Messages from the Monuments
How Neolithic Monuments Communicate About Religion and Status
by Paul K. Wason
- John Templeton Foundation, Radnor, PA.
What do the monuments of the Neolithic communicate about status and
religion? More, I believe, than we usually expect, and this primarily
because of how they communicate to us.
- Through the monument as a medium of communication.
- Through the messages the builders intended to communicate.
- Through the archaeologist's reading of what I will call the subtext.
When we look at messages from monuments in this way, we sometimes
discover that different conclusions, originally proposed as alternatives,
are instead quite compatible with each other. To illustrate, I will use the monuments of the Avebury group in
Wiltshire, England as a space-time focal point for synthesizing several
theoretical perspectives (with the Irish Passage Tombs of
Dowth and a few other sites for support).
Avebury is unusual both
for the size of its monuments and for their geographical concentration.
The earliest were the long barrows, like West Kennet Long Barrow, built
over a period of some 500 years between 3700 and 3200 BC. The Avebury
henge was built between 2,600 and 2,300 BC. At 332 meters in diameter, its
main stone circle is the largest in the world (Ucko et. al. 1991:1).
Silbury Hill, from about the same time, is the largest artificial mound in
all of Europe. What we might describe, loosely, as the era of the long
barrows and the era of the henge and hill, were thus about 1,000 years
Monumental Communications: The Medium, the Message, the Subtext.
Communication is an essential part of life - from chemicals signaling
each other within a cell to archaeological volumes like this, obviously
the most sophisticated level of communication known. These communications
differ on several dimensions; they have different purposes, use different
media, and communicate different messages. Marshall MacLuan's famous
statement "the medium is the message" is stark,
provocative and simplistic, as befits its birth in the 60s. But there is
also something almost true about it, for the medium of communication and
the message are always deeply intertwined.
The European Neolithic was characterized by extensive monument building.
And we often see an emphasis on ritual-religious structures. We should
take this into account, for there may be something in their design and
character that made them a better medium for religious communication. This
is important because the communication of religious knowledge presents
We often hear that science progresses while religion does not. John
Polkinghorne has said this is because science is easy (1994, 1996).
Polkinghorne is a theoretical physicist and I would love to see the
reaction of his quantum mechanics students when told that science is easy!
But what he means is that science treats simple things, and treats them in
an artificially simplified way. Religious communication is not concerned
with anything so small and simple as an electron. Religion speaks rather
of the world of the spirit. We will have a harder time pinning this
subject down than when studying things far simpler than ourselves.
Physicists have moved from everyday language toward communication in
specialized forms, particularly mathematics. But what of religious
communication? Our modern reaction is to think of religious communication
as just like scientific except fuzzy and unspecialized, but religious
communication is in fact very specialized, often requiring special media,
like stone circles, long barrows, or ancient Sanskrit poetry. Furthermore,
religion is at least as much about communication with the spirit world as
it is communication about the spiritual world.
I would like to distinguish three kinds of monumental communications;
monuments are a medium of communication, and they are part of the message.
They also incorporate subtexts separate from the messages themselves. I
will use these distinctions as a way of bringing together some interesting
recent studies. These studies provide wonderful little vignettes of the
Neolithic, but they are hard to relate to each other. In fact they have
often been opposed. I think especially of the well-rehearsed distinctives
of the processual-analytical vs post-processual-interpretive approaches.
But it may be that they only seem to be opposed because we do not
recognize that monuments can communicate in these three very different
ways all at once.
First, Monuments and the Archaeological subtext:
Monuments communicate a great deal to the archaeologist, thanks to our
methods. I call this the subtext, because it probably was not exactly what
those who built the monuments intended to communicate. It is a translation
of monumental messages into our own terms. Concepts like social structure,
chiefdom, or religion are embedded in modern social science, and
archaeological method is our way of translating the physical remains into
these modern categories. Contrary to some interpretive archaeologists,
monuments do communicate to us about our modern concerns and concepts, and
this without needing to know what the builders meant to communicate. One
example of reading a subtext is the inference of ranking.
Social hierarchy and the Avebury builders.
