Island of the dead? The buried Neolithic landscape of Herm (Channel Islands)
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Has principal investigator Chris Scarre
Status Closed
Identifier AH/F010575/1
abstract Islands have sometimes been described as laboratories for the study of prehistoric societies. They owe this status in part to the frequent presence of an impressive number of visible remains, be they temples (Malta), statues (Easter Island) or tombs (Orkney). The task facing the prehistoric archaeologist is to evaluate how far these impressive remains are the result of exceptional preservation in marginal locations, and how far the very nature of islands has had a major impact in moulding patterns of behaviour different from those of adjacent mainlands.\n\nLike Orkney, certain parts of the Channel Islands are renowned for the number of surviving or recorded Neolithic monuments, but in general these are difficult to situate in social terms owing to the absence of corresponding setllement or landscape evidence. An almost unique exception is provided by the northern end of Herm, where an impressive number of tombs fringes a lowland sandy plain. The post-prehistoric sand cover, which measures over a metre in depth, has preserved buried soils (visible in certain exposures), and in particular has protected the land surface on which the megalithic monuments were built. The recorded monuments lie mainly around the edges of the sandy plain, where the sand cover is thin, and further unrecorded monuments probably lie within the plain itself, where only a handful are currently known.\n\nThe objective of this project is to examine the land surface buried beneath the sand, using geophysics and test-pitting to map it and to locate settlement activity (in terms of structures and artefacts) and unrecorded monuments. The latter are primarily funerary in nature and the study will enable us to assess whether burial or ceremonial practices were performed within the same areas as everyday settlement, farming and stock-keeping, or whether these activiites were segregated. This is a key question for the proper understanding of prehistoric societies throughout western Europe, but it is very rare to have lowland landscapes that have been preserved from recent agricultural damage. It will enable us to determine whether a case can be made for Herm having been an 'island of the dead' during the Neolithic period, by analogy with islands off the coast of Brittany (and even Scotland) where such claims have recently been made.\n\nThe island character of Herm is the crucial background to this enquiry, but the insularity of the Guernsey archipelago (comprising the islands of Guernsey, Herm, Jethou and Sark) was not a static given at this period but was undergoing processes of radical transformation as sea-level rose rapidly. When the first farmers established themselves (c.5000 BC) several of the present-day islands were still joined to each other, and much of the earlier Neolithic land surface has been lost beneath the sea. The drowned landscape is represented today by the extensive offshore skerries (rocky islets) around Herm, many of which appear and disappear with the daily tidal cycle. Modelling the changing topography of the island during early- and mid-Holocene sea-level rise will be an integral part of this project.\n\nThough speculative in some respects - we cannot know what lies beneath the sand or the coastal shallows until we have looked - the potential for radical new insights is considerable. We hope to discover well-preserved Neolithic settlements dating back to the initial phase of farming colonisation, and there is a strong likelihood of well-preserved but hitherto unrecorded megalithic monuments beneath the sand. The research potential of a preserved Neolithic land surface in this symbolically charged island setting is exceptional.\n\n\n\n
Type Project
Label Island of the dead? The buried Neolithic landscape of Herm (Channel Islands)
Title Island of the dead? The buried Neolithic landscape of Herm (Channel Islands)

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Durham University Of