Back in October the Auckland Council hosted the Auckland Heritage Festival, where, as the name would suggest all things heritage and Auckland was celebrated. There are a wide range of events during the festival weeks from walks, talks, exhibitions and workshops. I was able to attend two events – a talk at the Devonport Museum on Mt Cambria (more on that down the page) and a walk ‘n’ talk at Hampton Park.
Hampton Park is situated in the heart of commercial Otara, a pocket of farm land amongst the warehouses, factories and offices. Having never been there or even for that matter heard of it, I was intrigued to find out more. The park is in fact a working farm and whilst the public are able to walk around it there are no proper footpaths and no other facilities (there is a house and it is lived in by the family who farm the park as well others – if visiting please respect their privacy).
The story of Hampton Park begins long before people arrived in the area. Geologically it is part of the wider volcanic landscape of Auckland, here in Otara there are (or were) three volcanoes, the largest of which was called Te Puke o Taramainuku (‘the hill of Taramainuku’, a Tainui ancestor). The small scoria cone that sits in Hampton Park is the smallest of the three and is probably the smallest of all the Auckland volcanoes. It is so small that it has no formal name, simply being referred to as the Hampton Park volcano.
The beginnings of the human story in the area is much like the human story all over Tamaki Makaurau. Here like everywhere else Māori terraced the flanks of the cones and grew crops in the good volcanic soil. The larger cones would have provided a place of refuge when in need. The small cone in Hampton Park shows some evidence of terracing but later changes has blurred this somewhat. Alongside the driveway between the house and the church there is a large rectangular kumara pit which has remarkably survived. For more on the Māori use and occupation of the maunga of Tamaki Makaurau read here.
In 1852 the Rev. Gideon Smales, a Wesleyan missionary, bought 460 acres from the fencible Major Gray, settling there with his wife and children in 1855. The land was cleared of rocks, stone walls were built and crops and livestock brought in. Gideon Smales called the farm Hampton Park as he wished to model it on the English gentleman’s estate. It was said to have once rivalled Sir George Grey’s Kawau Island estate for its ‘botanical excellence’.
The farm grew oats, hay, barley, wheat and had an extensive orchard which included cider apple trees, pomegranates, oranges, figs and plums to name a few. In addition, to the more practical elements of the farm, the gardener – a veteran of the Crimean War – built a sunken garden in the form of the fort of Sebastopol. The remains of which can still be seen today. The excessive amount of stone on the estate resulted in it being used for a great many projects including the sunken garden, a rockery with a high stone wall and cave and of course the stone walls.
The stone walls which were constructed with the stone cleared away for cultivable fields was done so under the supervision of James Stewart who immigrated to New Zealand from Yorkshire. Due to the vast quantity of stone the walls were higher than was the norm and it was said there was over five miles of walls on the estate.
As is to be expected on a farm there are a number of buildings but perhaps the most striking are the remains of the stone stables, again built from stone quarried from the estate. Although not long after they were built a vagrant worker came to the estate looking for work, he was given a meal and allowed to sleep in the stables. That night the stables burnt down and the vagrant disappeared. They were never rebuilt properly although they were partly roofed over as barn and milking shed. Nearby are the derelict tin shed of the 1930s barn.
Two other buildings which still stand are the homestead and the church. The current homestead is the second to have stood on the estate, the first was burnt down in 1940 and the current homestead was built – only the front steps remain of the original house. The first homestead was built in 1855, it was three storied and had ten rooms which was later extended to eighteen rooms in 1869.
The small chapel – St John’s church – is also constructed using stone from a nearby quarry. Interestingly, the mortar for both the church and the house was made of burnt shell from Howick beach, the timber arrived via the Tamaki river and was brought overland by bullock teams. The first service to be held in the church was on Sunday the 12th January 1862. When the Rev. Gideon Smales died in 1894 he bequeathed the chapel and four acres jointly to the Anglican and Methodist Churches. It is still used today for services once a month.
The Missing Maunga
Beyond the settler history of the park there is another story that is reflected in the wider landscape of Auckland Tamaki Makaurau. As mentioned earlier the small volcano cone at Hampton Park is one of three in the immediate area, which may confuse the visitor, as nothing of the other two remain to be seen.
Te Puke o Taramainuku has been completely quarried away beginning in 1955 and now is vast expanse of factories, beyond is Greenmount or Matanginui which had minor quarrying from around 1870 which began in earnest during the 1960s. The quarry eventually became a landfill giving way to the gently sloping mound/hill we see today.
The quarrying of the volcanic cones around Auckland in the late 1800s up until the mid fairly recently was not an unusual. Many of the cities defining features were quarried away to make way for development and to use the raw material of scoria and basalt in the infrastructure of a city. An earlier event at the Devonport Museum told of the history of Takararo/Mt Cambria, another volcanic cone wedged between Takarunga/Mt Victoria and Maungauika/North Head which was mostly quarried away and only more recently became the pleasant parkland area it is today.
Other volcanoes that have been subjected to quarrying to the point of total removal include –
Te Apunga-o-Tainui/McLennan Hills; Waitomokia/Mt Gabriel; Ōtuataua Volcano/Quarry Hill; Maungataketake/Elletts Mountain; Te Pou Hawaiki (the second smallest cone and now a carpark);Te Tātua-a-Riukiuta/Three Kings; Rarotonga/Mt Smart; Maungarahiri/Little Rangitoto; Te Tauoma/Purchas Hill to name a few.
There are also many others which have been partially quarried, of the fifty three volcanoes in Auckland only thirteen appear to have been untouched by the bulldozer and the digger. This is not to say that those that remain have been completely untouched by human hands. For as long as there has been people in Tamaki Makaurau then the landscape and its features will have been adapted and utilised to suit the needs and requirements of its inhabitants.
For more information regarding the volcanoes of Auckland I recommend the following book –
B. W. Hayward (2019) The Volcanoes of Auckland. A field guide. Published by Auckland University Press
Experimental archaeology is the one path that virtually anyone can take to travel back in time; to get an idea of what life may have been like in the distant past. One such place which encapsulates this philosophy is Butser Ancient Farm, a place I had the chance to visit recently.
Butser began life in 1972, in a different location by the late Peter Reynolds, whose passion for experimental archaeology was contagious. The original farm was situated on Butser Hill, in what is now the Queen Elizabeth Country Park, in part because of the evidence for extensive Iron Age field systems on Butser Hill, still visible in the prehistoric field boundaries and earthworks that cover the landscape. However, it did not open to the public until 1974 and because of its popularity moved to a more accessible site at the bottom of Butser Hill. In 1991 the farm moved to its present location (near Chalton, Hampshire – just off the A3).
At Butser it is possible to see ten thousand years of history come to life; to see plans of archaeological sites rise up from the ground; to feel, touch, smell and absorb some of what it may have been like in the past is an experience that should not be missed. All of the buildings which have been reconstructed are based on actual archaeological sites that have been discovered through excavation.
These excavations often only reveal the faintest of remains, the postholes and their layout is usually all archaeologists have to go on as to the type of building. The artefacts found and their position in the structure can also provide clues as to the use of the space inside and outside. Understanding all the fragmentary pieces of evidence can often take a leap of faith particularly for the general public. In this case Butser provides a physical and tangible connection to the past for the visitor.
However, it is much more than that, it is a place where those who study the past can test theories in, not only ancient technologies and construction techniques but also in how sites degrade. Our understanding of how archaeological sites are formed depend very much on understanding how a place degrades, becoming the humps and bumps we see in the landscape.
In addition to the buildings, there are also gardens containing plants that would have been in use at a particular time – known from faunal analysis during excavations. Ancient breeds of sheep, goat and pig are also a feature of the farm, giving the visitor a well-rounded experience. At certain times of the year, they also host various events such as flint knapping weekends, re-enactment groups, storytelling, solstice celebrations and more.
The following are few photos from my visit this year…beginning in the very distant past of the Mesolithic and Neolithic.
In the days preceding my visit the team at Butser along with volunteers from the HMS Queen Elizabeth had a go at erecting a megalith using only the types of technology available in the Neolithic. They moved and raised a 3.5 ton piece of Purbeck limestone using theorised prehistoric techniques. The stone is roughly the same weight as the smaller bluestones at Stonehenge, which were moved over 140 miles around 5000 years ago.
