Tag Archives: Archaeology

North Head Historic Reserve

One of the features of the Auckland landscape is the profusion of volcanic cones, all of which have been altered in some way by the people who have lived here – North Head is no exception.  Situated at the entrance of the harbour it has over time been used as a part of Aucklands strategic defences during times of unrest.

 

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Looking across Torpedo Bay from Duders Beach to North Head.  Photo taken by William A Price 1909-1910.  Source – By National Library NZ on The Commons – https://www.flickr.com/photos/nationallibrarynz_commons/21281084976/, No restrictions, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45247808

The Volcanic Story

Long before people walked the land there were volcanoes – a distinctive feature of Aucklands skyline – and although North Head is just one of many, it is one of the oldest and was formed over 50,000 years ago.  The following photos demonstrate the ancient geology of the headland – the different layers of scoria, ash and mud clearly visible.

The Maori Story

The story of Maori in the Devonport penninsula begins with the tradition of the arrival of the Tanui waka having put ashore at Torpedo Bay (a stretch of beach below the headland facing the inner harbour). Excavations were carried out in 2010 in the bay as part of the redevelopement of the Naval Museum and surrounding areas.  During this time a great deal was discovered about the use of Torpedo Bay during the colonial era but it was the unexpected prehistoric Maori finds which had the archaeologists most excited.

“Unexpected nationally significant prehistoric Maori archaeology was also found near the end of the investigation, including cooking ovens, moa bones and an adze.

Three species of Moa and at least five individuals have been identified from the lower two settlement layers. All of the species are known North Island Species of Coastal bush Moa (Anomalopteryx didiformis, Pachyornis geranoides and Euryapteryx curtus). As the only site in the Auckland, Coromandel Northland region with definitive evidence of hunted Moa rather than industrial Moa usage by Maori, the dating of this site will potentially answer long held questions concerning moa extinction in the North Island. It may dismiss the general belief that the Auckland Coromandel area was not associated with Moa hunting and is not a primary area of archaic settlement by early Polynesians and was therefore occupied later than other areas of settlement.

A small rectangular adze (hand tool) made from Motutapu greywacke was found in the prehistoric site. The Hauraki Gulf was a centre of adze production and the evidence found suggests that occupation of Torpedo Bay, at least during the Archaic period, was extensive, and that the people who inhabited the Bay played an active role in Motutapu greywacke adze production.

The preliminary radiocarbon dates indicate settlement at the site ranged between the early 15th century and the late 17th century. It could be one of the earliest sites discovered in Auckland.”  (from http://www.wasteminz.org.nz/wp-content/uploads/1b.Strong.pdf).

 

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An eroding shell midden on the north side of Maungauika.

 

Early photographs show the lower slopes of North Head (Maungauika) as being used by Maori  for gardens and early Europeans describe a Maori settlement at the foot of the hill with gardens and fish drying racks. Tradition also tells us that the Ngati Paoa settled Maungauika until the 1700s when Nga Puhi attacked and beseiged the pa.  The later European story of North Head has all but wiped clean the Maori history of the headland although it is still possible to see the occasional evidence of Maori occupation such as middens eroding out of paths and the occasional unexplainable terrace.

The Colonial Story

The first part of the colonial story begins with North Head being used as a pilot station from 1836 to guide ships into the newly established European settlement of Auckland.  In 1878 it was made into a public reserve with the stipulation that should it be necessary North Head would be re-appropiated for defence purposes.  By 1885 this became a reality as fears of a Russian invasion began to sweep New Zealand.

North Head became one of several defence forts that were set up to protect Aucklands harbour.  On the headland itself there were three defences – the North Battery, the South Battery and Fort Cautley on the summitt.  Each had there own heavy guns, an observation post and high earth ramparts with bullet proof gates and barbed wire.  In addition each had the very latest in military technology – an 8 inch disappearing gun. In addition to these defences a minefield was in place across the inner harbour to Bastion Point.

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The above are photos of the North Battery.

