Saturday, June 27, 2009


The evidence for burials discussed so far offers a very complex scenario. The different patterns of deposition of human bodies found within the north European megalithic chambers do not speak in favour of one practice – be it single or communal, full inhumation or partial bone deposits – but rather of different ways of dealing with the dead. That these practices were neither uniform nor static is clearly seen in the changing traditions: initial emphasis on individual burials, albeit sometimes performed against the background of multiple presences within the confines of a single monument, slowly giving way to greater concern with the dead in their ancestral capacity. The original deposits within the passage graves, as well as contemporary deposits within the open dolmens, involve merely selected fragments of human remains; after a period of time some of the chambers may have become family vaults, with complete bodies being placed within them, although elements of secondary burial – bone rearrangements, skull displays and manipulation of other body parts – may well have continued. Such a sequence is now well documented on south-west Fyn, around Sarup. Evidence from Sweden also speaks in favour of some chambers being used to house complete bodies. On the other hand, the interpretation of megalithic burial practices in the remaining regions does not reveal such patterns; this may be on account of poor survival conditions or of different practices. While many scholars strive to arrive at one particular interpretation of megalithic burial practices, reality is not nearly as simple.

The ubiquitous presence of fragmented human bones on settlement sites suggests that some of the dead may have rested there temporarily, perhaps close to their house, in a settlement pit or in a building specifically devoted to such storage. Alternatively, the body may have been buried outside the settlement, in a flat grave, marked to enable subsequent retrieval. Exposure in a tree or upon a raised platform is another common way of allowing the body to reach a skeletal condition; indeed, Strömberg has raised the possibility of displaying bodies on stone platforms in the immediate vicinity of entrances to the chambers (Strömberg 1971). While regularly shaped platforms of stone and possibly timber components of the kind encountered at Ramshög and Hagestad are not commonly found, piles of stones are known from in front of many chambers, and some may well have been used to display bodies; stone cobbled courtyards, of the kind encountered at Nissehøj, could have served such a purpose well. Exposure platforms may also have been located within the enclosed sites of the Sarup type although, as Kaul (1994) suggested, the possibility that bones were moved in the opposite direction – from the chambers to the enclosures – should not be ignored; indeed, other activities are witnessed from the enclosures, and dealing with the dead need not have been the primary function. The precise function of the cult house, known from Denmark and in smaller numbers from Germany, presents itself as another possibility, although such structures do not contain much evidence for any prolonged presence of the dead.

The concepts behind the need to engage in secondary burial rituals during the Neolithic were undoubtedly very complex, and combined a host of social, ideological and religious ideas. Ethnographic evidence suggests that different communities have different ideas with respect to the fate of the individual after death. Some do not believe in any form of afterlife: the Hadza’s view, for example, seems to be that ‘when one dies, one rots and that is that’; the Baka Pygmies, when asked what is the fate of the dead, say ‘When you’re dead, you’re dead and that’s the end of you’ (Woodburn 1982, 193, 195).

On the other hand, there are many communities which, implicitly or explicitly, have views on afterlife, on the fate of the dead and, in particular, on the fate of the spirit or the soul of the departed. In fact, ethnographic evidence for dealing with bodies prior to secondary burial rites is so varied that any comparison of specific ethnographic and prehistoric circumstances is bound to be misleading, although general ideas can be enlightening. The use of selected human remains is generally interpreted as resulting from the practice of secondary burial, which may not just be related to the veneration of ancestors but may also reflect the beliefs of the living about the spiritual element of the dead – the soul.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


Position of burials in chamber I at La Hoguette (Fontenay-le-Marmion), Calvados, displaying spatial arrangements according to sex.

Position of burials in chamber C at Condé-sur-Ifs, Calvados

In the area of north-western France, we note that inhumation of complete human bodies appears to have been quite common, although there were many expressions of this practice. Those buried in sépultures sous dalle (of the Malesherbes type) were simply placed crouched in grave pits, and at Orville an additional twenty individual graves surrounded such a sépulture sous dalle, only one individual being placed in extended position (Simonin et al. 1997). The Chamblandes cists, appearing around the middle of the fifth millennium BC, illustrate an interesting transition from initially single (occasionally double) inhumations to a collective practice over a period of about 1000 years (Leclerc and Tarrête 2006).

Complete bodies were also interred in some passage graves, for which the Normandy monuments of La Hoguette, La Hogue and Condé-sur-Ifs provide very interesting data, although some of them were excavated in the nineteenth century and thus the information is of a somewhat general nature. We noted previously that some of these mounds - La Hogue, La Hoguette and La Bruyère du Hamel at Condé-sur-Ifs - each comprising several passage graves, were conceived as a single architectural and structural project. Their plan and the layout of the chambers, as well as the nature of burials in each of them, strongly suggest that the number of persons to be interred may well have been projected at the time of construction (Chambon 2003b, 68). Indeed, the dental studies carried out with respect to the La Hoguette chambers present the possibility that these were designed for specific family groups (Piera 2003), although the mitochondrial DNA pattern of the bones from chamber C at Condé-sur-Ifs did not show any genetic connection among the ten individuals analysed (Chambon 2003b, 71).

In at least half of these chambers, complete bodies were deposited and allowed to decompose without any subsequent interference, with adults and children placed in a crouched position on either their left or their right side, although it is not possible to determine whether these represent simultaneous or successive placements. Chamber I at La Hoguette displays an interesting spatial arrangement in relation to sex and location: females were placed to the west and males to the east; those buried lying on their right side were mainly towards the back of the chamber, aligned with their backs to the wall. In chamber II the dead were roughly equidistant from one another, and in chamber C at Condé-sur-Ifs there was a bipartite division of burial space, with a sort of ‘corridor’ leaving the central zone of the chamber free.

The coherence of these individual burials contrasts with evidence from other chambers, either within the confines of the same monument (chambers IV and Vat La Hoguette) or at its close neighbour La Hogue; a similar pattern was observed at several chambers at Condé-sur-Ifs. These chambers reveal a more complex funerary practice, which may have included primary as well as secondary burials, and which most certainly involved a rearrangement of skeletal fragments. Some of the skulls in Condé-sur-Ifs (chambers A2, B and C) are found at a considerable distance from the actual skeleton, lacking mandibles or facial parts; small slabs ‘protect’ skull fragments in chamber IV at La Hoguette, and long bones also show displacement. The most dramatic evidence of manipulation comes from Vierville B, where three layers of human remains are separated by slab pavements.

La Hoguette is particularly interesting in this context, as both forms of burial seem to have been practised, albeit within different chambers. This is one monument at which division of sex seems to have been of some concern to the community that used it, and it is possible that other considerations were also expressed through the differential treatment of the dead – in this case leaving some bodies to rest in peace and rearranging the bones of others.