Proposition 4

that communal burial monuments, and the significance of the location of individuals within them may have reduced in occurrence and importance through prehistory.

A communal burial monument is interpreted for the purpose of this proposition as any site, settlement or open, structured or not, where more than one disposal has taken place in a period.

A test on plain numbers is not helpful, as the sites in the three disposal categories (single disposal, multiple similar and multiple varied) follow the general rise and fall in site numbers (Table 385). Table 9.4-1 tests the hypothesis for any change in the proportions of multiple similar and multiple varied disposal sites occurring through the five periods (source Tables 385-6), and then for the two types combined as together representing all communal burials:

PeriodA B C D E F  
 Mult Sm Nos% of all Mult Vr Nos% of allMulti Tot % of all All sites
Table 9.4-1: Changes in the proportions of multiple similar and multiple varied disposal sites

It shows that if the two types are taken together (column F), then there is no such reduction in proportion through time for the presence of communal burial monuments. There is a drop in 2500-14/1300bc, but the proportion then rises slightly to maintain a steady presence as the majority site type thereafter. When the communal burial sites are subdivided into the multiple similar and multiple varied types, the one variation appears between the periods 2500-14/1300bc and 14/1300-8/700bc. In the former period, compared with 3500-2500bc the multiple similar burial declines twice as sharply as the multiple varied type. In the final two periods both types are in close balance.

The hypothesis therefore does not hold, since apart from the initial drop in the proportion of communal burial monuments between the Earlier Neolithic and the Neolithic-Bronze Age interface, the proportion of such burials increases gradually thereafter, and during the last three periods resumes its previous majority position.

The visibility of burial monuments is high over the first three periods then declines sharply and levels off (Table 56). The issue is whether the multiple burial sites diverge from this pattern, for example by maintaining a higher or lower level of visibility against the trend at any point. Table 9.4-2 shows percentage visibility trends among the single disposals, multiple similar and multiple varied disposals over 3500bc-AD43. It was produced for each period using the respective Codes 001, 002 and 009 against the Code 025 for visibility:

PeriodSingle disposalsMultiple similar Multiple varied All (Table 56)
3500-2500bc 54889681
14/1300-8/700bc 75749279
Table 9.4-2: Percentage trends in the visibility of single, multiple similar and multiple varied disposals

First all types of sites follow the general pattern of being high in visibility over 3500-14/1300bc, and lower over the last two periods. The multiple varied disposal sites have a discernibly higher level of visibility than the other two types in the first three periods, and in the last. The single disposals seem to diverge from the pattern in 3500-2500bc (being much less visible then) and in 8/700-100bc (rather more visible than the average). The multiple similar disposals exhibit a tendency for decline throughout the whole timespan.

Use of the term 'through prehistory' in the hypothesis might be taken to imply that communal burial sites may be expected to show a steady decline in visibility. The evidence supports this to a degree in the case of multiple similar disposal sites for 3500-8/700bc but there is a steep drop thereafter followed by further decline. The evidence for multiple varied disposal sites shows them at a very high plateau of visibility with virtually no decline over 3500-8/700bc. They then drop sharply, recovering very slightly in 100bc-AD43.

The hypothesis is therefore only partially true for multiple disposal sites in terms of a hypothesised continuum of decline, since only the multiple similar type accords with it. In that timespan the multiple similar disposal sites are in the numerical minority (362:551 multiple varied), which underlines the partial fulfilment. The hypothesis is, however, true for all multiple disposal sites if applied to the sharp drop in their visibility from 8/700bc and further decline thereafter.

The evidence for all types of monument is that percentage incidence of redesign and adaptation progressively declined over the five periods (15-5-3-3-1% from Table 56). Table 9.4-3 shows that, when the multiple burial sites are extracted, they follow much the same pattern within their group as the generality of sites in respect of design change. This is the case whether they are multiple similar or multiple varied in type, or counted altogether (Columns B, D and F). The numbers and percentages for the multiple similar disposal sites are very low indeed, however. The low incidence of redesign on these sites might be related to the lower incidence of ritual activity already noted in Section 6 for this type.

 A B C D E F 
Period Mult Sm with mult des % of all Mlt sites Mult Vr with mult des % of all Mltsites Tot multw mlt des % of all Mlt sitAll Mult dsp sites
100bc00 2222106
Table 9.4-3: Design change of multiple single and varied burial sites compared with all multiple disposal sites

The hypothesis therefore appears to be supported by the evidence, with some doubt about its absolute applicability to the sites with multiple similar disposals and multiple design features, owing to their very low numbers.

