6. The builders and users of Neolithic monuments

This theme underpins and is inextricably entwined with all the other research themes, since the questions of ‘who?’, ‘how?’ and ‘why?’ constitute fundamental building blocks for our understanding of Neolithic monumentality.

View from inside a stone-lined tomb. The walls are made with thin, grey drystone slabs withlarge upright slabs jutting out everyfew feet. All stones are covered in moss. There is a vaulted ceiling above and some dispersed slabs on the ground to create a path through the tomb.
Knowe of Yarso Neolithic chambered tomb in Rousay, Orkney ©️ Michael Maggs (CCBY-SA 4.0)

Specific questions include the following: 

  1. Were the funerary monuments used for all members of the community, or only certain individuals (and if the latter, then how were the other dead of the community treated)? Over how many generations were they used? What can we discover about the people whose remains are found in them? (This touches on issues of demography, palaeopathology, diet and mobility, for example.) 
  1. Where did the builders and users of the monuments live, and what was their lifestyle? How does the location of settlements relate to the location of monuments? Was there a deliberate creation or imagining of sacred landscapes? 
  1. What was the physical environment within which monuments were constructed and used? And how can we account for the paradox whereby a significant downturn in palaeoenvironmentally-detectible signs of agriculture during the second half of the fourth millennium (Whitehouse et al 2014) seems to coincide with the peak period of passage tomb construction? Is there any evidence for a link between climate change (i.e. a shift to cooler and wetter conditions) at that time and monument building, as some have claimed – and if so, what was the nature of that connection? Whitehouse et al caution against adopting simplistic, deterministic models. 
  1. How were the various kinds of monument used, and how do they relate to notions of identity, cosmology and power? Is the development of the largest and most elaborate passage tombs the outcome of a strategy of competitive conspicuous consumption, as has been argued? How was society organised in different regions and at different times during the Neolithic, and how do the monuments reflect or express this? 
Image of four rounded boulders in a row on a gress covered field. A sigle rounded boulder sits off in the distance.
Ballynoe, County Down ©️ Ardfern (CCBY-SA 3.0)

The questions outlined above cover a wide range of topics, but they do not claim to be exhaustive; for instance, additional questions could be posed about the adequacy and relevance of our existing categorisation of monuments. For example, where – chronologically and in terms of traditions of practice – do ‘anomalous’ monuments such as Ballynoe, Co. Down, lie? And where do we draw the line in our definition of monuments in the first place? Should Early Neolithic causewayed enclosures be included, if large Late Neolithic timber enclosures are? What about natural places that were treated as monuments, in terms of being the loci for ceremonies and depositions? No doubt all these matters will be discussed at length over the intended lifetime of  the Boyne to Brodgar initiative. 

Excavation image shows a rectangular trench from above, with large postholes creating a rectangular shape. Archaeologists can be seen to the left of the trench with equipment. The soil is orange-brown and resemble clay.
Excavation of Late Neolithic timber enclosure at Littleour ©️ HES