When performing such tasks it is also useful to observe what is left behind, these ephemeral remains are often the hardest to interpret.
From the Neolithic we carefully saunter into the Bronze Age, the time of the roundhouse and metal working…
The Iron Age –
The Roman villa – as with all the structures at Butser the villa was built using only construction techniques known to be used in the Romano-British period. The mosaic is the only known reconstruction in the UK and the aim was to understand some of the finer points in mosaic construction but also to see what happens to it over time.
The Anglo-Saxon halls are the most recent addition to the farm and demonstrate two different types of building style.
As mentioned before Butser also engages in research and education, none of the buildings, gardens or spaces are static museum pieces, they are constantly evolving – adding to our knowledge. Most years the farm is well attended by schools wide and far who get a hands on perspective of life in the past, archaeology and history.
The gardens and the animals are an equally fascinating aspect to the farm, endeavoring to give a much more rounded picture of the past.
For more information I would highly recommend their website (and archive) – Butser Ancient Farm
In this the
second part of my small study of land use and settlement in the Upper Waitemata
we are staying within the area defined in part one – from Island Bay to
Kendall’s Bay, keeping within the coastal strip. This part will take a look at the early colonial/settler
history of the area, with the emphasis being on the early or pre-WWII. After this point in time there is plenty of
written records and several good books written on the history of Birkenhead and
I have no desire to rehash already well-known information.
Captain James Cook sailed through the Hauraki Gulf past Waiheke Island and made
a note that there might be sheltered harbours to the west. The only other Europeans around at the end of
the eighteenth century were whalers and as of yet no records have been found of
any exploration into the upper Waitemata.
It appears that it is not until 1820 that Europeans began to show an
interest in this sheltered inland harbour.
Samuel Marsden is often credited with being the first to explore the area, in
his diaries he states that he left the HMS Coromandel at Waiheke and was guided
by Te Morenga to Riverhead where he then travelled overland to the Kaipara
River – a route travelled by Maori for centuries.
next twenty years there were undoubtedly forays by other Europeans into the
Waitemata, perhaps looking for timber and other such opportunities however
their stories are as yet unknown. In
1840 the HMS Herald was the next major ship to visit the Waitemata, onboard was
the Lieutenant Governor of NZ Hobson and the Surveyor General Felton
Matthew. They spent the next two weeks
exploring the harbour – Herald Island is named after the ship and of course
Hobsonville after the Governor who had initially favoured the place as the capital
of New Zealand.
further afield from our area of study there are records from around this time
which make a note of sailors rowing up Hellyers Creek to a place called The
Lagoon to restock their freshwater supplies, however, “it has also been recorded that in 1841 a Mr Hellyer, lived on the bank
of the creek which now bears his name.
He brewed beer which no doubt was a great incentive to those earlier
seamen who rowed up the harbour…”
In 1841 our
area of study was part of a large land purchase called the Mahurangi Block, it
extended from Takapuna/Devonport to Te Arai and encompassed the majority of the
present-day North Shore. The first parcels of land to be auctioned in 1844 were
between Northcote and Lake Pupuke. Much of the early purchases in the
Birkenhead area were part of a land speculation trend without the land being
settled or farmed. Significant chunks of
land sold were the area from Rangitira Rd/Beach Rd to Soldiers Bay which was
sold to William Brown in 1845 and the area from Balmain and Domain Rds to the
shore encompassing one hundred and ten acres being sold to a James Woolly also
in 1845. However, it does not seem that
either of them actually lived here. It
was common practice for land to bought speculatively and sold on in smaller
parcels to settlers fresh off the boat so to speak, such as the ‘Tramway
Company’ a land development company who bought large tracts of land in what is
settlers of the Birkenhead area who are known were Henry Hawkins, Hugh McCrum,
John Creamer, Joseph Hill, James Fitzpatrick and William Bradney. All of whom appeared to have had a go at
farming but little else is known about them.
those early settlers who chose the Birkenhead area were in for a hard time, as
mentioned in part one the soil was not conducive to farming in the traditional
sense. Settlement was a rather slow
process particularly when compared to other parts of the North Shore and
Auckland. Not surprising when faced with
the prospect of clearing the bush before they could even build themselves a
dwelling. Many of the early dwellings
were simple one room nikau whares, constructed of sod walls with a raupo or
nikau thatched roof. As they cleared the
bush often deposits of kauri gum would be found and sold ensuring a source of
most of these early farmers only managed a subsistence living, there were the
occasional success story. Birkenhead
became quite well known for its fruit orchards, the first of which was
established by Henry Hawkins. There are
two differing accounts as to where Hawkins had his orchard, some maintain it
was near Soldiers Bay and others say it was on the ridge where Birkenhead Ave
now runs. It is of course possible that
both are correct, one of the earliest estates to be subdivided and sold was the
Balmain Estate (also known as the Balmain Township) which extended over a much
wider area than just the Balmain Rd of today.
The steep sided valley of Soldiers Bay would appear to not be conducive
to a fruit orchard, the thick kauri groves would have been quite a hindrance to
say the least. However, an advertisement
in the local paper for 1855 has H J Hawkins selling 700 fruit trees from his
farm at The Glen, Soldiers Bay. Later in 1870-71 Hawkins is recorded as owning
allotment two and three in Birkenhead – this is situated on the ridge which is
now Birkenhead Ave.
early settler is mentioned in relation to a dwelling on a map dated to 1849,
the house was owned by a John Crisp and was situated close to what is now
Fitzpatrick Bay. Unfortunately, I have been unable to corroborate this.
a local history study of Island Bay and surroundings (Island Bay. A Brief History) there is an 1844 map which shows a
dwelling occupied by a Mr George Skey. The bottom part of the block was
developed into a small farm and sold as a going concern around 1849. It had its own jetty and a farm boundary
ditch, unfortunately I have been unable to track down this map to verify this
information and the area where the farm is said to be (and relatively well
preserved) is part of the Muriel Fisher Reserve which is currently closed due
to kauri dieback. Having said that, it
is definitely something to consider and requires further investigation.
1880-81 electoral roll lists a small block (allotment 148 – a trapezoidal block
which ran from what is now Rangitira Rd to the western edge of Soldiers Bay) of
twenty-three acres owned by a Mr Clement Partridge who is described as a
settler. The area of Island Bay was one
of those places where early land sales were of the speculative kind. It wasn’t until the “Tramway Company”, a land
development company, bought large tracts of land in the Birkenhead area
including Island Bay, that small dwellings began to appear. Like many of the
bays in the area, Island Bay was a summer place with the majority of dwellings
being bach’s and only a handful were occupied all year round. The road began as a dirt track mostly used by
gumdiggers and was previously known as Victoria Rd West prior to 1913.
What’s in a Name?
often hold clues as to the early settlement of an area and its changing
history. In part one we already looked
at some of the Maori names for places and how they relate to not only how the
landscape was used but also how the people saw themselves within their
world. For Europeans the naming of
places can be a lot more prosaic and, in some cases, the reason for the name is
obvious such as Island Bay, so named for the small island at the end of the
road which was once separated from the mainland and only accessed at low tide
via stepping stones.
however, are much more difficult to ascertain – Kendall Bay is obviously a
European name but at this point in time there are no records of anyone with the
name of Kendall after whom the bay was so named. One possibility is that Kendall may be the
name of gumdigger or gum buyer situated at the bay – gumdigger camps were often
situated at the head of sheltered gullies near fresh water and near to the
coast. Kendall Bay satisfies all of
these requirements. Interestingly, the
bay is also known locally as Shark Bay, undoubtedly because of the shark
fishing grounds exploited by Maori and later Europeans.
Kauri Point is the one placename not to change and to be consistently included
in the majority of maps dating back to 1842 and up to the present day. It would be a fair guess to say the name came
about as a result of the large kauri stands which would have been easily
visible to the first people to sail up the harbour.
also changed through time or have been forgotten. The Upper Waitemata was once called Sandy Bay
on a nautical chart from 1841; another early map refers to Pt Shortland (1842),
the headland where the Naval Base currently is; on other maps the bay we know
today as Onetaunga Bay was once called Quarryman’s Bay.
