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2011 Rhind lecture 5: “The centrality of axe heads” by Dr Stuart Needham

Fifth 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 5: The centrality of axe heads
Here we depart temporarily from the funerary realm, from which copper and bronze axe heads were largely excluded. However, they are an essential complementary ingredient for wider social and ritual interpretations of the period. Axe heads had long held symbolic and utilitarian roles simultaneously and in this respect the new metal versions were no different. Large numbers are highly decorated; some have redundant features and representations of the type in rock carvings show them not as functional tools, but in an un-hafted state. The new transformative capabilities of metal allowed the formulation of a unique metaphor. As the mainstay of metal distribution, circulation, consumption and recycling, with the implicit cycle of material birth, life, death and re-birth, axe heads were able to symbolise a negotiated path between Thisworld and the resource-providing Otherworld. Such a central metaphorical role kept the axe detached from funerary practices, for these needed to present the dead with characteristics befitting specific idealised personae.

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.