Thursday, January 29, 2015

Boscombe Bowmen Collective Grave?

In 2014 there were a number of papers from authors around Europe tackling the assumptions and misconceptions of Beaker burials.  Three of many [here] [here] [here]

These centered around monumentalism and monument reuse, the lower numbers of women and importantly, individuality.

Boscombe Down Grave (Wessex Archaeology)

The Boscombe Bowmen are one of the more frequently mischaracterized graves IMO, being supposedly an example of a continued practice of Neolithic collectivism due to its seven occupants.  Not quite convinced of this.  Here is what I think is a proper interpretation:

This is an individual grave of a mature man in the flexed position with typical man gear.  The six boys buried with him are certainly his sons who died at different times and at different ages.  This is not a "collective" grave in the classical sense.  It's a parent-child grave which is impossible to saddle with a re-constructed notion of individuality.

The first boy, maybe a toddler, was cremated and placed in an urn.  Given that Boscombe-dad traveled a great distance in his life (isotopic analysis) this child could have died 10-20 years prior in a far away land and remained on the mantle for a long time.

The eldest sons, 2 young men and a teenager, were probably exhumed from a nearby grave to be buried with their father.  The two other children may have been buried during a re-opening.

Organisation of the grave (Wessex Archaeology)

There's a few important things to learn here.  One is that cremation doesn't necessarily reflect some kind of metaphysical or religious difference from those that practice inhumation.  It's clear that these closely related individuals believed their cremated brother would be present in the afterlife, hence his beaker.

We also might understand a few things about the people who buried these people.  All of these boys had a mother who, if she was alive, probably wanted to ensure that her youngest sons had safe passage through the underworld.

If we were to reconstruct Beaker mythology from what is definitely known and what can be reconstructed through triangulation (looking at Beaker habits through the lens of Greek and Egyptian mythology), then it is likely that death was followed by a journey through Hades (underworld) where, once disembarked, the dead would face obstacles, tests and trickery.  It may have comforted Beaker mother to know that the younger kids were received in the company of her husband and oldest sons who could ensure they weren't ensnared during this passage.

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