Stonehenge for the Ancestors: Part Two

By Parker Pearson, Michael; Ramilisonina | Antiquity, December 1998 | Go to article overview

Stonehenge for the Ancestors: Part Two


Parker Pearson, Michael, Ramilisonina, Antiquity


We have identified a structuring principle of hardening in the passage from life to ancestorhood which can be found in contemporary Madagascar, Neolithic and Bronze Age Britain and, for that matter, contemporary Britain.(1) The use of analogy that we have preferred is not the formal ethnographic parallel, nor is it cross-cultural generalization, but a relational analogy; we did not intend to apply it as a 'universal' but as a 'What if . . . ?' scenario - unfortunately we inadvertently gave Barrett & Fewster, and perhaps other readers, the wrong end of the stick.(2) What is important is not the analogy per se - it ultimately tells us only that such things are possible rather than universal - but whether the archaeological evidence in question can be adequately explained in this way through detailed contextual study. The analogy merely provides the comparison; its suitability is decided by the degree of corroboration and goodness of fit with the evidence of the archaeological case-study.

What makes a good analogy, then, is that not only does the basic premise hold but it opens previously unforeseen avenues of study and reveals potential corroborations which had not previously been understood. We can only summarize these new directions that have surfaced after our preliminary study.(3) For example, we think that the use of stone as temper in pottery, mundane as it might seem, had ancestral meanings and metaphors in certain regions of Britain. Middle Neolithic Peterborough Ware (a type of Neolithic Impressed Ware) in Wessex (c. 3400-2500 BC; Gibson & Kinnes 1997) is mostly stone gritted (Cleal 1995). It occurs in ancestral contexts - chambered tombs, stone circles, cursuses - and in burials, caves and watery/waterside contexts. The decorative practice of impressing pottery with organic materials to create 'ghosts' of form without substance in the clay is now comprehensible. Overlapping for 300 years with Peterborough Ware, Grooved Ware (c. 2800-2200 BC), mimicking basketry, is never stone gritted in Wessex (Cleal 1995: [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 16.2 OMITTED], table 16.1).(4) It is associated with wooden structures rather than stone and rarely occurs either with Peterborough Ware or in funerary contexts. This distinction between 'ancestor' wares and 'living' wares is visible in the Stonehenge landscape: the pottery is found in two distinct areas, one to the west and the other to the east of Stonehenge. This distinction survives briefly into the Early Bronze Age, manifested in the differing fabrics of Beakers in burials and Beakers in other contexts (Boast 1995: 71-2, [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 7.1 OMITTED]). There are other avenues to explore: the possibilities of stone quarries as having ancestral associations (Cooney 1998: 110); rock-art as representing tattooing or scarification of ancestral bodies; the use of earth and chalk as having a mediatory status between living and ancestors; the significance of pits for ritual mediation rather than mundane waste or storage use; and the use of cursuses, hitherto completely mysterious, as pathways for the newly dead being initiated into ancestorhood. We also think that the juxtaposition of timber to stone monuments (sometimes as chronological replacement) also occurred outside Wessex in the late 4th to 3rd millennia BC at complexes such as Penrith, Rudston, Oakham, Knowth, Newgrange, Ballynahatty and Hindwell. By the Collared Urn phase of the Early Bronze Age the principle was largely gone - with Stonehenge's 'visibility envelope' encroached upon by barrows, and ceramic tempers no longer limited according to context. Yet it may be detectable in: EBA round barrow constructions in which timber is replaced by earth and stone; in the building of earth-dug or stone-built MBA houses; and in the digging of the first field ditches on Salisbury Plain, around this time, with field boundaries laid out on the same solstice axis as Stonehenge (D. Field pers. comm.). Stone and timber were thus understood differently, but aspects of the tradition were reworked within new contexts. …

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