The Grave Goods project’s primary aim is to undertake the first long-term, large-scale investigation into grave goods during the Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age. Our analysis will enable a new level of understanding of mortuary material culture over this major period of technological innovation and social transformation. We will develop and apply a suite of interpretive approaches leading to a novel, theoretically-informed narrative concerning the significance of objects in people’s lives and deaths in later prehistoric Britain.
Our main objectives are:
- To interrogate the concept of ‘grave goods’, both in the past and in the present. We will analyse how the role and significance of objects deposited with burials in prehistory changed over time and space, and provide critical insight into archaeologists’ use of the concept today.
- To develop an entwined theoretical and methodological approach for analysing the biographies and meanings of grave goods, in the wider context of funerary performance, monument, grave and the human life-course. The project will move beyond routine approaches to funerary materials, informing our understanding of how they are used to negotiate power, relationships, roles and events in both life and death; consequently, it will make a significant contribution to current archaeological debates concerned with personhood and materiality.
- To construct a database of all material culture found in formal burial contexts during the Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age within six key case study regions, and to map and interrogate these analytically using GIS. These empirical studies will allow us to draw key insights into national trends, regional patterns of similarity and difference, as well as localised practice, highlighting outstanding examples with potential for further in-depth research. The study regions we will be focusing on are: Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly; Dorset; Kent; East Yorkshire; Gwynedd and Anglesey; Orkney and the Outer Hebrides.
- To conduct a series of sub-regional, site-specific and individual grave level investigations of grave goods, enabling a detailed and nuanced analysis of object and human biographies at these scales.
- To produce a richly textured and innovative interpretative account of long-term transformations in object relations and mortuary rites, disseminating our findings to the academic community by writing the first ever book focused on objects and death throughout later prehistoric Britain, in addition to academic papers and two conferences.
- To use our results to inform a permanent re-design of relevant sections of the British later prehistory gallery displays at the British Museum ensuring a long-term, high-profile legacy for the project in this world-famous venue.
- To engage the public and other non-academic beneficiaries around Britain with past traditions of burial through public talks, schools education packs and a poetry project. The project will not simply generate important educational materials on prehistory: our wider aim is to use the past as a lens through which modern society can reflect on its own ways of negotiating mortality with objects.
- To work closely with other potential end-users of our research (including museum and heritage professionals and policy makers) to ensure that our data and interpretations can be fully integrated back into existing Historic Environment Records, enhancing these resources and thus the practice of public archaeology in general.
The project’s fundamental research questions are:
- What do archaeologists mean by ‘grave goods’? How have they used (and sometimes abused) this concept, and can we formulate a new, more nuanced and sophisticated understanding of this key category of material culture?
- What did ‘grave goods’ mean to people in the prehistoric past? How were these objects perceived? Why were certain items selected for deposition with the dead?
- What kinds of object did people put in graves in later prehistoric Britain? We will investigate how these changed through time, and how contemporary grave goods varied across space, within six case study regions in contrastive areas of Britain.
Building on this large-scale analysis, the kinds of interpretive question we will seek to answer at a more detailed scale are:
- It is not a given that objects are placed in graves, and indeed many Neolithic burials did not contain formal grave goods. How and why then did grave goods come to play a role? And, once the idea had taken off, how and why did that role change?
- To what extent were people and objects entwined? What can the combination of grave goods tell us about the person buried and the people who put them in? Can a relationship be established between human and object biographies in a grave? Is it possible to establish genealogies of grave goods within a cemetery, and how far do these relate to the (assumed) genealogies of people buried there?
- In recent years, the assumption that a materially rich burial indicates a wealthy or powerful person has been questioned. The Grave Goods project will ask what it is possible to say about a person’s status and identity through the objects they were buried with, and also what we can say about the identities and intentionalities of those burying the dead.
- How were objects used to negotiate the painful and emotive experience of death? What role might they have played in the ‘performance’ of burial, and how might the theatre of such events have helped people deal with death? What did objects ‘do’ or ‘say’ in a burial context? And how did they relate to broader material repertoires at that time?
The Grave Goods project will conduct its analysis at a series of different scales, ranging from macro-scale patterning across Britain, to regional explorations of continuity and change, to site-specific histories of practice, to micro-scale analysis of specific graves and the individual objects (and people) within them.