Proposition 11

that the community of ancestors may have been conceived at times through prehistory as located in more than one place (that is, not simply in disposal locations but in settlement locations and elsewhere)

This hypothesis has been tested in the course of examining Proposition 5, and found to hold.

Examination for the possible correspondence of body orientation with monument orientation is hampered by the small numbers of sites with body orientation noted, but a review shows that a disposal oriented NW-SE will be more often found on a site oriented in the same direction throughout prehistory, and similarly for the other body/site orientations (Table 9.6-5).

It also seems to be the case that the NW-NE and NE-SE quadrants are most consistently in body/monument symmetry through prehistory, the other two quadrants being in symmetry in 2500-14/1300bc but not always so at other periods. Among the periods, 14/1300-8/700bc on this test is a complete blank, no body orientations being noted that can be related to oriented sites.

The review has also confirmed that, on sites without recorded orientation, the orientations of the bodies they contain usually follow the quadrants from the NW-NE clockwise in descending order of popularity in every period except 3500-2500bc. This may confirm the essential importance of the body orientation to the disposal belief.

What was indeed the belief underlying orientation of the head (used in this research as the indicator) towards the North and East? Or to quadrants 90° to either side of these, if the line of vision of the dead was important, depending on whether they were laid down on the right or left side? What of the bodies oriented to South and West, or placed prone, or supine rather than on the side? And what of monuments similarly oriented to less common directions?

Body orientation incidence NW/NE NE/SE SE/SW SW/NW Unknown 
Site orientation Total sites
3500 nw/ne 3 2 0 1 18 22
3500 ne/se 3 7 2 1 43 50
3500 se/sw 1 1 0 0 9 10
3500 sw/nw 0 2 0 0 3 5
3500 unknown 0 4 1 2 40 45
2500 nw/ne 16 4 3 0 42 56
2500 ne/se 5 10 2 2 39 52
2500 se/sw 3 1 3 1 30 33
2500 sw/nw 1 1 3 4 15 19
2500 unknown 84 58 50 28 732 871
1400 nw/ne 0 0 0 0 3 3
1400 ne/se 0 0 0 0 7 7
1400 se/sw 0 0 0 0 14 14
1400 sw/nw 0 0 0 0 5 5
1400 unknown 4 3 3 2 247 256
800 nw/ne 3 0 0 0 1 4
800 ne/se 0 0 0 0 0 0
800 se/sw 0 0 0 0 3 3
800 sw/nw 0 0 0 1 0 1
800 unknown 17 16 10 5 120 136
100 nw/ne 7 1 1 0 2 9
100 ne/se 0 2 0 0 1 2
100 se/sw 1 1 0 1 1 2
100 sw/nw 0 0 0 0 0 0
100 unknown 23 20 14 11 138 169
Table 9.6-5: Site and body orientation symmetry

The most favoured explanations of orientation have been suggested by anthropological observations of the common origins of such phenomena. These centre on the preoccupations of peoples with celestial or terrestrial direction, and with the place where souls go after death (Rose 1922). Both locations are often linked in beliefs. In this research context, the common concordance of the monument and the body orientation shown above combines to suggest that the direction of the deceased's head was more significant than his line of sight (which is at a 90° angle to head direction). Often in anthropological observation of mortuary ritual the head is viewed as the seat of the soul (Ross 1959; Barnes 1996). The evidence from the special studies (summarised in Table 9.6-4) is that, consistently throughout prehistory, the peoples of southern Britain used heads, skulls and cranial parts in liminal placings and in other arrangements frequently enough to suggest that for them the head held a particular interest, and possibly a potency that could be drawn upon after death. The tomb orientation and the head direction might together be aimed at pointing the soul in the direction it must travel to reach the place of the ancestral community. If this is true, then it seems to have been a feature of disposal practice and belief for almost the whole of the period 3500bc-AD43, the location of the community of ancestors being in a broadly northerly/easterly direction.

