Tag Archives: Celtic

The British Museum – a fleeting visit.

Why fleeting you might ask? Well in a nutshell, the visit occured a couple of years ago during a whirlwind trip to London with the family and after a protracted visit to the Natural History Museum followed by getting distracted by a well known sci-fi shop I was left with a mere two and half hours to see the Museum…As some of you are well aware this is not nearly enough time and so it was, a fleeting visit.  The following are a few of the photos I took along with brief explanations.

One of the first gallerys I made my way to was the early Medieval gallery – I had long wanted to see the artefacts from Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo, the famous Anglo-saxon ship burial.  Sutton Hoo is located near Woodbridge in Suffolk and is the remains of a 6th and 7th century AD cemetary.  Mound 1 was excavated in 1939 providing the world with a fascinating glimpse of the artistic ability of our Anglo-saxon forebears. The artefacts were richer and more intricate than any other found before.

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The most famous face of Anglo-saxon England – the helmet was in in a bad way when excavated and the above shows only the few remaining pieces which could be salvaged.

 

Not far from the Sutton Hoo treasure is the Lewis Chessmen.  These fascinating wee carvings were discovered in 1831 in Uig on the Isle of Lewis (Outer Hebrides).  They are 12th century in date and carved from walrus ivory; it is believed they were originally made in Trondheim in Norway – at the time the Outer Hebrides were ruled by Norway.  A number of years ago, a travelling exhibition on the Vikings came to the Auckland Museum in New Zealand.  Two of the Lewis Chessmen accompanied the exhibition and it was this that inspired me to write “A Viking Moon”.

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The Lewis Chessmen

Staying with the Vikings we have the Cuerdale Hoard from Lancashire.  The display at the museum is only part an enormous hoard of silver found in a lead chest beside the River Ribble.  The hoard itself consisted of 7500 coins and 1200 pieces of silver bullion, weighing in at forty kilograms.  The coins come from a variety of sources – mainly the eastern Viking kingdoms of England but also from King Alfred’s Wessex, Byzantium, Scandinavia, Islamic and Carolingian sources.  The Ribble Valley was an important Viking route between the Irish Sea and York and this may have some bearing on why the hoard was found here.

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Part of the Cuerdale Hoard

Staying in the early Medieval my next photo is of the Burghead Bull.  The town of Burghead in Moray, Scotland occupies part of what was once a Pictish promontory fort of great importance.  The Burghead Bulls were discovered in the late nineteenth century when much of the fort was destroyed to make way for more houses.  Originally there were thirty panels carrying carved images of bulls, now however, only six remain – one of which is held at the British Museum.  They are dated to 5th century AD and it has been suggested they formed a frieze set into the ramparts of the fort and possibly represent a warrior cult which celebrated strength and aggression.  Regardless of what the bull represents it is a fabulous piece of Pictish art.

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Burghead Bull

Travelling back in time I moved onto the Roman and Iron Age galleries (this was a flying visit, I had just recieved a text from an impatient husband…)

In the Roman gallery I took a moment to admire a stone sarcophagus found in London in 1853 within what was described as an extensive Roman cemetary outside the city wall to the east.  It is dated to the early 4th century AD.

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An early 4th century AD Roman stone sarcophagus.

Moving along swiftly I found myself in the British Iron Age and here I had to stop and admire the mirrors.  Of all the artefacts from this period these are my favorite (and no its not because I have vain streak…).  I have long held the belief that mirrors were more than a toilette item for these were never true mirrors that the modern person might be familiar with.  Their surfaces were often burnished bronze and would at best reflect a fuzzy image.  Instead I would suggest that the surface of a mirror acted in a similar way to the reflective surface of lake, pond or well providing access to the otherworld – a liminal space/place.  Such places are well documented as being special, the vast numbersof artefacts found deposited into watery places at this time speaks for itself.  Furthermore, it is surely no coincidence that later myths and stories use a mirror as a storytelling device (think Snow White).

