Category Archives: Sites From Other Places

Myths and Colonisation of the Pacific.

This article was originally written several years ago for the ‘Mythology Magazine’ which is now defunct. My intention when writing this was to look at some of the myths and legends associated with the colonisation of the Pacific so please do bear in mind this is not an academic treatise on this subject (that is a far too large a subject for a simple blog…).

The islands of the Pacific Ocean were one of the last places in the world to be colonised by people.  The how, when and why has occupied archaeologists, anthropologists, linguists and historian for decades.  For the European scientist these questions need to be answered with solid evidence backing them.  For the indigenous populations tradition told them all they needed to know, the myths and legends providing all that was needed by the way of explanation. 

Map of Oceania

New Zealand, Hawaii and Easter Island were the last landmasses to be colonised in the Pacific.  These first peoples were at the end of a long line of ancestors whose collective knowledge fuelled their ability and desire to travel across vast tracts of ocean.  The Pacific region is made up of three distinct areas – Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia.  The first area to have been settled by people was Melanesia; it consists of Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, the Solomon Islands, the Bismarck Archipelago and New Caledonia.  Dates for the first colonisation range between some 50-30,000 years ago their ancestors originating from South East Asia.  Micronesia is situated north of the Melanesian group and is made up of groups of islands including Kiribati, Nauru, Marshall Islands (to name a few) and the US territories of Guam, Northern Mariana Island and Wake Island.  Evidence for the settlement of this region is difficult to pin down; the earliest archaeological evidence comes from the island of Saipan and is dated to around 3500 years ago.  The third group of islands is Polynesia which covers a wide part of the Pacific.  Generally speaking New Zealand, Hawaii and Easter Island form the corners of a triangle within which all other islands sit and are referred to as Polynesia.

The ancestors of the Polynesians migrated from South East Asia a little later than the settlers of Micronesia, passing through some parts of Micronesia and Melanesia, but rarely settling for long.  Fiji is an interesting case, as in many ways it straddles the line between Melanesia and Polynesia.  When the ancestors of the Polynesians arrived in Fiji there was already a decent sized population and had been for millennia.  Yet today the visitor to Fiji will see a multitude of faces, some are distinctly Melanesian looking (mainly in the eastern islands) and others look more Polynesian.  Fiji in many ways was a jumping off point for the exploration further west, the next islands to be settled were Samoa and Tonga, both of which are not a great distance from Fiji.  These early explorers are known as Lapita people based on a distinctive type of pottery found on the archaeological sites.

The distinctive pottery of the Lapita Culture – this is a plaster reproduction photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“All island groups in island Melanesia and West Polynesia that lie in a south-east direction have Lapita settlements.  None of these settlements have been found on other islands.” (G. Irwin. Pacific Migrations – ancient voyaging in Near Oceania. Te Ara: The Encylcopedia of New Zealand.) 

These people were exploring the region from as early as 3500 years ago (evidence found at the Bismarcks) and by 3000 years ago were already as far as Samoa and Tonga.  The archaeology tells us these were small groups who travelled fast and light, they established only a few permanent villages on each major island group and then they moved on.  At this time the distinctive Polynesian culture began to emerge in the west and by 2000 years ago people had begun to move into the eastern part of the region.  By 700AD the majority of Polynesia had been settled with the last migrations being to New Zealand, Hawaii, Easter Island and South America (the only evidence for South America is the presence of the ‘kumara’ or sweet potato, radiocarbon dates from kumara found in the Cook Islands indicate that Polynesians had reached South America and returned by 1000AD at the latest).

Kumara (or sweet potato) a staple food source.

All well and good you might say, but what has this to do with the mythology of the region?  To study the past of this region it is important to not only use all those scientific tools we have at our disposal but also use the traditional knowledge, stories and myths to provide a greater depth of understanding.  In Polynesia there are many stories which have a commonality suggesting a shared ancestry.

In much of eastern Polynesia Hawaiki (the Maori name) does not refer to the islands we know as Hawaii but to a mythical land where the ancestors journeyed from – an ancient homeland.  In New Zealand nearly all the Maori have traditions of such a voyage, in the Marquesas it called Havai’i, in the Tuamotus it is Havaiki and in the Cook Islands the ancient homeland is referred to as Avaiki.  Not only is Hawaiki the ancient homeland but it is also a place where a persons spirit would go after death.  The main island of the Hawaii group is so named because it is the site of two volcanoes which were regarded as a place of great supernatural importance and the home of the gods.  Similarly the island of Ra’iatea in the Society Islands was previously known as Havai’i and it too has a volcano on it (albeit a extinct one) believed to be the entrance to the underworld and the home of the gods.

