3500-2500bc: The Earlier Neolithic

Distribution of sites for Early Neolithic
Figure 6.5-1: Distribution of sites for Earlier Neolithic

6.5 3500-2500bc in the South West

The whole area comprises the Isles of Scilly, Cornwall, Devon, Somerset, Gloucestershire, Gwent, Mid, South, and West Glamorgan, and South Powys. Geophysically it links significantly with both the northern part of the south east area via the north and south Cotswolds (into Oxfordshire and Wiltshire respectively) and with the south area via the Glastonbury Plain (into Dorset). In this period the south west area has 51 Gazetteer sites, 47 of which have examples of disposals in them. Of these, 7 are single burials, 20 multiple similar burial sites, and 20 multiple varied. The four other sites recorded without disposals have other relevant features of interest. The geographical distribution of the members of single disposals is widely scattered but generally south of the Cotswold-Severn area. The multiple similar disposals except for three are located in the Cotswold-Severn-Mendip area. The other three lie scattered to the south as far as Scilly. All multiple varied disposals are in the Cotswold-Severn-Mendip area, which, together with the previous (if slender) evidence for distribution, shows a considerable bias between the locations of single and multiple burials, the latter almost wholly occurring in this northern area.

6.6 3500-2500bc in the South

The area comprises Dorset, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, and Wiltshire. Geophysically it links in the west with the Glastonbury Plain, to the east with the Sussex Weald, to the north-west with the Cotswolds and to the north-east with the Berkshire Downs. In this period the south area has 55 Gazetteer sites, 42 of which have disposals. Of these 14 are single burials, 13 multiple similar burial sites and 15 multiple varied, a fairly even distribution. The 13 other sites recorded without disposals have other relevant features of interest.

Most of the sites in this area lie within an elongated oval extending north-north-eastwards from the causewayed enclosures of Hambledon Hill in the south to Windmill Hill in the north, close to the axis of which are Avebury and Stonehenge. Just as the Cotswold-Severn-Mendip area appears to be a societal grouping for the south west, so the south area seems to have its own focus in this area, if burial monument location is a guide.

6.7 3500-2500bc in the South East

The whole area comprises Oxfordshire, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire, Middlesex, Surrey, Sussex and Kent. It broadly covers the sweep of land from the eastern Cotswolds in north Oxfordshire to the Thames valley and on to Thanet, and all south to the Sussex and Kent coastlines. The Berkshire Downs and the west arm of the Sussex Downs form the geophysical link with the south area, and the Cotswolds with the south west. In this period the south east area has 50 Gazetteer sites of which 40 have disposals. Of these there are 15 single disposal sites, 10 multiple similar burial sites and 15 multiple varied. The other ten sites recorded have relevant features of interest.

The sites in this area cluster in two groups. One is in the north, centring on the Abingdon area, and the other in the south, along the South Downs. Other sites are scattered in between, but the concentrations, if that is a fair term, are in those two areas. It may not be unreasonable again to suppose that there were at least these two societal groupings in the period, in this area. There may have been more, but the region is more densely populated today than the south west and south areas, and other concentrations may be obscured by relatively modern development.

6.8 Observations, Issues and Questions

Using the single and multiple disposal modes as the entry point, the review has considered disposal process (cremation and inhumation), monumentality, single and multiple phase rite, ritual activity and associations of other deposits (grave goods, animal bone and domestic refuse) with the disposals themselves. This approach appears to have indicated that the single and multiple varied disposals share very similar and usually more complex sets of treatment, but the multiple similar disposals are less striking in their characteristics. Whether this is simply a product of the definition or has more meaning, future analytical evidence will hopefully tell. This section reviews the characteristics of the period 3500-2500bc as a whole as well as linking to the underlying data.

View summary points by area : SW | S | SE

Disposal container type and distribution

In the period 3500-2500bc it would appear that the different disposal modes could take place in monuments of very varied types, and indeed that different disposal processes were used in the same monuments. It may be possible to interpret the evidence to show that there were inter-relationships, for example between long barrows or chambered tombs, causewayed enclosures and mortuary houses, but it is also possible to show that there were events on these sites not dependent on such relationships. This suggests that it is the disposal process which may have more significance than the disposal container, since the latter can vary so much. Approaching the review through the single and multiple disposal mode has exposed issues of the importance or otherwise of monumentality which might not have been revealed. It may now be possible to argue that in this period there is no neat division of monument usage, since the variety of practices are not confined to particular monumental contexts.

