2500-14/1300bc: The Neolithic-Bronze Age Interface

Distribution of sites for Neolithic=Bronze Age
Figure 6.9-2: Distribution of sites for Neolithic-Bronze Age

6.9 2500-14/1300bc in the South West

The south west area has 322 sites in this period, of which 195 are single disposal sites, 54 multiple similar disposal sites, and 73 multiple varied disposal sites. In these groups there are respectively 30, 9 and 32 sites which prima facie have evidence for ritual activity. In contrast with these site types for the last period, the three different disposal types are spread fairly evenly throughout the region. There are noticeable concentrations in Scilly, in the Lands End peninsular, in the area north of the Mendips around Bath, in the north Cotswolds, and in South Glamorgan. There are lesser groups just north of Dartmoor, in the south Cotswolds and in the Gower peninsular. There are notable gaps in Dartmoor, in the south Cotswolds, in the sweep of land from Exmoor through Glastonbury Plain, and on the east bank of the Severn north of Bristol. These last two areas are particularly low-lying.

6.10 2500-14/1300bc in the South

The south area has 472 sites in this period, of which 230 are single disposal sites, 47 multiple similar disposal sites, and 194 multiple varied disposal sites. In these groups there are respectively 28, 10 and 66 sites which prima facie have evidence for ritual activity. The single disposals are heavily concentrated in the Hambledon Hill-Windmill Hill oval, but a notable cluster occurs beyond Hambledon to the south west around Dorchester, and there is a spread of sites west towards Mendip. There is a thinner distribution in the eastern part of the south area, and on the Isle of Wight. The multiple similar disposals are mostly focused in the Hambledon Hill-Windmill Hill oval and the Dorchester area. There is a small scatter in the south east, but no instances in the east and north east where the previous group provided examples. The multiple varied disposal sites have a distribution pattern which is very similar to that of the single disposals, but with particularly heavy concentrations around Stonehenge and Dorchester, and smaller intense groups around Avebury and the Dorset Cursus area.

6.11 2500-14/1300bc in the South East

The south east area has 229 sites in this period, of which 125 are single disposal sites, 27 multiple similar disposal sites, and 77 multiple varied disposal sites. In these groups there are respectively 20, 4 and 31 sites which prima facie have evidence for ritual activity. The single disposals are generally distributed across the whole south east area, with particular concentrations on the South Downs, the east Kent coastline, north Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire, and in an oval with, as its centre line, the Oxford-Newbury axis. A small string of sites seem to follow the line of the southern Thames Valley. The multiple similar disposals and the multiple varied disposal sites have a distribution pattern which is very similar, with the same nuclei.

There seems to be a general lack of sites between the South Downs moving north-eastwards towards and up to the north Surrey-Kent borders.

6.12 Observations, Issues and Questions

This period of c. 1100 radiocarbon years (c. 900 calendar years) is the second longest span of time of the five periods being considered, but contains the largest number of Gazetteer sites by far. The evidence is not merely more plentiful but more reports on sites attributed to this date are set out in reliable detail (since many were recognised more recently and using modern excavation methods compared with a many sites from 2500-14/1300bc). The nature of monument construction has also more often led to the contents being discovered undisturbed, since in this period monument re-opening for secondary burials less frequently led to movement or destruction of the previous contents. It is also possible that more material has survived which another 1000 years in the ground might have destroyed.

This period repeats the picture for 3500-2500bc insofar as the single and multiple varied disposals share very similar and usually more complex sets of treatment, but the multiple similar disposals are more low key in their characteristics. There are many strands which provide continuity with the previous period.

Disposal container type and distribution

Just as 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. This reinforces the proposition that it is disposal process which may have more significance than disposal container, since the latter can vary so much, although containers are beginning to shrink in number in 2500-14/1300bc to three main types: the pit, the mound and the urn. Continuing to approach the review through the single and multiple disposal modes has again exposed issues about monumentality which otherwise might not have been revealed. It now seems possible to argue that over 3500-14/1300bc there is no neat division of monument usage, since the variety of practices continue not to be confined to particular monumental contexts. This is a considerable period of time: 2100-2200 radiocarbon years or 2820 calendar years (c. 4350 CalBC to 1530 CalBC).

There appear to be site clusters, probably reflecting major population groupings. These appear in south east Wales (especially in South Glamorgan), north and south Cotswolds and Mendip, south Cornwall, the Windmill Hill-Hambledon Hill oval extending south west in this period to Dorchester, an Oxford-Newbury oval (extending a little west of Oxford towards the northern reaches of the Windmill Hill oval and the north Cotswolds), the South Downs and east Kent. The extension of site groupings need not imply population expansion, given the growth in local single disposal practices. There are several areas where there seems to be few sites: Dartmoor, the Exmoor-Glastonbury Plain region, Southampton Basin, and the area between the South Downs and west Kent. Selectivity in the evidence may be one reason for this.

