7.0 The themes emerging from the evidence

7.1 Introduction

The data has been reviewed from three angles so far: the 14 individual characteristics of disposal throughout each period (section 4); how the individual characteristics to each other and to the three geographical areas within each period (section 5); and detailed studies by area of disposal method, ritual activity, location, and associations of grave goods and other material (section 6). This section will now deal with the themes which seem to be emerging from these three strands of evidence.

7.2 Possible pre-Disposal Themes

These themes centre on the choice of the eventual final resting place, if any, and on treatment of the body from the point when breath has expired to the stage when it receives its next major treatment in the process of disposal.

It is notable that in the earlier periods the visibility of burial monuments is generally very high, but gradually diminishes in the later periods. There is an apparent movement from the use of more open and visible sites towards the use of settlement sites for disposals over the whole timescale, with a notable shift in the period 8/700-100bc. This may be a misleading signal, however, as other themes below will suggest. While the disposal location appears to shift from 8/700bc towards settlements, and from thereon there appears to be a more even use of the four types of location, this may conceal the use of settlements in the disposal process in earlier periods, and the possible inter-relationship of settlement (hut and pit), midden contexts, temporary exposure or burial places, ditch contexts on various site types (henges and causewayed enclosure in the earlier periods for example) and burial monument throughout the whole timescale. There are traces in the earlier evidence which in retrospect are suggestive of strong relationships. These possible inter-relationships form part of an emerging theme of location processes which is present in the three stages of pre-disposal, disposal and post-disposal activity.

Specifically, the evidence for the existence of mortuary structures generally declines from 14/1300bc, although the excarnation theme of a place for some bodies to rest to decompose (independent of the existence of a structure to cover them) immediately on death is implicit through all periods, alongside other processes. There are rare echoes of such structures on the occasional late site.

7.3 Possible Disposal Themes

There are a number of themes attached to the disposal processes themselves. First, the variety of containers for burials is very wide from the outset, but the variety tends to decrease over time and by 100bc-AD43 comprises just a few common types. The individual container type does not appear to be related to disposal mode (cremation or inhumation), to disposal process (single or multiple phase rite) or to specific ritual activities. This independence is mirrored in the monument types' associations with the same elements as will appear below.

All areas use single and multiple phase rites for single disposals, multiple similar and multiple varied disposals (the three disposal types which were used for analytical purposes in the special studies in Section 6). No disposal type can be distinguished as subject to one particular rite. While there is an apparent decline of multiple phase rites after 2500bc on the evidence of the broad survey in Section 4, there is evidence in Section 6 suggesting that the multiple phase rite may have existed throughout all periods. The seemingly high percentages for single phase rites from 14/1300bc onwards may give a false picture. The act of cremation destroys evidence for prior processes, which may lead to an assumption that the method when used always represents a single phase rite. There is occasional, but nonetheless clear, evidence that cremation may have been the final stage of body disposal after excarnation or exposure, or that only part bodies have been cremated, or that cremated material was removed and sometimes went on to play a part in subsequent processes. The multiple phase rite may therefore be a permanent theme of disposal for the whole timescale, and more might underlie the single phase rite than at first appears, cremation being not a single phase but one visible process in a series.

In every period both disposal processes (cremation and inhumation) were in use, and their distribution was generally even, with occasional isolated local emphases on cremation in periods of inhumation. The south area tends to have a higher proportion of mixed inhumation and cremation sites.

On the theme of liminality, the presence of internal structures, usually of a temporary nature, mostly occurs in the form of stake circles or arcs within some round barrows during 2500-8/700bc. They are perhaps associated with activity defining the limits of process or view, and excluding or including persons. Sometimes these structures define approaches to monuments in the form of stake or post lines. The activity may relate to other liminal processes as part of a general theme associated with monument structure over all five periods and having similar purposes of exclusion or enclosure. The structures exemplified over 2500-8/700bc probably govern activity on the site just before, during, or just after the disposal itself.

Orientations of bodies and monuments where discernible are broadly similar in the cardinal points selected. Over the whole timescale, the NW-NE and NE-SE quadrants are most popular orientations, the former being preferred. The popularity of the quadrants generally diminished in a clockwise direction from NW-NE.

The great majority of disposals were set down without grave goods, and where there were accompanying grave goods they were of a very simple nature in most cases in every period. Disposal of burials with goods of excellence very often took place in the same monument as burials with modest or no grave goods. The richly furnished and isolated burial was a considerable rarity in every period. Grave goods appear to be the clearest discriminator of elite burials, although other disposal features are suggestive. It might be possible to identify different levels of grave good deposition through the five periods, but they are not all associated with grades of wealth: there are collections with different kinds of focus, perhaps associated with the social or economic rather than the political position of the person in the community. The deposition of rich goods (gold, bronze, iron, finely-wrought artefacts or exotic precious materials) does not occur uniformly throughout the timescale, and absence may not be read as unavailability. There is an indistinct theme in this connected with the deployment of resource in the disposal process, and its visibility in different forms for different purposes through the five periods, although the comparative absence of deployment of wealth and monumental construction (of the burial kind at least) in 14/1300-8/700bc breaks the pattern.