In Maori myth Hawaiki is in the east – the direction of the rising sun and the stars which bring the changing seasons.  Thus it is not surprising that Hawaiki was associated with life, fertility and success.  It is said that the first human life was created from the soil of Hawaiki by Tane (or sometimes Tiki).  It is the place of highly valued resources such as the kumara which is said to grow wild there – this is interesting in itself because if you travel directly eastwards from New Zealand you will (eventually) land in South America, the homeland of the sweet potato.

“When the ancestors arrived in their waka, they brought with them many treasured plants and birds, also important atua and ritual objects such as mauri.  In one way and another, Hawaiki was the ultimate source of the mana of all these.  The crops flourished, the gods exerted their powers, the mauri ensured continuing fertility of the resources they protected, because of their origin in Hawaiki.” (M.Orbell 1995 Maori Myth and Legend)

The veneration of the east – many rituals are conducted facing east – is unusual for Polynesia and has led some to make the dubious suggestion that New Zealand was settled by people from South America.  More recent studies have demonstrated that the first voyagers would have taken a south-west trajectory from either the Cook Islands or the Society Islands in order to land on the east coast of New Zealand.  Over time it would seem this navigational knowledge was amalgamated with the traditions of an ancient homeland.

In other parts of eastern Polynesia Hawaiki is in the west or sometimes even in the sky and in western Polynesia it is called by another name – Pulotu, a word that can be linguistically traced into Micronesia.  It is interesting to note that the largest island that forms part of Samoa (western Polynesia) is called Savai’i and is a land associated in tradition with many supernatural goings on.  Hawaiki was not only the land where the ancestors came from but also a place of spirits, a place where the myths came into being.

As time went on many of these stories would become absorb into local tradition with familiar places becoming the setting to the story.  Thus the story of Maui who fished up the islands can be found everywhere in Polynesia.  In New Zealand it is said that the North Island was a giant stingray fished up out of the sea by Maui using his magic hook (the hills and valleys of the land are a result of his brothers greed when they hacked at the fish). On the tiny atolls of Manikihi and Rakahanga it is believed that these islands are all that remains of a single land which broke apart when Maui leapt from it into the heavens.  In Hawaii tradition tells of the islands being a shoal of fish and how Maui enlists the help of Hina-the-bailer to bring the shoal together with his magic hook to form one mass.  Maui hauled on the line, instructing his brothers to row without looking back, which of course they did, this resulted in the line breaking and the islands become separated for all time.   In the Tuamotaus Maui and his brothers are once more fishing far from land, once more he has a magic hook and once more he pulls up an island but because his brothers did not listen to Maui the giant fish/island broke apart and became the land the Tuamotua people refer to as Havaiki, where Maui and his family reside.

Fish hooks represented more than just a means of procuring fish, they also had a symbolic meaning and it is possible that some of the larger more ornate types were representative of the ancestral stories.

Maui is one of the most well known of Polynesian deities, found in the stories throughout the region he is often known as a trickster, part god and part human.  He was of a time when the world was still new and there much to do to make it bearable for people.  Maui is said to be responsible for raising the skies, snaring the sun, fishing up lands, stealing fire, controlling the winds and arranging the stars.  On the island of Yap in Micronesia a demi-god figure called Mathikethik went fishing with his two elder brothers, he also had a magic hook and on his first cast brought up all sorts of crops, in particular taro, an island staple.  On his second cast he brought up the island of Fais.  The similarities here with Polynesian Maui are obvious and once again we can get a tantalising glimpse of past movements of people.

Other characters common to the stories of the Polynesia from Samoa in the west to Hawaii in the east include Hina, said to be both the first woman and a goddess who is the guardian of the land of the dead; Tinirau whose pet whale was murdered by Kae; Tawhaki who visited the sky and Rata whose canoe was built by the little people of the forest and was a great voyager and Whakatau the great warrior. 

“…on every island the poets, priests and narrators drew from the same deep well of mythological past which the Polynesians themselves call the The Night of Tradition.  For when their ancestors moved out from the Polynesian nucleus they carried with them the the knowledge of the same great mythological events, the names of their gods and of their many demi-gods and heroes.  As time passed the Polynesian imagination elaborated and adapted old themes to suit fresh settings, and new characters and events were absorbed into the mythological system.” (R. Poignant 1985 Oceanic and Australasian Mythology).

