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.
The original article from which this post comes from was first published in June 2014 for The Celtic Guide, a free to download magazine.
Water – it is life giving and for some life changing.It shows us a reflection of ourselves and without it we and all around us would cease to exist.It is essential to our being.Many cultures, past and present, have recognised this simple fact.For the ancient Egyptians it was from water that all creation began, in ancient Mesopotamia water was regarded as a symbol of absolute wisdom.In many situations water is given anthropomorphic qualities which are almost always female.Interpretations of the meaning behind the names for the Rivers Dee and Don in Scotland range from ‘the goddess’ to ‘the mother’.Identification with the female is common thread across the world’s cultures.
Today the most sacred river to Hindus is the river Ganges; it is worshipped as the goddess Ganga who descended from heaven to earth.To bathe in the waters of the Ganges is to wash away your sins; her waters are seen as both pure and purifying.It is also believed the Ganges flows in heaven, earth and the netherworld and is regarded as a crossing point of all beings, the living and the dead.Thus it is very desirable to have the ashes of a loved one scattered on the Ganges.This belief in the sanctity of the river, and all rivers, began early in Indian culture and has continued uninterrupted for several thousand years.
Heading far to the west and much closer to home, we arrive in Britain and ask ourselves was water important to our ancestors?The answer would be a definitive “Yes”.In fact, the importance of watery places in Britain’s past is a given for archaeologists and other like-minded individuals.There have over the years been numerous outstanding excavations and archaeological finds to back this up.
The relationship people had with water in both Britain and Irelands past can be seen as far back as the Neolithic.During this time people were beginning to make their mark on the landscape constructing sizable and (fairly) permanent monuments such as Stonehenge, Ness of Brodgar and New Grange.Such sites are usually part of a wider ‘sacred’ landscape, often surrounded by many other monuments of varying type and size but what is of interest to us here is their relationship to water.Thus the Stonehenge sacred landscape is bounded by the River Avon in the south and east, whilst New Grange and associated sites are nestled in what is known as the Bend in the Boyne (the river Boyne).The Ness of Brodgar, as well as a large number of other sites, in Orkney is situated on thin strip of land with the saltwater Loch of Stenness on one side and the freshwater Loch of Harry on the other.In this landscape there is very little to differentiate the water from the sky.
The reasons for the placement of such sites near rivers may never be fully understood but it is possible to say the symbolism is inherent but as Francis Pryor says in his book Britain BC (2003) “…it would be very easy to oversimplify our reading of that complex, layered symbolism that contained within it the shared histories of the people who created, nourished and guarded it.To say, for example, that water symbolised a soul’s journey to the next world is banal.It may have done – indeed it probably did – but it also marked boundaries in this world, and provided corridors along which people could move without crossing too many tribal frontiers.”
The Neolithic would have been a very alien world to our modern minds and trying to assess the symbolism of a natural phenomenon is fraught with numerous pitfalls.Regardless, it is important to take heed the role of waterways in Neolithic life.The lifestyle of the Neolithic would have been reasonably mobile, with people moving around the landscape following the seasons.
“Where people moved around the land, pathways between places would be emphasised, and monuments placed beside them.Given the scale of many Neolithic monuments, they may also have been placed at locales where groups were in closer proximity at certain times of the year.” (Barnatt J. ‘Monuments in the Landscape: Thoughts from the Peak’ Prehistoric Ritual and Religion. Eds. A Gibson and D. Simpson).
After the Neolithic we have the Bronze Age, a period heralded, as the name would suggest, by the appearance of metal objects (bronze, copper and gold) within the archaeological record.We also see an increasing (albeit gradual) degree of sedentary behaviour, with family type groups concentrating their activities at permanently laid out farms and fields.Many (but not all) of the monuments of the Bronze Age began to reflect this more localised behaviour with smaller monuments being built by these groups for their own use.The monuments are now found in all manner of landscapes and it would it appear that water is no longer of importance.However, excavations at sites such as Flag Fen, Lincolnshire and the finds from Duddington Loch, Edinburgh or the Rivers Thames, Trent or Witham to name a few all suggest that watery places were still of great ritual importance.
