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Messages from the Monuments

How Neolithic Monuments Communicate About Religion and Status

by Paul K. Wason - John Templeton Foundation, Radnor, PA.

What do the monuments of the Neolithic communicate about status and religion? More, I believe, than we usually expect, and this primarily because of how they communicate to us.

  • Through the monument as a medium of communication.
  • Through the messages the builders intended to communicate.
  • Through the archaeologist's reading of what I will call the subtext.
Newgrange Megalithic Passage Tomb When we look at messages from monuments in this way, we sometimes discover that different conclusions, originally proposed as alternatives, are instead quite compatible with each other. To illustrate, I will use the monuments of the Avebury group in Wiltshire, England as a space-time focal point for synthesizing several theoretical perspectives (with the Irish Passage Tombs of Newgrange, Knowth, Dowth and a few other sites for support).

Avebury is unusual both for the size of its monuments and for their geographical concentration. The earliest were the long barrows, like West Kennet Long Barrow, built over a period of some 500 years between 3700 and 3200 BC. The Avebury henge was built between 2,600 and 2,300 BC. At 332 meters in diameter, its main stone circle is the largest in the world (Ucko et. al. 1991:1). Silbury Hill, from about the same time, is the largest artificial mound in all of Europe. What we might describe, loosely, as the era of the long barrows and the era of the henge and hill, were thus about 1,000 years apart.

Monumental Communications: The Medium, the Message, the Subtext.
Communication is an essential part of life - from chemicals signaling each other within a cell to archaeological volumes like this, obviously the most sophisticated level of communication known. These communications differ on several dimensions; they have different purposes, use different media, and communicate different messages. Marshall MacLuan's famous statement "the medium is the message" is stark, provocative and simplistic, as befits its birth in the 60s. But there is also something almost true about it, for the medium of communication and the message are always deeply intertwined.

The European Neolithic was characterized by extensive monument building. And we often see an emphasis on ritual-religious structures. We should take this into account, for there may be something in their design and character that made them a better medium for religious communication. This is important because the communication of religious knowledge presents special problems.

We often hear that science progresses while religion does not. John Polkinghorne has said this is because science is easy (1994, 1996). Polkinghorne is a theoretical physicist and I would love to see the reaction of his quantum mechanics students when told that science is easy! But what he means is that science treats simple things, and treats them in an artificially simplified way. Religious communication is not concerned with anything so small and simple as an electron. Religion speaks rather of the world of the spirit. We will have a harder time pinning this subject down than when studying things far simpler than ourselves.

Physicists have moved from everyday language toward communication in specialized forms, particularly mathematics. But what of religious communication? Our modern reaction is to think of religious communication as just like scientific except fuzzy and unspecialized, but religious communication is in fact very specialized, often requiring special media, like stone circles, long barrows, or ancient Sanskrit poetry. Furthermore, religion is at least as much about communication with the spirit world as it is communication about the spiritual world.

I would like to distinguish three kinds of monumental communications; monuments are a medium of communication, and they are part of the message. They also incorporate subtexts separate from the messages themselves. I will use these distinctions as a way of bringing together some interesting recent studies. These studies provide wonderful little vignettes of the Neolithic, but they are hard to relate to each other. In fact they have often been opposed. I think especially of the well-rehearsed distinctives of the processual-analytical vs post-processual-interpretive approaches. But it may be that they only seem to be opposed because we do not recognize that monuments can communicate in these three very different ways all at once.

First, Monuments and the Archaeological subtext:
Monuments communicate a great deal to the archaeologist, thanks to our methods. I call this the subtext, because it probably was not exactly what those who built the monuments intended to communicate. It is a translation of monumental messages into our own terms. Concepts like social structure, chiefdom, or religion are embedded in modern social science, and archaeological method is our way of translating the physical remains into these modern categories. Contrary to some interpretive archaeologists, monuments do communicate to us about our modern concerns and concepts, and this without needing to know what the builders meant to communicate. One example of reading a subtext is the inference of ranking.

Social hierarchy and the Avebury builders.
The builders of the Avebury monuments lived in a social order characterized by hierarchical relationships. This point was argued long ago by Colin Renfrew who estimated that the henge itself required 1.5 million hours and Silbury Hill 18 million hours of labor (Renfrew 1973; see also Wainwright 1970:30). It is through middle-range theory that we can read this as a subtext of what the monuments are communicating. If some structures are monumental or the product of corporate labor, there must have been inequality (Abrams 1989). This important and long-established line of argument can sometimes be applied in much this form, and I think this is the case with the Avebury ditch and ring, with Silbury Hill and with nearby Stonehenge III. Consider how these figures compare with temple building (Kolb 1994:527) in the Hawaiian islands. Hawaiian society was characterized by substantial social hierarchy with an important religious component to the leader's status, and I have argued elsewhere that it was stratified (Wason 1994). The largest temple in all of Hawaii required about 130,000 labor days for its four building phases (Kolb 1994:525). Renfrew's estimate for the Avebury henge is at least 150,000 days (figuring 10 hour days), more than the largest temple every built by the complex hierarchical societies of Hawaii.

