The Monumental Cemeteries of Prehistoric Europe, by MAGDALENA S. MIDGLEY
Ever since Childe, Hawkes and Piggott, prehistorians have made the connections between the emergence of earthen long barrows and long cairns in the British Neolithic and the already-developed long barrows of the North European Plain. But because the typological method underpinning Childean diffusionism required formal parallels rather than similarities in landscape context, the latter has been consistently underplayed for the Continental barrows. Moreover, the very fact that there are sometimes quite large clusters of long barrows forming cemeteries (the author stipulates a dozen or more barrows are needed to form a cemetery!) makes the European examples special, not least in their landscape context. It is Magdalena Midgley’s merit to have added to her already impressive skills in typology, inter-cultural comparisons and constructional analysis - evidenced in her earlier long barrow book (1985) and her ‘TRB culture’ volume (1992) – a broad landscape approach and an enhanced interest in symbolic practices. Put these elements together with the highly professional and beautifully produced Tempus format and we have a fascinating short book that seeks to set a new agenda for studies of earthen long barrow cemeteries.
The author structures the book around the contrasts between three differing types of societies – complex Atlantic-fringe foragers, going under the names of Ertebølle, Swifterbant, Téviecien, etc. (6th – 5th millennia cal BC); the earliest farmers on the loesslands of North Central Europe – the Linearbandkeramik communities (early 5th millennium cal BC), who were in interaction of different kinds with the foragers for 500 years or more; and those later (late 5th millennium cal BC and later) societies who created the monumental cemeteries from some kind of fusion of the traditions of the other two societies. In the first two chapters, broad, sweeping canvasses of these three types of societies are painted, while in the next chapter, mortuary practices are defined among late foraging and earliest farming communities. It is in the fourth and fifth chapters that Midgley builds a detailed characterisation of the monumental barrow cemeteries – first at the level of barrow construction, then at the level of individual burials. In the final chapter, the threads are inter-woven to produce a richly ornamented tapestry of Mesolithic and Neolithic lifeways on the North European plain.
What is new to this reviewer is the range of new, excellently excavated evidence for French barrow cemeteries, accumulated in the two decades since Midgely’s 1985 book. Since the author is herself involved in one of the excavation projects, she is in an excellent position to provide an authoritative account of the new evidence. Another strong point in the book is the discussion of the complexity of many of the Northern Mesolithic burials, whose seated burial positions, timber-lined graves and dietary preferences of the deceased for fish make them closely comparable to the Iron Gates Mesolithic. It will be intriguing to see if the preliminary results of the Skateholm analysis suggesting that the dead were indeed related individuals is confirmed!
The discussion of the landscape contexts of the monumental cemeteries should be central to the book. Indeed, Midgely does identify two contrasting cemetery locations – liminal to settlements, often on floodplain islands or hills, and on old fields or even settlements (there is a classic case of an earthen long barrow built on top of a destroyed LBK long-house at Balloy). The asymmetrical layout of the barrows is convincingly related to visual reasons – ie, the ways that processions approached a focal point in a barrow. But one feels that the author is most at home in the thick of the excavation data and the constructional detail of this monument type, that can now be seen to develop coevally - in parallel - with megalithic sites in Brittany. It is clearly probable that totem poles and, in some cases, standing stones had been erected at a early stage of the mound construction. Far from Piggott’s ‘unchambered long barrows’, recent excavations have convincingly shown the existence of complex chambers, characterised in detail by the author. Intriguingly, there were few acts of burials before the building of the barrows, some of them being cremated, just as some of the timber chambers were deliberately burnt. One of the most interesting conclusions was the identification of not only material from different parts of the landscape but also old material from previous settlement deposits deliberately embedded into the body of the mound. Frustratingly, however, these key observations are presented with little attempt to draw the appropriate social inferences in terms of ancestral and wider landscape relations. The symbolic makes a regular appearance but the social is still largely absent.
