Proposition 10

that through prehistory society may have tended a community of ancestors, and may have had changing motivations for such care dependent on concurrent changes in foci of belief

Examination of Proposition 4 has already established that group burial exists as a consistently high proportion of sites through prehistory (see Table 9.4-1). No further evidence is necessary to test this hypothesis, which is already supported.

It has already been shown that successive burial extending across periods is low in incidence (Tables 9.4-4/5). The table below tests whether within a period the single, multiple similar and multiple varied disposal sites differ in possession of the multiple design phase characteristic. That characteristic, if extensively possessed, might suggest that sites were revisited for attention.

PeriodTotal settlement sites with disposalsTotal sites with multiple design phasesSingle disposal sites with multiple des phases Multiple similar sites with multiple des phasesMultiple varied sites with multiple des phases
3500 130 19 2 2 15
2500 1025 51 10 6 35
1400 284 9 2 2 5
800 146 4 2 0 2
100 181 2 0 0 2
Table 9.6-1: Sites with multiple design phases

The results are unimpressive, the characteristic being low in occurrence, the period 3500-2500bc having the highest rate at 15%, the other periods failing to reach 5%, and all site types tailing off from 14/1300bc. Multiple varied disposals are most strongly represented followed by the single disposals, the multiple similar disposals being not far behind in a weakly represented field. This characteristic, taken by itself, would not support the hypothesis, although the multiple varied disposals do appear to maintain their position as greater foci of attention.

A further test might be done for primary and secondary disposal incidence, as evidence for successive burial. The disposal data have not been coded in such detail in the research record, but a simple search for mention of 'secondary' and 'primary' disposals on sites in each period might give a crude indication of return to sites to insert new interments. It will be very crude since mention of 'primary' disposal does not always mean that there are secondaries to follow: reports often loosely refer (for example) to single burials as primary; or the excavators suppose that they might not have found all the disposals, and call what they found primary. It may also be the case that secondary burials are contempory with the primary, 'primary' then having the simple connotation of being placed down first in one disposal event. Again, sometimes the record will not mention either term if the account does not or cannot distinguish between the disposals. The search results are shown for each multiple disposal category, single disposal sites being omitted for obvious reasons.

Period Total sites with disposals Total sites with mention of primary disposal [Single disposal sites] Multiple similar sites mentioning primary disposal Multiple varied sites mentioning primary disposal
3500 130 36 - 14 18
2500 1025 300 - 31 153
1400 284 65 - 13 24
800 146 10 - 3 3
100 181 2 - 0 2
Table 9.6-2: Sites with mention of primary disposal
Period Total sites with disposals Total sites with mention of secondary disposal [Single disposal sites] Multiple similar sites mentioning secondary disposal Multiple varied sites mentioning secondary disposal
3500 130 12 - 3 9
2500 1025 201 - 22 132
1400 284 62 - 19 25
800 146 7 - 2 3
100 181 7 - 2 3
Table 9.6-3: Sites with mention of secondary disposal

It is impossible to assume any close correlation between the two sets of figures for the reasons already given. What appears to be the case in both sets, however, is that the multiple varied disposal sites show more evidence for primary and secondary disposal than do the multiple similar sites, and particularly so in 2500-14/1300bc when there are the strongest indicators of the existence of an elite. In the wider context of total sites, mention of primary/secondary are not high, proportionally speaking, but the three periods over 3500-8/700bc show the strongest indicators, with a sharp drop in how frequently these are mentioned in the two final periods in both tables. There is also some correlation with the practice of multiple phasing of site design over much of that period. This would tend to support the validity of the hypothesis for that period: the revisiting of the multiple disposal sites populated by the most varied disposals, and including the most elaborately furnished disposals, for the purpose of successive burial suggests strong ties to the ancestors of the social group. The method here chosen is crude (and should be refined), but the results are capable of interpretation in a way consistent with other results.

