The Earliest States of Eastern Europe
DG-2014, 131-157

Mound-building and state-building: A poetic discourse

M. Carver


This paper considers the relationship between the construction of monumental burial mounds and the formation of states, using the thesis of H.M. Chadwick as a point of departure. He showed that the surviving northern European literature, and epic poetry in particular, coincided with a widespread ideological change in the fifth century AD whereby allegiance to folk and polytheistic cult was superseded by allegiance to single male leaders and Odin. The nations thus created owed more to “heroic” adventurers than ethnogenesis. The circumstances that gave rise to the construction of large monumental burial mounds are held to be a reification of this process, celebrating dead leaders in a manner that is analogous to poetic eulogy. The form of these mounds and the symbolic decoration of the objects they contain suggest a spiritual role. Their role in governance is expressed by the wealth of investment and a prominent size and location. Examples are given in which the mound continues to have a political influence in its territory, which results in the mound being neutralised by excavation and removal of the body, or re-monumentalised to demonstrate continuing allegiance or supposed inheritance. A particular role, evident in mounds built in fifth century Japan and tenth century America is their use as assembly places for decision-making in the presence of the ancestors. Monumental burial mounds are not found everywhere or in all periods. They appear to be prompted by special political conditions in which the supporters of new leaders, usually incomers, create a monarchy and invest it with an appropriate past. The event is paralleled by the adoption of a religion in which a single male warrior god (Odin) is also paramount. The burial mound thus acts as tropheum, a history and a shrine to the dynasty around which a new nation is proclaimed.

Northern Europe, early Middle Ages (fifth to tenth centuries AD), cult sites, burial rites, barrows, state formation, ideology



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