Of course none of this addresses the question of why.  Why did the first people leave their homelands and explore into the vast ocean, particularly to places like New Zealand, South America, Easter Island and Hawaii?  What motivated them?  The myths do in some way suggest possible reasons, these are stories people would have heard over and over again as they grew into adulthood.  Stories of great adventurers, of those who dared to do the impossible and it does seem that much of the early migration was a result of simple human curiosity.  Prestige and mana could be gained by person willing to find new lands.  In the places they originally came from there was no food shortage and in some instances even once they had discovered a new island, they would move on leaving but only a small population behind.  In the traditions there are also stories told of people being banished and having to find new places to live, in addition there are stories of battles lost and people fleeing retribution.  These too could well be another window into the motivation behind Oceanic migration. 

Ocean going craft as suggested in “The History of Mankind” (1896)

On their own the mythologies of the Pacific cannot provide us with more than a unique insight into the mindset of the peoples considered to be some of the greatest explorers of the past but when combined with genetics, linguistics and archaeology it gives us the ability to answer those questions of how, when and why.

Sources

Irwin G (2012) ‘Pacific Migrations – Ancient Voyaging in Near Oceania’ Te Ara: The Enclyclopedia of New Zealand.

Ratzel F & Butler A J (1869) History of Mankind

Poignant R (1985) Oceanic and Australasian Mythology

Orbell M (1996) Maori Myth and Legend

The First Archaeologists

People have always been interested in the past, as far back as Nabonidus who ruled Babylon from 555 – 539BC who had a keen interest in antiquities to such an extent he even excavated down into a temple to recover the foundation stone which had been laid some 2200 years prior.  Nabonidus also had a museum of sorts where he stored his collection.  During the Renaissance those with the wealth to travel and collect began to keep cabinets of curios.  In these you would find ancient artefacts displayed alongside minerals and natural history pieces. 

“…the Renaissance attitude to the examination of the past…involved travel, the study of buildings and the collection of works of art and manuscripts.” (K. Greene 1983).

Initially it was classical antiquity which grabbed the attention of the well-to-do but after awhile eyes began to turn towards relics of their own past. The great stone monuments of North-western Europe became the immediate focus, places such as Carnac in Brittany and Stonehenge in Britain.  Some of these gentlemen scholars would make systematic and accurate surveys of the monuments, which are still useful today, even if there were the less scrupulous who dressed up treasure hunting as scholarly research.  These antiquarians were in essence the first archaeologists and their contributions can still be useful today.

In Britain several antiquarians stood out between the 16th and 18th centuries.  John Leland (1503-1552) held the post of Keeper of the Kings Library and such travelled extensively throughout Britain.  Even though his main interest was in genealogy and historical documents he also recorded non-literary evidence as part of his wider researches, one of the first to do so. 

William Camden (1551-1623) learnt not only Latin but also Welsh and Anglo-Saxon in order to study place-names.  At the age of 35 he published ‘Britannia’ a general guide to the antiquities of Britain.  His descriptions of the ancient monuments are very detailed and he was one of the first to make a note of cropmarks and their possible links to sites no longer visible – an important part of aerial photography today.  Camden was also interested in other forms of material culture such as pottery as a source of information on the past, a concept regarded eccentric at the time.

William Camden (portrait by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger)

In the mid 17th century John Aubrey was one of the earliest writers to assign a pre-Roman date to sites such as Stonehenge, Avebury and Silbury Hill.  His belief that such places were built and used by the Celts and Druids was so revolutionary there are still some who won’t let it go.  Following in Aubrey’s footsteps was William Stukeley (1687-1765) who although trained as a physician spent a great deal of time conducting extensive fieldwork in Wessex during the 1720s.  His highly accurate and detailed surveys of Avebury, Stonehenge and Silbury Hill are still used today.  Stukeley’s recording of the avenue of stones (now destroyed) leading from Stonehenge to the Avon aided present day archaeologists in their search for them.  However, in 1729 he was ordained and then attempted to use his fieldwork to establish a theological connection between the Druids and Christianity.