The association of animal bone and of domestic refuse with both monuments and disposals in nearly similar proportions is a consistent theme in every period. There is a similar consistent theme in the nature of the domestic refuse so placed. The discovery of middens with human bone content (not just domestic refuse pits, but extensive communal refuse deposits), suggests links between disposal practice and other important facets of community life.

In respect of treatment of the sexes, where the sex of a burial can be determined (and that is in a very small minority of cases in every period), there is little evidence to suggest that the males were treated any differently from the females in any period in respect of disposal method, rite phasing or other main characteristics. Where a wealthy burial is found and sex is discernible, again there does not appear to be very different treatment of the male or female, although the types of grave goods (as is the case with less wealthy burials) tend to associate the more aggressive with the male, and the more decorative with the female - but not invariably. Both sexes tend to be accompanied by goods of use in day-to-day occupations. However, sometimes there appears to be the symbolic use of items as grave goods (as with bronze knives and daggers deposited with males and females in disposals during 2500-14/1300bc, or miniaturism).

In the earlier periods the ritual activity appears more intense in connection with the single disposals and the multiple varied disposals. In the later periods, from 8/700bc, there is more even treatment of the three types, the multiple similar disposals becoming more on a par with the others, but the evidence for the activity is much less in many characteristics. Otherwise there is a wide range of minority means by which the population expressed itself in ritual acts, from self-mutilation to colour and design in monument structure, although the diversity fades through the five periods from a peak in 2500-14/1300bc.

There is a consistent theme throughout the whole timescale of the use of human bone in forms of ritual activity with purposes to be defined. The theme is there even in the more muted periods of ritual activity, and it occurs in all disposal types and contexts, although in the earlier periods more commonly with single and multiple varied disposals. The human bones predominantly in use were crania (and cranial fragments), jawbones, pelvic girdles (more rare) and long bones. Usage is both in the disposal phase itself and in the phase after disposal. There is a consistent representation throughout the timescale and in every area of human bone parts, deliberately placed as tokens of a different kind perhaps, in contexts often of a liminal kind, such as ditches, ditch terminals, grave and pit edges, entrances, and shaft bottoms.

Within the definition of token burial, the south east area consistently appears to provide more unambiguous examples than the other two areas, but the level of token burial is overall very low on the interpretable evidence.

7.4 Possible post-Disposal Themes

The most obvious post-disposal activity, especially in the earlier periods, was the construction of the visible monument which covered the disposal. Orientations of monuments and of bodies, where discernible, are broadly similar in the cardinal points selected, as has been noted above. Over the whole timescale, the NW-NE and NE-SE quadrants are most popular orientations, the former being preferred. The popularity of the quadrants generally diminished in a clockwise direction from NW-NE.

Attention to the process of the composition of the mound and to the materials used was notable in every period with such monuments, the activity being ordered and sometimes complex.

Completion processes (definitive closing of a monument to further disposals) may through periods exist in forms other than that of the obvious physical one of blocking a monument entrance. These forms might include dumping of mingled partial and whole disposals and other material in one event in one grave, the sealing of cists, urns and graves, the capping of urns and pits, and the laying down of stone platforms to cover urnfields. Whether all these different forms have the same interpretation is not yet certain, but they have in common an intended finality of access.

The use of human parts in ritual after disposal has taken place emerges most clearly in 8/700-100bc, but as themes elsewhere have shown, detailed examination in the special studies of Section 6 suggests consistent use of human skeletal material in disposal and post-disposal activities in a number of different locations through all five periods.

Many burial monuments have boundaries such as ditches or banks, but also features such as entrances, forecourts, palisaded approaches and causeways which suggest liminal purposes beyond the obviously functional. These occur in greater abundance in the earlier periods, but the locational shift from 8/700bc and the spread of disposal locations offers less evidence for the later periods. As noted above, the placing of human bone parts at boundary points (like ditch terminals) may have liminal connotations to be examined in due course.

7.5 Possible General Themes

These themes are at high level and are in most cases generally applicable to all three areas and periods. Some of them relate to trends through time.

Over 3500bc-AD43, the three areas appear to have essential underlying similarities, although the south west and south east areas seem to vary in their earlier or later development of characteristics, while the south area remains almost a fulcrum. Although it exhibits changes, it is comparatively less volatile. No particular geographical area favours either the single or the multiple phase rite, the rites occurring everywhere. Also, it is only occasionally possible through the five periods to identify a region within an area where a particular container type is particularly concentrated in use, although the south east area as a whole has throughout a strong bias towards pit use which the other two areas gradually came to share. Otherwise container use is widely spread.