Set aside these strengths, some less promising aspects of the book should also be noted. In the account of the Late Mesolithic, there is no real attempt to assess shell-middens as monuments in the landscape. There is, of course, enormous size variation in Atlantic shell-middens and some of the Oronsay examples could hardly be designated ‘monumental’. However, several of the Portuguese shell middens in the Muge can be seen from over 1 km and the quantity of shells, animal bones and fishbones required to create a 3-metre high mound – similar to a medium-sized Balkan Neolithic tell – implies repeated feasting practices over centuries. Some of the Ertebølle middens, notably the type-site, are also large enough to be considered as landscape monuments: what are the implications for the development of linear barrows? Another Mesolithic oversight is the lack of reference to Newell and Constandse-Westermann’s (1988) outstanding research on Mesolithic social structure, trade and exchange, mortuary practices and cultural identities, innovative work that should form the basis of any discussion of the Atlantic Mesolithic. Finally, it is not at all clear how foragers contributed to the postulated synthesis with early farmers that was to produce the monumental cemeteries.
The development of cemeteries of individual, non-monumental burials in the LBK period is discussed but the origins of these important collective markers receives little discussion, beyond rather vague allusions to concepts of personhood and corporate identity. Is the emergence of fixed cemeteries in the LBK, anchoring kinship relations between long-term but small-scale (hamlet- or homestead) settlements, a parallel to the Skateholm foraging model, where a permanent cemetery created temporal continuities for mobile, seasonal hunting and gathering groups? And how does this LBK mortuary development relate to Amy Bogaard’s (2004) identification of fixed-plot permanent agriculture as the main LBK arable strategy? (Clearly, this work was published too late for Midgley to discuss).
Turning to the monumental cemeteries, what this reviewer missed was a sense of social time in relation to the mortuary sequence. A basic concept, such as the châine opératoire, would be useful here, but even more valuable is Laurent Olivier’s (1999) perspective on the multiple senses of time built into the Hochdorf Iron Age mortuary barrow. The elements of an operational chain approach are there – but Olivier’s insights would make this come alive through the integration of techno-time with social time.
In the end, what is missing from this book are the people. In an auto-critique of her Balkan Neolithic research, Ruth Tringham once famously confessed that, when she thought about the people she studied, all she could picture was: ‘a lot of faceless blobs’ (Tringham 1991: 94). Here, in Northern Europe, we have a few people buried in these earthen long barrows and we have a sense of a multiplicity of other social practices while the mound was heaped over these (presumably special) individuals. But where are the other people? What about foragers meeting with farmers to negotiate gift exchanges to prevent further armed raids on LBK stockades? Who were the people using the 6.5-litre bowls deposited as grave goods after communal eating and drinking? Where are the processions forming at some distance from the cemetery, the boat(wo)men carrying the processing group across the flood-waters to the high ground, the ritual specialists who decided to create a mound over a long-dead house? And, above all, the people to see the monumental mounds from afar? The peopling of the monumental cemeteries seems one step too far for Midgley, who remains with the material and, to her credit, the symbolic.
So how new is the agenda set in this book? There are important, and largely acknowledged, debts to Bradley, Hodder and Whittle, all of whom have investigated the humans peopling these landscapes of early European prehistory and whose research has created the possibilities for Midgley’s new interpretations. All three scholars have developed creative interpretations of the close relationships between LBK houses of the living and those later houses of the dead incorporated into the monumental barrows. Bradley in particular has realised the significance of the monumentality of the LBK long-house itself in inserting a new scale of structure into the habitus of early farmers, while Whittle has generated new insights into the scale of LBK settlements and their places in their largely wooded landscapes. To these major contributions, Midgley has added significant interpretations of the symbolic practices related to burial and mound-building in these monumental cemeteries, as well as new insights into their landscape settings. The notion that the key element of monumental cemeteries was commemoration rather than burial per se is an important conclusion and one with wide-ranging ramifications, only some of which are explored here. The author merits our thanks for moving the debate on, even though largely within the frameworks created by earlier scholars.
Review Submitted: September 2005
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