Boyne to Brodgar:

December 2015: Research Framework Created

Dr Alison Sheridan (National Museums Scotland) and Professor Gabriel Cooney (University College Dublin) have an article, soon to be released, entitled ‘The Boyne to Brodgar initiative: understanding – and preserving, presenting and raising awareness of – Neolithic monuments and the people who built and used them in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man’. It will appear in the spring 2016 edition of the Journal of Irish Archaeology but you don’t have to wait until then to discover the main research questions. The Editor of JIA, Carleton Jones, and the publisher, Nick Maxwell, have kindly given permission to reproduce part of the article here. Enjoy!

The Big Questions: How do we best present monuments and the ideas behind them to people today?

This is inseparable from the archaeological investigation of this distant past. The common link is performance. This was central to the use of monuments, staged for the living and forging links with the past. These orchestrated acts of construction, ritual and deposition are fundamental to our understanding of the monuments and are intrinsic to their presentation and conservation. Better understanding of the ways in which people experienced monuments in the Neolithic, the ways in which they currently perceive them, and how they may continue to engage with them are key aspects.

Megalithic monuments may be perceived as marginal to contemporary communities, but with vision they offer a resource which could create new economic activities, and social and cultural capital. The same phenomenological and experiential approaches which archaeologists use to understand the Neolithic use of monuments can be used to explain them today, developing novel understandings of human psychological and physiological responses to different monument forms. The project will develop cross-cultural partnerships with experts in cognitive-theory approaches to the articulation of people and built spaces, site-specific studies in acoustics, space and movement, people/place interaction, mental mapping and in other attributes. New technology will be used to create 4D digital images of monuments in enhancing public understanding. The project will aim to maximise public involvement and to engage local communities as well as visitors in debates on and at the monuments.

Historic Scotland’s Stirling Charter (2000) embraces the need for modification of extant structures to guarantee them the sort of useful future that may ensure their continued survival. However, econstruction on the site of the original monument is not to be condoned. A conserved monument to which material is added, whether by anastylosis or otherwise, is wrong. The antithesis is exemplified in the Danish programme of conservation works on megalithic tombs in a multi year programme that has conservation of the monuments as its explicit aim.

With local communities, monuments will be constructed to promote a sense of communal ownership as well as to pioneer new approaches to understanding building techniques. This legacy element to the project will involve the creation of part-, and full-scale models in dry stone, turves, soil or wood of the monument types explored. This will commit to the future, the fullest interpretation of the excavation results in the light of contemporary scholarship that the project can deliver. These reconstructions will be interpretations of the current state of knowledge, grounded in the excavated evidence and safe for visitors to explore. They will be designed to attract visitors, inform them about the monuments and direct them onwards to explore the surviving Neolithic monumental remains.
Furthermore, these reconstructions will facilitate exploration of the engineering and architectural qualities of the monuments and provide an arena for the sensory exploration of what we currently believe was their finished forms. The latter will include experimental work on sight, sound and movement around the model monuments. Some of the monuments will be sealed off from public access, but open to natural forces and to flora and fauna and in these, burials of pig carcasses will provide an experimental basis for the further understanding of depositional and post-depositional change, chamber floor deposit formation and taphonomy. These would of course be long term experiments and again, local community groups are best placed to support these works into the longer term future. This engagement would ensure a degree of continuity of community empowerment, capacity building and heritage engagement after the end of the project.

The Big Questions: Where, how and when were monuments built, used and perceived by the people who built them and others, coming after, who re-used them?

The construction of detailed chronologies of when the monuments were built and used will not only draw on AMS 14C dating but also optically stimulated luminescence on stone structures and sediments that otherwise cannot be dated, and innovative cosmogenic nuclide dating, all within Bayesian frameworks. Whilst chronology building and refinement are immediate goals, the project will move beyond simplistic evolutionary models, to explore self-similarity in monuments through new fuzzy logic classificatory techniques, identifying monuments that are more similar to each other than to other monuments.

The geography of the Neolithic period has often been poorly served by phenomenological readings of the monuments that are based on poor or no data. In seeking to locate contemporaneous settlements and other activity areas in proximity to the monuments, this project will explore the issue of grain-size in the Neolithic exploitation of land as a subsistence, experiential and cognitive resource. This will require somewhat more sophisticated modelling than has been the norm.

The relationship between monument and horizon is thought significant. We will explore the relation between the site, the landscape and the celestial sphere from GIS-driven modelling, harnessing the enormous computing power now available to generate digital terrain map (DTM) data that render 360° panoramic landscapes, providing quantitative data about the landscape for statistical analyses as well as recreating how the world appeared to people in the Neolithic. Visibility to and from monuments will be tested in GIS reconstructions drawing on spatially precise local-scale pollen data on the density around a monument of woodland. The hypothesis that many may have been constructed in woodland and may have been invisible even from very short distances will be tested.

