Review: The Significance of the Monuments; on the Shaping of Human Experience in Neolithic and Bronze Age Europe by Richard Bradley(1998) Assessment 9 out of 10

A beautifully written and thought provoking study of European and British Prehistory, showing how monuments reflect complex and inter-related changes, over the longue durée, in ideology, economy and society.

Mesolithic hunter-gatherers thought of themselves as one with the “wild”. Domestication of plants and animals and construction of monuments was therefore unthinkable.

Neolithic farmers brought agriculture to the European loess. They built wooden longhouses, which apparently were abandoned on the death of the householder. The landscape therefore comprised both “houses of the living” and “houses of the dead”. Abandoned longhouses collapsed, naturally forming long mounds. These were copied in the long burial mounds, built beyond the agricultural frontier by hunter-gatherers influenced by domestication and changing ideology.

The form of such monuments changed as domestication was adopted and perceptions of space and time altered, reflecting the territoriality of farming, which in turn encouraged the idea of links to the “ancestors”, assumed to have created the farming territory.

Initially, monuments separated the dead from the living. Later, mounds were reused, so they contained multiple burials, passage graves providing continuing access to the remains. Funerary ritual, human burials, was transformed gradually into ancestor ritual. Remains were circulated, so the presence of ancestors was maintained amongst the living.

Just as the idea of long mounds derived from long houses, that of causewayed enclosures derived from the form of Neolithic nucleated settlements. Occupation of causewayed enclosures became rarer and their form formulaic. As ceremonial enclosures, they represented the mythical settlement from which the folk had dispersed to live in the surrounding Landscape.

Long mounds and causewayed enclosures originated on the Continent and spread north and west from there to Britain. By contrast, henges and stone circles originated probably in Orkney, spreading southwards in the middle-Neolithic into Britain and Ireland. Their adoption there reflects the continuing use in prehistoric Britain and Ireland of the circle as a cosmic conception, looking outwards from the individual and up into the sky. The circular monuments followed this symbolic code, providing a visual cross reference extending to the horizon and encompassing the surrounding sacred geography.

Stone circles and henges were maintained ensuring culture continued. Literally, they represented ritual in the landscape, stability in contrast to the flux of daily life and the passing of the generations. Once their form was established, it was respected through successive rebuilding and despite fundamental surrounding change, few permanent settlements and an emphasis on livestock being replaced by more intensive mixed farming and a more formal territoriality. A landscape of monuments was transformed into a landscape of fields.

In the Bronze Age, even after henge and standing stone circles went out of use, their presence was respected in the siting of round barrows. Apparently for the first time, domestic buildings, in the form of round houses, became a significant feature in the British landscape. The similarity in form of round houses and round barrows is striking, both adhering to the circular symbolic code, the round barrows following the form of round houses, just as, before them, long barrows had followed that of long houses.

Great stuff.

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