Stonehenge: Is the Medium the Message?

By Barrett, John C.; Fewster, Kathryn J. | Antiquity, December 1998 | Go to article overview

Stonehenge: Is the Medium the Message?


Barrett, John C., Fewster, Kathryn J., Antiquity


Introduction

The ancestors have been employed in the archaeology of the Neolithic for some time now. They have been used to structure our understanding of its earliest monumentality, and their later absence from the landscape has been used to define the character of the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age (cf. Clarke et al. 1985). Parker Pearson & Ramilisonina's interpretation of Stonehenge has, however found a new home for them in the 3rd millennium and suggests that the ancestral presence continued to dominate the early Bronze Age landscape of the 2nd millennium (Parker Pearson & Ramilisonina 1998). The argument is important and, if accepted, will have considerable implications for our understanding of the mechanisms by which the burial and ceremonial rites of the later period emerged. We stress that it is the argument which merits critique, for that argument contains within it logical procedures by which we are invited to construct an understanding of the 3rd millennium BC and to find a context from which Stonehenge may be viewed afresh. In particular we wish to question the ways certain universal, and thus essentially a historical, structures have been identified and then used in an attempt to 'explain' processes which will have operated in historically specific conditions.

The search for universals: ethnographic analogy

Parker Pearson & Ramilisonina (hereafter PP&R) have been methodologically explicit about their use of ethnographic analogy from Madagascar in their interpretation of Stonehengge. This is a major strength of the argument, and it is hoped that studies like this will lead to a renewal of interest in the mechanics of ethnoarchaeology. Other than a few notable exceptions (Wylie 1985; Layton 1992) ideas about the use of analogy, which received much attention in the processual forum (Binford 1967; 1980; Yellen 1977; Gould 1978), have not been seriously reviewed more recently. However, the interpretation that PP&R present is, as with all interpretation based on analogy, vulnerable, and this vulnerability has not been fully addressed. Given that nothing will ever be proven about the past using ethnographic analogy (Ucko 1969; Yellen 1977; Gould 1978; Hodder 1982; cf. Binford 1967: 1980) their argument could have been presented as a possibility and lost nothing of its potential. PP&R attempt to demonstrate the 'correctness' of their analogy by firstly, bringing in anthropological data additional to their own case-study in Madagascar which leads them to the conclusion that the ancestor cull is universal in small scale societies which base their organization on kinship affiliation (PP&R 1998: 310). Secondly, a relational analogy (which PP&R term an analogy of materiality) is used to suggest that the structuring principle, that has been identified in Madagascar and that links wood to the living and stone to the ancestors, is universal (PP&R 1998: 309). We shall take each in turn and show that neither is universal. However, when vulnerability is acknowledged, neither needs to be universal in order to promote a useful analogy.

Universality of the ancestor cult

To suggest that ancestor cults are universal is an over-simplification of the richness and diversity of religious practice in societies which base their organization on kinship alliance. Thus: 'beliefs in the continued existence of the human soul after death are quite widespread, but the nature of this existence is variously conceived' (de Waal Maleflit 1968: 155). Most societies have elements of ancestor worship and it is this that is picked up in Steadman et al.'s (1996) re-analysis of Swanson's (1964) study. PP&R rely on Steadman et al.'s findings to argue for universality, but it is a matter of determining what importance that ancestor veneration has over other religious aspects. For example, Steadman et al. begin with the Azande and they show, rightly, that the Azande recognize ancestors (cf.

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