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Houses, bodies and tombs

RICHARD BRADLEY

THE PROBLEM WITH HOUSES


IN MY DICTIONARY the English language word house has seventeen different
definitions, at least six of which are in common use today. The French maison also has six and the German Haus has five. The meanings of these
words are much the same in all three languages, and can be identified by the
contexts in which they are used.
Archaeologists follow a different procedure. Rather than studying the
contexts of Neolithic houses, they consider a single interpretation. Nowhere
is this more apparent than in accounts of Britain and Ireland, and here this
narrow approach has led to difficulties. The house is among the features that
are supposed to characterise early farming. Its presence implies sedentism,
while its absence suggests a mobile pattern of settlement. That idea raises
many problems.
What applies to individual houses applies to settlements, too. British
archaeologists have been frustrated by their inability to locate what they had
expected to find. If people were growing crops and raising livestock, then
surely they must have occupied more substantial shelters than mobile huntergatherers, and their living sites ought to be easier to identify. That has been
difficult to demonstrate, with the result that at different times a wide variety
of earthwork enclosures have been claimed as permanent settlements; ditches
and pits have been recruited as subterranean dwellings; and even mortuary
monuments have been assigned to the living rather than the dead. That is
because it seemed hard to conceive of Neolithic societies who did not construct substantial domestic buildings. Even now there are claims for the existence of Neolithic longhouses in southern England which are all too easily
compared with dwellings in mainland Europe. Not only are the English
buildings much smaller than their counterparts, they originated many years
after those structures had gone out of use and during a period in which
Continental houses are actually quite rare.
Now the problem has reappeared in a new guise. It is accepted that
substantial Neolithic dwellings are uncommon in most parts of Britain and
Proceedings of the British Academy 144, 347355, The British Academy 2007.

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Richard Bradley

especially in lowland England, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to


argue that they are under-represented because of taphonomic factors. That is
because such structures are frequently discovered in Ireland. They are also
found (although less often) in both Scotland and Wales. Since the Irish
houses are substantial and often well preserved, the English evidence is
treated in a different way. Although some examples have been identified, they
are so unusual that they have been interpreted as public buildings (Thomas
1996; Topping 1996). Moreover, since there are so few counterparts to the
dwellings identified in Ireland, prehistorians have suggested that the character of Neolithic activity was different in each country. The Irish model
might suggest a pattern of sedentary settlement associated with crop cultivation, whilst an English model has been postulated in which settlement was
more mobile and stock raising was important (Cooney 2003; Thomas 1999,
chapter 2). The archaeology of other regions can be arranged along a continuum extending between these two extremes, but I shall concentrate on
these two models here. The survival of houses has been given an importance
which it cannot support.
I began by saying that the very word house carries a wide variety of connotations, but archaeologists have usually limited themselves to its role as a
permanent shelter. That seems strange, for existing work on the Continental
Neolithic already suggests some other issues which are rarely considered in
these islands.
The first point to make is that there were unusual features in the development of individual settlements. During the Linearbandkeramik, for example,
houses may have been abandoned before they had undergone much maintenance, and were replaced in different positions, so that any one settlement
might include a series of standing buildings which shared the same orientations as the abandoned dwellings of the past. It seems as if the sites of older
longhouses were avoided when new ones were constructed (Bradley 1998,
chapter 3).
It is obviously difficult to decide why they were abandoned. It may have
happened for purely practical reasons, as individual dwellings became
infested by rodents, but it might also have happened for social reasons; perhaps these buildings were polluted because one of the occupants had died. It
is becoming apparent that in other regions dwellings were burnt together
with their contents and then replaced on the same sites. This practice is well
known in the Neolithic archaeology of the Balkans (Stepanovic 1997), but
it has also been postulated in southern Scandinavia (Apel et al. 1997).
That is particularly revealing as so many of the artefacts found in the local
settlements, burials and votive deposits also seem to have been burnt.
Another feature that has long been apparent is the use of domestic buildings as a prototype for more monumental structures. This was expressed in