William Stukeley’s drawing of the Kennet Avenue – sensible and accurate fieldwork…
And then there is the more fantastical of Stukeley’s drawings – his interpretation of the Avebury landscape and it’s Druidical temple…

“Just as Dr Stukeley may be said to be the patron saint of fieldwork in archaeology, so can the Rev. William be held to be the evil genius who presides over all crack-brained amateurs whose excess of enthusiasm is only balanced by their ignorance of method.” (K. Greene 1983)

At the same time, across Britain, lesser well known antiquarians were busy studying and recording their own local areas.  In the county of Cornwall this was no different.  The earliest known antiquarian was Richard Carew (1555-1620) of East Antony, he was a member of the “The Elizabethan Society of Antiquaries” and in 1602 published his county history, “Survey of Cornwall”.  Perhaps the most well known and often cited antiquarian was William Borlase (1695-1772) who like so many began collecting natural rocks and fossils found in the local copper works in Ludgvan where he was the local pastor.  In 1750 he was admitted as a Fellow of the Royal Society and by 1754 he had published “Antiquities of Cornwall” which he then followed with “Observations on the Ancient and Present State of the Islands of Scilly and their importance to the Trade of Great Britain” in 1756. 

Zennor Quoit as drawn by William Borlase (1769)
Zennor Quoit as seen today (photo from wikicommons – geography.co.uk – 902) This highlights why early antiquarian researchers should be dismissed immediately as having nothing to contribute to our understanding of the past.

Borlase’s great great grandson – William Copeland Borlase (1848-1899) – continued with the tradition of antiquarianism conducting some of the first excavations in Cornwall at Carn Euny in 1863.  Copeland Borlase published many articles and books on the antiquities of Cornwall, including a two volume book titled “Ancient Cornwall” in 1871 and a year later “Naenia Cornubiae: a decscriptive essay, illustrative of the sepulchres and funereal customs of the early inhabitants of the county of Cornwall”.  There were also a lecture on the tin trade and a monography on the Saints of Cornwall, not to mention a piece on the dolmens of Ireland and one on the mythologies of the Japanese.

William Copeland Borlase (1848-1899)

William Copeland Borlase also spent a great deal of time getting his hands dirty excavating large numbers of barrows in Cornwall.  He has been criticised for poor archaeological practice in only writing up a small percentage of those he excavated.  Nothing makes an archaeologist bury their face in their hands then the lack of a written record for an excavation.  Copeland Borlase often employed the services of John Thomas Blight (1835-1911) as an archaeological illustrator, although Blight was a well known antiquarian in his own right.  He published two books regarding the crosses and antiquities of Cornwall, one for the west and the other for the east of the county. 

Blight’s drawings of Carwynnen Quoit were recently rediscovered by the lead archaeologist, Jacky Nowakowski, during her researches prior to the excavation and restoration of the quoit.  In particular, the pencil drawing which had actual measurements was very useful in the interpretation of a stone pavement discovered during the excavation when combined with modern techniques.  The archaeologists were able to get a better understanding of the positioning of the quoit within the Neolithic landscape.

Throughout the country there have been numerous societies which promoted the work of antiquarians beginning with the prestigious Royal Society.  Even Cornwall had its own Royal Institute of Cornwall which is still operating today and currently manages the Royal Cornwall Museum as well as the Courtney Library which holds all manner of documents dating back into the 1700s.  These early scholarly societies however, did not focus on one aspect of research, natural history, geology, botany and other gentlemanly pursuits were all encouraged.  This attitude of open discourse across a variety of disciplines is one of the hallmarks of good archaeological research today. 

Archaeology is defined as the “study of the past through the systematic recovery and analysis of material culture” (The Penguin Archaeology Guide).  It is the recovery, description and analyse of material culture with the purpose of understanding the behaviour of past societies.  Material culture is defined as anything which has been altered or used by humans – it can be as small as shark tooth with a hole drilled into it for a pendant or as large as a European cathedral.  To study archaeology in general is to be a ‘jack of all trades and master of none’ – as a subject it borrows from history, anthropology, geology, chemistry, physics, biology, environmental sciences, ethnography to name but a few.  Archaeologists have never been afraid of pilfering theories, methodologies and techniques from other disciplines.

The value of the early antiquarians does not necessarily lie in the outdated interpretations but in the production of often accurate and highly descriptive illustrations, field surveys and texts that are the basis of many manuscripts.  Some of these ancient sites are now lost and/or destroyed, and the antiquarian illustrations are all we have as a record.  Fieldwork will always be a fundamental part of archaeological work and the antiquarians of the past where the very first fieldworkers and the societies they belonged to provided the basis for the discipline of archaeology.