Quarryman’s Bay, like Brick Bay further up the harbour, refer to the early industrial endeavours of the area’s inhabitants. Both quarrying and brickmaking were popular industries in a land where traditional farming was problematic. One of the occupations of a potential early settler in the area was brickmaker (see below).
is an interesting case of a name that has been around for a long time but its
origins are hazy. The earliest mention that
I have been able to track down is dated to a map of 1863. Today the stream that runs down from the high
ground and empties into Soldiers Bay would have been a lot less silted up and
most likely navigable by waka or rowboat as far as the present-day
carpark. Today there is a causeway which
joins the bottom of Balmain Rd to the reserve which would not have been there
in the early days. This causeway was
most likely constructed in the early twentieth century when a caretakes lived
at the end of the reserve above Fitzpatrick’s Bay.
which gives us any clue as to why Soldier’s Bay is so named…it has been
suggested that the bay gained its name as a result of an encampment of militia
during the unsettled times of the mid-1800s.
At the time, Hone Heke was ‘making life unpleasant’ for settlers in the
north, particularly the Hokianga, and many had moved south to take up land in
Birkenhead. To allay the fears of the
settlers a contingent of soldiers may have been positioned in various
places…hence Soldiers Bay. As mentioned
before the stream would have been navigable to the bottom of present-day
Balmain Rd, just before that though there is a flat spur which would have
provided a good position for an encampment, with a clear view of the harbour
and a fresh water supply.
placename to consider is that of Fitzpatrick’s Bay, this small sandy bay is
today part of the Kauri Point Domain and is a popular recreational reserve for
the local area. There are two possible
people responsible for naming of the Bay – Charles Fitzpatrick or James
examination of Jury Lists and Electoral Rolls shows that a James Fitzpatrick
arrived on the Jane Gifford in 1842 with his wife and daughter. The Jury List of 1842-57 lists James as
living on the North Shore as a brickmaker; in the 1850s and 1860s he was still
living on the North Shore but was now a farmer and a freeholder. Whether or not he was actually living in the
Birkenhead area is difficult to say; Birkenhead itself was not so named until
1863 and up until that point there was very little distinction between
areas. In the 1870-71 electoral roll
James was listed as residing in Takapuna, allotment 15 – a survey of the
cadastral maps of 1868 shows that allotment 15 is in fact in Northcote
(Takapuna refers to Takapuna Parish of which included todays Takapuna,
Birkenhead, Northcote, Hillcrest, Birkdale, Beachhaven and so on). In 1890, James was still in the Takapuna
Parish but was now listed as a gumdigger.
Charles Fitzpatrick only appears twice in the lists; first in 1867 and as having a freehold land and house at Kauri Point however by 1890 he had moved to Morrinsville. Whilst only Charles is listed specifically as living in our area of study and he would appear to be the best option for the naming of Fitzpatrick Bay it is still not possible to rule out James.
Not long after this post was written, I was contacted by a gentleman who currently lives south of Auckland near Hamilton. He was happy to confirm that James Fitzpatrick was indeed the correct person after whom the bay was named – James was his great great grandfather. He was also able to confirm that James did have a small brick kiln in the bay.
Fun in the Sun
area today is made up of three different zones – residential (Island Bay),
defence (Onetaunga Bay) and recreational (Fitzpatrick Bay, Soldiers Bay and
Kendall Bay). In 1888 Governor William
Jervois permanently reserved for the purpose of recreation 133 acres of land
(allotment 162 and 163) in the Parish of Takapuna. It had been his hope that the area was turned
into a national park, a place of tranquillity for Aucklanders. This was the
area from Kendall Bay to the eastern end of Fitzpatrick Bay. In 1913 the Harbour Board acquired a further
forty-two acres which included Kauri Point (allotment 164) which had previously
been owned by Sir John Logan Campbell until his death in 1912. Further to this the area around Fitzpatrick
and Soldiers Bay were then added to the park in 1916. An article in the New Zeland Herald in 1916
stated that the reserve had a fine waterfront and had in the past had been much
used as a camping and picnic ground. It
also mentions a ‘good five roomed house’, our first mention of what was to be
known as the caretakers’ house.
An article from 1900 also in the New Zealand
Herald also mentions how the Kauri Point Domain board had agreed to allow
campers for a small fee. Interestingly
they also denied a request for funds for a wharf. Reading through multiple articles the request
for a wharf in the area is one which is constantly brought up, eventually a
wharf was constructed but not at Fitzpatrick’s or Soldiers Bay but at Onetaunga
Bay and it was paid for and built without the help of the board or their funds.
a new era for this inner harbour landscape; each of the small bays were
transformed in the summer months as families from the city side would spend the
warmer days living under canvas. In the 1920s and 1930s there were seven or
eight families holidaying at Kendall Bay, their camp was at the western end of
the bay where there is a level space and a freshwater stream. At Fitzpatrick’s the camp site was at the
northern end of the bay on the grassy area above the beach. Unlike elsewhere this part of the reserve was
owned by the Birkenhead Borough Council from 1929 who improved it and put in
place a caretaker.
recorded caretaker was a William Henry Rickwood who lived in small house with
his family on the hill above Fitzpatricks.
Oral histories record how Williams’ wife would keep a small store
selling sweets, soft drinks and other useful supplies. There was also a ‘ponga-house’ where Mrs
Rickwood would provide hot water and often sold tea and scones to the visitors. There is very little that remains of this
house today, just a level area with an overgrown collection of European garden
plants such as figs and a rambling rose.
However, there is evidence of both the campers and the caretakers in
form of the rubbish they were throwing away.
Often along the bay sherds of old ceramics dating from the late 1800s to
the mid-1930s can be found, undoubtedly there is a European midden that has
eroded onto the beach.
As well as the tent sites at Kendall
Bay, there were other camping places, near the wharf at Onetaunga Bay and at
Fitzpatricks bay which is the beach at the present Kauri Point Domain. Pre-World War Two and back through the
Depression years, tents appeared each summer for a back-to-nature holiday by
bush and sea. Much of the housework was
left behind at home and there was no problem keeping the children amused. There
were good sandy beaches and the harbour water was clear and clean in those days
before the march of suburbia. (From a pamphlet of remembrances celebrating twenty years of
Kauri Point Centennial Park, available in the Birkenhead Library).
whilst listed as residential today was up until the construction of the Harbour
Bridge mainly a summer town, full of bachs occupied only in the summer by
families from across the water in the city. Unlike the other bays the land
around Island Bay was owned by a land development company, being subsequently
subdivided and sold off. However,
because of issues of transport and roads only a few of the blocks were
permanently occupied. Newspapers from
the early 1900s often have articles describing summer outings by the Ponsonby
Yacht Club to Soldiers Bay and area.
chapter in the history of land use in our area is that of defence. Just prior to the Second World War in 1935
ninety acres of the Kauri Point Domain was taken for defence purposes. The area of Onetaunga Bay (once Quarryman’s
Bay) was developed for a storage facility for naval armaments. This unfortunately put paid to those carefree
summer campers who no longer came in the large numbers, the caretaker at Fitzpatrick’s
was still Mr Rickwood in 1938, as listed in the Wises Directory, but with the
outbreak of WWII everything changed.
In 1942 the
Americans had arrived in response to the Japanese threat in the South Pacific.
Kauri Point Domain, Fitzpatrick’s bay included, were given over to the Americans
and a large number of powder magazines were built. There are several unusual features on the
beach at Fitzpatrick’s Bay, which may relate to these days.
After the war the Domain reverted to being parkland but never again were campers allowed back to any of the bays. Today the Naval depot forms a large wedge between Kauri Point Domain and Kauri Point Centennial Park.
This article was originally written several years ago for the ‘Mythology Magazine’ which is now defunct. My intention when writing this was to look at some of the myths and legends associated with the colonisation of the Pacific so please do bear in mind this is not an academic treatise on this subject (that is a far too large a subject for a simple blog…).
