Proposition 13

See note

that beliefs may have existed through prehistory centring on concepts identified by studies as central to disposal as a rite of passage such as liminality and separation (boundaries), transition, jeopardy, pollution, the soul (existence, journeying, influencing, destiny), good and bad deaths, the power of the elements in disposal processes for purposes of establishing order and reduction of disorder, use of symbols (through objects per se, or their direction, location, drawing, shaping and colour), sexuality and fertility.

The above hypotheses are tested together, and within the broad framework of the rite of passage of mortuary ritual and process established in Section 8. The tests will use each of the main stages in the mortuary rite of passage set out in this section (activity before death, primary and secondary disposal activity, and post-disposal activity), and examine whether there is evidence for the concepts in Proposition 13 as related to those stages throughout 3500bc-AD43. These tests (as with all such tests) take place in the limited context of what survives and is capable of interpretation. The results will indicate probabilities rather than certainties in the inferences that may be drawn about beliefs.

Pre-disposal activity: elements centring on the person dying and the kin, the community, and time, space and place

Pre-disposal activity is an element of mortuary process that is particularly hard to detect in the archaeological record. There are a few indicators, but none consistently through time.

The research has had to assume that most disposals followed natural deaths. There are instances where the individual may have been the subject of circumstances which led to accidental or deliberate death. Even these two death types may each sub-divide into accidental deaths of genuine misadventure and accidental deaths while undergoing a risky operation such as trepanning; or deliberate killing, either in combat or as part of a mortuary or other process. It is also possible that certain kinds of illness resulting in death, whether premature or not, may have involved pre-disposal activity centred on the person. The instances of abnormal death in the record are not numerous, and did not lead in every case to notably different disposal rites, although there are sometimes notable features implying particular treatment. In the periods under review unequivocal abnormal deaths are recorded on 17 sites in 3500-2500bc, on 11 in 2500-14/1300bc, 3 in 14/1300-8/700bc, 13 in 8/700-100bc, and 14 in 100bc-AD43.

Those dying violently, and probably as the result of combat, for whom some unequivocal evidence exists in every period, for the most part do not appear to have been given especially different mortuary treatment. Disposal of such individuals appears to take place in normal locations, unless there is need for a communal battle grave (such as exist in 100bc-AD43). However in that period, at 1136 Bredon Hill Camp, the battle dead lay in a confused and mutilated mass in the fort entrance where they fell: the community had taken no steps to carry out burial. The unusualness of such inaction supports later anthropological and literary evidence for the importance of body recovery and due disposal for many peoples, even to the present day (Lucian On Grief 9; Plato Laws 909b-c referring to non-burial as a punishment; many other Classical references to refusal of right of burial [eg Xenophon Hellenica 1.7.22, Lycias 19.7]; Hertz 1960b, 33, 70; Barnes 1996, 121-34; van Gennep 1960, chapter 8). Unburied or unrecovered dead commonly represent bad deaths and threats to communities, and the most likely explanation is that the community were prevented by the victors from carrying out the normal mortuary processes as an act of retribution. This may also give some indication that the belief system set no value on the enemies' dead save as symbols useful to the dominant community, another concept that sometimes appears in contemporary anthropological examples (Hertz 1960b 63; Perry 1918, chapter 3). It is possible, but not provable, that some of the evidence in each period indicates such use applied to human bodies in whole or part. This need not contradict the general belief system that the ancestor soul group can be used for the good of the community, but would be complementary to it, recovery of the body delivering back to the home community the advantage lost.

There are other circumstances, however, where individuals appear to have been killed as part of mortuary rituals directed at one or more purposes. Some of these instances in the evidence are equivocal, others less so. According to the excavator at 18 Sudeley I, from their placing there appear to be depositions under the portal stone which resulted from the selection and killing of a male c. 20 and five children aged 1-7. Such a liminal spot, as with any entrance, is a common choice for deposition, with the assumed intention that the souls of the dead might guard the opening, and the gift of those lives be returned through the goodwill of the ancestor community. The incidence of the burial of young men of 18-20 with infants or children in association is not common, but frequent enough in the record over time to be noticeable, and it is as if the life potential of the young dead were being harnessed for beneficial community purposes. This is the only instance from 3500-2500bc, and there is no clear evidence for sacrifice: the dead at Sudeley might have died naturally, but still have been used as suggested.

The remaining unusual deaths in the period seem to have undergone no particular pre-disposal treatment that survives in the record, although the unusual deposit of fleshed heads (as opposed to crania) at 56 Hambledon Hill-Stepleton Spur suggests that particular pre-disposal activity has taken place, the complementary site being 32 Swell I in the same period where a headless body was set down.

In 2500-14/1300bc there is a site where deliberate killing for mortuary process purposes appears to have taken place. At 620 Bulford 27 the central burial of a male was surrounded by three precisely arranged young adult males, all with arms severed at the elbow, and in the inner mound the randomly set bodies of seven children. The age and robust form of the three mutilated males does not suggest that they would have died of natural causes, although it is possible. Rather, this site is highly suggestive of the deliberate killing of persons to accompany the main subject of burial, possibly with a similar purpose to that at 18 Sudeley I, particularly as children were set down in the inner mound building. There is no evidence for the killing of the central male or of the children, but the depositions belonged to one event. At 534 Collingbourne Ducis 9 another adult was buried with no right arm and the hand of the left missing, surrounded and covered by large flint blocks. There are burials of closely associated and similarly aged male/female pairs or of male/female pairs and children, which might suggest the practice of killing a female and sometimes children on the death of the male, although there is no direct evidence for this save the fit of age, contemporary deposition, and the physical proximity of such bodies.

In the same period, people who had suffered fatal injuries (killed by arrows, blows to the head, trepanning operations, or in one example a broken back) or who had died because of severe disability (hydrocephalism) appear to have been buried normally, some being the primary burials in the monument. It is possible that some were selected for special treatment (as foundation burials, possibly being killed for the purpose) or for other symbolic use (as the trepanned adolescent, who was cremated save for the roundel of skull placed with the ashes, and deposited, unusually, with domestic refuse rather than grave goods). These can all be explained, however, as abnormal deaths without abnormal mortuary implications, and there is no evidence for special pre-disposal activity save inductively concerning those who would necessarily be undergoing some form of special care or treatment.

