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Les pratiques funéraires néolithiques avant 3500 av. J.-C. en France et dans les régions limitrophes. Table ronde SPF, Saint-Germain-en-Laye 15-17 juin 2001, edited by PHILIPPE CHAMBON & JEAN LECLERC
Mémoire XXXIII de la Société Préhistorique Française Société. Préhistorique Française, Paris, 2003. 333 pages. ISBN 2-913745-14-8. (€40)

Recent years have witnessed an upsurge in studies of Neolithic burial practices in France. The inspiration for these derives in some measure from the innovative work of Claude Masset at Paris and Henri Duday at Bordeaux, both of whom have demonstrated the enormous potential offered by a close reading of the human skeletal remains, in an approach that has come to be termed ‘anthropologie de terrain’. The present volume is the product of a conference held by our sister organisation, the Société Préhistorique Française, in June 2001. One of the editors (Philippe Chambon) has recently published a detailed re-examination of Neolithic collective burials in northern France (Chambon 2003); the other (Jean Leclerc) is well-known for his excavation and study of Late Neolithic allées couvertes in the Paris basin, tombs which from their quantity of remains constitute the classic ‘sépultures collectives’.

The greater part of the present volume is devoted to presentation and discussion of individual sites or groups of sites from the Early and Middle Neolithic periods. Few of the papers move beyond this to a more general level of analysis, though most do contain observations that are of wider relevance. The very diversity within these papers may deter British readers, and indeed while the richness of the evidence and the interest of individual examples is very clear, the thematic organisation of the volume is sometimes a little difficult to follow. Nonetheless, there is here a considerable body of fascinating new information, and this is an invaluable collection of papers for anyone wishing to follow current French research on Neolithic funerary practices.

The book is divided into five sections. The first, devoted to the ‘premières pratiques funéraires néolithiques en France’, focuses on Bandkeramik graves and cemeteries in Alsace and the Paris basin. Jeunesse opens the proceedings by discussing the special features of burials on the western margins of the LBK, and in particular the ‘micro-nécropoles’ located within Bandkeramik settlements in this region. These contrast both with the larger extra-mural cemeteries of the kind known from central areas of the Bandkeramik, and with the individual graves in pits or alongside longhouses. Jeunesse suggests that these ‘micro-nécropoles’ are the product of Mesolithic acculturation along the Bandkeramik margins; but he also observes that the Paris basin Bandkeramik shares certain features with the formative Alföld Linear (notably in the absence of V-perforated Spondylus shells or polished stone adzes from the graves).

The following papers bring to the fore one of the primary themes of recent French work on burial practices: the so-called ‘anthropologie de terrain’ approach, in which detailed investigation of the position of the skeletal elements within the grave, preferably by a physical anthropologist, is used to deduce the exact circumstances of the burial: whether wrapped in a shroud or placed in a coffin; whether earth was backfilled around the body or whether it lay beneath some kind of cover or within a container that allowed for movement during decomposition; whether (in the case of multiple interments) the bodies were deposited simultaneously or in sequence. This approach, particularly associated with the name of Henri Duday and his Bordeaux school, figures prominently in a majority of the papers in this volume.

In the second paper of this section, Boës applies the ‘anthropologie de terrain’ approach to the development of funerary practices in Alsace during the 6th and 5th millennium BC, from Bandkeramik to Grossgartach. This reveals a sequence, from bodies buried in backfilled graves in the Middle Bandkeramik, through the occasional provision of some kind of container or covering in the Late and Final Bandkeramik, to coffin burials in at least four of 109 cases at the Grossgartach cemetery of Rosheim. These changes are linked to changing social practices over this period, but the social implications are not fully explored by reference to other categories of material, such as settlement or house plans. There is clearly scope for a more probing analysis of these transformations. The presence of a timber roof or cover over Late Bandkeramik graves is explored in more detail in Bonnabel et al.’s study of the Late or Final Bandkeramik ‘micro-nécropole’ at Écriennes in the Marne Valley. The residual earth from digging the grave pit may have been heaped to form a small tumulus, on which offerings may have been placed in pottery vessels; when the timber cover collapsed the tumulus subsided, taking with it the pottery vessels which became incorporated in the fill of the grave.

