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Neolithic Tombs in Jersey - Why were they built?

The Neolithic sites such as dolmens, passage graves and the like used to be considered to be primarily tombs of chieftains.

Possibly drawing from the Egyptian model, a tribe was imagined as labouring away to build a burial site of stone for a mighty chieftain, much as the workers in Egypt had done for the pharaohs. Beliefs of ancient Egypt have survived in written form, and it seems clear that the embalmed body of the king was entombed underneath or within the pyramid to protect it and allow his transformation and ascension to the afterlife, and a place among the gods. A new pharaoh would mean a new tomb, a new pyramid, often built in fairly close proximity to others.

But the Neolithic sites do not seem to function like that. They are scattered. There is no easy way of seeing that someone was special, singled out. Bodies were often defleshed or burnt before internment.

This is also completely unlike Celtic burials, where tribal chieftains were often buried with their chariots, and grave goods ( though horses were apparently too valuable to bury with their owner). It is immediately clear with these burials that they were for a man of stature and importance within the tribe.

But with the dolmens, as Mark Pattern has pointed out, the human remains found are few in number, and sometimes (as La Sergente) non existent. This is also the case in Brittany, where animal bones can be found, and not human bones, suggesting that these "passage graves" were never intended for burials, and certainly not for burials of chieftains.

In fact, on many sites in Britain and Europe, over the Neolithic period, these tombs were opened and new internments made. One site had five different methods of burial for only twice that number of people.

So if these sites were not tombs, what were they for? Mark Patton suggest that a useful analogy is that of churches and cathedrals. He argues: "If one were to excavate Westminster Abbey, one would find human bones, as in most cathedrals and churches, yet Westminster Abbey, although it contains burials, would not in itself be described as a tomb or mausoleum", and suggests that we look at the dolmens in this light. The historian Ronald Hutton comes to much the same conclusion, that these sites were mainly used as religious centres, and each would have been a "focus for a group of scattered farms or a settlement, bonded as a clan or family" - very much a precursor to the idea of a "parish".

So here is how we are to understand the dolmens. We can imagine the tribes coming together, for various significant times of the year, to celebrate in ritual the passage of the seasons.

Winter Solstice at Hougue Bie

The turning point is coming of our year
The darkest night ending of despair
As again we turn to look with hope
Gather now at the stony heliotrope
The morning comes ever closer now
Our tribe is gathered here to vow
The shaman reaffirms the tribal creed
The time of rebirth for our seed
The sun begins to rise at dawn of day
And slowly creeps along passage way
A line of light between the sacred stones
The shaman chants and then intones
The dawning of the new year’s light
The gods confirm all will be right.


Jersey in Prehistory, Mark Patton, 1987

The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles; Their Nature and Legacy by Ronald Hutton, 1991.

The Ancient World of the Celts, Peter Beresford Ellis, 1998