My dissertation towards my BA in Archaeology was focusing on Neolithic ‘houses’ of North-west Europe – thus this seems like a reasonable place to start writing for my blog. Of course, my dissertation was comprised of a much greater detail and research – far too much to write here. Thus this section on Neolithic ‘houses’ will attempt to be a simpler and much shorter representation from my initial research, focusing more on the most recent Neolithic ‘houses’ discussed around the world, at Durrington Walls.
The perception of Neolithic ‘houses’ in recent years have tended to view them as either solely domestic structures being used for permanent habitation (Whittle. 1996. P. 25) – or ritualised dwellings used as a means of connecting with the ancestors (Thomas. 1996. P. 06). Within North-west Europe, the widely discussed ‘houses’, ‘longhouses’, ‘timber halls’, ‘timber structures’ as well as the closely related funerary monuments and mortuary ‘houses’ and long barrows – suggest a much closer relationship between both structures of the living, and that of the dead. This relationship is not conveyed by scholars through referring to such structures as merely ‘houses’.
What does the evidence tell us?
Archaeological evidence shows that such Neolithic ‘houses’ appear morphologically similar (Thomas. 1996. P. 06; Whittle. 1996. P. 25; Last. 2013. P. 274) from the excavated floor plans themselves, the pit features, and even the internal sections/ divisions that remain. The reasons provided by scholars for the variations in house plans place such structures into different categories. for example, ‘Houses’, ‘Longhouses’, ‘Timber Halls’, ‘Houses for the dead’ or ‘Pre- Long barrow structures’ are but a few. However, none of these examples explain the repetitions of ‘house’ forms over space and time – nor the concepts behind the similarities in architectural appearance. Bailey (2005. P. 91) notes how “We are left not understanding what the similarity of Neolithic buildings meant to Neolithic people and what it means to us”. The evidence through different regions of North- west Europe differ quite dramatically – this is primarily due to the evolution of different ideas and interpretations made within each area. Detailed studies have been made comparing such floor plans of Neolithic ‘houses’ and can be found for the British Isles in Grogan (1996. Pp. 45- 47); Darvill. (1996. Pp. 94- 96).Malone (2006. Pp. 21; 49- 50); Last (2013. P. 277); Smyth (2013. P. 304). Scandinavia in Larsson and Brink (2013. P. 331); France in Bickle (2013. P. 153); Poland in Pyzel (2013. Pp. 185- 186).
Several sites in particular have exceptional preservation which enables a clearer picture of the Neolithic societies which built them. The most unusual of these examples are located within the British Isles and in particular, the sites of Durrington Walls in Wiltshire, and Skara Brae in Orkney, Scotland are examples which require a greater depth of appreciation. The ‘houses’ at Durrington Walls are an exceptionally unusual find within the British Isles. Not only is the site significant for containing a concentration of Neolithic ‘houses’, but also has a close relationship with the site of Stonehenge. The implications for the site being somewhat connected as ‘houses’ from the builders of Stonehenge (Pearson et al. 2006. P. 238), make for interesting arguments and connections (Pearson et al. 2006. P. 230). The ‘houses’ contained evidence of domestic activity, however, the concentrations of certain finds (and lack of others) implies a more ‘seasonal’ or temporary activity within these structures. The ‘houses’ may have been inhabited by people – but do not appear to have been the permanent structures which were occupied by generation upon generation. These buildings may well have been used by the builders of Stonehenge and surrounding monumental architecture, but if the ‘houses’ were only used for this specific function – they would be viewed ‘ritualistic’ in nature, being purposely constructed to contain the masses of people taking part in the construction of the wider ‘ritualised’ landscape.
The structures discovered in Orkney, Scotland have been well documented (Hodder. 1990. Pp. 149- 151; Barclay. 1996. P. 66; Simpson et al. 2006. Pp. 221- 222) for being some best preserved and unusual structures located within the British Isles. Skara Brae is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, highlighting its significance and importance towards providing an unusual ‘glimpse’ into the life of Neolithic people. Skara Brae is considered one of the most famous and best known examples of ‘house’ settlements in Britain (Barclay. 1996. P. 66), due to its exceptional preservation conditions. The arrangements of the Late Neolithic buildings have been compared with that of the Late Orkney tombs (Hodder. 1982. P. 218), which both share entrance orientations southeast to northwest (Barclay. 1996. P. 67). There are ten buildings at the site, which contain evidence of restoration/ rebuilding of each building at different periods (see Clarke 1976. P. 11 for a detailed breakdown of each of these phases). The internal divisions of the buildings at this settlement are the most discussed features (Clarke 1976. P. 11; Barclay. 1996. P. 67). Furniture is present at this site, with unusual distinctions made for cupboards, dressers, beds and shelves. At the centre lies a hearth, a distinction between right and left sides (right being the larger side) – the use of space within each structure is suggested to have been determined by these features and the position of the entranceway (Barclay. 1996. P. 67).
