Orientations and Origins: A Symbolic Dimension to the Long House in Neolithic Europe

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Long houses and long mounds

The similarities between long barrows and long houses were discussed by Gordon Childe over 50 years ago (Childe 1949). Since his paper was published, the same observation has been considered from many different perspectives, yet the reasons for this connection are hard to grasp. This article contends that much of the difficulty is created, not by problems of chronology, but by the expectations that archaeologists have brought to the discussion. Long mounds are connected with the dead and contribute to the study of mortuary practices, whilst long houses are the dwellings of the living and are investigated in terms of subsistence and settlement. These two approaches to the Neolithic period fail to articulate with one another.

Childe was concerned with evidence from northern Europe but recently similar observations have been made in France. In each case it seems as if timber long houses were replaced by earthen mounds of similar proportions. There is little agreement on the timing of this development in the region studied by Childe, where the houses and mortuary mounds occur on different sites and may be separated in time by a century or more (Midgley 1992: 463-4), but at Balloy, Seine-et-Marne, the positions of individual houses were overlain by earthworks that shared the sizes and orientations of those buildings (Mordant 1997). Even though some time may have elapsed between these different kinds of structure, it is obvious that the people responsible for the long barrows had a precise understanding of the layout of the older settlement.

Because both groups of structures at Balloy follow a similar ground plan, it has been tempting to interpret these earthworks as the houses of the dead, but that does not explain why the form of domestic buildings was so well suited to this kind of symbolic elaboration. Did the houses conform to a wider conceptual scheme, as we so often find in the ethnographic literature (Carsten & Hugh-Jones 1995; Birdwell-Pheasant & Lawrence-Zuniga 1999)? In this paper I shall consider both the features that they share with long barrows: their length and orientation.

The life cycle of long houses

The long houses of the Linear Pottery Culture are distributed across a wide area and were built to a strikingly uniform design which seems to have persisted for more than 500 years (Whittle 1996: chapter 6). Did the organization of these houses have a special significance?

In fact these buildings exhibit a number of recurrent features which have still to be explained (Modderman 1988; Coudart 1998). Their length itself poses problems. It has always been accepted that in northwest Europe (the area considered in this article) these buildings may have had as many as three distinct segments; this is not so obvious in areas further to the east and southeast. It is not clear that these components were constructed simultaneously. The central section occurs in every case and can also be found on its own. At one end it may be supplemented by a massive structure that is commonly identified as a granary, and at the opposite end there may be a further compartment which was often set within a continuous foundation trench that may have held planks (Coudart 1998: chapter 2). The entire building could be flanked by borrow pits which provided raw material for plastering the walls.

FIGURE 1 summarizes the possible relationships between the three sections of these buildings. Subject to what is said later, they are laid out on a roughly north-south alignment. It is perfectly possible for the `southern' section to have been added to the other segments during a subsequent phase, but this would be hard to demonstrate from archaeological evidence. On the other hand, the trench-built `northern' section can be incorrectly aligned, leading to the suggestion that it could have been added at a later stage (Coudart 1998: 74). FIGURE 1 summarizes the logical relations that are possible between the three components of the long house and distinguishes between sequences that can be demonstrated by field archaeology and those that are entirely conjectural. …