In 14/1300-8/700bc there are two pit disposals which suggest deliberate killing, both the placing of the fatal wounds and the weapon used being unusual. At 366 West Littleton Down two males c. 19 were both speared in the pelvis, and at 1419 Queensford Farm another adult was similarly despatched. It is possible that these were deaths in combat, but a spear is not the usual hand-to-hand combat weapon, and the placing of the blows appears unusual for any weapon, the head, arm, leg or chest being the normal target. Perhaps the features are coincidences, but their unusualness argues for an explanation which is less common than that of death in combat: perhaps a judicial killing for transgression of a society code, or a ritual killing (notably of young men again) for fertility purposes. The blows to the pelvis might symbolise either. The use of the spear suggests a particularly ritualised form of killing, if the event is visualised.

In 8/700-100bc, most of the abnormal deaths appear to be from combat, and include both men and women. Some appear to have other causes: at 1177 Harlyn Bay B the excavator believed that the adult and child below the slate slabs under the wall could be foundation burials of sacrificial victims, but they might also have been normal burials used for this purpose (compare 18 Sudeley I). Apart from the three beheaded (and presumably formally executed) adults buried in the ditch of 1236 Maiden Bower Hill Fort, there seems to be no evidence for special pre-disposal treatment. These beheadings were placed outside the fort in a liminal place, perhaps with prophylactic purposes. On the other hand, in 100bc-AD43 the building of ramparts saw the insertion of burials which might have been sacrificial (as with Sudeley I and Harlyn Bay B it is hard to tell) at 13 South Cadbury and 1190 Maiden Castle Fort. Their symbolic meaning for the strengthening of the defences seems evident, and it is possible that to have deliberately released a soul for this purpose might have more influence with otherworld powers, making deliberate killing more likely in anthropological terms, but not certain.

In summary, in the evidence related to types of death, there is little to be gleaned by way of evidence for pre-disposal activity. The pre-disposal situations attracting such activity seem to fall into these categories: ritual surrounding foundation or entrance deposits which might have involved deliberate killing of individuals to provide the offered up life force which would bring in return protection in important liminal places and in some instances fertility; ritual surrounding foundation burials which established a burial monument as both a territorial marker, and the location for ancestor community focus (but these are not unequivocal cases); ritual following the dispensation of justice, such as execution for social transgression; ritual surrounding the attraction of fertility through destruction of the potentially fertile in the expectation that the offering would be repaid; and practice surrounding the treatment of the sick or disabled. Depending on the activity, some would result in natural death, some in accidental death, some in deliberate killing.

It is in very few cases that there appears indisputable evidence for the last (save in battle massacres), and in a period covering c. 4300 calendar years this is perhaps remarkable. It may suggest that deliberate killing in the mortuary process was rare: although it must be accepted that many forms of deliberate killing (such as poisoning, starving, strangling, drowning, burning, garrotting, torturing, stabbing, and suffocating) would leave little or no physical trace in the osteological record, and that the interpretation of bone remains for the subtler anomalies indicating suspicious death is hard with the condition of material available. The location of the disposal may sometimes give clues to the possibility, as has been suggested above. The question is - does the rest of the evidence otherwise suggest that such practice was indeed rare or, contrarily, might have been more common than the evidence so far suggests?

From the remaining evidence, other types of pre-disposal activity are hard to discern. There is nothing to tell us how the family and kin group themselves acted as death approached, although (as has been shown above) it is possible to reconstruct at least five pre-disposal scenarios leading up to a death, in which kin, the community, and certain groups (focused on mortuary process, dispensing of justice and medical treatment) were possibly involved.

Primary and secondary disposal activity

These two stages are treated together, since the point of the tests of the hypotheses is less to establish that there could be these two stages (this has already been done in examination of Propositions 2, 5, 10 and 12), than to examine them for the existence of certain elements of the mortuary rite of passage. This removes the necessity of attempting to tell whether a multiple phase rite has taken place: for example, the time lag between the two stages may be very short, and the evidence capable of either interpretation, or the evidence may be incomplete and falsely suggest a single phase rite (as could be the case with many cremation disposals). Because only unambivalent cases of multiple phase rites have been so coded, it is likely that multiple phase rite sites have been underestimated in the research.

Separation and jeopardy

Continuing with the tests of the anthropological model of mortuary process as a rite of passage, there are many examples of separation and jeopardy aversion rites in primary disposal activity in all periods, the evidence possibly being strongest in the earlier periods. The first separation rite is that designed to free the body of flesh, and to ensure that the soul parts from the corpse in readiness for its journey. The act of excarnation has already been shown to exist through prehistory (through tests of Proposition 2), and it may even sometimes have preceded cremation when that disposal method was more popular. There is no evidence to suggest that it was universally practised, however, and it seems likely from the remains that primary disposal was also final disposal in some cases, without excarnation. Excarnation appears to have been practised in at least two kinds of location in prehistory, at the burial site itself (in the grave or on a platform by or over it), and at other locations from which the excarnated bones were then transferred to the burial site. Both kinds of site would involve the community in transporting the body, but the latter would provide more opportunity for procession as it involved a double journey, symbolic of separation on the outward path from the settlement, but of reunion with the ancestor community on return to the disposal site.

There is much evidence of other kinds for separation rites in primary disposal, however. Certain mourning rituals (another separation mark) are hard to detect in the evidence, but there are some traces in the earlier periods particularly: eyebrow hair was cut and offered at 451 Winterslow 3 (the total quantity of this hair was more than could have belonged to one individual, and may have been shaved off by mourners), and the movement of people probably in a circle over or around the grave, or at the monument edge was traceable in 3500-2500bc at one site, and in 2500-14/1300bc at six sites. The circular motion symbolises separation in this case of the soul from the body, and of the dead from their community (Watson 1982; Homer Iliad 23; Huntington and Metcalf 1979). An interesting combination of this ritual with another very common one symbolising separation is at 499 Collingbourne Kingston 8, where a collared urn was deliberately smashed and then trampled into the barrow floor. The breaking or destroying of grave goods is common through prehistory (often symbolising that there is no way back for the soul: Metcalf 1982 ; van Gennep 1960 ; Grinsell 1961a). Goods may be completely broken and deposited as a complete or part collection of pieces, or damaged beyond use (chipped, cracked, or bent). Sometimes old, damaged and repaired urns have been used to hold the ashes, or urns cut into slabs. Another form of destruction to symbolise the separation of the dead from the kin and community is seen in the comparatively rare destruction of what appear to be the dead person's live possessions in the form of favourite animals (such as dogs and horses), or stock (such as a calf, a pig or sheep). Much more common as a symbol of separation is the burial of the deceased's personal tools (sometimes deliberately damaged). As has been speculated upon above, it is possible that even members of the deceased's household including kin might have been slaughtered, but the evidence is ambivalent. These types of destruction may all symbolise separation but may also have other meanings.

