Holidaying in the UK in winter can be rather satisfying. Mainly because you don’t have to contend with the vast crowds which are usual in the warmer months at popular spots. One such place was the Roman bath complex in Bath, here we were able to meander around the buildings and displays without being jostled by eager tourists trying to capture the perfect selfie. This physical space allowed the imagination a chance to wander the halls of time. A multitude of questions and possible scenarios playing out in my minds eye and so ‘A Roman Moon’ was born.
Bath complexes in the Roman period were not simply places to wash and clean the body but also places to meet, socialise, to be seen and make those all important contacts. At the Roman town of Aquae Sulis (Bath) the baths rose to prominence from the late first century AD as a result of the natural hot springs which were a feature of the landscape and worshipped for many generations prior to the arrival of the Romans.
As with so many aspects of the Iron Age/Celtic landscape of the time, the natural springs here had its own diety who was recorded by the Romans with the name of Sulis. The Romans were very good at adopting and blending local cultures with their own as part of their overall colonisation package. For the Romans the local goddess Sulis had much in common with one of their own – Minerva. Thus the hot springs became dedicated to the amalgamated goddess of Sulis Minerva.
The success of Aquae Sulis (even the towns name pays homage to the goddess – ‘the waters of Sulis’) is down to it also being a place of pilgrimage. People from all around would come to the town to make offerings or petitions to the goddess. One such method to ensure the goddess knew what was required was to write a message on a sheet of lead. For this purpose a trained scribe would be employed. Once the wording was just so the lead sheet was folded or rolled and then thrown into the sacred spring – a number of these have been recovered from the spring, mostly they were curses for relatively small wrong doings.
As well as the lead sheets, other gifts were found during excavations. Thousands of coins (and even today people throw coins into the spring), jewellery, pewter dishes and cups usually inscribed with a dedication to Sulis Minerva. The cups may have been used to drink the waters (as we continue to do so today) or as libation vessels. The belief in the healing powers of the spring waters was an important part of the towns fame.
Besides Sulis Minerva there were within the temple complex depictions of other deities.
The rituals in Roman religion took place mostly outdoors, the temples buildings were often small affairs where only the priests or priestesses would be allowed to enter. Public ceremonies would have been conducted outside in the surrounding precinct. Within the precinct there would have been altars dedicated to the diety set up by individuals in anticpation of a divine favour or to give thanks, these would have been decorated in offerings of all kinds or with bowls of incense.
“The temple, in its original late first century form, was a purely classical building set on a high podium reached by a steep flight of steps. Its porch was dominated by four massive Corinthian columns supporting an ornate pediment. Behind lay a simple room, the cella, where only priests could enter to tend the flames kept burning around the life-sized cult statue of Sulis Minerva” (from ‘The Essential Roman Baths” – a guidebook).
The above is a selection of the numerous altar stones and memorials found in the Roman layers during excavations.
The complex at Aquae Sulis was quite extensive – with facilities for men and women to bath seperately which was rare and spoke volumes about the wealth of the town. At the heart of the complex is the Great Bath, a rectangular swimming bath surrounded by a walkway with alcoves for people to sit and relax in. The bath itself was and still is lined with 45 sheets of Mendip lead.
The complex at Aquae Sulis was quite extensive – with facilities for men and women to bath seperately which was rare and spoke volumes about the wealth of the town. At the heart of the complex is the Great Bath, a rectangular swimming bath surrounded by a walkway with alcoves for people to sit and relax in. The bath itself was and still is lined with 45 sheets of Mendip lead.
The above shows a reconstruction picture of how the town may have looked at its height based upon what has been discovered through various archaeological excavations. In “A Roman Moon” astute readers will note that I did away with the amphitheatre, replacing it with a Forum. Why? Well, to begin with the evidence for an amphitheatre is at this stage is quite thin on the ground and I am sure that a town of such importance would have had a Forum. In addition, you can also put it down to the authors whim, a bit of ‘literary licence’.
The river running beside the town is the Avon, known then as Afon which is Welsh for river (amusingly making the name of the River Avon, the River River)…
I hope you can see why the ancient town of Aquae Sulis inspired me to write ‘A Roman Moon’ – from the presence of Luna, the triple goddess and the sacred spring all play a part in Sarah’s story.
But before we get to pictures, a bit of background…
Built in 1268 by Gilbert de Clare (also known as “Red Gilbert” due to his hair colour) as part of his conquest Glamorgan and the continuing subjugation of the Welsh by the Normans. It is constructed on a natural gravel bank in the middle of a river basin and consists of two large artificial lakes within thirty acres making it the second largest castle in Britain.
The water defences of the castle were most likely inspired by a similar design at Kenilworth which de Clare would have witnessed in action during the seige of Kenilworth in 1266. The vast lakes prevents the castle walls from being undermined – a popular siege tactic at the time. Caerphilly was also the first concentric castle to be built in Britian and its walls were built using Pennant Stone.
A Brief Timeline
1268 – Construction begins with the daming and digging of the lakes, temporary wooden palisades and buildings.
1270 – Rising tensions with Welsh resulted in the castle being attacked by Llywelyn ap Gruffudd and supporters – the wooden structures were burnt to the ground.
1271 – In an effort to quell the tensions between the Welsh and the Normans the castle is taken over by royal officials who promise to negotiate and arbitrate a solution to the ongoing problems.
1272 – de Clare’s men seize back the castle and work recommences, the castle is completed later that year.
1294 – Once again the castle is attacked but this time by Madog ap Llywelyn.
1316 – And again the castle is attacked, during the Llywelyn Bren uprising.
1326-27 – And again during the overthrow of Edward III…
From the fifteenth century the castle begin to decline…
1776 – Caerphilly is acquired by the Marquesses of Bute but it is not until the third and fourth Marquesses that extensive restoration work begun.
1950 – The castle and grounds were given to the state.
Today – The site is managed by CADW – the Welsh heritage organisation.