The islands of the
Pacific Ocean were one of the last places in the world to be colonised by
people. The how, when and why has
occupied archaeologists, anthropologists, linguists and historian for decades. For the European scientist these questions
need to be answered with solid evidence backing them. For the indigenous populations tradition told
them all they needed to know, the myths and legends providing all that was
needed by the way of explanation.
New Zealand, Hawaii and
Easter Island were the last landmasses to be colonised in the Pacific. These first peoples were at the end of a long
line of ancestors whose collective knowledge fuelled their ability and desire
to travel across vast tracts of ocean.
The Pacific region is made up of three distinct areas – Melanesia,
Micronesia and Polynesia. The first area
to have been settled by people was Melanesia; it consists of Vanuatu, Papua New
Guinea, Fiji, the Solomon Islands, the Bismarck Archipelago and New Caledonia. Dates for the first colonisation range
between some 50-30,000 years ago their ancestors originating from South East
Asia. Micronesia is situated north of
the Melanesian group and is made up of groups of islands including Kiribati,
Nauru, Marshall Islands (to name a few) and the US territories of Guam,
Northern Mariana Island and Wake Island.
Evidence for the settlement of this region is difficult to pin down; the
earliest archaeological evidence comes from the island of Saipan and is dated
to around 3500 years ago. The third
group of islands is Polynesia which covers a wide part of the Pacific. Generally speaking New Zealand, Hawaii and
Easter Island form the corners of a triangle within which all other islands sit
and are referred to as Polynesia.
The ancestors of the Polynesians
migrated from South East Asia a little later than the settlers of Micronesia,
passing through some parts of Micronesia and Melanesia, but rarely settling for
long. Fiji is an interesting case, as in
many ways it straddles the line between Melanesia and Polynesia. When the ancestors of the Polynesians arrived
in Fiji there was already a decent sized population and had been for
millennia. Yet today the visitor to Fiji
will see a multitude of faces, some are distinctly Melanesian looking (mainly
in the eastern islands) and others look more Polynesian. Fiji in many ways was a jumping off point for
the exploration further west, the next islands to be settled were Samoa and
Tonga, both of which are not a great distance from Fiji. These early explorers are known as Lapita
people based on a distinctive type of pottery found on the archaeological sites.
“All island groups in island Melanesia and West Polynesia that lie in a south-east direction have Lapita settlements. None of these settlements have been found on other islands.” (G. Irwin. Pacific Migrations – ancient voyaging in Near Oceania. Te Ara: The Encylcopedia of New Zealand.)
These people were
exploring the region from as early as 3500 years ago (evidence found at the
Bismarcks) and by 3000 years ago were already as far as Samoa and Tonga. The archaeology tells us these were small
groups who travelled fast and light, they established only a few permanent
villages on each major island group and then they moved on. At this time the distinctive Polynesian
culture began to emerge in the west and by 2000 years ago people had begun to
move into the eastern part of the region.
By 700AD the majority of Polynesia had been settled with the last
migrations being to New Zealand, Hawaii, Easter Island and South America (the
only evidence for South America is the presence of the ‘kumara’ or sweet
potato, radiocarbon dates from kumara found in the Cook Islands indicate that
Polynesians had reached South America and returned by 1000AD at the latest).
All well and good you
might say, but what has this to do with the mythology of the region? To study the past of this region it is
important to not only use all those scientific tools we have at our disposal
but also use the traditional knowledge, stories and myths to provide a greater
depth of understanding. In Polynesia
there are many stories which have a commonality suggesting a shared ancestry.
In much of eastern Polynesia Hawaiki (the Maori name) does not refer to the islands we know as Hawaii but to a mythical land where the ancestors journeyed from – an ancient homeland. In New Zealand nearly all the Maori have traditions of such a voyage, in the Marquesas it called Havai’i, in the Tuamotus it is Havaiki and in the Cook Islands the ancient homeland is referred to as Avaiki. Not only is Hawaiki the ancient homeland but it is also a place where a persons spirit would go after death. The main island of the Hawaii group is so named because it is the site of two volcanoes which were regarded as a place of great supernatural importance and the home of the gods. Similarly the island of Ra’iatea in the Society Islands was previously known as Havai’i and it too has a volcano on it (albeit a extinct one) believed to be the entrance to the underworld and the home of the gods.
In Maori myth Hawaiki is in the east – the direction of the rising sun and the stars which bring the changing seasons. Thus it is not surprising that Hawaiki was associated with life, fertility and success. It is said that the first human life was created from the soil of Hawaiki by Tane (or sometimes Tiki). It is the place of highly valued resources such as the kumara which is said to grow wild there – this is interesting in itself because if you travel directly eastwards from New Zealand you will (eventually) land in South America, the homeland of the sweet potato.
“When the ancestors arrived in their waka, they brought with them many treasured plants and birds, also important atua and ritual objects such as mauri. In one way and another, Hawaiki was the ultimate source of the mana of all these. The crops flourished, the gods exerted their powers, the mauri ensured continuing fertility of the resources they protected, because of their origin in Hawaiki.” (M.Orbell 1995 Maori Myth and Legend)
The veneration of the east – many rituals are conducted facing east – is unusual for Polynesia and has led some to make the dubious suggestion that New Zealand was settled by people from South America. More recent studies have demonstrated that the first voyagers would have taken a south-west trajectory from either the Cook Islands or the Society Islands in order to land on the east coast of New Zealand. Over time it would seem this navigational knowledge was amalgamated with the traditions of an ancient homeland.
In other parts of eastern
Polynesia Hawaiki is in the west or sometimes even in the sky and in western
Polynesia it is called by another name – Pulotu, a word that can be
linguistically traced into Micronesia.
It is interesting to note that the largest island that forms part of
Samoa (western Polynesia) is called Savai’i and is a land associated in
tradition with many supernatural goings on.
Hawaiki was not only the land where the ancestors came from but also a
place of spirits, a place where the myths came into being.
As time went on many of these stories would become absorb into local tradition with familiar places becoming the setting to the story. Thus the story of Maui who fished up the islands can be found everywhere in Polynesia. In New Zealand it is said that the North Island was a giant stingray fished up out of the sea by Maui using his magic hook (the hills and valleys of the land are a result of his brothers greed when they hacked at the fish). On the tiny atolls of Manikihi and Rakahanga it is believed that these islands are all that remains of a single land which broke apart when Maui leapt from it into the heavens. In Hawaii tradition tells of the islands being a shoal of fish and how Maui enlists the help of Hina-the-bailer to bring the shoal together with his magic hook to form one mass. Maui hauled on the line, instructing his brothers to row without looking back, which of course they did, this resulted in the line breaking and the islands become separated for all time. In the Tuamotaus Maui and his brothers are once more fishing far from land, once more he has a magic hook and once more he pulls up an island but because his brothers did not listen to Maui the giant fish/island broke apart and became the land the Tuamotua people refer to as Havaiki, where Maui and his family reside.
Maui is one of the most
well known of Polynesian deities, found in the stories throughout the region he
is often known as a trickster, part god and part human. He was of a time when the world was still new
and there much to do to make it bearable for people. Maui is said to be responsible for raising
the skies, snaring the sun, fishing up lands, stealing fire, controlling the
winds and arranging the stars. On the
island of Yap in Micronesia a demi-god figure called Mathikethik went fishing
with his two elder brothers, he also had a magic hook and on his first cast
brought up all sorts of crops, in particular taro, an island staple. On his second cast he brought up the island
of Fais. The similarities here with
Polynesian Maui are obvious and once again we can get a tantalising glimpse of
past movements of people.
Other characters common
to the stories of the Polynesia from Samoa in the west to Hawaii in the east
include Hina, said to be both the first woman and a goddess who is the guardian
of the land of the dead; Tinirau whose pet whale was murdered by Kae; Tawhaki
who visited the sky and Rata whose canoe was built by the little people of the
forest and was a great voyager and Whakatau the great warrior.
“…on every island the poets, priests and narrators drew from the same deep well of mythological past which the Polynesians themselves call the The Night of Tradition. For when their ancestors moved out from the Polynesian nucleus they carried with them the the knowledge of the same great mythological events, the names of their gods and of their many demi-gods and heroes. As time passed the Polynesian imagination elaborated and adapted old themes to suit fresh settings, and new characters and events were absorbed into the mythological system.” (R. Poignant 1985 Oceanic and Australasian Mythology).
