Remembering, Forgetting and the Invention of Tradition: Burial and Natural Places in the English Early Bronze Age

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Recently, the central role of memory in preserving, transmitting and negotiating material culture has rightly been stressed (see for example Gosden & Lock 1998; Bradley 2000: 155-8; Bradley & Williams 1998). These theories of memory have been applied to Neolithic and Early Bronze Age monuments and arguments have been formulated to try to explain the relationship between monuments, space and (natural) place(s) (Tilley 1994; Thomas 1999; Bradley 2000). Often these arguments centre around the `commemoration' of place by monuments (Thomas 1999), the `monumentalizing' of natural places (Tilley 1994; Bradley 2000), and the apparent `remembering' of rites, separated in time by many years (Last 1998). This paper will use evidence from the Cheshire Basin to argue that forgetting may have played as important a role as remembering when explaining the relationship between burial monuments and natural places in the Early Bronze Age in England.

Early Bronze Age burials in the Cheshire Basin

The Cheshire Basin is a naturally defined area of lowland landscape in the northern English Midlands (see FIGURE 1). The landscape of the region is gently undulating, with glacial tills rising from sea-level in the north to 100-150 m above ordnance datum (AOD) in the south. A sandstone ridge runs down the centre of the region, forming locally high land, rising to over 200 m AOD. The area is poorly studied, but is known to contain over 200 round barrows and ring ditches (Gunstone 1965; Longley 1987; Mullin forthcoming). Although there is some slight landscape clustering in the barrow distribution, few barrows occur in cemeteries and there is a tendency for location of single barrows on the sides of hills, close to streams.


Excavation within the last 20 years has revealed long chronologies for some barrows in the region, spanning the Late Neolithic to the Late Bronze Age. For example, excavations at Meole Brace, Shropshire (Hughes & Woodward 1995), revealed a Late Neolithic ring ditch and pits dated to 3600-2920 cal Bc (4535 [+ or -] 100 BP, OxA-4204), which then formed the focus for Early Bronze Age cremation deposits. The barrow then acted as a focus for a cluster of pits, which included one containing Late Bronze Age pottery, burnt bone and charcoal. At Woodhouse End, Cheshire (Rowley 1977), the mound material of a barrow over a Beaker burial contained the largest collection of Peterborough Ware (a mixture of Ebbsfleet and Mortlake styles) in the North Midlands, interpreted as the accidental incorporation of Neolithic domestic refuse into the mound. The radiocarbon dates from the barrow at Church Lawton South (McNeil 1982) suggest pre-barrow, Late Neolithic activity on the site dated to 3100-2100 cal BC (4100 [+ or -] 160 BP, HAR-5534) with Phase 1 of the round barrow dating to 2300-1650 cal BC (3600 [+ or -] 100 BP, HAR-5533).

Many barrows acted as foci for subsequent burials, with 9 barrows in Cheshire yielding a total of 49 secondary burials. A barrow at Withington Hall (Wilson 1979; 1981) with a primary cremation dating to 2050-1500 cal BC (3440 [+ or -] 100 BP, HAR-3252) also contained two secondary deposits not in urms, one of which has dated to 1900-1300 cal Bc (3300 [+ or -] 100 BP, HAR-3259). Two cairns at Grappenhall are described as containing `several' secondary cremations and also appear to have formed the focus of a fiat cemetery containing collared urns and food vessels (Archaeological Surveys 1976). A total of five cremations including a single food vessel, two collared urns and two cremations not in urns formed the secondary deposits at Woodhouse End (Rowley 1977) and 10-12 `urns' were found at Castle Cob, Manley, suggesting a secondary deposit (Longley 1987). At Church Lawton North (McNeil 1982), 18 secondary cremation burials were inserted into the Phase 1 mound, before this was sealed by a dump of sand, which then acted as a focus for further cremation deposits. …