Yet these seemingly long-established points have come under attack in recent years. Hodder argues that all of archaeology is based on assumptions about what things meant whether we recognize it or not: "It is only when we make assumptions about subjective meanings in the minds of people long dead that we begin to do archaeology" (1991:82). I disagree. There certainly are ambiguities to the energy arguments but the important point is that the inference of ranking does not depend on knowing what people intended by building the monuments. Reading a subtext does not require knowledge of the intention of the text.

But it is also true that most cases would be more ambiguous for it is not so obvious what, exactly, would qualify as monumental. If Silbury Hill tells us of an established social hierarchy, what of a structure half the size? I think that would also, and so would a structure less than one tenth the size like the Avebury henge and the largest of the Hawaiian temples. But where does this stop? It may be that through much of the European Neolithic societies were not ranked. This seems unlikely based on other aspects of the evidence, but it could be said, rather more modestly, that on the basis used for concluding that the Avebury people of the time of the henge were ranked, we cannot draw the same conclusions for the builders of long barrows, which have been estimated at about 500 days of work. Avebury society at this time may have been hierarchical anyway. In particular it is likely that only some people were buried in long mounds, and this is a marker of differentiation.

Second, Monumental Messages.
The second facet of monumental communications is to look at the messages intentionally communicated through the monuments. Richard Bradley (1993:4) wisely observes that we often take a limited perspective on monuments. We may ask why they were built, but we answer with how they were financed. The argument I just made concerning ranking is a valid and important starting point. But it does not answer the question of why they devoted so much energy to these things during the Neolithic but not in later periods when at least as much labor was available.

Prospective and retrospective memories.
Cornelius Holtorf argues that monuments were built to transmit a message to the future, to keep the builder's memory alive, and this he calls "prospective memory". That is the goal, but far from being transformed by the monuments into a permanent memory, these messages are soon lost, and later generations are left to make up their own interpretations. Our archaeological study of megaliths, too, create retrospective memory. Thus "It is not the megaliths which were, as Renfrew argued, "territorial markers"; it is us - or he rather - who see them in such light. In a sense therefore, megaliths are recreated by the way we interpret them" (Holtorf 1998).

I agree with Holtorf in his relatively non-controversial conclusion that monuments carried, and were likely meant to communicate a message to the future and that it is difficult for people in that future to hear the message. But I am not as inclined to subjectivism. And I insist that if we take a subjectivist approach at all, we do so consistently-knowing, however, that consistency is the reductio ad absurdum of relativism. That is, we are just as justified in arguing that Holtorf is recreating archaeology as he is in saying Renfrew is recreating the megaliths. Besides, there really are ways of weeding out some meanings as more likely than others.

First, if we accept my view that monuments communicate to us in at least these three different ways all at once, we recognize that Renfrew could be correct about the monuments being territorial markers without this having been the message their builders were trying to communicate. Holtorf's model (like Hodder's) does not recognize the distinction between reading the message and reading a subtext. Secondly, Holtorf is taking a narrow view of the purpose of monuments. He sees them as structures built for the purpose of memory, rather like the great Roman commemorative arches. It may be that many monuments were just this. But there is good reason to believe the tombs and henge monuments of the Neolithic, including Avebury, were also actively used for ritual purposes.

But what would it mean, in this light, that status was communicated through these visible, enduring monuments? One important answer concerns the need to express status solidly and clearly in a way that cannot be forgotten. This question, however, also makes the assumption that because it took leaders to organize the building, the monuments must have been built as a means for the leaders to show off. But perhaps they were not built primarily to communicate status. And while Holtorf is right that monuments were built in part to say something to the future, the message may not have been primarily about the builders. Several scholars have argued recently that monumental burials were about ancestors, which is important when considering what messages they communicated. Thomas says "material culture may be employed in pre-literate societies as a means of presencing. That is to say, it can introduce absent persons or classes of person into social discourse" and, "The emergent conception of self would be one which was always related to the past, and always located in terms of kinship" (Thomas 1993:84-85).

