Burial Evidence for Social Inequality in Early Neolithic Northern Europe



Distribution of the Linear Pottery Culture.  Source: Public domain.

1.  Introduction

The most notable change in mortuary practice at the end of the 3rd millennium BC was increased use of individual dug graves. From this time grave assemblages have increased importance archaeologically. The single grave tradition developing at the end of the 3rd millennium BC indicates that graves and cemeteries became a fixed location where the deceased were individually buried in the landscape. This practice distinct from that of collective burial previously associated with a place of ancestral reference.

In Britain, during the Neolithic-Bronze Age transition “…a change in burial practices occurred, with the appearance of single inhumations…” (Cox & Mays, 2000), in the form of covered round barrows that contained distinctive grave goods, especially finely decorated pottery beakers. The development of individual burials “…hints at a process of social differentiation.” (Fagan, 1996). In this context a comparison is made between two Linear Pottery Culture cemeteries from Elsloo (Netherlands) and Niedermerz (Germany) for examples of grave assemblages as evidence of social status. As well as a considering grave goods and status in terms of gender, child burials, division of labour and wealth.


Distribution with examples of linear pottery

 2.  Elsloo Cemetery

Elsloo was a Linearbandkeramik (LBK) village settlement and cemetery beside the River Maas in Limburg, Netherlands, that comprised 80 houses (11 to 17 in use at any one time) comprising 6 chronological phases (Bahn, 2001). The LBK is also known as the Linear Pottery Culture or the Danubian 1. Excavated by P. J. R. Modderman, 1958 to 1966, it is the largest LBK burial ground known (Bahn, 2001) with 113 graves, 37 of which were cremations. The inhumation bones were poorly preserved in the acidic decalcified loess (wind blown silt). Inhumations totalled 66 with 47 cremations (41.59% of 113 burials).

Elsloo dates from the 5th millennium BC with radiocarbon dates (9 out of 11) from 4500 to 4000 BC. Most of the inhumations survived as ‘ghosts’ with occasional traces of durable teeth enamel because of the loess to a depth of 2m (Whittle, 1985). Inhumations were aligned mainly on a NW to SE axis, and in 22 graves 13 had heads to SE with 9 to SW, 14 on left sides, 2 on right and 1 on back (Van de Velde, 1979). The graves were rectangular lots, roughly on the same alignment and quite closely spaced (Whittle, 1985).

As a cemetery Elsloo was in use during the latter part of the site’s occupation after it each reached maximum size, was adjacent to the village (Whittle, 1996), and begun after the settlement was was established. Inhumation was the main mortuary ritual except that with Elsloo 47 of the burials contained cremations in shallower graves (Whittle, 1985). The cemetery appears from the settlement middle phase onward and has few burial intersections suggesting they were marked (Whittle, 1996). The development of defined cemeteries suggests the emergence of territorially aware descent groups and “Elsloo represents an early development of a formal cemetery.” (Chapman, 1979). It appears that Elsloo was only used for adult inhumations and this is “…supported by analyses of other cemeteries of the European Linear Pottery period.” (Hausler, 1979). Grave goods encompassed stone adzes, flint blades, pottery cups (usually near the head) and quern stones (Darvill, 2003).

Linear burial

An example of a Linear Pottery Culture inhumation from Neolithic Europe

3.  Niedermerz Cemetery

LBK inhumations are usually in the contracted position and frequently grouped in cemeteries with characteristic pottery with incised simple to complex lines (Bahn, 2001). Compared to Elsloo the Niedermerz cemetery contained few cremations (6 out of 102), but all ages and sexes were present with children unrepresented compared to the assumed living population (Wittle, 1985). Inhumations totalled 102 with 10 cremations (8.92% of 112 burials).

