Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Earthen Long Barrows of Northern Europe: Some Considerations

Monumental earthen long barrows, or long mounds, lie scattered across the European landscape from Poland to Ireland and represent one of the most tangible and enduring confirmations of Neolithic peoples’ funerary practices. Their elongated forms hug the land, nestling, like the ancestors inside them, against the body of the earth. Though no two are conspicuously alike, their shapes generally conform to similar constructional characteristics, but have been noted to include oval, rectangular, trapezoidal and triangular layouts. This brief investigation will attempt to account for their various guises and locations by identifying whether a parity or difference can be signified in their aspects between the northern and the western barrows and whether this constitutes a continuum or transference of building practices and monumental traditions, or whether they should be seen as separate entities, with distinct and specific identities, which may allow us to glimpse facets of long-departed communities and their inherent weltanschauung.

Primarily, we can identify motivations and changing methodologies, which Neolithic peoples underwent, as a pan-European phenomenon in the middle of the fifth millennium BC in their domestic and ritual activities; and which can be seen as factors for the cosmological shift away from previous burial traditions favouring individual persons in individual graves in the early Neolithic phases, with places such as Kruśźa Zamkowa, Kujavia, (Midgley citing Bednarczyk et al, 1980) Oslonki, (Bogucki, 2003), Elsoo (Modderman, 1970) and where cemeteries of individuals attest to this practise over many generations and appear to show signs of social hierarchies, gender difference and age distinction as evidenced through spatial analyses in association with grave goods and comparatively small amount of radio carbon dated skeletal material. Though this evidence has been shown previously to be problematic (Bonning, 2007), we can extemporise that there was at least some acknowledgment of these individuals interred in these cemeteries as non-representative of true social demarcations as the numbers of remains represent a fraction of the population extant at the time and are therefore to be considered exceptional in their communities for reasons we may never fully understand. The emergence of the Funnel-necked Beaker or Trichtebecherkultur (TRB) Culture out of Poland, country of origin for the long barrow phenomenon, is now dated to c.4500BC, superseding the Linearbandkeramik (LBK) culture, though the recent RCD’ing of evidence from this area seems to present a terminus post quem 4400BC (calibrated) for the monumental constructions at Sarnowo (after Midgley, 1997b: 681) coupled with the ‘complex fusion of socio-cultural elements of local hunter-gatherers and Central European ("Danubian") farmers’ (Midgley, 1997a) has been suggested as necessary, though by no means exclusive or solely sufficient yet may represent a diffusion of cultural ideas and objectives in relation to ‘materials, places and landscapes’ (Scarre, 2007: 244) .

Prehistoric monumental culture is a deeply socially embedded manifestation of the archaeological record. One cannot dismiss the importance of social theories when dealing with what are essentially artefacts of material culture. It is with this in mind that Christopher Tilley’s ‘The Materiality of Stone: Explorations in Landscape Phenomenology’ (2004) approaches interpretation. The chapter, ‘Shooting Rhizomes and Giant Axes. Experiencing Breton Menhirs’, is designed to illustrate the importance of ‘changing conceptions of space and time, and notions of social identity…’ (2004: 35). He suggests that these acted as permanent indicators ‘ to fix in the soil a part of the identity of those who erected them’ (ibid: 33) and it is with this perspective in mind that this investigation will progress as it references the divergent social trends that aid in the shaping of the Neolithic across western and northern Europe. By thinking of the past, as with culture, as a text to be read and understood (Hodder, [1986]1995; Geertz, [1973]1993) we should attempt to translate the extant components of Neolithic culture, thus Hodder’s notion of careful contextualism is polysemous – that symbols can possess multiple meanings - and it is this that presents archaeologists with the problem of interpretation – epistemologically, how do we know we are ‘right’ when we are ‘saying something of something’? (Geertz citing Aristotle, [1973]1993: 448).

It is with this potentially problematic notion firmly in mind, that a tentative suggestion will later be made, from observations on the form and dimension of the earthen long mounds, for a link between two indirectly related facets of material culture that may further illustrate a phenomenological continuum of rituality, the naturalistic representation of Neolithic peoples connection to landscape and their knowledge of the importance of its bounty as producer of workable materials by which they could fashion one of the most significant aspects of their social identity and prosperity – the polished stone axe. But, let us identify the characteristics of the long barrows and their distribution across Europe that we might understand the diffusion of monumental, cultural and ritual practises and the transmission of ideas or cognitive aspects of human development.

We can observe a startling visual characteristic, that of the predominance of the rectangular and trapezoidal shapes. Many archaeologists, including Hodder (1990; Midgley, 1985: 213; 1992: 480, Bogucki, 1987; see also Childe, 1949) argue for the continuation of form from the Danubian ‘long houses’ from evidence at Kujavia, into the perceived form of construction of the long barrow from houses as shown so impressively at Bylany (5625-5190BC Cal: Dolukhanov, et al, [2003] 2005) in the Czech Republic, where domestic trapezoidal constructions were erected side by side with previous ones, generation after generation (Pavlů et al, 1993; Pavlů, 2000). This shape, one could tentatively here suggest, can been seen with a much earlier genesis in the trapezoidal Danubian structures at Lepenski Vir, which may be interpreted as ‘houses of the dead’ with their encapsulated burials, reflecting the unique shape of Treskavek Mountain, on the opposite (Romanian) bank of the Danube, facing the Serbian site some three millennia (7900BC cal) earlier (Bonsall et al, 2002).

