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Neolithic humans offer a radical perspective on how society can be organised

Neolithic

Susan Greaney, an Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded PhD candidate at Cardiff University, is unearthing the attitudes of Neolithic humans to the ground beneath them and the underworld. She is one of ten 2019 New Generation Thinkers whose research will be made into BBC radio and television programmes in collaboration with the AHRC.

Tell us about yourself

I am an archaeologist, although I rarely get to head out into the field with my trowel. After degrees in archaeology from Sheffield and Oxford, and a short time working in commercial archaeology, I joined English Heritage in 2005, where I am now a part-time senior properties historian.

My main role is to research, investigate and write about our historical and archaeological properties to provide information for our visitors. This can range from site interpretation panels to entire exhibitions. I curated the exhibition and helped develop the interpretation at the new visitor centre at Stonehenge. I also worked on an interpretation project at Tintagel Castle, and wrote a guidebook for Chysauster Ancient Village, both in Cornwall.

Having the opportunity to work on Stonehenge for a considerable period really focused my mind on the aspects of archaeology that I really find fascinating – namely, Neolithic monuments. I was lucky enough to obtain funding through the AHRC’s doctoral training partnership scheme, which enabled me to start my PhD at Cardiff University part-time in 2014. I am keen to share the results of my research through my work at English Heritage, the BBC New Generation Thinkers scheme, and in my role as a post-graduate tutor at Cardiff University.

What is the area of your research?

My PhD research focuses on clusters or groups of Neolithic monuments, which are termed ‘monument complexes’, built between 5,700 and 4,500 years ago in Britain and Ireland. I am looking at why these clusters exist, and attempting to compare and contrast them. I’m applying a relational approach; trying to look at how people related to their landscapes and the materials around them, and to investigate how power relations might have existed between these things and groups of people. It’s a big project!

There are two aspects relating to monument complexes that I’m exploring – the power of place and the power of time. Place is finding out why these complexes emerge where they did – what is it about these precise locations that attracted people to build there, sometimes returning over thousands of years, to build more monuments? The presence of older monuments attracts people to build more monuments in the same location. These places often have unusual qualities – unpredictable streams that appear and disappear; odd shapes in the land; active sinkholes. Chronology is crucial in order to construct narratives as to how individual clusters emerged and developed, but also in comparing what is happening across different places. Therefore, my project involves new radiocarbon dating of monuments in Dorchester, Dorset so that a detailed story of the complex there can be written.

What is the importance of this research?

We might think that studying something from such a long time ago is indulgent and perhaps even irrelevant. Neolithic monuments are endlessly fascinating, and they provide an exciting way to engage people with the archaeology of the period. But the deep time of prehistory also provides us with a radical perspective on how society can be organised.

When large and complex monuments such as Stonehenge were built, there is little evidence for permanent hierarchies or leadership. Yet these people were able to organise enormous communal building projects, and to communicate and share similar ideas over large parts of the British Isles.

In addition, by investigating how people paid attention to, and related to, their environment and their landscape in the past, studying the Neolithic period can also help to see ourselves as part of a much larger and longer-term picture. In knowing more about these relationships in the past, we can shift away from our human-centred modern western philosophies and begin to see our relationship with the planet and the resources it affords us in a new way.

Susan Greaney is an archaeologist with a career in heritage interpretation and is a specialist in British prehistory, particularly landscapes and monuments. Her AHRC-funded PhD examines clusters of Neolithic monuments in Britain and Ireland, and she is also investigating how a sense of time and the past in prehistory led to these extraordinary projects.

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