If this is true, then how are the alternative (and non-coinciding) orientations to be explained? The question is difficult to answer on the evidence available, and deeper study of the individual sites and of the surrounding topography would need to be carried out. For example, orientation of site or body might be related to local river directions, or to hill ranges, or to another more focal monument, and might be found to provide correlations. It is not unusual for peoples using orientation in their disposal rites to have a number of possible locational routes in mind for the physical passage of the soul, although the eventual destination may be a compass point ('to the North'), a major natural phenomenon ('to the rising Sun', 'to the Pole Star'), or a conceptual place (such as 'across the sea' or 'over the mountains'). Ancestral communities (which the souls are to join) may therefore be located in a place that is very specific or most vague, and which may be reached by a journey which is direct, or which is indirect and has to pass via a symbolic route such as down a river or over hills. Sometimes the orientation therefore may not be direct, but the direction of the body may point the soul to the nearest path which will take it on its journey.

One answer to the original question might therefore be that the oriented monument was the physical conveyance (in some cases indeed shaped like a boat) to the community of ancestors, those in it being automatically directed by its physical alignment. Where monuments had no orientation, the body line alone may have fulfilled the purpose. Where there is inconsistency of body orientation within an oriented monument, this is harder to explain satisfactorily: there might be local belief about the route that the soul might take, and decided ad hominem, but this is conjecture. The assumption is, however, that communal burial implies for the individual that a common destiny for the soul is in mind, and this is borne out by evidence that there is no significant difference between the site orientation incidence patterns of single disposals, multiple similar disposals and multiple varied disposals (Tables 9.6-6/7). This similarity suggests that whatever classes existed, they shared common beliefs in the symbolic meaning of disposal processes, whatever type of site they were using for its disposal rites.

Total sitesMultiple similar disposal sites Single disposal sites Multiple varied disposal sites
3500 130 10 18 3 2 2 7 2 0 10 25 5 3
2500 1025 6 11 6 123 20 11 8 27 22 16 10
1400 284 1 5 5 1 1 1 4 3 1 1 5 1
800 146 0 0 1 0 3 0 2 1 1 0 0 0
100 181 4 1 0 0 2 0 0 0 3 1 2 0
Table 9.6-6: Site orientation by site type (numbers)
Total sites Multiple similar disposal sites Single disposal sites Multiple varied disposal sites
3500 100 8 14 2 2 2 5 2 0 8 19 4 2
2500 100 1 1 1 0 2 2 1 1 3 2 2 1
1400 100 0 2 2 0 0 0 1 1 0 0 2 0
800 100 0 0 1 0 2 0 1 1 1 0 0 0
100 100 2 1 0 0 1 0 0 0 2 1 1 0
Table 9.6-7: Site orientation by site type (percentages)

The hypothesis that there is a good degree of consistency of disposal and monument orientation has already been supported (see Tables 89 and 119). The tests above show that when the two sets are matched, there is a strong correlation between oriented burials and the orientation of the site that holds them, although the numbers are small. If certain assumptions are made regarding the beliefs of the prehistoric community about the importance of the head, based on the special uses made of the head or its parts consistently through prehistory, and if one applies the common anthropological finding that the head is viewed as the seat of the soul in disposal rites, then it is possible to argue that the locational direction of the head and monument indicate the direction in which the soul is being pointed on its journey to the ancestral community.

Explanations for exceptions to the general rule have been attempted (but even if none that are satisfactory are found, this does not discredit the argument advanced). No counter-explanations have been attempted, since this moves beyond the evidence collected, and other theories may be possible but await evidence to support them. The hypothesis cannot therefore be proved valid beyond doubt, but it is tenable, and evidence for later hypotheses may provide more support.

The fall in the rate of monument orientation from 2500bc might be explained by the shape of monuments (changing from long to round barrows) and by their location (for example pit disposals and settlements not affording the opportunity). This may be too unsubtle, however. The barrows with ditches sometimes had causewayed entrances (sometimes several), as did henges: these might have the same symbolic purposes as the characteristics described above. Alignments of round barrows and urnfields were not uncommon, and it is possible that the round barrow group or urnfield alignment was a statement as much as that of the preceding long barrow. This research does not catch these group characteristics, however. It is clear that the fall in orientation incidence cannot be laid wholly at the door of the growth in the practice of cremation.

