Iron Age burial sites provide evidence of social changes

November 26, 2001

During the course of the Iron Age, monumental burial sites in the south of the Netherlands fell into disuse. Farming groups gave up their roaming way of life and began to inhabit fixed settlements. NWO-funded research has shown that the function of burial sites as a source of social cohesion became superfluous.

Local identity nowadays refers to the ties that bind people because they were born and grew up in the same place. In the early Iron Age, however, local identity was focused on the site where the cremated remains of common ancestors were interred. The NWO archaeologist Fokke Gerritsen of Amsterdam?s Vrije Universiteit has come to this conclusion after reinterpreting data on how people lived and worked in the south of the Netherlands in the last thousand years before the birth of Christ. In the middle period of the Iron Age, about 500 BC, the focus of local identity shifted from the burial site of the ancestors to the place where people lived.

Mr Gerritsen took a fresh look at the monumental urnfields in the provinces of Brabant and Limburg in the south of the Netherlands, which were used for generations by numerous families. Most of these date from the period from 800 to 600 BC. In around 500 BC, these burial sites ceased to be used. Relatives buried the cremated remains of their deceased in inconspicuous little pits, sometimes on their own farmstead.

During the period when the monumental urnfields were in use, each farmhouse was only temporary and farmers still frequently moved to a new location for agricultural purposes. However, families remained close to their ancestral burial site. The land around the burial mound was held as common property. It would seem that people who shared a burial site saw themselves as a community with common ancestors and land of their own with which they distinguished themselves from others. The local identity was associated with this claim to the land. Private landed property did not yet exist.

From the third century BC onwards, people began to live in fixed settlements and one family would cultivate the same area of land for an extended period. Because families increasingly settled in one place, they came to consider the local community with its shared territory around a burial site as of less importance. The basis of the collective identity therefore underwent a change. It was in this period that the first cult sites appeared in the vicinity of settlements and, in some cases, the associated small clusters of burials. During the last two centuries BC, there came to be an emphasis on the family group. Farms were inhabited for generations, probably being handed on from father to son. The burial sites had by then lost their function as a source of social cohesion.

Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research

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