Old ruins, new world
Lest we remember
Editor Simon Denison
Lest we remember
Funerals in the Bronze Age, as in the present, involved not just remembrance but also an element of forgetting, to place the dead person out of mind, writes Howard Williams
There can be few more evocative sites in the British landscape than ancient barrows of the Neolithic and Bronze Ages. Great mounds of soil or rock heaped up over a burial-place, they survive as vivid memorials to the dead of an unrecognisably distant past.
Barrows have always, of course, excited the interest of antiquaries and archaeologists. In early written sources, a barrow often commemorates the grave of a king or a hero. In the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf, in Virgil's Aeneid, or Homer's Iliad, a burial monument serves to commemorate the resting place and the fame of a powerful individual.
These accounts have long influenced the way archaeologists view the function of prehistoric mounds - that is, for preserving memories of the dead. In particular, barrows of the very late Neolithic and the Bronze Age have been regarded as memorials to chiefs and their families.
Usually, a distinction is made between the long barrows of the earlier Neolithic, in which the bones of dozens of people were jumbled together, and the round barrows of the later Neolithic and Bronze Age. These round barrows, many containing 'Beaker' pots, are said to mark, for the first time, individual ancestors rather than a communal group of ancestors. Thus they are thought to signify a revolutionary ideological change from the community spirit of the Neolithic to the new social hierarchy of the Bronze Age in which the 'great' individual was celebrated after death.
In recent years, many archaeologists have come to realise that this view of the Bronze Age and the commemorative role of barrows is too simplistic. Many round barrows were found to contain not one but several individuals. In some cases the earth was not heaped up until a number of burials were in place; in others later burials were inserted into the mound over long periods. In a few barrows, the bones of earlier burials were moved and repositioned. Many barrows were also built within extensive cemeteries, such as those from the Stonehenge landscape or from Oakley Down in Dorset.
So what, then, was the significance of the round barrow burial in the late Neolithic and Bronze Age? If these monuments were meant to be more than the memorials of individual clan leaders, how can they be explained?
A number of prehistorians, notably John Barrett of Sheffield University, have focused attention away from the status of the burials, and instead onto how barrows created relationships between individual burials. Over time, barrows could become repositories for long sequences of burials linked to many stages of mound alteration and enlargement. It was through the location of each new burial in relation to existing ones - or through the placing of a newly built barrow next to an earlier one - that community memories, identities and a sense of place were created.
Moreover while objects placed in Bronze Age graves, such as Beaker pots and copper daggers, are traditionally seen as objects of prestige and status, in Barrett's view they can instead be understood as objects intended to produce a 'lasting memory' of the dead person in the minds of mourners standing around the grave.
This is all both perceptive and plausible. Yet there remains an unhelpful focus upon 'remembering' without considering 'forgetting'. This may be because, in a literate culture such as ours, we think of remembrance as 'preserving memories'. Yet in most societies including our own, funerals are as concerned with altering and forgetting unwanted memories as they are with recording the past in material form. An element of forgetting - of placing the dead person out of mind - enables the proper transformation of the status of the deceased. The funerary saying, 'Lest we forget', is thus misleading. It only tells half the story.
Close examination of the round barrow burial rite suggests that the memories produced by the funerary rites involved a judicious balance between commemorating some aspects of the person's life and the concealment or control of others. I believe that this is the key to understanding how Bronze Age funerals were successful. They transformed the dead person from the character he or she may have had in life, into the kind of ancestor that the community required.
Late in the 3rd millennium BC, a round barrow was raised over a Beaker grave at Hemp Knoll in the chalk downland of southern England, three miles south-west of Avebury in Wiltshire. The burial rite, as revealed by excavation in 1965, illustrates well this complex process of the transformation of the dead person into a new state.
The first act of the rite was to dig a large, deep burial chamber using antler picks. Next, a wickerwork coffin was placed at the centre of the grave, which contained a skeleton placed in a crouched position on his left side. The body was of a 6ft male, aged between 35 and 45.
We know very little about the organic objects placed with the deceased because they did not survive in the chalkland soils. However, by analogy with burials elsewhere, the body was probably clothed and/or wrapped in a shroud. It may have also been bound with twine soon after death into the crouched position revealed by the skeleton.
Associated with the body was an archer's wristguard made of greenstone. Although it was worn on the left forearm, it had been broken before burial. A bone object - a toggle or belt ring - was recovered beneath the dead man's right thigh. This was also broken and the severed edge had been subsequently decorated. It may have been sewn onto the clothing or shroud so that its broken decorated edge was on display.
It is possible that the coffin was opened in the grave to allow a highly decorated Beaker to be placed at the foot of the skeleton. This would have allowed mourners to view the corpse for a time in its final resting place.
In addition to the coffin, part of a timber planked structure was identified in one corner of the grave. By analogy with other Beaker graves, it may suggest that a timber mortuary 'house' enclosed the coffin. This structure may have allowed the coffin to be viewed or accessed for a period before the grave was finally backfilled and the barrow raised.