Of course none of this
addresses the question of why. Why did
the first people leave their homelands and explore into the vast ocean,
particularly to places like New Zealand, South America, Easter Island and
Hawaii? What motivated them? The myths do in some way suggest possible
reasons, these are stories people would have heard over and over again as they
grew into adulthood. Stories of great
adventurers, of those who dared to do the impossible and it does seem that much
of the early migration was a result of simple human curiosity. Prestige and mana could be gained by person
willing to find new lands. In the places
they originally came from there was no food shortage and in some instances even
once they had discovered a new island, they would move on leaving but only a
small population behind. In the
traditions there are also stories told of people being banished and having to
find new places to live, in addition there are stories of battles lost and
people fleeing retribution. These too
could well be another window into the motivation behind Oceanic migration.
On their own the mythologies
of the Pacific cannot provide us with more than a unique insight into the mindset
of the peoples considered to be some of the greatest explorers of the past but when
combined with genetics, linguistics and archaeology it gives us the ability to
answer those questions of how, when and why.
Irwin G (2012) ‘Pacific
Migrations – Ancient Voyaging in Near Oceania’ Te Ara: The Enclyclopedia of New Zealand.
Ratzel F & Butler A J
(1869) History of Mankind
Poignant R (1985) Oceanic and Australasian Mythology
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.
A reconstruction drawing of how a courtyard house such as those found at Chysauster might have been roofed.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
Holidaying in the UK in winter can be rather satisfying. Mainly because you don’t have to contend with the vast crowds which are usual in the warmer months at popular spots. One such place was the Roman bath complex in Bath, here we were able to meander around the buildings and displays without being jostled by eager tourists trying to capture the perfect selfie. This physical space allowed the imagination a chance to wander the halls of time. A multitude of questions and possible scenarios playing out in my minds eye and so ‘A Roman Moon’ was born.
Bath complexes in the Roman period were not simply places to wash and clean the body but also places to meet, socialise, to be seen and make those all important contacts. At the Roman town of Aquae Sulis (Bath) the baths rose to prominence from the late first century AD as a result of the natural hot springs which were a feature of the landscape and worshipped for many generations prior to the arrival of the Romans.
As with so many aspects of the Iron Age/Celtic landscape of the time, the natural springs here had its own diety who was recorded by the Romans with the name of Sulis. The Romans were very good at adopting and blending local cultures with their own as part of their overall colonisation package. For the Romans the local goddess Sulis had much in common with one of their own – Minerva. Thus the hot springs became dedicated to the amalgamated goddess of Sulis Minerva.
The success of Aquae Sulis (even the towns name pays homage to the goddess – ‘the waters of Sulis’) is down to it also being a place of pilgrimage. People from all around would come to the town to make offerings or petitions to the goddess. One such method to ensure the goddess knew what was required was to write a message on a sheet of lead. For this purpose a trained scribe would be employed. Once the wording was just so the lead sheet was folded or rolled and then thrown into the sacred spring – a number of these have been recovered from the spring, mostly they were curses for relatively small wrong doings.
As well as the lead sheets, other gifts were found during excavations. Thousands of coins (and even today people throw coins into the spring), jewellery, pewter dishes and cups usually inscribed with a dedication to Sulis Minerva. The cups may have been used to drink the waters (as we continue to do so today) or as libation vessels. The belief in the healing powers of the spring waters was an important part of the towns fame.
Besides Sulis Minerva there were within the temple complex depictions of other deities.
The rituals in Roman religion took place mostly outdoors, the temples buildings were often small affairs where only the priests or priestesses would be allowed to enter. Public ceremonies would have been conducted outside in the surrounding precinct. Within the precinct there would have been altars dedicated to the diety set up by individuals in anticpation of a divine favour or to give thanks, these would have been decorated in offerings of all kinds or with bowls of incense.
“The temple, in its original late first century form, was a purely classical building set on a high podium reached by a steep flight of steps. Its porch was dominated by four massive Corinthian columns supporting an ornate pediment. Behind lay a simple room, the cella, where only priests could enter to tend the flames kept burning around the life-sized cult statue of Sulis Minerva” (from ‘The Essential Roman Baths” – a guidebook).
The above is a selection of the numerous altar stones and memorials found in the Roman layers during excavations.
The complex at Aquae Sulis was quite extensive – with facilities for men and women to bath seperately which was rare and spoke volumes about the wealth of the town. At the heart of the complex is the Great Bath, a rectangular swimming bath surrounded by a walkway with alcoves for people to sit and relax in. The bath itself was and still is lined with 45 sheets of Mendip lead.
The complex at Aquae Sulis was quite extensive – with facilities for men and women to bath seperately which was rare and spoke volumes about the wealth of the town. At the heart of the complex is the Great Bath, a rectangular swimming bath surrounded by a walkway with alcoves for people to sit and relax in. The bath itself was and still is lined with 45 sheets of Mendip lead.
The above shows a reconstruction picture of how the town may have looked at its height based upon what has been discovered through various archaeological excavations. In “A Roman Moon” astute readers will note that I did away with the amphitheatre, replacing it with a Forum. Why? Well, to begin with the evidence for an amphitheatre is at this stage is quite thin on the ground and I am sure that a town of such importance would have had a Forum. In addition, you can also put it down to the authors whim, a bit of ‘literary licence’.
The river running beside the town is the Avon, known then as Afon which is Welsh for river (amusingly making the name of the River Avon, the River River)…
I hope you can see why the ancient town of Aquae Sulis inspired me to write ‘A Roman Moon’ – from the presence of Luna, the triple goddess and the sacred spring all play a part in Sarah’s story.
I do try to keep this blog as a place to air my interest in archaeology and the history, as well as a place to share with you some of the interesting places I have visited. However, there is no getting away from the fact that all of these things have inspired me to write three novels (so far…). Each of ‘The Adventures of Sarah Tremayne’ are set within a time and place which for many reasons has grabbed my attention.
The latest novel A Roman Moon is no different. A couple of years ago I visited the town of Bath, it was not my first visit, but it was a visit that got my imagination fired up and I just knew Sarah had to go there. But before that she needed a companion and where was she to meet that companion? Well, as it happens she meets him in a place now known as Weston-Super-Mare. This may seem an odd choice but my family history with this Victorian seaside town goes back a way. It is the town where my parents met, where my grandmother lived for many years and where I visited many times. The story of the hillfort at Worlebury, the small temple on Brean Down, the Roman road at Uphill and the possibility of a Roman period settlement beneath the old technical college all shouted at me to be included in the story.
And so A Roman Moon was given a context, a place and a time – then I needed a friend, a foe (or two) and a healthy dose of fear…
So, if you fancy given this third book a chance they are available in print or ebook form at the below links. Thanks for reading!
EBook (or you can get it from your preferred ebook retailer)
PS – if you enjoyed reading any of my novels I would really appreciate a review
“Fear stalks the cobbled streets of Aquae Sulis. It is the third century AD and Aquae Sulis epitomises a Roman town on the edge of an Empire. But it is no ordinary town. At its heart lies the sacred spring venerated long before the Romans arrived. Here the native goddess, Sulis and the Roman goddess, Minerva have melded to become one. Worshipped by all, the goddess, the sacred spring and the Great Baths bring peace and prosperity to the town. That is, until a Brother of the Dark arrives and spies an opportunity to create chaos currying favour with his dark Master. Now fear, suspicion and death haunt the shadows. The goddess is under attack. Meanwhile in the twenty-first century, Sarah Tremayne is enjoying a weekend away at the seaside town of Weston-Super-Mare with her Nan and Brad the Dog when ‘IT’ happens again. To return home Sarah must travel to the besieged town of Aquae Sulis, face the evil lurking in the darkness, defeat the Brotherhood (again) and not fall for her handsome bodyguard, Belator. All of which is easier said than done. Join Sarah on her third journey as a Daughter of the Moon (Mhyres-an-Loor) as she faces her biggest trial yet”.
