Monday, 20 April 2015

Seminar report: “Interpreting change and diversity in Early Bronze Age burial practices"

On the 26th of February Dr. Chris Fowler of Newcastle University visited UCD to give a lecture on “Interpreting change and diversity in Early Bronze Age burial practices: Northeast England, c. 2500-1500BC”. With a successful turnout the seminar began with Dr. Fowler discussing the following questions in relation to the topic at hand:
  •  How did funerary and mortuary practices in NE England change during the period c. 2500-1500 BC?
  • How diverse were those practices in different centuries?
  • Why were buried dead treated in the ways that they were? On what basis were people selected for burial?
  • What does this tell us about change and diversity in social relations, cosmology and relationships between the living and the dead?

To begin answering these questions Dr. Fowler along with a number of other colleagues collected data from 355 burials at 150 sites which were excavated between 1810 and 2009. The data was then analysed in order to get a better understanding of the variation which comes with Bronze Age burial practices.

Rites of Passage:

In terms of the data Dr. Fowler began to examine how these relate to the earlier concept of the ‘Rites of Passage’ which ‘transform’ the individual from a living person to an ancestor. To better understand this, a model of how we can conceive the rite of passage was constructed. This appeared as follows:

The model tackles the phases of burial in relation to community reaction. Dr. Fowler highlighted the need to address burial concerning the living rather than the dead. “Funerals are for the living” – a concept which permits us to see the celebration of death as a way of aiding the mourning process and to transform the deceased individual into an ancestor. However the placement of physical burial is currently under scrutiny as it may fit into many places along the model. This model of the ‘rites of passage’ was then used to interpret the data given above.

Dr. Chris Fowler took his spectators through a ‘chronology’ of Bronze Age burial to see how the model and data develop over an extended period of time. These are the results he found:

2500-2200 BC:
  •           The data showed very few burials in the period between before 2500 BC and 2200BC.
  •           There were a number of crouched burials.
  •           Towards the end of the period burial mounds start to make an appearance.

2300-2100 BC:
  •           Short cist burials which measured around 1m long.
  •           East-West orientation.
  •           Body usually facing east with the head following the E-W orientation.
  •           Accompaniment beakers/flint knives or copper-alloy daggers (after c.2200BC).
  •           During this period there is also an appearance of shared burial.

It should be noted that Dr. Fowler highlighted a possible differentiation in positioning within a cist burial based on sex. On average women were shown to have been placed on their right side with their head oriented to the west while their bodies faced south, while men were placed on their left with their head oriented east once again with their bodies facing south. This appears to have been the distinct feature which differentiated the sexes in burial. Much of the data had shown that material culture did not represent a definitive pattern of placement in relation to sex.

2200-1950(?) BC:
  •           Copper alloy/Bronze daggers placed in burials all maintained a specific orientation in burial.
  •           The metal used for these weapons came from south-western Ireland which creates questions in use of imported material in ritual.

Hasting Hill, Tyne & Wear:
To emphasise his ideas of ritual practices from the previous period he focused on Hasting Hill. Here the remains of a 40-55 year old male were present (dated to 2194-1977 cal BC) It was accompanied by an unusual high-bellied S-profile Beaker, bone pin, flint knives, antler pick, cremated adult bones, weathered child bones (c. 5 years old), scraps of animal bone, fish bone, teeth and sea shells. He was buried on his right hand side with his head oriented west and his body was facing south; this is an exception to the common practices of the period. This indicates a formalised ritual practice but also a knowledge of previous burials at the same location.
Two later burials from the site expose that this burial practice style was carried throughout the following periods.

2000-1850 BC:
Burials during this period were oriented North –South and are mainly located in Norththumberland. Bodies were accompanied by late beakers in deep graves. The bodies were placed within organic containers. Afterwards a mound was placed over the burial. Dr. Fowler interprets this placement of the mound as an association with integration with the earth. The use of vessels in burial the dead integrates as well with the living. By placing a deceased relative within a vessel which was used to feed the living directly associated the action of feasting with the ancestors.
Cremation during the period included the following actions:

  1. Burning of the remains
  2. Collection of the remains
  3. Placement of the body into the beaker
  4. Placement of the beaker into the ground
  5. Construction of the mound
Concluding Remarks:
It is difficult to understand a distinct change in burial practices over time. Only the minor changes within the burials can be used to identify cultural variation. Isolated periods show a tendency to preserve the dead in a stylised position. The dead either joined a community of the dead or their existence was reintroduced into some form of world for the dead.
Diversity within burials should be seen as deliberate. The smallest of variations within these graves are the result of changes in society/ritual/decisions.

By Brandon Walsh

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