Inequality in Death: Researching Social Relationships in the Mesolithic Cemeteries of Western Europe

Freya Bates
University of York
fvb502 [at] york.ac.uk

This research was conducted with the aim of exploring the relationship between social equality and death in Mesolithic cemeteries, focusing on the burials of adults and children. Once these trends were analysed, this information was placed in a wider context, using theoretical models to produce a critical analysis of the data. This research was produced by following four objectives:

  • To suggest spatial patterns in the data through plotting Mesolithic cemetery sites into ArcGIS
  • To analyse age differences in the data through the comparison of adult and child burials
  • To analyse patterns in the data within a wider social context, using theoretical concepts displayed in the academic literature
  • To interpret both local and widespread burial data in Western Europe to produce a critical argument regarding the social context of Mesolithic burials

1. Introduction

Mesolithic cemeteries have been the focus of archaeological research for some time. Recently, the excavation of Mesolithic cemeteries in Europe has enabled the reanalysis and reinterpretation of previous excavations such as at the site of Téviec in France (Schulting 1996). Ultimately, this develops and remodels our prior definitions of social relationships and the dead. Despite the wealth of new information on Mesolithic cemeteries, a descriptive outline of the burials outside of the individual sites or local geographic regions are lacking. Fortunately, Meiklejohn’s publications in Mesolithic Miscellany have rigorously identified Mesolithic cemetery sites, producing a basic outline of the relevant information at each site. This includes data from the Netherlands (Meiklejohn 2015), Great Britain (Meiklejohn 2011), France (Meiklejohn 2010), and many other countries in Western Europe. Datasets such as this provide excellent foundations for the wider exploration of patterns, including the relationship between age and burial in the Mesolithic; potentially finding evidence for new interpretations, such as vertical or horizontal social differentiation (Clark et al. 1987, 124; Saxe 1971, 51).  Furthermore, this dataset can be used to compliment other literature. When using the academic literature in combination with Meiklejohn’s data, a more nuanced and critical insight can be formed. Therefore, in this study a wider perspective of social relationships in Mesolithic cemeteries will be produced.

2. Methods

In order to achieve these objectives, data relating to the aims of the research was gathered from reports that were published in Mesolithic Miscellany. (Meiklejohn 2009; Meiklejohn 2009a; Meiklejohn 2012; Meiklejohn 2009; Meiklejohn 2010; Meiklejohn 2011; Meiklejohn 2014; Meiklejohn 2015). The data gathered from the literature was then inserted into a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet under the following headings: the country name, the coordinates for latitude and longitude of the site (for later spatial research in GIS), the burial type, the minimum number of individuals of known sex at the site, the minimum number of individuals with a known age at the site, and information on the burial goods at the site. This spreadsheet can be found under the appendices for this research.

When recording the minimum number of individuals (also referred to as the MNI), the number recorded in the Microsoft Excel spreadsheet was rounded down when a range was provided in Meiklejohn’s work. For example, if at least four individuals were recorded at a site in Meiklejohn’s work, only four were recorded in this study. When recording the MNI for each age, Meiklejohn imposed the categories of ‘adult’ and ‘child’. However, he does not state how this is defined. Meiklejohn also appears to blur the categories of ‘juvenile’, ‘young adult’ and ‘adolescent’ in his work. It is not clear how young an individual must be in order to be considered a child, or where the threshold is in order to be classed as an adolescent rather than a child. This is most likely due to the complexities of determining the age of a skeleton, particularly when the skeleton is incomplete or the quality of preservation is poor (Walker, Johnson and Lambert 1988, 317-318). Therefore, an aspect of ambiguity must be considered in Meiklejohn’s dataset that has been used in this research project.

In order to provide some consistency in this research project, the terms ‘juvenile’, ‘young adult’ and ‘adolescent’ in Meiklejohn’s reports have all been interpreted as one and the same. Therefore, these were included under the MNI of ‘child’. In contrast to this, any individuals recorded as ‘elderly’ or ‘adult’ have all been collated under the MNI for ‘adults’. Similarly, the sex or age of an individual is not always known in Meiklejohn’s reports. This means that the dataset only included sites where this information can be provided. A further discrepancy to note is that Meiklejohn’s dataset of cemeteries does not establish a consistent definition of a ‘Mesolithic cemetery’. In previous works, Meiklejohn (1998, 205) has questioned what the term cemetery means, concluding that cemetery sites are also heavily linked to habitation. However, Meiklejohn provides no numerical range or minimum number of burials that define a cemetery. In this instance, it has been presumed that in order for a site to be classified as a cemetery, the site must contain one or more individuals. Therefore, in this study sites in which one or more individuals were found have been recorded as a cemetery.