Green K. (1985) Archaeology – an Introduction. Routledge.

http://www.giantsquoit.org   A website detailing the excavations and restoration of Carwynnen Quoit.

The Terracotta Warriors – An Exhibition of Immortality.

The Terracotta Warriors are famed throughout the world and have been on my bucket list for quite some time. So imagine my excitement when I heard that a handful were to visit New Zealand.  The following is just a few photos of the exhibition on at Te Papa, Wellington until April

But first some background

Like many of the great archeoloagical discoveries the terracotta army and the mausoleum of the first emperor Qin was really quite accidental. It was in the spring of 1974 that the local villagers decided to sink a new well a good couple of kilometres from the already well known mausoleum of Emperor Qin. After digging down for about five metres through numerous archaeological layers they eventually began to bring up bronze objects and parts of the warriors themselves.

The importance of the villagers finds was eventually realised and it was this discovery which was to form a catalyst for further extensive research and excavation in the area. The First Emperor’s Mausoleum refers to the complex of funerary remains which pertain to the burial of the First Emperor, it is a massive area with a vast complex of structures.

“…the most important remains of the tomb complex include the cemetary’s architectural structures, tomb tunnels, tomb burial chambers, the gate watchtowers, walls, roads and coffins, as well as accompanying tombs, pits and mausoleum villages. The mausoleum is also the product of supreme engineering and architectural efforts, including the construction of massive dykes and channels to prevent flooding, underground sluice walls, drainage channels, man-made lakes and ponds and so on. There are also a large number of facilities that are protective of, and associated with, these mausoleum structures, such as the remains of factories and workplaces, kilns and the tombs of those working on the mausoleum. There would o be fording places, wharfs and the like.” (Terracotta Warriors: Guardians of Immortality – edited by Rebecca Rice)

With that one paragraph we realise that there is so much more to a site, a place than just the sensational. A fact which is important to remember when dealing with any archaeological site…

Whilst the terracotta warriors are the main attraction for this travelling exhibition there are also a wide range of artefacts on display from many burial sites and dated over a wide period of time. Please excuse the poor quality of some of the photos, flash photography was not allowed, (all photos are my own).

Just a few of the bronze items found in the burials of the Qin and Han Dynasty.  These are three legged cauldrons – the one the front is Han Dynasty (206BCE-220CE), the one at the rear belongs to the Warring States (before the Qin) 475-221CE.
Pottery will always have a part to play in deciphering the past – these examples belong to the Han Dynasty. The tubular one in the middle was for storing grain and the other two are simply described as pottery bowls.
These delightful pottery fish are from the Qin Dynasty (221-206BCE) and are believed to be childrens toys, they were thought to originally contain a small stone causing them to rattle.
Not the best photograph…but this jade and agate pendant is from the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046-771BCE).  “The sound of tinkling that accompanied the wearing of such pendants both regulated the wearers pace and kept evil thoughts at bay”.
These seemingly plain and uninteresting discs of jade actually have a far greater meaning than their appearance might suggest. 
The ancient Chinese fashioned jade in the circular shape they imagined Heaven to be. Jade discs like these were used to worship Heaven, and were placed on the bodies of the dead to ensure immortality”. 
Here we have examples of belt buckles. The object to the front is gold inlaid with agate, 
hematitie, turquoise and shell – it is dated to the Western Han dynasty (206BCE – 9CE).  It is made from a single sheet of gold and hammered into design that includes animals both real
and mythical. The belt buckle to the rear is made from bronze and is dated to the Han dynasty.
Again excuse the photo quality – described as ‘sword blade with inlaid openwork hilt’, it is a very mundane description for what is 
an impressive artefact.  The blue decoration are inlaid turquoise. The sword is dated to the Spring and Autumn
period (771-475BCE).
The display of bronze arrowheads reminds us that whilst many of the atefacts speak of great artisanal skill 
and a culture rich in meaning it was also one where martial rule was equally important.  These arrows are dated to the Qin dynasty (221-206BCE) and were for use with the crossbow and instrumental weapon in the defeat of the nomadic tribes.  
“Over 40,000 arrowheads have been excavated from the Terracotta Army Pit 1. Each archer would have carried sets of 70, 100 or 114 arrows in hemp quivers on their back”.
Decoration was everywhere in ancient China – the above is one of many roof tile-ends, I particularly liked the deer motif. These objects protected the rooflines and eaves of a building. The deer symbolises longevity. It is dated to the Warring States period (475-221BCE).
This is a much larger roof tile end and was excavated from the site of the Qin Yellow Mountain Palace. It is thought that the abstract pattern represents two dragons in mirror image. It is a pattern/imagery associated the most with the First Emperor.

