The interpretation of Neolithic Monuments by
Five specific criticisms of limited access models
1. Material culture and human remains.
2. The assumed primacy of the interior of monuments.
3. The communal construction process.
4. Megalithic Art.
5. The simultaneous nature of the 'act' of access.
1) Access limits & material culture
The idea of an elite who could keep the majority of people away from certain parts
of monuments, or even out of them altogether, goes right to the heart of understanding
the Neolithic. Yet the existence of elites who controlled access and exercised other
forms of higher power is not clearly supported by material patterns. Little account
is made of the relative absence of other evidence that would support an unequal division
of powers within Neolithic communities. On the whole, the fragmented picture from
Neolithic monuments suggests equally that there were no major divisions of wealth
or of elite power (materially manifested). There is little clear evidence for any
class-like structure to society, and there is very little secure evidence for stating
that the majority of people were kept away from tombs.
Archaeologists are rightfully careful in assuming that the material record reflects
real social conditions, acknowledging that the 'distortion' of social relations may
have in fact been reflected (O'Shea 1981; Tainter 1978). However, the overt absence
of any form of material aggrandizement in communities that harnessed such vast resources,
raises the prospect of explanation based on some form of a sharing motif. There is
comparatively little evidence of personal dwellings, virtually none in stone, and
what there is suggests no real distinctions. We might assume that the concentration
of power, in particular to marshal such sustained labor, would be reflected in
material differences, this is not the case.
Nonetheless, monuments are often marked out for special material deposits. The finest
artifacts are recurrently discovered in henge ditches, or exquisite
in passage graves. Human remains deposited at megaliths, for example, are often cremated and
accompanied by antler pins and other ornaments (O'Kelly 1982). These are regularly of a
quantity and quality that are open to many different interpretations. The ambiguous nature
of the burial 'pattern' for most monuments is also very difficult to interpret. It is true,
though, that in many cases the entirety of the community was not buried within their monuments.
This is witnessed in the main passage grave of Knowth, which, while open perhaps for 500 years,
contains only approximately 20 separate burials, some of which are only represented by
fragments (Eogan 1986:177). At Newgrange the remains of only four individuals were recovered,
but as O'Kelly notes, this may be only a fraction of the original number since the tomb
has been opened since 1699 (1989:105). However, an expectation that each person would have
been buried within a 'family' or communal tomb may also be a modern assumption.
Whether the minimal burial numbers can be linked to a non-egalitarian structure, or indeed
to a limitation of access, is problematical. This is not the case at the exquisite
passage grave in Co. Meath. There, some 65
individuals were placed within the tomb's recesses and passage (Bergh 1995:144; Grogan 1989).
The chambered tomb at Insister contained some 341 individuals (Hedges 1982), and at many
Irish megaliths; such as Loughcrew
and Carrowkeel (Bergh 1995)
there are layers of cremation deposits (Eogan 1986:135; Cooney and Grogan 1994:73-4).
contains the remains of 100s of cremations (Cleal et al 1995), and the chambered
tomb of West Kennett also held a large number of remains (Whittle and Thomas 1986).
In many cases it is difficult to take MNI counts from such evidence, however many
tombs speak more of an inclusive burial rite than an exclusive one. We might ask,
therefore, whether the interiors of monuments have always been of such importance
as to be the fulcrum for social divisions.
2) The importance of the interior of monuments
Archaeologists assume that the interiors of monuments were the most important foci and
therefore the area to 'constrain movement into'. This applies to monuments with passages
and recesses such as chambered tombs, but also to more open monuments such as enclosures.
These supposed constraints are particularly acute with regard to causewayed enclosures,
whose multiple 'entrances', rather than offering multiple access from many directions,
instead become symbols of exclusion, a way to "physically inscribe the distinction
between those who had access and those 'excluded' outsiders" (Harding 1998:288).
