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The University of Southampton
TAG 2016 Southampton

S33. Where ‘Strangers and Brothers/Sisters’ Meet: Places of Congregation in Archaeology

Session organizer:

Bisserka Gaydarska (Durham University,

Session abstract:

Places of congregation have a long prehistory, beginning with the seasonal aggregation sites of hunter-gatherers in times of plenty, continuing with monumental places or places of special deposition with no obvious monumentality and reaching recent and modern examples of pilgrimage and seasonal rock festivals. Is there anything that TAG delegates can learn from a discussion of such a diverse group of sites?

While speakers have been selected for the diversity of their material – from Göbekli Tepe in Anatolia to the Burning Man Festival in Nevada – we assume some communalities between the sites which underpin the possibility of asking generic questions about the phenomenon. The communalities include the basic idea of a special site of supra-local significance, which brought together people who were not usually meeting on a regular basis – in C. P. Snow’s phrase, ‘strangers and brothers/sisters’. These meetings may have started out with a principal function in mind but evolved into a suite of multi-purpose practices (think the debate on N.W. European causewayed enclosures; or how did seasonal gatherings morph into ritual congregations?).

The generic questions arising out of these communalities are many and various, but include their origins (in many cases, there may well not have been a prior model – but perhaps prior ritual places / landscapes linked through long-term memory?); the temporal and spatial scale of gathering (did these places include a residential component ?) and movement (how far did people travel to such places?); of great importance – to what extent did these places and practices have a transformative effect on the participating communities?; can we identify material entanglements that developed at these places (were there emergent novel agencies for objects and places?; what were the unexpected outcomes to such meetings).

The aim of this discussion is to make connections between classes of sites, between remote times and places, that had not been brought into relation before and to use the theme of congregation to investigate cultural change in particular contexts but also on a broader scale. Places and practices of interest for this theme include: forager fission-fusion cycles, Göbekli Tepe, Glastonbury & Burning Man, Cycladic Bronze Age congregation sites, Trypillia mega-sites, Avebury, Cahokia, the hadj, Early Medieval Scandinavian gathering places. One multi-talented discussant has yet to be identified.

You are invited to visit the 'Trypillia Mega-Sites' international travelling exhibition, which will be held at the University of Southampton during TAG 2016 (Monday 19th-Wednesday 21st December, Avenue Campus B65, Foyer outside Lecture Theatre B).

Contributor Abstracts:

The Greenham Women’s Peace Camps: an archaeology of contingent settlement

Yvonne Marshall (University of Southampton)

From 1981-2000, ‘peace women’ protesters maintained camps at some or all of the gates into the US Airforce Base at Greenham Common, Newbury, Berkshire. Their protest was against the planned deployment of nuclear Cruise missiles at the Greenham base. The number of protesters varied widely as women from across the globe came and went. For the ‘Embrace the Base’ protest day, more than 20,000 women came to Greenham, but at other times numbers fell well below 100. The protesters lived in improvised plastic ‘benders’ and actively sought to ‘live lightly on the land’, leaving as little footprint as possible. In addition, the women were subject to repeated evictions which, for several years, could happen on a daily basis.

One of the principal objectives of The Common Ground Project, conducted from 2003-6, was the documentation and characterisation of the archaeology of the women’s camps. In the first instance, we simply wanted to find out if such a thing as a peace women’s archaeological record could be identified at Greenham. Happily we did find one! This paper offers a brief summary of that archaeology and in particular discusses the character of the peace women’s settlements at four sites of occupation.

Communal spaces: defining meeting places through intercultural methodologies

Lara Milesi (University of Granada, Spain)

The presence of what have been called ‘prehistoric ditched enclosures’ in Iberia - recintos de fosos - and the analysis of their archaeological data from different perspectives have tended to generate interpretations in terms of dichotomies during the last decades. This discussion has confronted ideas of permanent settlement and meeting place as well as functional or ritual understandings. According to the latter, some of these studies have interpreted the sites as non-permanent settlements or spaces where human groups gathered cyclically. This paper will present some preliminary results of a research programme focused on the definition of the notion of meeting place that has been applied in Neolithic and Chalcolithic studies in Southern Iberia. First, it will present how Iberian archaeologists have adopted this notion and how this adoption has sometimes made uncritical use of ethnographic data. Secondly, it will propose an inter-disciplinary methodology in which archaeology and anthropology will work in order to enhance the understanding of such a site category through the study of past and contemporary meeting places. Finally, this paper will show activities that are carried out in Chile and New Zealand with the collaboration of Mapuche and Māori people and through which gathering complexity is studied in the light of socio-cultural and historical contexts and changes. Landscapes, nature and the architectures of meeting places will be developed under local concepts of rewe and marae respectively and by using native language to improve our understanding of these ‘places of congregation’.

Ecological and social factors in hunter-gatherer aggregation

Robert Layton (Durham University)

I plan to review information that I’ve collected from the literature (including areas where I’ve carried out fieldwork), on hunter-gatherer aggregations: their frequency, the time of year they take place, and the activities that take place during such gatherings. I will probably take a few case studies, such as the Inuit, Cree, Ache, and northern and central Australia, to try and separate the ecological and the social functions of aggregation, with some suggestions on how to apply these insights to archaeological research.