As soon as the First Emperor became King of Qin excavations and building started at Mt Li (the location of the tomb), while after he won the empire more than 700,000 consripts from all parts of the country worked there…they dug through three subterrnean streams and poured molten copper nd bronze to make the outer coffin, and the tomb was file with models of palaces, pavilions and offices as well as fine vessels, precious tones and rarities. Artisans were ordered to fix up crossbows so that any theif breaking in would be shot. All the country’s rivers, the Yellow River and the yangtze were reproduced in quicksilver and by some mechanical means made to flow into a miniature ocean. The heavenly constellations were shown above and the regions of the Earth below. The candles were made of whale oil to ensure their burning forever.


(Sima Qian – Records of the Grand Historian)

At this stage in time the First Emperor’s actual tomb has yet to be excavate but the high levels of mercury recorded might suggest that the above quote was not an exageration…Sima did not mention the terracotta army in his description of the Emperor’s burial. The army occupies four large pits and it is estimated there are 8000 soldiers with only 3000 excavated. On average each soldier stands 180cm tall and weigh around 100-300 kilograms. There are foot soldiers, archers, armoured officers, wooden carriages and horses. All face east and it has been suggested that they are there to protect the Emperor in the spirit world from those he killed during his conquest of China…

Armoured military officer
Armoured General
The kneeling archer
The chariot horses – the hole visible on the side show where a wooden chariot would have been attached.


A modern replica in bronze of a chariot – the detail even down to the all the individual reins and straps was fascinating to see.

After the Qin Dynasty the Han Dynasty rose to prominence and whilst their style of rule was quite different from the the First Emperor they did continue with the tradition of large scale mausoleums. The following photos are from the tomb of Emperor Jing of Han (157-141BCE); a Han general’s tomb at Yangjiawan (also of the Western Han – 206BCE-9C).

These small figures are the Han version of the First Emperor’s army – orignally they would have had wooden movable arms and have been clothed. There purpose was also to protect the Emperor Jing in the afterlife.
One of pair on isplay these two lion like mythological creatures date to the Eastern Han dynasty (25-220CE). It is thought the may have been placed in front of a nobles tomb.

The above are the remains of a tomb gate from the Eastern Han dynasty. These were regarded as doorways between Heaven and Earth, the iconography suggests a celestial journey needed to reach Heaven after death. The battle scenes on the horizontal lintel hint at possible challenges on that journey.

Some Photos from Roman Baths in Bath (and why it inspired me to write “A Roman Moon”)

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.

 

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The imposing stucture of Bath Abbey looms over the now open Great Bath – originally the Great Bath would have been roofed, most likely with an arched roof.

 

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Looking down on the Great Bath.

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.

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The very roman looking head of a statue believed to be Sulis Minerva herself – most likely stood within the sacred space of the actual temple.

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.

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A few examples of the inscribed lead sheets.

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.

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Some of the jewellery finds from the spring.  It is interesting to note the continuity of ritual in this act of depositing important items into a watery context.  For more on this read here.

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And a few of the more everyday items found during excavations – people lived and worked here too.

Besides Sulis Minerva there were within the temple complex depictions of other deities.

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A relief carving of the goddess Luna – the disc of the moon can be seen behind her head and she holds a whip for driving her chariot across the sky.  This carving would have decorated one of the buildings in the temple precinct. 

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This massive pediment would have originally adorned the entrance to the temple of Sulis Minerva.  Although interpreted as a gorgon others have suggested it may in fact be Oceanus or even the sun god Sol (or Bel, ‘the shining one’ if you are looking for Celtic diety which is also the nickname of our heroines bodyguard and friend…). 

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This unassuming relief carving is believed to depict the triple goddess, a distinctly Celtic personification.  As to who and what this may be is a complicated discussion but foremost is the ability of the goddess to have many faces – to be one and the same.  Often the triple goddess in modern pagan/wiccan practice refers to the maiden, the mother and the crone however there is no way of telling if this was the case in the past.   An interesting take on this can be read here.