There appear to be site clusters, probably reflecting major population groupings, one in each of the south west and south areas and two in the south east area, and there also appear to be some differences in the distribution patterns of the single disposal sites. On a small numerical base of sites, such indicators are tenuous, but there may be a significance to be confirmed or disproved later.

Single and multiple phase rites

Both single and multiple phase rites are met with in all areas and in the different disposal modes. It does not appear possible on the evidence to assign one particular rite to any particular disposal group or geographical area. The single and multiple phase rites can be parts of a continuum of disposal practice, and one issue is whether there was meaning in stopping at a certain point in one instance while in others the rite went on to further phases. This is particularly interesting to consider when both are in evidence on the same site, which is a not unusual occurrence in this period. The phases may reflect concepts of a rite of passage, but also other factors in the society's attitudes.

Ritual activity and special deposits

These issues cannot be separated from ritual activity, for which there is a wealth of evidence in the period. The scale and variety of activity is very large. The most notable is the arrangement, rearrangement, removal and sometimes replacement of human bones in the monuments; and then again in other instances the apparent disregard for human bone which has become massed in confused heaps. This is one focus of activity which has to be explained, but there is other evidence for ritual foci which needs similar explanation and which occurs frequently as well: animal bone deposits and domestic refuse deposits both with and away from disposals, pit diggings, fire, deliberate breakage, apparent organised movement, cleaning of sites, and organically rich ditch deposits being among the more frequent. These all suggest a very energetic use of the disposal process in Early Neolithic society for purposes to be discovered.

Disposal process

The evidence makes it clear that inhumation was the most common disposal process, and that cremation was a very minor process in the south west and the south areas. From the evidence for those two areas, there was both full cremation as well as the burning of bones to an incompletely incinerated state. These were possibly two processes with separate intentions. In the south east, inhumation is also the majority disposal process, but there are two notable exceptions, in the group of sites at Dorchester-on-Thames and at one chambered tomb in Kent. There cremation was the preferred process for the community, and particularly at Dorchester-on-Thames it appears to have been used over some time and practised with attention to detail unremarked elsewhere.


Deliberate setting down of part of the cremated remains or just part of an inhumed body was not common but was identifiable in all areas, with the south east area showing more examples. In the case of inhumation, the tokenism seems to overlap with the deliberate use of the body part (most commonly cranium or cranial parts, jaw or pelvis) to express something for the people depositing it. These parts might respectively symbolise thought, expression and procreation, for example. If publicly exposed they might also (particularly the skull and jaw) be forms of a memento mori, with intentions to ward off undesirable influences or presences. There are therefore at least two kinds of deposit under this head, probably with separate intentions. A third (more obscure at this stage) may be the occasional deposit of a substantial part of a body, like the trunk or pelvis and legs.

Mortuary structures and other internal structures

Mortuary structures appear in all areas, more notably in the south area, but the use is not uniform. They were certainly used to house bodies in a form of excarnation or temporary burial practice, but sometimes they were emptied and sometimes incorporated in mounds with the bodies still within. At other times they were dismantled or burnt down, or left intact to be buried under the mound. They could be very substantial or mere lean-to constructions. It is difficult to give them any more significance than the other containers, some of which (like wooden coffins, or stone chambers) may have taken as much effort to construct. It is possible that they were used at places which were temporary burial or exposure grounds as well as occasionally on monumental burial sites.

From other evidence it is possible to infer that the mortuary house was indeed seemingly not the sole medium of temporary burial or exposure. Several sites have evidence for what seems to be the disposal of decomposing or decomposed bodies (sometimes en masse), deposited mixed with the material in which they had been interred. These disposals seem to have come from temporary burial plots, and transported into the final place of deposition. Sometimes there is a suspicion that they might even have temporarily rested in a midden-like context, since it is not unusual for the mixture to contain animal bone in quantity. How long might temporary burial last is an interesting question: it might have been months or perhaps years in some instances, before the final transfer.

There is very little evidence for other temporary internal structures within monuments, such as will appear in the next period. Grave marker posts are occasionally found with single disposals, and sometimes traces of a four-post structure in the monument floor suggests a platform for exposure of the body or for the offering of gifts prior to the final deposition rite (but these are never conclusively proven to be such).

Grave good deposits

The grave associations suggest that the south west and the south areas, and to a large degree the south east, shared the practice of infrequent and fairly minimal deposits of grave goods (accepting that some organic goods may have been lost through natural decay over time). These goods tended to be animal bones and simple tools. They usually could only be associated unambiguously in the single disposals. However the south east area had a few disposals (especially in the cremation cemeteries) where the grave goods were more numerous and perhaps symbolically more significant. In this area there were also more simple decorative personal items like shell beads.