There has been some discussion of the incidence of cremation and inhumation earlier under Proposition 8, in the context of the variation between periods in the deposition incidence of grave goods. There seemed there to be no correlation between the lack of grave good deposition and disposal mode, and only slight evidence for the destruction of grave goods in the pyre. This latter characteristic, if it had been more in evidence, might have suggested that both the body and the goods accompanying it were being transmitted in some different fashion compared to deposition by inhumation. Tests for any significant variation between site types with high visibility and goods of excellence in their use of cremation or inhumation failed to provide any very significant indicator (Table 9.5-6). There were slight signs, however, on a very small numerical base, that the single disposal sites might have favoured cremation of the body more often than the other two multiple disposal sites types. The probability of this tendency is confirmed by Table 9.6-9, allowing for the mixed disposal mode sites, and using a much larger numerical base.

Total sites Multiple similar disposal sites Single disposal sites Multiple varied disposal sites
 C I C+I C I C+I C I C+I
3500 130 9 30 4 4 33 0 1 31 18
2500 1025 80 45 7 364 179 4 129 57 159
1400 284 78 9 3 103 23 2 44 2 19
800 146 5 39 0 11 49 0 0 36 5
100 181 13 41 0 35 40 0 8 35 9
Table 9.6-8: Cremation and inhumation by site type (numbers)
Total sites Multiple similar disposal sites Single disposal sites Multiple varied disposal sites
 % C I C+I C I C+I C I C+I
3500 100 7 23 3 3 25 0 1 24 14
2500 100 8 4 1 36 17 1 13 6 16
1400 100 27 3 1 36 8 1 15 1 7
800 100 3 27 0 8 34 0 0 25 3
100 100 7 23 0 19 22 0 4 19 5
Table 9.6-9: Cremation and inhumation by site type (percentages)

The other feature emerging is that the multiple varied disposal sites appear to be next most heavy users of cremation, except over 14/300-8/700bc when they are lowest users, and in the next period when they are similar to the multiple similar disposal sites. Over the whole timespan, however, the multiple varied disposal sites use cremation and inhumation on the same site most frequently, the other two sites types lagging far behind.

It has already been shown that it is probable that the single disposal sites and the multiple varied disposal sites more often held the remains of the elite class. Is there any correlation between the disposal mode and class? It seems a likely hypothesis, but more detailed study of the precise associations of goods with cremated and inhumed remains would be necessary to test it. Suppose that it were demonstrated, does it mean that disposal by fire implied a different location for the ancestor group of those so treated, for example by the symbolic transmission of the elite class to a physically or conceptually higher ancestor soul location 'above', through the rising of the smoke and flame? Not necessarily, since the symbolism may have less to do with the direction in which the soul is being sent than (for instance) with the elements of display and other ritual (such as bone processing) than the process of cremation and its products lend themselves to. It is also the case from the evidence that there are, through prehistory, hundreds of cremations set down with very modest accompanying goods, and legions with none at all. There is also evidence for some bodies receiving both treatments, as well as the likelihood in other cases that limbs, heads and other body parts were removed before the rest of the body was cremated, the removed body parts being reserved for some other purpose and sometimes set down alongside the cremated remainder. This suggests that cremation and inhumation may not have been differentiators of the place of the individual's ancestral soul group, but rather a matter of individual family or kin group choice.

Were this the case, then the choice indeed took place in the context of much broader moves of disposal mode custom through time. The evidence shows that through prehistory there are elite disposals not subject to cremation, and that the sites more likely to have the elite burials indeed heavily favoured inhumation in 3500-2500bc and between 8/700bc-AD43. The symbolic uses of inhumation should not be neglected, since cremation on one argument above was implicitly a mode more used for the elite, and implicitly of distinctly special purpose. The possible powerful symbolic meanings of primary and secondary inhumation, of the demonstrated manipulation and movement of inhumed remains through prehistory (at times more strongly in evidence than at others), of the placing in the earth, and of the deposits of special materials with inhumations (such as domestic refuse and animal bone) suggest that inhumation was a prime medium for expressing belief. There is nothing, however, to suggest that inhumation per se was a particular determinant of the direction of the community of ancestors - although it offered the opportunity (as demonstrated above) through symbolic body orientation to do so. There is something to suggest that the mode of disposal of certain society groups might have had a common purpose in process, expressed in different fashions and by different media.

