Friday, May 7, 2021

Claiming the Landcape (Tempo of a Mega-henge..Greaney et al, 2020)

The Smithsonian "Evidence of Neolithic Construction Boom Found at British Mega-Henge"...  

Mount Pleasant may have been built in 35 years, like so many of these expensive projects, right on the cusp of the Beaker invasion of Britain.  (Soft Language option available here.)

In "Tempo of a Mega-henge", Greaney et al. consider the flurry of mega-project activity in relation to the subsequent appearance of early Beaker pottery and monument vandalism.  Suggesting somewhat indirectly, a prelude of apprehension on the landscape.  Or, using my words, possession insecurity, invasion anxiety or perhaps even a "siege-mentality".  This is not an insignificant question as the entire archipelago was followed by several centuries of immigrant implantation and foreign cultural ascendancy.  

The "positive structures", as Antonio Valera terms, might then be evidence of a deeper psychological need to strengthen entitlement to ancestral lands, marking the landscape as the established domain of a people, living and dead.  Legitimate title being conveyed from the ancestral to the living, reinforced by increasingly permanent memorials and spiritual monuments.

Owning the landscape, American-style

Once thought to be an evolution of hundreds of years, Mount Pleasant was one of many British and Irish sites built very quickly:

The estimate for the construction of the Mount Pleasant palisaded enclosure, 2530–2465 cal BC...places it firmly within the currency of large timber palisades constructed across Britain and Ireland in the late Neolithic...tightly cluster in the centuries around 2500 cal BC. These date estimates do not support previous suggestions that enclosures with continuous ditches developed out of earlier enclosures with well-spaced individual posts

and using an illustration from Stonehenge, by coincidence:

The evidence from Site IV [the probable vandalization of Stonehenge by early Beakers] raises interesting questions about the relationship between those people involved in frenetic and labour-intensive monument construction [Groove Ware folk] and the arrival of Beaker-using people.

We cannot know what native Neolithic peoples thought of Beakers or why they increased building activities toward the end of the Neolithic.  Were projects simply one manifestation of a local prosperity that attracted immigrants?  Or do the monuments represent a psychological reaction to disruptions in the continent? 

One way to analyze the behavior of Neolithic building projects is to approach it from the aspect of evolutionary psychology.  I've discussed such pre-programmed behaviors here an here.  How humans create defensible space and territoriality is part of the basis of environmental psychology.

We impose our claim to spaces with artifacts of our belonging.  Whether it's piling stuff on your desk at work or leaving a jacket on a diner's table while you head to the restroom; we derive these behaviors from our animal programming, not from cognitive thinking.

Fake Chinese island.  Or modern Crannog?

We leave our jacket on the table by building intrusive, fake islands in the waters of other nations to claim oil and gas.  Planting a flag on the moon, repurposing religious spaces into that of a foreign religion, destroying and cultivating outright.  There's no shortage of examples, from Jerusalem to Azerbaijan, New World, Old World.  Claims, identity and security are projected on to the landscape.


The most beastial example of this being when insecure people feel they must destroy our ancient heritage when it conflicts with their shit ideology in a new territory.  We remember the destruction of the Buddhas in Afghanistan.  Certainly repurposing, rearranging and outright destruction of sacred spaces was occurring in the Early Bronze Age.  Beakers were no stranger to this; vandalizing the sacred spaces of others.   Rearranging, repurposing. and probably, ancestral appropriation.

While it can be true that these development campaigns reflect the personal wealth and technical developments of these societies, it may also be true that Islanders, and indeed Atlantic Europeans, were deeply unsettled by changes in trade, religion and immigration. Maybe these great structures are more appropriately "monuments of fear".

Durrington Walls site (Midnight owl, commons)


Tempo of a Mega-henge: A New Chronology for Mount Pleasant, Dorchester, Dorset

Greaney, S., Hazell, Z., Barclay, A., Ramsey, C. B., Dunbar, E., Hajdas, I., … Marshall, P. (2020). Tempo of a Mega-henge: A New Chronology for Mount Pleasant, Dorchester, Dorset. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, 1–38. doi:10.1017/ppr.2020.6 


Radiocarbon dating and Bayesian chronological modelling have provided precise new dating for the henge mon- ument of Mount Pleasant in Dorset, excavated in 1970–1. A total of 59 radiocarbon dates are now available for the site and modelling of these has provided a revised sequence for the henge enclosure and its various constituent parts: the timber palisaded enclosure, the Conquer Barrow, and the ditch surrounding Site IV, a concentric timber and stone monument. This suggests that the henge was probably built in the 26th century cal BC, shortly followed by the timber palisade and Site IV ditch. These major construction events took place in the late Neolithic over a relatively short timespan, probably lasting 35–125 years. The principal results are discussed for each element of the site, including comparison with similar monument types elsewhere in Britain and Ireland, and wider implications for late Neolithic connections and later activity at the site associated with Beaker pottery are explored.