Caerphilly Castle was a defensive stronghold – the lack of windows and decoration combined with forbidding walls was testimony to this fact – it was a castle which meant business.
More Information can be found at the following links:
Avebury – the largest stone circle in Europe. It is an easy platitude and just as easily the visitor can wander around the giant stones, exclaiming, wondering why and who built the circle. Then with equal ease get back in their car/tour bus, tick it off the bucket list and move on. However, stop for a moment, look around, peruse the maps and the visitor will see Avebury sits within landscape full of engimatic archaeological sites – West Kennet long barrow and Avenue, Silbury Hill, Windmill Hill, the Sanctuary to name a few. Avebury, the largest stone circle in Europe is but a single element of a much wider sacred landscape.
In fact the Avebury landscape can lay claim to having the largest human constructed mound in Europe (Silbury Hill); the largest long barrow in Britian (West Kennet); one of the largest settlement sites of the earlier Neolithic in Britian (Windmill Hill) and the remains of the longest known avenue of standing stones in Britian (West Kennet Avenue). It would be easy to think that the people of Neolithic Avebury had something to prove but that would be putting modern thoughts of competition into a mindset many thousands of years old.
But lets not jump the gun, first consider what came before the Neolithic and then look at each of the sites individually.
Hunter gatherers in Avebury
To date no single site has been discovered which can be dated to the Mesolithic. In fact the hunter gatherer forebears of Avebury offer up very little in the way of evidence to say ‘we were here’. At the most, isolated findspots of flint tools are known and even these are sparse with just over thirty being recorded. However as many a archaeological lecturer will point out ‘absence of evidence does not equal evidence of absence’.
“As a landscape it is not necessarily empty of significance. There is plentiful ethnographic evidence to show how hunter-gatherer communities invest landscapes with symbolic, mythical and narrative meanings” (Pollard J & Reynolds A ‘Avebury. The Biography of a Landscape’ 2002).
Whilst it might not be obvious to modern eyes the positioning of sites in the earlier Neolithic may well be based on long term community memories, stories and myths which stretch back into the Mesolithic. The simple passing of time reinforcing the importance of place.
Windmill Hill was in use long before the Avebury of today was constructed and is one of a group of early Neolithic monuments known collectively as causewayed enclosures. Numerous examples are known across Britain and although they vary in size and geography there defining feature are the concentric rings of ditches with multiple ’causeways’.
“As the earliest recorded monuments designed to enclose open space, causewayed enclosures represent an unprecedented phenomenon in the archaeological record of the British Isles. The deliberate deposition of artefacts and other cultural material into features dug into the ground represents another important new departure. The creation of the monuments – especially the initial act of defining a place as seperate from the outside world – has therefor increasingly been stressed as a key aspect of their function.”
(Oswald A, Dyer C & Barber M ‘The Creation of Monuments: Neolithic Causewayed Enclosures in the British Isles’ 2001 English Heritage).
Windmill Hill consists of three concentric rings of ditches first dug between 3700-3500BC with a total area of around eight hectares. Within the Avebury area there are a further two similar but less well known enclosures dating to this early Neolithic phase – Knap Hill and Rybury. Windmill Hill has been excavated on several occasions beginning in the late 1920s by Alexander Keiller. Further excavations occured in 1957, 1958 and 1988.
The artefacts found during these excavations represent what can be seen as a microcosm of early Neolithic life. The large quantity of animal bones (mainly cattle) and over twenty thousand pottery sherds represent the importance of raising stock as well as food production and consumption, perhaps in the form of feasting. The one hundred thousand pieces of worked flint; worked sarsen stone; chalk artefacts; antler tools, human bone and axes made of non-local stone represent other aspects of exchange and manufacture; human interactions with the living and the dead.
Beyond the artefacts there is the enclosure itself – for the first time areas of the landscape are being seperated out from their surroundings. Whilst we cannot say for certain it is possible that Windmill Hill was already a place with special meaning and the bounding of the land gave the activities which occured here a greater significance. Evidence demonstrates that Windmill hill was not occupied all year round, most likely from spring to autumn.
“By providing a focus for people to come together on specific occasions, the creation and re-creation of the monuments may have helped to confirm links between groups and individuals, simultaneously establishing a place of lasting significance to all.” (ibid)
The importance of causewayed enclosures such as Windmill Hill should not be underestimated. Windmill Hill provides a point of origin for the development of the later ritual landscape all too evident in the Avebury area.
Long Barrows are another type of site which belong to the pre-Avebury stone circle phase and the early Neolithic. Consisting of trapezoidal or rectangular mounds of earth, turf and chalk. There are two types, megalithic or those with stone chambers and non-megalithic or earthen long barrows.
Looking down the megalithic passage.
One of the side chambers.
West Kennet is but one of fourteen long barrows known within a three mile radius of Avebury and is dated to around 3700BC – West Kennet however, is the longest (at 100m long) and the only one in the area which can be easily visited today. Belonging to a group known as the Cotswold-Severn type it was first excavated in 1859 and then in the late 1950s. It consists of five stone chambers connected by stone corridor at its eastern end. The chambers extend twelve metres into the mound and are fronted by an elaborate facade.
Human remains were found in all five chambers, which would definitely suggest a funerary function for the site. Initially these were placed in the chambers as whole bodies but over time these were moved around, re-organised and in some cases completely removed (perhaps finding their way to the ditches of Windmill Hill and the like). After the final internments and over several hundred years the chambers were filled in with chalk rubble, pottery debris, animal bones, bone beads, stone, shell and worked flint. Within and on top of this fill other human bones were discovered, mainly of children and most dating to a later period of around 3300BC. There were ten seperate and distinct layers suggesting that this was a deliberate act and not random.
As a final act in the late third millenium BC a facade of three large sarsen stones was built across the forecourt effectively blocking access into the tomb – this act was contemporary with the main stone phase of Avebury; “…closing the monument and marking the end of ‘an older tradition focussed on ancestors and the past'” (Pollard J & Reynolds A ‘Avebury: The Biography of a Landscape” 2002).