In the early days of discovery such finds were often attributed to accidental loss however the excavations at Flag Fen have seem to indicate the majority of the items deposited were done intentionally and with no desire to retrieve them.In 1984 Francis Pryor began excavating a post alignment at Flag Fen.It was 10m wide and consisted of five roughly parallel rows of posts.During the 1989 dig season the excavators began to find some unusual artefacts, some three hundred and twenty metal objects, mostly made of bronze and dating from the Bronze Age.Swords, daggers, jewellery, axe-heads, spearheads and pieces of a metal shield were amongst the artefacts uncovered.Interestingly every object had been deliberately damaged before being placed carefully into the water.The deliberate destruction of artefacts prior to deposition at Flag Fen is not an isolated example.
At Duddington Loch a number of bronze objects were found, mostly weapons, and once more all had been broken or burnt prior to deposition.Still in Scotland, Late Bronze Age swords were found in the River Tay and three Late Bronze Age shields were recovered from a bog in Yetholm, Roxburgshire.Another feature of Bronze Age deposition is its longevity, At Flag Fen and the bog sites of Ireland such as Dowris, Co. Offaly; Mooghaun, Co. Clare and the Bog of Cullen in Co. Tipperary deposition did not occur as a single event rather it was the result of many individual events over a number of years.In the case of the Irish bogs over two hundred bronze artefacts have been found, deposited over a number of years.
The tradition of deposition in watery places continues into the Iron Age. Still the weapons appear in rivers, for example, the Battersea Shield found in the River Thames, a horned helmet from under the Waterloo Bridge and the Witham Shield from the River Witham. An excavation at Fiskerton in Lincolnshire also discovered a causeway that led to Lindsey a significant patch of dry land which is essentially an island bounded by the rivers Humber and Trent to the north and east and the Witham and fens to the south.Here the archaeologists found swords, spearheads and other artefacts deposited into the wet ground.Interestingly it has been suggested that the deposits coincided with periods when the causeway was being rebuilt around the time of lunar eclipses.
Similar to the Bronze Age, the bogs and lakes of the west seem to be the place of choice for ritual deposition.The most well known is Llyn Cerrig Bach (originally a lake) in Anglesey.From here some one hundred and fifty objects were recovered.The finds from Lylyn Cerrig Bach are regarded as the most important collection of La Tene style metalwork in Britain to be found.The artefacts found included two slave chains, swords, spearheads, a bronze trumpet, cauldrons, iron bars, blacksmith tools and animal bones.Once more all had been deliberately broken and deposited over a long period of time, approximately from 300BC to 100AD.In fact there may have been a double whammy of sacredness here, as it has been suggested that islands represented sacred spaces because they were bounded by water on all sides.
This connection between water and the deposition of weapons is embodied by the later legends of King Arthur.In Malory’s version King Arthur instructs Sir Bedivere “…take thou Excalibur, my good sword, and go with it to yonder waterside, and when thou comest there I charge thee throw my sword in that water”.For some this could be regarded as a cultural memory, a continuation of a ritual performed by our ancestors for many generations.
But it is not only lakes and rivers that were important there were also the peat bogs.Finds from peat bogs are of a relatively common occurrence given the use of peat for fuel.Of course the most famous of all bog deposits are the human bodies. Bog bodies are well known in several European contexts for example, Tollund Man found in a Danish bog.However, there are also examples from Germany, Holland, Norway and Sweden.The tradition goes right back to the Mesolithic and culminates in the Iron Age and early Roman period.
One of the most dramatic discoveries in Britain was that of ‘Lindow Man’ found in a peat bog at Lindow Moss in Cheshire.The remains were of a young male (mid 20s) who had been violently killed from a blow to his head, strangled and a cut to his throat. A detailed examination of the remains suggests he was of a high status.His teeth were healthy, his nails manicured and his beard and moustache neatly trimmed, in addition there were none of the usual signs on the bones that he had ever done any heavy manual labour.Radiocarbon dating has his death and deposition at somewhere in the mid first century AD.
Many reasons for such a grisly deposition have been put forth, from murder and violent robbery to human sacrifice.Sacrifice in the Iron Age was well known and took many forms either as the sacrifice of an object, an animal or a person.
“The Celts did not love their deities; they made contracts with them as they did in their own society.By making offerings into pits, wells, springs, peat bogs and all watery places, no doubt with the solemn attendant ritual, the druids were in fact ‘binding’ the gods into making reciprocal gifts to mankind…” (A Ross ‘Ritual and Druids’ in The Celtic World ed M Green).
