Monday, 11 March 2013

Pots: On Telly- Stonehenge and the Etruscans

Stonehenge- Image English Heritage.

As you might have guessed from the Richard III post I wrote a few weeks ago, I do spend a fair bit of my off time watching archaeological TV. When archaeology hits the screen, I'm usually to be found gurning and growling or glued and gibbering in front of whatever programme is featuring what is officially my "work." The thing with research in a topic that you love is that it will seep into every second of your daily life- so that a documentary with seemingly very different archaeologial strands to your own specialism will suddenly strike a big fat chord. That phenomenon happened to me last night- Sunday post-roast doze interrupted by some fantastic archaeology on TV and then the sudden ZING of ideas into my brain.

Because, you see, the Etruscans are connected to Stonehenge. Honest. This isn't just a tagline to lure in the crazies that think that both were influenced by aliens or possessed a secret occult knowledge. All will be revealed, I promise, just bear with me...

So, "Secret of the Stonehenge Skeletons" aired last night on Channel 4, a channel making up for its recent production sins with a fantastic example of how TV archaeology should be done. It was presented by the genuinely lovely Mike Parker Pearson (he was a warm and gentle interviewer to me as an 18 year old so it's not just a screen persona). MPP is one of the leading experts (if not THE leading expert) on Stonehenge- he's used all sorts of innovative ways to transform the way we think about the monument and other Neolithic megalith sites- my favourite is his work collaborating with Malagasy archaeologist R. Ramilisonina to consider associations between ancestor worship, stone and wood (published in Antiquity, which means you can't read it without a library subscription sadly- it's here anyway. You can get the scoop on the latest results of MPP's work in his new book, here). The programme used some of the latest scientific tests on burials from Stonehenge and faunal remains from the neighbouring site of Durrington Walls (and EXPLAINED the methods properly showing the charts- hurrah!*) to argue that Stonehenge served as a communal place of celebration and festivity for groups coming from as far away as Orkney to venerate a group of elite ancestors buried there in the earliest phases of the monument. So far, no Etruscans.

The Amesbury Archer- Image Salisbury Museum

Having put forward this interpretation, MPP turned to change. Why did Stonehenge stop being important? Why was Durrington Walls abandoned around 2500 BCE? He suggested that in addition to new individuals coming into Britain from Europe, new ideas about identity came too. People stopped caring about communal ancestors- they wanted recognition for their individual, living selves. MPP suggested that the introduction of inhumation (burial of the entire corpse, as happened to the Amesbury Archer, above) with grave goods indicated an increased concern with recognising the individual in death, which co-incided neatly with the importation of new material culture from Europe- particularly "Beaker" pots and metal daggers.This emphasis on the self, rather than the whole, lead to the construction of smaller barrows, celebrating the recently dead, rather than to huge megaliths as monuments to groups of shared ancestors. Quite a few people (especially vocal last night on Twitter) weren't fans of this interpretation of social change in the Neolithic/Early Bronze Age. They suggested that it's a narrative born from modern events- particularly the negative reaction to Thatcherian selfishness. Essentially, greed is good supposedly destroyed the happy hedonism of the 70s... just like imported egos resulted in the decline in monument building.

Biconical urn- Image Musei Vaticani.
I think that's an unfair and unfounded critique. And here's where the Etruscans come in. I wrote briefly in my first post on the Etruscans about chronology and change in Etruria over the 8th and early 7th centuries. This period, known in Italian as the Seconda Eta del Ferro (Second Iron Age) is often called the "Orientalising" phase in English, a term I don't like and won't use**.  Prior to this point, Etruscan burials, just like those from the earlier phases at Stonehenge, are in the main cremations. One of the key changes of the Seconda Eta del Ferro is the switch to inhumation, which, while not universal, does suggest a transformation in mortuary practice in Italy during this period. In a recent book chapter, which will be out soon, I unknowingly made a very similar argument about the origins of this change in Italy to the suggestions of MPP about change at Stonehenge. In the Etruscan case, we are fortunate to have what I see as a transitory phase between cremation and inhumation- personalised cremation with grave goods. Through an analysis of two cremation cemeteries dating to the late Villanovan period, I argued that the addition of grave goods to cremation burials formed the first step to inhumation. The traditional form of burial in Etruria throughout the Villanovan period was cremation and placement in a biconical urn. These urns are decorated with geometric designs, which have been linked to geographical origin (DeAngelis 2001). Over time, urns become more personalised- they are topped with helmets of bronze or pottery, decorated by the addition of jewellery around the urn neck, and, at Chiusi, given human features and eventually placed on seats and given arms like human bodies (a phenomenon known as ziro burial). The emphasis seems to be squarely on the urn as a reformed version of the dead person's body, as suggested by Anthony Tuck (2012).