Avebury is approximately 420 metres in diameter and encloses around 11.5 hectares. The bank is on the outside of the ditch and there are four entrances (SSE, WSW, NNW and ENE). The ditch today is four to five metres deep but originally it would have been ten to fourteen metres deep and although grassed over today when first dug the walls of the ditch would have gleamed white, a very obvious feature within the landscape. Contained within the ditch and bank is the largest stone circle in Britain and although many are now missing, it has been estimated that originally there would have been between 95-100 stones around the circumference of the ditch. The largest blocks flank the southern and northern entrances making the route into the centre sinous and not straightforward. At the northern entrance stands a huge stone sometimes referred to as the Diamond Stone and it weighs in at around sixty tonne. Up until the eighteenth century a taller straighter partner stood on the opposite side. The stones are sarsen, a hard grey sandstone with quartz grains. When freshly cut the stones would of looked very different to what they do today.
One of the most influential people in the recent history of Avebury was Alexander Keiller who undertook many of the excavations in the area during the 1930s and resurrected thirty six of the current stones. When he first bought the land only fifteen of the stones remained upright.
Within the larger circle there are two further smaller circles situated on the saddle of a crest over which the entire monument is situated. In their original form each circle would have had around 25-30 stones and a diameter of approximately 100 metres. In the centre of this were two further monuments referred to as the Cove and the Obelisk. The latter no longer exists but we know of due to William Stukeley who describes it as a pillar 5.5-6 metres high. The Cove are a box like setting of three stones of which only two still remain. In addition, fifteen metres to the west is a thirty two metre long row of nine small reddish stones; roughly half way between the southern small circle and the outer circle is another standing stone referred to as the Ring stone as it is naturally perforated. An aerial survey in 1995 identified numerous parchmarks which may represent more stones.
The smaller northern stone circle
The stone row
Further aerial work, geophysical survey and excavation have identified other features not of stone but of timber and earth. Not much can be said of these features in terms of character and date but it is likely some may be contemporary with Neolithic Avebury. For example, excavations in 1939 at the southern entrance uncovered a substantial 1 metre deep posthole suggesting a pre stone phase of timber posts. In the 1980s geophysical survey suggested the existence of multiple timber circle in the north-east quadrant about forty metres in diameter.
One notable feature of Avebury is the relative lack of prehistoric artefacts. When they are found during excavation they appear to be related to the earliest phases of the monument or its construction. The latter are often referred to as depositional deposits such as the antler picks used to dig the ditch which when the ditch was finished were then deposited on the base, in the primary fill and in the bank.
“We should avoid thinking of the construction of a monument like Avebury as a pragmatic process, as though the sanctity of the site was something conferred upon it once building was complete (not that for much of its early life is ever was). The process of digging ditches, creating banks, dragging in and erecting stones, of ‘altering the earth’, was fundamentally significant in itself – a direct intervention into nature and the cosmos. Indeed, the act of building may have been of as much significance as any completed project.” (Pollard J & Reynolds A ‘Avebury The Biography of a Landscape’)
Other deposits are found in stone holes or around stones, although only in some parts of the circle. For example, excavations of the southern Inner Circle found a concentration of worked flint particularly around the Obelisk. The south-west sector by comparison was almost clean of artefacts. In the north-west quadrant a variety of artefacts were recovered including sherds of Grooved Ware, human and animal bone, flint flakes, fragments of axes and sandstone implements. Much of this material appears to have been brought in from elsewhere and some are even older than the date deposition.
Of course, all of this is very interesting but what was it used for? Which is of course a million dollar question…interpretations vary and as more research is conducted and more information comes to light so the interpretations change or are tweaked.
The variety of theories include rituals to celebrate certain times of the year; death; transitional periods within life; making contact with the ancestors or the supernatural. Such activities may have been perceived to be dangerous times and hence the act of enclosing the site kept the people safe. Francis Pryor has suggested that the bank outside the ditch allowed people to witness the activities in the interior but at the same time excluded them by the presence of the ditch. The lack of artefacts inside the circle also suggests that this was not a space for just anybody to occupy.
“In one form or another Avebury succeeded the earlier enclosure to the north on Windmill Hill. Both were locations for the periodic gatherings of large numbers of people; these gatherings involved the deliberate burial of artefacts, animal and human remains (though on a much reduced scale at Avebury); at both sites people were involved in a dialogue with spiritual and supernatural agencies…Avebury is more formalised in terms of architecture, and more restricted in terms of how it could be entered and encountered than Windmill Hill – it is less inclusive. But, like Windmill Hill, Avebury also incorporated references to the wider Neolithic social world and surrounding landscape.” (Pollard J & Reynolds A – Avebury. The biography of a landscape.)
Most recently news has come to light of an unusual feature within the centre of the southern inner circle. A research team led by the University of Leicester and University of Southhampton found a series of stone holes which formed a square shaped monument around the now lost Obelisk. Although currently undated, it has been suggested that this may be the oldest part of the entire site and may even be a form of dedication to an even earlier house structure. Only excavation will answer these questions and once again our understanding of this site will need re-evaluating. The team also found evidence for short lines of stones which radiated out from the square to edge of the inner circle.
In the later part of the Neolithic another type of megalithic monument emerged in the landscape – the Avenues. Leading from the henge at Avebury were two double lines of megalithic stones, one heading from the southern entrance – the West Kennet Avenue; the second heading from the western entrance – the Beckhampton Avenue. Of the two only the West Kennet can be easily walked today.
Both avenues are similar in construction – each are around fifteen metres wide and consist of paired of sarsen blocks that have not been modified. The stones are set every 20 – 30 metres and are around 1.5 – 3 metres tall. The West Kennet leads to the site known as the Sanctuary on Overton Hill and is made up of around one hundred stones. It has been suggested that the avenues were not laid out in one go but were constructed in a series of stages. Dating of the avenues has been relatively problematic due the ‘clean’ nature of the sites, although the Beckhampton Avenue is regarded as being the later monument – but not by much. The current date range is between c.2600-2300BC.
