Changing practices in the treatment of the dead illuminates our wider understanding of the Neolithic period.

The mortuary practices during the Neolithic period in Britain (4000-2500 BC), provides evidence for the underlying complex sociology. Not only do they signify the role of the dead, but also throw light on other aspects of this age. The following are some of them.

The arrival of the Beaker Folk

The most significant cultural shift in the Neolithic period is associated with the change in burial practice from communal to single tombs. This sudden change could only be explained by the arrival in Britain of new people, who are now referred as “Beaker Folk”. They brought from the Mediterranean a new religion and gradually incorporated it into the existing western European culture. Further evidence for this migration is provided by the remarkably different pots that are found in Neolithic monuments. This large-scale change in material culture, especially the pottery styles in chambered tombs can only be explained as a result of population movement. (Thomas, 2000)

The reinforcement of existing social order

Towards the end of the Neolithic period the British societies were involved in agriculture. These agricultural communities expressed their ownership of land through chambered tombs and earthen barrows, which were used as territorial demarcations. These communities later evolved to form chief-doms.

As they became more internally ranked and their chiefs became increasingly successful in redistributing the surplus of agricultural production, they would turn away from communal expressions of identity in monumental form and adopt styles of burial which emphasized their individual prestige. (Thomas, 2000)

Another aspect of the society is the authority exercised by the elites. This they wielded through possession of copper and bronze objects, which were displayed in public as symbols of power and also buried as grave goods. (Cummings, 2002)

The Tombs and Associated Rituals

The mortuaries are used for performing both ancestral rituals and funerary rites. They may not be easy to distinguish, as both use the physical remains of the dead.

These graves may contain artifacts, but rather than symbols of prestige sacrificed in order to express the status of the deceased, they represent a complex combination of ritual paraphernalia discarded at the conclusion of the funeral, and gifts which mark out quite specific relationships between the dead person and those who survived. Both the position of the grave, and the round mound that marked it, fixed the point of a person’s severance from the community within the landscape. Subsequent events in the vicinity might involve the re-digging of the grave to insert further burials. (Brück, 2001)

Thus, mortuaries acted as places of passage between life and death within a monumental architectural surrounding and symbolic objects, which can sometimes include the remains of the dead. These rituals also helped reconcile relations between the dead and the living. In fact most ritual performances mimic the existing social duties, affiliations and inter-personal relations. (Cummings, 2002)

Body parts of the dead were very commonly used in daily interactions. Most of the graves were revisited on a regular basis and the remains in them arranged as custom would dictate. One way of interpreting this constant aggregation, gathering and exchange of the remains is to compare them loosely with “objects in a gift economy” (Thomas, 2000). These transactions, to and from the monumental chamber, created relationships between members of the society and thereby extended the existing social order.

The process of making stone axes was held in high esteem. Large rocks on Longdale pikes were quarried to make rough axes, which were further polished and smoothened. All this happened as rituals. The purpose of this exercise, it is now understood, is to appreciate the agency of transformation as opposed to the end product. The transformation is “perceived as magical or enchanting”. (Fowler and Cummings, 2003)

The stone monuments and human sense faculties

Certain qualities of Neolithic stone monuments could only be understood through the senses. These are the texture, color and shape. For example, Garn Turne in south west Wales is made out of a “textured conglomerate”, which is highly rough. The site at Parcy Cromlech is remarkable for its unique backstone. Here, the stones that form the two sides of the chamber are quite rough due to embedded lumps of quartzite. This is opposite in character to the back-slab, which is well rounded and smooth. (Cummings, 2002)

The Carreg Coetan in south west Wales, is divided into two by color, shape and texture qualities, which alternate throughout. Similar observations were made in Cairnholy tombs of Scotland. High Gillespie is another complex site, which consists at least of seven small chambers enclosed within a large long cairn with a flat façade. All these examples show how people in Neolithic Britain understood and incorporated those qualities in their monuments as could be read through human sensory faculties. (Brück, 2001)

The role of nature

The lives of people in Neolithic Britain revolved around the elements of nature and this is strongly reflected in the design of the monuments. Most sites are near a sea or river, which shows how water was an integral part of the mortuary practice. On the inner walls of these monuments are paintings, which depict the cycles of the sun and other astronomical bodies. This is further evidence of how important the elements of the natural environment were. (Fowler and Cummings, 2003)

The Dependence on Animals

The following fact proves that the people in the Neolithic were involved in cattle farming, which supports the notion of an agricultural society noted above.

At the construction site of Stonehenge, which is dated to c.3000 BC, a number of cattle bones, including skulls, had been deliberately deposited. Radiocarbon determinations from these bones indicate that they were already very old by the time the ditch was dug. Evidently they had been curated for a considerable time before deposition. This is particularly significant because in several earthen long mounds, cattle skulls have been found amongst the deposits of human bones, suggesting that there may have been some form of equivalence between human and cattle remains. Both would appear to have been cared for over long periods, and carried between different locations. (Mackie, 2002)


Thus, the primitive societies of the Neolithic period in Britain performed both ancestral as well as funeral rituals. These rituals also explain the complex relation that then existed between the living and the dead. Art is manifest through the design and construction of the stone monuments. Natural elements like water assumed special significance. There is evidence that these societies were moving towards agriculture and depended on livestock. It is also believed that a migration from the Mediterranean led to landmark changes in the cultural landscape.


Brück J. (2001) ‘Monuments, power and personhood in the British Neolithic’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Vol. 7 Issue 4, December, p649, 19p.

Cummings, V. (2002), ‘Experiencing Texture and Transformation in the British Neolithic’, Oxford Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 21 Issue 3, August, p249-261, 13p.

Fowler, C. and Cummings, V.( 2003) ‘Places of transformation: building monuments from water and stone n the Neolithic of the Irish Sea’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Vol. 9 Issue 1, March, p1-20, 20p;

Mackie, E. (2002) ’The structure and skills of British Neolithic Society: a brief response to Clive Ruggles & Gordon Barclay’, Antiquity, Vol. 76 Issue 293, September, p666, 3p.

Thomas, J. (2001) ‘Comment: Monuments, power and personhood in the British Neolithic’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Vol. 7 Issue 4, December, p763, 5p.

Thomas, J.( 2000) ‘Death, Identity and the Body in Neolithic Britain’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Vol. 6 Issue 4, December, p653, 14p, 3 diagrams.