Time for the old house to die? – henges and houses in the Neolithic

“The first decayed and new ones were made. And in time the new ones became old, yet still they were rings of timber – though now the rings were trimmed posts raised within a bank and ditch that made a wider circle…”

Bernard Cornwell: Stonehenge
The Ring of Brodgar from the air, showing the two opposing entrance causeways. (Jim Richardson)

The Ring of Brodgar from the air, showing the two opposing entrance causeways. (Jim Richardson)

By Sigurd Towrie

Over the past few weeks, we have looked at expedient architecture, in particular the idea that some Neolithic buildings may have been hastily built, perhaps dismantled or simply left to become ruinous.

This is not restricted to structures. At the Ring of Brodgar, for example, the shallow stone sockets encountered during the 2008 excavation is a strong indicator that the megaliths were not meant to endure. Instead they could be easily erected and taken down. Alternatively, were the Brodgar megaliths meant to – or expected to – fall down over time? Along the same lines, did the natural deterioration of houses, aided by deliberate and careful dismantling, play an important part in the life of a Neolithic settlement?

We know from the Ness of Brodgar and settlement sites such as Skara Brae and Barnhouse, that structures were replaced, usually on the same site, but slightly offset.

We tend to talk of Neolithic houses being demolished and rebuilt almost in an industrial, production-line fashion — one comes down. Another goes up. Simple. There must have been more to it than that.

What was the timescale, for example, before it was considered “proper” to re-use a site? If re-use was even possible in all cases. Just as today, the huge outlay of time and effort to construct a dwelling must surely have become inextricably linked with the life of its occupants and their fortunes and misfortunes. The house represented them just as they came to represent the house.

With that in mind, was the house more than a mere physical dwelling but a “living” symbol of its inhabitants and their history. As such, when circumstances dictated, did the house have to be allowed “die” at the end of its life? Just as a corpse was left to decompose in a chambered cairn, transforming from a recognisable individual into skeletal remains, was the “dead”, and by association tainted, house also required to decay and disintegrate.

Interior of House One, Skara Brae. (Sigurd Towrie)

Interior of House One, Skara Brae. (Sigurd Towrie)

The stone-built constructions unearthed, surveyed and measured by archaeologists were more than banks of data to be collected, studied and compared. To their builders and occupants, the house probably represented much more.

From personal experience, in Orkney until very recent times, the role of the house went beyond that of a simple dwelling — it represented family; it represented belonging; it represented connection to both the past, and those who had gone before, and the future — those yet to come. Within its fabric were entwined histories, stories, myths and above all an ultimate anchor to a place. And when a house had to be left, there was often much more to its abandonment than mere practicality.

Let us imagine for a moment an untimely death in a Neolithic household. Was the house, as an extension of that family, necessarily abandoned? Left to die? Were the circumstances of the occupiers’ demise or departure such that it was not considered “right” to re-occupy the site? Or was a suitable period of mourning required before any return to use could be allowed?

Appropriate time periods before re-occupation — if re-use was permitted at all – may have varied greatly and may be one possible reason for the apparent breaks in occupation noted at sites such as Skara Brae.

Considering Bronze Age settlements, Joanna Brück has suggested they represented a family or lineage group and that the wellbeing of the house was linked to that of its occupants. Just as their rites of passage, such as birth, marriage and death, were marked throughout their lives, so too were equivalent points in the life of a structure.[1]

One of these significant events may have been the “death” of the house, an occasion perhaps linked to the death of its founder. In the Bronze Age, the death of a house seems to have been a particularly significant event, “with abandoned houses and the human dead being treated in a number of analogous ways.”[2]

To Brück, “the treatment of the human dead can help us to interpret some of the practices surrounding the end of a building’s life”.

“Just as grave goods were occasionally given to humans on death, the deposition of objects […] may have acted as a formal closure or a transformation of the relationship between the building (or its inhabitants) and the rest of the kin group”

Some Bronze Age structures were burned, others dismantled, before being sealed and levelled “with spreads of rubble, earth and occupation debris” [2]. The latter, suggested Bruck, were “buried” at the end of their lives, just as their inhabitants were.[2]

Was something similar happening in Neolithic Orkney?

