Saturday, 13 June 2015

Neolithic passage-tomb construction - mutual cooperation or enforced labour?

I'm reading a fantastic book about ancient Ireland right now, written by an archaeologist. It's called 'The Origins of the Irish' by J.P. Mallory of Queens University and it's one of the best books about prehistoric Ireland that I've ever read. Admittedly it's not exclusively about prehistory, and admittedly I'm not finished reading it yet! But on almost every page Mallory is presenting interesting data and posing even more interesting questions. And so we arrive at page 77, and one of the major questions about the passage-tomb builders is given consideration.

The giant passage-tomb of Knowth and one of its satellites. Huge effort was required to build these monuments.
Mallory says that in the Mesolithic, hunter-gatherers considered most material possessions as impediments to mobility. In the Neolithic, however, the emergence of agriculture led to many changes in the way we lived. Interestingly, fish was apparently "off the menu" as there was a major shift from a marine diet to a terrestrial one. We should not be altogether surprised by that, but it seems to have been a fairly dramatic change. The landscape changed too – there was significant cutting down of virgin forests for the purposes of agriculture and monument building. (This, by the way, is mentioned in mythology. But let's not go there right now, lest we scare the archaeologists off . . . and I am well aware that many archaeology students do actually read this blog!)

Most significantly, the Neolithic generally sees the evolution of the concept of:


"Or," as Mallory puts it, "if you prefer":


And so, as we sowed the seeds of agriculture in the Boyne Valley and other parts of Ireland, introducing a new way of life to the island, we also sowed the seeds of a modern civilisation that, despite all its benefits, has seen us painfully divorced from cosmos and the natural world, such that we're trying to kill our planet – by overpopulating it, by stripping it bare, by choking it and by many other means, insidious and foul. But that's not the main point of this blog post – even if it is a most pressing matter pertaining to our very existence right now.

The point (or rather the question), in terms of the whole idea of social ranking and wealth and "discontent", is this: were the monuments built by a community of people that was unified in its beliefs, and content to contribute to this mammoth effort to enshrine its beliefs, and perhaps immortalise its  "moment in time" monumentally in stone?

Or, as the result of a hierarchy – a system of social ranking – was that community coerced, compelled or otherwise forced into these monumental labours against its wishes?

I'd like to tell you that Mallory gives us a definitive answer to that question. But, despite his obvious brilliance, he does not have enough evidence to place himself on either side of the fence (let's call it a Neolithic palisade) that divides these two options. There might, of course, be a third option – it's possible that some people did it because they wanted to and some were coerced, compelled or otherwise forced.

However, Mallory does lean a little bit towards one side of the Neolithic palisade when he says this, to offer a glimpse at the theory he might prefer:

... while mutual cooperation is always possible, large labour projects have often been seen to indicate the emergence of some form of social elite.

Personally, I've always leaned towards the "we're all in this together" idea – and see in the monuments of the Boyne a collective and cohesive effort representing the endeavours of a community that was largely working as one. What is my evidence for this supposition? I'm not sure that I could give you anything concrete. I see monuments large and small, apparently built to a system based on alignments and on cosmology, representing an effort to record and understand the passing of time, and cycles, but also representing a spirituality, whose complete depth and complexity we might never understand. It doesn't "feel" like a project that was undertaken or completed under duress. But that's just a hunch.

What material evidence would there be, if there had been an elite, and they had compelled the population to haul the giant stones up the banks from the Boyne, and to sail to Cooley and Wicklow and perhaps other areas in search of materials? How would we know one way or the other? I don't have an answer to this question. Perhaps some of the archaeologists do.

Bone fragments in a basin at Knowth (reconstruction).
One thing that's been scarcely discussed, if at all*, is how the bone fragments that were found in Newgrange, and Knowth, and Fourknocks, came to be in the disintegrated state in which they were found. There were burnt remains. These, we are told, were from corpses that were burned on a pyre, and their ashes retrieved after it cooled down, for placement in the passage-tombs. The unburnt bones, however, are small and fragmented. A key question is how did they get to this state? By what process was a person's remains stripped, the carcase defleshed, and the bones then broken, or otherwise made into fragments? And could this be relevant to the question of whether the monuments were built by choice or coercion? (ie, does the disintegrated state of the skeletal fragments indicate or suggest a community where there was violence?)

At Newgrange, there were 750 bone fragments that were "unidentifiable". We don't know whether they were from humans or animals. That's a lot of unaccounted-for bits of bones. In the appendices of Newgrange archaeologist Michael O'Kelly's book about his excavations there, T. P. Fraher of the Department of Anatomy at UCC says:

Apart from some complete hand and foot bones, all human specimens consisted of small fragments.

It's been virtually impossible to tell how many people were interred in the chambers of some of our most famous tombs. At Newgrange, there are fragments from five individuals - but that's all that can be said. Maybe the fragments are from many more individuals? At Knowth's eastern chamber, there were fragments found representing something between 150 and 200 individuals.

Were these all the remains of cherished members of that community of mound builders and astronomers and farmers, lovingly brought to the interiors of the monuments following some ancient ritual of disintegration? Or might some of these bone fragments represent something more sinister – such as ritualistic sacrifice or even cannibalism?

In my own research, I have reached tentative personal conclusions, but it's always healthy to consider other options and possibilities. We are a long way from a full understanding of the people of the Neolithic – such a thing is scarcely possible unless we find a way to travel back in time. All we can do is look at what's there and try to figure it out as much as possible. The truth is that we can scarcely understand ourselves, and our own incongruous and destructive aspects that push us towards the brink of self-annihilation.

I like to think that we can learn something about ourselves by looking into the past. It's possible that Newgrange can teach us enough about ourselves so that we can learn to change for the better . . .

Addendum: I've also been reading Robert Hensey's new book, 'First Light - The Origins of Newgrange' and he adds the following in relation to community effort:

A centralised authority would have been necessary for the gathering of materials and construction work to be accomplished, yet a certain amount of willing cooperation and community 'buy-in' must have been present for the project to be a success. (p.118)

* At least not in the books I've read about the archaeology of the Neolithic/Boyne Valley. But there may well be some solid archaeological research into this area that I'm not aware of. 

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating and brings to life how we behave both as an individual and a society. There must be a degree of willing participation> faith favours this with heavenly and magical rewards. Wars favour this > slaves must do it or die. Tithes could be offered by those privileged who would rather pay then work> Has that changed since ancient times? Hmmm.... I think our heart might have been purer; less jaded, our spirit more willing to believe the shaman and the magical. Generation after generation gave labour creating these monuments so lasting and breathtaking I think a big degree of pride and satisfaction came with it.