The full length of the Beckhampton Avenue is not yet known and was first recorded by William Stukeley in the 1720s and even then it was in a very sorry state. By the nineteenth century only two stones remained upright known as the Longstones (or Adam and Eve). For many years there was some doubt as to what Stukeley recorded but excavations in 1999 and 2000 proved the presence of the avenue and an associated Cove at the Longstones. This area of the Beckhampton avenue underwent a series of changes and readjustments overtime eventually ending with a box shaped setting of stones forming a terminal end to the Avenue.
In regards to purpose it is fair to say that the avenues represent a need to prescribe particular pathways of movement and approach to and from Avebury. It has also been suggested that the processional ways are all about social grading – someone is always in the lead whilst others must follow. In addition, the movement through the landscape also serves as a form of remembrance – linking significant places of cultural memory together.
“At another level, the avenues transformed a landscape of scattered monuments and significant places into a unified complex that was to be approached, read and understood in a very particular way.” (Pollard & Reynold ibid).
As mentioned above the Sanctuary is connected to Avebury via the West Kennet Avenue. Located on the southern spur of Overton Hill it is a complex monument which began life as a circle of timber posts roughly twenty metres in diameter, later becoming a larger double stone circle monument. Although our understanding of the constructional history is not complete it does seem as if many of the timber posts remained in situ during the construction of the stone circles and beyond. Giving an image of a ‘confusing mass of posts’ in both timber and stone. Today the site is marked by two rings of low concrete posts. In the 1720s the field was taken under the plough and the stone removed.
However, it’s importance must not be underestimated. With commanding views along the Kennet valley, the long barrows at East and West Kennet are visible as is Windmill Hill. In addition, there is a long history of activity on the site stretching back into the fourth millenium BC. The most predominant artefact type found on site is flint knapping debris and animal bone, although finds of pottery and human bone were also found as formalised deposits.
Thirty seven metres high, thirty metres across at the top and five hundred metres around the base – Silbury Hill is the largest prehistoric human made mound in Europe and probably the most enigmatic too. It sits on the valley floor close to where the River Kennet rises at the Swallowhead Springs. It seems the construction of the site began around 2400BC although an end date is even less certain. Many attempts have been made to tunnel in to see if anything lies inside and as of yet nothing has been found. Work in 2007 suggests that the mound grew as a result of many small events, giving an image of pilgrimage.
As to its purpose, well…
There are of course many more monuments within the Avebury landscape – the West Kennet Enclosures; Knap Hill; barrows and other stone circles at places like Winterbourne Bassett – but unfortunately this blog post is already long enough. If you are interested then I do recommend reading Avebury. The Biography of a Landscape by Joshua Pollard and Andrew Reynolds. But most of all I do encourage you to get out and see these places for yourself – it is through experiencing the places of our past do we begin to get a glimmer of understanding.
The following are some online sites that may be of interest:
The original article from which this post comes from was first published in June 2014 for The Celtic Guide, a free to download magazine.
Water – it is life giving and for some life changing.It shows us a reflection of ourselves and without it we and all around us would cease to exist.It is essential to our being.Many cultures, past and present, have recognised this simple fact.For the ancient Egyptians it was from water that all creation began, in ancient Mesopotamia water was regarded as a symbol of absolute wisdom.In many situations water is given anthropomorphic qualities which are almost always female.Interpretations of the meaning behind the names for the Rivers Dee and Don in Scotland range from ‘the goddess’ to ‘the mother’.Identification with the female is common thread across the world’s cultures.
Today the most sacred river to Hindus is the river Ganges; it is worshipped as the goddess Ganga who descended from heaven to earth.To bathe in the waters of the Ganges is to wash away your sins; her waters are seen as both pure and purifying.It is also believed the Ganges flows in heaven, earth and the netherworld and is regarded as a crossing point of all beings, the living and the dead.Thus it is very desirable to have the ashes of a loved one scattered on the Ganges.This belief in the sanctity of the river, and all rivers, began early in Indian culture and has continued uninterrupted for several thousand years.
Heading far to the west and much closer to home, we arrive in Britain and ask ourselves was water important to our ancestors?The answer would be a definitive “Yes”.In fact, the importance of watery places in Britain’s past is a given for archaeologists and other like-minded individuals.There have over the years been numerous outstanding excavations and archaeological finds to back this up.
The relationship people had with water in both Britain and Irelands past can be seen as far back as the Neolithic.During this time people were beginning to make their mark on the landscape constructing sizable and (fairly) permanent monuments such as Stonehenge, Ness of Brodgar and New Grange.Such sites are usually part of a wider ‘sacred’ landscape, often surrounded by many other monuments of varying type and size but what is of interest to us here is their relationship to water.Thus the Stonehenge sacred landscape is bounded by the River Avon in the south and east, whilst New Grange and associated sites are nestled in what is known as the Bend in the Boyne (the river Boyne).The Ness of Brodgar, as well as a large number of other sites, in Orkney is situated on thin strip of land with the saltwater Loch of Stenness on one side and the freshwater Loch of Harry on the other.In this landscape there is very little to differentiate the water from the sky.
The reasons for the placement of such sites near rivers may never be fully understood but it is possible to say the symbolism is inherent but as Francis Pryor says in his book Britain BC (2003) “…it would be very easy to oversimplify our reading of that complex, layered symbolism that contained within it the shared histories of the people who created, nourished and guarded it.To say, for example, that water symbolised a soul’s journey to the next world is banal.It may have done – indeed it probably did – but it also marked boundaries in this world, and provided corridors along which people could move without crossing too many tribal frontiers.”
