Monuments in the Neolithic to Bronze Age Transition in Northern Europe

The Nordic Bronze age is a complex time period in which barrow construction waxes and wanes from 1800 BC to 500 BC, respectively.  These circular barrows mark burials of warriors and elites, often containing bronze, amber and gold.  This mortuary behavior is a marked difference from that of the preceding Neolithic, where inhumations were often communal and lacking in any grave goods. Agricultural developments that began in the earlier Neolithic continue into the Bronze Age – while some degree of mobility remains, increasing sedentism and village life are characteristic.

What do Neolithic and Bronze Age monumentalism mean?. A point of discussion in Western civilization class has been on the nature of social organization during these two periods of time, with most established scholars[4] arguing for the establishment of chiefdoms in and around the Late Neolithic to Bronze Age transition. My opinions on this are not fully formed, but scholarship does exist challenging the chiefdom perspective[5]. I would argue that monuments do not necessarily have to be made by people motivated by elites for reasons related to power – Jon Gibson has argued the notion of beneficent labor resulting in large-scale earthworks among foraging groups effectively. But I would suggest looking at the monuments directly – the similarity of form we see, long houses to long barrows to circular henges, cairns, passage graves, megalith and stone circles, and barrows all point to similarities of form (circularity). Surely, one might argue, these similarities must speak to an organizational capacity somewhere and somehow?  But what about the slow and steady adoption of Georgian architecture and the symmetry of architecture along the Virginia Tidewater in the 19th and early 20th centuries as documented by Henry Glassie?  His argument is too detailed to present here, but using structuralist methods, he claims that people in that area over time began to change their architectural styles as they received greater knowledge from the industrial revolution and the ways in which science was influencing society as a whole. The message in essence was rather than build around nature one should bend it to their will. Simultaneously, trends in Georgian architecture, where symmetry was emphasized (itself resulting due to the Golden Age falling into the Enlightenment [the age of reason]), become prevalent. But no one agent, or powerful agents, was responsible for pushing this perspective. Therefore, could we not conceive that circularity, whether from a founding event or referential/citational to a specific or specific things, is picked up and repeated because of social movement(s) in which form comes to mean something specific to worldview. Of course, time and scale, are significantly different between the Tidewater and the Neolithic to Bronze Age transition, but I would like to suggest an interpretive framework that might help. If one were to entertain the Whorfian hypothesis in its most extreme form, then perhaps monuments could only be circular. In cross-section, what is a henge, but two broken circles next to one another – if you sum them, they make a circle. I would suggest that circularity was an architectural trope that had an existential and mental form with a particular set of meanings that most likely varied through time, but always cited back to one notion or another (or perhaps just one). A monument cannot be built if there is no mental type for its form. In this line of reasoning, triangular or polygonal monuments weren’t built because as far as Neolithic and Early Bronze Age peoples were concerned, no such thing could exist[6]. The circular monument was a syntactic combination of elements making a meaningful form – thus, the contiguity and consistency of these forms might possibly not reflect a chief but rather a language of ritual and ideology spoken/materialized by a set of interacting peoples. In this sense, the monument acts as both an imagistic and modal trope.  The former elicits a reaction, a Peirceian firstness that reveals natural, ritual, or primal meanings. Firstness can only be experienced once – subsequently all interactions with the monument result in secondness, where the monument communicates a second reality of group identity or whatever message is encoded within circularity; perhaps even chiefly power. The scale, size, or elaboration of the monument then acts through a sense of thirdness, where the monument acts as an index of the message being transmitted – again, whether of power, ideology, or solidarity.

[1] Later in time with the construction of long barrows, it is conceivable to think that these monuments were citational references to previously abandoned long houses. In this manner the monuments could act as reservoirs of social memory.

[2] Aubrey would make a career out of his interests and research at the site. Although an entertainingly misinformed antiquarian who would claim ancient Britons as succeeding by only a few degrees the savagery of American Indians, his maps and surveys have proved priceless to modern scholars (Fagan 2005:9).

[3] Although not discussed in great detail here, megaliths  are prevalent across Southern and Central Europe, figuring prominently on the landscape. Constructions similar to Stonehenge’s sarsens and lintels (trilothons) are present at Carnac, but referred to as orthostats and capstones.

[4] Earle, Kristianson, Rowlands, and Larsson, among others.

[5] Janet Levy is one among few advocating this notion.

[6] Recall Sapir’s “empty” gasoline barrels.


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