Over the next twenty-five years these first fortifications were expanded and strengthened by convict labour who lived in a prison on the summit.  They dug out many of the tunnels and underground storerooms which are so popular with young explorers today.  With the threat of war once more looming in the early twentieth century new engines were put into the engine rooms, more searchlights were added, new barracks were built.

 

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The prison/barracks used to house the convict labour.

 

In all three instances (the Russian scare, WWI & WWII) not once were any of the guns fired in anger.  During WWII the headland became the regimental headquarters and main administrative centre for the Auckland’s coastal defences. Many of the guns were moved to Whangaparoa although North Head did become the site of the anti-submarine boom (a wire netting barrier covered by two guns at sea level) which protected the harbour from attack by submarine.

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The South Battery and its disappearing gun.

By the end of the 1950s the army had left the headland although the navy still ran a training school on the summit.  In 1996 the navy had also left and now the area is administered by the Department of Conservation.

Observation posts and tunnels associated with the North and South Batteries.

The Engine Room – an independent source of electricity for the search lights etc.

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One of the features for the defence of the Auckland Harbour was the minefield which went from North Head to Bastion Point.

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So much to explore all around the headland…

 

For more information –

A History of NZ Coastal Defences

The Russian Scare

The Department of Conservation  A PDF can found here for a self guided walk around the headland.

Saveock – An Archaeological Mystery…

Going to Saveock is a bit like travelling back in time, seeing a peep of a thatched roundhouse roof only adds to the impression that you are somewhere else. Originally you would have had to wait on the other side of the train tracks, call the main station to see if any trains were coming and if they gave the all clear, open both sides of the gate then speed across – they had been known on the rare occasion to get it wrong. Today though there is a much safer way of getting into Saveock, a suitably narrow hedge lined drive leads down to the small holding and even though it is only a fifteen minute drive from Cornwall’s main city of Truro, it feels remote and tranquil – timeless.

So,where is Saveock?  Well, it is a small holding situated in a tranquil river valley near Truro in Cornwall.  On arrival at Saveock you are met with the ever smiling Jacqui Wood who is not only a well known and respected experimental archaeologist (did I mention the roundhouse?) and author of several books including Cliff Dreamer: The Goddess Returns, a new fictional story set in the turbulent times of our very distant ancestors. She also runs the Saveock Water Archaeology Centre where students of archaeology (age and experience no barrier) are instructed in the art of excavation, here they find their minds being opened to the endless possibilities that the study of the past can present to those willing to listen.

I met Jacqui some fifteen years ago when during a chance conversation she told me about some curious stake holes, a green clay floor and associated flint tools which she happened upon whilst digging a flue to conduct an experiment in tin extraction. At the time I was teaching A level Archaeology and we thought it would be a good chance for the students to learn some excavation techniques in the field, after all in archaeology practical experience is far more useful way to learn. It was the beginning of many seasons of excavation, intriguing finds, the remodelling of cow shed to comfy quarters for the diggers and much more. My eldest spent the first few months of his life sleeping safely at the edge of a trench.

 

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Volunteers and students at the trench face.

The site at Saveock covers a wide range of time as you would expect of a small river valley in the heart of Cornwall with fertile soils, natural springs and near a well known source of tin and possibly gold. The earliest phase belongs to the Mesolithic, the evidence for which comes firmly from those aforementioned stake holes, green clay floor and the associated flints.

 
“In the Mesolithic the main site trench was over a south facing peat bank on the bend of a river that was between two shallow lakes. This entire site has been purposely covered with various different coloured clays in an attempt to make the river bank a suitable place for dwellings. In the area A/2 the first phase of the site, is what we believe to be a Mesolithic dwelling platform covered with dense green clay surrounded by stony yellow clay in which the stakes to support the dwelling were driven.” (Jacqui Wood).
The second phase was and still is a bit confusing but it does seem entirely possible that it belongs in the Neolithic. When excavating it had been our intention to extend the trench to get a better picture of the Mesolithic features, so imagine our surprise when we came across a stone lined and capped drain covered in thick green clay that lead in one direction towards the river and in the other to another feature, rectangular in shape and lined with white quartz stones and spring fed. Several seasons later in 2005 Jacqui and her team uncovered another similar feature adjacent to the first original ‘pool’.
Dating the pool feature was problematic as it seemed to have been used over a long period of time.