The Neolithic would have been a very alien world to our modern minds and trying to assess the symbolism of a natural phenomenon is fraught with numerous pitfalls.Regardless, it is important to take heed the role of waterways in Neolithic life.The lifestyle of the Neolithic would have been reasonably mobile, with people moving around the landscape following the seasons.
“Where people moved around the land, pathways between places would be emphasised, and monuments placed beside them.Given the scale of many Neolithic monuments, they may also have been placed at locales where groups were in closer proximity at certain times of the year.” (Barnatt J. ‘Monuments in the Landscape: Thoughts from the Peak’ Prehistoric Ritual and Religion. Eds. A Gibson and D. Simpson).
After the Neolithic we have the Bronze Age, a period heralded, as the name would suggest, by the appearance of metal objects (bronze, copper and gold) within the archaeological record.We also see an increasing (albeit gradual) degree of sedentary behaviour, with family type groups concentrating their activities at permanently laid out farms and fields.Many (but not all) of the monuments of the Bronze Age began to reflect this more localised behaviour with smaller monuments being built by these groups for their own use.The monuments are now found in all manner of landscapes and it would it appear that water is no longer of importance.However, excavations at sites such as Flag Fen, Lincolnshire and the finds from Duddington Loch, Edinburgh or the Rivers Thames, Trent or Witham to name a few all suggest that watery places were still of great ritual importance.
In the early days of discovery such finds were often attributed to accidental loss however the excavations at Flag Fen have seem to indicate the majority of the items deposited were done intentionally and with no desire to retrieve them.In 1984 Francis Pryor began excavating a post alignment at Flag Fen.It was 10m wide and consisted of five roughly parallel rows of posts.During the 1989 dig season the excavators began to find some unusual artefacts, some three hundred and twenty metal objects, mostly made of bronze and dating from the Bronze Age.Swords, daggers, jewellery, axe-heads, spearheads and pieces of a metal shield were amongst the artefacts uncovered.Interestingly every object had been deliberately damaged before being placed carefully into the water.The deliberate destruction of artefacts prior to deposition at Flag Fen is not an isolated example.
At Duddington Loch a number of bronze objects were found, mostly weapons, and once more all had been broken or burnt prior to deposition.Still in Scotland, Late Bronze Age swords were found in the River Tay and three Late Bronze Age shields were recovered from a bog in Yetholm, Roxburgshire.Another feature of Bronze Age deposition is its longevity, At Flag Fen and the bog sites of Ireland such as Dowris, Co. Offaly; Mooghaun, Co. Clare and the Bog of Cullen in Co. Tipperary deposition did not occur as a single event rather it was the result of many individual events over a number of years.In the case of the Irish bogs over two hundred bronze artefacts have been found, deposited over a number of years.
The tradition of deposition in watery places continues into the Iron Age. Still the weapons appear in rivers, for example, the Battersea Shield found in the River Thames, a horned helmet from under the Waterloo Bridge and the Witham Shield from the River Witham. An excavation at Fiskerton in Lincolnshire also discovered a causeway that led to Lindsey a significant patch of dry land which is essentially an island bounded by the rivers Humber and Trent to the north and east and the Witham and fens to the south.Here the archaeologists found swords, spearheads and other artefacts deposited into the wet ground.Interestingly it has been suggested that the deposits coincided with periods when the causeway was being rebuilt around the time of lunar eclipses.
Similar to the Bronze Age, the bogs and lakes of the west seem to be the place of choice for ritual deposition.The most well known is Llyn Cerrig Bach (originally a lake) in Anglesey.From here some one hundred and fifty objects were recovered.The finds from Lylyn Cerrig Bach are regarded as the most important collection of La Tene style metalwork in Britain to be found.The artefacts found included two slave chains, swords, spearheads, a bronze trumpet, cauldrons, iron bars, blacksmith tools and animal bones.Once more all had been deliberately broken and deposited over a long period of time, approximately from 300BC to 100AD.In fact there may have been a double whammy of sacredness here, as it has been suggested that islands represented sacred spaces because they were bounded by water on all sides.
This connection between water and the deposition of weapons is embodied by the later legends of King Arthur.In Malory’s version King Arthur instructs Sir Bedivere “…take thou Excalibur, my good sword, and go with it to yonder waterside, and when thou comest there I charge thee throw my sword in that water”.For some this could be regarded as a cultural memory, a continuation of a ritual performed by our ancestors for many generations.
But it is not only lakes and rivers that were important there were also the peat bogs.Finds from peat bogs are of a relatively common occurrence given the use of peat for fuel.Of course the most famous of all bog deposits are the human bodies. Bog bodies are well known in several European contexts for example, Tollund Man found in a Danish bog.However, there are also examples from Germany, Holland, Norway and Sweden.The tradition goes right back to the Mesolithic and culminates in the Iron Age and early Roman period.
One of the most dramatic discoveries in Britain was that of ‘Lindow Man’ found in a peat bog at Lindow Moss in Cheshire.The remains were of a young male (mid 20s) who had been violently killed from a blow to his head, strangled and a cut to his throat. A detailed examination of the remains suggests he was of a high status.His teeth were healthy, his nails manicured and his beard and moustache neatly trimmed, in addition there were none of the usual signs on the bones that he had ever done any heavy manual labour.Radiocarbon dating has his death and deposition at somewhere in the mid first century AD.
Many reasons for such a grisly deposition have been put forth, from murder and violent robbery to human sacrifice.Sacrifice in the Iron Age was well known and took many forms either as the sacrifice of an object, an animal or a person.
“The Celts did not love their deities; they made contracts with them as they did in their own society.By making offerings into pits, wells, springs, peat bogs and all watery places, no doubt with the solemn attendant ritual, the druids were in fact ‘binding’ the gods into making reciprocal gifts to mankind…” (A Ross ‘Ritual and Druids’ in The Celtic World ed M Green).