The offering of simple grave goods is a very common separation activity intended to assist the soul on its journey to the land of the dead (van Gennep 1960; Barnes 1996, Watson 1982; Metcalf 1982 ), and occasionally there is clear evidence for a food offering, either as residue within a container, or as pieces of food placed by or in the grave. These offerings are distinct from the remains of funeral feasts. It must be noted that in every period the majority of disposals had no grave goods set down with them, and none of the ritual associations mentioned so far above. It is unclear whether this was a function of their class, of their later insertion on sites (not all were so), or simply of ritual not surviving in the evidence.

The deliberate and probably symbolic use of colour, especially white, red, black, blue and yellow, may occur in both primary and secondary disposal rites. The interpretation of the use of particular individual colours is hazardous as use varies among societies, but white, red and black are colours very commonly used in anthropological examples of mortuary ritual as separation symbols (Turner 1967; Huntington and Metcalf 1979). The probability is that these colours were similarly used by the peoples of southern Britain in this period, given their contexts and the fact that sometimes the coloured materials were imported from another neighbourhood implying that they had special purpose, otherwise why would effort be expended?

The examples of colour use as a separation symbol are not numerous but are interesting. Colour exhibited in mourning dress has not yet been discovered (although it is known that some dead were buried clothed, or in wrappings) but does occur in grave goods (for instance the deposit of white, black or red stones). Sometimes the coloured stone may be placed deliberately on the pelvis, in probable double symbolism alluding to the connections between death and fertility. In the construction of some monuments, colour is sometimes used as a deliberate internal component. It can appear in the grave pit construction (as special white, blue or yellow lining of different materials), in the construction immediately over the grave (as in the building of a coloured clay dome), as a special floor covering for the monument (as yellow sand, or a yellow, red, white or blue clay or white chalk spread), as a combination of the last two, as a deliberate coloured patch in a mound structure or as layers in the mound (sometimes of different colours). The coloured materials used vary from the malleable such as sand and clay, to the solid such as quartz, chalk, and red sandstone.

The probable deliberate use of colour to form the outer layer of some monuments has long been known. Outer cappings of quartz, and of chalk appear to have been used particularly in 2500-14/1300bc on mounds, which would have re-emphasised their visibility and function as territorial markers as well as symbolising their mortuary purpose. Some of these mounds seem to have had two or more colours in their outer capping, orange, yellow, white and grey being among the choices.

Naturally no sound of music survives, but that it did exist is probable, and as an accompaniment to mortuary ritual is likely. At one site what appears to be the remains of a flute or pipe was found as a grave good, but whether similar instruments were played as part of the ritual cannot be known for sure but must be likely. The making of noise (particularly percussive noise) is a common separation rite, and the survival of one instrument of a more sophisticated kind (implying again that the people possessed a wide range of high cognitive skills) must suggest the existence of simpler instruments (even doubling as implements such as pounders). There were certainly some activities detectable at sites which imply that noise was a deliberate component of the mortuary rite, in association with the act of symbolism being undertaken. These include the breaking of vessels and implements (occasionally in large numbers), the breaking up of bones (both inhumed and cremated), the deliberate piling of large blocks over some burials (prophylactic), the stoning of some burials (prophylactic, and a warning to the soul not to return), and the use of certain materials to build the burial mound such as beach pebbles (these also came from a distance, so were deliberately chosen, the deposition of which would be a noisy, clattering process, more so than setting cairn stones for example). These are but what survives in the record, where noise is implied, but include the possibilities of both music and more aggressive noise.

Turning to activity in primary and secondary disposal activity which might be designed to avert states of jeopardy, some have been alluded to above in the piling of stone blocks over certain disposals, and in the destruction of the dead person's possessions (which might have been thought polluted). The making of noise is another activity to ward off the return of the soul, or to give it the message that it must not approach its former body, but be on its way.

Two further important acts to avert jeopardy may be detected in the prehistoric mortuary record. These are the dismantling of huts prior to building the monument site where they once stood (or other forms of clearing an occupation area), and the building of mortuary structures. Both of these activities might have preceded death itself and primary disposal activity, but more probably followed on the death, and formed part of a primary-secondary activity continuum. Destruction of the house of the deceased (if indeed it was their house) could be interpreted as an effort to remove the pollution of death from the site, or to confine it to the burial site. The separation of the dead in a mortuary house built apart from the community, and again sometimes converted into the burial site, also might be interpreted as a measure to avoid the pollution caused by death and its associated decay.

The clear examples of mortuary sites built not merely on occupation areas but on recent occupation areas, and specifically ones with evidence for dismantled huts upon them are few: four in 3500-2500bc (22 Hazleton II, 85 Woodford 2, 137 Ascott-under-Wychwood and 1670 Winterbourne Monckton 17a) and four in 2500-14/1300bc (204 Davidstow Moor Site XXVI (22), 377 Mount Pleasant, 381 Newton, and 394 Saint-y-Nyll). It is notable that the last three sites were in the same region, suggesting that, subject to the accident of discovery and record, this version of purification ritual was stronger there than at other places. There are a number of examples of mortuary houses on burial sites, and given the evidence for primary excarnation processes off-site it must be a high probability that mortuary houses or mortuary enclosures with the same isolating function existed in places outside the settlements and away from disposal sites. Another version of avoidance of the jeopardy caused by the decaying body, and the uncertain state of the departing soul, might be seen in the stake circles raised around some graves within barrows especially in 2500-14/1300bc. These may have had other functions discussed below. Stone edging which surrounds other disposals might have had the same purpose.

It is clear from some burials and from some bone collections that the subjects had been bound when deposited, so tightly are the bones or the body compressed together. The unequivocal evidence is not great but it is there in every period but 14/1300-8/700bc, and the state of many more disposals throughout prehistory is highly suggestive of such treatment. This practice may have both the pragmatic purpose of making the receptacle needed less large, but also of avoiding jeopardy by controlling the corpse's ability to escape (or perhaps the soul) and harm the community.