There appear to be wave movements through the five periods. In the first, peaks occur in the recognition of individuality or the individual in disposals in 2500-14/1300bc and 100bc-AD43 which correspond with the other three periods, where the recognition is much more muted. In the second wave movement, there are peaks in 3500-14/1300bc and 8/700-100bc in the use of inhumation as the more common disposal method, with troughs in the other two (save in the south and south west in 100bc-AD43). In the third, ritual activity as found in surviving material evidence on disposal sites, has peaks in 3500-14/1300bc and 8/700-100bc with troughs in 14/1300-8/700bc and 100bc-AD43, although the evidence in the more muted periods has all the characteristics of the most abundant times. This suggests strong underlying traditions of ritual activity.

Allowing that there are accidents of survival, there seems to have been a fourth wave pattern of grave good deposition, with troughs of deposition in 3500-2500bc and 14/1300-8/700bc, and peaks in 2500-14/1300bc and 8/700bc-AD43. These patterns were not, however, associated with the ebb and flow of inhumation and cremation. For example, the low grave goods incidence in 14/1300-8/700bc was when cremation was more often practised, but there was no similar low incidence in 100bc-AD43 in the south east area when cremation increased in occurrence again following a period of inhumation disposal.

On a geographical theme of a rather different kind, it may be possible to relate the distribution of sites through the five periods to the expansion of territories, and in the later periods to controlled boundaries of groups of population in southern England and south east Wales. This is one of the more speculative themes.

Next there are two very important general themes surrounding disposal method or process and monumentality: first, there appears to be no clear link between a particular disposal method (cremation or inhumation) and monument type in any period; secondly there appears to be no clear link between a particular disposal process (single or multiple phase) and monument type in any period. This lack of correlation goes alongside that noted earlier between the same characteristics and the disposal type (single, multiple similar or multiple varied).

Non-burial sites, many related to settlements or occupation areas, have proved to hold evidence with many similarities to that on disposal sites. There is, therefore, a theme which links the activities at burial sites and non-burial sites in each period, especially the occupation sites where one may discern activities of reservation of areas, pit digging, domestic refuse curation and movement, burial of artefacts and other materials which have broad but occasionally precise parallels on burial sites. Taking all these activities and locations together, there is a suggestion of disposal processes involving possible complex movements between and among settlement, exposure or excarnation contexts, middens, temporary ditch contexts involving disposal fragments mixed with domestic refuse deposits, and in some periods in and out of burial monuments, before a permanent end to the disposal process is determined. But even then the use of human material may continue in furtherance of other purposes.

The second related major theme suggests that burial and non-burial sites were all party to a wider ritual in which burial as a rite of passage was one, but very important and perhaps central, component. There probably were locations other than the burial monuments and settlements for ritual activity, for example sites such as the major monuments (causewayed enclosures and henges) in the earlier periods and shrines in the later. The process of pre-disposal, disposal, and post-disposal activity may relate to them all. One example of a ritual which may form a common link is pit activity. Pit activity is a consistent ritual activity throughout in all areas and on all site types, with wide ranging variations from natural material and artefact deposits to human deposits, and combinations of all types.

The track of elite burial through the periods is not a clear one. There are some strong signals, but there are a larger number which need much interpretation. The general theme emerging appears to be that a form of elite burial rite may have existed but was expressed differently throughout the five periods. This will only be true if certain assumptions hold about the disposal treatment of groups in society, particularly in 3500-2500bc and 14/1300-8/700bc when goods of excellence (the clearest discriminator of an elite) were rarely deposited with disposals. No elite otherwise appears clearly distinguishable solely by criteria of ritual activity, monument type, disposal process, geographical burial location, phasing of rite, or use of mortuary or other temporary structures applied to the burial. These appear to have been held in common. Furthermore, rich grave goods may be one distinguishing characteristic of an elite burial rite, but the purpose of the deposition of wealth may take one or many forms and may not necessarily always mark an elite.

There are individual burials through the five periods which have other remarkable characteristics which may indicate other special classes of society, with their own special or elite characteristics. If the definition is broadened in this way, however, a theme emerges suggesting that it may be possible to identify through the five periods several classes represented in society, but in the earlier periods it is more difficult to do this as the evidence is ambivalent. These classes might include one set with powers of control, then a set with possible roles as functionaries of the first, a set with skills that contribute to the economic well-being of the community, and a further set (inevitably the largest group) working for themselves and the rest. This is one expression of the theme of societal division which seems to appear more strongly in some periods than others. The evidence to support the last theme is derived partly from the grave goods evidence, but also from the process evidence in all periods, where some human remains appear to have figured in extended communal rites across several locations before final deposition, often in fragmented form and associated with domestic refuse. Whether this might be the process reserved for one class is an issue: but it may be significant when set against other concurrent disposal processes. As a theme it is very speculative, as it may stretch the evidence too far, but nonetheless it is worth bearing in mind for examination later.

Finally, it is uncertain whether the use of human bone, which appears in all periods, is a form of treatment of an elite, unless the meaning of the term is to be extended to include persons selected in whole or part for whatever purpose the ritual activity is directed toward. This would include disposals of an assumed special purpose like shrine, hearth and foundation burials: it is a thin strand of activity identifiable now and again, but one more to be associated with wider behavioural purposes than with treatment of an elite class.


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