Avebury – the largest stone circle in Europe. It is an easy platitude and just as easily the visitor can wander around the giant stones, exclaiming, wondering why and who built the circle. Then with equal ease get back in their car/tour bus, tick it off the bucket list and move on. However, stop for a moment, look around, peruse the maps and the visitor will see Avebury sits within landscape full of engimatic archaeological sites – West Kennet long barrow and Avenue, Silbury Hill, Windmill Hill, the Sanctuary to name a few. Avebury, the largest stone circle in Europe is but a single element of a much wider sacred landscape.
In fact the Avebury landscape can lay claim to having the largest human constructed mound in Europe (Silbury Hill); the largest long barrow in Britian (West Kennet); one of the largest settlement sites of the earlier Neolithic in Britian (Windmill Hill) and the remains of the longest known avenue of standing stones in Britian (West Kennet Avenue). It would be easy to think that the people of Neolithic Avebury had something to prove but that would be putting modern thoughts of competition into a mindset many thousands of years old.
But lets not jump the gun, first consider what came before the Neolithic and then look at each of the sites individually.
Hunter gatherers in Avebury
To date no single site has been discovered which can be dated to the Mesolithic. In fact the hunter gatherer forebears of Avebury offer up very little in the way of evidence to say ‘we were here’. At the most, isolated findspots of flint tools are known and even these are sparse with just over thirty being recorded. However as many a archaeological lecturer will point out ‘absence of evidence does not equal evidence of absence’.
“As a landscape it is not necessarily empty of significance. There is plentiful ethnographic evidence to show how hunter-gatherer communities invest landscapes with symbolic, mythical and narrative meanings” (Pollard J & Reynolds A ‘Avebury. The Biography of a Landscape’ 2002).
Whilst it might not be obvious to modern eyes the positioning of sites in the earlier Neolithic may well be based on long term community memories, stories and myths which stretch back into the Mesolithic. The simple passing of time reinforcing the importance of place.
Windmill Hill was in use long before the Avebury of today was constructed and is one of a group of early Neolithic monuments known collectively as causewayed enclosures. Numerous examples are known across Britain and although they vary in size and geography there defining feature are the concentric rings of ditches with multiple ’causeways’.
“As the earliest recorded monuments designed to enclose open space, causewayed enclosures represent an unprecedented phenomenon in the archaeological record of the British Isles. The deliberate deposition of artefacts and other cultural material into features dug into the ground represents another important new departure. The creation of the monuments – especially the initial act of defining a place as seperate from the outside world – has therefor increasingly been stressed as a key aspect of their function.”
(Oswald A, Dyer C & Barber M ‘The Creation of Monuments: Neolithic Causewayed Enclosures in the British Isles’ 2001 English Heritage).
Windmill Hill consists of three concentric rings of ditches first dug between 3700-3500BC with a total area of around eight hectares. Within the Avebury area there are a further two similar but less well known enclosures dating to this early Neolithic phase – Knap Hill and Rybury. Windmill Hill has been excavated on several occasions beginning in the late 1920s by Alexander Keiller. Further excavations occured in 1957, 1958 and 1988.
The artefacts found during these excavations represent what can be seen as a microcosm of early Neolithic life. The large quantity of animal bones (mainly cattle) and over twenty thousand pottery sherds represent the importance of raising stock as well as food production and consumption, perhaps in the form of feasting. The one hundred thousand pieces of worked flint; worked sarsen stone; chalk artefacts; antler tools, human bone and axes made of non-local stone represent other aspects of exchange and manufacture; human interactions with the living and the dead.
Beyond the artefacts there is the enclosure itself – for the first time areas of the landscape are being seperated out from their surroundings. Whilst we cannot say for certain it is possible that Windmill Hill was already a place with special meaning and the bounding of the land gave the activities which occured here a greater significance. Evidence demonstrates that Windmill hill was not occupied all year round, most likely from spring to autumn.
“By providing a focus for people to come together on specific occasions, the creation and re-creation of the monuments may have helped to confirm links between groups and individuals, simultaneously establishing a place of lasting significance to all.” (ibid)
The importance of causewayed enclosures such as Windmill Hill should not be underestimated. Windmill Hill provides a point of origin for the development of the later ritual landscape all too evident in the Avebury area.
Long Barrows are another type of site which belong to the pre-Avebury stone circle phase and the early Neolithic. Consisting of trapezoidal or rectangular mounds of earth, turf and chalk. There are two types, megalithic or those with stone chambers and non-megalithic or earthen long barrows.
Looking down the megalithic passage.
One of the side chambers.
West Kennet is but one of fourteen long barrows known within a three mile radius of Avebury and is dated to around 3700BC – West Kennet however, is the longest (at 100m long) and the only one in the area which can be easily visited today. Belonging to a group known as the Cotswold-Severn type it was first excavated in 1859 and then in the late 1950s. It consists of five stone chambers connected by stone corridor at its eastern end. The chambers extend twelve metres into the mound and are fronted by an elaborate facade.
Human remains were found in all five chambers, which would definitely suggest a funerary function for the site. Initially these were placed in the chambers as whole bodies but over time these were moved around, re-organised and in some cases completely removed (perhaps finding their way to the ditches of Windmill Hill and the like). After the final internments and over several hundred years the chambers were filled in with chalk rubble, pottery debris, animal bones, bone beads, stone, shell and worked flint. Within and on top of this fill other human bones were discovered, mainly of children and most dating to a later period of around 3300BC. There were ten seperate and distinct layers suggesting that this was a deliberate act and not random.
As a final act in the late third millenium BC a facade of three large sarsen stones was built across the forecourt effectively blocking access into the tomb – this act was contemporary with the main stone phase of Avebury; “…closing the monument and marking the end of ‘an older tradition focussed on ancestors and the past'” (Pollard J & Reynolds A ‘Avebury: The Biography of a Landscape” 2002).
Avebury is approximately 420 metres in diameter and encloses around 11.5 hectares. The bank is on the outside of the ditch and there are four entrances (SSE, WSW, NNW and ENE). The ditch today is four to five metres deep but originally it would have been ten to fourteen metres deep and although grassed over today when first dug the walls of the ditch would have gleamed white, a very obvious feature within the landscape. Contained within the ditch and bank is the largest stone circle in Britain and although many are now missing, it has been estimated that originally there would have been between 95-100 stones around the circumference of the ditch. The largest blocks flank the southern and northern entrances making the route into the centre sinous and not straightforward. At the northern entrance stands a huge stone sometimes referred to as the Diamond Stone and it weighs in at around sixty tonne. Up until the eighteenth century a taller straighter partner stood on the opposite side. The stones are sarsen, a hard grey sandstone with quartz grains. When freshly cut the stones would of looked very different to what they do today.
One of the most influential people in the recent history of Avebury was Alexander Keiller who undertook many of the excavations in the area during the 1930s and resurrected thirty six of the current stones. When he first bought the land only fifteen of the stones remained upright.
Within the larger circle there are two further smaller circles situated on the saddle of a crest over which the entire monument is situated. In their original form each circle would have had around 25-30 stones and a diameter of approximately 100 metres. In the centre of this were two further monuments referred to as the Cove and the Obelisk. The latter no longer exists but we know of due to William Stukeley who describes it as a pillar 5.5-6 metres high. The Cove are a box like setting of three stones of which only two still remain. In addition, fifteen metres to the west is a thirty two metre long row of nine small reddish stones; roughly half way between the southern small circle and the outer circle is another standing stone referred to as the Ring stone as it is naturally perforated. An aerial survey in 1995 identified numerous parchmarks which may represent more stones.
The smaller northern stone circle
The stone row
Further aerial work, geophysical survey and excavation have identified other features not of stone but of timber and earth. Not much can be said of these features in terms of character and date but it is likely some may be contemporary with Neolithic Avebury. For example, excavations in 1939 at the southern entrance uncovered a substantial 1 metre deep posthole suggesting a pre stone phase of timber posts. In the 1980s geophysical survey suggested the existence of multiple timber circle in the north-east quadrant about forty metres in diameter.
One notable feature of Avebury is the relative lack of prehistoric artefacts. When they are found during excavation they appear to be related to the earliest phases of the monument or its construction. The latter are often referred to as depositional deposits such as the antler picks used to dig the ditch which when the ditch was finished were then deposited on the base, in the primary fill and in the bank.
