Places of Transformation: Building Monuments from Water and Stone in the Neolithic of the Irish Sea

By Fowler, Chris; Cummings, Vicki | Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, March 2003 | Go to article overview

Places of Transformation: Building Monuments from Water and Stone in the Neolithic of the Irish Sea


Fowler, Chris, Cummings, Vicki, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute


Introduction: places of water and stone

Megalithic monuments dating from the Neolithic period (c.4,000-2,400 BC) are found all along the coasts of the Irish Sea. There is evidence that people in the Irish Sea zone were in contact with one another during the Neolithic period. Material culture moved across the Irish Sea from Ireland to Britain and vice versa (Cooney 2000; Saville 1994; Sheridan 1986). Furthermore, the monuments scattered along the shores of the Irish Sea share a number of characteristics which, in combination with the distinctive material culture found in association with these sites, suggests that the Irish Sea was an area of cultural interaction in the Neolithic. We have chosen the eastern side of the Irish Sea as a case-study through which to explore the connections created between water and stone. We are not suggesting that the eastern Irish Sea zone constitutes a bounded region, but it contains over one hundred megalithic monuments which provide an ideal case-study for thinking about how places and bodies were transformed in Neo lithic practices. This article therefore focuses on southwest Wales, northwest Wales, southwest Scotland, and the Isle of Man, with the emphasis on the production and use of megalithic architecture.

We suggest that there was a metaphorical association between water and stone in the Neolithic of the Irish Sea area which centred around practices of transformation. It is proposed that this principle was involved in the organization of the cultural world at megalithic chambered tombs, as well as at rock art sites and other locations (such as caves, rivers, and beaches). In some cases this trope seems to extend well beyond the Irish Sea (particularly into the Channel Islands, Brittany, and north to the Orkneys), although it may not have been present at all monuments throughout Britain. We suggest that the association of stone with water can be understood as consisting of complex links between certain 'types' of stone and water. Although there may be many reasons why the associations between water and stone were so common, we emphasize the importance of the cultural use of the Irish Sea landscape and a cultural conception of persons and places as both composed from multiple substances. We suggest that both peo ple and the material world were transformed at these sites through the manipulation of key components and substances, including those within the human body, as well as stone, water, living and dead creatures, and material culture. The significance of such components was grounded in their location within the Neolithic cultural economy and subject to the social relations embedded in that economy.

Over sea, under stone: the sea and megalithic architecture

At megalithic chambered tombs in the Irish Sea area there are a number of visual references to water and stone. We begin by examining the topographic and visual references to the sea and mountains, and then consider the range of material associations between water and stone created at megalithic sites. The combination of these factors--location and substance--may suggest that building megaliths between the shore and the mountains and out of coastal and upland materials was a matter of drawing out and making explicit some central tropes in local Neolithic cosmology.

Landscape location and visual references

Megalithic chambered tombs (from here on described simply as 'megaliths,) (1) are found all along the coasts of western Britain, and many command extensive views of the sea. This may not seem remarkable, yet megalithic architecture is not found exclusively in relation to the sea, as illustrated by sites in southern England, the Black Mountains, and central Ireland. Even some sites that are not far from the sea, such as the Bargrennan group in southwest Scotland, do not have views of the sea (Cummings 2002b). In total, 65 per cent of sites along the eastern Irish Sea zone have views of the sea (see below). …

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