It would seem that the greater the ‘ask’ the greater the sacrifice.The Lindow man was deposited at a time of turmoil in Britain, northern England was not properly subjugated by the Romans until well into the first century AD, perhaps he represents a last ditch attempt by the Druids asking for the Gods intervention? Perhaps his grisly death is a reflection of ‘destroying’ an object before it is deposited into its watery grave? Throughout Britan and Ireland there have been almost two hundred documented cases of bodies found in bogs.Not all are dated to the Iron Age and not all can be given a ritual explanation.
Any discussion on the sacredness of watery places needs to include springs and wells. Unfortunately, the majority of springs have been tampered with, cleared out and utilised to such a degree in our history the evidence is very sparse indeed.Some prehistoric sites are associated with springs through proximity such as Swallowhead springs which is near the Neolithic monuments of Silbury Hill and West Kennet long barrow.However, the best preserved piece of evidence comes from the town of Bath.Here we have the very famous Roman baths based around the springs dedicated to the goddess Sulis Minerva.The impressive complex of baths and temples built by the Romans began some fifteen years after the Boudiccan rebellion.It does seem this was an attempt to do honour to a local deity – Sulis – by aligning it with one of the more significant Roman deities – Minerva.It is well recorded by the Romans the importance of this site to the local people.Thousands of coins of both Roman and Celtic type have been found in or near the hot springs in addition to many curse tablets of a Roman date.
This tradition of offerings to a spring or well continues into the modern day.Throwing a coin into a well to make a wish is a common practice as is the tradition of well dressing.Every summer throughout the counties of Britain wells are cleaned up and made pretty.The longevity of this practice is well attested, in 960 a canon was issued that expressly forbade the ‘worship of fountains’ and yet it could not be suppressed, eventually the church turned these pagan sites into Christian holy wells.In some cases the well or spring has a special tree nearby, a Clootie tree.The clootie is a piece of cloth that has been dipped in the spring’s water and then tied to the tree, after which a supplication is given to the saint or deity of the spring.Many of these springs are associated with healing, in some cases the clootie represents the ailment and it is believed that once it has perished then so will the ailment.
Clooties hanging on a tree by Madron Well – West Cornwall
Chapel Euny Holywell – West Cornwall. Photo by Frances Watt.
Furthermore it is not unusual for a church to be built near a sacred spring or well such as St Oswalds in Cumbria or at Golant in Cornwall. Some have even embraced the sacred well as is the case for St Winefride’s well in Holywell, Wales. In fact the overall sanctity continues well into the Christian era, monasteries can be found on islands (St Michael’s Mount or Lindisfarne) and many other Christian religious houses are situated close to rivers.
This article merely scratches the surface but from reading and research it soon becomes apparent that water in all its forms has played a major role in the history and prehistory of our world.It has defined where we live and it has defined how we live, indeed if we live at all.That our ancestors’ revered water should be of no surprise to us and yet often it is.
“Water is life’s mater and matrix, mother and medium.There is no life without water.” Albert Szent-Gyorgi
“Nothing is weaker than water, yet for overcoming what is hard and strong, nothing surpasses it.”Lao Tzu
Stonehenge – a name that evokes a great many emotions in a great many people. For some it is a place of pilgrimage, a place to connect with the ancestors and for others it is seen as a tourist trap or something to tick off the bucket list. For centuries it has captured our imagination; never has a heritage site been so controversial – something which continues to this day. In this post it is not my intention to give a full on thesis about Stonehenge, there are plenty of books/websites who do this already. Instead it is simply an overview of what is currently understood about the site, its surrounding landscape and my own personal thoughts.
Stonehenge is situated on the Salisbury Plains, to the south is the busy A303, a main road between the south-west and London, and for many years the equally busy A344 ran alongside the site. This latter road was removed sometime ago to improve the visitors experience. Today there are ongoing discussions regarding the upgrading of the A303 and a proposed tunnel. It is a highly emotive subject, on one hand I understand the need to improve the road situation (ask anyone who is stuck in a traffic jam on the A303) but as an archaeologist I am also aware of the sensitive nature of the surrounding heritage landscape (and yes I am on the fence). Mike Pitts in his recent post discusses the pros and cons for those of you who are interested.