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two very different ways. The first was where the form of a domestic dwelling
was reproduced on an extravagant scale. That happened at several different
places in the Neolithic and the Copper Age. Obvious examples include the
outsize timber buildings associated with the Neolithic enclosure at Hautes
Chanvires in the Ardennes (Marolle 1989), or those at Antran or PlchtelLa-Hersonnais in western France (Pautreau 1994; Tinvez 2002). Such
structures were perhaps the great houses of an entire community.
A better known alternative is for the outline of the Neolithic house to
provide the prototype for a stone or earthwork monument. Many people
have considered the relationship between Neolithic longhouses and long
barrows in Poland, and Laporte and Tinvez (2004) have recently taken the
same approach to a number of circular cairns and mounds extending along
the Atlantic coastline of western Europe. Perhaps the most obvious example of this relationship is found at Balloy where a number of elongated
mounds or enclosures associated with human burials overlie older dwellings
(Mordant 1998).
Of course, these examples come from quite different contexts. What they
show is that any analysis which confines itself to practical considerations will
fail to engage with some of the archaeological evidence. Neolithic houses
raise more questions than those considered by British researchers.
That should have been obvious from the ethnographic literature, but it
has not had the influence that it deserves. One starting point is the work of
Lvi-Strauss (1979) on what he calls house societies. He was most concerned
with kinship organisation and the emergence of political hierarchies, but his
work is particularly important because it reminds us of the other meanings
of the word house. It can stand for the occupants for the buildingthe
householdand even for a line of descent, as in the House of Hapsburg or
the House of Bourbon. It can also relate to a wider community, as it does
when it applies to the audience in a theatre or the occupants of an Oxbridge
college. Gabriel Cooney (2003, 52) sums up the issues in this way: Houses are
not only material, but. . .stand for social groups, for continuity.
It is in this broader sense that the term house is used in a recent paper by
Mary Helms (2004) who discusses the different worldviews of mobile huntergatherers and the first farmers. One might almost say that it is by the construction of houses, both real and metaphorical, that particular groups define
their membership and distinguish themselves from others. Their composition
is less fluid than that of hunter-gatherer communities and it is maintained
over a longer period of time. Such concerns are particularly relevant when
people are exploiting an unfamiliar environment, and the new arrangement
may also reflect the labour requirements of early agriculture. Perhaps it is one
reason why houses are such a conspicuous feature towards the beginning of
the Neolithic period.

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Richard Bradley

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A pertinent observation comes from a paper by Janet Carsten and


Stephen Hugh-Jones introducing an edited volume devoted to Lvi-Strausss
ideas. They observe how common it is for houses to be regarded as living
creatures and to be thought of in the same terms as human beings, who are
born, grow old and die. Like people, houses have biographies of their own:
Houses are far from being static material structures. They have animate qualities; they are endowed with spirits or souls, and are imagined in terms of the
human body. . . We would place these qualities at the centre of an anthropology of the house which considers houses and their inhabitants as part of one
process of living. . .. In certain contexts at least. . .. houses are spoken about as
if they were people and people are likened to houses. . .. Given its living qualities and close association with the body, it comes as no surprise that natural
processes associated with people, animals or plants may also apply to the house.
(Carsten & Hugh-Jones 1995, 37)

