The Structure and Skills of British Neolithic Society: A Brief Response to Clive Ruggles & Gordon Barclay. (Response)

By Mackie, Euan W. | Antiquity, September 2002 | Go to article overview

The Structure and Skills of British Neolithic Society: A Brief Response to Clive Ruggles & Gordon Barclay. (Response)


Mackie, Euan W., Antiquity


Introduction

This is a summary of my reply to the criticisms of my views published recently in this journal (Ruggles & Barclay 2000); the original 16,000-word version (itself reduced from 33,000!), with most of the references, is on the ANTIQUITY web site (http://intarch.ac.uk/antiquity/mackie02.html). It may be remembered that the critics concentrated on two areas. Barclay objects to my interpretation of `traditional' archaeological evidence to produce a picture of a hierarchical society in late Neolithic Britain, where specific training centres and colleges for an erudite priesthood cari be identified (MacKie 1977). Ruggles objects to all the evidence I have discovered with archaeological fieldwork since 1970--independently of the work of Alexander Thom--which seems to support Thom's ideas. These ideas are in essence that sophisticated activities in geometry, surveying and celestial observation were carried out in Britain in the 3rd millennium BC.

There are four areas which require a response, namely

1 the methodology of social inference from archaeological data (very brief here),

2 the general evidence for chiefdoms in late Neolithic Britain,

3 the specific evidence for the same and

4 the specific evidence for advanced intellectual skills among the priesthoods of those chiefdoms.

The last section briefly describes a new discovery at a stone circle in North Uist bearing directly on point 3.

Methodology

The main point I would make here is that, prehistoric archaeological evidence being inevitably fragmentary and incomplete as well as mute, it is notoriously difficult to come to a firm conclusion about social interpretations based on it. To complete the picture analogies often have to be drawn with historical, ethnographical and anthropological data, and even then a completely clear picture may not be available. Many conclusions will have to involve balancing the probabilities of rival interpretations. In this situation it is incumbent upon the protagonists in a debate about an unorthodox view to play fair with the evidence and not to treat it partially or to pretend that the orthodox view is obviously better. More subtly, it is also important to try to understand the specific relevance of items of evidence in relation to the network of hypotheses.

General evidence for late Neolithic chiefdoms in Britain

Barclay's objections to most of the `traditional' archaeological evidence I have cited--which could favour the existence of a professional priesthood in the 3rd millennium--are mostly specific and usually involving the denial of a particular fragment below), but he does not explain exactly what he thinks a better interpretation would be. Yet the idea that our data is well-explained by the emergence then of a hierarchical society was put forward more than a quarter-of-a-century ago (Renfrew 1973) and involved drawing analogies with the recent and historically recorded societies known to anthropologists as chiefdoms. Ellman Service (1971) had given a clear account of these not long before and demonstrated that a professional priesthood, the members of which were often hereditary, was a characteristic feature of these societies. Renfrew thought that the emerging data about celestial alignments, recently published by Thom (1967), fitted well into this picture (1973: chapter 11). Direct evidence for the mobilization of labour for large projects, and therefore of an increasingly centralization of authority, had long been seen in the sizes of the major monuments in southern England (Atkinson 1974) and in Orkney (Renfrew 1979).

Specific evidence for chiefdoms

One of the major claims I made in 1977 was that the great excavated henge sites like Durrington Walls (and its satellite Woodhenge), Marden and Mount Pleasant in Wiltshire could be interpreted as the residential and training centres of a late Neolithic elite, more specifically of a professional priesthood of the kind which might have had the esoteric knowledge which Thom's discoveries suggested. …

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