For the visitor today the focus is on the large stone circle with its trilithons, they marvel at how it could have been built by ‘primitive man’ often leading to suggestions of alien intervention and lost technologies. But such thoughts only serve to belittle our ancestors and our past. Others may ask why did our ancestors build Stonehenge? Often the answers are unimaginative and simple – sun-worship; display of power; ancient computer; druid temple – once more when we look only for one answer to a what is obviously a complicated site of great longevity we belittle their achievements. Instead if Stonehenge was understood in terms of the wider landscape and as a site whose history spanned several millenia we might come to some small understanding of how and why.
In today’s world of instant gratification where everything has a beginning and an end, it is hard to imagine beginning a project knowing you might not see it finished but this was a reality for the builders of Stonehenge. It has lead some to suggest that it was not the end product which was important but the doing, the act of building which was in fact the purpose. Suggesting a cyclical thought pattern which can be seen in other aspects of prehistoric life – round houses, stone circles, round barrows. in addition, time itself was most likely viewed in cycles, the phases of the moon and the movement of the seasons are all cyclical events which would have been of great importance to prehistoric people trying to make sense of their world.
“So was Stonehenge ever ‘finished’? The answer to that has to be no, because completion was never the intention of the people who created it.” (Pryor F. 2016 ‘Stonehenge: The Story of a Sacred Landscape).
It is well known that Stonehenge itself had many incarnations, perhaps meaning new and different things with each alteration or rebuild. To understand Stonehenge it is important to consider it in the wider context of the surrounding landscape (there are literally hundreds of prehistoric monuments around it) in all the different phases.
The Mesolithic Story
The story of the Stonehenge landscape begins back in the Mesolithic, ongoing recent excavations at Blickmead are providing archaeologists with tantalising clues as to why this area was important to our ancestors. The site is situated near a spring by the River Avon, excavations began in 2005 and almost immediately were fruitful. Basically, the deposits consisted of an array of Mesolithic settlement debris, mostly flint fragments (tens of thousands) but also a great number of animal bones. Interestingly, the site also yielded the largest collection of auroch bones ever found on a Mesolithic site in Britain so far. Other animals which were hunted and consumed included red deer, wild boar and salmon – this has led archaeologists to suggest that feasting was a common occurence around the spring. The spring itself is quite unusual as it has the tendency to stain flints and other materials a bright magenta pink – the importance of springs in later prehistory is well attested to.
In 1966 row of four large pit like features were found during upgrades to the old carpark close by Stonehenge. When excavated one was found to be a the root-hole of a tree and the other three were holes dugs to hold large poles. Examination of the material from these features gave a date range from between 8500 and 7000BC. The posts would have been approximately 75cm in diameter and were from pine trees. Later in 1988 another post-hole was discovered south and east of the original pits but it was contemporary.
So here we have a landscape already well populated by hunter-gatherer communities who revered certain natural features long before Stonehenge makes an appearance. A landscape which had meaning to the people who inhabit it; who had traditions and memories of place.
At around 3500BC (Neolithic) with the arrival of farming these communities and their traditions had evolved and more permenant features began to make an appearance on the landscape. Long barrows such as those at East and West Kennet or Winterbourne Stoke were the first to appear and by 3400BC the Stonehenge Cursus and Lesser Cursus was under construction.
3000BC – The first official phase of construction
In many parts of Britian at this time a new type of monument was being constructed, these were earthwork enclosures which are referred to as henges. They consist of irregular cut ditches encircling a defined area with corresponding banks. Stonehenge’s earliest phase was one such earthwork. Here there were two entrances one faced north-east and the other faced south. The north-easterly entrance remained in use for much of the sites lifetime and appears to be important to its function. The entrance is aligned along a line of natural gullies which face towards the midsummer sunrise in one direction and the midwinter sunset in the other.
These natural gullies would have been visible to the people of the Mesolithic and may have been why the large pine posts were erected where they were – the midsummer and midwinter solstices were just as important then as they were to the later prehistoric communities.
Inside the earthwork enclosure around the inner edge of the bank were fifty-six regularly spaced pits – these are now known as the Aubrey Holes. There is some discussion as to what they were or what they contained – small stone uprights or wooden posts? However, what is known is that eventually they did contain cremated human remains. Similar deposits have been found in the partly filled ditch and cut into the bank suggesting that at this stage in its history Stonehenge was used as a cemetary, among other things.
The Building of the Stone Monument
At around 2500BC Stonehenge began to resemble a site we are much more familiar with. It is at this time that the massive sarsen stones from the Marlborough Downs were moved to the site and erected. If that was not all at the same time the smaller but no less cumbersome, blue stones from the Preseli Mountains in Wales were transported and erected at Stonehenge. The Heel stone was moved to its current position and four smaller sarsen stones (the station stones) were erected inside the enclosure just inside the bank.