This hypothesis can be tested by scanning Gazetteer sites in the three periods 3500-8/700bc, 2500-100bc and 14/1300-AD43 for consecutive period disposals in the form Y5+Y4+Y3, Y4+Y3+Y2 and Y3+Y2+Y1, where Y indicates existence of a disposal and the figures 5-1 denote the five periods. The results are given in Table 9.4-4:

Periods scannedSites with disposals in each period% of all sites in the periods scannedTotal sites in the period scanned
Table 9.4-4: Continuity of burial use over three successive periods

The results may suggest that the parameters should be modified, taking more account of the calendrical time. The three periods above contain respectively c. 3450, 3000 and 1600 calendrical years, which is rather an uneven set. However, the cultural time divisions chosen (Section 3) have an importance, and an alternative test of two consecutive periods gives the results shown in Table 9.4-5:

Periods scanned Sites with disposals in each period% of all sites in the periods scanned Total sites in the period scanned
3500-14/1300bc 161-21152
2500-8/700bc 685-61305
8/700bc-AD43 103-4320
Table 9.4-5: Continuity of burial use over four successive periods

Even these periods have calendrical year total imbalances, covering as they do c. 2700, 2200, 1650 and 900 years respectively. The results demonstrate conclusively that, despite using just two consecutive periods, it is still very small numbers of sites that exhibit consecutive period use. The numbers are still too small to be worth subanalysis for the multiple disposal sites they might contain.

Testing the hypothesis has shown that the evidence for use of a site for disposal purposes in three consecutive periods is slight. For use in two consecutive periods, the evidence is still not significant in incidence. The results for 2500-8/700bc are interesting, however, where 5-6% of sites appear to show a continuum of use in the period of 2200 calendar years. Either side of that period (1240 years before and 1000 years after) the evidence is less strong for continuity.

The pattern is not sufficiently even to support the hypothesis unequivocally, but the evidence such as it is does show a fall from a high point reached during 2500-8/700bc, and therefore the hypothesis has some slight support.

The term 'foundation deposit' is here assumed to have certain connotations. It implies an intention to found a burial monument with a distinctly recognisable symbolic act of deposition. It may not be necessary for the remains deposited to be of one person or to be those of a person of particular status for the intention to be fulfilled. The remains may not even be of a whole body or bodies, and may include other material deposits.

The problem is how to identify the intention through interpretation of the remains. The term 'foundation' connotes a first deposit, but it is seldom clear which deposit on a multi-deposition site is the first (since position may be no clue, and sequence may not be evident). Nor are single primary deposits unequivocally always foundation deposits unless 'first' is interpreted as 'earliest and assuming that more are to follow', which broadens the term so as to deprive it of significance. It is apparent from a number of sites, use of which spans more than one period, that hundreds of years sometimes may separate succeeding deposits. On the other hand, to interpret 'foundation' as applying solely to the monument and not to the symbolic intent merely makes every first deposit a foundation deposit and renders the point of the hypothesis meaningless.

The examination of hypotheses above has established that communal burial maintained a majority incidence over all periods but one (Table 9.4-1 Column F), but the research data are not coded to identify foundation deposits, or whether depositions are 'simple' or not. Furthermore, to make these distinctions involves bringing together subjectively a number of characteristics such as position in the monument, other spatial relationships, and deposition content to see whether any combinations emerge that indicate a special nature or intent. Because coding indicates incidence, unambiguous inter-relationship of characteristics is not possible except between certain data types, but in this case these do not include those with which this hypothesis is concerned. However, a general view of the correlation of multiple similar and multiple varied disposal sites with location of deposits is possible, the characteristics using Codes 091-098 which signify central deposition, non-central deposition, both types, use of a designed arrangement in the deposition, unusually deep deposition, well spaced deposition, tightly spaced deposition, and no evidence in the case of some depositions.

Incidence on multiple similar disposal sitesPercentage of incidence
091-0983500 25001400 800 1003500 2500 1400 800 100
Des arr62602142704
Well sp2101251024
Tight sp4250292604
No evid251178042495889899591
All ms43131904554100100100100100
Table 9.4-6: Location of burials on multiple similar disposal sites
Incidence on multiple varied disposal sitesPercentage of incidence
091-0983500 2500 1400800100 35002500 1400 800 100
Des arr92794218814104
Well sp1012011203022
Tight sp75133141276
No evid242995238504887809396
All mv50343654153100100100100100
Table 9.4-7: Location of burials on multiple varied disposal sites

The two types appear to have distinctly different tendencies in respect of centrality, in the incidence of both central and non-central burials appearing on the same site, and in designed arrangements. Multiple similar burials appear to have a notably higher incidence of central deposits than do multiple varied disposal sites, except in 8/700-100bc when they drop to the same (lower) level as the latter before a recovery takes place after 100bc. The multiple varied disposal sites have a higher incidence of both central and non-central locations for deposits on the same site than do the multiple similar sites, although both types decline in possession of the characteristic. Multiple varied sites also show a stronger tendency to have designed arrangements of depositions than the multiple similar sites, but both types decline in instances of this characteristic.

