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At the Edge / Bob Trubshaw /

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Monuments as ideas

Bob Trubshaw

An overview of Landscapes, monuments and society by John C. Barrett, Richard Bradley and Martin Green (Cambridge UP 1991) and Altering the Earth by Richard Bradley (Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 1993).

What do prehistoric monuments do? A dictionary would suggest they commemorate and endure. 'In practice,' writes Professor Richard Bradley in his recent creative re-evaluation of neolithic monuments Altering the Earth, 'the building of monuments imposes itself on human consciousness in three different ways. First, it creates an entirely new sense of place. . . . monument building is a way of establishing or enhancing the significance of particular locations. Once that has happened, those places enter the consciousness of the people who live and work around them until the landscape as a whole is changed.'

The second feature that Bradley considers to characterise prehistoric monuments is their 'extraordinary longevity' even though changing rituals and beliefs can mean that a monument may change its meanings from one period to another without necessarily changing its form.

'Taking these points together, we can say that the building and operation of monuments bring with them a distinctive type of consciousness. This involves a subtle change in perceptions of place, and the creation and use of these structures necessarily inculcated a new sense of time as well. This is a process that can never be reversed.' [ibid.]

While this resonates astonishingly closely with some current Earth mysteries ideas (as noted in 'Landscapes and mindscapes') these remarks come from an eminent and respected academic archaeologist. Altering the Earth is the culmination of a decade-or-so of re-evaluation of neolithic monuments. Put to rest is the notion that the neolithic monuments of north-west Europe result from the adoption of farming. So we must unlearn the idea that a more stable and productive agricultural economy provided surplus labour which was then available for the construction of monuments which would themselves be symbolic of the society's prosperity. Rather, monuments were first created by hunter-gatherer peoples - who may be more sedentary than commonly supposed - and, indeed, it may be they who had the maximum potential for 'surplus labour'.

While not suggesting that ethnographical evidence can be used as a direct analogy for north-west European neolithic life, Bradley looks to the Australian Aborigines whose settlement pattern was largely mobile and yet included monuments. It is commonly supposed that Aboriginal culture involved a very close integration with the natural world and that the features of the landscape itself were charged with supernatural power. What has been revealed is that the ceremonies of the Aborigines of Arnhem Land are known to have involved gatherings of two to three hundred people and lasted for more than ten weeks. As Bradley notes, had these participants devoted ten hours a day to monument building their efforts would be sufficient to build three long barrows, a small causewayed enclosure or a lesser hillfort.

More importantly, Bradley asks how so many people could be supported in the inhospitable Australian hinterland. There is evidence for deliberate intensification of specific hunting and gathering activities - such as collecting eels in a system of artificial channels - which was done specifically to provide food for the important ceremonies. Quite clearly, food production intensified to meet the needs of rituals. Bradley has no compunctions in making the same claim for north-west Europe too. Writing this article just after the excesses of Yuletide feasting, it is quite clear to me that the ritual activities of post-modernist mankind still make major demands on our food supply - even if we experience this only as supermarkets clogged up with over-loaded trolleys.

Bradley asserts that, at a very profound level, it was the construction of monuments that altered peoples' understanding of their land and promoted more sedentary ways of life. Which focuses increasing attention on why monuments were created at specific places, whether they be prominent natural features, or natural features modified in a minimal way - the addition of rock art or a small cairn, for instance - through to the more 'monumental' modifications such as cursuses, causewayed camps, chambered tombs and the like, which have survived (more-or-less) until today.

While the density of information makes Bradleys writing 'heavy', he does write with a non-academic readership in mind. Unlike many academics, he is never afraid to propose controversial and occasionally provocative ideas. Indeed, as Antiquity's reviewer noted: 'the most refreshing aspect of Altering the Earth is the theme of interpretation and creativity which runs through the whole book.' [1] By contrast, Current archaeology wrote: 'This book is one of those occasions where the reviewer fears that is he tries to summarise the subtleties of the argument, the whole thing may collapse under his clumsy handling' [2]. Nought out of ten for bravery, but full marks for honesty! Yes, this is a book which needs to be read as each chapter presents its own case for a different aspect of prehistoric monuments yet these complement each other rather than compete. In the space of this article I can only 'cherry pick' some items which have greatest relevance to earth mysteries outlooks.

While archaeologists are no longer investigating the past through piecemeal recording of occupation sites and are, where possible, linking the separate settlements to their boundaries, field systems and the wider use of the land, Bradley notes that the same approach has yet to be adopted for the more specialised monuments. He himself has started in this direction in co-writing Landscape, monuments and society which takes Cranbourne Chase south-west of Salisbury as a case history. One of the richest neolithic landscapes in the country, this part of Dorset is perhaps best-known for the massive neolithic cursus which is a pair of parallel ditches running about ten kilometres across rolling country. Nigel Pennick and Paul Devereux in Lines on the landscape [3] had previously shown how the cursus and associated barrows form clear alignments directed at the midwinter sunset [although their work is, predictably, unacknowledged by the academics]. Those of you who saw Channel 4's Down to Earth series may recall the stunning computer graphics that recreated the chalk banks and ditches rolling over the Chase towards the setting midwinter sun.