The unusual preservation of the settlements in Orkney provides a unique view of early and late Neolithic communities in the area. Similarities can be seen from the construction, orientation and functions of different features at both sites – however the significance of the buildings to the Neolithic people who inhabited them still remains unclear. Often comparisons are made between the evidence at these sites and others of similar remains (such as at Durrington Walls, Pearson et al. 2008. P. 159) – but the extent in which these structures were the normal ‘houses’ or ‘dwellings’ of people is still illusive. The close relationships between these structures, and that of nearby tombs of the dead (Hodder. 1982. P. 218) implies of a more ‘ritualised’ significance, leading the structures away from the domestic ‘households’ and towards a more fluid realm merging negotiable spaces of the living, with that of the dead.
Overall, the ‘village settlements’ of the Neolithic from the British Isles are hugely significant. They show the complex level of structures which were produced in the Neolithic. The functions of such ‘villages’ are still not as straight forward as they first appear – they show evidence of domestic activity (pottery, flints, cereals for example), but they also show evidence of a more ‘ritualised’ activity baring similarities with tombs for the dead. At the same time, however, they also show a sense of ‘modern houses’ – through the use of furniture such as dressers, shelves, and cupboards. Furthermore, the similar processing of interpretations between sites has controlled the final reports of the sites – the findings at Durrington Walls were compared to that at Skara Brae to ‘find’ evidence of furniture. Whether or not such furniture was present at all Neolithic sites is uncertain, it may well have been a select few sites which utilised such technology, and it shouldn’t be expected at all sites.
How are reconstructions presented?
When viewing elaborate reconstructions of Neolithic ‘houses’, the temptation to superimpose or ‘expect’ similar evidence/ aesthetics to another site is too often presented. The archaeological evidence must remain the focal consideration when reconstructing evidence of the past. Indeed, a more ‘colourful’ picture is made to attract attention, publicity, and to generate public interest and understanding of the site in question. However, what should be made clear is the true ‘evidence’ – the archaeological data provides pits, postholes, and household materials, and the interpretations made from these materials are often what are debatable. The truth remains that from the archaeological evidence the positioning of post holes from each other can be determined, however, the exact materials used, the positioning and sizes of internal supports, lengths of walls/ sides and the size/ shape and materials of roof construction are based upon assumptions.
What is most interesting about the array of reconstructions which have been either drawn or physically constructed is how different the same archaeological evidence can be interpreted. If reconstructions differ between the evidence from one site – the confusing picture presented from comparing site to site reconstructions becomes more evident. If the most recent reconstruction of Neolithic ‘houses’ at Stonehenge, from those excavated at Durrington Walls is viewed more closely once more – the huge amounts of labour, time, and resources required to construct such buildings are hugely underestimated. Even still, it has been suggested that these buildings may only have been seasonal ‘homes’, and would have needed repairing each season (Richards. 2013. P. 21). This is surprising, considering it would take (estimates based on the reconstructions carried out for the Stonehenge Visitor Centre) several weeks or even months to create, thatch and daub every single ‘house’ separately. It has been demonstrated that approximately twenty plus people per day have taken over 3 months to reconstruct four Neolithic ‘houses’ and one other Neolithic ‘building’ (possibly for storage). If the quantity of these ‘houses’ predicted at Durrington Walls is correct (over fifty, as pictured by Richards. 2013. P. 20) then vast quantities of people must have been present at the site. Yet domestic evidence is scarce, lacking remains of everyday life such as bones from food and cooking (Richards. 2013. P. 20). It seems more plausible then, that such ‘houses’ were not the typical dwellings that people lived in – but were more ‘ritualised’ and significant in peoples mind- set, the drive to construct such buildings which would not survive well without management and repairs must have provided a reasoned function/ justification for building them. This may have been through identity of communal construction, or may have been related to other connotations which we do not perceive in today’s modern mind- set.
How far are archaeologists forcing the term ‘house’ onto Neolithic structures?
During an excavation of a Neolithic site, certain ‘traits’ are characterised as being evidence of a Neolithic ‘houses’ (Whittle. 1996. P. 55; Last. 1996. P. 27; Thomas. 1999. P. 14). But why is the first reaction to interpret the structure as a Neolithic ‘house’ – rather than the possibility of it being another type of ‘structure’. What needs to be considered is the extent of which the term ‘house’ has been forced onto Neolithic structures which does not have a clear domestic function suggestive of a ‘house’.
In Fengate, Peterborough, a Neolithic ‘house’ was discovered by Francis Pryor between 1968 and 1972 and was “more-or-less the same as the four or five others [Neolithic houses] known at the time” (Pryor. 1991. P. 49). In particular, the identification was due to its similarities with a ‘house’ found at Haldon in Devon. This is problematic, as the Haldon ‘house’ is now viewed as being part of a hilltop enclosure (Pryor 2003. P. 142). This example highlights that once a site has been excavated and results/ interpretations have been published, other archaeologists may base their archaeological evidence on previous interpretations. Although this is common practise within archaeology – it is problematic as once the interpretation of a site has changed, revisions need to be made for countless other sites which were based on an original idea. In this case, by basing interpretations of the Fengate ‘house’ on the Haldon ‘house’ because of their similar ground plans – neither are now considered as being correctly identified Neolithic ‘houses’.
