Power and the Paleolithic

Power -

    (1) [n] possession of controlling influence; "the deterrent power of nuclear weapons"; "the power of his love saved her"

    (2) [n] possession of the qualities (especially mental qualities) required to do something or get something done; "danger heightened his powers of discrimination"


What is power and what are the various forms that it can take, let alone in what ways can these forms of power be displayed and evidence found for them? In  the strictest sense, the definition of power that is of most likelihood to be found in archaeological  evidence could, I think, rather than the above perhaps be taken to be the following -

Power: The ability to exert control over and influence or alter a people, place or object, causing  them to act in a way, or be found in a location, that is not necessary or natural to them.

This definition itself, though brief and perhaps a touch abstract, gives a starting point for deciding what may reasonably be considered to be a display of power. It also gives scope for many different types of power to be  taken into account, some of which will pave the way for looking at ritual activity as evidence of power, others for trade and material  wealth as evidence of power, and others for  more abstract forms of power still, such as narrative power.

The two main aspects of power that this essay will deal with are spiritual power and temporal power. Temporal power is  perhaps the more immediate of the two, as when most people are asked to  think of a display of power in prehistory, it is the temporal wealth of  the fortified princely seats and  burials of the Hallstatt D period such as Heuneberg,  Hochdorf, and Magdalenenberg that first comes to mind. Spiritual power also has it's noteworthy sites and evidences though, from the various  henge monuments and 'sacrificial'  depositions of votive offerings (as displayed at Flag Fen) that strongly suggest ritual activity, to shrines such as those at  Catalhoyuk which perhaps suggest a religious overtone to the rituals - something which most ritual  activity implies, but not all. After all, atheists have no religious beliefs and yet are still buried or cremated with at least  some form of ritual, scant though it may be in some cases, as a show of respect. Religion does not have to enter into ritual, even if it usually does.

One of the earliest displays of power at work in prehistory is the appearance of Palaeolithic cave art. Whilst perhaps one  or two crude scratchings and daubings on the walls of a cave could be taken as the nonchalant doodling of a bored hunter-gatherer, the amount of detail and effort put into to cave paintings at sites such as Lascaux (where there is  even evidence to suggest that they went as far as constructing crude  scaffolding to enable them to paint the cave art [Renfrew & Bahn, 2001, 256]) and Chauvet implies that there is some underlying purpose to these paintings. This suggests two possible types of power displayed here, which overlap  to an extent. The first, an idea mirrored by Steve Mithen, is that the  paintings are an aid to teaching  future hunters of the band, augmenting the tales told  and instructions given by the more experienced hunters by depicting animals, their tracks and behaviour. Taken in this sense, the cave art could be interpreted as a display of narrative power. Human beings teach everything, explain  everything, by telling stories to each other and to ourselves [Pratchett, Stewart & Cohen, 2002, 26], and these stories have power over us - the child told the story of a  young boy wandering off alone in the dark and getting eaten by the big bad wolf is influenced by it, if the story is told well, and curbs any tendencies the child may have to wander off by himself in the dark. In the same way, the  cave paintings may be taken to display the power that narrative had for the people of the time, that they put so much time and effort into creating the paintings to augment their tellings.

The other type of power which this may be taken as evidence for is spiritual power - Lascaux's Great Hall of the Bulls, with its use of the natural contours of the rock surface to add depth and realism to the paintings, also shows some evidence that the stalactites within the cave were struck repeatedly. It is perhaps half conjecture and half educated guess based loosely on  the archetypal views of shamanism [Allen, 2000, 231], sweat lodges and vision quests for various 'primitive' cultures, but it  is easy to envision the paintings as a focus for some kind of ritual hunting practice - totemic or  sympathetic 'magic' - with the cave lit by the flames of flickering torches, the play and movement of the light and shadows on  the paintings making them seem much more real, an effect heightened by  perhaps smoke inhalation  (depending on how well made their torches were, and, of course, whether they were burning anything else at the time) and the rhythmic pounding of sticks on stalactites. This interpretation then would imply that there is a belief in some kind of animal spirit or hunting spirit which can exert power over the hunter's prey, the cave paintings being a display  in reaction to its power, and to us, evidence of the power that spiritual belief had over the artists.

