Richard Bradley's approach to monuments

In 1981, Richard Bradley wrote a paper starting from observations that Iron Age hillforts and field systems are in a number of cases found directly juxtaposed to earlier ritual monuments, which were mostly Neolithic causewayed enclosures and Bronze Age barrows. He concluded (1981: 27, links added):

"The destruction of monuments has a very long history and it would seem that later use of these sites is not related to their earlier function. It is not a sign of continuing respect: it actually shows that any inhibitions had been lost. Seen in this light, the re-use of these sites is only part of the expansion of settlement which is the hallmark of the first millennium... It would appear that ritual use of a site merely 'neutralised' it for later settlers until a lengthy interval has elapsed."

In the years following the publication of this paper, Richard Bradley developed a quite different approach to the later meanings of monuments, summed up in the following passage from a short but 'classic' paper entitled Studying Monuments (1984: 63):

"Monuments ... are lasting features of the social landscape and, unlike normal settlements, they leave their mark on that landscape even in the periods when they are not in use."

Bradley became interested in discontinuities and reuses of ancient monuments during their life-histories as well as in later activities and new buildings in their immediate neighbourhood (1987; 1993: chapters 5+6; 2002). In a book with the significant title Altering the Earth, Bradley stated (1993: 129) that

"monuments feed off the associations, not only of places, but also of other monuments. Monuments are enhanced, and rebuilt; they are reinterpreted and changed; and new constructions are created around old ones. We tend to lose that dimension of the archaeological record as we become immersed in chronological analysis. ... What we think of as the evolution of monuments, their ordering according to a linear perception of time, was really a process of finding out about the world: a way in which successive generations established a sense of place and time in relation to the living and the dead. On occasion this involved the wholesale rejection of monuments, their abandonment or destruction. At others, it required a greater act of the imagination: a process of recreating a past that was really beyond recall and of making it play an unrehearsed part in the present."

Reading the anthropologist Maurice Bloch's influential paper about different kinds of time (1977), Bradley adopted early on Bloch's distinction between 'ritual' time and the time of 'everyday' life (Bradley 1984: 63). Based on an analysis of Balinese concepts of time, Bloch argued that ritual communication, especially in highly hierarchical societies, refers to an eternal and timeless social structure—contrary to everyday life which refers to the time of empirical experience. A ritually mystified 'nature', consisting of concepts and categories of time and persons divorced from everyday experience, makes social hierarchies stable, because it hides its true origins and character: inequality appears to be an inevitable part of an ordered system (Bloch 1977). Transferring these ideas to archaeology, Bradley explained the modelling of Stonehenge on an already then ancient prototype and the later re-use of ancient monuments as deliberate attempts to establish a ritual time. This was in the interest of a particular section of society, which sought to legitimate a particular social order by the authority of a seemingly timeless 'nature' (Bradley 1987: 3; 1991: 217).

However, Bloch's account has subsequently been seriously challenged by various anthropologists, on both empirical and logical grounds. They disputed his evidence and suggested different interpretations of time concepts in Balinese culture. Moreover, M.Bourdillon (1978: 596) pointed out that although ritual can indeed be used to reinforce social hierarchy, it can also be used to challenge the abuse of authority and therefore support opposition and change. In the light of what his critics said, it is an open question of what benefit Bloch's paper can be for either current anthropology or archaeology.

Bradley drew a second inspiration in his work from the concept of 'invented traditions'. Referring to several examples around Yeavering, he argued that the selective re-use and reconstruction of prehistoric monuments in the post-Roman period was not due to very long ritual continuities but "equivalent to the composition of prestigious but fictitious genealogies", i.e. an invented past in the interest of a particular family or lineage in society (Bradley 1987: 10; see also 1993: 116–119).

It is interesting to observe that virtually all of Bradley's interpretations of later receptions of ancient monuments reflect his interest in the legitimation of social inequality. While he acknowledges purely practical and material factors which may have led to the re-use of ancient sites by later populations (1993: 116f.), he does not pay much attention to socially relevant meanings of ancient monuments other than legitimation (see now e.g. Hingley 1996; Thäte 1996). I consider it as one of the main aims of this work to overcome this preoccupation and make the variety of later meanings of ancient monuments and the distant past more prominent in future archaeological discussions of these topics.

Bradley's most recent and most comprehensive discussion of the topic, a book entitled The Past in Prehistoric Societies (2002), avoids the pitfalls of some of his earlier papers and is highly topical for the subject matter of my own work presented here. Published four years after my own research was completed, I cannot offer here a full discussion of that book.


Bloch, Maurice (1977) The past and the present in the present. Man (N.S.) 12, 278-292.

Bourdillon, M.F.C. (1978) Knowing the world or hiding it: a response to Maurice Bloch. Man (N.S.) 13, 591-599.

Bradley, Richard (1981) From ritual to romance: ceremonial enclosures and hill-forts. In: G.Guilbert (ed.) Hill-Fort Studies. Essays for A.H.A.Hogg, pp. 20-27. Leicester: Leicester University Press.

Bradley, Richard (1984) Studying Monuments. In: R.Bradley & J.Gardiner (eds) Neolithic Studies. A Review of Some Current Research, pp. 60-66. British Archaeological Reports, British Series 133. Oxford.

Bradley, Richard (1987) Time regained: the creation of continuity. Journal of the British Archaeological Association 140, 1-17.

Bradley, Richard (1991) Ritual, time and history. World Archaeology 23(2), 209-219.

Bradley, Richard (1993) Altering the Earth. The Origins of Monuments in Britain and Continental Europe. Edinburgh: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.

Bradley, Richard (2002) The Past in Prehistoric Societies. London and New York: Routledge.

Hingley, Richard (1996) Ancestors and identity in the later prehistory of Atlantic Scotland: the reuse and reinvention of Neolithic monuments and material culture. World Archaeology 28(2), 231-243.

Thäte, Eva (1996) Alte Denkmäler und frühgeschichtliche Bestattungen: Ein sächsisch-angelsächsischer Totenbrauch und seine Kontinuität. Eine vergleichende Studie. Archäologische Informationen 19/1&2, 105-116.

© Cornelius Holtorf, last updated on 26 October 2002