The first two diagrams above demonstrate one theory of how the trilithon stones were erected. The third diagram shows the sophistication of the construction, with each lintel fitting neatly into each other – borrowed from the Univeristy of Buckingham’s MOOC “Stonehenge”.
In a mere one hundred years it seems the two main structures of the trilithon horseshoe and the circle was completed. Interestingly it seems that greater care was taken in the shaping and construction of the stones visible from the north-east side and the main entrance. The bluestones were also erected at this time but not in the form we see today at Stonehenge. Excavation has shown us that there were two concentric arcs of stone holes, known as the Q and R holes were found on the north and east sides of the central area. It has been suggested that these were not representative of a complete circle as there is little to no evidence on the southern or western sides of corresponding holes.
2200BC – Consolidation and Alterations
From this time on Stonehenge underwent a series of minor alterations although the large sarsen stones remained in their positions although much later in the Bronze Age shallow carvings of axeheads and the occasional dagger were added. There are some 115 carvings and these have been dated stylistically to between 1750 and 1500BC.
The smaller bluestones however were rearranged and by 2200BC the incomplete circles were dismantled and repositioned to form a circle concentric to and just inside the circle of larger sarsen circle whilst a second oval of bluestones (spotted dolerite) was also formed within the trilithon setting. Later a number of stones were removed from the oval to form the horseshoe setting which is seen today.
At around the same time the ditch was recut and a small bank was constructed and the Avenue was constructed. This later feature follows the solstice alignment with ditches and banks for part of the way and then veers off to the east ending in a valley of the River Avon. Recent excavations at the place where the Avenue meets the River Avon have uncovered evidence for a previously unknown henge monument made up of bluestones. These were likely to have been removed to supplement the bluestones already at Stonehenge.
Surrounding the monument are significant numbers of round barrows dating from the Bronze Age, some of which contained rich burials with artefacts made of bronze, gold, jet and amber. Suggesting a society rather different from the one which was able to come together communally to construct Stonehenge and yet the place, the landscape and the site still had a powerful pull to these people – it is no different today…
Above are two of the many round barrows littering the landscape around Stonehenge.
The pictures above show a reconstruction of houses found during excavations at Durrington Walls which date to approximately the same time as when the main phase of construction at Stonehenge was underway. It is interesting to note the layout of the houses with the ‘dresser’ opposite the door and the beds to the right as you enter. This layout is reminiscent of house layouts at Skara Brae and later similar layouts are seen in Bronze Age roundhouses.
Stonehenge is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Britain; it evokes a variety of emotions; it is a British icon and yet so many people still only today see the stones. Yes they are impressive but there is so much more to their story than what you see. To really understand Stonehenge the curious need to look at the wider landscape and then look further again. Afterall, not too far away is the equally astounding landscape surrounding Avebury. What was the relationship between these two sacred landscapes? What can they tell us about the people who lived at the time? These landscapes were created by a people who viewed the world very differently to ourselves and carry a language, a dialogue that would have been obvious to those who lived in the Neolithic and even the Bronze Age. In our modern world where landscapes are viewed as places to use – either to make money or in terms of leisure pursuits – it is often hard for us to step back in time to view the landscape as living breathing entity without which we could not survive.
Stonehenge and its surrounding landscape undoubtedly meant many things to the people who occupied it (and probably those further afield too), the stones themselves were taken from the land and perhaps used to create a space where the natural world could be contained; where a semblance of control was maintained; where perhaps a balance was found between the natural world and the constructed world.
There are a great deal of books and websites which delve into the Stonehenge enigma in far greater detail. I have listed some of those below (browse Amazon for comprehensive lists). In particular I would like to recommend the free online course run by Buckingham University via Iversity (click here for more details).
Pryor F (2016) Stonehenge: The Story of a Sacred Landscape
Parker-Pearson M et al (2015) Stonehenge: Making Sense of Prehistoric Mystery
Parker Pearson M (2013) Stonehenge: Exploring the Greatest Stone Age Mystery
Bowden M et al (2015) The Stonehenge Landscape: Analysing the Stonehenge World Heritage Site.