12 comments:

  1. Just put this in my collection of archaeology studies to read.

    Thanks. Your explanation is a good insight. It makes sense.

    Is it true Bell Beaker cut down forests in Western Europe to make room for pasture land? I heard this. It sounds like something descendants of Steppe people would do. This also adds a personable narrative to the prehistory.

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  2. I think palynological studies show a trend toward clearing at this time. In some cases, like the Baleric Islands, it might be more directly tied to Beakers, especially slash and burn, but it may have been a more general trend among several peoples. Although cattle may be partly the reason, probably a good part of it can be attributed to pastures for sheep and better soil for barley and the poorer cereals.

    Still another factor, is that immigrants may have been settling marginal lands with weak claims, or conversely, native peoples were retreating to marginal and unimproved lands that needed clearing and drainage.

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  3. A documentary I saw recently asserted that the original Stonehenge was moved from the South coast of Wales to inland Southern England, perhaps to escape the attentions of raiding sea peoples (Beakers?)

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    1. That's an interesting and novel idea, especially if the stones themselves were sacred as has been suggested.
      I guess you could see a scenario where holy relicts of other sites were consolidated to harder and denser sites in Wiltshire. In some ways, not that much different from the collapse of Byzantium and the consolidation of relicts in Rome.

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    2. @bellbeakerblogger

      The Eastern Roman Empire (which called itself Roman Empire BTW) did not carry its relics to Rome or anywhere else outside the empire, they were looted by the crusaders during the sack of Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sack_of_Constantinople

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    3. That's true. Perhaps a better way to draw an analogy is that Byzantium was weakened and unable to defend its relicts from Roman looting. A similar scenario could be possible if Wiltshire was looting artifacts from areas that were weakened by foreign probing and piracy.

      I believe the current thinking is that parts of Stonehenge had a former life as a monument in the Western parts. To disassemble something holy and ship it off says something about the decline of one region and the rise of another.

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    5. @bellbeakerblogger

      Yes, Byzantium (the Roman Empire in its own terminology) was looted by both crusaders from the west and Turks and other Muslims from the east and ultimately fell to the Ottoman Empire. In the case of the Turkic looting the booty (whether material, human or animal) mostly went to the recently invaded formerly Byzantine lands though rather than to far away lands like Italy, France and elsewhere in Western Europe.

      Stonehenge probably largely had a religious significance and did not possess much material value, its transportation by its Neolithic farmer owners might be because they wanted to be able to continue their religious rites in an era of foreign invasions of their lands. Byzantines themselves might have transported some of their religious relics to safer areas during the times of foreign invasions too, though most of the movements of their relics are probably those that happened via the looting of crusaders (in contrast, Turks and other Muslim looters might have preferred destroying them or melting them to materially benefit from them instead as non-Christians).

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  4. The Bluestones of Stonehenge arrived there ( from Waun Mawn, Wales) about 500 years before the great Sarsens were erected and it had been a sacred place, even before that. The lintled Sarson circle was erected c2500, which ties in with the pre Beaker construction boom. I think Greaney et al are right on the money.

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    1. Yes, although the dating is in too tight a range to be sure. Can we cleanly identify 2,500 BC as 'pre-Beaker'? There were traces of Beaker culture over a wide area from Southern Iberia to the Eastern Baltic around 300 years before then; and European DNA was already starting to tilt before 3,000 BC.

      If the bluestones were moved c. 3,000 BC, why? People do not generally contaminate sacred items by moving them around and merging them together. The Nou Camp wouldn't relocate to Madrid unless it were under serious threat, and at c. 3,000 BC perhaps this is too early to blame on Beaker.

      According to Wikipedia, Bell Beaker only lasted in continental Europe until 2,300 BC. This would seem to identify it as no more than a limited flash in the pan, but I suspect it might have represented a more gradual, more fundamental and longer-lasting influence both on the late Neolithic and into the Bronze Age.

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  5. Are there any papers on Bell Beaker sun worship?

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  6. Very interesting post! Were the bluestones abducted, salvaged or otherwise replaced? What were they to neolithic minds? If ancestors, each would have had a name, genealogy and multiple stories. Very likely they do not represent, but they are. They embody. Too powerful for anyone to write on them to make them represent something they are not. What if somebody comes and does just that?

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