Maeshowe. (Sigurd Towrie)

Maeshowe. (Sigurd Towrie)

In the Neolithic, we know that some human remains were placed in chambered tombs. Professor Colin Richards recently suggested that chambered tombs were not merely repositories for the dead but animate entities brought into being through the absorption of decaying corpses [3].

Reversing this concept, just as the inanimate can become animate (tomb), the animate can also become inanimate and must be allowed to do so (corpse). If cairns, by their association with the dead, become the living embodiment of the ancestors – and therefore a living link to the past – was the house an animate, living symbol of the life of an individual, social group or lineage? And, if so, did they have to be allowed to “die” and decay?

Upon the death of its founder, was a house required to disintegrate in the same manner as the corpse in its cairn? The evidence from chambered tombs now points to fully fleshed bodies being placed within and left to decay [4] — although this process seems to have been hastened by the deliberate dismemberment of corpses [5]. With stone structures, “decay and ruination” would obviously take considerably longer than a human body. In much the same way as the decomposition of a corpse was “assisted”, the symbolic death of a house could have been accelerated by episodes of deliberate manipulation where walls were removed and stone robbed.

Perhaps its replacement could only be built after a prescribed period. Until then perhaps “respectful and appropriate actions had to be performed in much the same way as funerary feasts might be held for the dead” [6]. Only after a suitable time had passed was any form of rebuilding or re-use of the site deemed proper.

In some cases, such as the suggested structure at the centre of the Stones of Stenness, it may be that re-use was taboo. In this example, given the measures taken to contain the site, it was perhaps deemed too dangerous to return to.

Just as the tomb contained the corpse during the transformation from flesh to bone – this shutting it away and protecting the outside world from “pollution” – perhaps steps had to be taken to ensure the decaying, dying house was also suitably separated and bounded.

Henge Examples

Early henge monuments. a. Stonehenge 1, Wiltshire (after Cleal 1995s, fig 36); b. Llandegai A, Gwynedd after Houlder 1968, fig 1); c. Balfarg Riding School, Fife (after Barclay & Russell-White 1993, illus 6); d. Dorchester Site 2, Oxfordshire (after Whittle et al 1992, fig 7); e. Stones of Stenness, Orkney (after Ritchie 1975-76, fig 2); f. Coneybury Hill, Wiltshire (after Richards 1991, fig 97).

Enclosing and containing sites – particularly funerary – through the creation of henges is well known in British prehistory [7][8]. Evidence points to the same process occurring around houses and suggests some were not merely monumentalised but contained while being allowed to decay.

“Henging” would not only enclose the site but played a highly visible part in the process of decay and ruination.

Hailed the “archetypal ritual sites of the third millennium BC” [7], henges have been regarded a distinct monument type since 1932 [9]. Made up of earthen banks and ditches, enclosing areas of varying size [10], henge interiors often featured timber or stone circles and the many different component arrangements inevitably resulted in monuments whose appearance varied as much as their size.

Like chambered cairns, the interpretation of henge sites has long laboured under the constraints of typology [7][9] resulting in the assumption they all served the same, generally vague, purpose, e.g. they were “probably somehow utilised as ritual monuments” [11]. Key to this interpretation is a preoccupation with the exterior earthworks [6] and a failure to look at henges as “complex, dynamic places which were constantly being reworked” [12].

It has been argued that the archetypal henge should not be seen as a single, preconceived construction but as a series of additions/alterations over a period of time. Move away from the idea they were unitary, single-phase construction and many questions surrounding  them can be better investigated.

The gradual “henging” of a site, for example, rather than the construction of a planned monument goes some way to explain the differences in complexity, size and internal features that have confounded henge typology for almost a century.

