Thursday, August 4, 2016

"Pursuing the Penumbral" Beakers in Monuments (Neil Wilkin, 2016)

Down below is a linked paper by Neil Wilkin concerning beaker sherds at Scottish monuments.

The complexity of the British Beaker 'groups' and the events at these monuments are rather complicated, and to be honest, I may have to update this post after reading a few more times.  I'll try and reduce this down into bit-size pieces as best as I understand it. 

The penumbra Wilkin speaks of is the shadowy space between the Neolithic world and the Beaker world, especially as megalithic monuments begin yielding Beaker materials.  Big social changes occur at the monuments after some hiatus, but it's difficult to understand what exactly is happening.  One of the big questions has been the presence of Beaker pottery at these older, Neolithic monuments, which have been assumed to be evidence of disturbed burials. 

Callanish Standing Stones (Stuart Herbert via EducationScotlandUK)

So with Beaker pottery found at so many monuments here and elsewhere, several memes had evolved to explain their presence (as being assumed that they were part of funerary rites):

1) ethnic Bell Beakers were re-utilizing abandoned or seized megalithic structures for their own burials, thereby de-bastardizing their title to the land.  Think of this in the frame of European royalty creating a landed legitimacy through imagined or fake genealogies.  This has been said for the Indian ancestry of red-blooded Americans or the 'traditional' representations of Ptolemaic Pharaohs.  This first theory presumes sort of a co-opting of indigenous racial title and governance where an alien folk effectively write themselves into the culture and enduring history of another.  or,

2) a continuation of older traditions being revitalized through kinship (marriage) or even the direct genetic continuation of people who had only adopted a superficial culture.  Basically, Beakers marry their way into British estates and life.  A new nation of mixed heritages and allegiance carries forward the traditions of its ancestries at the monuments, albeit slightly altered. 

Wilken argues that after understanding all of the relevant factual data, there are several different things going on at Scottish Neolithic monuments at different times and places.  Looking closely at the facts, he sees burial as highly over-rated when it can be positively identified, but more importantly it appears that other activities are coming to light.

He breaks the subject up into three parts:

1.  Beaker completeness, decoration, morphology and chronology

It turns out that the majority of the Beaker pottery at these monuments are neither complete (highly fragmented and missing), nor are the pots positively associated with burial.  The sherds also have an all-over decoration more often, unlike the complete funerary pots that are found with bodies or contemporary short cists.
Some of these smashed potteries appear to have laid on the ground, being exposed for some time near the monument, and more often exposed when closer to the monument.  Wilkin supposes the mess was deliberate and scattered in a way to be seen.  But the most important point is that the pottery sherds that are found really don't jive with local funerary ware...
"There is, therefore, an important contrast is between bounded, single burials with whole ‘complex’ comb vessels and fragmentary, more generically decorated vessels involved in more functional and communal events at pre-existing works of communal labour. It can be further revealed with reference to morphology and chronology."
The beakers at the monuments also appear to have been more often cordoned on the lip.  He notes that this was interpreted by Clarke to mean that these beakers could be closed with a lid even though this is just speculation.  (American readers, and maybe more, will be familiar with the 'Mason jar', which has a screw lip intended for canning or storage but is more often used by hillbillies for drinking alcohol.)

Wilkin points out that these cordoned beakers are also found with prestigious warrior burials, so they should not be thought of as a cheap throw-aways.  But it does suggest that the beakers brought to the monument were more functional than funerary and importantly, because of the similarity and number of the deposited items, likely a social gathering.

And he summarizes:

"It has been shown that Beakers from Neolithic monuments do not belong to a particular, early phase and include fragmentary vessels (often from assemblages of three or more) from non-angular necked vessels, with all-over, decoration, often with cordons, which may have signaled different, less particular, and perhaps less individualistic or personal, information than those from funerary contexts. The presence of cordons in a considerable proportion of the assemblages may relate to the functional use of vessels deposited at monuments (also indicated by their size)."

2.  Beakers at the monuments

At the monuments, beakers or sherds are found in these contexts:

They are found sometimes at the barricaded entrance of a chamber tomb, although it is not known who exactly barricaded the tomb or when the beaker sherds were deposited.

The beaker sherds are also found in re-used tombs, but evidence associating a few sherds with a 'disturbed burial' was never more than a conjecture made by early archaeologists (tomb + beaker sherd = burial).  The actual evidence for these 'burials' grows thinner within the context of this paper. 

And finally, sherds are present in post holes and previously cut ditches near these monuments.  It is suggested that they avoided cutting new ground in these sacred areas.

"Instead, recent discoveries, and the consistency of decoration, form and completeness noted in the preceding sections, suggests that Beaker deposition may have been the culmination of complex non-funerary practices surrounded by certain prescriptions regarding where and how they could be deposited."
"Secondary burials clearly did form an important reuse of Neolithic monuments but importantly these occurred either early or late in the Beaker period." 
3.  Inter-regional and local traditions.

The condensed version is that there are at least two main activities that Beakers engage in at monuments that vary by region and by phase.  One is actual Beaker burial, most of which appears to happen rather late and to varying degrees at different places and a few at the very beginning of the Chalcolithic.

The other is a formalized event where people bring a lower grade beaker and smash it at these monuments and remove some of the sherds, or they just bring sherds to scatter or bury.  Something similar to this second scenario seems to have taken place in many areas of Europe, the fragmentation and division of pottery at a meeting place. 



  1. A very interesting period
    IIRC, Stonehenge was built just prior to early BB; but a period when population had plummeted in Britain

    * Burials and builders of Stonehenge: social identities in Late Neolithic and Chalcolithic Britain. Pearson & Willia

    * Did Neolithic farming fail? The case
    for a Bronze Age agricultural revolution
    in the British Isles. Stevens & Fuller