Sometime later, further deposits were included as the grave was being filled in. A roe deer antler - perhaps used in the grave digging - was discarded on one side of the burial. On the other, the four feet and skull of an ox were added when the grave was half-filled with chalk blocks.
As with so many Beaker burial sites of this date, the mound was not raised to commemorate a single grave. Before the mound was built, a second grave of a young child was dug next to the coffined male. A small ditched barrow was then thrown up and at least one further burial - the cremated remains of an individual placed within a food vessel - was inserted into the central burial area.
Looking at the full grave-plan, it would be easy to imagine that the corpse was 'on display' within its large grave for mourners to see. However, the relationships between structures, objects and the body - so apparent during archaeological excavation - may not have been so clear to the mourners themselves. Much was carefully controlled, and hidden from view.
Management and control of the corpse had started right at the beginning of the funerary sequence, when it was probably washed, clothed, bound into a crouched posture and then perhaps wrapped in a shroud of animal skins and placed in a coffin. Binding and wrapping seems to symbolise containment; or controlling the power of the dead. It certainly signifies a change in the dead person's state, away from the individual 'personality' known in life to a new status of 'ancestor'.
In his book Fragments from Antiquity, John Barrett convincingly argues that artefacts found in Beaker graves would not have seemed particularly impressive at the funeral, and that the procession to the burial site and the subsequent raising of a mound may have been more important acts. Rarely, after all, do Beaker graves contain the spectacular items of jewellery or metal found in some of the 'Wessex culture' barrows of the later Early Bronze Age.
Yet we can take this observation further. Frequently Beaker artefacts were hidden from view, and this concealment may rather be the clue to their significance. At Hemp Knoll, the bone belt ring was hidden beneath the dead man's right thigh. The wristguard may have been hidden by the shroud. Only the Beaker may have been on display when the coffin was open, yet it disappeared once the lid was replaced. Even copper daggers - where they occur in Beaker graves - were typically concealed. In a barrow from the Shrewton barrow cemetery near Stonehenge, for example, the dagger was wrapped in mosses upon burial.
Why, then, were these objects buried at all, if only to be concealed? The answer again may lie in the process of transforming memories - the symbolic ending of the life of an object which may have had a long and well-known history. At Hemp Knoll the bone toggle had been broken and subsequently decorated, suggesting a long history of use before being sewn onto the clothing or shroud of the deceased.
The wristguard also shows signs of use and damage and was no longer functional when buried on the dead man's arm. At other sites, it is clear that wristguards were deliberately broken for burial (for example at Barnack in Cambridgeshire). The focus is on bringing an end to memories and histories through the concealment of broken objects with the dead.
By contrast, other objects, such as the Beaker at Hemp Knoll - and sometimes flint tools in other Beaker sites - were newly made for the grave. These new objects are equally telling. Perhaps as brand new they were regarded as having no histories of their own, and were therefore particularly appropriate for burial with the dead. Today, people tend to be buried in newly-made coffins. Only the eccentric would want to be buried in, say, an old trunk, which has a history of its own, perhaps representing memories that are inappropriate to the deceased.
The body was no doubt the primary focus of remembrance. Yet covered by clothing and the coffin, it could not be seen by the time the grave was reached. Moreover, some objects were only added once the body was out of sight. The head and leg bones of an ox and the roe deer antler were deposited when the coffin was partially covered in the back-filling of the grave. These deposits again seem to emphasise the closing of the grave rather than the display of the corpse.
The construction of a mortuary house over the grave, before the raising of the mound, allowed the grave to be approached for further rituals and ceremonies including in many cases the addition of further burials. Thus the memory of the dead was reinforced by this period of access to the grave. All that changed, however, with the raising of the barrow.
What should we make of the inclusion of a single three-year-old child in the barrow? Was it the dead man's own child? It is, of course, hard to tell. But as Koji Mizoguchi has argued, memories were created through the choices made in locating subsequent graves. Where later inclusions respect the position of the primary burial, it seems clear that a powerful memory of the primary burial had survived. At the same time, adding new graves would have fundamentally altered and distorted existing associations with the burial site.
The barrow made the grave prominent in the landscape, providing a fixed point where the memory of the deceased could be nurtured; and yet the raising of the barrow also promoted the process of forgetting because it covered at least two graves rather than a single burial, it concealed any grave markers and also prevented further access to the graves by mourners. Again, remembering and forgetting were both equally important.
By looking at different periods in the past, we can see a bewildering variety of ways by which the dead were treated - from the mingling of defleshed bones in Neolithic tombs, through the sequences of burials in Bronze Age barrows, to the large cremation cemeteries of the early Anglo-Saxon period. Frequently these rites are thought to have been performed for the veneration of ancestors and the preservation of their memories. In many cases this interpretation may be correct. But these various burial rites may also be linked by the ways in which the dangers and unwanted memories of the dead were contained, controlled and dispersed. In the emotional intensity of the funeral, a prime concern of the mourners was to forget.
Howard Williams is a Lecturer in Archaeology at Trinity College Carmarthen and is currently editing a book entitled 'Archaeologies of Remembrance'.
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005