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Ben Thornes

Late Neolithic Henge Monuments as Foci for Evolving Funerary Landscapes

Tuesday 15th July 2014

The Knowlton Henge Complex and the Barrow Cemeteries of the Allen Valley, Dorset, UK – A Case Study.

This article was published in the eTopoi Journal for Ancient Studies and written by Bournemouth University Academic John Gale.

Introduction

The ???classic??? henge monuments of the British Isles (circular earthworks with a bank, internal ditch and either one or two entrances) still represent a rather enigmatic collective of mega structures that appear to largely date from around the middle of the 3rd millennium BC. That they both individually and collectively represent a society that was centralised, possibly around chiefly elites is highly likely. However, when we come to consider the original function of such monuments we have to be more circumspect and proceed on a case by case basis. Most commentators today acknowledge the view that such structures were conceived as ???ritual??? centres within a likely complex social and religious order of the time, although evidential detail is for the most part lacking. Interpretation is consequentially largely inferred, attributable more to the lack of settlement proxies in the archaeological record rather than any definitive or specific evidence for ???ritual??? activity.

To gain a better understanding of such monuments, it has been necessary for archaeologists to look more closely at the wider landscape settings in which they sit, and several studies have drawn in associated monuments as well as natural landscape features. All of which tend to re-affirm the interpretations of henges as focal centres for ???ritual??? activity that hint towards landscapes that are well defined and part of the extant societies evolving cosmological order no doubt reflective of the evolving localised belief systems of the time.

A number of such ???ritual landscapes??? in the British Isles have been examined in recent years; most notably the landscape of Stonehenge. Amongst the many research threads identified in such studies there is the frequent presence of apparently associated funerary monuments in such landscapes, dominated by the earthen round barrow. Around Stonehenge alone, the quantity of such barrows is quite staggering with a 1970 estimate of 25 barrows per square mile based upon the 12 square miles surrounding Stonehenge itself.

The presence of such large numbers of funerary monuments in close proximity clearly establishes a link with the monument at Stonehenge itself but what is less well understood is the ???nature??? or meaning behind the linkage and perhaps more importantly how this developed over time. Such a factor attracts greater significance when one considers the length of time that may have evolved between the construction of the first round barrow and the last. Given the possibility of round barrows having been constructed as early as 2500 BC and as late as 1500 BC, it would be surprising if the rationale behind the initial deposit and all that it meant or inferred about society and its belief systems did not substantially change by the end of the sequence. Certainly the landscape was a ???developed??? landscape reflecting a ritual dynamic that may have been substantially different in concept and meaning than the one intended by the builders of the first barrows perhaps a thousand years later. It is equally possible that the purpose and utility of the stone and earthwork monument at the heart of this landscape was conceptually changed when it was adopted by the first barrow builders.

To read the full article, please download the attached PDF below.

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