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2011 Rhind lecture 6: “The exemplary dead” by Dr Stuart Needham

Final 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 6: The exemplary dead
The pervasiveness of the funerary phenomenon did not lead to uniformity. There were marked regional variations in both its intensity and character seen in complex interactions between artefact types, burial rites, monuments and other ritual practices. How do we account for such patterning in terms of social grouping and structure, territoriality or community choices? We have seen that some choices, involving culturally specific objects, symbolise variant belief systems, or group ethea, but these were far from static over time. Arguably, social groups across Britain and Ireland were more united in materialising and memorising their ancestral lineages; rehearsal of genealogy guided the kin group in their selection of individuals for given burial modes. This depended not only on the deceased’s suitability and the socio-politics of the moment, but also on what kind of burials had gone before. The funerary rites of this era involved the presentation of exemplary dead: burials had to have a purpose, and the primary purpose was to engage beneficially with the Otherworld.

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.