Single and multiple phase rites

The summary for 2500-14/1300bc bears some similarities to that for 3500-2500bc. 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. There are, however, probably more visibly strong connections between the multiple phase rite and ritual activity in this period. The single phase rite is very dominant, and has grown to be more so since the last period.

Ritual activity and special deposits

The scale and variety of activity appears to be even greater in this period, with new developments and extensions of previous practices. A table (6.12-1) is given to help with comparison, using subjective indicators of relatively high (H), medium (M) or low/not in evidence (L) frequency for the two periods covered so far. The ritual activities are grouped into likely sets for pre-disposal, disposal and post-disposal phases, recognising that some activities could also take place in succeeding phases.

The notable increases in the period are in the evidence for fire making and material scattering activity, special pit digging, and deposits of non-human disposal kind (where new materials seem to have been of interest, such as sarsen stone), sculpting of artefacts, symbols, and human parts, moulding of materials, temporary stake structures, special mound layering, and the handling of human bone in various fashions. It occasionally appears that more attention to form and layout has been taken than normal.

There are occasionally remarkably shaped design features in monuments, sometimes extensively using coloured material, which suggest that the activity and its results had a special effect or meaning for the disposal process. Dome shaped grave capping, and the use of clay in grave surface preparation occurs on occasion. Indeed colour use, although not very frequent, is marked when it does happen, with red, blue, grey, yellow, white and black being the most common colours, derived from natural materials.

The evidence for ritual activity is very rich for this period. At this point it is not intended to offer interpretations since ethnographical evidence is needed to inform input further, but the elements, taken together, offer a good deal of potential material for construction of a process model, taking the rite from the original loss of a member of the kin group and community to the final statement made by the monument constructed and later activity on the site. Although no single site contains every element, a composite might be built at some stage to demonstrate the possible intentions of the agents of the process, given that, from their fundamental similarities, the three geographical areas seem to be interested in similar expressions or attitudes in their disposal activities.

After this table of comparisons had been completed, it was noted that where a change had taken place from the earlier period to the later, the change was usually towards an increase in the ritual activity's appearance. Only monument blocking or other acts of formal monument closure are less in evidence, although they might have been expressed in alternative fashions, for example by more attention to boundary setting, or by mound layering or mound capping in particular materials.

Ritual activity3500-2500bc2500-14/1300bc
Site selection H H
Floor clearanceM M
Platform constructionLL
Grave lining L M
Temporary disposalM M
Binding or bundlingL L
Stake structuresLM
Pit activity MH
Importing materialsLL
Use of colour LL
Special floor coveringLL
Empty grave or container L M
Self-mutilationL L
Trampling L L
Shaft makingL L
Fires or burningM H
Spreads or scatters L M
Burial of artefactsL M
Burial of domestic refuseH H
Burial of animals or bone HH
Votive offering L L
Human bone manipulation M H
Deliberate breakage LM
Grave fill with bone fragsLL
Setting down grave goodsLM
Token deposit L M
Designed layoutLL
Ritual structure L M
Monument blockingML
Mound layering L M
Boundary setting M H
Sculpting L M
Table 6.12-1 Broad comparison of ritual activity incidence over 3500-14/1300bc

Disposal process

The evidence presented in Sections 4 and 5 has already indicated trends towards cremation which began in this period, seemingly starting most strongly in the south west area. What appears to be an interesting point of comparison is that the single and multiple similar disposals of every area share similar characteristics, with seldom a site containing both inhumation and cremation on it at the same time, whereas the reverse was the case in all three areas in respect of the multiple varied disposals. The south area in particular had a very high ratio of mixed cremation and inhumation sites in this group.

There appear to be no geographical areas where one disposal process was favoured at the expense of the other. It is the case, however, that in the detail of disposal process in some very localised areas, there were close similarities - for example, in a grouping of two or three sites (and sometimes more) the form of the deposition was repeated on sites, and was clearly the local style. These instances were infrequent, and hence the more noticeable.


As in the Earlier Neolithic, the 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 again appearing to show more examples. In the case of inhumation, the tokenism again 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.

Mortuary structures and other internal structures

Mortuary structures appear in all areas, but again much more notably in the south area. The commentary here has nothing to add to what was said in the section on 3500-2500bc above.