Following data collation, Microsoft Excel was used to create charts and graphs. This was done in order to clearly display patterns in the burial data. Processing the data into charts and graphs also aided the selection of sites in order to analyse this dataset at a more local level. Following the data entry stage in Microsoft Excel, distribution maps were created in ArcGIS Pro. Data from www.naturalearthdata.com/ was used in order to provide the rivers, lakes and reservoirs. The coordinate data collated in Microsoft Excel was then uploaded into ArcGIS, providing a general distribution of the Mesolithic sites collated from Meiklejohn’s publications. No adjustments were made to Meiklejohn’s data in order to make it compatible with ArcGIS. Using this data as a foundation, distribution maps were then created in order to visually display the spatial- and age-based relationships in the burial data.

After the maps and charts were produced, the theoretical concepts of horizontal and vertical social differentiation were applied, placing Mesolithic social relationships in both a micro- and macro-context in Western Europe.

3. Results

In the production of results, two objectives of this study were addressed. The first objective was to identify spatial patterns in the data, and the second objective of this study was to analyse age differences in the data. These two objectives were addressed first as they were the broadest of the research objectives.

 

Figure 1: Spatial distribution of Mesolithic cemetery sites in Western Europe (Meiklejohn 2009; Meiklejohn 2009; Meiklejohn 2012; Meiklejohn 2009; Meiklejohn 2010; Meiklejohn 2011; Meiklejohn 2014; Meiklejohn 2015)
Figure 1: Spatial distribution of Mesolithic cemetery sites in Western Europe (Meiklejohn 2009; Meiklejohn 2009; Meiklejohn 2012; Meiklejohn 2009; Meiklejohn 2010; Meiklejohn 2011; Meiklejohn 2014; Meiklejohn 2015)

In order to address the first objective of this study, the coordinates for each site location were input into GIS. The map produced can be seen in Figure 1. Using this figure, some spatial relationships are evident to the reader. The first is that there is an accumulation of sites around water-based features such as rivers, lakes and coastal areas. While this will not be explored in this study, this has provided an interesting area of research (Larsson 2003, 10; Hallgren 2011, 244; Haughey 2009, 3). There are also clear gaps in the clusters of sites, for example there is a depletion of sites in the North of England and Scotland. This is potentially due to a lack of sites having been excavated or discovered. After a basic distribution, the second more specific objective of this study could be addressed.

The second objective of this study was to analyse any age-based relationships in the data. In order to develop this area of the research further, the individuals per country were analysed. This allowed a visual representation of the MNI of both child and adult burials recorded per country in Meiklejohn’s work. As represented in Figure 2, after collating Meiklejohn’s data into a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet, the number of individuals per country are represented in a bar chart. A bar chart was chosen because this displays the data in a clear and simple way. One caveat that was noted here is the high number of individuals recorded in France in comparison to other countries. France in Figure 2 shows a number of 66 individuals, compared to the second highest of the Netherlands with 39. This is virtually double the number of individuals in France compared to the Netherlands. Therefore, when analysing this data, it should be considered that the amount of burials for each age will ultimately be higher in France and the Netherlands in comparison to other countries. This trend highlights gaps in the archaeological record, not a preference for burials in Mesolithic France and the Netherlands. Furthermore, it must be considered that the grouping of data has been affected by our own geo-political boundaries. In the Mesolithic, France was not country as we consider it today. Therefore, due to higher landmasses, countries that are larger will most likely have more recorded burials. For example, the large landmass of France has 66 recorded burials in comparison to Ireland’s 15 (see Figure 2).

