Monumentality and social organisation

A European prehistoric perspective


Chris Scarre 克里斯·斯卡尔
Durham University 杜伦大学


The construction of monuments was a practice common to many early societies worldwide, and their archaeology offers key insights into social, political and economic organisation. They are a conspicuous feature of state societies, where they served to express the power and prestige of state institutions, elites and rulers. As Canadian archaeologist Bruce Trigger observed “Monumental architecture and personal luxury goods become symbols of power because they are seen as embodiments of large amounts of human energy and hence symbolize the ability of those for whom they were made to control such energy to an unusual degree.” In this view, centralized power and monumentality are often correlated.
In many prehistoric societies, however, monumentality emerges in social contexts that lack clear evidence of centralization or social hierarchy. These monuments are often smaller in scale than those of state societies, but they may nonetheless achieve substantial dimensions and represent a significant investment of labour. Burial mounds, for example, are a feature of every inhabited continent, and have existed for several thousand years. Their origin can arguably be traced back to the Palaeolithic. The manipulation and display of large stone blocks is another widespread feature of small-scale farming and some hunter-gatherer societies.
The large numbers of prehistoric monuments in western and northern Europe dating to the Neolithic period (broadly 6000-2500 BC) provide an opportunity to consider the social significance of early monuments in a pre-state context. Three specific features will be explored
First, the emergence of monuments (chambered tombs, long mounds, standing stones) in these regions, and the issues of interregional connections. Do they have a common origin within Europe, and what does a global perspective suggest about monument origins in other places?
Second, the relationship to burial and commemoration. Who was buried in these tombs or commemorated by these stones, and can we infer the nature of social organisation from the often complex and variable burial practices? In only a few instances is there evidence consistent with the existence of social hierarchy.
Third, the construction process. Detailed study of the architecture of these monuments has led to very different interpretations, with some archaeologists proposing they were the product of small-scale endeavours by localised communities, and others pointing to evidence for specialist technical knowledge and (for very large monuments) some degree of coordinated control.
The issues will be illustrated by examples taken from over twenty years’ field experience in western France, western Iberia and the British Channel Islands.


Biographical Sketch

Chris Scarre is Professor of Archaeology at Durham University. He is a specialist in European prehistory, but has broad interests in the archaeology of other regions of the world. He has directed and co-directed excavations at prehistoric sites in France, Portugal and the Channel Islands, and is the author of Landscapes of Neolithic Brittany, The Megalithic Monuments of Britain and Ireland and Ancient Civilizations (with Brian Fagan). He was editor of the Cambridge Archaeological Journal and Deputy Director of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge before moving to Durham University in January 2006 as Professor of Archaeology. He has a broad interest in human cultural and cognitive evolution and is the editor of the leading textbook of world prehistory, The Human Past (4th ed. forthcoming 2018). He is also currently editor of the leading UK archaeology journal Antiquity.