There is much more evidence in this period for other temporary internal structures within monuments, particularly in the south area. They appear to have been capable of serving several purposes, sometimes possibly in combination. Some sites have quite complex collections of stake structures. Some had the simple function of marking a boundary of the monument, and providing a slight revetment for the mound in construction. Others had a purpose which becomes much more a matter for speculation. The screening of a state (for example a body lying exposed for a while in the grave before the disposal process was continued), or of an activity (perhaps one which was by custom kept from the common gaze) are the most usual explanations, and plausible. It is also possible to argue that these structures had a more simple function: to protect an exposed corpse from predators for example, or to shelter the area of activity from the weather. The more difficult issue is whether the erection of these stake lines, circles, arcs and occasionally enclosed pathways were sometimes expressions of the control of space for a particular purpose, as much as to perform the simple functions already described. This will need deeper examination in the context of a complete review of the possible disposal process model.

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 prior to the final deposition rite (but these are never conclusively proven to be such, although their alternative purposes might be thought even more speculative).

Grave good deposits

A very great deal of evidence for clearly associated grave goods exists for the period. A general point of interest emerged from the review in Section 6 which suggested that the distributions and proportions of disposals with and without grave goods showed no particular biases among the disposal containers or the geographical locations: there were no special foci for either.

Where goods occur, the personal utensil (very often a Beaker) is by far the most frequent, usually accompanied by another personal item (a decorative or work tool). The interpretation of goods of excellence has been given a wider meaning than simply the gold item and faience necklace, so as to capture very well made or otherwise clearly special items. On that definition, disposals with such goods are as generally distributed as the other types, which situation will need some interpretation later since it may suggest as much an evenness in the communities' practice of disposal rite, as it does the even distribution of a more wealthy elite. On the other hand, it is to fly in the face of the evidence to deny that there were several burials of impressive kind with objects of wealth and beauty quite out of the ordinary, and that with a few exceptions these items fell in the south area.

There continues to be little discrimination between the sexes in respect of most associated deposits, which may be an interesting insight into the comparative position of men and women at the time when it came to disposal of the body. This makes allowance for the tendency of the males to have the more aggressive artefacts, and the females to have the less aggressive: and for the converse occurrence.

Elite burial rites

In the period 3500-2500bc it was hard to find clear discriminators to identify an elite burial rite. Some single burials might be assumed to be such by their very singularity, and some chambered tomb disposals appeared to have been left undisturbed, almost as if in kin groups (as on osteological evidence some undoubtedly were). On the other hand, both of these conditions might have been temporary, and both might have been awaiting a secondary or tertiary phase in the disposal process as clearly happened to many disposals. Also the probability is that the deposit of grave goods in 3500-2500bc was no indicator of elite status, since they were few in survival, simple, and not often clearly associated with individuals. If one widens the definition of elite burial rite from the disposal of a member of an implied superior social group to that of one chosen for a special disposal process, then for 3500-2500bc the bone manipulation activity in certain cases (in retrospect) suggests that some persons were chosen for an elite burial rite. Deliberate damaging of the body after death, deliberate exposure of certain fleshed body parts or of particular bones in prominent open places, and the deliberate burial of body trunks or the corresponding lower limbs in complete articulation all occurred and might have been an expression of a group's respect for the power of a member of an elite, with the body parts used as symbols by the community.

There has already been discussion of the problems of clear identification of an elite burial rite for 2500-14/1300bc, which will not be repeated here. Undeniably there are more indicators in this period of individuals buried with notable grave goods (not necessarily goods of wealth), or of burials with a notable design or setting which distinguishes them from others. There is generally more evidence surviving for recognition of the individual in the settings of disposal (the increase in single disposals and in grave good deposits among all disposals are the most obvious indicators). If the definition of eliteness is widened from that simply encompassing evidence for wealth (which may be the rich person's equivalent of domestic refuse or a finely made flint tool in its essential value to the disposal process), to include disposals where there has been a particular effort to recognise the individual by the form and content of the disposal process, then there is seen to be an elite burial rite - but it is one dependent on form and process and not solely wealth. Examples of some possibilities are described in detail, and the point made that a member of an elite may be considered such for the very individual reason of the role played by him or her in society or a great skill displayed in life, or even both. On that interpretation people would indeed be as much chosen for particular attention as demand it. The circle of such an elite may not be precisely drawn, since the members of the society would determine it ad hominem: there may be anthropological parallels for this.

Non-disposal sites

The prime point of interest here continues to be the similarity of much activity on these sites to that on the burial sites. This provides further support for the idea that these non-disposal sites reflect activity in daily affairs which was also transposed into the disposal context. Aspects of living in this period thus continue to appear in the rite of disposal of the dead, suggesting that some beliefs applied in either context.

The period 2500-14/1300bc: some concluding remarks

The previous period's concluding remarks began with this observation, which holds broadly true for this period also: 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 remembered.. The sole modification necessary is to the last sentence, since the evidence is there in great quantity, and sometimes is of high quality.