Another practice averting pollution and the jeopardy that it brings is seen in the curation of inhumed bones (where they were cleaned and sorted), and in the treatment of cremated bone by washing out the charcoal to produce clean bone. Neither of these practices was universal, but they suggest that the use of water symbolically to assist in the final stage of the transition of the dead body from decaying flesh to dry bone did take place at the secondary stage.

A very unusual instance of the jeopardy aversion rite of substitution of the body may have taken place at one site (810 Folly Field) where, on the sand infill of the coffin, 0.2m above the cremation heap was a clean, deep chocolate brown, compact sand contrasting with the grey-yellow sand fill. The excavator identified this as having an anthropomorphic form and crouched in posture. Some of the food vessel sherds fell onto the shape when the coffin cover (which also protected the vessel) collapsed. These taken together have been interpreted as a representative inhumation, in the absence of the body, perhaps because of difficulty of recovery, or because it had suffered a bad death.


There have already been many mentions of the use of symbols in the primary and secondary disposal processes. Some of these have included journeying symbols, for example the depositing of grave goods. Other examples of such symbols include the orientation of bodies, graves, and monuments (already discussed), and the symbolic shape of the container. There are several examples of graves designed in the shape of boats, all in the earlier periods, some communal, some individual. There are also coffins made from hollowed tree trunks, another possible form of water transport: nearly all of these occur in 2500-14/1300bc. These might symbolise the souls' journey over water to their destination, but it is hard to estimate the probability of this being the right explanation taken by itself. If the significance of orientation and other indicators of journeying is accepted, then the explanation becomes more likely.

Indeed the various containers of disposals offer a range of possible symbols. The notion of a tomb as a collective home for the dead is common (Bloch 1971; Metcalf 1982; Perry 1918, Aristotle Athenaion Politeia 55.3; Hodder 1984), and would fit with the evidence for the curation of a community of ancestors through the medium of communal graves or grave sites. The wide variety of physical burial containers used (see Table 415) offers much scope for interpretation of symbols. The growth in popularity of pit burial over time may suggest that depositing the dead below ground was a form of return to the chthonic deities who grew in importance over the periods under study as the ancestor community focus lessened. The pit became a more effective medium of communication with the otherworld, shaft burials possibly having a double symbolism of averting particularly serious jeopardy, and better communication with the powers of fertility.

Use of different kinds of urns to hold cremations (and very occasionally an inhumation burial placed as a fleshed body or dry bones) may also in the secondary disposal process have symbolic meaning. These were vessels normally used, on the evidence, in domestic circumstances to hold food and drink, or in cooking. It is known that both newly made urns and old urns were used (some of the latter with repairs), and that the quality of the urn making varied considerably (which may not have affected the symbolism, but rather represented other intentions, if finely made). In anthropological terms, the use for burial purposes of containers normally used for food and liquid storage, or food or liquid processing (such as fermenting, distilling and preservation), or for dyeing, may symbolise through the container both the transition of the body and soul (as food or liquid is transformed from one state to another), and the offering of the transformed body to the chthonic beings in the form of anticipated fertile power, a gift in the expectation of return of this fertility many-fold (Mauss 1970). If this hypothesis is true, then it would support a proposition that the mortuary rite in 14/1300-8/700bc contained particularly symbolic evidence for considerable social and economic pressure, the cinerary urns being in fact domestic food containers returned with the dead to the chthonic deities (and possibly to the ancestor communities) in particular expectation of help with survival.

The risk of wrongly interpreting symbols is high, as the same symbol may have quite a separate meaning to various peoples at any one time, and may even differ among the same people at different times. Symbolic reversals are particularly difficult to interpret, where the objective is assumed to be to change an unpropitious situation for the better. There are a number of examples where bones have been reversed or otherwise deliberately repositioned in the skeleton, or bones swapped between skeletons, or where even mutilation of the corpse has taken place at the point of burial. Anthropological theory (Fox 1973, 342-68) suggests that these actions are sometimes taken to counter the effects of a bad death, and to confuse the soul so that it cannot return - to reverse the normal may reverse the abnormal. There is no way of telling whether these cases were bad deaths, but it is possible that the purpose was to confuse the soul. A more secure reversal symbol may be seen in the tendency to locate the burials of younger persons towards the edge of monuments, the reverse of the more central and normal positions, to counter the misfortune of early death. Again, these placings in the secondary disposal stage may reflect as much on the social status as on the type of death. The reversal of orientations within graves is also capable of either interpretation, but might be more likely to be social than owing to bad deaths (on balance of probabilities, bad deaths being unusual).

There appears to have been much symbolic use of the prime elements of fire, earth, air and water in mortuary ritual. The most frequently used element is fire, smaller fires lit on barrow floors or within other mortuary sites possibly implying purificatory and separation actions, these also being expressed by the scattering of charcoal and ash. The use of fire in cremation also involves the symbolic expenditure of effort and resources, and the lighting of the pyre may have been by a flame symbolically carried in small so-called incense cups (for which there is evidence at at least one site). On one occasion (perhaps by accident) there was a huge conflagration at a site, where a massive mortuary house was destroyed. Such an act, however, may have had a deliberate symbolic intent, and must certainly have been an impressive sight.

The digging of pits and scoops on monument site floors and their refilling is another frequent occurrence capable of several interpretations. They may be propitiatory acts to chthonic powers, and possibly were receptacles of offerings, the traces of which have not survived in most cases (but have in others). Their numbers vary greatly from a few on one site to dozens on another, and the elaborateness of the refilling also may vary. On occasion great efforts have been made to import particular kinds of earth from a distance, and the importance of chalk as a source of fertility (by improving soils) may be implicit in its use in forming floors and mound make-up in areas where it was not necessarily a common material. Its colour may have been another factor.

To divine the use of air in mortuary ritual of 2000-6000 years ago (except through wind instruments and song in funeral music) is difficult. If the passage of light within and through monuments is allowed as an extension of air symbolism, then it seems likely that light was manipulated on some sites to particular effect. The design of some chambered tombs allowed light to strike deep within at certain times of year and day or night, and the effects of sun and moonlight at particular open stone circles at particular times are well documented (Ruggles and Whittle 1981). It appears that features at some sites were designed to exclude light, for example L-shaped chambers at some chambered tombs, and the entrance to the (?)shrine at 1196 Trethellan Farm.