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Inside the stone capped drain looking roughly north.

The only other similar feature we have found was the platform around the Neolithic monument of Maeshowe in Orkney. This platform was made up of thick clay and when a trench was put through it a stone lined and capped drain was discovered which was almost identical to the one at Saveock. The presence of the quartz stone too would suggest a very early date, the use of quartz in Neolithic and Bronze Age ritual sites is well attested to. The pool itself became known as the ‘moon pool’ as the white quartz glows in the bright moonlight.
As for its function, well ritual seems a good an answer as any other but only because there appears to be no other alternative and believe me we considered a wide range of alternatives. Jacqui herself was always of the opinion that the word ‘ritual’ was used far too loosely in archaeological circles to explain seemingly unexplainable objects or sites. Later post excavation work on the mud we scooped up from the bottom of the pool (it couldn’t be excavated in the traditional manner as it kept filling with water) revealed some small finds which told a story of long usage and deposition.  These included human hair, fingernails, Medieval straight pins, 128 small pieces of textile, parts of shoes, heather branches and perhaps most interesting was the broken half of iron pot or cauldron.

 

Many of these finds seemed to date to the last phase of usage at a time just before the pool was filled in and covered, a deliberate act to erase a pagan site. The lack of any finds earlier than the late Medieval may suggest that intervals the pool was clean out – thousands of years of deposition, not to mention silt, would have filled the pool considerably if it was not cleaned out regularly. Interestingly, in the layer just above the infill layer a broken glass bottle and a few sherds of pottery dated the closure of the pool to around the time of the English Civil War. Cornwall was at the time and even today a place where the rituals of time past were an important part of local society often overlooked by the Church. Cromwell’s puritan army would not have been so kind to Royalist (and pagan) Cornwall.

Perhaps one of the most intriguing episodes in the sites history comes from once more as a result of an extension of the trench with the Mesolithic features this time along the edge towards the marsh by the river. Whilst following the expected green clay floor and associated stake holes we encountered shallow pits with unusual contents cut into the clay floor. Because this area is essentially a waterlogged part of the site organic remains survived particularly well.

 

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The clay floor with pits.

“When we excavated the first one we were surprised to find white feathers in it and thought it might have been perhaps a bird plucking pit, which was a common farming practice at the turn of the century. This turned out not to be the case when we found that the feathers were not plucked, but had been laid skin side out with white feathers inside. We took samples of the feathers to the bird expert at the local zoo and found them to be swan feathers.” (Jacqui Wood).

 
In addition a small amount of tiny stones were found surrounded by some sort of organic matter. Initially the assumption was that this was the crop of the swan but the stones were too pristine and it was concluded that the stones had been wrapped in leaves and deposited on purpose alongside claws from a range of other birds. The stones themselves were of an interest as they appeared to be brought to the site as they contained tiny nodules of beach flint an unusual feature given how far inland Saveock is. A suggestion from a local had us mounting an expedition to Swan Pool, some fifteen miles away on the coast and sure enough the stones at Swan Pool were identical to our small sample. Radiocarbon dates from the swan skin dated the pit to the 1640s, once again it seems dangerous ritual activities are occurring at a time when to be called a witch would mean certain death.

 

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A pit being excavated.

 

A further eight pits were excavated that season, only two of them were intact the other six had had their contents removed in antiquity leaving just a few feathers and stones to show what their previous fill was. Excavation of this area was tough going, a thick layer of reeds impeded the work and as time went on more pits would be found, all with their contents removed that was until 2005 (two years after the first pit had been discovered).
Three pits were found in a row, two rectangular and one round in the middle. Of the three it was decided to excavate the middle round one, here the dig crew found the pit to be lined once again with swan feathers but also on either side the bodies of two magpies. In the midst of this were the remains of over fifty-five eggs and although the shells had rotted away the membranes were remaining. The eggs themselves appear to have come from a variety of birds, some even had full formed chicks ready to hatch inside them still.