It would seem that the greater the ‘ask’ the greater the sacrifice.The Lindow man was deposited at a time of turmoil in Britain, northern England was not properly subjugated by the Romans until well into the first century AD, perhaps he represents a last ditch attempt by the Druids asking for the Gods intervention? Perhaps his grisly death is a reflection of ‘destroying’ an object before it is deposited into its watery grave? Throughout Britan and Ireland there have been almost two hundred documented cases of bodies found in bogs.Not all are dated to the Iron Age and not all can be given a ritual explanation.
Any discussion on the sacredness of watery places needs to include springs and wells. Unfortunately, the majority of springs have been tampered with, cleared out and utilised to such a degree in our history the evidence is very sparse indeed.Some prehistoric sites are associated with springs through proximity such as Swallowhead springs which is near the Neolithic monuments of Silbury Hill and West Kennet long barrow.However, the best preserved piece of evidence comes from the town of Bath.Here we have the very famous Roman baths based around the springs dedicated to the goddess Sulis Minerva.The impressive complex of baths and temples built by the Romans began some fifteen years after the Boudiccan rebellion.It does seem this was an attempt to do honour to a local deity – Sulis – by aligning it with one of the more significant Roman deities – Minerva.It is well recorded by the Romans the importance of this site to the local people.Thousands of coins of both Roman and Celtic type have been found in or near the hot springs in addition to many curse tablets of a Roman date.
This tradition of offerings to a spring or well continues into the modern day.Throwing a coin into a well to make a wish is a common practice as is the tradition of well dressing.Every summer throughout the counties of Britain wells are cleaned up and made pretty.The longevity of this practice is well attested, in 960 a canon was issued that expressly forbade the ‘worship of fountains’ and yet it could not be suppressed, eventually the church turned these pagan sites into Christian holy wells.In some cases the well or spring has a special tree nearby, a Clootie tree.The clootie is a piece of cloth that has been dipped in the spring’s water and then tied to the tree, after which a supplication is given to the saint or deity of the spring.Many of these springs are associated with healing, in some cases the clootie represents the ailment and it is believed that once it has perished then so will the ailment.
Clooties hanging on a tree by Madron Well – West Cornwall
Chapel Euny Holywell – West Cornwall. Photo by Frances Watt.
Furthermore it is not unusual for a church to be built near a sacred spring or well such as St Oswalds in Cumbria or at Golant in Cornwall. Some have even embraced the sacred well as is the case for St Winefride’s well in Holywell, Wales. In fact the overall sanctity continues well into the Christian era, monasteries can be found on islands (St Michael’s Mount or Lindisfarne) and many other Christian religious houses are situated close to rivers.
This article merely scratches the surface but from reading and research it soon becomes apparent that water in all its forms has played a major role in the history and prehistory of our world.It has defined where we live and it has defined how we live, indeed if we live at all.That our ancestors’ revered water should be of no surprise to us and yet often it is.
“Water is life’s mater and matrix, mother and medium.There is no life without water.” Albert Szent-Gyorgi
“Nothing is weaker than water, yet for overcoming what is hard and strong, nothing surpasses it.”Lao Tzu
Stonehenge – a name that evokes a great many emotions in a great many people. For some it is a place of pilgrimage, a place to connect with the ancestors and for others it is seen as a tourist trap or something to tick off the bucket list. For centuries it has captured our imagination; never has a heritage site been so controversial – something which continues to this day. In this post it is not my intention to give a full on thesis about Stonehenge, there are plenty of books/websites who do this already. Instead it is simply an overview of what is currently understood about the site, its surrounding landscape and my own personal thoughts.
Stonehenge is situated on the Salisbury Plains, to the south is the busy A303, a main road between the south-west and London, and for many years the equally busy A344 ran alongside the site. This latter road was removed sometime ago to improve the visitors experience. Today there are ongoing discussions regarding the upgrading of the A303 and a proposed tunnel. It is a highly emotive subject, on one hand I understand the need to improve the road situation (ask anyone who is stuck in a traffic jam on the A303) but as an archaeologist I am also aware of the sensitive nature of the surrounding heritage landscape (and yes I am on the fence). Mike Pitts in his recent post discusses the pros and cons for those of you who are interested.
For the visitor today the focus is on the large stone circle with its trilithons, they marvel at how it could have been built by ‘primitive man’ often leading to suggestions of alien intervention and lost technologies. But such thoughts only serve to belittle our ancestors and our past. Others may ask why did our ancestors build Stonehenge? Often the answers are unimaginative and simple – sun-worship; display of power; ancient computer; druid temple – once more when we look only for one answer to a what is obviously a complicated site of great longevity we belittle their achievements. Instead if Stonehenge was understood in terms of the wider landscape and as a site whose history spanned several millenia we might come to some small understanding of how and why.
In today’s world of instant gratification where everything has a beginning and an end, it is hard to imagine beginning a project knowing you might not see it finished but this was a reality for the builders of Stonehenge. It has lead some to suggest that it was not the end product which was important but the doing, the act of building which was in fact the purpose. Suggesting a cyclical thought pattern which can be seen in other aspects of prehistoric life – round houses, stone circles, round barrows. in addition, time itself was most likely viewed in cycles, the phases of the moon and the movement of the seasons are all cyclical events which would have been of great importance to prehistoric people trying to make sense of their world.
“So was Stonehenge ever ‘finished’? The answer to that has to be no, because completion was never the intention of the people who created it.” (Pryor F. 2016 ‘Stonehenge: The Story of a Sacred Landscape).
It is well known that Stonehenge itself had many incarnations, perhaps meaning new and different things with each alteration or rebuild. To understand Stonehenge it is important to consider it in the wider context of the surrounding landscape (there are literally hundreds of prehistoric monuments around it) in all the different phases.
