Sunday, January 4, 2015

Houses of the Dead

Jan Turek discusses the transformation of a home where people live to a house for the dead.

We know that early Near Eastern agriculturalist buried the dead underneath the floors of their home.  You could fill a hard drive with such images from Byblos and Anatolia.  Their genetic descendants bare-knuckled their way into Europe, cut down stone-cold oaks with flint hand choppers before cursing the ground and dying.  If they were anything like their ancestors, they might have buried people in the floor of their longhouse.

Thanet Archaeology Ring Ditch.
Turek suggests that these Early Neolithic longhouses not only became primarily tombs within a generation, but even after they collapsed that the sacred mound that was created became the template for the longbarrow.  A somewhat similar view can be found from a 2013 article in Past Horizons [Link]

He views this as a continuous process through the ages where people recognize the holy places of their perceived or real ancestors, or their fabricated ancestors in the case of bastards, pretenders and tyrants.

The issue of tomb re-use is being examined more closely.  Here's two recent posts covering Colin Quinn on the Mound of Hostages [here] and the Burial Myth Buster from Christian Jeunesse [here]

Turek asserts that the ring ditches may have a distant history to the longhouse, expect its a one-seater, of course, it had no purpose other than to support the burial enclosure and the chapel.  One last item of interest is his use of 'negative burial evidence' for Corded Ware and Bell Beaker peoples.  He makes a convincing case that the majority of these burials were above ground or above primary burials which is why they are now gone.


Footnote:  There is mention of the saddle ditches found along the length of the longhouses or the longbarrows.  There is quite a bit of controversy over ditches and filling of ditches and types of ditches.  In the case of post-and-beam construction, some of these ditches may simply be French drains.  This is/was common for pole barns or other colonial construction where beams are driven directly into the ground, unlike a pile which can rot and be replaced. 

Also, longhouses had large roof surface area that was gutter-less.  Length-wise ditches may have been necessary for heavy rain.  They may have even begun to form naturally and were manually deepened over time.  Any ditch, even a simple rondelle ditch, may reflect the design of a structure's roof.

Houses of living and houses of dead in the Neolithic and Copper Age of Central Europe
Prehistoires Mediterraneennes, Jan Turek, 2014 [Link]


One of symbolic roles of Neolithic long houses in central Europe might have been burial of ancestors. There is no solid evidence for the funerary function of long houses, however, it is commonly assumed (Bradley 2001). Already during their dwelling function some houses were possibly used for primary deposition of remains of ancestors. The burials were later in the time of abandonment of the house removed elsewhere or remained resting inside the building. This is the process of transformation from the house of living to the house of dead. The main purpose of the second part of the paper is to discuss the question on missing evidence of barrows of the late Eneolithic Corded Ware and Bell Beaker period in Central Europe. Variety of problems of demographic representation of cemeteries, burial customs and spatial structure of funerary areas are connected to the missing barrows. I emphasise the variability of late Eneolithic funerary monuments, including the discussion on burial chambers and circular ditches, yet another type of funerary construction without an earthed mound that may be described as houses of dead.


  1. cremation predominated among indo-europeans from ca 2000 bce through the early iron age. but, there is scant evidence for above ground burials before then.

    1. He has suggested that ploughing is the primary culprit. This is definitely true in Ireland where funerary objects will only ever be plow finds. The entire countryside has been overturned.
      He speculates women in Europe may have been disproportionately cremated, or they were buried over their husbands mounds which were plowed, sometime leaving only a warrior in a cist. Either way, women are lacking. Corded Ware are the most under-represented, but Unetice and BBC as well.

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  3. "Also, longhouses had large roof surface area that was gutter-less. Length-wise ditches may have been necessary for heavy rain. They may have even begun to form naturally and were manually deepened over time. Any ditch, even a simple rondelle ditch, may reflect the design of a structure's roof."

    You do that with tents in the army.

    1. This paper out a few days ago (at least the abstract) on infilling of Rondelle ditches like the one above and also Roman army ditches.

      "How were the ditches filled? Sedimentological and micromorphological classification of formation processes within graben-like archaeological objects"

      It sounds as if the infilling was done by water slump, mud in thin layers. Of course different ditches may have had different functions. Some ditches contained burials.

    2. There are probably roman military manuals or the equivalent that explicitly describe drainage needs in camp.

    3. and a drainage ditch would make a good rubbish dump

      sad about the burials though as it implies thralls to me - people who didn't matter enough for a proper burial.