 

Then of course something shiny caught my eye, first the Snettisham Torc and then the twisted gold torcs from the Ipswich Hoard.   The Snettisham Torc was discovered in 1950 near the village of Snettisham in Norfolk.  It is made up of a kilo of gold mixed with silver, there are 64 threads and each thread is 1.9mm wide, eight threads were pulled together and twisted then all were twisted again to make the torc.  The terminal ends are hollow and were cast from a mould.  The torc is dated to between 150BC and 50BC.  The Ipswich Hoard was the second hoard to be found in the area, the first being Anglo-saxon in date.  This particular hoard was discovered during the construction of a housing estate in 1968 by a digger driver and consisted of six twisted gold torcs.  These torcs had less silver in them which has led the musuem to date their manufacture to around 75BC.

 

Finally I wound my way through the Egyptian gallery and down the stairs to meet up with the family who were marvelling at the large statues from the ancient world.  The following is a selection of the photos from this part of the museum.

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There was so much else to see but I simply ran out of time and as we were flying out the next day any other sight seeing would have to wait until another visit – although I have heard recently that there are plans afoot for a downloadable VR experience for those who can’t visit in person.

Below are a few links which relate to the above photos.

The British Museum

Sutton Hoo – The National Trust

The Lewis Chessmen

The Snettisham Torc

List of Iron Age Hoards in Britain

The St Kevern Mirror

 

Fogous – An Archaeological Mystery

Fabulous Facts about Fogous

Before we delve too deeply into fogous and the mystery surrounding them it is probably a good idea to describe what a fogou is.  The word ‘fogou’ is very simply Cornish for ‘cave’ and this gives us our first clue.  It is, in essence a subterranean (or semi-subterranean) structure.  Occasionally other writers will compare the Cornish fogou with the Scottish or Irish souterrain but beware of this pitfall; the Cornish will not thank you for it.

The structures in themselves are “…a low passage walled with dry masonry and roofed with large stone slabs, generally but not invariable underground and generally attached to an Iron Age settlement.” (Weatherhill, Pool and Thomas 1980 ‘The Principle Antiquities of the Land’s End District’).

 

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The passagway at Halligye Fogou on the Trelowarren Estate – photo by Jim Champion (geograph.co.uk)

 

Typically, fogous vary between 12 to 15 metres in length and 1.5 to 1.8 metres in width.  The passage walls have a degree of curvature with courses of corbelled masonry to reduce roof width and in most cases the passage itself curves or branches making it difficult to see the end as you enter.  Most have a wide accessible entrance today, but it does seem that for many the original access point was a low restrictive doorway called a ‘creep’.

As mentioned before fogous are almost always associated with a settlement dating to the Iron Age and for many they would have been the only stone structure within that settlement.  The distribution of these sites is restricted to areas west of the Fal Estuary with the majority being in West Penwith.  There are at least twelve sites known for certain and at least another a dozen or so possible sites suggested from placenames, fieldnames and those described by past antiquarians.  For example, the West Penwith Survey identified one such site at Lower Leah from a description left by J T Blight in 1850 of a subterranean chamber in which burial urns and fused tin were found.

No two fogous are exactly alike and to further emphasise this, the structures at Carn Euny and Bosporthennis each have what is known as a ‘beehive hut’.  The name is something of misnomer as the structures were highly unlikely to have anything to do with bees or bee keeping.  The name was given due to the shape of the chamber, which resembles a beehive.

Excavations at Carn Euny during the 1960s and 70s depict a settlement which was occupied for about seven hundred years from around 500BC. There were several phases, the earliest consisted of timber structures and the last was the construction of the stone courtyard houses which are visible today.  The ‘beehive hut’ is associated with the earliest phase of settlement, a second phase of roundhouses are associated with the construction of the long passage and by the time the courtyard houses were constructed the passage was made to link into the courtyard house north of it.

The most recent fogou to be excavated is that of Boden Vean on the Lizard Pennisula.  This particular site was first recorded in 1816 by the vicar of Manaccan and then was promptly lost.  In 1991 the current landowner was having some pipe work done in a field when a cavity emerged and the fogou was rediscovered.  Geophysical survey identified several anomalies, one of which turned out to be a Bronze Age roundhouse and subsequent excavations demonstrated that the fogou was part of an enclosed Iron Age settlement known as a ‘round’ (which can rather confusingly be anything but round…).