 

Figure 2: Bar chart of the MNI of burials per country
Figure 2: Bar chart of the MNI of burials per country

4. Discussion

5.1 Theoretical framework

In this section, the theoretical framework that was used to interpret the data will be discussed. This framework was used in order to address the third objective of this study. In this study, two theoretical models were applied. Both models focus on the idea of social differentiation and the social persona; the status that an individual held within a society at the time of death (Clark et al. 1987, 121). The social persona can be expressed in two ways - vertical and horizontal social differentiation. Horizontal social differentiation ‘allocates statuses according to intrinsic, probably universal features’ such as age, personal merit, or gender (Clark 1987, 121). This is often found to feature in egalitarian societies. As stated by (Spikins 2008, 176), these societies connote ‘influence and respect, earned through skills, knowledge or wisdom’. In contrast, vertical social differentiation can be defined as a society in which not all individuals can occupy the same social status, and therefore wealth may be inherited (Clark 1987, 121). Archaeological evidence of this in cemeteries can potentially be seen when children have a large amount of grave goods in comparison to some adults; this is representative of inherited wealth.

Based upon the definitions of horizontal and vertical differentiation, the graves of adults and children were studied. This is because the comparison of differences in the funerary practice between children and adults allows for both the ‘social and conceptual changes the role of children had in these communities’ and the provision of a ‘template on which regional and sometimes local beliefs and practices can be viewed’ (Georgiadis 2011, 31).  Throughout, the theoretical ideas used in this study contained the assumption that burial practices can directly infer the social standing or persona of an individual.

5.2 Local differential status

One of the aims of this study was to analyse social relationships at both a micro- and macro-scale. In a study conducted by Clark et al. in 1987, data collected from the Journal of Human Evolution (1979) suggested that the habit of burying individuals in cemeteries became more common overtime, moving from the singular burials in the Middle Palaeolithic to the cemeteries of the Mesolithic (Clark et al. 1987). Saxe (1971, 51) explains this trend by suggesting that the emergence of cemeteries may be due to the appearance of groups in which individual status is solidified through obtaining resource access. Therefore, burial of your ancestors in a selected area is a way of reinforcing your ‘claim to the right of eminent domain’ (Clark et al. 1987, 122). Clark et al.’s (1987, 124) study concluded that there is a large variance of social organisations in the Late Mesolithic, and that no clear pattern for either vertical or horizontal social differentiation could be seen globally.  However, sites on a local level did contain indicators of a differential status (Clark et al. 1987, 124). This is because, based on Saxe’s theory, if cemeteries represent an individual’s status within a group then the vertical or horizontal social differentiation trend will only exist within that group. Therefore, in this study it was concluded that social relationships are specific to each cemetery, and a singular social structure cannot be inferred for the whole of Western Europe. In order to understand localised social relationships further, the spatial distribution and intensity of burials at each site can be viewed in figures 3 and 4 below.

Figure 3: Density of the MNI of adult burials per site in Western Europe
Figure 3: Density of the MNI of adult burials per site in Western Europe

 

Figure 4: Density of the MNI of child burials per site in Western Europe
Figure 4: Density of the MNI of child burials per site in Western Europe

5.3 Vertical social differentiation

As stated by Clark et al. (1987, 124) the French sites revealed evidence of vertical social differentiation. When analysing vertical differentiation, the French site of Téviec was used. As seen in figures 5 and 6 below, Téviec clearly has a high amount of child and adult burials (Meiklejohn 2010, 20), as indicated by the black dots on figures 5 and 6. However, there are more adult burials that have been recorded because child burials do not preserve as well as adult burials (Walker, Johnson and Lambert 1988, 187).When referring to Meiklejohn’s data on Téviec (2010, 20), the site is described as containing ‘23 individuals in ten graves (14 adults, 1 adolescent and 8 children)’ (Meiklejohn 2010, 20). Aside from this, little description is given aside from a reference to the work of Schulting and their consideration of the ‘broader burial context’ (Meiklejohn 2010, 20).

 

Figure 5: Density of the MNI of Adult burials per site in France
Figure 5: Density of the MNI of Adult burials per site in France

 

Figure 6: Density of the MNI of Child burials per site in France
Figure 6: Density of the MNI of Child burials per site in France

The site of Téviec (Schulting 1996, 347) suggested the burials are based on ‘status differentiation’. In Schulting’s work (1996, 341), the relationship of artefact richness was studied. In this study, it was suggested that adults showed a larger artefact richness than sub-adults or the elderly (see Figure 7). Other studies have also confirmed this relationship through shell ornaments at the site, with adults having been interred with more ornamentation than children (Taborin 1974, 174-7). Further evidence for vertical social differentiation can be inferred at Téviec through burial customs associated with hearth construction over the grave. Schulting (1996, 341) noted that most of the feasting hearths constructed over the graves contained either red deer or boar bones (sometimes both).  However, two graves that contained children and infants did not. Schulting (2013, 341) therefore concluded that this feasting had not occurred for the children and infants, potentially because it was ‘not available to all members of society’. Meanwhile, Conneller (2013, 2) suggested that the site of Téviec ‘could indicate inherited status’ in young children, using Schulting’s work further as an explanation for this. Therefore, using a combination of Meiklejohn’s data set (2010, 20) highlighting a concentration of burials at Téviec, and other literary sources, this research paper suggests that the site provides evidence of vertical differentiation.