The use of water to purify cremated bone has already been referred to. There is evidence for the committal of some human remains (and rich goods) to watery places from 8/700bc, but although the extent of the practice has to be guessed at, its symbolism is plain from previous references to the journey that the soul is expected to make. As water leaves no trace from casual use such as pouring into the ground, it is impossible to tell for certain whether it was used in the ritual of preparing a monument base. The digging out and immediate refilling of the small pits and scoops that occur on many sites, especially in the earlier periods, might have been accompanied by the pouring of libations into or beside them, and the sprinkling of water (just as ash and charcoal was scattered in similar situations), but one cannot tell. There is evidence for its use in smoothing material such as chalk and clay used in elements of monument construction such as base surfaces, grave linings and sculptured features, and therefore it was certainly brought to the site in some cases.

Sexuality, fertility, male and female roles

It is extremely difficult to extract much from the evidence to determine the existence of male and female roles for the living in either disposal ritual or in symbolic treatment of the sexes. The most common level of distinction in disposal has already been seen in the allocation of some grave goods to the dead, where the living roles of the male and female could be reflected in the types of goods with which they were accompanied, expressing the productive tasks with which they were occupied, their social position, or male and female forms of wealth display. Men and women do not appear in general to have been treated very differently on the grounds of sex when disposed of.

The broad backcloth of fertility purpose that stands behind disposal process has been fully exposed already in reference to the uses of certain deposits. Further but very rare symbols of such purpose occur in monument structure such as the porthole entrances at 11 Butcombe I and 38 Rodmarton I, and stonework containing fossil remains at 14 Wellow I. The use of fossils and shells as grave goods, often as beads with female burials, and scattered in mound construction is another act symbolising fertility (Eliade 1961, 125ff.), and was most prevalent in 2500-14/1300bc. The symbolism of shells constantly figures as part of aquatic cosmology, as well as in sexual symbolism; shells in funerary ritual allow the one who dies to retain connection with the cosmic power that has nourished and ruled his life: the shells (and fossils of shells or fossils with the spiral image of shells) promise new life. The associations of shells with funerary ritual is a worldwide phenomenon (Eliade 1961, 125sqq).

However, the clues to the roles of the living men and women in disposal ritual itself are scant throughout the period. It might be possible to deduce from grave goods that women may have been the weavers of cloth more usually than men, but it does not follow that they prepared and wrapped the corpse, in which activity men might share. In the same way, it might be supposed that for the construction of monuments, men felled the trees, heaved stone and earth, and dug ditches, but women may have also been involved in these tasks. And even if less than the men, their contribution could have been of symbolic importance. And so with the making of pottery, although some of the finger decoration and delicate work might suggest the generally smaller hands of women or children at work. This may a false trail however, as is demonstrated by the most delicate goldwork which was produced in 2500-14/1300bc: metalworkers are commonly assumed to be men, given the nature of the smelting and metal forming process. Yet the osteological and dental evidence, where reported, more often than not suggests that both men and women underwent physical hardship in pursuing a living, and a clear male/female dichotomy of roles is not proven.

It is therefore not possible from what survives to construct the roles that the sexes held in conducting the mortuary process, although the probability from other evidence might lie in their sharing the tasks: they seem to have been equally treated when buried, and when alive their different skills would contribute to various elements of the disposal process, from the more delicate tasks to the more physically demanding. It is possible that each sex was involved in the whole spectrum of activity - and there is no evidence otherwise. It is not possible, for example, to test rigorously the anthropological model that suggests that the women more frequently were prominent in the primary disposal process, and the men in the secondary. Conventional thinking of the past about gender roles may not apply.

On the other hand, in the symbolic shape of the porthole entrances at Rodmarton and Butcombe there is the slightest hint of the model cited in Section 8 (Figure 8.4-1), in which the male/dry bone/tomb elements are counterbalanced by the female/flesh/womb elements, the male elements entering the tomb to enable creation of the fertility desired. These models are theoretically supported by the evidence in the earliest period where chambered tombs are physically appropriately structured, but the form of mounds in later periods offers less scope for this particular model. Yet the concept may still be valid even then: the physical arrangement of space through which the dead will pass may later be represented by external causewayed entrances which perform the same symbolic function of entry to the womb/tomb as did the stone chamber entrance.

Time, space and place

The evidence for primary and secondary disposal processes implies variation in use of very short to very long elapsed timespans from start to finish of the two processes. This variation is similar to the anthropological findings among modern developing peoples. There is evidence for disposals taking place without seeming exposure of the body, with the implication that the burial followed within hours or days of death, and there are certainly burials with evidence for the mound floor preparation and the burial taking place at one event. On the other hand, there are also sites where the base was prepared, and the grave dug, but left open for a while before the remains were deposited. The period of open-ness was sufficient for weathering and silting to take place. On occasion a body was left exposed in the grave, sometimes covered by a mortuary structure, and the presence of both weathering and small fauna in the grave suggest that days or even weeks or months may have passed before the grave was finally filled.

The fact of excarnation being a consistent practice through prehistory has been established, but not its level of frequency. The rate of excarnation of a corpse depends on the manner in which it is done, sometimes on soil conditions if temporary inhumation is the method, and on climate at the time. It may vary from a few weeks to many months. The time taken for decomposition parallels that necessary for the soul's journey to the spirit world and the ancestor community. Even then, the community may have other activities to carry out prior to final disposal of the collected bones, as part of the secondary disposal processes. These have been evidenced in the manipulation of bones on retrieval from the defleshed corpse. They may involve activities ranging from straight burial to placing a part in another temporary or permanent place for a variety of purposes but most usually prophylactic (at liminal places), or aimed at engendering fertility (in pits and middens). The elapsed time varies to an incalculable degree, but on the model suggested action would take place after the community was satisfied that the soul had left, and the bone could be used symbolically without fear.

It seems possible from some evidence that the time lag may also have depended on the community's desire to accumulate a number of disposals for placing together at one time. This seems to have been the likely practice on sites where effort was needed to re-open stone chambered tombs, or on sites which seem to hold a number of simultaneously deposited remains, which were then covered by a mound (or sometimes also incorporated in the mound itself), later deposits being inserted, or new mound and burial layers being added.

