I was at the hair salon the other day. I never mind who does my hair as they’re all very good there and on this occasion a young stylist I’d not met before had been randomly allocated to me. We had the usual discussion about what I wanted done and then she began the inevitable small talk. It’s not my fault: I’m a Myers Briggs INFP and we’re not fans of small talk. But I’m also polite so I try to play long. When she got to the bit about what I was doing for the rest of the day (which is when I usually say, “Oh nothing much, just a quiet day”, or something similar to avoid having to talk about myself), for some reason I heard myself saying I was having a study day. Inevitably she asked what I was studying and somehow I found myself telling her I was doing a PhD and that it was in archaeology. Fully expecting the conversation to end there she surprised me by probing further and, before I knew it, she was bombarding me with intelligent questions about the study of human remains. This kept us both going for the rest of the haircut and I found myself really enjoying her apparently genuine interest. And we never did get on to where I was going on holiday.
“So, what is it you’re researching?” is a question I often find a little difficult to answer, although it depends quite a bit on who’s asking, of course. Well, basically I’m looking at mortuary practice during the Early Neolithic period in south-east England. ‘Mortuary practice’, incidentally, is a phrase I’m so used to now that I forget that it’s not something generally talked about in everyday life and, in fact, when I used it on my Twitter profile I found myself getting followed by funeral directors, which was a bit disconcerting until I realised why. Anyway, I came across this description during my literature review, which sums it up nicely, I think:
“…archaeologists can approach ways in which the ritual treatment of the dead body was a means of reproducing a sense of identity and community in the past…similarities noticeable over time and space may provide an insight into changing identity processes.” (Liv Nilsson Stutz, 2010)
By way of background, I first became immersed in mortuary practice during my Masters when I did my dissertation on infant burials in south-east England in the Iron Age, Romano-British and Early Pagan Saxon periods. As part of the MA I had to direct a two-week excavation and I was fortunate enough to investigate a ditch on an Iron Age/Romano-British site in West Sussex where, right at the end of the dig, elsewhere on site two infant burials were found beneath the drip gulleys of a roundhouse. This brought so many questions to my mind about why these infants were buried there and how it differed from the burial treatment of other age groups, societies and time periods, and what it said about the way those babies were viewed in their society. My fascination with all things buried probably began in earnest at that point.
My fascination with the Neolithic probably started originally with family walks up The Trundle causewayed enclosure (/Iron Age hillfort) also in West Sussex during my childhood and later when I rather ambitiously wrote my undergraduate dissertation on the transition to agriculture in north-west Europe. This developed further when I was involved in cataloguing the intriguing archive for Whitehawk Camp and ultimately developed from there into my current PhD research project.
It has to be said that the archaeological record for the Early Neolithic is somewhat challenging due to its origins in the antiquarian investigations of the 18th and 19th centuries and the many and varied developments in archaeology since then, all of which leave a disparate body of evidence spanning several centuries’ worth of endeavour. More recently some major dating work has been carried out (Bayliss & Whittle, 2007; Whittle et al, 2011) providing for the first time a body of significant, sequential evidence for the timeframes of monument building and use in the Early Neolithic against which studies of other aspects of life in this period can now be set. Equally importantly, I feel, it is becoming increasingly recognised that gender identity in prehistory has been hampered by the assumptions of those making interpretations, usually biased toward the male (Edwards & Pope, 2013) and, similarly, the role of children in past societies (eg Thomas et al, 2011).
In short (or I’ll go on all day), by synthesising the existing evidence, which includes a number of recent additions to the archaeological record for the period from both monumental and non-monumental sites in the relatively neglected, research-wise, south-east of England, and by reassessing historic archives, my aim is to illuminate the demographic aspects of Early Neolithic burial practice in the region. I want to find out whether there were identifiable differences between men, women and children during the Early Neolithic in terms of their burial treatment and, if so, what these may tell us about their roles in life. Having recently upgraded, I have compiled my database, completed my literature review (although I find myself adding to it all the time), devised my methodology (with grateful thanks to my external assessor whose sage advice during the upgrade was hugely helpful in fine-tuning this) and tested it on a case study. Now I am extending my research across the south-east and looking forward to analysing the data in due course – and I’m really excited to see what comes out of it!
As a slight aside, way back in time in my first permanent job with ICI, my colleague, Bob, pulled me up on something and explained that assuming things would “make an ASS out of U and ME”. Years later, in the very first class of my very first archaeology course at Reading, I remembered this again when my lecturer, Paddy, was explaining the fundamental difficulties of interpreting the past with our modern-day eyes. And I’m remembering it again now with my prehistoric research project: QUESTION EVERYTHING.
Bayliss, A. W. & Whittle, A. (2007) Histories of the dead: building chronologies for five southern British long barrows. Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 17(1) (supplement), 1-147
Edwards, B. & Pope, R. (2013) Gender in British Prehistory. In: Bolger, D. (ed.) A Companion to Gender Prehistory. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, 458-479
Nilsson Stutz, L. (2010) The way we bury our dead. Reflections on mortuary ritual, community and identity at the time of the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition. Documenta Praehistorica, XXXVII, 33-42
Thomas, A. Chambon, P. & Murail, P. (2011) Unpacking burial and rank: the role of children in the first monumental cemeteries of Western Europe (4600-4300 BC). Antiquity 85(329), 772-786
Whittle, A., Healy, F, & Bayliss, A., (2011) Gathering Time: Dating the Early Neolithic Enclosures of Southern Britain and Ireland (Vol. 1) Oxford: Oxbow