The evidence that suggests their carefully chosen placement and groupings in the landscape (Midgley, 1985, Dulhamel & Prestreau, 1997) illustrates a preference for their placement as ‘islands’ or as elevated locations in the boggy, marshy grounds upon which many long mound cemeteries are placed - as at the Kujavian cemetery of Sarnowo, where the mounds are situated above the confluence of the Zglowiączka river and a smaller tributary waterway. That the barrows are commonly encountered encapsulated by stone, wood or earthen enclosures may also attest to the delineation of ritual funerary space as a possible continuity from Linearbandkeramik cemeteries and their interred remains. It has also been noted that these locations may also have been deliberately elected by the peoples due to their spiritual and economic dependence on the land for hunting and incipient farming by the TRB and Cerny communities (Midgley, 2005) and suggest an intangible, yet prominently ritual, phenomenological aspect of Neolithic culture, only partially represented in the long mound remains.

Delor et al (1994) suggest the connection between the long barrows and water, which seems particularly evident if we observe their placement (Fig. 1), clustering closely around the coasts and situated along riverine locales. This seems particularly pertinent as a phenomenological continuum if we recall the Lepenski Vir ‘houses’, reflective of Treskavek Mountain, the Lepen whirlpool and the importance of the river as illustrated by the anthropomorphic or therianthropic Danubius sculpture (Srejović, 1972, Bonsall et al, 2002).

In the Paris basin we can see this particularly in evidence along the Yonne and Seine (fig. 2), where aerial photography shows the meanderings of the river seem closely tied to the placement of the mounds (Delor et al, 1997, Dulhamel & Prestreau, 1997: 113). The notion of ‘islandisation’ is even more evident when we acknowledge that the ancient course of the river would, during inundation, have effectively cut off this part of the landscape, forming not just ‘houses of the dead’ but an Isle of the Dead – creating a liminal, magickal space where the ancestors dwelt apart from the living. If the placing of the mounds is to be considered pointedly elected, then we may logically postulate the natural islandisation of this land presents a ritual choice of placement.

A similar spatial choice is made at Barkær (3826BC cal) on the Djursland peninsula in Denmark where the long mounds are located on a hilly rise of the Kolind Sund inlet (Madsen and Jensen, 1982) and other Danish mounds likewise were constructed close to expanses of water. As at Barkær, northern long barrows seem to be grouped together, often in twos or threes, while others stand alone, yet in proximity

Mounds and relation to previous settlement activity (shaded areas). That the LBK longhouses did not superimpose or overlap previous structures, where the TRB structured did, may point to the dwellings’ transformation of space from house of living to house of the dead and therefore be regarded as perhaps representing an ancestral space, while the derelict and decaying carcases of ancestors’ dwellings alongside the fresh, new timber constructions of the living (Whittle, 1994; cited by Midgley, 1995). However, the evidence presented from Balloy, Central France, shows the superimposition of Cerny barrows over the top of previous Villeneuve-Saint-Germain culture erections, and certainly the excavations showed the distinct probability of this building technique as choice rather than coincidence.

"The geographical and chronological distance separating the implantations of the LBK current from the first long barrows built by their successors remained a stumbling block in the demonstration. This led to the idea that the latter could have been built in the image of abandoned villages (Migdley 1985). The discovery of ditched enclosures of Passy type, sometimes superposed on early dwellings of the LBK tradition, has permitted the extension of this type of reasoning right into the heart of the Paris basin" (Mordant 1997) (Laporte & Tinévez, 2004: 217)

Yet unlike many of the westerly Central European barrows, northern mounds seem more spatially linked to settlement, indeed in the cases of Sarnowo, mounds are placed over areas of previous settlement activity (fig. 3b). The Passy-type monuments at Escolives-Sainte-Camille have yet to be closely linked to any one settlement, though excavation of Linearbandkeramik enclosure and scattered burials about 2km from this cemetery may attest to some cultural if not chronologically discernible relationship.

"Elongated burial structures with material culture of LBK tradition found in northeastern France (for instance, the necropolis of Passy-sur-Yonne, in Burgundy) (Duhamel et al, 1997) might provide a link between the central European tombs and those of western France. In that area, the recently excavated necropolis at Balloy supports such a hypothesis. Elongated tombs, similar to those from Passy, were superimposed on trapezoidal houses of the local Late LBK (Rubane Recent du Basin Parisien) (Chambon and Mordant, 1996; Mordant, 1998), suggesting both a consecration of the domestic space in honor of the ancestors, and an origin of the form of such tombs in domestic architecture."
(Arias, 1997: 427)

The barrow cemeteries of the North European Plain then disclose concordances with the Passy sites in the western border of the Linearbandkeramik of Central France. The distinct Danubian ‘long house’ shape is echoed in the Paris Basin barrows, particularly at the aforementioned Passy-type cemetery, where dimensions seem a direct correspondence between west and north symbolic processes or affiliations, though a distinctive difference is illustrated by the increased monumental size of the mounds at Passy itself. Yet to recall the delineation of these mounds, boulders enclose northern barrows, where the western or Passy-type long mounds tend to be ringed with ditches dug into the ground.