The final paper in this first section explores one of the key issues in the study of prehistoric burials. Drawing on the detailed results from 30 years of excavation in the Aisne Valley, Constantin and co-authors provide a series of statistics which demonstrate that the number of known Bandkeramik graves is improbably small when compared with the number of Bandkeramik houses. At the largest settlement, Cuiry-lès-Chaudardes, there are only five graves for 33 houses; at the next largest, Bucy-le-Long ‘La Héronière’, there is only 1 grave for 11 houses. It is possible that large extra-mural cemeteries are yet to be discovered, but the extent of gravel quarrying in the valley argues against this. The striking dearth of burial evidence is not peculiar to the Aisne Valley Bandkeramik but is a feature of most prehistoric periods in western Europe, for which systematic cemetery burial goes back little more than 2000 years.

The second section ‘Les conditions de dépôt’ moves on in time to focus on the Middle Neolithic. A pair of related papers discuss burials in storage pits at Chasséen sites in south-west France, and raise two salient questions. First, had these pits truly been used for grain storage before they were re-used as graves, or were the grave pits intentionally dug to resemble silos? The possibility that burial in grain stores was a metaphor for rebirth and new life has recently been discussed elsewhere (Laporte & Marchand 2004). The second question concerns the relationship of these pits to settlement activity. At Les Plots, the majority of the 104 pits were dated to the Middle Neolithic and six of them contained burials; but, as Beeching remarks later, the scarcity of house evidence in the south French Chasséen and the intentional backfilling of most of the pits (some of those in the Rhône valley containing a remarkable wealth of artefactual material) suggests that these pits were not necessarily domestic in character.

Three following papers consider grave offerings, and especially personal ornaments placed with or on the dead. Sidéra charts the increasing importance of ornaments and artefacts derived from hunted animals in graves from Late Bandkeramik to Michelsberg and Chasséen in the Seine and Rhine basins. She suggests that they are evidence of a new ideology and expression of masculinity, though they are not restricted to the graves of adult males. Bonnardin shows from study of use-wear that Bandkeramik and post-Bandkeramik shell necklaces were assembled from individual elements of different age and origin, perhaps donated by different members of the community to the dead person. Moinat describes the spectacular boars’ tusk pectorals placed in the Chamblandes graves of western Switzerland, which again had sometimes been assembled from pieces of diverse earlier origin. Stepping across the frontier, Wünsch & Gibaja Bao attempt to relate use-wear to sex and status differences (not altogether convincingly) in the Sant Pau del Camp cemetery near Barcelona. The final paper in this section, Augereau et al.’s study of the Chasséen cemetery of Monéteau in the Yonne, returns to the theme of individual sites: two clusters totalling 20 graves within a large palisaded enclosure, but here again without convincing evidence of domestic occupation.

The third section ‘Les conditions de décomposition’ repeats earlier themes; and indeed the division between this and the previous section is somewhat ill-defined. Once again, ‘anthropologie de terrain’ approaches are highlighted, notably in the Chamblandes cists of Switzerland with their multiple burials (Moinat), and in the Cerny (Middle Neolithic) cemetery of Vignely in the Marne valley (Chambon & Lanchon). Here a surprising diversity of grave types is present among a group of only 30 or so tombs: extended burials in coffins within deep pits; extended burials in shrouds, or in grave pits edged with timber shuttering; crouched burials within timber cists, within shrouds, or simply covered in earth; and one corpse buried in sitting position, held in place within a small but rigid container. Other papers in this section discuss the development of funerary structures in the Ebro estuary from Epicardial to Middle Neolithic (Bosch & Faura), and describe a newly discovered pair of Chasséen burials at Limoux in the Aude (Tcheremissinoff).

The final two sections move away from the analysis of individual graves to the consideration of funerary structures. The three papers of section IV ‘L’espace sépulcral dans l’ensemble funéraire’ consider the grouping of graves and the structures or structuring principles that may have been involved: at Orville in Loiret (Arbogast et al.), where a series of 20 graves are grouped around a ‘sépulture sous dalle’, a proto-megalithic structure in which a large sandstone slab is laid across the top of the grave pit (see Scarre 2002); at Barmaz in Switzerland (Honegger & Desideri) where burials in two adjacent cemeteries of Chamblandes cists could not be distinguished as drawn from separate populations and may have been related though possibly successive in time; and at Le Gournier in the Rhône valley (Beeching), where a central group of Chasséen burials is enclosed within irregular circles of pits containing special deposits that were probably involved in the funerary practices: the entire complex may indeed have been covered by a low circular mound.