 

Figure 7: Artefact richness per age at Téviec (Schulting 1996, 342)
Figure 7: Artefact richness per age at Téviec (Schulting 1996, 342)

5.4 Horizontal social differentiation

In contrast, horizontal social differentiation, can be seen towards a more northern latitude, in southern Scandinavia (Schmidt 2005, 87). However, Meiklejohn’s data is not extensive in its exploration of sites in horizontal social differentiation, and therefore is not referenced in this section. Schmidt’s (2005, 87) analysis of the three sites of Skateholm I, Skateholm II, and Vedbaek-Bøgebakken suggested that there was no statistical significance or correlation between biological sex and funerary ‘characteristics’. A ‘funerary characteristic’ can be defined as including burial attributes such as skeletal position, richness of grave goods and association with ochre (Schmidt 2005, 87). The study used chi-square tests which determine statistical significance between independent variables (McHugh 2013, 143). The sites of Skateholm I, Skateholm II, and Vedbaek-Bøgebakken are within around 80km of one another and are fairly contemporaneous in their occupation dates (Schmidt 2005, 87). As these sites showed that there was an even distribution of funerary characteristics in ‘respect to biological sex’ (Schmidt 2001, 89), the sites of Skateholm I, Skateholm II, and Vedbaek-Bøgebakken can be used to suggest presence of horizontal social differentiation in Mesolithic Western Europe. This is because the assumption is made that burial characteristics are intrinsic with the persona of an individual within their society. Therefore, when referring back to Clark’s (1987, 121) definition that was used in the theoretical framework, these sites ‘allocates statuses according to intrinsic, probably universal features’; such as biological sex.

5.5 The wider context

The two case studies above that used Meiklejohn’s data sets as a basis for this wider research have addressed the final two objectives of this study. The first of which was to put Meiklejohn’s data in a localised context. This was addressed through the analysis of social contexts of horizontal and vertical social differentiation. Considering the use of wider literature, the author of this study would like to argue that it is clear that these two examples are regionally specific to the Mesolithic culture of that time. When analysing the social context of Mesolithic cemeteries on a wider scale (Western Europe), we cannot see an absolute rule for burial custom. Each cemetery has a unique funerary practice that is specific to that society's culture. When placing Mesolithic burials in the wider context of social relationships, we must remember to maintain ‘sensitivity to cultural differences in the past(Schmidt 2005, 100). When addressing the final objective of this study, it can therefore be argued that each cemetery must be studied individually in order to accurately place this within its Mesolithic social context.

5. To conclude

This research began with the intention of answering the following objectives:

  • To identify  spatial patterns in the data through plotting Mesolithic cemetery sites into ArcGIS
  • To analyse age differences in the data through the comparison of adult and child burials
  • To place patterns from the data in a wider social context, using theoretical concepts displayed in the academic literature
  • To interpret  both local and widespread burial data in Western Europe to produce a critical argument regarding the social context of Mesolithic burials

Overall, the objectives in this study set-out were explored thoroughly. Meiklejohn’s dataset highlighted a high amount of both adult and child burials predominant within the areas of France and the Netherlands, including the consideration of the effect of geo-political markers Spatial patterns were identified in the data that suggested that an accumulation of sites around waterways and rivers. Therefore, the first objective of this study was addressed.  These patterns were then combined with wider academic literature to place specific sites in the context of social relationships in the Mesolithic, allowing further exploration of age differences within the data. Within the discussion of this research, the two final objectives were addressed. This research suggested that these relationships are specific to the communities of each individual cemetery, and therefore cannot be used to infer the relationship between social equality and death throughout Western Europe as a whole. However, the frameworks of horizontal and vertical social differentiation are useful for identifying these relationships on a site-by-site basis.

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Appendices

Spreadsheet from the Research: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1bVyyCqp5vtKLDbqo8_Fzp6Hw8-_S5UgX...