The essential purpose of both inhumation and cremation in mortuary ritual, according to most commonly observed anthropological studies, is to produce dry bones, freed from the decaying flesh, and freeing the soul from the body itself (Metcalf 1982 ; Hertz 1960b). There is much evidence from this research that this was also the fundamental purpose of either method for these prehistoric peoples, and it is difficult to find more than kin group preferences (site groups often showing common disposal characteristics), class preferences (elite group sites with tendencies to favour one method more than the other at times), and changing societal preferences, with their roots in other explanations, to account for the swings in incidence. It is hard to find any secure evidence that points to ideas changing on the location of the ancestral community as the reason for use of one method as opposed to the other.

What are the general explanations for change in societal preference? They might not be directly relevant to examination of the hypothesis, but should briefly be explored to confirm that it is so. Changes in society's customs might be stimulated by economic, political, social, technological or philosophical causes. The discussion above was concentrating on the last, and on a particular element of the underlying belief system centring on disposal of the dead.

Economic causes might centre on the effort that the disposal mode involved, the assumed benefit gained for the effort expanded, and the alternative options for expenditure of effort on other current preoccupations of society. Neither cremation nor inhumation offer much ostensible difference in expenditure of effort, and this is particularly so if secondary rites are to follow the primary disposal process. It is evident from the change through prehistory in the types of container used that the expenditure of effort on that characteristic must have varied considerably. Design, creation and maintenance of an urnfield or a flat grave cemetery, or the reuse of a settlement storage pit takes less community time than does the creation and maintenance of a barrow, a henge, or a long cairn. It is as if in the periods 14/1300-8/700bc and 8/700-100bc effort was transferred from monument building into other community enterprises, such as boundary making and hill fort construction. More benefit was seen by such diversion, and there may possibly have been a different requirement driving the activity, that of needing to establish territorial rights more effectively than did the monumental markers of the previous two periods.

This might imply a weakening in the belief that the power of ancestral monuments was sufficiently to be relied upon in delivering secure boundaries. It may have been a development orchestrated by an elite possibly under some pressure, otherwise there would seem to be little incentive for it. Such an imperative might explain the reduction in the grave goods laid down with disposals over these periods, as part of broader decision to divert resource into other priorities in those periods (which might include alternative locations for deposition of rich goods). It also would help to explain the growth in use of settlement sites as disposal locations, as society refocused attention on its own self-dependency, but now with their ancestors often sharing the same living space. This might not imply that the influence of ancestors was any the less important, simply that the purposes of their influence might have been more focused, for example on ensuring fertility of the community and its sources of wealth and subsistence. The inclusion of their presence within the bounds of the settlement might be drawn upon by the community as a supportive strength. The needs of society in these periods to be more tight-knit is implied by the growth in defended settlements and the building of hill forts, and this inclusion might have been used to further that sense of unity required by a society combating stress.

Perhaps these were indeed stressful times, particularly 14/1300-8/700bc, and times when making a living was hard. The periods either side, 2500-14/1300bc and 100bc-AD43, appear more prosperous (Tables 9.5-2 and 9.5-5), the earlier relying on visibility of monuments to demarcate boundaries, but the latter not presumably needing to because the processes of the previous two periods had broadly defined what, by 100bc, had become distinct tribal territory with identifiable tribal peoples, chronicled by Classical authors. The seeming retrenchment of 14/1300-8/700bc (the picture in the mortuary record is almost austere) ends with an upturn sufficient in 8/700bc for the society to increase its mortuary offerings, but by this time they are in the form of domestic refuse and animal remains. It would be incorrect to relate the nature of grave goods directly to the economic state of society, however. There is another argument that suggests that it might be in hard times that the rich offerings continue to be made in the hope of commensurate return. The hoard deposition record of the Bronze Age suggests alternative locations for wealthy deposits that, in the previous period, had found their places in burial monuments.

