Within the rather picturesque Vale of Pewsey in the UK – halfway between the famous Stonehenge and the similarly ringed Avebury monument – resides the Cat’s Brain long barrow. This curiously named Neolithic structure dates back to around 3,800 BCE, and this summer, the University of Reading’s Archaeological Field School got the chance to excavate it.
The site made headlines recently after it was claimed that the long rows, similar in form to what are thought to be funerary structures in other places, meant that it was some sort of “house of the dead”. As pointed out by Dr Jim Leary, director of the Archaeological Field School at the University of Reading, no human remains have been found – so what exactly was this place?
During the dig, a massive timber hall up to 20 meters (66 feet) across was identified. This suggests that people used to regularly come here, not bring their dead here.
The building itself is – or was – fairly sizeable and robust, implying a decent number of people used to live or visit it 5,800 years ago, but it’s not clear who they might have been. Either way, for their time, they were architectural pioneers.
It’s unclear that it’s a house, though, one that people lived in in the long term. It could have been a communal space for social events of some sort, although again, the evidence here is circumstantial and speculative.
Still, it’s a tantalizing theory, and one that Leary leans on his Game of Thrones proclivities to elucidate on somewhat.
“The word ‘house’ is often used as a metaphor for a wider social group,” he explained in a piece on The Conversation, referencing the very real House of Windsor and the very fictional House Lannister.
“In this sense, these large timber halls could symbolize a collective identity, and their construction a mechanism through which the pioneering community first established that identity.”
So is the Cat’s Brain long barrow representative of a Neolithic House Lannister of some sort? Perhaps.
Speaking to IFLScience, Leary explains that “it's pretty well established now that the early Neolithic was what anthropologists call a 'house society'.” He adds that as well as pre-existing evidence elsewhere for these community-built timber halls, “we also have evidence for communal get-togethers and feasting within 'causewayed enclosures'.”
Leary does add, however, that “the archaeological evidence for the early Neolithic is relatively poor,” so they are doing the best with what they have.
Incidentally, there’s still a chance that the “house of the dead” idea isn’t too far off either. Leary ponders whether this structure could be some sort of church-like construct in which living people mingled with artifacts of their ancestors.
Much of the site remains enigmatic. Take the engraved chalk stones, for example, found on several occasions during the dig.
Are these carvings symbolic or linguistic, or are they just damaged soft rock? Leary suspects that the forms and shapes are the product of “human workmanship” and “were of significance”, but beyond that is anyone’s guess.
It's clear that, right now, Cat’s Brain brings up more questions than it answers. Thanks to this excavation, however, we’re closer to finding out more about our long-gone ancestors than ever before.
Something no-one really seems to have an answer to is the etymology of the area’s name. According to extracts from the English Place Name Survey dug up by Leary, it could be an obtuse reference to the local geology – but the text also adds that “the reason for the name is obscure!”