Neolithic Long Barrows and Passage Graves
4000–3000 BC, Neolithic, Britain.
The skulls were sometimes put in one place, the left arm bones in another, as though the individual was replaced by a more collective identity.
In the fourth millennium BC in Britain, nearly six thousand years ago, the dead may have been exposed to the birds, in the way that the dead in Buddhist Tibet are today. The bodies upon their scaffolds were placed inside a circular ditch, perhaps to protect them from any malevolent magic that might be out to harm them. Then, when the bones had been picked clean by the birds, they were gathered up and taken for burial. Some found their way into ditches cut during ceremonial gatherings, great circular spaces enclosed by earthworks. Others were buried separately in time-honoured fashion, with red ochure to sumulate new blood and with deer antler, a thing of the natural world that is shed and regrows every year. Possibly a select few found their way into the accessible stone spaces which were later buried beneath heaps of earth and stone to form an ancient longhouse of the dead, a long barrow. Sometimes, as at the West Kennet Long Barrow near Avebury in Wiltshire and at Wayland's Smithy in Oxfordshire, its entrance was a grand affair; huge stones hinting at grand ceremonies that took place there.
These particular bones were not laid to rest, they were movable property. Communal gatherings took place inside the circular, causewayed enclosures where these remains were used and then returned to their stone repository. This circular gathering space was sanctified by the human remains and other offerings that lay at the base of the ditch segments. Perhaps concepts of ancestry were beginning to emerge, an acknowledgement of the roots that held a tribe to its land, a celebration of belonging and of ownership. When the relics were returned to the tomb, they were no longer individuals but neither were they jumbled. Although it appears that the final remains in the West Kennet Long Barrow were mostly intact skeletons, in many long barrows the bones were sorted in some way, perhaps the skulls put in one place, the left arm bones in another, as though the individual had been replaced by a more collective identity.
Later in the Neolithic, when the bone repositories that became long barrows were no longer used, the circle became ubiquitous. Henge monuments and stone circles, wooden circles and round barrows, marking perhaps a new way for the dead to be given a suitable and recognisable home. Of all these circluar monuments, the most striking must be the passage graves. One of the most impressive of these, Newgrange in County Meath in Ireland, on the banks of the River Boyne, is famous for having been so carefully constructed that the rising sun at midwinter solstice casts its beams from a small window in the stones above the entrance along the main passage to illuminate the central chamber and its human remains; as though waking the dead at the start of the natural cycle of the seasons. Another passage grave on the Channel Island of Guernsey boasts a giant phallus rising from the floor of the tomb, perhaps hinting at similar objects of veneration found in Ancient Egypt and Mycenaean Greece. The resonant qualities of many of these chambers have been found to be conducive to the theatrical amplification of sound, and one can only wonder at the ceremonies that may once have taken place within them.