It is evidence for an approach to life and society in which ancestry is important, perhaps also the development of lineages and clans. This is helpful for understanding the character of social inequality when it develops; these approaches to kinship are essential to hereditary ranking, the kind so characteristic of the classic chiefdom rather than achieved ranking. This is not a trivial point, because the way ranking is determined has a great affect on the character of life (Wason 1994).

Some messages from the henges.
Some of this may be true of the henge monuments as well. I believe they were primarily built as a context for religious ceremony. But in this case, part of why they were built, particularly at such a scale may well be to communicate a message about the capabilities of the leaders. Here it seems that the status of the builders themselves may be part of the prospective memory. But variations could also be affected by changes in religious thought and practice. It may be that they were larger in order to accommodate more participants.

The monuments also communicate messages about religion. One such message may be a continuation of the religion of the barrows. Although we don't know how regularly it was used, West Kennet was not sealed off until after the building of the other monuments. In addition there is also a message about group involvement, and this would be a very different message from that projected by the barrows; together they suggest continuity and also change.

And thirdly, Monuments as the Medium.
Some light may be thrown on this by asking: How do the monuments serve as vehicles for communication? Those I have been discussing are ceremonial monuments, a medium for religious communication. What might this emphasis on ceremonial monuments suggest to us about status and religion, and how they changed through the Neolithic?

A change in religious practice: Shamans, the tunnel effect, and processions.
What is the relationship of religion to social structure, political life and economy? The correlation of one social feature or institution with another has been both the great power and also the great weakness of typological models (Wason 1995). Fried and Service emphasized relations of social structure, leadership and economy, and in Service's model, a center to coordinate economic, social and religious activities is considered the distinctive feature of the chiefdom. He and others (including me, Wason 1994) have emphasized the mechanism and the function, of coordination as a key ingredient. There is good sense in this. But suppose that was more the result than the fundamental underlying cause? Suppose that the development of the central coordinating agency was not the primary change but the response, and that the primary change was a fundamental shift in the character of religion and religious practice? This would lead to a shift in the medium needed for religious communication. We may be seeing, during the course of the British Neolithic, a shift from something akin to shamanic religions to a situation in which the rituals and beliefs called for full-time specialists and group gatherings.

Jeremy Dronfield has been developing a fascinating way of looking at megalithic tombs. His work focuses on the Irish passage tombs of the fourth and third millennium, but it may be more widely applied. These tombs have a chamber connected to the outside by a passage, covered by a cairn of typically 10-25 meters in diameter, though Knowth, Newgrange and Dowth are over 80 meters (Dronfield 1996:37). These tombs "were associated with a complex of consciousness-altering practices involving the induction of subjective visual experiences by means of flickering light, hallucinogenic substances and neuropathology" (1996:37). In particular, the tombs induced what is known as the tunnel sensation "the visual impression of looking into, or moving through, a vortex or tunnel" (1996:37). This tunnel-like experience as an interface between dimensions of reality and consciousness is known from drug use and from near-death experiences, but more importantly is found in myth and is an important theme in shamanic practice. Dronfield is saying that these monuments were not just burial places but contexts which the communications medium needed for contact with the spirit world.

Of course this is quite speculative, and there are alternatives using some of the same evidence. Bahn, for example believes it would be "far less tenuous and more pertinent to note that we are all born through a tunnel, and that... a tunnel might very well be a wide-spread metaphor for our later journey into the realm of the dead" (Bahn 1996:56). For our purposes, it is also important to note that the West Kennet long barrow does not possess all the features Dronfield draws on in his analysis of the Irish tombs. But it seems plausible that the monuments were the site of rituals, whether involving shamans traveling to the other world, or some other kind of ritual specialist leading the dead to where they belong, rituals involving communication with the spirit world, not just communication about religion.

The ritual practice which took place at the henges, however, would have been very different. These monuments constitute a different communication medium. First, the passage graves depended on the interior conditions. The passage "served to distance the experient from the outside world, creating an environment conducive to subjective visual experience. Simultaneously it was representational and reconstructive, standing metonymically for those experiences. Movement along it towards the inner areas of the tomb may have been an attempt at reconstructing in physical space the subjective mind's journey into the alternative realities of altered consciousness, in preparation for the real experience which could be begun once inside. The passage, at Newgrange at least, also functioned to control the light source used in subverting the visual system" (Dronfield 1996:52).

The ritual practice which took place at the henge would have been very different. These monuments constitute a different communication medium. They were out in the open, and any ritual that took place there would have been highly visible. Whatever rituals took place within the tombs would have involved only one or a few people, or at least would have intentionally separated them from any other celebrants waiting outside, but the later monuments could hold a great many celebrants. Except for religious specialization, someone leading a procession, say, the design of the monuments does not suggest pervasive separation. Even in the era of the henge and hill almost nothing can be said about leadership or about personal ranking that can be separated from religion. Whether we imagine priests or chiefs, they appear to gain much of their authority from their religious positions.