Yesterday was the first day of New Zealand Archaeology Week, it is the first time in New Zealand that archaeology has been celebrated with its own ‘week’. As part of this celebration of the past I attended a lecture at the Auckland Museum about the long term archaeological project being undertaken on Great Mercury Island entitled The Changing Face of Archaeology – The application of technology to the Ahuahu Great Mercury Island Archaeological Project. The lecture was delivered by Louise Furey, Rebecca Phillipps and Joshua Emmitt.
Great Mercury Island is situated off the east coast of the Coromandel Penninsula and as the name would suggest is the largest island in the Mercury Group. The purpose of the project is to examine the history of the Maori occupation on the island. As an island it provides the ideal opportunity to study a landscape as a whole and how people utilised and interacted with the landscape over time. This post is not a comprehensive study of the archaeology of the island, it is only a brief foray into what is a complex landscape. I have included links for those who wish to do read more about the work that is being carried out by the archaeologists.
There is certainly plenty of archaeology on the island to keep the archaeologists busy for quite some time. Of that which is visible above ground there are twenty-three Pa (defended sites with ditches and banks), large areas of gardens (recognisable by the lines of cleared stones), kumara storage pits, stone working sites and shell middens. As recent excavations have indicated there is even more evidence lying beneath the surface.
Prior to the current project the island was subject to two other single event excavations. The first being undertaken in 1954 in the early days of New Zealand Archaeology by then then newly appointed lecturer in archaeology at the University of Auckland Jack Golson. With a party of archaeology students he excavated a terrace on the Stingray Point Pa (Matakawau) identifying two kumara pits, each pit had more than 80 post holes suggesting a long period of rebuilding the roof structures. Golson’s work was never published although this is soon to be rectified.
In 1984 Professor Geoffrey Irwin of the University of Auckland excavated a Pa in Huruhi Harbour. In 2009 a sever storm eroded about ten metres of sand from White’s Beach to reveal a shell midden and a rich charcoal layer. Bones from dogs and fish were found within the midden which was dated by radiocarbon to c.1400AD.
From 2012 the University of Auckland and the Auckland Museum have been working in conjunction with Ngati Hei on the previously mentioned long term project. The island is visited on regular basis with the main excavation season being held in Febuary, which is also a training dig for archaeology students from the university. The lecture held yesterday focussed on some of the finds from the excavations such as the large quantities of obsidian flakes some of which come from as far afield as Taupo, Mayor Island and closer to home on the Coromandel Peninsula. Although work/research is still ongoing it is becoming clearer how important Ahuahu is in our understanding of the early prehistory of New Zealand.
Because ultimately excavation is destruction it has long been universally acknowledged how important it is to record as much detail as possible. In the past this was often a labour intensive activity, if done at all. Today’s archaeologists now have a raft of technological tools at there disposal and at Great Mercury they are taking full advantage of what is available. The technology being used on site to record every find, feature and layer includes total stations, laser scanners and drones are in everyday tools for these excavations.
You Tube has several video’s of work being done on the island – the following are links to a couple to get you started if you are interested.
If archaeology is your thing (and it’s certainly mine) then Cornwall is a great county to visit with a mulititude of sites to visit, especially if you want to get away from the crowds and sitting on the beach has lost its appeal. From the outset I should point out the following are my favourite sites/landscapes to visit (it was quite difficult to keep it to just ten and yes they are mostly prehistoric sites), others may have different views – the list is purely my own opinion. Feel free to comment on your favourites.
1. Chun Castle and Quoit
Okay so I have cheated a bit – here we have two very different sites but their proximity to each other I think allows for a bit of cheating…
Firstly, Chun Quoit – quoits are neolithic monuments found throughout Cornwall (there are about a dozen known sites) consisting of upright granite slabs topped by a large capstone. They can also be called portal dolmens, chamber tombs or cromlechs. Some are in a better state of repair than others and Chun Quoit is perhaps one of the few which has been interferred with the least. Chun Quoit consists of four large uprights supporting a capstone which is estimated to weigh over 8 tonnes. It is also possible to see the remains of a circular stone cairn and associated kerbstones (the stone rubble at ground level) which would have originally surrounded the Quoit but not covering it leaving a the facade and the capstone visible.
