Diversity, Lifestyles and Rites: New Biological and Archaeological Evidence from British Earlier Neolithic Mortuary Assemblages

By Wysocki, Michael; Whittle, Alasdair | Antiquity, September 2000 | Go to article overview

Diversity, Lifestyles and Rites: New Biological and Archaeological Evidence from British Earlier Neolithic Mortuary Assemblages


Wysocki, Michael, Whittle, Alasdair, Antiquity


Skeletons in the cupboard

While the funerary or ancestral monuments of the Earlier Neolithic in Britain and Ireland (c. 4000-3000 BC) are prominent in the literature, their occupants remain largely anonymous and shadowy figures. Human bone reports are often minimal or summary, frequently under three pages in length (e.g. Grimes 1939; Savory 1956; Savory 1984), if published at all. The situation, in part, reflects the past failure of archaeologists to realize the great value of excavated human skeletal material as an archaeological resource (Larsen 1997: 1-3). The uncompromising character of the material itself must also be partly to blame: mixed, disarticulated, fragmented, incomplete, with small sample sizes and prone to cultural and post-depositional biases. This may explain why apparent indifference extends also to many practising biological anthropologists. There is some irony here; individuals in the 19th century such as Thurnam and Rolleston, equally comfortable as human bone specialists and as archaeologists, laid many of the early foundations of British Neolithic studies.

This picture is changing. Forensic anthropologists continue to develop and publish a wide range of methods, procedures and comparative data for the analysis and identification of mixed, disarticulated and incomplete skeletal assemblages which were unavailable to earlier workers. The consequent cross-fertilisation of expertise and knowledge has resulted in the establishment of new multi-disciplinary approaches to the investigation of death assemblages (Hunter et al. 1996; Haglund and Sorg 1997).

Recent years have also seen the publication of a number of important surveys of theoretical and methodological advances in the study of archaeologically derived human remains (Hillson 1996; Larsen 1997; Roberts & Manchester 1997; Mays 1998; Aufderheide & Rodriguez-Martin 1998). Many of these highlight the adaptive and responsive plasticity of the musculoskeletal system as a record of human behaviour. In particular, Larsen (1997) synthesizes the fruits of this approach in population studies which demonstrate the potential of osteoarchaeological analysis for investigating skeletal responses to adaptive shifts in dietary regimes and lifestyles associated with transitions from foraging to agropastoralism to urban dwelling.

Recently the authors (Whittle & Wysocki 1998) applied some of these approaches to the human remains from the chambered long cairn at Parc le Breos Cwm, though the quality of the material and the circumstances of recovery were far from ideal. That work has paved the way for a three-year (1998-2000) research project which is undertaking a re-analysis of the biological anthropology, palaeopathology, taphonomy and archaeology of extant southern British Earlier Neolithic mortuary assemblages. The aims are to re-examine the issues of population diversity, lifestyles as indicated by human skeletal material, and the mortuary and/or ancestral rites evidenced in the monuments and other contexts of the period. What follows is a short summary of some preliminary but encouraging findings. We concentrate here on the human remains from the chambered long cairns of the Brecknockshire Black Mountains in southeast Wales (RCAHMW 1997: 31-65), which have been the subject of a recent revival of interest (e.g. Tilley 1994; Fleming 1999; Nash 1997), but draw also on evidence from southern England. The human remains discussed below have all been subject to detailed re-examination and analysis (MW); new bone reports will be published in due course.

Diversity and lifestyles

In considering potential new insights about the kinds of lives that people led, our first concern is with diversity among populations. Even in a comparatively small `group' of monuments, such as those of the Brecknock Black Mountains, with a compact and geographically isolated distribution of 14 chambered long cairns within a radius of some 13 km of the centrally placed Ty Isaf (see below), the biological anthropology may suggest little uniformity. …

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