However, the idea that the middle of the enclosures, or the recesses of the chambered tombs,
were necessarily the 'center' may be a reflection more of our thinking today than of a past
reality. While there are certain depositions, which mark off these areas as, at least,
special, it is possible that they have been overemphasized. Knights encapsulates a
modernist view of space when he states that if we cannot move into a space "we are
inclined to conclude that it is not spatial; in the restricted, architectural sense
of the term, space is a void that we move around in freely" (1994:123).
Chambered monuments, with covering mounds, are particularly espoused as examples of limiting
the flow of people into the interior of monuments. Their various stalled compartments and
recesses have come to stand for divisions, and their coves and sill-stones are seen as
marking difference and exuding exclusion. However, as Colin Richards has cogently demonstrated,
the tripartite/stalled cairns, of the Orkney Islands can still offer visual access to the
interior. As Richards puts it, the "whole tomb is constructed from an external point of view,
allowing an external audience visual access to the interior of the tomb and the actions which occur within (1991:52).
It is also noteworthy that in many cases where monuments possess internal spaces,
such as passage graves, there is an element to the rituals that involves something
going into the monument from outside. The passage grave of Knowth contains two passages
into the chamber, which Eogan speculates may have been intended to allow for different
celestial significances at different times of the season (1986). In the case of
this is the mid-Winter sun entering into the three recesses by way of the
'roof-box'. Ancient Irish literature speaks of legendary heroes bringing bodies to
the 'Brugh' so that the sun might breathe life back into the dead
(O'Kelly 1982:43; Herity 1974). This phenomena is quite widespread,
the shadow of the sun penetrates the inner circle, and at
Calanais both the sun and moon are interpreted as 'entering' into the inner spaces of the settings (Ruggles 1999).
Was the center always the main area of concentration and of exclusion? If the power of a ceremony or ritual
involved the element of surprise, hushed expectation, and awe at the very control of such major forces
as the sun, moon or stars, then it might make sense for the intended audience to be within the internal
settings at the time of the 'event'. Thus the role is reversed, and those who 'control' these forces
might remain outside, and the audience remain inside. However, one could further argue that elite
groups were chosen to be inside, with a ritual priest or priestess outside. This, in turn, leads
to a consideration of the number of people involved in the construction and maintenance of monuments.
3) The number of people involved.
Many generations may have been involved in scouting out the sources of the various materials
used in the construction of various monuments. Similar numbers must surely have been
'employed' in their transportation and erection. Some monuments possess stones from
beyond the immediate reaches of the builders. At Newgrange some of the stone used was
taken from a distance of 50 kilometers away, and at Stonehenge some sources of stone
lay over 150 kilometers away (Chippendale 1979; Cleal at al 1995).
The act of traveling
long distances to collect construction materials may have served to set in stone
long-distance relations with the communities and regions that the stones passed
through (Parker-Pearson n.d.). In the majority of cases where local stone was used
this process still drew upon the participation of at least the local community, and
possibly several outlying groups working together over decades. This points to an
inclusiveness and availability, an advertising of the monuments to a broader community,
they are about monumentality and making memory (Holtorf 1997). To then limit access to
these monuments seems in contrast to the entire project of their construction, and to
the co-operation and organization of the population that it appears to represent.
A challenging issue for archaeologists' readings of monuments is that of the general
population structure of Neolithic communities. This is further complicated by a paucity
of evidence regarding the relationship between settlements and monuments
(Darvill and Thomas 1996). However, while population estimates for Neolithic
communities are difficult, it is usually agreed that they were somewhat low.
Estimates for the population of the Boyne Valley in Ireland range from 1500-5000,
with 3000 being a popular figure ((Herity 1974; O'Kelly 1981, 1989; Eogan 1986 ).
Hedges discusses the chambered tomb at South Ronaldsy, Orkney. He concludes from a
burial figure of 341 individuals that average life spans were 19 years 11 months
at birth (1982:11), whereas those who survive into teenage years could expect to
live for around 29-30 years.
What rules governed the deposition of remains over the
length of the monument's operation are hard to ascertain, and it is possible that
at certain times there were different age, gender, or some other 'class' limits
on deposition. Despite criticisms (see Fraser 1982) Hedges' data raises very
important questions about access to monuments and the 'control' of knowledge.