The final areas for examination of the hypothesis lie in tests for removal and curation of human bone or cremated material, and for human bone manipulation. Such activity is presumed to imply that the connection with the ancestral community was valued, and that the community of ancestors was seen as potentially a supportive power for the living. Anthropological theory can suggest several purposes for this support (see Section 8), and Figure 9.3-1 provides the main examples: to gain fertility for the society, to enhance the sense of continuity of community, to confirm members of society in their role or status, to make territorial statements, and to gain protection are the most significant. The symbolic act of bone treatment joins with those centring on prominent site location, community of burial, site redesign, and successive burial to provide a web of concepts driving behaviour oriented to ancestor communities. Many of these acts also serve other behavioural frameworks as that figure indicates.

The activity for investigation here has already been covered in the special studies of ritual activity in Section 6. It is summarised there, and Table 6.24-1 shows human bone manipulation to have been a constant medium-profile feature through prehistory, higher in profile over 3500-14/1300bc but somewhat reducing in the later periods. The curation and use of cremated bone has very slight evidence, and is harder to identify in any case. The multiple varied disposal sites and the single disposal sites offer the largest number of examples (see the special studies), which possibly correlates with the tendency of those sites to house (among others) the elite class who might be expected to represent the ancestor line. The general strength of ritual activity on those sites also supports the argument that they provided foci for ancestor-oriented behaviour.

The most usual activities involving manipulation and other use of human bone are identified in rather more detail in Table 9.6-5, the frequency of occurrence being noted by period from a scan of the special studies evidence. The table generally bears out the high-level assessment of Section 6, and suggests that the last period's use of human remains focused more on skulls and liminal placings of human material.

TREATMENT type by OCCURRENCE35002500 1400 800 100
Bone grouping of similar skeletal partsHMOOO
Bone re-arrangement of skeletonMMOOO
Bone removal from skeletonHMOOO
Skull deposit, whole or partHHMMH
Jaw deposit, whole or partMMOOO
Pelvic deposit, whole or partOON N N
Half body deposit (trunk, lower body half)OOOO N
Transfer of bodies/skeletal material HMOMO
Bone breakingMOOOO
Bone use in liminal placesMMOOM
Deliberate body mutilationOON OO
Bone selected for cremation N OONO
Cremated material reservation N N ON N
Cremated material transfer N N ON N
Table 9.6-4: Human bone treatment
[N]il or no evidence, [O]ccasional occurrence, [M]edium frequency, or [H]igh frequency

The additional element of evidence relevant to the hypothesis is any sign that there was transfer activity passing between settlement sites, open disposal sites, middens and other external temporary disposal locations (see the section on Proposition 5). The transfer activity focused on human remains in whole or part, and on the domestic refuse stored in various contexts. The evidence lies in the condition of some disposals (exposure, disinterment and reinterment, bone organisation, part bodies), the composition of some grave fillings or disposal associations (mixed bone fragments and domestic refuse), the placing of certain body parts in significant places (middens, small pit assemblages usually with domestic refuse, and liminal settings), and the general presence of human bone fragments on settlement sites (occasionally with evidence for deliberate retention in a hut as at 313 Brean Down). These conditions imply considerable use of human skeletal material for purposes to be explored under later propositions. Indeed, the case is beginning to be strong for the general exploitation of organic and non-organic material in pursuit of beliefs in prehistoric times, in which the remains of ancestors are used as aids alongside animal parts, artefacts, and natural materials, both organic and inorganic, both unused and discarded.

There is sufficient evidence, if test results are combined, to support the hypothesis that group burials show evidence for continuous attention through much of prehistory, provided that it is accepted that timespans for successive burial and for site reuse might be limited, new sites providing new foci. The shift in locations for attention from 8/700bc (for example the increase in use of settlements for disposals) may, however, with other evidence indicate a shift in focus both in attention to the ancestor community and in beliefs.

This hypothesis has been tested in the process of examining Proposition 5. Tables 9.4-8/9/10 provide the evidence to support it. There is now emerging a significant potential link between settlement and disposal activity, which possibly bridges several foci of attitudes and beliefs.

So far no evidence has been adduced and tested for the existence of changing motivations for ancestor care, and for links between these changes (if any), and concurrent changes of belief. This will be covered under the section on behaviour oriented to belief.

Subject to this last point, having tested the three hypotheses, Proposition 10, that through prehistory society may have tended a community of ancestors, appears to hold for the first three periods but to a much reduced extent for the last two (where evidence seems weaker).


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