The increasing size of the mounds exhibited at Passy may be a reinforcement of the ‘[t]he distribution of the complexes [which] suggests a territorial division of the landscape, each cemetery the centre of a territory comprising a segment of river valley and adjacent uplands’ (Scarre, 1998: 946). Notions of territoriality must then come with the necessary, though not exclusively sufficient, concepts of power, identity and the companion attributes of prestige, wealth, leadership (or at least the sense of a developing TRB ideology of social hierarchy), in the overt aspects of material culture concomitant with the Neolithic transition to distinctive senses of personhood, socius and cultural identity.

As Janet Levy notes:

"Specifically, as land itself becomes more valuable through agricultural improvements and population growth, human communities emphasize boundaries, inheritance, and territoriality. The placement of monumental tombs may serve as territorial markers. These communal tombs have been suggested as family or lineage repositories that physically and ritually link a social group to a piece of land and legitimate control of land through affiliation with a group of ancestors who are eternally present."
(1989: 216-217)

It may then be observed that monumental long barrow cemeteries closely correspond, in many cases to centres of production or extraction of axes and their stone resources (fig. 5) across Europe, locales of materials suitable for axes including Grimes Graves, UK (flint) Rathlin Island, Ireland (porcellanite) Krzemionki, Poland (flint) Plancher-les-Mines, France (pelite) Val de'Aoste, Italy (omphacite). This may be as a result of emergent territoriality, particularly when associated with important materials used in socially or community identifying properties of specific types of axe production.

At Barkær, as at Sønderholm, Aalborg and the Thyborøn, Denmark, the flint deposits near Malmö, Sweden are in close proximity to the location of the long barrows, perhaps with water playing a symbolic means of separation. That axes become closely tied to mortuary deposits in Danish barrows (fig. 6) shows the importance of their use as powerful social symbols and projects a continuity of the Schuhleistenkeile blades previously utilised.

It is therefore tentatively proposed here, a connection between the shape of the axes themselves and long mounds as forms of ritual symbolism that equate to ceremonial interaction between the worlds of the living and the dead. The ritual importance of the polished stone axe in Neolithic society has been noted (Clarke, 1965, Nilsen, 1984, Rech, 1979 cited by Midgley, 2005) and it seems therefore interesting that alongside the symbolic use of axes when we find them associated with funerary goods, in ritual deposits and as indicators of social identity, is their inherent connection between their point of origin – the earth – which can also be seen as humans’ point of departure as evidenced by the earthen coverings of barrows and mounds with the directly axe-like form of the funerary architecture itself. It is cautiously suggested here, that there be a subtle yet observable relationship between the shape of the axes, evident as prestige-related non-functional or ceremonial axe heads and the intrinsic shape of the long mound, diffusing perhaps in tandem with the already noted development of form from the LBK longhouse.

Observations include the entrance to the mounds or barrows at the cutting edge or ‘business end’ of the axe – the locus of interaction between cutting blade and cut surface as the site of ritual interaction or threshold between world of the living and departed; the ceremonial ‘destroying’ of perforated stone axes by breaking them at the perforation, where often at the same location within long barrows’ shape, we may find the chamber with the interred remains. These of course are merely observed details and undoubtedly in need of intensive further study to pursue any genuine correlation or connection between these two facets of Neolithic material culture.

Thus to summarise, are we to observe these monumental long barrows as characteristic of the same phenomenon, or as separate entities within their contemporary spheres? The answer is perhaps both affirmative and negative: on one hand we can clearly see concordances from west to north, structurally we can observe continuity of form and construction, though with regional variability.

Also we may identify the same ritual symbolic processes through LBK to TRB culture from Danubian longhouse, through TRB long barrow, to the allée couvertes and tertres tumulaires of France, such as Croix St Pierre (Laporte & Tinévez, 2004) and as a movement of innovations and ideologies that crept west and north from early Danubian cultures. Yet we may also be able to identify unique aspects in their cultural and social significance specific in their respective regions, particularly when we acknowledge their connections to landscape, territoriality and control of resources.

With the continuation of axe head symbolism utilised across western France later as marker of territory in the form of the Breton Menhirs such as in the Bas-Leon and Mont d'Arée regions (figs. 7&8), to recall Tilley, these monuments are a direct manifestation of a contemporary people’s desire to delineate their territory with what constitutes a ‘megalithic’ device. The Breton stones Tilley says ‘create a distinctive sense of place and a social attachment to places’ (2005: 37) and this is exactly what the ancestral long barrows of both Northern and Western Europe exhibit as a shared cultural, yet regionally specific monumental phenomenon.

© Jasmine Bonning 2007

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