Journal of Archaeology in the Low Countries 1-1 (May 2009)Leendert P. Louwe Kooijmans: The agency factor in the process of Neolithisation – a Dutch case study1

7 Treatment of the dead

A third aspect in which we observe pronounced differences between the sites is the treatment of the dead. On a supraregional level and in a long diachronic perspective there was a wide range of options for the treatment of the dead in the Lower Rhine area throughout the entire Meso- and Neolithic (Louwe Kooijmans in press b). It has now also been found that there was a lot of freedom in this field on a local level, too – the same level of freedom as observed above in the fields of settlement layout and subsistence. A broad range of rituals is observable in Delfland. The deceased were either treated in a way that resulted in only scattered skeletal elements mixed with refuse, or they were formally buried. The latter took place in or near the settlement. The deceased were usually buried in a tightly flexed position on their sides (fig. 15), but other burial positions have also been observed, including a prostrate position. Multiple burials of different types have also been found.


Fig. 15 Schipluiden, burial 2, oriented west-east, the body in a tightly contracted position and a flint flake in front of the face (arrow).

At Schipluiden the ‘informal’ treatment of the dead was dominant and the ritual of the dead only rarely ended with formal burial. The positions of the sparse burials suggest that formal burial was practised by only one of the households. The burials concerned are of a few (by no means all) relatively old men and two children. The special treatment of relatively old men can be seen to imply the selection of persons who played a special part in the local community. In one case the special position of the deceased was underlined by a strike-a-light of exotic materials as a grave good. The household from which the old men all seem to derive may have had a leading position within the local group.

At Ypenburg there was a cemetery at the middle of the dune. Unfortunately it cannot be attributed to any of the occupation phases or associated with any of the concentrations of features and postholes due to the recent disturbance, but that is not so relevant with respect to what we are considering here. The cemetery contained 34 graves, arranged in two clusters, in which both sexes and all ages are represented. It would seem that all the deceased of either two contemporary households or two phases of a single household were systematically buried there. No graves associated with the other households were found. Either they lay elsewhere – outside the excavation trenches – or those households did not formally bury their dead. Some stray skeletal elements of at least two individuals, including some milk teeth, were found in association with one of the concentrations of postholes at the other (western) end of the dune.

A most striking difference is the incidental formal burial at Schipluiden as opposed to the creation of a formal cemetery for all members of society at Ypenburg, at least in one phase. This may be ‘explained’ in a functionalistic way by a need of the latter, less settled community to manifest itself and its settlement site, whereas no such need was felt in the case of Schipluiden in view of the prominent appearance of the settlement itself, not to mention the lack of space there. At both of the aforementioned sites formal burial seems to have been associated with a single (dominant?) household, so the individual households differed, but at Ypenburg this was more prominently expressed than at Schipluiden. Only at Schipluiden was a sex- and age-based distinction made within that single household. It is tempting to take this to reflect a (slightly) greater social differentiation within this more complex settlement.

No burials whatsoever were found at Wateringen. This could be attributable to the small size and short period of occupation of this site. However, the complete absence of stray human remains, too, is incongruous in view of the quantities of remains of all the other find categories, and therefore significant. Even if only 10% of the deceased were to be found in this form, as calculated for Schipluiden, some remains should have been found at Wateringen. A possible explanation for this is that the deceased were buried, or subjected to some other treatment, at a different site nearby.

In some respects the treatment of the dead represents a continuation of Mesolithic traditions. Human remains in a refuse zone next to the settlement are a conspicuous characteristic of phase 1 of Hardinxveld-Polderweg. At both Hardinxveld sites and in the several small cemeteries of Swifterbant bodies were buried in a prostrate position on their backs, without grave goods other than a few (clothing) ornaments. On the other hand, however, the dominant tightly flexed, crouched burial position at both Ypenburg and Schipluiden can be seen as typically Neolithic, as are the incidental ‘functional’ grave goods (Louwe Kooijmans in press b). If we take these burial customs to reflect the occupants’ spiritual world, then we may assume that that world also underwent a ‘substitution phase’, to use the terminology of Zvelebil and Rowley-Conwy (1984).