The reasons for such time delay are matters for speculation. They may have been connected with an annual ritual cycle that had to be observed which provided appropriate community opportunities for disposal ritual (the ritual events possibly being also connected with fertility). They may have been connected with more economic reasons. The resources needed to support the mortuary ritual may have imposed a strain on the community, which would accumulate sufficient disposals (or reserved cremation or human skeletal material) to make conducting the formal rituals more efficient, economic and possibly even more effective. These causes would explain time delays that appear to have taken place at some sites, and the placing of a number of disposals at one event. Both might apply in combination, the annual cycle possibly having early spring and late autumn festivals with fertility generation and fertility thanksgiving as the objectives, and coinciding with periods just before and just after the busiest planting and harvesting times when labour was most in demand.

It might be argued a posteriori that the later Celtic festivals may have had their roots in prehistoric mortuary practices going back to the beginning of the period of this research. The evidence could be interpreted to support that proposition, but this research has found scarcely any evidence that could generally relate deposition to a particular time of year. The little evidence that does remain is ambivalent. At a few sites leafed branches and at another a wreath survived, implying full summer or late summer burials, and at a few others corn was found as a deliberate deposit which could imply any time of year for burial, as it could be seed corn saved rather than newly harvested. At 1103 Pedngwinian Point the remains of three wheatears (members of the thrush family), a toad and a young rabbit (more probably a young hare, which has similar bones, and which was native to Britain then) mixed with the bones of three cremations suggests a spring or summer disposal, as wheatears are spring immigrants, and toads hibernate to emerge in the spring. The symbolism of the wheatear is likely to be in its being one of the first spring visitors to Britain, and therefore the harbinger of the productive crop season. Other symbolic attributes might be its habitat (rocky slopes) and its hovering flight (as the soul might hover around the body). The burial might also have taken place in the autumn, since wheatears can remain until then. Symbolism might also lie in the fauna themselves, being chosen for their space of living: the bird spanning air and land, the toad land and watery places, and the rabbit/hare open ground and underground. The problem with symbols is that they might be found in anything and interpreted in so many ways, but explanations nonetheless should be attempted to discover the thinking underlying such a deliberate choice of the kin and community several thousand years ago.

There are many other cases where certainly the economic cause cited above appears not to have applied (such as with single burials). It is also possible that mound sites in particular may have had bases prepared and burials inserted over time in a way undetected in the archaeological record, and then years later had the mound added in a completion process capable of symbolising several things, territorial rights established and change of kin group leadership being possibilities. The temporarily open burial area might have been protected, and have been tended until the right time for the completion process arrived. There is scarcely any unequivocal evidence for such practice, however. At 1701 Buckskin II Barrow there is evidence for ritual taking place over a long period on the barrow floor before the mound was raised, and the construction of stake circles (sometimes as many as seven) on barrow floors in the same period, 2500-14/1300bc, implies time passing in secondary stage ritual, but there seems to be no site where the period that elapses can be clearly detected. There is, however, evidence within some circles for activity of a short-lived nature (such as fire making).

The sense of the importance of point of time occasionally emerges when the cremation, whether urned or not, has clearly been placed in the grave when hot from the pyre. This has not been recorded very often, and the weight of the evidence suggests that cremated bone was cooled before deposit in most cases, sometimes for cleaning and selection before deposit. Another point of time indicator is the rare assault upon the corpse just before burial to mutilate or detach limbs, on which comment has been made above. The purpose of these timings is uncertain. In the latter case, it may be to force the soul to be on its way and not return to the body, and in the former it may have a similar hastening purpose: it may have been thought risky to allow the burnt bones to cool, and their placing while still hot may have been to encourage the soul not to linger. These are areas for speculation, but the activity is explicable in such a prophylactic context, timed as it was. Smashing vessels is another point of time example: this would have occurred at a certain point of what is now emerging as a series of symbolic activities within a rite of passage.

There are several aspects of space and place. The location of many disposal sites, and the nature of the primary/secondary disposal processes implies movement in space and symbolic transition of the remains between a number of sites: between the deceased's home and the primary place of disposal (perhaps an excarnation site), between the primary disposal site and the secondary disposal site, and between the secondary disposal site and other locations within that site or outside of it. This excludes movement of remains to and from the cremation pyre if that method was used. The possible transfers range from the simple (say of a dead infant to a pit or ditch without particular ritual) to the extremely complex. In this a body might be removed to an excarnation site, retrieved after due time, part retained, part transferred to a communal or individual secondary disposal site (within which other transfers might take place), part transferred to another symbolic site such as a midden or a liminal place, then part transferred on with midden material as a fertility offering in a pit, a ditch or in a mound layer. By this means the bone's connection with the individual may have lessened with each stage until it became generic material, recognised not for the person to whom it had once belonged but as belonging to the community and being used for the community's good. When its use was spent might be recognised by the time of its own decay or attenuation such that it might appear to have lost its power. This might explain the casual scraps of human bone found on settlement sites in no particular contexts (for instance in gullies or collecting with refuse by walls): they had lost their usefulness, or were regarded as spent forces.

These movements in space pass from the space of the living community to the spaces of the transient dead where the soul is released on its way, and then associate the now soul-less bones with a quest for the basic element of life that is fertility, or use them in other beneficial ways to promote the community's well-being. Such ideas have been explored in examining Proposition 5. The community (in initial stages the kin, but later in the secondary stages possibly the wider group) move with the dead or their parts in every stage, and the transition takes place from the negatives and dangers of death to the positives and possibilities of renewed life. The activities provided the opportunity for gatherings (there is some evidence for the remains of celebratory feasting at some monuments), and procession between locations. The evidence for the latter is slight in material terms (see the references to trampling above), but is supported partly by the fact that many burial monuments were at a distance from their settlements, if not necessarily very far, and partly by the ergonomic design of the monuments and sometimes their environs (for example avenues leading to them), which seem to encourage formal and controlled processing. The serious purposes and sometimes complexities of these activities would also suggest that their carrying out required some formality, not necessarily solemn but having form. The processes are capable of truncation or extension, and there is evidence for a spectrum of movement.

