Calendars, feasting, cosmology and identities: later Neolithic-early Bronze Age Ireland in European context
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The aim of the study is to investigate the connections between calendar systems, large-scale feasting activities, changing representations of cosmological ideas and the formation of group identities from the Middle/Late Neolithic transition to the Early Bronze Age in Ireland. Positive strides have been made in recent decades with regard to deciphering the cosmological beliefs of Bronze and Iron Age Europe. This study argues that these cosmological beliefs, indelibly linked to the daily journey of the sun, were already present during the Neolithic. There are profound associations between calendrical structures and cosmology and it is argued that the belief systems of the Neolithic-Bronze Age were framed not only with respect to the daily journey of the sun, but also referenced relationships between seasonal change and a combination of the daily and yearly solar cycles. In this context, the study also explores why the winter solstice was an important time for large communal gatherings and feasting during the Late Neolithic-Early Bronze Age in the British Isles. It investigates why the mid-winter period would have been more appropriate for large-scale aggregation, as identifiable at such sites as Durrington Walls (Wiltshire) and Newgrange (Meath), than other times of the year, emphasizing the close relationship between the “natural” and “social” cycles that would have structured the rhythms of life. Connections with underlying themes of fertility and regeneration are highlighted and the “ceremonial” importance of the winter solstice as celebrating the eternal “(re-)birth of the sun” is investigated with reference to the archaeology and mythology of Newgrange and the Boyne Valley. It is also suggested that these cosmological beliefs were part of a wider European ideological system, a milieu within which these ideas, were communicated differentially at varying regional and local levels. The role of these differences, large-scale communal gatherings and changing communication patterns on the formation of group-identities is explored with reference to the changing importance of the Boyne Valley between the later Neolithic and the beginning of the Bronze Age. The arrival of the ‘Beaker Phenomenon’ in the British Isles played an important role in changes witnessed in Ireland during this period. It is argued that some of the regional variance in the communication of cosmological ideas during the Neolithic and the integration of the Beaker Phenomenon into, or replacement of, pre-existing belief systems was connected with the concept that particular deities may have had greater importance within particular regions. Furthermore, the relative statuses of deities and their importance in the communication of cosmological beliefs can change across time and space. Although the Beaker Phenomenon is widely researched, the position or role of deities and their relationship with the varying levels of continuity and change manifest in the enactment of cosmological beliefs throughout Europe has not been explored. Here it is argued that the changing “cultic” role or importance of deities within a pre-existing pantheon were altered in the context of the Beaker Phenomenon and that these changes had an inherent relationship with the archery symbolism of the “Beaker Package”.
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