Unpacking Burial and Rank: The Role of Children in the First Monumental Cemeteries of Western Europe (4600-4300 BC)

By Thomas, Aline; Chambon, Philippe et al. | Antiquity, September 2011 | Go to article overview

Unpacking Burial and Rank: The Role of Children in the First Monumental Cemeteries of Western Europe (4600-4300 BC)


Thomas, Aline, Chambon, Philippe, Murail, Pascal, Antiquity


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Introduction

The Cerny culture emerged in the northern area of France, with its centre in the Paris basin, particularly in the Seine and Yonne river valleys. G. Bailloud first defined the Cerny culture in the 1960s, based primarily upon ceramic material from a handful of sites (Bailloud 1964); 30 years later, the Nemours conference listed more than 200 Cerny sites (Constantin et al. 1997). In typo-chronological terms, the Cerny culture succeeds the Villeneuve-Saint-Germain group and represents the beginning of the French Middle Neolithic, c. 4600 BC.

In this rather substantial cultural complex, long barrows were constructed for the burial of the dead and these monuments come to represent incontestable cemeteries, for example at the well-known site of Passy. Unknown until the early 1980s, there are now dozens of Passy-type burial grounds in the northern and central parts of France recognisable from aerial photography (Delor et al. 1997). As of today, six of them have been partially excavated (Figure 1): La Sablonniere and Richebourg at Passy (Duhamel 1997), Les Reaudins at Balloy (Mordant 1997), Les Sablons at Gron (Muller et al. 1997), La Piece de l'Etang at Escolives-Sainte-Camille (Duhamel 2004; Midgley 2005) and La Noue Fenard at Vignely (Lanchon et al. 2006). Built from timber and earth, the Passy type barrows present an elongated shape, the length of which varies from 25m to more than 200m. Their appearance was undeniably important in terms of the visual and cultural impact they had upon the landscape (Figure 2).

In contrast with the considerable amount of work invested in such a construction, few people were actually buried inside each structure: rarely more than a single inhumation. The seemingly limited access to these monumental tombs would suggest that the Cerny culture progressively evolved into a hierarchical social organisation (Constantin et al. 1997). According to this pattern, it is assumed that the people interred within monumental graves belonged to the elite of society. Consequently, 'the rest of the population should be found in contemporary and ordinary cemeteries' (Duhamel 1997: 446). Recent discoveries seem to support such an hypothesis. The Cerny cemeteries of La Porte aux Bergers at Vignely (Chambon & Lanchon 2003) and Les Patureaux at Chichery (Chambon et al. 2010), located in the Marne and Yonne river valleys, do not show any evidence of monumental constructions (Figure 1). But the graves from flat cemeteries are remarkably similar to those from the Passy-type monuments. The majority of burials are individuals in large, deep pits, the bodies were laid out on their backs in an extended position and several lines of taphonomic evidence suggest the use of coffins (Chambon et al. 2009).

The two flat and the six monumental cemeteries discovered cannot together be expected to contain the whole of the Cerny population. However, the recorded samples remain significant witnesses of its mortuary ideology. The assertion that the Cerny culture posess a social hierarchy, as suggested by its burial practices, should not be taken as a given: rather it ought to representa starting point for discussion. If the individuals buried within monumental graves do indeed indicate a privileged status, the obvious question then arises: 'what were the crucial factors for an individual to merit such a burial?'

The role of children

In the past, the monumental graves were considered to have been reserved solely for adults, but recent analyses have demonstrated that men, women and children were buried there (Chambon 1997; Duhamel 1997; Muller et a/. 1997; Chambon & Lanchon 2003). Given that age is not one of the discriminating factors for selection, researchers have been compelled to reconsider some of the earlier models of Cerny society (Midgley 2005). However, the current picture was not based on strong biological evidence, so the question of the inclusion or exclusion of children from monumental graves, based on age criteria, remains unresolved. …

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