Political causes might centre on the influence exerted by the elite (themselves subject to influence by external sources) on the customs and practices of the many in respect of their disposal mode. This has been referred to under the last topic, under which it was implied that society and the elite came under some stress in 14/1300bc through the need to assert ownership of territory in new ways. That there was a political cause of such stress is uncertain, nor can we be sure that society itself changed much in structure up to 8/700bc at least. The customs of an elite may pass into those of other society orders (as exotic or unusual items gradually become more accessible), and thus the use of inhumation or cremation practice may be influenced, and change for the general population.

Social causes might centre on the interaction of one society with another (bordering or distant) through trade, the gradual movement of people, and kin group relationships; or on the emergence within society of new classes filling new roles. Examination of the different areas' changes back and forth between cremation and inhumation poses some interesting questions about what might have influenced their peoples. Something sparks every change, and Table 9.6-10 indicates several significant points and phases. The data are drawn from Tables 167, 170 and 173.

Total sitesCremation only on the site Inhumation only on the site Both methods on the site
3500 100 6 10 18 70 76 70 23 14 13
2500 100 75 46 48 18 29 38 7 25 13
1400 100 74 86 65 17 5 29 9 9 6
800 100 20 9 13 80 86 81 0 5 6
100 100 7 16 62 89 83 29 5 1 9
Table 9.6-10: Cremation and inhumation site incidence by area (percentages)

The period starts with every area evenly balanced in its high use of inhumation only on sites. This pattern is not repeated until 8/700-100bc. In the meantime the south west begins to shift much faster than the other areas to cremation only, the south area is slower to follow, but then by 14/1300-8/700bc overtakes the rest. The south east moves slowest of all towards cremation through 2500-8/700bc, then switches as fast as the others to inhumation from 8/700bc, only to revert (unlike the others) to cremation as the majority method from 100bc.

What prompts these changes? Generally speaking the south east appears to be the least volatile, the south middling, and the south west the most volatile. Cultural influence arguments would suggest that flows are coming from the south west where they impact most, the wave softening the further east that it travels. Could the wave in fact alternatively be starting in the south west in earlier periods, moving to influence the south area in the middle periods, and then shifting to affect the south east area first after 100bc? This model might be driven by trading links, the earlier links being established in the south west, traders then moving to exploit relationships with the major communities of the south area (the Wessex period and after), and the advent of trade with the expanding Roman Empire completing the sweep in the south east area.

Technological causes might centre on the development of products, and on the means of their production. Would the establishment of skills in the control of fire to create superior pottery, and metalwork ranging from the decorative and fine to the simple and functional influence peoples to transfer use of the element symbolically to the activity of reducing the bodies of their dead to dry bones? Would development of architectural and surveying skills, and measurement generally (an all-pervasive tool for man) have had any influence on the disposal process? And in particular on the choice of inhumation or cremation? The answers to these questions in respect of inhumation and cremation would be speculative: there is no evidence, and the examination of practice either side of the time when technological skills mentioned became prominent do not suggest that change can be attributed to such causes.

The hypothesis that variations in the use of cremation and inhumation indicate different concepts about the location of ancestors throughout prehistory is not proven. There are other causes which may be adduced to explain the reasons for change in disposal method, none of which very closely relates to belief about the location of ancestors. It is, however, possible to construct an argument that concepts changed on ancestor location, using other evidence referred to earlier. The fact that disposal site locations changed over prehistory may, even so, have more to say about the changing needs and priorities of society itself, than where the ancestral community was conceived as residing. It also seems likely that the importance of the ancestral community for society changed over prehistory, as society began to seek other means of influencing the world to its benefit.

Three hypotheses have been examined for Proposition 11. The first two received support, but the third was not proven. Nonetheless, the evidence examined appears overall to support the possibility expressed in Proposition 11 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.


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