Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Ancestral Mounds

In June 2008 the research project by the Netherlands Organisation of Scientific Research financed research Ancestral Mounds. The social and Ideological significanse of barrows, 2900 - 11 BC started.

David Fontijn

Barrows - burial mounds - are the most widespread visible prehistoric monuments in Europe. Although usually seen as generic burial sites, it can be argued that especially barrows of the 3rd and 2nd millennium BC were highly important ritual places to prehistoric communities. It is not just the often exotic burial equipment of barrow graves which indicates this, but also the fact that in the course of time entire barrow landscapes could emerge: a lasting and highly visible manifestation of ancestral presence. 

Yet, making sense of the social and ideological significance of barrows poses several problems, like understanding why only specific burials were marked with mounds. Conventional theory sees barrows as privileged for (martial) chiefs, but there are now reasons to see such graves as more complex ritualized contexts, expressing specific cultural values and identities rather than power and wealth. It is also hard to make sense of the role of barrows in the landscape, and to understand the often remarkable spatial orderings of barrow groups as well as how barrows were embedded in the wider cultural landscape.

The project will investigate these problems using the rich barrow evidence from the southern and central Netherlands for the Late Neolithic-Middle Bronze Age period (2900-1100 BC). The research will be carried out at three spatial levels, each one subject of a PhD thesis. One will study the social identity of the dead in barrows by investigating the life-cycles of all artifacts in burial inventories by means of sourcing and use-wear analyses (Karsten Wentink). The second will seek out how and why barrows came to form entire barrow landscapes ( Quentin Bourgeois). The third will reconstruct the environment of barrow landscapes by means of pollen analysis, to find out how the land of the dead was interwoven with the world of the living ( Marieke Doorenbosch).

A book will integrate the results of the separate projects and place it in a European context. Partnership with a British project on barrows will provide the special opportunity to write a joint article on an in-depth comparison of results from either side of the North Sea. Local authorities in the study region like the Royal Estate will co-fund the project: they are interested in the results for development of cultural tourism and heritage management of barrows

Connection with other research