This chapter surveys burial practices across Iron Age Europe, working outwards from the Circum-Alpine zone. During this period, only a fraction of the population was formally buried, in varying proportions over time and space. These were generally members of the political, economic, and religious elite, as is most clear in the case of richly furnished and monumental graves. Among communities of equivalent political complexity, however, some practised more modest burial, lacking clear status differentiation in their graves. Funerary practices carry ideological messages about how communities wish to appear, symbolically materializing the relations of the social group with the land on which they live and perpetuating the memory of certain people in the consciousness of the survivors. The social significance of Iron Age mortuary practices is examined: detailed analysis of differences between graves and cemeteries provides a wealth of information ranging from individual social relationships to economic and political organization.
Materializing Light, Making Worlds: Optical Image Projection within the Megalithic Passage Tombs of Britain and Ireland
Aaron Watson and Ronnie Scott
The distinctive architecture of Neolithic passage tombs reproduces the fundamental format of a camera obscura. Could Neolithic people have projected animated images of the outside world into the chambers of these monuments? Fieldwork in Wales and Scotland reveals that the methods required to generate optical projections inside passage tombs are straightforward and do not require a lens. At those sites that feature a solar alignment it is possible to project an enlarged disc of the sun into the chamber, while the landscape is visible within others. Some of the most distinctive effects featured projections of people; spectral human figures that moved through the monument, or even appeared to emerge from the walls. These phenomena are striking to witnesses in the present day. In the Neolithic, such intense multisensory events might have transformed passage tombs into places where people engaged with spectacular and otherworldly experiences.
Study of orientation in Bronze Age Cretan buildings has revealed long-overlooked sunrise alignments at the Palace of Knossos; while the recording of dawn alignments at the Mesara-type tholos tombs has challenged previous ideas about religious belief, suggesting a new, somatic agenda for discourse about ritual practices at the tombs. This chapter highlights a long-standing Aegean tradition from the Early Iron Age until late antiquity in which the sun was perceived as an active agent facilitating processes of prophecy and communication with the dead. Taking issue with disembodied visions of knowledge and presentist templates of religion centred on worship of abstract deities, it revisits material evidence from the Mesara-type tombs, and considers whether it is possible to trace in the prehistoric era early formulations of this tradition linking sunlight with divination and the dead.