The builders of the Avebury monuments lived in a social order
characterized by hierarchical relationships. This point was argued long
ago by Colin Renfrew who estimated that the henge itself required 1.5
million hours and Silbury Hill 18 million hours of labor (Renfrew 1973;
see also Wainwright 1970:30). It is through middle-range theory that we
can read this as a subtext of what the monuments are communicating. If
some structures are monumental or the product of corporate labor, there
must have been inequality (Abrams 1989). This important and
long-established line of argument can sometimes be applied in much this
form, and I think this is the case with the Avebury ditch and ring, with
Silbury Hill and with nearby Stonehenge III. Consider how these figures
compare with temple building (Kolb 1994:527) in the Hawaiian islands.
Hawaiian society was characterized by substantial social hierarchy with an
important religious component to the leader's status, and I have argued
elsewhere that it was stratified (Wason 1994). The largest temple in all
of Hawaii required about 130,000 labor days for its four building phases
(Kolb 1994:525). Renfrew's estimate for the Avebury henge is at least
150,000 days (figuring 10 hour days), more than the largest temple every
built by the complex hierarchical societies of Hawaii.
Yet these seemingly long-established points have come under attack in
recent years. Hodder argues that all of archaeology is based on
assumptions about what things meant whether we recognize it or not: "It
is only when we make assumptions about subjective meanings in the minds of
people long dead that we begin to do archaeology" (1991:82). I
disagree. There certainly are ambiguities to the energy arguments but the
important point is that the inference of ranking does not depend on
knowing what people intended by building the monuments. Reading a subtext
does not require knowledge of the intention of the text.
But it is also true that most cases would be more ambiguous for it is not
so obvious what, exactly, would qualify as monumental. If Silbury
Hill tells us of an established social hierarchy, what of a structure half
the size? I think that would also, and so would a structure less than one
tenth the size like the Avebury henge and the largest of the Hawaiian
temples. But where does this stop? It may be that through much of the
European Neolithic societies were not ranked. This seems unlikely based on
other aspects of the evidence, but it could be said, rather more modestly,
that on the basis used for concluding that the Avebury people of the time
of the henge were ranked, we cannot draw the same conclusions for the
builders of long barrows, which have been estimated at about 500 days of
work. Avebury society at this time may have been hierarchical anyway. In
particular it is likely that only some people were buried in long mounds,
and this is a marker of differentiation.
Second, Monumental Messages.
The second facet of monumental communications is to look at the messages
intentionally communicated through the monuments. Richard Bradley (1993:4)
wisely observes that we often take a limited perspective on monuments. We
may ask why they were built, but we answer with how they were
financed. The argument I just made concerning ranking is a valid and
important starting point. But it does not answer the question of why they
devoted so much energy to these things during the Neolithic but not in
later periods when at least as much labor was available.
Prospective and retrospective memories.
Cornelius Holtorf argues that monuments were built to transmit a message
to the future, to keep the builder's memory alive, and this he calls
"prospective memory". That is the goal, but far from
being transformed by the monuments into a permanent memory, these messages
are soon lost, and later generations are left to make up their own
interpretations. Our archaeological study of megaliths, too, create
retrospective memory. Thus
is not the megaliths which were, as Renfrew argued, "territorial
markers"; it is us - or he rather - who see them in such light. In a
sense therefore, megaliths are recreated by the way we interpret them"
I agree with Holtorf in his relatively non-controversial conclusion
that monuments carried, and were likely meant to communicate a message to
the future and that it is difficult for people in that future to hear the
message. But I am not as inclined to subjectivism. And I insist that if we
take a subjectivist approach at all, we do so consistently-knowing,
however, that consistency is the reductio ad absurdum of relativism. That
is, we are just as justified in arguing that Holtorf is recreating
archaeology as he is in saying Renfrew is recreating the megaliths.