There does not appear to have been very much discrimination between the sexes in respect of their associated deposits, which may be an interesting insight into their comparative status when it came to disposal. Whether this is continued in later periods will be a question to pursue.

Elite burial rites

No comment has been made to date about the possibility of burial rites for an elite. Singling out a person for separate burial may be one mark, but the single burials do not have very much beyond their singularity to distinguish them; for example most lack accompanying goods of excellence or a particularly notable burial container. Indeed, some disposals in communal monuments have goods of the same nature as those of single disposals, so it is hard to find discriminators there.

In the communal monuments, however, there are some forms of differential treatment, but whether this is for elites is hard to tell. Those placed in whole or disarticulated form into the common burial places appear to have had more holistic treatment in many cases than those whose remains finished as part of the contents of a layer of domestic refuse in a ditch or a mound layer, or were mixed with grave filling or contained in the rubble comprising the final blocking of a monument. On inspection there are a number of sites where human bone fragments are in pre-monument pit burials, or are in the fills just referred to. These are strong hints that the settlement itself was the focus of processes to do with disposal of the dead, and that middens (outside and inside the settlement) may have been the receptor of dead bodies, whole or part. Siting a monument on an occupation area may be a ritual act, the siting on a mortuary house only being one remove from this. It may be that there was one class in the society which was given monument burial but another which was given different treatment, providing the medium for other rituals. The disposals were possibly used for different purposes in these cases. By present-day criteria, those placed more or less in one piece in monuments might have been the elite, and those whose remains formed part of a material mass with other formal purposes might have been used in a supporting role - perhaps as they did in life, but this is for examination later.

Non-burial sites

The prime point of interest here is in the similarity of much activity on these sites to that on the burial sites. This may indicate that these sites reflect activity in daily affairs which was also transposed into the disposal context. Aspects of living thus appeared in the rite of disposal of the dead, suggesting that some similar beliefs applied in either context. This connects with the possibilities just referred to.

The period 3500-2500bc: some concluding remarks

On the evidence presented, the three areas have a very great deal in common in the way in which they conducted their disposal processes in this period, and particularly in the way in which the ritual activity suggests that the communities shared much in the way of attitudes to disposal of the dead. The great variety of this activity, when analysed and compared, discloses very similar practices, although there may be variations between areas in the intensity with which particular activities were carried out. This may be more apparent than real, however, when the quantity and accident of the surviving evidence is considered.

There was distinct activity before, during and after deposition. There is sufficient evidence to suggest that there were places where the dead body could be exposed or temporarily buried, some of which may have been communal burial grounds, or places for excarnation like the causewayed enclosures. Some were small and for individuals or a kin group, perhaps like the mortuary house. On the other hand, not everyone was treated in this way, but some were disposed of in one phase, sometimes as a careful single burial, sometimes as the latest addition to a communal burial place like a chambered tomb.

The treatment of the skeletal body (and more rarely the still fleshed body) at and sometimes after deposition was not uniform in every case. Communal accessible burial places like the chambered tombs might hold a variety of examples of body treatment, from undisturbed successive burials in separate chambers to mass disturbed bone heaps, and including within the spectrum skeletal remains subjected to rearrangement, bone abstraction and sorting into heaps of similar bone types. This represents a stage where the survivors might be seeming to exert a control over their ancestors' remains, either at the simple level of feeling able to handle them without fear, or at a more manipulative level of handling them to their own advantage. The earthen long barrows (which the south and south east areas had in greater numbers than the south west) offered no scope for revisiting remains, but there is no particular evidence to suggest that the south and south east peoples differed in the fundamental activities of treatment of skeletal material from the peoples of the south west. This control element needs to be borne in mind as a concept which might be part of a model for disposal practices and attitudes.

It has been suggested above that there may have been a layer of society whose remains were used in an important supporting role in communal burials (as in other burial contexts), and these remains perhaps received another form of controlled treatment before final deposition often with other material.

There were also stages in the disposal process where the monument or burial container received particular treatment in preparation and completion. These may have been directed at matters wider than the essential disposal, as the appearance of these features on non-burial sites suggests, but must form part of a whole.

Indeed perhaps the evidence for this period may be suggesting the outline of a model that takes the disposal processes from the negatives of the initial death (loss of different kinds to individuals, kin and the society) through transforming activities (re-establishing control of different kinds) which are completed by the positive statements (enforcing controls) of the final monument for the people constructing them. Each of the activities described in this section must have a meaning contributing to a whole sequence. It is not proposed to go beyond the initial idea at this point, but rather to review the evidence for the next period to see whether more of a pattern contributing to a model will emerge.


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