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

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.

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