Besides, there really are ways of weeding out some meanings as more likely
First, if we accept my view that monuments communicate to us in at least
these three different ways all at once, we recognize that Renfrew could be
correct about the monuments being territorial markers without this having
been the message their builders were trying to communicate. Holtorf's
model (like Hodder's) does not recognize the distinction between reading
the message and reading a subtext. Secondly, Holtorf is taking a narrow
view of the purpose of monuments. He sees them as structures built for the
purpose of memory, rather like the great Roman commemorative arches. It
may be that many monuments were just this. But there is good reason to
believe the tombs and henge monuments of the Neolithic, including Avebury,
were also actively used for ritual purposes.
But what would it mean, in this light, that status was communicated
through these visible, enduring monuments? One important answer concerns
the need to express status solidly and clearly in a way that cannot be
forgotten. This question, however, also makes the assumption that because
it took leaders to organize the building, the monuments must have been
built as a means for the leaders to show off. But perhaps they were not
built primarily to communicate status. And while Holtorf is right that
monuments were built in part to say something to the future, the message
may not have been primarily about the builders. Several scholars have
argued recently that monumental burials were about ancestors, which is
important when considering what messages they communicated. Thomas says
"material culture may be employed in pre-literate societies as a
means of presencing. That is to say, it can introduce absent persons or
classes of person into social discourse" and, "The
emergent conception of self would be one which was always related to the
past, and always located in terms of kinship" (Thomas 1993:84-85).
It is evidence for an approach to life and society in which ancestry is
important, perhaps also the development of lineages and clans. This is
helpful for understanding the character of social inequality when it
develops; these approaches to kinship are essential to hereditary ranking,
the kind so characteristic of the classic chiefdom rather than
achieved ranking. This is not a trivial point, because the way ranking is
determined has a great affect on the character of life (Wason 1994).
Some messages from the henges.
Some of this may be true of the henge monuments as well. I believe they
were primarily built as a context for religious ceremony. But in this
case, part of why they were built, particularly at such a scale may well
be to communicate a message about the capabilities of the leaders. Here it
seems that the status of the builders themselves may be part of the
prospective memory. But variations could also be affected by changes in
religious thought and practice. It may be that they were larger in order
to accommodate more participants.
The monuments also communicate messages about religion. One such message
may be a continuation of the religion of the barrows. Although we don't
know how regularly it was used, West Kennet was not sealed off until after
the building of the other monuments. In addition there is also a message
about group involvement, and this would be a very different message from
that projected by the barrows; together they suggest continuity and also change.
And thirdly, Monuments as the Medium.
Some light may be thrown on this by asking: How do the monuments serve as
vehicles for communication? Those I have been discussing are ceremonial
monuments, a medium for religious communication. What might this emphasis
on ceremonial monuments suggest to us about status and religion, and how
they changed through the Neolithic?
A change in religious practice: Shamans, the tunnel effect, and processions.
What is the relationship of religion to social structure, political life
and economy? The correlation of one social feature or institution with
another has been both the great power and also the great weakness of
typological models (Wason 1995). Fried and Service emphasized relations of
social structure, leadership and economy, and in Service's model, a center
to coordinate economic, social and religious activities is considered the
distinctive feature of the chiefdom. He and others (including me, Wason
1994) have emphasized the mechanism and the function, of coordination as a
key ingredient. There is good sense in this. But suppose that was more the
result than the fundamental underlying cause? Suppose that the development
of the central coordinating agency was not the primary change but the
response, and that the primary change was a fundamental shift in the
character of religion and religious practice? This would lead to a shift
in the medium needed for religious communication. We may be seeing, during
the course of the British Neolithic, a shift from something akin to
shamanic religions to a situation in which the rituals and beliefs called
for full-time specialists and group gatherings.
Jeremy Dronfield has been developing a fascinating way of looking at
megalithic tombs. His work focuses on the Irish passage tombs of the
fourth and third millennium, but it may be more widely applied. These
tombs have a chamber connected to the outside by a passage, covered by a
cairn of typically 10-25 meters in diameter, though Knowth, Newgrange and
Dowth are over 80 meters (Dronfield 1996:37). These tombs "were
associated with a complex of consciousness-altering practices involving
the induction of subjective visual experiences by means of flickering
light, hallucinogenic substances and neuropathology"
(1996:37). In particular, the tombs induced what is known as the tunnel
sensation "the visual impression of looking into, or moving
through, a vortex or tunnel" (1996:37). This tunnel-like
experience as an interface between dimensions of reality and consciousness
is known from drug use and from near-death experiences, but more
importantly is found in myth and is an important theme in shamanic
practice. Dronfield is saying that these monuments were not just burial
places but contexts which the communications medium needed for contact with the spirit world.