Links between henge sites and settlements are not uncommon and Pollard had no doubt that everyday life was inextricably linked to monumental creation [6]. Evidence for this included the parallels between chambered cairn architecture and that of the house [13]. But our modern understanding of the “domestic” house is problematic here. Was there a purely “domestic” house in the Neolithic? Yes, they were where people slept and prepared food, i.e. lived, but is that enough reason to reduce their cosmological significance? The house was clearly much more and highlights the tendency to separate the “sacred and secular as if they were categorically opposed” [14]. This sees structures and artefacts hailed “either ritual or functional” with no grey area between [14].

House One. Skara Brae. (Jim Richardson)

House One. Skara Brae, Sandwick, Orkney. (Jim Richardson)

“Ritual and domestic life were not two halves of a single phenomenon, to be picked apart by the archaeologist,” stressed Bradley. “Instead they formed two layers that seem to have been precisely superimposed” [14]. To Bradley, ritualisation was tied into everyday life [14], so it not only meant that ritual monuments and practices drew on domestic elements but that the symbolic significance of the Neolithic house has been greatly overlooked.

There has been a shift in recent years towards the idea that henge features – ditch, bank, posts, stone and timber circles – gradually “wrapped” or contained earlier sites [6][15]. The earthwork phase, which has been key to henge classification for decades was just one facet – perhaps short-lived and late – of places with long and diverse histories.

The construction of a henge was the creation of a physical “place” detached from the surrounding landscape. But it is important not to focus solely on the exclusion of the ordinary, everyday world but remember that the interior was also contained. This was achieved by the large bank outside an encircling, deep ditch. While a bank inside a ditch could have a defensive function, one on the outside provides attackers the benefit of high ground. This rendered them useless unless the intention was to keep things in, rather than out.

Looking at Irish Iron Age enclosures, Warner suggested the internal ditch was an inversion of the earthworks encountered at hill forts of the period. Where the normal arrangement was to defend against external “alien forces”, the reversed, internal ditch provided defence against a preternatural threat from within [16].

To Warner, the Iron Age enclosures were constructed at locales once thought to link the “Otherworld” with the “Real World”. While the supernatural denizens of that realm could not be stopped from entering the human world, they had to be stopped from exiting the “sacred area” [16]. Warner’s suggestion is one that Barclay found a plausible interpretation of henge monuments but proposed that in the  Neolithic it may have been be earlier structures, or the dead, that people needed protection from [17].

The Barnhouse Settlement, Stenness, Orkney. (Nick Card)

The Barnhouse Settlement, Stenness, Orkney. (Nick Card)

In Orkney, the discovery of the Barnhouse settlement ushered in a major change in how the landscape was perceived around was to become the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site.

The central hearth at the Stones of Stenness. (Sigurd Towrie)

The central hearth at the Stones of Stenness. (Sigurd Towrie)

The Stones of Stenness no longer existed in a ritual vacuum but sat “within the everyday world of the inhabitants of Barnhouse” [18].

Any notion of a division between “domestic” and “ritual” was dealt a further blow with the discovery of Barnhouse’s Structure Eight – a massive, hall-like construction enclosed by a wall [19]. The spatial similarity between this building and the Stones of Stenness prompted Richards to reinterpret the findings of the excavation at the stone circle and suggest it was erected on the site of an earlier building [19].

Hailed a “definitive classic henge” [7], the Stones of Stenness were excavated by Graham Ritchie in 1973-74. The interior was partially investigated but the features “could not be fully interpreted” [20], although a two-metre-square hearth was revealed at the centre.

Plan of the Stones of Stenness with the suggested large house structure in the interior. (After Richards 2013. Fig 3.15)

Plan of the Stones of Stenness with the suggested large house structure in the interior. (After Richards 2013. Fig 3.15)

Based on the presence of the hearth, Burl suggested in 2000 that the stone circle “may have been set up on the site of an earlier Skara Brae type of house” [10] but Richards’ reinterpretation centred on the fact that Ritchie’s excavation features closely resembled architectural elements of Structure Eight.

To him, the evidence that a “big house” once stood on site was “compelling” and that its remains had been sealed by a thick clay platform – a practice known from both Barnhouse and Maeshowe [18].