In particular, he notes that "shorter life-expectancy poses problems for the
passing on of specialist knowledge, while it makes the idea of its possession
in the hands of an elite rather doubtful" (ibid:19). Perhaps before limited access
and the associated control of knowledge are accepted in Neolithic interpretations,
we should examine more carefully the practical implications of population size and
structure, as well as life expectancy.
4) Limited Access and the Evidence of Megalithic Art
Passage Grave, interior recess lintel with chevron/lozenge design.
Megalithic and Neolithic 'art' has been interpreted as a sign system (O'Sullivan 1998).
Bradley suggests that the carvings on some 'outlying' rocks may have provided directions
to some of the monuments (1997a:120). Also, symbols of the Boyne tombs are found on
mobiliary artifacts and on pottery in Ireland, Scotland (Bradley 1989), and Iberia
(Herity and Eogan 1977:77). The overall impression of megalithic art often appears
to imply an advertising of the monument, an accessible and viewable sign-system
of the utmost importance to the community.
What was the relationship of the craftsmen and artists who worked and labored at
monuments to the people, times, or events that played out inside them? Were they
one and the same person as these 'leaders'? If they were not, then how could the
artist and the stonemason be denied the knowledge of the actions within the inner
recesses, when they themselves were responsible for its execution? Were they
sacrificed? Unlikely. Were they from a separate community? Possibly. Were they
thereafter forbidden to enter the recesses and forever confined to the exterior?
Such a scenario, on the present evidence we possess for the Neolithic, seems improbable.
The placement of megalithic art on tombs is of considerable importance in analyzing access.
Differences exist between internal and external placement, and high and low placement.
Bradley believes that the preponderance of angular art within the interior of the Boyne
passage-graves of Newgrange
represent the private, inaccessible sphere and
the preponderance (though not exclusivity in either case) of curvilinear art represents
a public sphere (1997:108). There is a differential placement of art styles in the Knowth
passage grave, there is a higher placement of the angular art and lower placement of
the rectilinear art. Eogan sees the angular art as a "system of communication between
the tomb's exterior and interior", and the rectilinear art as "a vehicle for two-way
communication which could have benefited the living" (1986:184; cf. Lynch 1973 ). Neither
accords with limits on access to the tombs themselves. Nor does the fact that "the creative
process is an inclusive one which by its very nature implies dialogue, the symbolism is
created by one individual to be read by others" (Davison, pers. comm. 2001). Megalithic art,
and the visual appearance of the stones is an important element in the accessibility
of monuments (O'Sullivan 1998).
5) Simultaneous Access
Accessibility to monumental sites, and to the ceremonies and rituals that are
supposed to be constantly occurring within them, normally implies a contemporaneous
admission and simultaneity of action at the moments of deposition or celebration.
This is connected to the argument that few people could physically witness these
acts at one time. Archaeologists tend to believe that a simultaneous 'broadcast'
is required for there to be a shared and equal participation. This is not necessarily
the case and we may dispute the 'limited' view with reference to a modern example:
tourism at the 5000-year-old passage grave of
, Co. Meath, Ireland.
Analyses of the numbers entering into the chamber suggest that a tour of 14 people
who enter the tomb for roughly twenty minutes during a ten-hour 'day' would
enable 420 people to view the inner chamber per day. Estimates of the
Boyne Valley population – as we saw -leads us to a figure somewhere between
1200-5000 What proportion among this number might be able, physically
(if we 'exclude' the aged and the very young), to enter the monument might
be somewhere in the region of 750-2500 people. Therefore, in one day,
or perhaps two, all of those wishing to enter the tomb could have done so.
Such numbers, and reasoning, of prehistoric intentions, time, and population,
can naturally be disputed; they remain estimates. Further, the assumption is
that the entire population was 'on hand' during any one period. However,
the outline of a feasible model for inclusive access emerges, and the
result is a plausible picture of community-wide access. One could also
envision the idea of prehistoric mass pilgrimages to Newgrange, as the
notion of paying one's last respects is a common anthropological phenomenon
that often includes whole communities.
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