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The egg membranes with chicks…

Further pits revealed the remains of a cat and dog skull.  Perhaps the most astounding part of this whole story is the radiocarbon dates for the cat pit which was dated to around the mid 18th century and the dog pit which had a date of circa 1950s.

But as archaeologists we need to ask why? What was the purpose of the pits? There is the suggestion that these are the result of witchcraft based rituals and conversations with many experts in the field of witchcraft have yielded very little to enlighten us. If these pits are connected in some way to witchcraft or even pagan rituals of a different kind it is not one commonly known. This is not too surprising given that so much knowledge about traditions and rituals has faded away. Jacqui though has her own theory as to who and why;
“My own theory (and it is only a theory) is that maybe if you got married and did not get pregnant in the first year, you might make an offering to St. Bride of a feather pit. If you finally got pregnant you had to go back to the pit and take out the contents and burn them and set the spirit of the swan free. If you never got pregnant then the pit remained untouched.”

Saint Bride or Brigit has many similarities to the Celtic deity of Brigid. The first of February is St Brigids feast day but also Imbolc where the goddess Brigid is remembered as one who brings the spring. Both are associated with healing, poetry and other domestic tasks. There is also a connection with the sacred wells. Today well dressing is done in the name of the Saint. Wells have long been a place of veneration, our modern wishing wells merely a continuation of a ritual act of deposition that begun in the Bronze Age if not earlier. The connection with the goddess and the saint at Saveock is slight but as we all know it is a place to start.

On a personal note I should like to mention that when the quartz lined pool was excavated it was myself and a friend who did the digging (we were the only ones willing to get so mucky). We spent the good part of a week in the mud and spring water. In late November of that same year I discovered I was pregnant with my eldest (who incidentally was born at midsummer) and a few days later my friend who had been digging too told me she too was pregnant – our children were born just a week apart.
More recent excavations have been looking in a completely different area of the farm and this time they have uncovered a hearth edged with smoky quartz crystals. Dating was provided by the large quantities of Bronze Age pottery found in association with the hearth. Work at Saveock is never dull but it is ongoing, so if you fancy have a holiday with a difference then check out the link below.

 

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Jacqui excavating one of the pits.

 

For more information on the Saveock Water Archaeology Centre please go to the website www.archaeologyonline.org
Jacqui Wood’s book Cliff Dreamers is available to buy on Amazon along with her book on food through the ages Tasting the Past. Jacqui also has numerous articles published many of which can be found at www.academia.edu

Please Note – all photos except the featured image at the top of the article were provided by Jacqui Wood and the copyright belongs to her.  The featured image at the top of the article is my own.

This article originally appeared in the Celtic Guide magazine December 2016.

An Auckland Icon – One Tree Hill and Cornwall Park.

During the last school holidays the kids and I decided to venture beyond the safe confines of the North Shore. Our destination? The well known and much loved Cornwall Park and One Tree Hill.  What follows is a brief description and overview of the history of this iconic parkland in the heart of Auckland.

Essentially the parkland most people know is in fact two parks, Cornwall Park and One Tree Hill, are separate entities under different management but with very similar objectives. At the heart of the area is the volcanic cone, the largest and most recent of the forty eight which make up the Auckland isthmus – it last erupted around 20,000 years ago.

The Maori Story
The Maori name for the hill is Maungakiekie which can be translated as ‘the mountain of the kiekie’. The kiekie or Freycinetia banksia is a type of vine which once grew on the slopes of the volcanoe and is better known as the fruit salad tree. Its fruit is edible.
However, this name seems to be a recent attribution as traditional histories dating from around the 16th century, do refer to the hill as Te Totara i Ahua or ‘the totara that stands alone’.