This structure, he suggested, was taken out of use, its walls dismantled, and the exposed hearth enlarged. The walls’ removal meant an alternative means of containing, or “wrapping”, the interior was required so it was enclosed by megaliths and finally an “extreme form of physical boundary” created in the form of a four-metre-wide, 2.3-metre-deep ditch [18].

Standing Stones of Stenness, Orkney. (Sigurd Towrie)

The Standing Stones of Stenness, Orkney, showing water lying in the remains of the ditch. (Sigurd Towrie)

Richards’ case was strengthened by the discovery of similar monumental buildings at the nearby Ness of Brodgar site. These had been partially dismantled before being sealed by midden. While not individually monumentalised, it could be that the entire site – flanked by walls to the north and south and water/marshland to the east and west – was already regarded as a contained enclosure. Excavation at Howe [21] and Maeshowe [22]  also suggests earlier Neolithic houses lie beneath passage graves.

Although Richards’ theory was that the Stones of Stenness central structure was dismantled [18], could it have been left to die and decay? If so, it seems that, in this case, it was not enough to simply leave the structure to fall into ruin. Instead, the site was contained by a ditch, a wall (or bank) and a circle of towering megaliths.

Perhaps something similar occurred around the suspected structure beneath Maeshowe. It was not considered appropriate to re-use or rebuild anything other than a chambered tomb, which was then contained by a ditch and wall.

Outside Orkney are other examples of apparently contained “house” sites.

Settlement features, structures and Henge Two at Wyke Down. (After French et al. 2007)

Settlement features, structures and Henge Two at Wyke Down. (French et al. 2007)

At Wyke Down, two elaborate structures stood adjacent to a henge [6]. The “houses” were circular with four central posts, laid out in a square [6] – thus following a widespread “square-in-circle” architectural pattern noted by Pollard [23].

Pollard pondered whether the Wyke Down henge related to funerary rites, suggesting refuse from the deceased’s house had been deposited in ditch pits, which were perhaps linked to the “processes of control of death pollution” [6].

The fact no structure was found inside the henge is not important. The shared east-west alignment, not to mention the fact that all three shared the same south-east axis and the similarity in size fitted Bradley’s suggestion that the henging of an area could be an alternative to constructing a house [24]. Instead, a monument was created “in the image of a domestic building”, utilising “banks and ditches, palisades, settings of monoliths and mounds” [24].

Examples of Late Neolithic house structures and timber settings sharing the square-in-circle configuration (Bradley 2013: 13)

Examples of Late Neolithic house structures and timber settings sharing the square-in-circle configuration (Bradley 2013: 13)

The square-in-circle architecture is usually linked to larger, more monumental constructions [23], including Stonehenge [25] and Durrington Walls’ northern [26] and southern [25] timber circles.

To Bradley, the square-in-circle house layout was replicated in timber settings “from Ireland to southern England” [27]. He regarded them, however, as an evolution – features “modelled on the [form] of the domestic dwelling” [27]. This was echoed by Thomas, who described two enclosed structures inside the Durrington Walls henge as an “intermediate form” between the houses in the eastern entrance settlement and the larger “unroofed” structures at Durrington 68, the northern circle and the Coneybury henge timber setting [28].

The two Durrington buildings, like Wyke Down, comprised a structure with a central hearth and post-holes marking the circular, outer walls. The hearths were flanked by massive posts and the buildings surrounded by a timber palisade, ditch and bank [28]. Citing Brophy’s argument that Early Neolithic timber halls were recreated centuries later as roofless, wooden structures [29], Thomas suggested the same thing happened at Durrington and Coneybury, where the timber circles were built to “represent [houses] after they had fallen into disrepair, with the roof collapsed but with the roof-posts and the palisade still standing” [28] – in other words, deliberately created replicas of ruinous buildings.

In this case, do we need to resort to representations of old, out-of-use structures for an explanation? Or are we looking at a situation like that proposed by Richards for the Stones of Stenness – old houses dismantled (or left to decay?) but carefully enclosed to contain pollution or malign forces?

