Accepted Paper:

From womb to tomb: caves, tombs and origin mythology in Neolithic Britain  


Chris Kerns (University of Bristol)

Paper short abstract:

Origin or foundation myths are an important part of both past and present cosmologies in cultures around the world. Through examining modern origin myths specifically associated with caves, this paper aims to add insights into Neolithic origin mythology and the use of caves and tombs.

Paper long abstract:

Neolithic megalithic mortuary monuments have been a major focus of archaeological research throughout the history of archaeology as a discipline. These monuments represent a foundation for the modern understanding of the Neolithic period, despite significant research into other forms of Neolithic material culture. Numerous archaeologists have attempted to move beyond understanding these monuments as vaults or ossuaries for the dead by focusing on the social role of the monuments and their associations with transformative processes. However, the prominent association these monuments have with death, the dead and ancestors is difficult - both practically and theoretically - to deny, question or even to consider secondary to other possible Neolithic cultural, cosmological and ontological concerns.

This paper examines how caves and then chambered tombs could be a physical manifestation of Neolithic origin mythology and its implications for the archaeological material recovered from these contexts. As a manifestation of origin mythology, tombs and caves can be understood as a physical and cosmological center on the landscape. At the same time such an understanding allows for tombs to be symbolic replicas/representations of caves or other locations on a mythological landscape - a recreation of creation mythology.

The alternative focus on origin/creation mythology instead of on death/ancestors as a framework for the interpretation of these monuments allows for similar discussions on social constructions such as community, identity and memory. These discussions differ only slightly, yet may still offer alternative approaches to the burial practices recorded at these sites as well as other material culture found in these locations.

Panel S20
Going underground: caves, science and theory