The Mesolithic Story
The story of the Stonehenge landscape begins back in the Mesolithic, ongoing recent excavations at Blickmead are providing archaeologists with tantalising clues as to why this area was important to our ancestors. The site is situated near a spring by the River Avon, excavations began in 2005 and almost immediately were fruitful. Basically, the deposits consisted of an array of Mesolithic settlement debris, mostly flint fragments (tens of thousands) but also a great number of animal bones. Interestingly, the site also yielded the largest collection of auroch bones ever found on a Mesolithic site in Britain so far. Other animals which were hunted and consumed included red deer, wild boar and salmon – this has led archaeologists to suggest that feasting was a common occurence around the spring. The spring itself is quite unusual as it has the tendency to stain flints and other materials a bright magenta pink – the importance of springs in later prehistory is well attested to.
In 1966 row of four large pit like features were found during upgrades to the old carpark close by Stonehenge. When excavated one was found to be a the root-hole of a tree and the other three were holes dugs to hold large poles. Examination of the material from these features gave a date range from between 8500 and 7000BC. The posts would have been approximately 75cm in diameter and were from pine trees. Later in 1988 another post-hole was discovered south and east of the original pits but it was contemporary.
So here we have a landscape already well populated by hunter-gatherer communities who revered certain natural features long before Stonehenge makes an appearance. A landscape which had meaning to the people who inhabit it; who had traditions and memories of place.
At around 3500BC (Neolithic) with the arrival of farming these communities and their traditions had evolved and more permenant features began to make an appearance on the landscape. Long barrows such as those at East and West Kennet or Winterbourne Stoke were the first to appear and by 3400BC the Stonehenge Cursus and Lesser Cursus was under construction.
3000BC – The first official phase of construction
In many parts of Britian at this time a new type of monument was being constructed, these were earthwork enclosures which are referred to as henges. They consist of irregular cut ditches encircling a defined area with corresponding banks. Stonehenge’s earliest phase was one such earthwork. Here there were two entrances one faced north-east and the other faced south. The north-easterly entrance remained in use for much of the sites lifetime and appears to be important to its function. The entrance is aligned along a line of natural gullies which face towards the midsummer sunrise in one direction and the midwinter sunset in the other.
These natural gullies would have been visible to the people of the Mesolithic and may have been why the large pine posts were erected where they were – the midsummer and midwinter solstices were just as important then as they were to the later prehistoric communities.
Inside the earthwork enclosure around the inner edge of the bank were fifty-six regularly spaced pits – these are now known as the Aubrey Holes. There is some discussion as to what they were or what they contained – small stone uprights or wooden posts? However, what is known is that eventually they did contain cremated human remains. Similar deposits have been found in the partly filled ditch and cut into the bank suggesting that at this stage in its history Stonehenge was used as a cemetary, among other things.
The Building of the Stone Monument
At around 2500BC Stonehenge began to resemble a site we are much more familiar with. It is at this time that the massive sarsen stones from the Marlborough Downs were moved to the site and erected. If that was not all at the same time the smaller but no less cumbersome, blue stones from the Preseli Mountains in Wales were transported and erected at Stonehenge. The Heel stone was moved to its current position and four smaller sarsen stones (the station stones) were erected inside the enclosure just inside the bank.
The first two diagrams above demonstrate one theory of how the trilithon stones were erected. The third diagram shows the sophistication of the construction, with each lintel fitting neatly into each other – borrowed from the Univeristy of Buckingham’s MOOC “Stonehenge”.
In a mere one hundred years it seems the two main structures of the trilithon horseshoe and the circle was completed. Interestingly it seems that greater care was taken in the shaping and construction of the stones visible from the north-east side and the main entrance. The bluestones were also erected at this time but not in the form we see today at Stonehenge. Excavation has shown us that there were two concentric arcs of stone holes, known as the Q and R holes were found on the north and east sides of the central area. It has been suggested that these were not representative of a complete circle as there is little to no evidence on the southern or western sides of corresponding holes.
2200BC – Consolidation and Alterations
From this time on Stonehenge underwent a series of minor alterations although the large sarsen stones remained in their positions although much later in the Bronze Age shallow carvings of axeheads and the occasional dagger were added. There are some 115 carvings and these have been dated stylistically to between 1750 and 1500BC.
The smaller bluestones however were rearranged and by 2200BC the incomplete circles were dismantled and repositioned to form a circle concentric to and just inside the circle of larger sarsen circle whilst a second oval of bluestones (spotted dolerite) was also formed within the trilithon setting. Later a number of stones were removed from the oval to form the horseshoe setting which is seen today.
At around the same time the ditch was recut and a small bank was constructed and the Avenue was constructed. This later feature follows the solstice alignment with ditches and banks for part of the way and then veers off to the east ending in a valley of the River Avon. Recent excavations at the place where the Avenue meets the River Avon have uncovered evidence for a previously unknown henge monument made up of bluestones. These were likely to have been removed to supplement the bluestones already at Stonehenge.
Surrounding the monument are significant numbers of round barrows dating from the Bronze Age, some of which contained rich burials with artefacts made of bronze, gold, jet and amber. Suggesting a society rather different from the one which was able to come together communally to construct Stonehenge and yet the place, the landscape and the site still had a powerful pull to these people – it is no different today…
Above are two of the many round barrows littering the landscape around Stonehenge.
The pictures above show a reconstruction of houses found during excavations at Durrington Walls which date to approximately the same time as when the main phase of construction at Stonehenge was underway. It is interesting to note the layout of the houses with the ‘dresser’ opposite the door and the beds to the right as you enter. This layout is reminiscent of house layouts at Skara Brae and later similar layouts are seen in Bronze Age roundhouses.
Stonehenge is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Britain; it evokes a variety of emotions; it is a British icon and yet so many people still only today see the stones. Yes they are impressive but there is so much more to their story than what you see. To really understand Stonehenge the curious need to look at the wider landscape and then look further again. Afterall, not too far away is the equally astounding landscape surrounding Avebury. What was the relationship between these two sacred landscapes? What can they tell us about the people who lived at the time? These landscapes were created by a people who viewed the world very differently to ourselves and carry a language, a dialogue that would have been obvious to those who lived in the Neolithic and even the Bronze Age. In our modern world where landscapes are viewed as places to use – either to make money or in terms of leisure pursuits – it is often hard for us to step back in time to view the landscape as living breathing entity without which we could not survive.