Evidence for spiritual power, the idea that the people of the time believed that there was some power they could wield, harness or make sympathetic to them, comes through in other periods as well. Votive hoards, such as the weapon hoard of  Hajdusamson in north-east Hungary [Cunliffe, Oxford, 2001], are a particularly good example of this - the  hoards themselves make no great defining mark on the landscape, and though the offerings made are generally items of high quality, once the offering is made, they are out of sight and generally reasonably out of the way places. All  of this makes it perhaps unlikely that the offerings  were made for a spectacle that would raise the public prestige of the  individual making the offering and increase their temporal power - if that was the case, then why not make  the offering closer to home where more people will  witness it, or combine it with the raising of a structure, something lasting that will stay around as a catch for people's memories? There is also the possibility of the hoard having been placed to preserve wealth for the future, but the nature of the deposition makes this unlikely also. The sword was 'placed with its blade pointing due north, across which had been placed twelve shaft-hole axes with their blades to the west.' [Cunliffe, 2001, 265] This  seems a very precise alignment, too precise for the idea that the hoard is merely a cache of wealth to be recovered later, leaving the  suggestion of a ritual deposit. That the  sword and three of the axes are intricately decorated [Cunliffe, 2001, 265] adds to the suggestion that these were high status items, not something to be lightly cast aside or given up, and were  possibly procured for the very purpose of making the offering. Again, as much a display of power, in a sense, as the power shown by a chieftain adorning himself with wealthy trade goods. The latter in pursuit of, and because  of, temporal power, the former in pursuit of, or because of, a perceived spiritual power.

This is also shown in the construction of the various henge  monuments such as Stonehenge and Avebury - monuments of earth, and in the case of the two examples, stone, on a large scale consisting of a high perimeter bank and interior ditch with multiple entrances and exits, commonly opposed  to each other [Cunliffe, 195]. A prime feature of henge monuments is the arrangement of the earthen bank and the ditch within  it. This is entirely the reverse of the arrangement that we see in  defensive forts and causewayed enclosure sites such as Crickley Hill in Gloucestershire, where the ditch is the outer feature and the earthen  bank the inner, a much more defensible arrangement where the ditch  hinders incoming attackers and the earthen bank provides a platform from which to attack them from. That this order is reversed in the henge monuments suggests that the bank  and ditch from the henges are designed to protect the lands outside the henge from the ritual activity within, perhaps containing the ritual forces? Such a  view has also been put forward by Richard Warner of the Ulster Museum concerning the site of Navan, Emain Macha of old, that the hengiform ditch of the site was placed to contain  the ritual activity of the Ulstermen, and to perhaps  prevent the Otherworld spilling over into the surrounding countryside on nights such as Samhain. One thing that is sure is that there is much  more work involved in building a henge monument than a causewayed camp - 1,000,000 hours  of labour for a henge as opposed to 100,000 hours of labour for a causewayed camp, on average [Renfrew & Bahn, 2001, 199]. This  suggests a growing importance of large  scale ritual in the community, requiring a place where  all can come together and take part, and reflecting the power that the importance of these rituals had for the people that they were willing to devote such a length of time to preparing their ritual centres.

We may also use the construction of Henges and causewayed enclosures as a lead into the  evidence for the display of temporal power in prehistory, along with, in later period, the princely seats such as the  Heuneberg. With so many coming together to work on a task so large, some form of order and organisation must have  been imposed on them in order to get the work done. This infers the existence of a person or group with the necessary social power to organise and in that sense, the structures may be taken as a  display of non-spiritual/ritual  power, a sign that a certain people, group or individual have the respect and power within the surrounding communities to bring these works to fruition. The defensive nature of causewayed enclosures and hillforts could also be suggested as a display of another kind of power -  territorial power. A statement that this land is ours, we're here to  stay, and that we're willing to defend our place here if it comes down to it. The fact that the Neolithic settlement of Crickley Hill seems to have been razed by fire and subjected to an archery attack might be seen to confirm that  this statement of power was being made, and that someone objected to it  or had differing notions of who the true power in the area was. The scale of the attack  itself - hundreds of arrowheads found along the lines of the palisades  and the two gateways to the fortification [Hill & Wileman, 2002, 18] - might also be read as a  display of power in that such a large-scale attack at the time has to have been an organised thing, which again implies a  large group of warriors under the power or command of an individual or  group and attacking at their behest.

The Heuneberg, a princely centre by definition, exemplifies several of the ways in which temporal power is displayed in prehistory. It dominates the landscape as it overlooks the Danube that flows past its ramparts presenting a clear show of the strength and power of the residing lord to any that care to look, in  much the same way that monuments  like Stonehenge do - a clear display of power through  large scale, grand structures that will impress those who see them. In  the case of the Heuneberg, this is added to by the phase IV construction at the site - the addition of  Greek style walls and bastions built with sun-dried brick on a stone foundation, a technique never before used in this part of Europe. [Hill & Wileman, 2002, 347] The placement of this construction though - along what seems to be the side of the fort where the defences are at their  best anyway, suggests that the primary purpose of the building was to show off the power of the resident, that they had wealth enough to have  it built, and knowledge, cultural and trade links enough to have it built in that style. If the new fortifications had been constructed purely for reasons of defence rather than to display power, then surely it would have been more logical to build them up where  the existing defences were weakest.