The Big Questions: Why did monumentality arise and why did the concept vary at different places and times?

There are timber as well as stone constructions in the Neolithic period. Timber buildings (‘halls’) are probably the earliest constructions. They make extraordinary, purposeful statements, but they were burnt down soon after they were built. We argue then that these were not monuments in the sense of being memorialised. Lasting structures were of stone and turf.
There are two major stone monument groups, chambered cairns and long barrows. Audrey Henshall identified and categorised the bulk of the surviving cairns and proposed a regional typology which we can now re-evaluate (Priority 1A). Both groups are interpreted as burial monuments. We hypothesise, however, that chambered cairns were initially built as temples and not tombs. They were structurally and architecturally simple. More elaborate structures evolved later in a conscious construction of monuments as memorials or vessels of social memory. This claim will be tested from field investigations and Bayesian-generated chronologies (Priorities 1B, 2A). We need to challenge the assumptions from which functionality is attributed to monuments.

Though not mutually exclusive, monument types are clustered in different regions. When, why and how these regions emerged are not understood. Regionality must be interpreted in relation to the contemporary Neolithic landscapes. The physical landscapes of Scotland are not those we see today. Though geology is fixed, climate, topography (sea level) and geomorphology (rivers; coastal plains) will have been different, as would soils and soil quality, and natural plant and wild animal communities. We will reconstruct and define regions as they pertained in the Neolithic from published work and GIS modelling (Priorities 1A). But how to explain emergent regionality? Was it chosen or forced; a product of population growth or physical isolation, or are these notions too simplistic, too mechanistic? No-one has successfully defined either, let alone dismissed them. Our approach to reconstructing population size, spatially and temporally, is entirely new, using palaeo-ecological data as proxies that describe the spatial extent and duration of woodland clearances (Priorities 1A and C). These data also allow us to define trajectories of economic development in different places at different times, allowing us to explore how subsistence strategies might have fuelled monumentality?

Monuments were only parts of the lifeways of Neolithic people. Contextualising monuments within society and economy, the lived landscape, will be a necessary focus for the project. The centrality of monuments in daily life needs to be understood. Were these monuments at the edge of the settled landscape, defining boundaries? The concept of exclusive ‘ritual’ landscapes comes and goes, largely though failures in defining what these would have looked like. Local-scale pollen diagrams will facilitate our understanding of the relationship of economic activity and monuments (Priority 1C). This detail of environmental reconstruction is again new to study of the Neolithic period. It bridges across to the spatial scale of archaeological data. Integration of palynological, chemical and soil-micromorphological data will be a powerful means to explore the fine structure of Neolithic land use, soil fertility and its maintenance. The duration and intensity of human activities from local-scale pollen data at human generational scales, defined from Bayesian chronology construction will allow us to understand the confidence with which communities faced the future and handled environmental opportunities and stresses through time, including the postulated later Neolithic agricultural crisis. We will try to reconcile the permanence of monuments with the spatial mobility of aspects of Neolithic life, such as herding and hunting.

The Big Questions: Who built the monuments and where did they come from?

Megalithic monuments are central to debates about the peopling of Neolithic Scotland for two principal reasons. Firstly, similar forms of monuments and shared styles of artefacts in different regions of northwest Europe suggest cultural inter-action and potentially human movement between such regions. For example, the earliest megaliths in Scotland may provide us with evidence of important links with Brittany. An important theme is also the link between regions such as south-west Scotland and Orkney with the building of similar monuments in Ireland. Our project will be the first for several decades to re-evaluate the architecture and typology of Scottish monument types and situate them in a wider perspective (Priority 1A).

Secondly chambered tombs contain the remains of people, providing us with the most direct evidence we have of Neolithic people. The ability to extract detailed biological and cultural information from inhumed, but also cremated, human remains is providing important insights into the question of who the monument builders were and where they came from. Issues of origin, status, succession and inheritance will be explored in our project through DNA, radionuclide and macro-molecule analysis of human and animal remains. In parallel with newly recovered artefactual material, re-analysis of artefact assemblages in museums will help to clarify the social dimensions of monumentality (Priority B1 and 2). New analyses will be positioned temporally by the development of refined chronologies from Bayesian approaches (Priority 2A).

The monument builders appropriated the past, perhaps even when the initial builders of monuments may have come from elsewhere. In many cases monuments were sited with regard to earlier, hunter-gatherer activities. These can be attested by field investigations (Priority 1B) and by expressions of those activities through vegetation change (Priority 1C).

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