It is said that a branch of the Ngati Awa who were migrating from Northland to Taranaki had stopped for awhile in Tamaki (Auckland). During this time the chiefs’ son was born and was named Korokino. The cutting of the umbilical cord has great significance in Maori culture and Korokino’s was cut using a sharpened totara stick. The cord was then buried on the summit and the totara sprig was planted in the soil used as backfill. It took root and grew into a magnificent and tapu tree.

Unfortunately, it was gone by the late 1700s and no European ever saw it. Early colonists would often write of a large pohutakawa on the summit in the early 1800s and this is what gave rise to its modern name – One Tree Hill. However, the story of the tree then goes ‘pear-shaped’ as in the mid 1800s it is felled for firewood. In 1875 Logan Campbell replanted – possibly a puriri – within a stand of pines which served as a wind belt. But the native tree did not survive and all but one pine tree survived until 2000 when it too fell to an axe when the City Council deemed it unsafe.

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One Tree Hill, in the 1990s when the lone pine was still standing, (to the right of the obelisk). From wikimedia commons.

What most people will notice as they make their way to the summit is the how uneven the ground is, dips, hollows, banks and seemingly random humps and bumps will catch the unwary walker. These landscape features are the remains of the Maori settlement. There are at least one hundred and seventy terraces covering approximately forty five hectares and it is regarded as one of the largest pa (hillfort) in New Zealand. The traditional occupants of the site were the Wai O Hua tribe and their histories refer to it as the head pa of their paramount chief Kiwi Tamake in the early 1700s.

IMG_0244An example of some of the many terraces and platforms.

Perhaps one of the more unusual archaeological features in the park is the Rongo stone. Rongo stones are carved stones which are regarded as manifestations of a god and are used ritually to aid the growth and harvest of crops. This particular Rongo positioned on plinth near the BBQ area is not in it’s original context. It was originally rescued by Logan Campbell from the side of the road where it had been unceremoniously dumped and taken back to the Park. It is known as Te Toka i Tawhio or ‘the stone which has traveled around’.

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Humps and bumps in the landscape…

 

The eroded edge of a shell midden.

More terraces and platforms.

IMG_0248One of many defensive banks.

 

IMG_0243Building platforms overlooking one of the volcanic craters

IMG_0242My daughter standing in one of the many hollows – possibly a storage pit for kumara.

IMG_0239A large midden suffering under modern footsteps.

Terraces, defensive walls, storage pits, boundaries and middens are all part of the archaeology on One Tree Hill and attest to a well populated landscape. Which perhaps is what makes the next phase of the story even more unusual…

The Early Settlers
In 1840 Governor Hobson chose the Tamaki isthmus to be the capital of New Zealand. There were several reasons for this, the good harbours and fertile soils not withstanding however at the time it was a mostly deserted landscape.

“Terraced volcanic cones and numerous abandoned plantations testified, in 1840, to dense habitation in the days of old. But, paradoxically, so few Maori were living there in 1840 that Tamaki could almost be regarded at the time as a population void…there was no well-established tribe to be displaced” (R.C.J. Stone, 2007, Logan Campbell’s Auckland. Tales from the Early Years).

Into this early settler world came John Logan Campbell (1817-1912) for whom much of the early history of Auckland and Cornwall Park is intricately tied to.

John_Logan_Campbell,_ca_1880sJohn Logan Campbell c.1880

Logan Campbell was born in Edinburgh and in 1839 graduated as a Doctor of Medicine, later that year he set sail for New South Wales, arriving in New Zealand in 1840. On that ship was also a William Brown who became Logan Campbell’s business partner. The two men built the first house in Auckland – Acacia Cottage – which still stands and they opened the first shop. Both men quickly took advantage of being ‘in at the ground floor’ as the new settlement of Auckland took off. Logan Campbell in particular rose in prominence rapidly and was/is regarded the ‘father of Auckland’.

The oldest remaining wooden structure in Auckland
The oldest remaining wooden structure in Auckland – Acacia Cottage.

