The book studies Neolithic burial in Britain by focussing primarily on evidence from caves. It interprets human remains from forty-eight Neolithic caves and compares them to what we know of Neolithic collective burial elsewhere in Britain and Europe. It provides a contextual archaeology of these cave burials, treating them as important evidence for the study of Neolithic mortuary practice generally. It begins with a thoroughly contextualized review of the evidence from the karst regions of Europe. It then goes on to provide an up-to-date and critical review of the archaeology of Neolithic funerary practice. This review uses the ethnographically documented concept of the ‘intermediary period’ in multi-stage burials to integrate archaeological evidence, cave sedimentology and taphonomy. Neolithic caves and environments and the dead bodies within them would also have been perceived as active subjects with similar kinds of agency to the living. The book demonstrates that cave burial was one of the earliest elements of the British Neolithic. It also shows that Early Neolithic cave burial practice was very varied, with many similarities to other Neolithic burial rites. However, by the Middle Neolithic, cave burial had changed and a funerary practice which was specific to caves had developed.
This chapter introduces two important questions for the study. It looks at the possible relationships between Neolithic cave burial and other Neolithic burial practices. It then introduces the important idea that caves and other natural places had agency and were actively incorporated into funerary rites. The chapter also introduces the data set used in the book: forty-eight cave sites in Britain with Neolithic radiocarbon dates on human remains. The chapter concludes by reviewing problems in interpreting this data and introduces the theoretical themes discussed in the following chapters: temporality, object agency and funerary ritual.
In this chapter, it is suggested that limestone landscapes can be seen as a connecting theme in parts of the European Neolithic. The evidence for cave burial at the beginning of the Neolithic is reviewed. Cave burial was relatively late in the local sequence in Greece and the Balkans. By contrast, in Italy, southern France and Spain, single-grave cave burial occurs from the beginning of the period. In these regions there is also a later Neolithic collective burial practice in caves. There is a large concentration of Late Neolithic collective burials in Belgium. Therefore, Early Neolithic cave burial was primarily a western Mediterranean phenomenon. Later, Neolithic cave burial throughout Europe may have been connected with providing a fixed point in a seasonal round for mobile populations. There was an apparent upsurge in cave burial throughout the limestone regions of Europe around 4000 BC.
This chapter begins by considering the history of the interpretation of multi-stage burial practices in the Neolithic. These interpretations have contrasted secondary burials involving exposure and bone circulation with successive inhumation of bodies in a single location. Chronologies and temporalities of different styles of burial rites are considered. Various ethnographic discussions of collective and multi-stage burials are also introduced, including the important interpretive concept of the intermediary period in funerary rites. The chapter then goes on to discuss evidence which needs to be understood in any archaeological discussion of the intermediary period. This includes the taphonomy of human decomposition; the differences between different burial environments; and cave processes and their possible effects on burials.
This chapter addresses the question of what the agency of non-animate objects might imply for the study. It begins by discussing early archaeological applications of the ideas of Giddens and Bourdieu. It then moves on to discuss anthropological ideas about the agency of non-humans, in particular Ingold’s dwelling perspective and the idea of the taskscape. It suggests that the agency of inanimate objects has been conceptualised in two different ways. Gell’s ‘secondary agency’ is compared with Latour’s ‘actor-network theory’. These approaches are situated more broadly within developing Post-humanist interpretations of object agency. Understandings of time and temporality are also discussed within the same framework. The chapter follows Gell in using the distinction between A and B-series time to construct an account of time experience based on the material world. B-series time is held to be a map of temporally ordered events. Material narratives of time and object biographies are shown to be central to this process; of particular importance is the way that changes to objects and places index the passage of time.
This chapter considers whether cave burial in Britain starts in the Late Mesolithic or the Early Neolithic. It explores the evidence from cave and shell midden burial sites with early 4th millennium BC dates. There are examples from western Scotland of similar burial rites at Late Mesolithic Cnoc Coig and Early Neolithic Carding Mill Bay. There are also different styles of Neolithic midden burial in rock shelters at Raschoille and An Corran. There were also a number of other possible midden burials in other part of Britain. Cave burial practice could be considered as evidence for continuity between the Late Mesolithic and the Early Neolithic in these regions. There are cave burials with early dates, and these may provide indications of cave burial as a Late Mesolithic practice. However, it is more likely that these represent the very earliest manifestations of a ‘culturally’ Neolithic burial practice.
This chapter examines the diversity of Neolithic cave burial practices after around 3800 BC. In this period there is evidence of a secondary burial rite which is focussed on the cranium. There is also one possible example of mummification or the curation of body parts as part of extended funerary practices. Other secondary burial rites can be recognised in a small number of sites. There are also a very small number of primary burials. The most common burial rite in this period is successive inhumation, which is well documented at a number of sites. There are also sites where multi-stage rites of some kind clearly took place, but without sufficiently well-preserved evidence to describe them in more detail; and other sites where there are Early Neolithic dates determined from poorly understood single bones. This diversity of burial practice seems to be linked to the fact that all of these different kinds of rite are also attested at other kinds of Early Neolithic site as well as caves.
This chapter reviews the more standardised cave burial practices which appear to have developed after around 3300 BC. All the burials from Middle Neolithic caves where a rite can be reconstructed were successive inhumations. At this date, there is also a trend towards burial further into the cave system. This may point to the development of a burial rite which was specifically tied to the use of caves. By the Late Neolithic, there were very low numbers of cave burials but there seems to have been a similar concern with placing burials deep in the cave systems. In both these periods, the intermediary period seems to have become something which involved the agency of caves and dead bodies but not of living people. In the Beaker period, there are also low numbers of burials but there seems to be both more input from living people and more similarity to other kinds of Beaker burial site.
This concluding chapter starts by restating the importance of the intermediary period as a key to understanding funerary practice. The agency of bodies, objects and caves is central to how we understand this intermediary period. The temporality of the intermediary period is shown to be constituted by physical indices of change. This is explored by contrasting the temporality of secondary burial rites with the temporality of successive inhumation in both caves and cairns. The agency of caves is examined through studies of cave orientation and of the way that tufa and pre-existing middens act as both indices and agents of change in burials. The chapter concludes by integrating many of these approaches in two case studies of relational landscapes of Neolithic cave burial in South Wales and North Yorkshire. It is concluded that the material narratives of change around cave burial in the Neolithic led to the development of a specific rite of cave burial after around 3300 BC.