult and child together. The figures on which to build any theory are small, but it looks as if there is a greater community of disposal in this period in the south west, and that this community fades as one travels through the south peoples towards those of the south east. The south east certainly presents a different pattern from the south west, and nearly the reverse. Finally, child only burial sites are very unusual in all areas in 3500-2500bc, and it looks as if children were buried with adults for the most part, and seldom treated separately.

The observation about community of disposal in the last paragraph might have slight support in the evidence for single and multiple disposal modes in this period, as set out in Tables 361, 362 & 363. The south west peoples' pattern is quite different from that for the (largely similar) south and south east peoples. Single disposals are low, and are less than half the frequency of those in the other areas. Multiple disposals in the south west are relatively high at 43% incidence for both similar and varied types, above the other two areas. Single disposal incidence increases from west to east, while multiple similar disposal incidence drops. Multiple varied disposals also fall travelling west to east, but the south and south east peoples have similar rates of incidence for these.

The previous section has remarked on the doubtful usefulness of the unweighted age incidence figures, partly because of identification problems and partly because of the lack of a count at this level which might give a truer picture of survival rates. However, the data in Tables 241, 242 & 243 broadly indicate that the high mortality ages were 0-17 and 36+, implying that if one survived adolescence in this period, then the prospects of living to 30-35 were reasonable in the three areas. The numerical base is small, and because of that it might be risky to put too much store by the slight variations there seem to be. The south peoples, for example, seem to have a higher 0-17 mortality representation, and a lower 36+ representation, and the south east peoples seem to be rather the reverse. Were the south east peoples better favoured?

In 3500-2500bc, overall 56% of sites had no personal grave goods associated with disposals (Tables 271, 272 & 273). The figures suggest some possibly revealing differences between the three areas. For all peoples, depositing a personal utensil with the disposal was the most popular option, but the south east peoples did this more frequently than the south and south west peoples (33% incidence compared with 19% elsewhere). Personal craft items were the next most favourite deposits, but the south west peoples deposited them twice as often as did those of the south and south east. The south west peoples in the same way more frequently placed items of personal decor with their dead than did those of the south east or the south, the last area being very low. The south east sites had more incidence of excellence in the personal grave goods than the south west, and the south area had none. Similarly with tokenism, the south east had more instances. Overall, just under half the south west sites has burials with no personal grave goods, just over half the south east sites, but two thirds of all south sites had burials without such goods.

Deposits of animal parts or whole animals were not unusual in 3500-2500bc (Tables 301, 302 & 303). The south west peoples were heaviest depositors of part animals (43% of sites had incidences), well ahead of the south east peoples at 23% and the south at 17%. Whole animal deposits were unusual, and the two instances were in the south area. Articulated animal part deposits were also unusual. The differences may be suggestive if linked with the personal grave good deposits of craft goods which, in the south west, frequently included hunting gear.

The last deposit to be considered for the period 3500-2500bc is that of domestic refuse. This could be placed in the monument structure or with the burial itself. There seems to be a relatively high incidence of such deposits in this period (see Tables 331, 332 & 333), with the peoples of all three areas adopting much the same practices in general. The south west peoples tend to favour monument deposit to disposal deposit (43-30%) compared with those of the south and south east who reverse this preference. There may be meaning in the choice for the people of these areas, the monument choice possibly being related to a community good, the disposal choice related to a specific family good, but these are two of a number of possibilities to be discussed later. In the south and the south east, monument deposits were of high incidence at 45 and 50% respectively.

Finally, to the evidence for physical burial containers set out in Tables 391, 392 & 393 for 3500-2500bc. The most significant variation between the areas is the preference in the south east for the pit as opposed to the mound (70% against 28%). The south west and the south peoples reverse this, preferring the mound to the pit (60/19% and 71/19% respectively). Probably associated with these preferences is the tendency for the south west and south areas to use platforms or paving in their monuments to a considerably greater extent than in the south east. In a similar association is the much higher use in the south west of stone constructions such as chambers (66% incidence), cairns (19%) and cists (17%): all of these are much less in evidence in the south (12-7-2%) and the south east (8-0-5%). Whether this is simply a reflection of available materials or of something more needs some exploration, but if the building of large monuments requiring much labour is a symbol or a statement by a group, then perhaps it needs explaining in 3500-2500bc as much as has been attempted for later periods, when even more impressive monuments were built but in other areas.

There are perhaps three other points of interest to cover in this analytical focus. The south peoples appear to set the disposal more often on the ground surface than do the south west and south east peoples. Then the south east has the only evidence for shafts but, given the preponderance of pits as the disposal container, this is consistent with practice, although it must raise a question of its ritual meaning. Finally, the south has the most incidences of mortuary houses, followed by the south east, and then the south west (19-8-2%). There is some correlation here with the use of excarnation and of ritual activity, noted earlier as being higher in the peoples of the south area.


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