At Niedermerz numbers of graves lack grave goods (29 at Elsloo) as well as fewer goods with cremations. Unlike Elsloo the Niedermerz cemetery is distanced from the settlement (Whittle, 1996). Niedermerz grave goods fall into six categories, of which the majority contain 1-3 categories only. The six categories are: (1) axes and adzes; (2) complete pots and sherds; (3) flint arrowheads; (4) flint blades; (5) shell ornaments; and (6) rubbing and grinding stones (Whittle, 1985). At Elsloo pots or axes may be broken to symbolise the decayed flesh and bone with vessel inversions representing skulls placed in ditches (Edmonds, 1999). They have well contained cereal seeds.

4.  Grave Goods and Status

In Neolithic terms status may be more important with increasing age and thus more expended on burial ritual, and therefore “…all people buried at a give location should have been of the same age group, e.g., all adults.” (Van der Velde, 1979). Red ochre was frequently scattered on the grave floor – a feature of female graves at Elsloo but male at Niedermerz as shown in Table 1 – and grave goods assumed as male for  axes, arrow heads, and female as pots, small tools, with older, with the older receiving more grave goods (Whittle, 1996).

Image (398)

Deposited axes may have been connected with de-fleshing and thus “…some of the deposits of pottery and stone implements were linked to the passage into the ancestral realm.” (Edmonds, 1999), if burials are regarded as social events and reflect the status of the deceased (Earle, 1979).

Elsloo grave goods

 Stone tool grave goods from Elsloo

To survivors death is a critical event, with small communities the effect is greater to society, so therefore many of the deceased will be accorded symbolic distinction (Brown, 1981). The characteristics noted will include age, sex, personal achievement, as well as circumstances of death. Thus a cemetery is where the dead are now transformed and this raises the issue of social identity (Edmonds, 1999) and focuses on mortuary ritual. Power will gravitate to individuals when a wider sphere of authority develops, and when leadership supercedes other statuses to then dominate mortuary symbolism (Brown, 1981).


Examples of Linearbandkeramik Culture grave goods

Grave goods as tool kits raises the question of how much is known about Neolithic division of labour. As Haglund (1979) further questions – why assume grave goods represent tool kits actually used, and furthermore the “…quantity of grave goods, be it one or many, need not mean that the dead person or his group was wealthy.” (Haglund, 1979). Moreover, why should status be equated with wealth? Would not a priestess, shaman, or village elder have status not necessarily associated with wealth? In addition why do grave goods come to be deposited and who owned or made them? Perhaps hypothetically people might have “…increasingly placed themselves socially according to the principle of descent from named ancestors in the past.” (Thomas, 1999).

With regard to gender other social dimensions of mortuary ritual and status considerations include sex roles, as well as regional differentiation and the local descent group identity (Van der Velde, 1979). Gender is shown by differing burial components – female graves determined by grave goods present. Sex determination, without bones, is by grave good identification signifying that sex is a major status determinant in a ranked community. At Elsloo cemetery sex ratios were 3 males to 2 female. Four graves had over 5 categories of grave goods but could not be sexed reliably (Whittle, 1985), but indicated goods differed according to sex. See Table 1.

The Elsloo analysis was based on the traditional assumption that arrow heads were male goods, because the “…particular archaeological configuration we are trying to understand has not much to offer besides  ceramics and stone implements.” (Eggert, 1979). Table 1 shows male association with arrow heads in 8.8% of graves but none for the females. For Niedermerz, in Table 2, arrow heads are 19.6% for male graves with 0.9% for females.

  Image (399)

At Elsloo thick adzes are male associated with 14.1% and female at 0.8%, whereas Niedermerz shows 8.0% male and 2.6% for female graves. Flat adzes at Elsloo are equal at 6.19% for males and females whereas Niedermerz shows 16,o7% for males and none for females. Ceramics appear evenly distributed between males and females at both cemeteries. Querns at Elsloo are female associated 10.6% with none for males but at Niedermerz a different pattern shows male grave querns at 4.4% and female less at 1.78%. This indicates that division of labour is different at both settlements and this is reflected in the grave goods for males and females.