Boundaries exist in abundance at mortuary sites throughout prehistory, and appear to have much to offer in terms of symbolic intent, controlling space enclosed. As with all possible symbols, their significance may vary according to the freedom with which they are interpreted. The fact that ditches, the most common boundary, often perform the simple function of providing material for a burial mound may not detract from the possibilities of their possessing symbolic purposes as well. This possibility becomes a probability in circumstances such the presence of a ditch in the absence of a mound, the presence of multiple ditches, the digging of ditches to provide material for an inner or outer bank, the curation of ditches by redesign, recutting, refilling and cleaning, and the use of ditches for deliberate deposits of disposals, animal bone, lithic material, domestic refuse, grave goods and settings of selected human skeletal material. The special studies provide examples of all these events in every period. The purposes of the ditch are to separate inner from outer space (implying that the central locus enclosed has special qualities), and to provide the receptacle for symbolic deposits perhaps with downward and upward foci, holding offerings to the chthonic powers and projecting prophylactic images to those looking into them. Their possible use to hold disposals of people who may have merited setting down in a liminal place because of their age, their social position, or the manner of their death has already been mentioned under Proposition 8.

A bank as a boundary has the same space dividing function as a ditch, but may also emphasise the separation by obscuring the view of the interior, establishing it as special space. Sometimes this obscuring function was emphasised by the setting up of permanent or temporary picket fences on the bank, in the ditch itself, or at the edge of the ditch. Sometimes these fences were incomplete, suggesting that the direction of approach to the site, or the direction of observation was the subject of some control. On the other hand, material may have perished that does not show in the record, and which is therefore misleading. The hill fort rampart of the later periods was a special bank with secular functions, but occasionally its building incorporated a disposal to provide it with spiritually supported defences. Some banks (of earth or stone) surrounding earlier mounded or cairned monuments contained similar burials, possibly with similar purpose, although the location at such peripheries raises issues related to liminal placings of disposals which have been discussed earlier.

Any entrance marks a boundary between, generally, the inside and outside (as may a ditch or a bank), and the symbolic nature of the inside/outside division in many contexts has been set out in Section 8, in which the inside is an area subject to control, and the outside less so. An entrance (as sometimes a ditch) is nonetheless a functional necessity, and therefore the search is for characteristics which mark entrances as being possibly symbolic as well as functional. There are some interesting varieties of entrance contexts, and the symbolic intent is a matter for speculation, although in the context of the model being built on the evidence, the range might be narrowed.

An entrance allows both access and egress, and this fact and entrance orientation may have significance on prehistoric burial sites. Two entrances, especially opposite one another, may in the mortuary context denote, in one case, the entry point for the remains and the mourners, and in the other the exit for the soul (and possibly the mourners). For single entrance sites, the same opening has to serve both purposes, and the symmetry disappears, which might seem to weaken the case just advanced but other forms of access, such as temporary bridges over ditches, may have existed which are now untraceable. The possibility also exists that different communities used the entrances symbolically in different ways: there is much evidence in the archaeological record and in anthropological evidence for variation in practice, but with the same ultimate intent, control of access and egress. The orientation of such entrances has already been captured in the evidence, and commented on above, the probability being that the NW-NE orientation generally was the direction in which the soul was destined to pass.

The narrowness of many such entrances (c. 1-1.5m not being unusual) is suggestive of the procession being permitted access in single file, another form of control. The multiple access/egress provided on causewayed ditch sites of varying scales may express the desire of the community to afford the soul easy escape on its journey, but this would not reconcile with the notion that the exit gave the soul its direction. On the other hand, such direction might have been indicated by other means such as body or general monument orientation (see tests on Proposition 11). On sites such as the great causewayed enclosures it is difficult to assign other than mortuary purposes to such breaks between the ditches, and it might explain the sometimes very slight nature of these breaks - sufficient indeed to allow exit for something insubstantial, but not intended for a living person. Cumulatively the purposes of the monument entrance at the secondary disposal process appear to ones of control and management, of those taking part in the ceremonial, and of the passage of the soul.

On some sites there is a berm, or inner flat area between the ditch or bank and the mound slope. This is another form of separation symbol, but sometimes may become part of the disposal area itself, holding secondary burials although very occasionally the first burials on the site take place in this area. Very occasionally a feature combines the concepts of separation, entrance and directional movement in a step, either within a ditch or within a grave taking the participant from one space to another of particular significance, possibly to a ceremonial or vigil area.

The function of portals, porthole entrances, and shafts as boundary symbols of different kinds has already been discussed. The presence of stake circles, especially on or around round barrow sites in 2500-14/1300bc, has been alluded to. Because they are slight and often temporary structures, these circles may have occurred more often than has been possible to record. It is clear that on a few sites they unambiguously enclosed certain symbolic mortuary processes such as the lighting of purificatory fires and the digging of propitiatory pits, and their purpose was to shield the sight of these events from wider view. The ritual was reserved for a few, but it is uncertain whether ritual performance was the preserve of an elite with such a role. There is much evidence for the use of the monument floor space to conduct ritual which left traces of fire, scattering, minor disturbance of the soil, breakage, and offerings in every period (although to different degrees). Sometimes there were a number of concentric circles, sometimes arcs and, more rarely, separate circles within the same monument base area. The circles might be dismantled or left standing after use, there seeming to be no pattern. Very occasionally, a circle appears to have protected a grave in which an exposed body lay, but in the main they appear from the evidence to have been intended to enclose disposal ritual of purificatory and propitiatory nature.

What are the probabilities that an individual with a special role assumed these duties for the community? If a priestly group emerged in prehistory, as has been suggested may have happened in parallel with the emergence of shrines, then a posteriori perhaps there is a case for persons existing with this special role from the earliest times. There are modern anthropological parallels for such roles (Watson 1982; Metcalf 1982). The only surviving physical and very tangential evidence that might suggest that such individuals existed lies in the few disposals accompanied by items that are not explicable in the normal sense, but which might be symbols of such office (such as the burial at 465 Amesbury 51 with its wooden triangular breastplate). Interpretation is not reliable, however. There is also the occasional site like 200 Trevassaborough which disclosed considerable evidence of a ritual in which fire and wooden objects played prominent parts. For the first time in Cornwall there was found a ring of stakes within which were the remains of several fires, and a large heap of charcoal. On the outer surface of the mound a light wooden fence at the shoulder enclosed the flat crown. On this surface were found traces of further fires and parts of a pot. Some groups of quartz stones might have been remains of a central cairn. Wooden objects were half-moon shaped 15cm x 10cm, club shaped 65cm x 23cm x 5cm, in the shape of an equilateral triangle 18cm x 18cm x 15cm, charcoal traces of a possible plank, and a piece of hockey-stick shaped timber. The report suggested that some fragments of human skeletal material were found on the platform floor. This appears to be a particularly unusual form of mortuary ritual.