One of the most discussed similarities when mentioning Neolithic ‘houses’ (Thomas. 1996. P. 07; Last. 1996. P. 27; Thomas. 1999. P. 14) are between examples of that of ‘longhouses’ and ‘timber halls’. Many examples could be discussed such as Warren Field in Aberdeenshire (Murray et. al. 2009); Lockerbie Academy, in Dumfries and Galloway (Kirby. 2011); White Horse Stone in Kent (Hayden. 2008); and Pilgram’s Way in Kent (Hayden. 2008) are but a few other examples. The more well-known sites of Lismore Fields in Derbyshire, Balbridie in Scotland and Barkaer, Jutland in Denmark will be discussed further as case studies. Both Lismore Fields and Balbridie have provided evidence which suggests the ‘longhouses’ were used within the process of storing cereals (Thomas. 1999. P. 24; Dineley and Dineley. 2000. P. 13; Jones. 2000. P. 82). Whereas Barkaer appears to resemble more of a funeral monument than a domestic structure.
A wonderful summary towards the implications of identifying a structure as for storing cereals is provided in Dineley and Dineley (2000. P. 13) – “A Grain Barn is only one of many potential and possible functions for a Neolithic building. Other possibilities would include… a dwelling place, a storehouse, a workshop, an animal shelter or as a place for community activity and ritual celebrations… two rectangular timber buildings stand out as having definitely been involved with grain storage and processing activities, these being Balbridie and Lismore Fields” (Dineley and Dineley. 2000. P. 13). Whether or not these buildings were permanently occupied as ‘domestic houses’ is the dominating question – but when the evidence is viewed together, with large quantities of cereals found, the scale of the buildings, and their locations; the idea of them being domestic ‘houses’ are less favoured and more evidence towards their functions being primarily for storage (be it seasonal or long term) are more prominent.
Barkaer, Jutland in Denmark was believed to contain the remains of two of the largest early Neolithic ‘houses’ in prehistoric Europe. However, more recent reports and fieldwork of the site now views these ‘houses’ as large funerary earthen long barrow monuments (Madsen. 1979. Pp. 301- 320; Bradley. 1998. P. 03; Rowley-Conwy. 2004. P. S93) – So are therefore more ‘houses’ of the dead, rather than ‘houses’ for the living. Barkaer highlights how evidence can be interpreted differently, depending on the background of those viewing it. It is through the excavation and re- interpretation of such sites as Barkaer which provide the opportunity to better understand the complex societies of the Neolithic. Once more it is by using this term ‘house’ – which has caused a misleading judgment of identifying the purpose and functions of ‘structures’ of the past. Just as noted by Pryor (2003. P. 142) – “these fine, rectangular structures were roofed buildings… they were inhabited from time to time by people… they may also have been used to store grain. But were they houses in the domestic, or ‘home base’ sense?… One or two may have been built to accommodate the dead for a part of their physical or spiritual journey to be a communal tomb and the next world; others seem to me to have been built as special meeting places positioned at key spots in the landscape… They were important in people’s minds, in the collective historical geography of the shifting communities living and passing through the area” (Pryor. 2003. P. 142). Although ‘longhouses’ which appear similar to the Barkaer examples are frequently found on continental Europe, assumptions should be avoided where possible, and sites which were excavated in or before the 20th Century should be treated with caution where no further re- excavation/ re- interpretations have taken place.
Although only a few case studies have been provided within this discussion (many others were discussed in greater detail in my dissertation however) – The links made between sites are very much dependant on their locations and locality. The previously considered Mesolithic ‘mobile’ way of life may have possibly continued through the ‘Neolithic transition’, which has been argued from the evidence of Northwest Europe (Whittle. 1996. Pp. 215- 222; Cummings. 2009. P. 53). This would explain why little trace of ‘houses’ survive – in that they were not ‘houses’ to begin with. These structures were more negotiable spaces which were defined through their physical construction. They were not constantly lived in, nor were they continually used.
The complexity of Neolithic ‘houses’ are primarily determined from the problematic use of the term ‘house’. The buildings discussed may not have been ‘houses’ in the domestic sense – the archaeological evidence suggests for mixed use structures which were occasionally lived in or seasonally used (such as at Orkney), purposely only inhabited for specific ritualised activities (such as monument construction, as implied for the structures at Durrington Walls). In some cases, structures contained no evidence of domestic activity at all, and others contained huge quantities of cereal grain (such as at Lismore Fields and Balbridie). There is a growing connection between ‘houses’ of the dead and ‘houses’ of the living throughout the Northwest European region. It is this ‘memory’ between the traditions of ‘houses’ for both the living and the dead and the similarities in their construction, purpose and use which will no doubt confirm (or not, as the case may be) the evolution of ideologies between mixed realm ‘houses’ of Northwest Europe in future research.
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