“Get off my land!” in the Bronze Age

I shouldn’t have been so surprised.

Way back in 1784, when I started this blog, I commented on how farming seems to permeate archaeology as a discipline – from the Neolithic onwards, it’s a crucial thread in so much of human history. It’s hard to ignore.

But equally, it’s often a bit of a poor relation. Farming isn’t always a fashionable topic to research in some regions and periods. Burials, for instance, frequently attract much more attention, I suppose because of the immediate (and mysterious) human interest of a skeleton and its funerary trappings.

So on this occasion, I was surprised. I was reading the latest edition of British Archaeology, with a fascinating article on evidence for mummification in Bronze Age Britain:

Booth, T., Chamberlain, A. & Parker Pearson, M. ‘The Mummies of Bronze Age Britain’, British Archaeology 145 (Nov/Dec 2015), pp.18-23.

This is a fascinating piece of research – mummification is convincingly argued from ingenious scientific methods to have been widespread in Bronze Age Britain – and truly unexpected, certainly to someone like me with limited knowledge of the Bronze Age.

Most unexpected of all, however, were the speculative interpretations of Bronze Age mummification, and this is where agriculture comes in (p.23):

“After 1500 BC… large, planned (‘co-axial’) field systems were laid out. Mummies could have been important for legitimising access to ancestral rights and securing claims on land and property. In a world without written documents or legal title, what better way of producing tangible and incontrovertible proof of ancestry, ownership or descent!”

An intriguing theory indeed. What clearer way of articulating the time-honoured cry of “Gerroff my land!” than with the corpse of a desiccated patriarch?



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