Another argument for there being persons with such a role lies in the fact that the mortuary traditions appear to have been strong. There is evidence for similar kinds of ritual activity taking place through the whole of 3500bc-AD43, which suggests that there were particular persons who carried the knowledge and passed it on. These could have been the more senior members of the community, however, and it is conceivable that age carried with it these responsibilities. The argument is inconclusive, and all one might infer from the evidence is that there probably was a leader of disposal process who arranged the boundary and monument architecture where that was needed, and who possibly also directed events that took place, but whether with special status is unknown.

The importance of location or place in the siting of disposal sites to symbolise power and status has been covered in discussion of Propositions 6-8. That these locations shifted from 8/700bc or a little earlier in one area might be linked to the rise of hill forts, and their intense use for disposal processes merging with fertility rituals. The concept of liminal space use has also been covered earlier, as has temporary location. The symbolism of the secondary disposal phase container as the location for the remains has been referred to at several points above. The spectrum of container use in prehistory is very wide (see Table 415), and although the popularity of types changes over time, many are still in use in AD43. The range in prehistory is paralleled in modern anthropological studies, and it is possible to relate the same symbolism to prehistoric containers: for example containers expressing power (mound, large cairn), fertility (pit, urn, shaft, bucket), regeneration (pit, tree, tree trunk, urn, shaft), and protection (stone arrangement, bank, chamber, coffin, cist, mortuary house, binding, wrapping, bundling). Some of the containers may be interpreted differently as symbols, but the underlying ideas are there expressed in one form or another.

Finally, the use of location and space within the monument or grave itself may have significance, symbolic or practical. The research has not correlated orientation with the location of graves within monuments, although there is an untested impression that in many monuments deposits cluster in certain sectors, ignoring others, and are often in the SW-SE quadrant (opposite to the monument orientation tendency). In a few graves, the excavation of earth has far exceeded the space needed to hold the remains which are sometimes tucked in a corner or against a wall. These graves may have been dug to allow the mourners and those conducting the rites enough space to stand around the disposal and conduct a vigil, but they may alternatively have a symbolism, providing the dead with space in a form of offering. What symbolic interpretation is then to be given to graves or containers with very cramped space, in which the body can scarcely fit (of which several examples survive), is uncertain. The provision or lack of generous space may be a statement of status, but there is less certainty over this than there is about the meaning of the size of monuments, and the incidence of the extremes are few.

Post-disposal activity

The evidence for such activity is difficult to determine, but there are a few indicators.

The dimension of return in time to revisit burial sites is implicit in prehistory in the revisiting of monuments for the placing of new disposals, for the curation of the monument (such as recutting ditches), and for the extension or redesign of the monument. Although there is scant evidence for the reuse of monuments over two or more periods (see the evidence in discussing Proposition 4), and hence for revisiting over very long timespans, there are sites where later alterations and disposals were made within the same period and where it is clear that they held a strong community focus. It is difficult to guess the regularity of such revisiting, and there has already been a short discussion of the problems of assessing whether communities buried their dead whenever they chose, or only at set times (or possibly both).

Indeed, the numbers of burials per site are seldom more than 5-10 and often less, the larger cemeteries usually extending to the low tens and very rarely into high tens and the hundreds. If there were regular revisiting of sites, it may have had more to do with ceremonial than further depositions, for example curation of the territorial marker, or to visit the ancestor family to place offerings (deposits in ditches might be explained as the votive results of such visits), or to remove material for other ritual purposes discussed above.

In the latest period there are references in Classical literature to the Celts in Britain devoting certain festivals to the dead (and by implication possibly to mortuary ritual, and the revisiting of burial sites, see 8.6), but there is no contemporary archaeological evidence to support this. The evidence for such revisiting is strongest in the earliest period, when there were more monuments that were capable of re-entry, and sure evidence for rearrangement of bones into groups and patterns, and for removal for other purposes which have become clearer in the discussion of the transfer activities which were prevalent.

Although it must be conjecture, if the evidence for the use of human skeletal material for fertility purposes is accepted, then it is probable that these retrieval and deposition activities took place at important seasonal points at the beginning of spring, and at the beginning of winter. At the one, the activity would be directed at gaining a successful crop and spring and summer breeding season, and at the other it would be directed at returning thanks in the expectation of good treatment the next year, and at propitiating souls and chthonic powers in return for survival through the winter, and protection of vital seed and animal breeding stock. The timing would also make economic sense, being immediately prior to and after the period when labour was most needed for soil preparation, sowing, cultivation, pasturing, harvesting, management of breeding stock, building, mining, and acquiring stocks of various other materials more readily collected in the spring and summer for winter use. Whether the deposition processes were confined to such times is uncertain, as the evidence is ambivalent: the decision to do so might depend on the economic state of the community, but also upon the extent to which it had an elite controlling the pattern of such activity, and actively managing the disposal process as part of wider community rites. As there is evidence for such connections between disposal activity and wider ritual activity, and for the continuous existence of a controlling elite, the probability leans towards control on both economic and community grounds. The timing of revisiting may therefore have been controlled, but the locations revisited may have spread wider than the monument to middens, excarnation sites and other sites of symbolic importance such as shrines and other places for communication with the otherworld.

There is no evidence to suggest whether the kin made efforts to revisit the sites of their dead other than as part of community activity as part of the secondary disposal process.


The review of the evidence here (and under other Propositions) supporting or contradicting the hypotheses for Proposition 13 suggests that there is much circumstantially to support the thesis that through prehistory beliefs may have existed centring on concepts inherent in ideas of mortuary processes as a rite of passage. What survives of sufficient quality to be subject to such examination is capable of this interpretation, and the contexts in which it survives add probability. It is possible that the suggestions made above on the interpretation of symbols might be different, but both ancient and modern anthropological observations provide parallels of material and context that are too close be ignored. In such rites of passage, variety is not uncommon. The prehistoric peoples' mortuary rites do not have to be the same in detail, but the underlying structure and process of burial ritual that emerges for the peoples of southern Britain over 3500bc-AD43 appears to share a generic framework.

Furthermore, it is possible to trace the development of the rite of passage through the periods in a way that supports concepts of both tradition and evolution, although it appears that the symbols decline in visibility the closer to AD43 one comes.


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