Review – Houses of the Dead?

1 min read

Alistair Barclay, David Field, and Jim Leary
Oxbow Books, £40
ISBN 978-1789254105
Review Oliver Harris

This volume, the 17th published by Oxbow on behalf of the Neolithic Studies Group, returns to two interrelated questions that have long been debated by archaeologists interested in Britain’s earliest monuments. The first is: do the wooden structures associated with long barrows represent ‘houses for the dead’? The second is: what, if anything, might these structures have to do with longhouses of Continental origin, many of which are centuries earlier in date? Inspired by Jim Leary’s excavations of Cat’s Brain long barrow (described in the introduction, as well as in CA 330 and 333), the volume explores these questions across 14 chapters. These range from intimate descriptions of particular relationships between the different kinds of architecture, via regional overviews, to thematic considerations of the chronology and similarity of houses and tombs. Importantly, comparisons from outside the UK are offered, including Central European, Irish, French, Polish, and Maltese examples.

The volume as a whole has much to recommend it. Up-to-date reports on fieldwork form the basis of several chapters, so there is much to learn here both for specialists and interested amateurs. If I have one bone to pick with the volume as a whole, it is that much (though by no means all) of the emphasis remains firmly on the final forms of architecture represented by the ground plans that archaeologists excavate. How much more might we learn about the relationships between houses, mortuary structures, and mounds if the process of building and using these structures took precedence over form?

Despite this small issue, the volume is a stimulating read. So, what then of the questions we started with: the link between long mounds and longhouses, and between houses of the dead and the living? In the end it is hard to disagree with Alasdair Whittle, who in his chapter emphasises the likelihood of a multiplicity of inspirations for British burial mounds. Similarly, Frances Healy’s conclusion (in her discussion chapter) that the similarities between the ground plans of Continental longhouses and structures under long barrows is simply incidental is hard to refute.

This review appeared in CA 364. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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