BODIES, HOUSES AND TOMBS


How does this approach illuminate the contrasts between English and Irish
archaeology? It is by no means new to argue that the long mounds and cairns
associated with the dead were conceived in the image of the house, although
their ultimate prototypes might have been the dwellings of the past. I would
like to suggest a closer identification. Perhaps the reason why the field evidence poses so many problems is that the histories of the buildings in which
people had lived were reflected by the ways in which their bodies were treated
when they died.
Here I must outline some regional patterns. At the risk of oversimplification, the remains of houses are found throughout Ireland and are
more common in northern and western Scotland (and possibly in Wales) than
in other parts of Britain. That statement needs some qualification for there
have been fewer excavations in the west than there have in the south and east.
It is also important to acknowledge that some of the houses in northern and
western Scotland survive because they were built of stone. I shall confine my
discussion to the period which saw the construction of rectangular houses
and mortuary monuments. It included the construction of causewayed
enclosures but perhaps not that of circular buildings.
There are other sources of evidence for domestic activity. In lowland
Britain most of the relevant evidence comes from pits. They contain a variety
of artefacts and animal bones which sometimes exhibit evidence of formal
deposition (Thomas 1999, chapter 4; Pollard 2001; Garrow et al. 2005). This
material seems to have been selected and there can even be striking differences between the contents of adjacent features. They could have been taken

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from a midden when a living site was abandoned. Little of the assemblage
must have remained on the surface as few of these locations can be identified
by fieldwalking (Healy 1987). Pit deposits are widely distributed, but are
mainly found in lowland Britain, with particularly large concentrations in
eastern England. The same practices are evidenced at causewayed enclosures
where there is greater evidence of formal deposits. The few excavated houses
have not been as productive. By contrast, the buildings in northern and western Britain, and especially those in Ireland, can be associated with larger
assemblages, and here there is less evidence for the burial of cultural material in ditches and pits. Instead the houses themselves are dispersed across the
landscape, singly or in small groups, and the associated artefacts could be left
where they had accumulated.
Of course such contrasts do not extend to every site and what I have
described are the extremes in a continuous range of variation, but both those
patterns are well represented among the results of fieldwork. There is a further contrast that may be relevant here. In lowland Britain where pits deposits
are common and houses are rather rare, the artefact assemblage occasionally
contains human bones. It is a trend that became much more obvious with the
development of causewayed enclosures. That is consistent with the evidence
from mortuary monuments which not only include the remains of complete
corpses but can also feature certain body parts to the exclusion of others. It
seems as if the dead were reduced to disarticulated bones and that some of
their remains may have circulated in the same way as portable artefacts
(Whittle & Wysocki 1998, 1736). By contrast, most of the excavated monuments in the south, whether long barrows or megalithic tombs, provide little
evidence of ceramics or stone tools.
Again it is helpful to contrast this evidence with the situation in Ireland
where houses are much more common and isolated pit deposits are unusual.
Here substantial numbers of artefacts are associated with court tombs, which
probably represent the closest equivalent to the mounds and cairns in Britain.
The finds from these sites include substantial collections of pottery and lithic
artefacts as well as animal bones, and are often associated with charcoal-rich
soil similar to that found in settlements. A number of monuments had been
built over living sites, but Humphrey Case (1973) has shown that these
deposits were usually placed on top of a deliberately laid floor, meaning that
such material must have been introduced after these tombs had been built.
Not surprisingly, such deposits are associated with human remains. Other
regions in which stone-built tombs are associated with significant quantities
of artefacts, especially pottery, include the north and west of Scotland, both
of them regions where the remains of houses have been found.
That contrast is interesting, but it says little about the treatment of the
dead. Although many of the monuments took the form of elongated mounds