There are a number of questions which need preliminary airing arising from the evidence for 2500-14/1300bc, focusing on monumentality, ritual, and geographical considerations. It has already been suggested that the monument type may be subordinate to the disposal process itself, but that does not consider whether focal monument groups existed per se, or whether particular monuments with disposals acted as focal points for the community. At the lower level, it has long been assumed that there were local groupings of monuments, and the contents of some groups confirm by their similar deposition evidence that a local community gave a local accent to disposal processes when it came to fine detail. At a higher level, the striking point about the more ambivalent henge and cursus monuments is that, if one sets outward form aside, they contain certain disposal characteristics of causewayed enclosures. It is a short step and perhaps over-bold to suggest that they may have succeeded such enclosures as foci, or been alternatives for a while. Yet the relative cleanness of their interiors and the occasional deposition of whole or part bodies (and domestic refuse or animal parts) in their ditches, and other ditch activity such as recutting and cleaning, mirrors activity at many causewayed enclosures. The outward form of the henges is geometrically more regular, and the visible interior wooden and stone constructions which some henges possess might be seen as eversions and alternative expressions of the interior stone and sometimes wooden structures of cairned and mounded tombs of 3500-2500bc.

It is conceivable that these, sometimes very large, monuments might have emerged as the focal sites for societies in 2500-14/1300bc, just as the other, smaller, contemporary sites were multiplying in number. Their rather different forms may simply have reflected the variety of form that in any case existed widely within monument types of the period (compare the round barrow and cremation cemetery forms in their respective variety). The scale of their structures (the very deep shafts at Maumbury, the very deep ditches at Avebury, the massive stones erected at Stonehenge and Avebury), the very area that some covered (such as the cursuses), or the intricate and intimate inter-relationship of structure at others (like Woodhenge) cannot but have provided focal points for community, which in some cases was perhaps very widespread. It may be that they were reflecting at large what the community believed and practised in microcosm both in their daily lives and in their attitudes to the dead. That they were reference points for disposal processes (as probably were the causewayed enclosures) seems on the evidence more likely than not (Stonehenge had formal regular disposals), but their part in those processes appears more obscure. Their forms suggest that a wider ritual activity was more their focus and reason for being, and this must be explored.

Turning to the issue of geographical similarities, are there any detectable area links? The use of urn burial is more focused in communities in the south of Cornwall, Scilly and the Dorchester area, almost as if there were (sea) connections of some kind which encouraged this tendency. There may be connections between the north Cotswolds (which would include the head of the Thames), the northern part of the south area and the north section of the Thames Valley from Abingdon and Oxford northwestwards. The evidence which supports this is admittedly not strong: the incidence of grouped Beaker burials which suggest that there might have been a population settling in the Upper Thames Valley and which spread from there west and south. The Beaker cemeteries near Oxford may represent a pioneering community, and there is certainly other disposal evidence for mixed Beaker and assumed indigenous communities for that area. There appears no evidence in any region that a Beaker community in any sense took over a local community, and what there is suggests a new stimulus to change and integration, but not necessarily an overturning. Another, perhaps also tenuous, link is between the cremation cemetery foci at Abingdon with the cremation pit circle at Stonehenge, and the greater propensity for cremation use in the south west area which may have been stimulated via the north Thames Valley route. This is, however, very speculative, and begs the question why the cremation tendency is not shown more strongly in this period further south of the Thames in the south east area: was the Thames the corridor beyond which this cultural move did not expand?

Apart from the increase in the placing (or survival) of grave goods, there is no special difference in the treatment of individuals or groups between this period and the last, although the outward form is altering. The cremation cemeteries are a new communal burial mode soon largely to overtake the inhumation communal burial. The latter still exists in 2500-14/1300bc and in forms similar to those of the last period. As indicated above, ritual activity is maintained or is at a higher level than before. The importance of domestic refuse in disposal practice is confirmed by its continuing presence on sites, with the disposals or in the monument, as well as on non-disposal sites. This dual use suggests that the meaning of the deposit may be bound up in a belief that the act is a positive expression for a positive end. It may form part of an extended process of transformation for those conducting the disposal rite.

The commentary on the previous period ended by suggesting that an outline disposal process model might begin to be constructed, and the evidence from 2500-14/1300bc has provided more material for a framework. The three broad stages of process have been discernible through the ritual activity referred to above, and a preliminary grouping of major elements has been suggested in Table 6.12-1. The disposal process might be seen to take both the subjects of disposal and the members of society undertaking the disposal acts through a set of transitional processes: from a negative state of disorder and uncontrol, through a state whereby the negatives are brought under control, to a final state where what was once negative has been turned to a wholly positive expression. In this, the ritual activity as one medium may have several foci. Anthropological studies may clarify what these might be.


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