In 1853 Logan Campbell and William Brown bought what was then known as the Mount Prospect Estate and renamed it One Tree Hill. By 1873 the partnership with Brown was dissolved and Logan Campbell became the sole owner. In 1901 he gifted the land to the city of Auckland during a Royal visit by the then Duke and Duchess of York and Cornwall (later King George V and Queen Mary) and it was renamed in their honor as Cornwall Park.
In 1903 the park was formally opened. 

When Logan Campbell died in 1912 he left instructions and funds for the construction of a monument to the Maori people whom he admired a great deal. However, it was not until the late 1930s that work began on the obelisk. It was completed in 1940 but the unveiling was not held until the 28th April 1948 after WWII was over in keeping with the Maori tradition of not holding ceremonies during times of war.

IMG_0150 - CopyJohn Logan Campbell’s memorial to the achievements of the Maori people.

The obelisk is 33m high and was designed by Atkinson Abbott. Logan Campbell is buried at the foot of the monument under the flat paved forecourt.

Today
Today both parks are well used by Auckland residents and it is still farmed with sheep and cows wandering the slopes of the hill. It is a place where people meet, families picnic, dogs walk, joggers jog and children play. Every city needs its green spaces in order to breath and here in Auckland we are lucky to have this and so many other such spaces…

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Playing in the crater of an extinct volcano…

 

 

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

 

A Tale of Two Pa

The Coromandel is a place rich in Maori history, the most obvious archaeological site are the many pa found on the coastal headlands.  The following are a few photos taken during a weekend in the coastal township of Whitianga.

Before we get to the photos, it is probably necessary for me to give you a brief explanation on what a Pa is, particularly  for those of you who are not familiar with the term.  The word ‘pa’ can refer to any Maori settlement, defended or otherwise, but most commonly it is used to refer to a type of site known as a hillfort – fortified settlements with palisades and defensive terraces.  The majority of pa sites are found in the North Island from Lake Taupo northwards – over 5000 have been recorded to date.  You can read more about Pa here.

The two Pa mentioned in the title of this blog are the Hereheretaura Pa and Whitianga Rock – both were Ngati Hei strongholds, although the latter suffered during a raid by a war party of Ngai te Rangi.  The reserve where Hereheretaura Pa can be found is at the southern end of Hahei Beach is one of two pa in the reserve.  The other – Hahei Pa –  is on the ridge above the track (seen below) but with minimal defensive earthworks unlike Hereheretaura Pa.

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Walking in the Te Pare Reserve – Hereheretaura Pa in the distance.
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Hereheretaura Pa – the lines of banks and ditches can be seen in the early morning light.
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One of several bank and ditch earthworks clearly visible at Hereheretaura Pa.
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The view from Hereheretaura Pa looking northwards.

Whitianga Rock is on the opposite side of the estuary from Whitianga, a short ferry ride across from town takes you to the start point for a walk around the site.  The site is positioned on a thin finger of land jutting into the estuary harbour with steep cliffs on three sides.  By the time Captain James Cook arrived in 1769 the site had already been abandoned, even so it impressed Cook enough for him to state;

“A little with[in] the entrance of the river on the East side is a high point or peninsula jutting out into the River on which are the remains of one of their Fortified towns,  the Situation is such that the best Engineer in Europe could not have choose’d a better for a small number of men to defend themselves against a greater, it is strong by nature and made more so by Art”.

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Information board at the start of the walk.
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House terraces on the landward side.
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The first bank and ditch earthworks and now a path down to Brick Bay.
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Post holes for palisades ground into rock.
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More palisade postholes…
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An artists recreation of the palisade as evidenced by the postholes in the previous picture.
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An artist reconstruction of how the site looked prior to the devastating raid. The line across the middle is the earthwork mentioned above which is now a lane leading to Brick Bay on the southern side.
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Artist reconstruction
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All across the site are numerous shellfish middens – not surprising given the sites position.
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Another midden…
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And another midden…
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The view from the top over to Whitianga township.

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.

 

Avebury square
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. 

 

 

St._Winifrids_Well,_Holywell.jpeg.jpeg
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”.