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Richard Bradley

or cairns, there is an important difference in the mortuary rite. Here it is


necessary to simplify a complicated picture, but again there are two obvious
extremes in a wider range of variation. In some regions bodies were cremated
and in others they were allowed to decay. Certain of the burnt bones might
result from the combustion of an entire body; others might have been placed
in a fire after they had lost their flesh (Henshall & Ritchie 1995, chapter 6).
There is little evidence of pyres and what seemed to be a formal cremation
rite was often a consequence of burning down the monument itself. What
may be most significant is that unburnt bones could circulate as relics in the
same manner as portable artefacts. That would be less likely in the case of
cremations.
The distributions of these two ways of treating the body are rather revealing. The burial of intact corpses is most often found in Britain, where it is
commonest in the southern half of the country. That is also where unburnt
bones occur at other kinds of site. There is evidence for the burning of
wooden mortuary structures along the North Sea coast, and in the megalithic
tombs of northern Scotland human bones were exposed to fire but were not
reduced to ashes (Kinnes 1992). Along the west coast of Scotland, on the
other hand, cremation was often employed. That is not surprising as it was
the main way of treating the body in Irish court tombs. Cremation was the
dominant rite throughout the distribution of this kind of monument,
although I must emphasise that such structures do not extend across the
whole of the Neolithic landscape (Cooney 2000, chapter 4).
Despite some regional variation, the preservation and circulation of
human bones was a particular feature of southern England, but seems to
have been practised across a wider area. The use of cremation characterises
the Irish sites, but it also extended to parts of northern Britain, where it is
more difficult to identify one prevailing rite. That is not to deny that some
monuments are associated with both ways of treating the body. There are a
few cremations on southern English sites, but these are generally secondary
to deposits of unburnt bone (Darvill 2004, 14057). Similarly, Irish court
tombs show evidence for both ways of treating the body, but in this case cremations predominate (Cooney & Grogan 1994, fig. 4.14). A broader distinction applies to mortuary monuments that were burnt down. They are not
entirely absent from southern England, but the main group extends northwards from the Yorkshire Wolds into Scotland and, again, occasional
examples have been identified in Ireland (Kinnes 1992). Recent work has
also shown that in Scotland a number of other structures were set on fire,
including massive wooden halls and timber cursus monuments.
The most striking contrast in ways of treating the body is between the
very areas that show the greatest divergence in the evidence for settlement
sites. In southern England houses are rare and pit deposits are more com-

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mon. It is here that there is most evidence for the deployment of unburnt
corpses in long barrows and megalithic tombs. Artefacts are not particularly
common at these monuments and it seems possible that the residues of older
settlements were allowed to decay, and may have been dispersed in the same
manner as the remains of the dead (Pollard 2004). In Ireland, on the other
hand, houses are commonly found and isolated pit deposits are unusual. The
residues of domestic occupation might have been deposited in tombs
together with human bones. In this case the bodies were often burnt and there
is little to suggest the circulation of relics.
One last contrast is important. Dermot Moore (2004) has shown that a
high proportion of the Irish houses had been destroyed by fire, whereas there
is little to suggest that the settlements in England were burnt down. Although
this has been claimed as evidence of warfare, the evidence is actually rather
ambiguous, and it seems much more than a coincidence that human corpses
should have been treated in exactly the same way as these buildings. Perhaps
that is because the careers of particular people and the histories of their houses
were in one sense the same. The house was a living creature and its life had to
be extinguished in a similar manner to the human body. That may be why, in
Ireland, what are apparently domestic assemblages accompanied the dead
person to the tomb; they might even have been the contents of a dwelling. By
contrast, in southern England, the remains of settlement sites were dispersed
in a similar fashion to human bones, some of which were eventually deposited
in tombs where finds of artefacts are uncommon (Fig. 1).
Irish houses were constructed in a distinctive manner. That may be
because they were to play a spectacular role at the end of their lives and those
of their occupants. By contrast, the dwellings inhabited in England did not
need to do this and might usually have been less substantial. That could be
why they have been difficult to find by excavation. These buildings were more
than shelters from the elements. They were animated by their involvement in
human lives, and when their inhabitants died their treatment followed the
same principles as that of human bodies. In England, they decayed and their
contents were dispersed. In Ireland, they were burnt down and their contents

Figure 1. The contrasting processes connecting houses, bodies and tombs on either side of the
Irish Sea.

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Richard Bradley

were concentrated in tombs. It is another question why communities chose to


follow such different practices, and this needs more research, but it might be
wrong to place too much weight on purely practical considerations. The
house is a difficult concept and we have only begun to appreciate its full range
of meanings.
Note. In its original form this paper provoked a lively discussion and I am grateful
to the participants for raising a number of issues which I have considered in this
version. I must also thank Aaron Watson for producing the figure drawing.

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