The megaliths of western Europe

The earliest surviving stone-built (megalithic) monuments of Europe, the so-called chambered tombs of the Neolithic, are distributed along the Atlantic seaboard of Europe, from southern Sweden to Iberia, and were erected by some of the first European agriculturalists. Regarded as the representations of a single phenomenon of tomb building (Laporte & Scarre 2016), no independent radiocarbon chronology for these structures was established until the early 1960s. With that chronology now in place we know that the earlier estimated dating of this building tradition was both too short in its duration, and too recent in its origin (Daniel 1963 [1962], 143-146). Until the 1960s, these monuments of the Neolithic agriculturalists of western Europe were treated culturally, as representing the regional developments of a building tradition that expressed people’s ideas as to how their dead should be treated. These ideas were assumed to have been influenced both by the common origin of a single category' of monument, and by the regionally developing techniques of tomb construction (Daniel 1963). The tradition of tomb building was therefore believed to represent the spread of a cult of communal burial, the origins of which were assumed to have lain in the eastern Mediterranean (Childe 1940, 46-80; Childe 1958, 124-134). Consequently, archaeological analysis was directed towards establishing the history, and the spread, of the megalithic cultural tradition by focusing upon the details of what were believed to have been sequences of regional architectural developments (cf. Daniel 1950b & 1960; Powell et al. 1969). This was the approach that Colin Renfrew sought to overturn by establishing a more generally adaptive and functional reason for why early European agriculturalists might have built these tombs in this part of Europe. While these monuments were still accepted to be the tombs that represented a cultural tradition concerning the ways that the dead should be buried, the dominant question that Renfrew posed was: what additional adaptive requirement might these monuments have satisfied?

Renfrew’s interpretation of the data exploited the implications derived from the first radiocarbon dates. These indicated that the tombs predated, by a considerable margin, their previously claimed Mediterranean precursors, and the new chronology' implied that some of the earliest of these monuments were found in western France (Renfrew 1976 & 1973b, 120-146; cf. Schulz Paulsson 2019). By providing the grounds for rejecting accounts of cultural diffusion, whilst also hoping to explain the emergence of megalithic tombs as a class of monuments, a category' that Renfrew accepted was the product of‘a taxonomic decision of our own’, he maintained that the tombs arose as the manifestation of:

a particular set of conditions [that] existed in the Atlantic region at this time, conditions that were not seen elsewhere in Europe, and that these favoured the construction of stone monuments by the small-scale societies of the time. Such a general formulation . . . would explain for us the essentially independent genesis of stone monuments, no doubt of widely different forms in several areas. (Renfrew 1976, 199)

Renfrew argued that the category' of ‘megalithic tomb’ was unified not by its derivation from a common origin and the subsequent diffusion of an evolving cultural idea, but rather by the functional role of tomb building in securing the ongoing claims of segmentary units of agriculturalists to territories of land (Figures 1.1 & 1.2). It was this role that had resulted from the conditions that pertained in several different regions along the Atlantic facade of Europe during the early Neolithic, and it was these conditions that therefore determined the ways that people had behaved. Renfrew’s argument was:

to see in these monuments an expression of territorial behaviour in small- scale segmentary societies . . . [and] to suggest that such forms of territorial behaviour may be particularly frequent in small-scale segmentary societies of this kind in circumstances of population stress. (Renfrew 1976, 200)

The existence of ‘population stress’ was an entirely hypothetical explanation, given that no empirical data was offered to support its existence. Instead Renfrew argued that this ‘stress’ had arisen as the result of an advancing wave of colonising agriculturalists, arriving from central Europe, who were forced to adapt to the absence of any further opportunities for westward dispersal by the existence of the Atlantic seaboard (cf. Giot 1963, 3). The resulting population pressure was assumed to have been exacerbated because these migrants had arrived in coastal and riverine environments that might still have been heavily settled by hunter-gatherers

Renfrew’s map indicating the proposed regions for the independent development of chambered tombs (Renfrew 1973c, Fig. 25)

FIGURE 1.1 Renfrew’s map indicating the proposed regions for the independent development of chambered tombs (Renfrew 1973c, Fig. 25).

(Renfrew 1976, 213). Thus, whilst cultural archaeology had treated the detailed architectural comparisons of individual monuments as signifying the execution of certain cultural ideas that had been transmitted from one place to another, Renfrew’s interpretation abandoned the treatment of architectural form as expressing cultural influences and turned instead to treat the pattern of tomb distributions as signifying the emergence of a form of territorial land-holding.

Both the earlier cultural analysis, and the alternative offered by Renfrew, employ general assumptions, in the first case about people’s own deployment of cultural rules, and in the second about the possible development of small-scale segmentary societies responding to the presumed pressures of population growth. Both kinds of analysis therefore accepted that the material residues, classified archaeologically, signified the kinds of process that had resulted in the formation of those residues, and each also employed those aspects of the data (tomb form versus locational analysis) that best fitted with the explanation they sought to construct. In this way the earlier studies, which claimed to trace cultural histories, referenced the

Renfrew’s map of tomb locations on the Isle of Arran, Argyll, with hypothetical territories outlined, and with modern arable land indicated by stippling (Renfrew 1976, Fig. 6)

FIGURE 1.2 Renfrew’s map of tomb locations on the Isle of Arran, Argyll, with hypothetical territories outlined, and with modern arable land indicated by stippling (Renfrew 1976, Fig. 6).

architectural detail of particular monuments arising from what were claimed to have been culturally transmitted and locally executed rules of behaviour. The form of the monuments was not the kind of data that was addressed by Renfrew whose concern lay instead with the geographical distribution of the monuments as indicative of the early agricultural adaptation to the landscape by means of territorially based activities (Figure 1.2).

 
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