Monuments as a cause of developing status?
In his 1960 book on Stonehenge, Atkinson concluded that "The building of Stonehenge is...unlikely to have been the expression of the common will, but rather the fulfillment of a purpose imposed from above" (Atkinson 1960:166). But Barrett reminds us that the monuments were built over a very great span of time and do not represent a grand plan conceived at the start (Barrett 1994:13). He uses this as a basis for his conclusion that these monuments are the result of communal effort. The "elite did not simply initiate the building of Avebury, Durrington or Stonehenge but was, indeed, created out of the realization of these projects" (Barrett 1994:29). As I have argued, the monuments do provide evidence of hierarchy, but it does make sense that once built, the monuments reinforced and enhanced the status of leaders, thereby entrenching the hierarchical system. Atkinson has set us up with a false dichotomy between a building project being an "expression of the common will" or instead the "fulfillment of a purpose imposed from above." These monuments require central direction, but it is possible that the leaders primarily mobilized people to build something that was in essence an expression of the common will.

I suggest that ranking developed as a by-product of something done for religious reasons. Or to put it another way, the monuments communicated "status differentiation" to people, even though they were built as a medium for religious communication. Perhaps at Avebury something about the religion gave rise to a need for complex and labor expensive media for religious communication. The building of these monuments drew on and drew out leadership skills, but once built, their very existence, along with the ceremonies held there, reinforced and so helped to institutionalize leadership and ranking. Leadership and hierarchy may have developed in the process of accomplishing what were originally religious ends, the building of ceremonial monuments. Once built the monuments reinforced leadership in unintended ways. Leadership could then take on a life of its own. Religion, then, may be a more fundamental causal factor in the development of ranking and complex society than most evolutionary theories allow.


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Abrams, Elliot M., 1989, "Architecture and Energy: An Evolutionary Perspective" in Michael B. Schiffer (ed.), Archaeological Method and Theory, Volume 1, Tucson, University of Arizona Press, 47-87.

Atkinson, R. J. C., 1960, Stonehenge, London, Penquin.

Bahn, Paul, 1996, Comment on Dronfields "Entering Alternative Realities: Cognition, Art and Architecture in Irish Passage Tombs" Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 6(1):55-57.

Barrett, John, 1994, "Fragments from Antiquity: An Archaeology of Social Life in Britain, 2900-1200 BC", Oxford, Blackwell Publishers.

Bradley, Richard, 1993, Altering the Earth: The Origins of Monuments in Britain and Continental Europe, Edinburgh, Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.

Dronfield, Jeremy, 1996, "Entering Alternative Realities: Cognition, Art and Architecture in Irish Passage-Tombs" Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 6(1):37-72.

Hodder, Ian, 1991, "Reading the Past" (1st ed. 1986), Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Holtorf, Cornelius J., 1998, "Towards a Chronology of Megaliths: Understanding Monumental Time and Cultural Memory" forthcoming in Journal of European Archaeology.

Kolb, M. J., 1994, "Monumentality and the Rise of Religious Authority in Precontact Hawaii" Current Anthropology, 35:521-547.

Polkinghorne, John, 1994, "The Faith of a Physicist: Reflections of a Bottom-Up Thinker", The Gifford Lectures for 1993-1994, Princeton, Princeton University Press.

Polkinghorne, John, 1996, "Beyond Science: The Wider Human Context", Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Renfrew, Colin, 1973, "Monuments, Mobilization and Social Organization in Neolithic Wessex" in Colin Renfrew (ed.), The Explanation of Culture Change: Models in Prehistory, Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Press, 539-558.

Thomas, Julian, 1993, "The Hermeneutics of Megalithic Space" in Christopher Tilley (ed.), Interpretive Archaeology, Providence, Berg Publishers, 73-97.

Ucko, Peter J., M. Hunter, A. J. Clark, and A. David, 1991, "Avebury Reconsidered: From the 1660s to the 1990s" (2 volumes), London, Unwin Hyman.

Wainwright, G. J., 1970, "Woodhenges" Scientific American, 223:30-37.

Wason, Paul K., 1994, "The Archaeology of Rank", Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Wason, Paul K., 1995, "Social Types and the Limits of Typological Thinking in Social Archaeology" in Nikolay N. Kradin and Valeri A. Lynsha (eds.), Alternative Pathways to Early State, Russian Academy of Sciences, Far Eastern Division, Institute of History, Archaeology and Ethnology, Vladivostok, Dal'nauka, pp. 19-27.

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