The fifth section ‘Types fonctionnels’ comprises three articles on chambered tombs in northern and western France, followed by analysis of a cave burial in the Pyrenees and finally by some shorter closing remarks. The section opens with an account of the excavation of a ruined passage grave within the Prissé-la-Charrière long mound in Poitou-Charentes, a paper of which the present reviewer is a co-author (Soler, Joussaume, Laporte & Scarre). The analysis considers two hypotheses: that the 8 individuals represented among the human skeletal remains were brought in as intact bodies but elements were later removed; or that only parts of the bodies were deposited in the chamber. The fact that the chamber was only large enough to hold 3 or 4 complete bodies (leaving aside the possibility of timber shelving) and that the 8 individuals were represented by a total of only 137 bones (as compared with the standard human complement of 208) gives added point to the analysis but no firm conclusions can be drawn.

The next pair of papers turn to northern France. In the first, Dron and colleagues provide a systematic review of recent work on burial practices in the passage graves of Normandy. Several of these are remarkable for the manner in which bodies were laid out on the floor of the tomb chamber, each within its own space, and not subjected to subsequent disturbance or manipulation. In a later paper in this section, Leclerc argues that such burials cannot properly be termed ‘collective’ since the bodies are not jumbled together in the classic manner of, for example, the Late Neolithic allées couvertes of the Paris basin. The distinction may perhaps be considered an issue merely of terminology, but it does highlight the contrast between the ‘individual’ nature of multiple burials in the Normandy passage graves as compared with the disarticulated and incomplete skeletal remains found in Middle Neolithic western France (eg at Prissé-la-Charrière). Even within Normandy, however, mixing and sorting of bones is also found at this period: indeed, the multiple-chambered mound of La Hoguette shows that skeletal integrity and disarticulation could be practised within adjacent chambers of the same monument. Piera builds on these results by studying the distribution of non-metric dental abnormalities within the multi-chambered mounds of La Hogue and La Hoguette. His results suggest that several of the chambers held groups of related individuals, perhaps families or affines.

Valentin et al.’s analysis of the Grotte de Montou presents a final case-study of collective burial, this time within a narrow cleft opening off an occupied cave. The structured nature of the deposit (children placed at the back in decreasing order of age, then several adults added in various postures) suggests that this deposit was planned from the outset. It is clear, however, that some of the bodies were in an advanced stage of decay when new corpses were introduced, indicating that this cannot have been a single simultaneous deposit.

As these remarks have indicated, much of the volume is concerned with the presentation and discussion of individual cases, but broader issues are touched upon in a number of papers. One which is left for the end, however, is whether all the deposits discussed in these pages may correctly be interpreted as ‘burials’. As Cauwe observes, some sites appear to have been places for the processing of corpses, rather than for the disposal of the dead as we would understand it today. Finally, Leclerc and Chambon return to the distinction between Middle Neolithic practices and the Late Neolithic tombs in which remains of several hundred individual are found mixed together. The latter, Chambon argues, reveal a fundamental change in ‘mentalités’. What emerges from this volume, however, is not a pattern of widespread regularities so much as the diversity of practices that are represented. Readers from this side of the Channel, within and beyond the detail of the individual examples will find much to ponder.

Chris Scarre
McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, Cambridge

Chambon, P., 2003. Les morts dans les sépultures collectives néolithiques en France. Du cadavre aux restes ultimes. (XXXV Supplément à Gallia Préhistoire) Paris, CNRS.
Laporte, L., & Marchand, G., 2004. Une structure d’habitat circulaire dans le Néolithique ancien du Centre-Ouest de la France. Bulletin de la Société Préhistorique Française 101, 55-73.
Scarre, C., 2002. Contexts of monumentalism: regional diversity at the Neolithic transition in north-west France. Oxford Journal of Archaeology 21, 23-61.

Review Submitted: April 2004

The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.

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