“We should avoid thinking of the construction of a monument like Avebury as a pragmatic process, as though the sanctity of the site was something conferred upon it once building was complete (not that for much of its early life is ever was). The process of digging ditches, creating banks, dragging in and erecting stones, of ‘altering the earth’, was fundamentally significant in itself – a direct intervention into nature and the cosmos. Indeed, the act of building may have been of as much significance as any completed project.” (Pollard J & Reynolds A ‘Avebury The Biography of a Landscape’)
Other deposits are found in stone holes or around stones, although only in some parts of the circle. For example, excavations of the southern Inner Circle found a concentration of worked flint particularly around the Obelisk. The south-west sector by comparison was almost clean of artefacts. In the north-west quadrant a variety of artefacts were recovered including sherds of Grooved Ware, human and animal bone, flint flakes, fragments of axes and sandstone implements. Much of this material appears to have been brought in from elsewhere and some are even older than the date deposition.
Of course, all of this is very interesting but what was it used for? Which is of course a million dollar question…interpretations vary and as more research is conducted and more information comes to light so the interpretations change or are tweaked.
The variety of theories include rituals to celebrate certain times of the year; death; transitional periods within life; making contact with the ancestors or the supernatural. Such activities may have been perceived to be dangerous times and hence the act of enclosing the site kept the people safe. Francis Pryor has suggested that the bank outside the ditch allowed people to witness the activities in the interior but at the same time excluded them by the presence of the ditch. The lack of artefacts inside the circle also suggests that this was not a space for just anybody to occupy.
“In one form or another Avebury succeeded the earlier enclosure to the north on Windmill Hill. Both were locations for the periodic gatherings of large numbers of people; these gatherings involved the deliberate burial of artefacts, animal and human remains (though on a much reduced scale at Avebury); at both sites people were involved in a dialogue with spiritual and supernatural agencies…Avebury is more formalised in terms of architecture, and more restricted in terms of how it could be entered and encountered than Windmill Hill – it is less inclusive. But, like Windmill Hill, Avebury also incorporated references to the wider Neolithic social world and surrounding landscape.” (Pollard J & Reynolds A – Avebury. The biography of a landscape.)
Most recently news has come to light of an unusual feature within the centre of the southern inner circle. A research team led by the University of Leicester and University of Southhampton found a series of stone holes which formed a square shaped monument around the now lost Obelisk. Although currently undated, it has been suggested that this may be the oldest part of the entire site and may even be a form of dedication to an even earlier house structure. Only excavation will answer these questions and once again our understanding of this site will need re-evaluating. The team also found evidence for short lines of stones which radiated out from the square to edge of the inner circle.
In the later part of the Neolithic another type of megalithic monument emerged in the landscape – the Avenues. Leading from the henge at Avebury were two double lines of megalithic stones, one heading from the southern entrance – the West Kennet Avenue; the second heading from the western entrance – the Beckhampton Avenue. Of the two only the West Kennet can be easily walked today.
Both avenues are similar in construction – each are around fifteen metres wide and consist of paired of sarsen blocks that have not been modified. The stones are set every 20 – 30 metres and are around 1.5 – 3 metres tall. The West Kennet leads to the site known as the Sanctuary on Overton Hill and is made up of around one hundred stones. It has been suggested that the avenues were not laid out in one go but were constructed in a series of stages. Dating of the avenues has been relatively problematic due the ‘clean’ nature of the sites, although the Beckhampton Avenue is regarded as being the later monument – but not by much. The current date range is between c.2600-2300BC.
The full length of the Beckhampton Avenue is not yet known and was first recorded by William Stukeley in the 1720s and even then it was in a very sorry state. By the nineteenth century only two stones remained upright known as the Longstones (or Adam and Eve). For many years there was some doubt as to what Stukeley recorded but excavations in 1999 and 2000 proved the presence of the avenue and an associated Cove at the Longstones. This area of the Beckhampton avenue underwent a series of changes and readjustments overtime eventually ending with a box shaped setting of stones forming a terminal end to the Avenue.
In regards to purpose it is fair to say that the avenues represent a need to prescribe particular pathways of movement and approach to and from Avebury. It has also been suggested that the processional ways are all about social grading – someone is always in the lead whilst others must follow. In addition, the movement through the landscape also serves as a form of remembrance – linking significant places of cultural memory together.
“At another level, the avenues transformed a landscape of scattered monuments and significant places into a unified complex that was to be approached, read and understood in a very particular way.” (Pollard & Reynold ibid).
As mentioned above the Sanctuary is connected to Avebury via the West Kennet Avenue. Located on the southern spur of Overton Hill it is a complex monument which began life as a circle of timber posts roughly twenty metres in diameter, later becoming a larger double stone circle monument. Although our understanding of the constructional history is not complete it does seem as if many of the timber posts remained in situ during the construction of the stone circles and beyond. Giving an image of a ‘confusing mass of posts’ in both timber and stone. Today the site is marked by two rings of low concrete posts. In the 1720s the field was taken under the plough and the stone removed.
However, it’s importance must not be underestimated. With commanding views along the Kennet valley, the long barrows at East and West Kennet are visible as is Windmill Hill. In addition, there is a long history of activity on the site stretching back into the fourth millenium BC. The most predominant artefact type found on site is flint knapping debris and animal bone, although finds of pottery and human bone were also found as formalised deposits.
Thirty seven metres high, thirty metres across at the top and five hundred metres around the base – Silbury Hill is the largest prehistoric human made mound in Europe and probably the most enigmatic too. It sits on the valley floor close to where the River Kennet rises at the Swallowhead Springs. It seems the construction of the site began around 2400BC although an end date is even less certain. Many attempts have been made to tunnel in to see if anything lies inside and as of yet nothing has been found. Work in 2007 suggests that the mound grew as a result of many small events, giving an image of pilgrimage.
As to its purpose, well…
There are of course many more monuments within the Avebury landscape – the West Kennet Enclosures; Knap Hill; barrows and other stone circles at places like Winterbourne Bassett – but unfortunately this blog post is already long enough. If you are interested then I do recommend reading Avebury. The Biography of a Landscape by Joshua Pollard and Andrew Reynolds. But most of all I do encourage you to get out and see these places for yourself – it is through experiencing the places of our past do we begin to get a glimmer of understanding.
The following are some online sites that may be of interest:
Stonehenge – a name that evokes a great many emotions in a great many people. For some it is a place of pilgrimage, a place to connect with the ancestors and for others it is seen as a tourist trap or something to tick off the bucket list. For centuries it has captured our imagination; never has a heritage site been so controversial – something which continues to this day. In this post it is not my intention to give a full on thesis about Stonehenge, there are plenty of books/websites who do this already. Instead it is simply an overview of what is currently understood about the site, its surrounding landscape and my own personal thoughts.
Stonehenge is situated on the Salisbury Plains, to the south is the busy A303, a main road between the south-west and London, and for many years the equally busy A344 ran alongside the site. This latter road was removed sometime ago to improve the visitors experience. Today there are ongoing discussions regarding the upgrading of the A303 and a proposed tunnel. It is a highly emotive subject, on one hand I understand the need to improve the road situation (ask anyone who is stuck in a traffic jam on the A303) but as an archaeologist I am also aware of the sensitive nature of the surrounding heritage landscape (and yes I am on the fence). Mike Pitts in his recent post discusses the pros and cons for those of you who are interested.
For the visitor today the focus is on the large stone circle with its trilithons, they marvel at how it could have been built by ‘primitive man’ often leading to suggestions of alien intervention and lost technologies. But such thoughts only serve to belittle our ancestors and our past. Others may ask why did our ancestors build Stonehenge? Often the answers are unimaginative and simple – sun-worship; display of power; ancient computer; druid temple – once more when we look only for one answer to a what is obviously a complicated site of great longevity we belittle their achievements. Instead if Stonehenge was understood in terms of the wider landscape and as a site whose history spanned several millenia we might come to some small understanding of how and why.
