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2011 Rhind lecture 3: “Blunt instruments of power” by Dr Stuart Needham

Third of the 2011 Rhind Lectures by Dr Stuart Needham entitled “Material and spiritual engagements; Britain and Ireland in the first age of metal”.

Material and Spiritual Engagements: Britain and Ireland in the First Age of Metal
The Rhind Lectures 2011 by Dr Stuart Needham
29th April 2011 to 1st May 2011

Lecture 3: Blunt instruments of power
Perforated stone implements are one of the most abundant, enduring and finely crafted components of the early metal age. Yet they have been little considered in terms of their funerary use and relationships to other contemporary material. Battle axes, after an initial association with dagger graves, quickly became independent signifiers of high-profile males within a variant cultural ethos. Not only do they show regional emphases, but also a changing frequency through time relative to dagger graves. Contemporary mace heads were derived from pre-existing forms to create a new type of sceptre to set against the prevailing battle axe; their funerary use had a different pattern again. Contrasting with both of these, axe-hammers stand apart in their grandeur of scale and their avoidance of funerary contexts. Their most intensive use around the Irish Sea seaboard marks a cultural domain with its own ritual blend. In an age of metal, the vigorous adoption of these new lithic forms speaks of powerful social choices at work.

The Lectures
Britain and Ireland abound with burials of the early metal age. Many individuals were accorded special treatment on death, interred in finely constructed chambers or deep graves or honoured by cremation and committal to the ground in highly ornamented pottery vessels. Distinctive or exotic grave goods may accompany the burial and the sites themselves came to be memorialised through the construction of impressive mounds and ring works. These conspicuous and pervasive archaeological contexts have come to define a funerary phenomenon and an era. They give the impression of a society totally preoccupied with the dead and their funerary passage and of a comprehensive burial policy. That funerary practices were endemic in most regions is inescapable, but how many people actually received formal burial, who were they and how were they presented in death? In addressing these questions, we will consider the purpose of this phenomenon and interpret anew the meanings of definable burial modes.

The Lecturer
Following his first degree and postgraduate research at University College, Cardiff, Dr Stuart Needham spent thirty years as Curator of the European Bronze Age collections at the British Museum. He is currently an independent researcher and an Honorary Research Fellow of National Museum Wales.

Recorded at the Royal Society of Edinburgh.