The massive Durrington Walls henge, Wiltshire, showing the position of the northern and southern circles. (https://blog.stonehenge-stone-circle.co.uk)

The massive Durrington Walls henge, Wiltshire, showing the position of the northern and southern circles. (https://blog.stonehenge-stone-circle.co.uk)

At Durrington Walls’ southern circle, for example, the structure at its heart was wrapped by a series of rings of posts that transformed it “into a highly elaborate timber circle that was the wooden equivalent of Stonehenge” [6]. The status of these wrapped structures – whether cult houses, high-status dwellings, origin houses or shrines – was such that they “could not simply be left” so, suggested Pollard, appropriate action was required.

Over time it may be that the threat from these dying structures lessened or was entirely negated. Pollard highlighted that certain buildings only had limited “monumental intervention”, suggesting this was because they were no longer significant [6]. The Durrington Walls examples, however, were enclosed by earthworks suggesting that whatever was being contained was considered more potent [6].

The henge and pre-henge internal features at Coneybury, with post-holes belonging to a timber structure shaded in grey. (Pollard 2012: 103)

The henge and pre-henge internal features at Coneybury, with post-holes belonging to a timber structure shaded in grey. (Pollard 2012: 103)

This seems to be the case at Coneybury, which Pollard describes as “reminiscent of another square-in-circle structure, albeit on a fairly massive scale” [6]. The excavation evidence led Pollard to suggest that the Coneybury site began as a large fenced structure before it was enclosed by an earthwork that “physically separated it from the rest of the settlement and marked it out as something highly special or potent” [6].

To Pollard, Coneybury provided a fine example of a “process by which certain places or structures that formerly operated within a routine context might eventually become so significant or sacred that they required being ‘henged’” [6].

Returning to Richards’ Stenness hypothesis, while it fits with examples of “henging” houses across Britain there is a notable difference. Stenness was wrapped by stone megaliths and not wooden posts.

To Pollard, the material used to enclose a site might relate to the “temporality of the [henging] process” or the reason containment was considered necessary [6]. Wood could be temporary, linked to “time-limited spiritual danger” and the choice of timber used might have been significant [30].

The deliberate destruction of wooden enclosures could mark the end of the threat [6] but taking this a step further, did the “living” wood [31] containing the site also absorb the flow of “pollution” from the dying structure – its visible decay perhaps seen as a result of the process. Its eventual burning could represent the safe disposal of spiritually contaminated materials.

Stone, on the other hand, was permanent [6], the megalith perhaps representing ancestral or spiritual power [31] and perhaps adding an extra layer of protection. Here it is interesting to note the parallels between stone circles and the peristaliths and kerbs that surround Hebridean and Irish passage graves [32].

We cannot say whether the Stones of Stenness megaliths were preceded by timber posts but at least one standing stone in its vicinity possibly was [33], hinting at a scenario where decayed wooden posts were replaced with stone [33].

The Standing Stones of Stenness, looking north-west towards the Ness of Brodgar. (Sigurd Towrie)

Wrapped by stone? The Stones of Stenness, Orkney, looking north-west towards the Ness of Brodgar. (Sigurd Towrie)

Regardless of what the Stones of Stenness were erected to contain, one thing is beyond doubt – the megaliths were meant to last. As Richards put it: “The main conclusion to draw from the method of constructing the stone circle … is an intention of permanence” [18]. Whatever lay at the heart of that circle of towering stones, the threat it posed must have been deemed such that it had to be contained for eternity – not only by the creation of a ring of massive stones but a ditch and wall.

The Late Neolithic requirement to contain a range of sites is without question. While this could be for numerous reasons, one was perhaps to protect the everyday world while the structure inside died and decayed. The notion of animism in the Neolithic has been broached before and as Andrew Jones has pointed out: “The natural world is animate: seasons change; weather alters the landscape; animals and plants multiply and grow” [34].

If the hills were alive, then surely the idea there was more to Neolithic houses than mere stone walls deserves further consideration.


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