Canopic urn on throne. Image: Trustees of the British Museum

So, thinking things through, what we have is a practice of reconstructing the dead body into a shared, universal form. In spite of the high level of resources needed to produce a pyre, the result is the removal of all individual identity from the deceased- they become fragments of bone, rather than a whole, dressed corpse. The re-dressing and re-building of these parts into a new body does not recreate the specificity of that individual's living body: it puts them together in an urn marked with decorations declaring communal identity. The dead person is not represented as a single unique person, but rather as the amalgam of their geographical and familial connections. What happened to change this? I think increased trade did. Central Italy has huge iron deposits, providing a bank of wealth with which to trade and acquire other prestigious objects once the resource began to be exploited. The explosion of trade that we can see in the Seconda Eta del Ferro gave Etruscan elites the opportunity to convert their wealth into material objects, but it also did something else. It placed the responsibility for wealth creation squarely on the present generation- on the individual, not on the ancestors. The sharing of identity in death, the melding of individuals into identical urn bodies full of burned bone, was no longer relevant for people whose self-identity was tied up in their own wealth creation and possessions. This change didn't happen overnight- it started with the dressing and personalisation of urns and the addition of a few pots, weapons and ornaments, before becoming individual burial mounds filled with objects. Tumuli and these so-called princely burials full of imported goods eventually developed into the elaborate and highly personal tombs of the Archaic period. Even where cremation continues, like at Chiusi, urns become more and more the seat of the individual- expressions of self, rather than of community.As wealth spreads to more individuals, single tumuli become multiple tombs.

MUCH later cremation urn from Chiusi. Image: wikimedia commons/Metropolitan Museum New York
So, if we are seeing a very similar phenomenon in terms of changes in the material culture of death, and the increase in trading opportunities in both Neolithic Britain and Late Iron Age Etruria, can we infer a similar interpretation? That these changes are symptom and cause of a transformation in the way people in the past conceived of themselves in life and in death? I don't think it's an anti-Thatcher, neo-Marxist hypothesis harking back to a Golden Age in my case, and I doubt it is in MPPs- the sort of value judgements associated with good Stonehenge and bad Bronze Age in that model just don't apply. I think it's rather a considered narrative to explain dramatic change without falling back on invasion theories. The agency for change is not with incoming know-it-alls ordering locals about: the power to make changes is  linked to the desires and wishes of Etruscans, or Neolithic Britons. Yes, people are moving around, like the Amesbury archer (whose isotopes suggest he came from Europe) and (perhaps) immigrants to Etruria from Greece, Lydia and the Levant. But these movements should be taken as a sign of travel, of increased access to trade, of fluidity and relocation in prehistory. MPP's conclusions about Stonehenge and the organic dismantling of traditional society are not ideas I'd considered about Etruria- I'd only thought about changes in death, not in life. But, after a very fruitful Sunday night TV session, I'll probably give them some more thought.

What do you think? Did you watch it?

*The programme wasn't perfect though- it drives me CRAZY when people refer to the Neolithic as the Stone Age. I know it's technically correct, but public perception of the Stone Age is of the Paleolithic- you hear Stone Age, you think "caveman." Nobody thinks of the Neolithic, and less than nobody thinks of the awkward middle child of prehistory, the Mesolithic, unless it's to talk about Star Carr and leaping around with antlers on your head (slightly unfair). Even if this gap between perception and archaeology didn't exist, the "Stone Age" is a bloody long time to slop together into one term (Sorry Thomsen, sorry 3 age system). Let's have less lazy terminology and more clarity please. Nitpicky mean rant over.

** I think the phrase, in addition to having some very unpleasant colonial baggage (see Edward Said's "Orientalism"),  places the Etruscans as passive receptors of exotic Eastern wonders. Yes, new types of material culture inspired by contact with the Eastern Mediterranean were arriving in Etruria- but how were they getting there? Who was choosing to incorporate them? Why? I like "Seconda Eta del Ferro" as it neatly dullifies the period (is dullify even a word?). You can't attach origins hypotheses or post-colonial critique to something as boringly, safely prosaic as Seconda Eta del Ferro- it just won't let you.


DeAngelis, D. 2001. La ceramica decorata di stile “villanoviano” in Etruria meridionale. Soveria Mannelli: Rubbettino.

Said, E. 1978. Orientalism. London: Penguin.

Tuck, A. 2012. The Performance of Death. Monumentality, burial practice and community identity in central Italy's urbanizing period. In M. Thomas, I. Edlund-Berry, and G. Meyers (eds.) Monumentality in Etruscan and Early Roman Architecture: Ideology and Innovation. Austin: University of Texas Press, 41-60.

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