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.

 

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A model of the bath and temple complex in its heyday. 

 

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The Great Bath – looking across to one of the alcoves.

 

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The East Bath – a rectangular tepid bath – the doors would have led to heated rooms known as tepidariums. 

 

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The remains of the extensive hypercaust system – ensuring visitors were kept warm and comfortable at all times.

 

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One of many mosaics which would have adorned the floors of the rooms within the complex.

 

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The arched overflow was part of the Roman engineering which kept the water flowing through the complex and still does today.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The dark interior of the circular bath, here bathers would complete their visit to the steam rooms with a cold plunge to rinse off – note the coins littering the bottom of the pool. 

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.

 

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A model of the bath and temple complex in its heyday. 

 

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The Great Bath – looking across to one of the alcoves.

 

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The East Bath – a rectangular tepid bath – the doors would have led to heated rooms known as tepidariums. 

 

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The remains of the extensive hypercaust system – ensuring visitors were kept warm and comfortable at all times.

 

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One of many mosaics which would have adorned the floors of the rooms within the complex.

 

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The arched overflow was part of the Roman engineering which kept the water flowing through the complex and still does today.

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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.

 

RM cover 1 (2)

 

The Roman Baths Official Website

Wikipedia – Roman Bath

 

Caerphilly Castle

So, I was in the mood for castle…

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.

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The massive gatehouse entrance  – the large tower in the rear of the picture was designed to be defensible postion even if the entire castle was breached.  A working portcullis and murder holes are visible today.

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One of the massive fireplaces in the gate tower.

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Looking out onto the inner courtyard.

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Looking down onto the tower gatehouse and outer gatehouse towards town.  Originally there would have been a drawbridge across the moat.

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The archers corridor – made of timber with apertures for the archers to aim through and roofed this would have hung of the exterior walls of the castle and provided greater protection to the archers.

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The leaning tower – natural subsidence or as a result of Oliver Cromwell decreeing that the castle be ‘slighted’ during the Civil War?

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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:

Caerphilly Castle

CADW

 

 

Avebury – A Sacred Landscape

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

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’.

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An aerial photograph of Windmill Hill – photo from English Heritage, NMR.

“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.

Listing on Pastscape

West Kennet Long Barrow

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.

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.

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My daughter standing on top of the earthern mound of West Kennet.

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).

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The front facade of West Kennet long barrow – note the large blocking sarsens in the center.

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A view of behind the facade.

Avebury

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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.

 

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The Diamond Stone – this has not been moved since it was first placed here in the late Neolithic.

 

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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.

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’)

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Another view of the ditch and bank.

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.

Squaring the Circle – a blog from FragmeNTS regarding the square monument at Avebury.

 

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From the FragmeNTS blog

 

The Avenues

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.

 

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West Kennet Avenue by William Stukeley 1724

 

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).

The Sanctuary

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.

 

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The Sanctuary by William Stukeley 1723 – even Stukeley noted the sites connection to other places of importance in the landscape.

 

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.

Silbury Hill

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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…

Final words

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:

Avebury Matters

Avebury: A Present from the Past

FragmeNTS

 

Postscript – from the Telegraph today we learn that a ‘5000 year old house of the dead’ in the Vale of Pewsey (half way between Avebury and Stonehenge) is to be fully excavated.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sacred Waters

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.

 

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The view from Maes Howe in Orkney looking towards the Stones of Stenness and what would later be known as the Ness of Brodgar in the top right corner.  This sacred landscape is bounded by expanses of water. (please excuse quality of the photo – it was taken a long time ago before digital…)

 

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.

 

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A few of the items recovered from Dunaverney Bog in County Antrim, Ireland.  From ‘A Guide to the Antiquities of the Bronze Age in the Department of British and Medieval Antiquities’ 1904 Charles Hercules – The British Museum.

 

 

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.

 

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The Battersea Shield – photo by Babelstone (CC0 commons.wikimedia.org)

 

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.

 

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Sir Bedivere throws Excalibur into a lake – painting by John Garrick 1862.

 

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. 

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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. 

 

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. 

 

 

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St Winifreds Well, Holywell, Wales. A renown place of healing, it continues to be popular today. This image is available from the National Libary of Wales.

 

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

A recent interesting blog from the British Museum which talks about the Thames – “Secrets of the Thames”.