Situated where it is, the Heuneberg also dominates the trade potential of the  Danube, bringing in a flow of wealthy trade goods, that is to say, in part, bringing in new status symbols to reflect the power of the owner. Much like the defensively redundant Greek-style wall and  bastions of the phase IV Heuneberg  construction, one of the most obvious displays of power is through the possession of rich status symbols - objects which  impress, that look good, but don't ultimately need to be put to any practical use. A fine example of this is  the overall effectiveness of the sheet bronze shields and armour of the later Bronze Age. To name a specific example, the  bronze age shield discovered at South Cadbury hillfort - a disc of  beaten bronze with a central grip, large  enough to be worn effectively as a shield, but at only 0.5mm in thickness, it can hardly be considered to have been worn for  defence, and so it must be considered that it was worn purely for  appearance's sake [http://www.somerset.gov.uk/museums/shield.htm] - a sign that the owner has the wealth to spare to invest in goods that he or  she gets no practical use from.

Materials are only one aspect of this though. The origin of an object, alongside its wealth, can be as much of a display of power, emphasising  the 'reach' that the  individual has, showing others that this person, or these people, are important enough to be able to afford and receive goods from great distances away. The Vix burial near the hillfort of Mont Lassois gives a good example of this  in the large bronze krater - a Greek vat used for mixing wine. Standing at 1.64m in height, and most likely made in southern Italy, presumably in one of the Greek colonies there, it would have found it's way to Vix by way of the  trade routes through the Rhone valley [Cunliffe, 2001,  347]. The size, weight and workmanship of an item such as this makes it impossible to think that it was an object merely taken along by even a  wealthy trader in the hopes of  offloading it somewhere along the way. It almost has to have been specially sent by the original makers/owners or commissioned, and it is a strong symbol of how powerful the individual or community  was that they could have an object such as this transported all the way from southern Italy to France.

The presence of rich grave goods and the amount of labour that must have went into the larger barrows and mounds is evidence enough of power being displayed through  the disposal of the dead for a start, demanding that large numbers of people work at the construction for a prolonged period of time, arguing, that just as  with the construction of the henges and hillforts, the person or people in command have the clout to get that amount of people working to their  design. These things aside  though, the location and positioning of burials can also be taken as a display of power. The concentric burials at the  Magdalenenburg speak eloquently of this, where the robbed out, but presumably once rich, central burial is  ringed around by over one-hundred secondary burials [Pearson, 2003, 12]. On viewing a plan of the Magdalenenberg, though, it seems obvious that these secondary burials aren't just placed at random in the area around the mound. They  follow a rather close concentric circle pattern, perhaps aiming for a measure of association the central burial, suggesting that the secondary burials are others from the same community? The fact that none of these burials approach too closely to the central burial, and that none are interred in the same manner as the central burial, or with grave goods  as rich, is a clear indicator of a divide between an elite, powerful  individual, and non-elite 'normal'  people. Even in death the power of the elite is  displayed by being set apart with different areas and more elaborate  care taken.

The evidence for the display of power pervades almost every aspect of life and death. The power and manner of the display may be material - one of wealth and far-flung cultural contacts such as with the Greek krater at Vix, of prestige goods that have worth only in their appearance rather than any practical use, such as the golden shoes of  the Hochdorf burial or the South Cadbury shield; structural - like the  building and display of large works such as Stonehenge,  and the Greek-style wall at  Heuneberg, where those in control of the builders are stamping their  mark on the landscape, making a statement for all to see; or spiritual - such as the votive hoards at Flag  Fen and Hajdusamson. Whatever the case may be, though,  all displays have this much in common - as is their point, they stand  out from what evidence suggests is the normal for the time. There are almost certainly mundane evidences of power in everyday life, even if only as commonplace an evidence as a person going to do something when told, but most of these are not going to leave a mark in the archaeological record. The  grander displays do though, and by  and large it is these that we find and interpret. In  some ways this may be to the best for now, for it is in the grander displays that we should find the larger and broader aspects of power and some sense of the bigger picture of overlying beliefs and contacts - things that will  provide some form of context for the smaller, more mundane displays to add increasing detail and clarity to.

Copyright : R.Bailey  2004


Allen, B. 2001. The Last of the Medicine Men, London.

Bradley, R. 1998. The significance of monuments. London.

Cunliffe, B, 2001. The Oxford Illustrated History of Prehistoric Europe. Oxford.

Hill, P. & Wileman, J., 2002. Landscapes of War : The Archaeology of Aggression and Defense. Stroud.

Parker Pearson, M. 1999. The archaeology of death and burial . Thrupp.

Pratchett, T., Stewart, I. & Cohen, J., 2002. The Globe. London.

Renfrew, A. C., and Bahn, P. 2000. Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice. London.

 http://www.hyperdictionary.com/dictionary/power (read December 9th)

http://www.somerset.gov.uk/museums/shield.htm, (read November 30th) Somerset County Museums Service, The South Cadbury Bronze Age Shield

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