Stonehenge and its surrounding landscape undoubtedly meant many things to the people who occupied it (and probably those further afield too), the stones themselves were taken from the land and perhaps used to create a space where the natural world could be contained; where a semblance of control was maintained; where perhaps a balance was found between the natural world and the constructed world.
There are a great deal of books and websites which delve into the Stonehenge enigma in far greater detail. I have listed some of those below (browse Amazon for comprehensive lists). In particular I would like to recommend the free online course run by Buckingham University via Iversity (click here for more details).
Pryor F (2016) Stonehenge: The Story of a Sacred Landscape
Parker-Pearson M et al (2015) Stonehenge: Making Sense of Prehistoric Mystery
Parker Pearson M (2013) Stonehenge: Exploring the Greatest Stone Age Mystery
Bowden M et al (2015) The Stonehenge Landscape: Analysing the Stonehenge World Heritage Site.
There is a bit of a story behind this trip to Brittany…
It is possible to catch an overnight ferry from Plymouth (Devon, UK) to Roscoff (France). You arrive in France at about 5am and then you get to spend the day exploring the local environment before catching the ferry back to Plymouth at around 7pm that night.
For my hubby and I this was always a bit of an adventure and a chance to stock up on wine and cheese. Regardless to say this was in the time before children.
Well it just so happens that on one trip I convinced my hapless other half to drive just a ‘wee’ way down to Brittany to see the stones at Carnac. Anyway, the drive was longer than expected and I wish we had more time, it was quite literally a flying visit, as there was a very real possibility of us missing the ferry back to the UK.
The sites I visited were the stone alignments at Kerzerho and Le Menec as well as the Giants of Kerzerho.
Probably the most popular of all the stone alignments in this part of France, it is certainly the one everyone thinks of when talking of Carnac. The alignment consists of 12 lines of some 1100 stones. The orientation begins southwest – northeast and then about halfway makes a minor adjustment to its direction and ends in the east. The stones have an average height of one metre although the tallest stones are found at the western end standing at three metres and the shortest stones are at the eastern end measuring 1.5 metres.
The remains of a stone enclosure can be seen at the western end amongst some farm buildings. There was once a similar enclosure at its western end.
These have a similar layout to Le Menec and cover almost two kilometres. Today there are several hundred stones but it is believed the original number at least 1100. The alignment runs east to west and is intersected by a road and a village.
Two huge standing stones sit nestled in forest, they are six metres high and weigh approximately 40 tonnes between them. They are aligned north to south and are thus perpendicular to the Kerzerho alignment.
The following are the few photos I managed to take.
In 1999 I visited the fascinating island of Malta with my then boyfriend (now husband), dragging the poor lad around more archaeology than he had seen in all his life…
Whilst there is a huge amount of archaeology in Malta, from all periods in time, it was the megalithic monuments which caught my attention during this trip. Not to mention we only had a week on the island and you would probably need a whole lot more time to visit all the archaeological sites Malta has to offer.
Unfortunately at the time of our visit the Hypogeum or Hal Saflieni was closed for some desperately needed love and attention – much to my disappointment.
It is believed the first human inhabitants of Malta came from Sicily in the Neolithic. This early phase is named for the site that epitomises this time – Ghar Dalam, a cave site in the south of the island. This early phase begins approximately 5000BC and ends with the first temples being built around 4100BC. The Temple Period is divided into four phases.
Zebbug – 4100-3700BC
Mgarr – 3800-3600BC
Safliene – 3300-3000BC
Tarxien – 3150-2500BC
The temples for which the first two phases are named have now disappeared either under the urban sprawl of Valetta or as is the case of Mgarr subsumed into the backstreets of the town itself. The Safliene phase is characterised by Hal Safliene (Hypogeum), a subterranean temple carved out of the limestone bedrock to accommodate 7000 dead.
The final Tarxien phase is the one visitors to Malta will be most aware of. The temple complexes of Tarxien, Mnajdra, Hagar Qim on Malta and Ggantija on Gozo constitute the climax of the temple building phase.
Although the temples complexes span quite a period of time they do have some common features in terms of the architecture. To begin each will have a oval forecourt bounded by the temple facade constructed of large stone slabs. The doorways all consist of two large uprights topped with an equally large lintel. The passageways are always paved. Once inside the complex, the visitor finds themselves in an open area which then gives way to a series of D-shaped chambers or ‘apses’.
Plan of the main temple of Hagar Qim. (from ‘Malta An Archaeological Paradise’ by A Bonanno)
Plan of the lower and middle temples at Mnajdra. (from ‘Malta An Archaeological Paradise’ by A Bonanno)
Plan of the central part of the Tarxien temple complex. (from ‘Malta An Archaeological Paradise’ by A Bonanno)
The main variation from one site to another is the number of ‘apses’. Often the walls of the temples are decorated with carvings in relief of spirals and naturalistic forms of plants and animals. Cup marks are also a popular form of decoration.
Here are some of the photos of this trip.
Facade of Hagar Qim showing the main entrance.
Detail of one of the doorways of Hagar Qim showing the stone stippling which is a common decoration form at this time.
The back of Hagar Qim.
Inside one of the apses at Hagar Qim.
A porthole entrance encased by a trilithon at the middle temple at Mnajdra.
Another of the square entrances with stone stippling, this time at the lower temple of Mnajdra.
A low altar depicting in low relief a plant growing from a pot. In the background a spiral relief – From Hagar Qim.
Entrance to Tarxien – this temple complexcan be found in the suburbs of Valetta.
The remains of Tarxien (and a rather ‘over it’ boyfriend)…
A large basin discovered in the first left apse of the middel temple of Tarxien – it was hewn from a single block of stone.
In the first apse on the right of the south temple in Tarxien is the remains of this statue. It would have dominated the space standing at least two metres tall.