Of course this is quite speculative, and there are alternatives using some
of the same evidence. Bahn, for example believes it would be "far
less tenuous and more pertinent to note that we are all born through a
tunnel, and that... a tunnel might very well be a wide-spread metaphor for
our later journey into the realm of the dead" (Bahn 1996:56).
For our purposes, it is also important to note that the West Kennet long
barrow does not possess all the features Dronfield draws on in his
analysis of the Irish tombs. But it seems plausible that the monuments
were the site of rituals, whether involving shamans traveling to the other
world, or some other kind of ritual specialist leading the dead to where
they belong, rituals involving communication with the spirit world, not
just communication about religion.
The ritual practice which took place at the henges, however, would have
been very different. These monuments constitute a different communication
medium. First, the passage graves depended on the interior conditions. The
passage "served to distance the experient from the outside
world, creating an environment conducive to subjective visual experience.
Simultaneously it was representational and reconstructive, standing
metonymically for those experiences. Movement along it towards the inner
areas of the tomb may have been an attempt at reconstructing in physical
space the subjective mind's journey into the alternative realities of
altered consciousness, in preparation for the real experience which could
be begun once inside. The passage, at Newgrange at least, also functioned
to control the light source used in subverting the visual system" (Dronfield 1996:52).
The ritual practice which took place at the henge would have been very
different. These monuments constitute a different communication medium.
They were out in the open, and any ritual that took place there would have
been highly visible. Whatever rituals took place within the tombs would
have involved only one or a few people, or at least would have
intentionally separated them from any other celebrants waiting outside,
but the later monuments could hold a great many celebrants. Except for
religious specialization, someone leading a procession, say, the design of
the monuments does not suggest pervasive separation. Even in the era of
the henge and hill almost nothing can be said about leadership or about
personal ranking that can be separated from religion. Whether we imagine
priests or chiefs, they appear to gain much of their authority from their religious positions.
Monuments as a cause of developing status?
In his 1960 book on Stonehenge, Atkinson concluded that "The
building of Stonehenge is...unlikely to have been the expression of the
common will, but rather the fulfillment of a purpose imposed from above"
(Atkinson 1960:166). But Barrett reminds us that the monuments were built
over a very great span of time and do not represent a grand plan conceived
at the start (Barrett 1994:13). He uses this as a basis for his conclusion
that these monuments are the result of communal effort. The "elite
did not simply initiate the building of Avebury, Durrington or Stonehenge
but was, indeed, created out of the realization of these projects"
(Barrett 1994:29). As I have argued, the monuments do provide evidence of
hierarchy, but it does make sense that once built, the monuments
reinforced and enhanced the status of leaders, thereby entrenching the
hierarchical system. Atkinson has set us up with a false dichotomy between
a building project being an "expression of the common will"
or instead the "fulfillment of a purpose imposed from above."
These monuments require central direction, but it is possible that the
leaders primarily mobilized people to build something that was in essence an expression of the common will.
I suggest that ranking developed as a by-product of something done for
religious reasons. Or to put it another way, the monuments communicated
"status differentiation" to people, even though
they were built as a medium for religious communication. Perhaps at
Avebury something about the religion gave rise to a need for complex and
labor expensive media for religious communication. The building of these
monuments drew on and drew out leadership skills, but once built, their
very existence, along with the ceremonies held there, reinforced and so
helped to institutionalize leadership and ranking. Leadership and
hierarchy may have developed in the process of accomplishing what were
originally religious ends, the building of ceremonial monuments. Once
built the monuments reinforced leadership in unintended ways. Leadership
could then take on a life of its own. Religion, then, may be a more
fundamental causal factor in the development of ranking and complex
society than most evolutionary theories allow.