Does this indicate anything relevant to the hypothesis? The decline in designed arrangement is an indicator of a movement from complexity to simplicity, as might be the decline in the incidence of both central and non-central disposals on a site (sites tending to have one or the other characteristic). There are other similar indicators of such a movement, ranging from reductions in the range of burial container types in use (Table 416), through certain types of disposal method (Table 176), to evidence for ritual activity (Table 146). These do not unequivocally support the hypothesis, although they would be a supportive context were that part of the hypothesis on increasing simplicity of deposits to be true. The hypothesis needs further testing which inter-relates sequence, location, and elaboration of deposits in more sensitive ways than can be done on the data available.

There are a few sites where a foundation deposit appears less ambiguously in the record. In 3500-2500bc at 18 Sudeley I there were burials under the portal stone, and a jaw set over the lintel, which might imply by their location and nature a deliberate founding act. There are numbers of other examples of monuments with successive deposits, but without unambiguous foundation deposits (22 Hazleton II, 26 Swell V and 86 Lanhill for example).

In 2500-14/1300bc at 920 Roxton Ring Ditch C the primary burial was interpreted as a foundation deposit and was followed by secondary burials with complex inhumation and redeposition processes. There are many examples of sites with successive deposits but, as before, it is hard to identify clear cases of symbolic foundation deposits. Indeed, in this period as in the last, there are numerous examples of the primary deposits being disturbed, or even thrown out to make way for the next, suggesting that memory had faded or, more likely, that these primary deposits did not retain any special meaning after a time. In 14/1300-8/700bc there are no unambiguous foundation deposits (except under huts, outside the scope of this hypothesis), but successive burial sites exist.

In 8/700-100bc, two hill forts have foundation burials (1137 Hod Hill and 1190 Maiden Castle Fort), but these have other symbolic purposes outside the scope of the hypothesis. However, at 1177 Harlyn Bay B one particularly unusual burial was noted, the inhumation of an adult and a child on the west side of the burial ground. They were covered by large slabs of slate on which had been built a low drystone wall 0.9m high or more. This wall may have belonged to a building, possibly with a mortuary or other funerary purpose which was associated with the earlier burials on the site (Whimster 1977b). The excavator speculated that this might have been a (sacrificial) foundation burial to protect the burial ground.

In 100bc-AD43 13 South Cadbury and 1190 Maiden Castle Fort have examples, but again these are rampart burials. Both this and the last period have examples of sites with successive burials, but again none seemingly with burials of clear founding intent.

The evidence for foundation burials appears too slight to support the hypothesis. It seldom seems possible to identify a disposal set down with characteristics implying symbols of foundation such as location, richness, design or use of space and which is also primary. There are many examples of sites with successive deposits, but the earliest deposits (where they can be clearly identified as such) survive with no special symbolic features that class them as foundation as opposed to first deposits. It is also difficult to find evidence that depositions became simpler per se, although it is the case that certain disposal characteristics reduce in variety. A less strict interpretation might produce more examples.

Four hypotheses have been examined which would support Proposition 4 that communal burial monuments and the significance of the location of individuals within them may have reduced in occurrence and importance through prehistory. Testing the first found that communal burial monuments did not decrease as a proportion of all disposal sites through prehistory: in four of the five periods they were the majority type site, and their incidence actually increases slightly through 14/1300bc-AD43. Tests of the second, which centred on the visibility of multiple disposal monuments, found that such sites overall declined in visibility from high levels in 3500-8/700bc to levels three times lower in 8/700bc-AD43, but that multiple similar disposal sites differed from multiple disposal sites, having lower levels of visibility. Tests for continuity of use showed low levels even on two period spans, only the period 2500-8/700bc (5-6% having continuity) showing any level of significance. Finally, the tests for foundation burial deposits and simpler successive burials found little support. Although there are many sites with evidence for successive communal burial through prehistory, a handful possess unambivalent foundation burial evidence.

Proposition 4 is therefore not supported in respect of the posited decline in occurrence of communal burial sites, although the type of site with multiple disposals varied through prehistory. There is little convincing evidence that the location of individuals as foundation deposits on disposal sites was a frequent significant occurrence, although there is much evidence for successive burial practice on multiple disposal sites. Generally, therefore, the proposition has no support.


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