Even though little of the Dorset Cursus is now visible, by working through the detailed information provided by a number of excavations, it is possible to reveal in surprising detail how the cursus and its associated monuments developed. In particular, the authors of Landscape, monuments and society write 'The line of the Cursus may either have been established between a series of existing long barrows, or some of the barrows themselves may have been aligned on prominent features of the Cursus. Where both earthworks share the same axis no sequence can be established, but where one appears to be aligned directly on the other, either the relationship is fortuitous or an obvious sequence is involved. The Cursus appears to have been aligned on three earlier barrows, although a number of barrows appear to have been created after the Cursus and share its alignment. Indeed, no less than half the long barrows within a kilometre of the Cursus closely imitate features of the Cursus.'

What is surprising about the Dorset Cursus is that its overall design makes little sense except to someone inside it. From a distance, despite its great length, it would not have been very visible - indeed, some sections may have been dug through wooded areas. The same is true of the curses at Stonehenge and Rudston. The concept of a cursus seems to exclude outsiders. This is also indicated by the lack of recognisable entrances through the ditches and banks.

However, to those who did stand within it, the Dorset Cursus makes its most impressive visual impact between the Bottlebush terminal and the long barrow on Gussage Cow Down, if only because this includes the longest stretch which can be seen from one vantage point. And this alignment is the midwinter sunset sight line. In fact, there seem to be five astronomical sight lines between the cursus and particular mounds, or between mounds. Again, other cursuses seem to have been built in similar ways. The Dorchester on Thames cursus aligns on the midsummer sunset, while Aubrey Burl has suggested that the Stonehenge cursus could have marked the equinoctal sunrises.

So, the authors of Landscape, monuments and society conclude, Ritual is sometimes described as employing a different concept of time from everyday affairs; surely it was the nature of this great monument [the Dorset Cursus] to deny the attrition of time altogether. More importantly, it made the dead seem part of the unchanging world of nature and appeared to confirm their status in perpetuity. So, we have a long linear monument aligned to the setting sun in a manner intended to honour the dead. Those who have regarded Devereux's work on leys as corpse ways as a lone voice on the fringe of earth mstyeries would do well to consider that this idea is far-from-fringe for academic prehistorians.

By their very nature, monuments survive over long periods of time. In some cases it can be shown that certain prehistoric sites were in active use for hundreds and, occasionally, thousands of years. Other monuments, ranging in date from neolithic to Roman times, are known to have been brought back into use in the medieval period as high-status sites. To what extent this helped legitimise new elites and involved the invention of traditions can be demonstrated for places such as Yeavering and the Boyne Valley although the majority of sites perforce remain silent.

Yet it is the ideas which monuments embody that gives them their function. Which is not to say that such ideas are fixed - they may adapt and change during the active life of a specific monument, or may be different for superficially-similar monuments built in different regions. As or when the original concept was lost then new traditions are readily imposed on the visible remains.

When visiting a rich archaeological region, we are confronted with just how different the past was from the present. It is this feeling of difference that we would do well to emphasise . . . [Altering the Past]. Once we get past the innate tendency to create a past in terms that are familiar to us, that is through the assumptions of a settled agricultural society, we are faced with the difficulties of incorporating the unaltered topography into our sense of the landscape [ibid.]. What we can be confident of is that monuments and places worked together to direct and stimulate the experience of prehistoric people. And Bradley then continues with a critical criticism directed at his colleagues: It is their inability to come to terms with experience itself that leaves prehistorians so vulnerable to the inroads of alternative archaeologies. Quite what it is about alternative archaeologies which is unwelcome is unstated but is indicated in the final paragraph of Altering the Earth where he notes that when visiting ancient monuments both archaeologists and the public use their imagination to recreate a past that is perhaps really beyond recall and make it play an unrehearsed part in the present. While the perceptions of professionals and public are bound to be different . . . we should be able to talk to one another. More than anything else, the archaeology of monuments is where those conversations begin.

Bradley has provided considerably more than enough to start such a conversation. I feel it is up to the alternative archaeologists to read what he has to say and keep the conversation going - for the benefit of both sides.


1: Julian Thomas, Antiquity Vol.67, No.257, Dec 1993 p942-3.
2: Current archaeology No.136, Dec 1993.
3: Lines on the landscape, Robert Hale, 1989.

Originally published in Mercian Mysteries No.21 November 1994.

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Created April 1996; updated November 2008