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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.

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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).