 

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Bodean Fogou under excavation.

 

 

Fogous and their Function

What were fogous used for?  This is the heart of the mystery. The lack of consensus, of agreement as to what the function of a fogou is defines Cornish archaeology and archaeologists.  There are three possible explanations – a place of refuge, storage and ritual.  Lets’ examine each of these in turn.

Refuge – this particular theory has generally fallen out of favour.  The argument against this theory relates to the accessibility of the fogou.  When most fogous were built the only access was through the creep and whilst it is an easy enough task to crawl through if you are young, fit and not claustrophobic, an elderly or infirm person would find it difficult.  The second point against this theory is the lack of an exit strategy.  It would be an easy enough task for any would be raiders to smoke out the people hiding in these passages, there are no air vents and no other way out.  The third and final nail in the coffin relates to the overall position of these structures within the landscape, many are situated within easy distance of well defended site such at Carn Euny with the hillfort of Caer Bran only a short distance uphill.

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The orignal entrance at Carn Euny known as the creep.

Storage – for many archaeologists this is the prevailing theory.  Comparisons are often made to souterrains found in Brittany, Scotland and Ireland which did have a more utilitarian purpose and are often of very different dates.  However, Ian Cooke suggests that the fogou is not an imported concept, they “…represent a continuation of long established local megalithic traditions.” (Antiquities of West Cornwall 3 Carn Euny Village and Fogou).

In Cornwall there is a tradition of building places of storage, these are called ‘crows’ or ‘hulls’.  A crow is a small stone hovel used to store tools, fuel and in some cases livestock.  They are often built into the side of a field hedge or bank and most are at best two centuries old.  A hull is a chamber dug out of the ground and faced with stone; often there will be a lintelled doorway to prevent collapse.  They are found close to settlements and were used to store perishable foods.  These structures were common from around fourteenth or fifteenth century.

However, the argument against the use of fogous as a place of storage considers how damp and airless they are (a visit to any fogou requires a pair waterproof shoes at anytime of the year).  Research has shown that the only foodstuffs suitable to storing in this environment are beer and dairy produce.  There is also the accessibility issue, clambering down the creep with a barrel of beer is not the most efficient means of storing your excess foodstuffs.  It is possible that the fogou did change in use over time, the later opening up of the fogou during its last phase at Carn Euny would have made it a better option for the storing of foodstuffs.

A secondary argument also looks at the effort required to build the fogou and as mentioned before, at the time of construction it would have been the only stone building in the settlement.  Both suggest that the fogou was a socially important structure, which leads us the final possible explanation.

Ritual – some archaeologists tend to shy away from using ‘ritual’ to describe a sites function.  This is a backlash from criticism in the 80s and 90s when archaeologists were accused of using ‘ritual’ as a definition when nothing else fitted.  The term was certainly bandied about…even so, the idea of the fogou as a place of ritual does need to be examined because interpretations as places of storage or refuge are at this point unsatisfactory.

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The entrance to the fogou at Chysauster.

Ian Cooke has spent a substantial amount of time recording and analysing fogous throughout Cornwall.  For him and many others involved in earth mysteries fogous were definitely places of ritual.  Cooke found that all but two were ‘symbolically’ aligned to the rising midsummer sun and the two that weren’t were aligned on the setting of the midsummer sun.  He says symbolically as at the time no light would have entered the passages.  The importance of midsummer needs no explanation here.  Some archaeologists have questioned these alignments but have noted the monumental nature of the fogou, drawing analogies with a medieval church within a settlement of less substantial structures (P. Herring 1994 CA Journal 33).

Cooke also noted how “…the majority of fogous, where sufficient remains can be traced, have the northern end of their long curved passage aligned north-east to correspond with the prevailing direction taken by the subterranean mineral lodes…”  Drawing a connection between the tin trade and the construction of the fogous, perhaps it is not unsurprising then when we here of small finds of fused tin found inside the passages and in the backfill of the creep such as at Carn Euny.