In today’s world of instant gratification where everything has a beginning and an end, it is hard to imagine beginning a project knowing you might not see it finished but this was a reality for the builders of Stonehenge. It has lead some to suggest that it was not the end product which was important but the doing, the act of building which was in fact the purpose. Suggesting a cyclical thought pattern which can be seen in other aspects of prehistoric life – round houses, stone circles, round barrows. in addition, time itself was most likely viewed in cycles, the phases of the moon and the movement of the seasons are all cyclical events which would have been of great importance to prehistoric people trying to make sense of their world.
“So was Stonehenge ever ‘finished’? The answer to that has to be no, because completion was never the intention of the people who created it.” (Pryor F. 2016 ‘Stonehenge: The Story of a Sacred Landscape).
It is well known that Stonehenge itself had many incarnations, perhaps meaning new and different things with each alteration or rebuild. To understand Stonehenge it is important to consider it in the wider context of the surrounding landscape (there are literally hundreds of prehistoric monuments around it) in all the different phases.
The Mesolithic Story
The story of the Stonehenge landscape begins back in the Mesolithic, ongoing recent excavations at Blickmead are providing archaeologists with tantalising clues as to why this area was important to our ancestors. The site is situated near a spring by the River Avon, excavations began in 2005 and almost immediately were fruitful. Basically, the deposits consisted of an array of Mesolithic settlement debris, mostly flint fragments (tens of thousands) but also a great number of animal bones. Interestingly, the site also yielded the largest collection of auroch bones ever found on a Mesolithic site in Britain so far. Other animals which were hunted and consumed included red deer, wild boar and salmon – this has led archaeologists to suggest that feasting was a common occurence around the spring. The spring itself is quite unusual as it has the tendency to stain flints and other materials a bright magenta pink – the importance of springs in later prehistory is well attested to.
In 1966 row of four large pit like features were found during upgrades to the old carpark close by Stonehenge. When excavated one was found to be a the root-hole of a tree and the other three were holes dugs to hold large poles. Examination of the material from these features gave a date range from between 8500 and 7000BC. The posts would have been approximately 75cm in diameter and were from pine trees. Later in 1988 another post-hole was discovered south and east of the original pits but it was contemporary.
So here we have a landscape already well populated by hunter-gatherer communities who revered certain natural features long before Stonehenge makes an appearance. A landscape which had meaning to the people who inhabit it; who had traditions and memories of place.
At around 3500BC (Neolithic) with the arrival of farming these communities and their traditions had evolved and more permenant features began to make an appearance on the landscape. Long barrows such as those at East and West Kennet or Winterbourne Stoke were the first to appear and by 3400BC the Stonehenge Cursus and Lesser Cursus was under construction.
3000BC – The first official phase of construction
In many parts of Britian at this time a new type of monument was being constructed, these were earthwork enclosures which are referred to as henges. They consist of irregular cut ditches encircling a defined area with corresponding banks. Stonehenge’s earliest phase was one such earthwork. Here there were two entrances one faced north-east and the other faced south. The north-easterly entrance remained in use for much of the sites lifetime and appears to be important to its function. The entrance is aligned along a line of natural gullies which face towards the midsummer sunrise in one direction and the midwinter sunset in the other.
These natural gullies would have been visible to the people of the Mesolithic and may have been why the large pine posts were erected where they were – the midsummer and midwinter solstices were just as important then as they were to the later prehistoric communities.
Inside the earthwork enclosure around the inner edge of the bank were fifty-six regularly spaced pits – these are now known as the Aubrey Holes. There is some discussion as to what they were or what they contained – small stone uprights or wooden posts? However, what is known is that eventually they did contain cremated human remains. Similar deposits have been found in the partly filled ditch and cut into the bank suggesting that at this stage in its history Stonehenge was used as a cemetary, among other things.
The Building of the Stone Monument
At around 2500BC Stonehenge began to resemble a site we are much more familiar with. It is at this time that the massive sarsen stones from the Marlborough Downs were moved to the site and erected. If that was not all at the same time the smaller but no less cumbersome, blue stones from the Preseli Mountains in Wales were transported and erected at Stonehenge. The Heel stone was moved to its current position and four smaller sarsen stones (the station stones) were erected inside the enclosure just inside the bank.
The first two diagrams above demonstrate one theory of how the trilithon stones were erected. The third diagram shows the sophistication of the construction, with each lintel fitting neatly into each other – borrowed from the Univeristy of Buckingham’s MOOC “Stonehenge”.
In a mere one hundred years it seems the two main structures of the trilithon horseshoe and the circle was completed. Interestingly it seems that greater care was taken in the shaping and construction of the stones visible from the north-east side and the main entrance. The bluestones were also erected at this time but not in the form we see today at Stonehenge. Excavation has shown us that there were two concentric arcs of stone holes, known as the Q and R holes were found on the north and east sides of the central area. It has been suggested that these were not representative of a complete circle as there is little to no evidence on the southern or western sides of corresponding holes.
2200BC – Consolidation and Alterations
From this time on Stonehenge underwent a series of minor alterations although the large sarsen stones remained in their positions although much later in the Bronze Age shallow carvings of axeheads and the occasional dagger were added. There are some 115 carvings and these have been dated stylistically to between 1750 and 1500BC.
The smaller bluestones however were rearranged and by 2200BC the incomplete circles were dismantled and repositioned to form a circle concentric to and just inside the circle of larger sarsen circle whilst a second oval of bluestones (spotted dolerite) was also formed within the trilithon setting. Later a number of stones were removed from the oval to form the horseshoe setting which is seen today.
At around the same time the ditch was recut and a small bank was constructed and the Avenue was constructed. This later feature follows the solstice alignment with ditches and banks for part of the way and then veers off to the east ending in a valley of the River Avon. Recent excavations at the place where the Avenue meets the River Avon have uncovered evidence for a previously unknown henge monument made up of bluestones. These were likely to have been removed to supplement the bluestones already at Stonehenge.
Surrounding the monument are significant numbers of round barrows dating from the Bronze Age, some of which contained rich burials with artefacts made of bronze, gold, jet and amber. Suggesting a society rather different from the one which was able to come together communally to construct Stonehenge and yet the place, the landscape and the site still had a powerful pull to these people – it is no different today…
Above are two of the many round barrows littering the landscape around Stonehenge.
The pictures above show a reconstruction of houses found during excavations at Durrington Walls which date to approximately the same time as when the main phase of construction at Stonehenge was underway. It is interesting to note the layout of the houses with the ‘dresser’ opposite the door and the beds to the right as you enter. This layout is reminiscent of house layouts at Skara Brae and later similar layouts are seen in Bronze Age roundhouses.
Stonehenge is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Britain; it evokes a variety of emotions; it is a British icon and yet so many people still only today see the stones. Yes they are impressive but there is so much more to their story than what you see. To really understand Stonehenge the curious need to look at the wider landscape and then look further again. Afterall, not too far away is the equally astounding landscape surrounding Avebury. What was the relationship between these two sacred landscapes? What can they tell us about the people who lived at the time? These landscapes were created by a people who viewed the world very differently to ourselves and carry a language, a dialogue that would have been obvious to those who lived in the Neolithic and even the Bronze Age. In our modern world where landscapes are viewed as places to use – either to make money or in terms of leisure pursuits – it is often hard for us to step back in time to view the landscape as living breathing entity without which we could not survive.
Stonehenge and its surrounding landscape undoubtedly meant many things to the people who occupied it (and probably those further afield too), the stones themselves were taken from the land and perhaps used to create a space where the natural world could be contained; where a semblance of control was maintained; where perhaps a balance was found between the natural world and the constructed world.
There are a great deal of books and websites which delve into the Stonehenge enigma in far greater detail. I have listed some of those below (browse Amazon for comprehensive lists). In particular I would like to recommend the free online course run by Buckingham University via Iversity (click here for more details).
Pryor F (2016) Stonehenge: The Story of a Sacred Landscape
Parker-Pearson M et al (2015) Stonehenge: Making Sense of Prehistoric Mystery
Parker Pearson M (2013) Stonehenge: Exploring the Greatest Stone Age Mystery
Bowden M et al (2015) The Stonehenge Landscape: Analysing the Stonehenge World Heritage Site.