Professor Colin Richards Challenging Our Assumptions of the Neolithic World

The Neolithic World was “a world where nothing is stable or static, materials and substances are able to leak and flow.” Professor Colin Richards

The topic of Ruination and Decay might not seem at first glance to be a crowd puller but take a second look because it was.

Professor Colin RichardsDecaying Flesh and Instability of Substances: Rethinking Megalithic/Neolithic Chambered Tombs was the first in a series of talks being held by The University of the Highland and Islands Humanities & Research Cluster. The first presentation, open to the public and livestreamed,  was by renowned archaeologist Professor Colin Richards at Orkney College UHI on Thursday 28th of February.

Professor Richards found the right balance between speaking to an academic audience and members of the public in a witty, insightful and thought provoking lecture.

When we study the past we try to find the familiar – something we can relate to – in order to understand human actions. This is a bias we all have who research historical events and people. Even when we look back within relatively recent history to the First World War , for example, it is very difficult to analyse why people did what they did from the perspective of the conventions of their own time. The further back in human history we go this becomes even more difficult.

Professor Richards laid down a challenge at the very start of his talk by confronting us with this error in our assessment of people and societies in Megalithic/Neolithic times.

This is a time (c3400BC-2400BC)  which is not familiar to us. It has elements which we think of as familiar, farming-  growing crops, keeping animals and building houses but this is a society alien to us. When we apply our assumptions based on what is familiar to us and the connections we try to find –  we are wrong to do this.

Professor Richards went on to consider in particular tombs/monuments and he posed a series of questions:

  • What is a monument?
  • Why do they look so unusual?
  • Why are they so big?
Giants Grave Arran

Giants Grave , Arran photo gailhampshire

In the tombs are lots of bones – some are articulated, some disarticulated. It is a bit a of jumble.

In the past archaeologists thoughts were that the tombs were communal burial places.

Professor Richards described the tombs as ‘containers of the dead’ where the bodies of the dead were placed, sometimes wrapped in cloth, and left to decay. The bodies were out of sight but more would be added to the tomb and the smell of the decaying flesh would fill the enclosed space.

“Is the chambered tomb the final resting place? “ asked Professor Richards who then took a leap sideways and asked us to consider the themes in ‘The Third Policeman‘ by Flann O’Brien. Now this might seem to be a bit squee whiff but what Professor Richards was asking us to consider was a ‘fluid relational world‘.

“The continual cracking of your feet on the road makes a certain quantity of road come up into you. When a man dies they say he returns to clay but too much walking fills you up with clay far sooner (or buries bits of you along the road) and brings your death half way to meet you.” The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien

The Neolithic World was “a world where nothing is stable or static, materials and substances are able to leak and flow.”

It was this fluidity – the decomposing of human remains seeping back into the stone – that was taking place within the tombs.

Skins, surfaces  – textures dominate the Neolithic world. Pottery is burnished, smoothed forming a skin around the vessel. Stone axes – polished to create a skin.

Professor Richards further postulated that the monuments themselves have skins with outer walls. In some sites stones are placed so that the cleaved side is  the one facing inwards.

For the Neolithic Peoples decay was not a negative thing but generative – a creation of new things. Professor Richards described his theory that the bodies are pressed up against the walls of the tombs which is the inner skin of the stone. As the body decomposes and decays it falls apart and the ‘being’ of the person is absorbed into the stone. The bones are left , sometimes in what seems a chaotic mess through the decomposition process and later human interaction.

The bodies are ‘feeding the monument’. It is a living ancestral entity always in a state of becoming.

What an excellent start to this series. Challenging us to discard our comforting assumptions is what academia should be doing.

You can watch the video of the talk here

Reporter: Fiona Grahame

2 replies »

  1. Fiona, thank you for reporting on this. I very much wanted to go to this seminar, but 1-2 on a Thursday lunchtime, just isn’t possible for me.
    I’ll now settle down to watch the video.
    Thank you, Orkney News, for making the unavailable, available.

    And, I am tickled by the words……”Ruination and Decay”. It’s like something my Auntie Bridie would have said – “From the day he set foot on that farm, the whole place went to ruination and decay”.
    I do like words.

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