“…the rationale behind building fogous was the need to provide a place of contact between the plunderers of the earth and the dieites believed to control the fertility of the land and the mineral wealth beneath it, and that these places were used for the performance of rituals related to the pagan religion of Iron Age West Cornwall in which a Sun God and Earth Mother Goddess formed the central element.” (Ian Cooke The Mother and the Sun 1993).

It has also been suggested fogous may have been a place where important rituals took place which relate to transformation such as when a child becomes an adult or during death.  The dark places of the world have always represented an otherworldliness to human beings, even to this day, caves are regarded as special places.

The more sceptical who argue against a ritual function point out, “by and large fogous lack obvious design features or contexts that make them stand out as undoubted ritual structures,” (P. Rose ‘Shadows in the Imagination: Encounters with caves in Cornwall CA Journal 2000/1).  The argument follows that because we have been unable to identify any elements within Celtic belief that may be associated with the fogou then a ritual function is unlikely.

However lets briefly consider what we do know, it is fairly well understood that the people of the Celtic Iron Age attributed all aspects of the world around them with a spirit of some kind and that ‘no activity however trivial would have been entered into without some thought for the attitudes of those who inhabited the other world’ (B Cunliffe Facing the Ocean 1995).  Surely this would have extended to the extraction of tin and other metals from the ground.

“As tin extraction is an activity that is unique to Cornwall, particularly west Cornwall, is it not possible that the fogou is a unique regional response to this,” (TM Rowe Cornwall in Prehistory 2005).  The continuing fertility of the land and its mineral wealth would have been important concerns in this period.

Further reading – ‘Fogous’ by Andy Norfolk

 

Fogous and Folklore     

All of the folk stories which surround fogous can be traced back to one of three themes.

  • It’s the location of hidden treasure.
  • They have impossibly long passages.
  • Associated with demons, witches, giants and other ‘dangerous’ creatures.

Thus, Piskey’s Hall was long thought to contain fairy treasure, at Boleigh there was a belief that the passage ran for many miles under the Penwith landscape and at Pendeen Vau there is a tale of a young woman dressed in white and carrying a red rose appearing at the mouth of the fogou on Christmas day.  It is said if you see her you will die within the year.

There were giants at the fogous of Lower Boscaswell and Higher Bodinar and at Boleigh it is said that the Penwith witches were in the habit of meeting the Devil here.

It is not difficult to see how such stories might begin.  Treasure seekers have for centuries dug holes in curious mounds in search of riches, the mound covering a fogou would have been no different.  Should you ever visit a fogou without a torch (not recommended, by the way) the passage will seem to go on forever, it often feels as if time has stood still and the passage is never ending.  As for demons, giants, witches and ladies in white foretelling your death, well, the ever active imagination of the human species may well be responsible.

Or, perhaps local folklore can give us hints about the fogou, as it is with a game of Chinese whispers, folk memory can distort ancient knowledge of a place as time goes by and other influences intervene.  Stories of lost treasure might relate to knowledge of precious mineral lodes; the fear of the never ending passage may be just an extension of the fogou representing the underworld; the association of the devil and witches perhaps an attempt in early Christian fervour to discourage people away from ancient places of worship.  For those who follow the path of the Goddess today, the role of the witch in the past is a manifestation of the Goddess, hence the persecution (put very simply).

 

Final thoughts

So are we any closer in solving this archaeological mystery?  In short, no.  Like so much when we are dealing with a time so very distant from our own it is difficult to make assumptions about sites such as fogous when the evidence is so sparse.  It has been suggested in order to get a much clearer idea of the function a detailed excavation of a fogou undisturbed since time of abandonment would be ideal.

Even so, solving this mystery is left to the individual, only he or she can decide how these places were used and that is why fogous are special places – they are different things for different folks.

NB when visiting a fogou please take a torch and if you don’t like spiders, don’t look up…really, do not look up!

 

Links

Not a comprehensive list of links but a starting point for further investigation.

Halligye Fogou

Pendeen Fogou

Boleigh Fogou

Cornish Ancient Sites Protection Network

Cornwall Heritage Trust

A Fogou List