The Sanctuary on Keros as a Centre of Congregation

Colin Renfrew (University of Cambridge)

The sanctuary at Kavos on the Cycladic island of Keros, dating from the mid third millennium, seems to be the earliest known maritime sanctuary. Its two ‘special deposits’ were the focus for periodic visits over approximately five centuries, documents by successive depositions of bundles of objects of ritual use: marble sculptures, marble vessels, pottery (mainly the drinking cups known as ‘sauceboats’) and a restricted range of other artefacts, all of which had been deliberately broken before being brought to Keros. Human remains did not accompany the depositions, although the range of broken artefacts deposited resembles the repertoire found in the Early Cycladic cemeteries. The neighbouring settlement on the islet of Dhaskalio is currently undergoing excavation.

Kavos, like its Cycladic neighbour on Delos two millennia later, was a maritime centre of congregation. Despite its lack of monumental architecture it may have played a similar role to other centres of congregation, before the development of state societies and the emergence of well-defined divinities.

Ceremonial monument complexes as nodes in Neolithic social networks

Susan Greaney (Cardiff University / English Heritage)

There are a number of places in Britain and Ireland that have been described by archaeologists as ceremonial or monumental complexes, where there is evidence for intensive and complex activity and clusters of monuments. From time to time, on a seasonal or annual basis, these locations became places of congregation, usually starting in the early Neolithic period and continuing through to the early Bronze Age. Acts of construction and episodes of feasting in these locations, particularly in the late Neolithic, would have involved many hundreds of people, backed up by a long-term support system to provide materials, food and equipment. Recent isotopic evidence from Durrington Walls in Wiltshire suggests that cattle, and presumably therefore people, were moving over long distances to take part in these events. Excavations at several complexes have now uncovered buildings and occupation debris of at least a seasonal nature – these were places of residence as well as ceremony. This paper seeks to challenge some of the assumptions that are often made about monument complexes and the social organisation of the people who built and visited them. It will explore some ideas about how these particular locations emerged as powerful places, becoming important nodes in Neolithic social networks that may have stretched over the length and breadth of the British Isles.

The matter of congregation: the case of Avebury

Joshua Pollard (University of Southampton)

It goes without saying that the great Neolithic monuments of the Avebury ceremonial complex - Windmill Hill, the Avebury henge itself, Silbury Hill and the West Kennet palisades - required substantial corporate participation in order to be created (regardless of whether they were formally 'used' as ceremonial foci or not). What is less clear is an understanding of the scale and make-up of the participating populations, of the dynamics and (shared?) values that ensured repeated congregation, and the outcomes of these events. There are some notable and valuable models, from Renfrew to Whittle, explicitly drawing upon ethnography, which have foregrounded traditional models of social relations as drivers. But what if we expand a definition of the social to include more than just the human: thinking of material congregation; of the power of matter (and indeed its relations to the immaterial worlds of being) in bringing people and things and relations together; and of how material trace might be implicated in reproducing acts of congregation?


Assembly Places in Early Medieval England

Stuart Brookes (University College London)

The Leverhulme Trust Landscapes of Governance project aims to study the emergence, development and structure of early medieval governance in the English landscape by analysing sites of political and judicial assembly using archaeological, place-name and written evidence. Dispute settlement and supra-local social organization are recognized as fundamental features of civil society yet no study to date has attempted to gather and analyse the relevant data in a national study. This paper will introduce a new digital resource: The Electronic Anderson – an online gazetteer of over 800 early medieval assembly-places and their associated districts in England. Examination of this resource draws some general observations about sites of assembly in early medieval England, and discusses how these places changed over the course of the first millennium AD.

Trypillia mega-sites as congregation sites - a problem of scale


John Chapman (Durham University)

Recent research into the Trypillia mega-sites of South-Central Ukraine has transformed our understanding of these massive sites - currently the largest sites in 4th millennium Europe and possibly the world. Geophysical investigations, Bayesian modelling and palynology have created the opportunity for new different narratives which challenge the accepted 'maximalist' view of mega-sites - as large, permanent, long-term, year-round farming populations. These new narratives start from the variability of local house groupings within the overall structure of the concentrically-planned settlement, a relatively short occupation scan of 150 years, and the far lower than expected human impact of what has always believed to be a massive population. We can now posit the hitherto paradoxical notion of seasonal or short-term aggregation mega-sites with far lower populations than have previously been thought.

While massive ceremonial sites with little evidence for settlement, such as Avebury, have often provided the model for seasonal aggregation sites, it is far harder to consider sites with over 1,500 houses as short-term and/or seasonal. This alternative model raises profound questions of the origins of such settlements, the temporal and spatial scale of their gathering, the scale of movement of people to the congregation place and the impact of such mega-sites on other Trypillia settlement. In this paper, I present a model of that strange beast - the 'minimalist' mega-site.


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