Tuesday, November 02, 2021

Prehistoric Burials

It is an excellent human quality that we try to imagine how other people might be like us when we hear about them. It leads to brotherhood, fellow-feeling, and bonhommy (as Eeyore would say). It can provide real insights and understandings. We read about tragedies happening to Korean or Ecuadorean children and feel sorrow for them and a stab of empathy for their parents. 20th C American literature has an ongoing theme of experiencing the trials of one immigrant group or another secondhand, often humorously, to show how they are "just like us, really," while we are also learning what their differences mean in their context. 

But this belief, as important as it is to developing as a nation of disparate groups, can lead us badly astray even with groups still extant in distant parts.  And for prehistoric groups it can be entirely misleading. "The farther back you go, the weirder they get," says archaeologist Timothy Darvill. To illustrate this he refers to an entire era in Dorset where the bones were moved about two or three times, and in most cases the hands had been removed and were buried underneath the rest of the body. He laughed that we hear about such things and immediately begin imagining possible reasons for it, but it's best not to.  It will only cause us to settle on a theory and then have trouble moving off it when new evidence comes in.  Best to simply note that they are doing this terribly strange thing for unknown reasons.

As with reading Shakespeare, where the meanings of some words have changed under our feet, there are practices we believe we understand a bit but likely do not.  When we think of a tomb or burial site, we think of something removed from the settlement, visited on special occasions, rather solemn. This is reinforced by Egyptian pyramids, with its protected and inaccessible burials, and our images of going by torchlight through silent, dusty tunnels with sarcophagi or shelves of skulls on top of piles of bones or such like. Thus when we see kurgans and barrows, we think those similar.  Remote, unvisited places. Even when realising that the people who built them revered and even worshiped ancestors and seemed to have ceremonies nearby, we hold that picture. They must have visited them once a year.  The children were told to hush. We see similarities to our own visiting the family cemetery every year, or looking out over landscapes that our ancestors settled. Our people have always been wed to the sea, granddaughter. We have lived here and died here for generations. (Which not only in America but even places in Europe might really mean only a few generations, but it seems like Time Immemorial. Even archaeology of recent settlement can reveal that the people here didn't fish much, and not out on the open water at all.  The trapped shore birds and gathered shellfish. It is a less romantic story, but they weren't thinking about Romance, they were thinking about Not Starving.)

As we dig and evaluate more precisely, we are finding that this may be quite backward. As usual. As i noted before about the stone circles, we think of them as remote because they are on the land that no one needed to plow to survive, the marginal land. Barrows, kurgans, and tombs may be the same. The DNA evidence of sites not that far apart suggest that many of these were boundary markers. We can prove it's our land because it is our ancestors who are buried here, right in the center of the action.  Not yours. So go away. The ceremonies drove where to put the burials, not the other way around.  They wanted the ancestors to continue to participate in the ongoing festivals, because they perceived themselves as continuing to be present in a way we do not. We get a little closer with family recipes or Christmas ornaments that have been passed down, and the circular time of holidays being tied to previous holidays, but even that doesn't touch it.  The Eucharist is more like it, in those denominations where the "great cloud of witnesses" is believed to be more present. Yet still unlike.

They put the bodies on their backs and covered them with ochre...or on their sides, the men facing east and the women facing west...or they burned them all and surrounded them with pieces from a single smashed pot...or killed a bunch of close relatives to go along with them.  And we only have made-up stories why. They were weird.  We haven't got a clue why they were doing these things.  We murmur things about sacred ceremonies and veneration of the dead. Then we find out that a stone circle was only used a few times in a decade, then the ditch around it just filled in gradually, no one cleaning it out, then at least two centuries later there is a flurry of activity and a village goes up and they are burying people a different way, and - this group does not seem much related to the previous group.  And then again intermittently maybe for more than a century, now with different animals being slaughtered. We make up a story of simplicity and call it "continuous use."  If we can find evidence of neolithic, bronze age, Roman, and medieval use in the same spot we fall into that same reverie as Gramps looking out over the sea. Our people have always worshiped here, and come here to bury their dead. Except they weren't related to each other, and probably not to you, and sometimes they seem to have carted the bodies up the hill and dumped them down a shaft for a century or so.

One thing we can be sure of, though.  The Druids had nothing to do with Stone Henge, and probably not with any monoliths. Even after all the others had gone. They were more into sacred groves.


james said...

Some folks buried family under the floor of the home... So they can be part of the family life and rituals still, or so they can keep an eye on us, or so we can keep an eye on them, or to protect them from the spirits that roam outside the village, or ...

At least, presumably they were family members buried there. Maybe families competed to see who would be lucky enough to host the grave of the village shaman?

In our neck of the woods some tribes left earth mounds--some effigies and some linear or just circular mounds. Some were graves. Some there's no evidence of any burial in. Sometimes stratiography can tell you if the burial came later. I suggested that some of the mounds were memorials to victories at lacrosse against their traditional rivals across the river. (The explanation has not caught on yet.)

You can make up stories all day long. And even if the folks were still alive, they might not tell you, or even know themselves, why they buried that way.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Yes, there were records in 17th C Lithuania of no priest, and then no bishop being available for over 20 years, and the village that had been Catholic, then Lutheran, then Catholic was then nothing - though they still kept going to something on Sunday mornings - sacrificing a bull in order to have a good harvest one year. When they got a priest that autumn, he tried to figure out why they had done this, and no one could quite explain why. they just remembered that maybe that helped. and no one would admit it was their idea.