Gilman (1979) points out that at Elsloo Van der Velde (1979) proposed female status was shown by high loads of grave goods including querns, red ochre, and adzes. However, the male red ochre of 11.6% (female 0.89%) at Niedermerz compared to 1,7% (female 13.2%) at Elsloo seems to contradict this assumption. Only infants were not buried along with adults in these LBK cultures (Hausler, 1979), moreover infants and women who died in childbirth were supplied with numbers  of grave goods as amulets , e.g., stone ‘celts’ not made for use. Some evidence of status can be ascertained at both Elsloo and Nierdermerz by considering the number of grave good categories found with burials, and shown in Table 3. Notable is the high proportion of no or low grave good burials with a few graves with high loads.

Image (401)

The death of children can be critical to a society in terms of community survival and lineages, especially within low birth rate or small family situations (Edmonds, 1999). Absence of child burials at Elsloo implies burial elsewhere or not sufficiently socialised, or lacking rites of passage, to enter the company of elders or ancestors. At Elsloo and Niedermerz lack of child burials may mean decalcification in acidic loess to total loss of immature remains. Children may be buries in enclosures or homesteads along with high status females because of association with fertility and community family lines (Edmonds, 1999), or even because of matrilineal and matrilocal reasons.

5.  Summary

The distribution of grave goods by gender at Elsloo and Niedermerz indicates that specialisation according to sex was not absolute and reflects a division of labour different for each settlement. Structure differences do appear at Elsloo and Niedermerz with a suggestion that certain community members achieved a prominent status as reflected by a few burials with a high load of grave goods. The grave goods found do give important information on the LBK social order, and may reflect that individuals were located in kinship and affiliation networks that were transmuted to the deceased during the burial ritual.

However, it is likely that these LBK farming communities were based on the family or household as units of production and consumption. Toolkits may therefore reflect division of labour and symbolise the role of the dead in life, and that higher loads of goods reflect status based on gender roles, community contribution, age, or personal achievement. Rather than a wealth based hierarchy it may be that a power oriented elite did not yet exist and that descent, clan and household relationships were more important.


Bahn, P.  (2001).  The Penguin Archaeology Guide. Harmondsworth.

Brown, J. A.  (1981).  The search for rank in prehistoric burials.  In: Chapman, et al (1981).

Chapman, R. W.  (1979).  Reply to Van der Velde.  Current Anthropology.  20 (1).

Chapman, R. et al.  (1981).  The Archaeology of Death.  CUP, Cambridge.

Cox M. & Mays, S.  (2000).  Human Osteology: Archaeology and Forensic Science.  Greenwich Medical Media, London.

Darvill, T. (2003).  Oxford Concise Dictionary of Archaeology.  OUP, Oxford.

Earle, T. K.  (1979).  Reply to Van der Velde.  Current Anthropology.  20 (1).

Edmonds, M.  (1999).  Ancestral Geographies of the Neolithic.  Routledge, London.

Eggert, M.  (1979).  Reply to Van der Velde.  Current Anthropology.  20 (1).

Fagan, B. M.  (1996).  Oxford Companion to Archaeology.  OUP, Oxford.

Gilman, A.  (1979).  Reply to Van der Velde.  Current Anthropology.  20 (1).

Haglund, L.  (1979).  Reply to Van der Velde.  Current Anthropology.  20 (1).

Hausler, A.  (1979).  Reply to Van der Velde.  Current Anthropology.  20 (1).

Thomas, J.  (1999).  Understanding the Neolithic.  OUP, Oxford.

Van der Velde, P.  (1979).  The Social Anthropology of a Neolithic Cemetery in the Netherlands.  Current Anthropology.  20 (1).

Whittle, A.  (1985).  Neolithic Europe: A Survey.  CUP, Cambridge.

Whittle, A.  (1996).  Europe in the Neolithic.  CUP, Cambridge.

Originally an essay for University of Oxford Undergraduate Certificate in Archaeology, February 18th, 2004.




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