Two hundred metres to the east of the quoit are the impressive remains of Chun Castle. Unlike many other Iron Age hillforts which utilise an earthen ditch and bank system Chun Castle is entirely stone built. It consists of two large concentric stone walls and is 85 metres in diameter. There is some evidence that the hillfort was built over an earlier enclosure represented by a shallow ditch and low bank on the southwest side. Inside the hillfort there is a stone lined well and escavations during the late 1920s found evidence for a later post Roman occupation of the hill fort. Iron Age occupation consisted of at least a dozen round houses which based on the pottery found date the site to the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC. Sitting high on the ridgeway known as the Tinners Way the site would have been visible from many miles around, from here it is possible to make out several other hillforts in the distance such as Caer Bran. Below the hillfort about 500metres to the north east is the site of Bosullow Trehyllys – a courtyard house settlement of the late Iron Age (see the earlier post on Chysauster and Carn Euny), it is unexcavated but appears to consist of at least three detached courtyard houses and a number of round houses.
I wanted to include a courtyard house settlement in the list and it was a choice between Carn Euny and Chysauster. In the end Chysauster won mainly because it is easier to get to but also because the visitor can get a good idea of size of this unique house type. However, I would recommend a visit to Carn Euny too – the fogou makes it well worth while. I have discussed both sites already in a previous post – Chysauster and Carn Euny – A Unique Settlement Type – so won’t say much more than that.
3. Treryn Dinas
Treryn Dinas falls into the category of Iron Age cliff castle or promontory fort – one of many coastal headlands with Iron Age defences in the form of earthen or stone ramparts and external ditches usually across the neck of the headland. The term ‘cliff castle’ does not denote a particular function, some were large enough to have settlements within their walls, such as The Rumps and Trevelgue Head, others were much smaller and perhaps served as trading posts or lookouts. Treryn Dinas, however, appears to more than that – the visitor only need to look at the position and surroundings of this site to realise it is special.
Overlooking the beach at Porthcurno, the ramparts enclose a large rocky headland which contains the Logan Rock – a substantial boulder perched on the outcrop which in times past would rock in the wind and was only dislodged in 1824 by cocky young lieutenant and the crew of the HMS Nimble. The local people were rightfully upset at this and the lieutenant was charged to replace the rock at his own expense and with the help of the admiralty it was eventually returned to its original position, although it is said to no longer rock as easily as it had done once before.
According to folklore the earliest inhabitants of the headland were the giants who protected the neighbouring communities in return for cattle and other necessaries. Giants are a common feature in Cornish folkore and seem to be particularly associated with large outcrops of granite which feature in the landscape. From an archaeological point of view Treryn Dinas has four lines of defence with the last crossing the low neck of the headland. It consists of a deep ditch and a stone faced wall behind which are the foundations of two buildings either side of the presumed entrance. The general view is that this site is one of spiritual significance which may date many centuries earlier than the Iron Age. Finds of Bronze Age pottery have been found wedged in the crevices of the outcrop, the Logan Rock itself may have been seen as supernatural and there is the problem of that fourth line of defence. You will note in the photograph below that this line of defence is not particulary defensible as it easily looked down from the landward side, in addition the amount of useful land on the headland is extremely limited and the only thing the fourth rampart is ‘protecting’ are the rocks themselves.
Looking to the headland – below the rock outcrop is the remains of the internal wall protecting the headland.
The substansial outer bank on the landward side.
In the parish of St Buryan is the stone circle of Boscawen-Un, dating to the early Bronze Age and consisting of nineteen stones there are several interesting features of the site. The most obvious is the stone which is slightly south of center, it leans sharply towards the north east and at its base there are two very faint relief carvings of axe heads. A past student once suggested to me that the stone itself looked like a large stone axehead which had been struck into the ground. Minor excavations have further revealed that its leaning position was intentional and not the result of subsidence. The second interesting feature of this stone circle is the large block of quartz to the south west which is part of the circle. Our understanding of the role of quartz within prehistoric rituals is poorly understood but there is an increasing amount of evidence which points to its importance.
Okay, so now I really am cheating but the fact is any visit to Cornwall should definitly include a fogou and I couldn’t decide which I preferred – Carn Euny or Halligye are the easiest to get to and Halligye the largest (it can be found on the Trelowarren Estate, near Helston) however, Carn Euny does have a courtyard settlement, the nearby hillfort of Caer Bran and the fogou itself has a beehive shaped internal chamber. So you can see my dilemma…I have already written about fogous in an earlier blog so shall not rehash what we know and don’t know about these enigmatic structures.
6. Carn Brea
Situated between Redruth and Camborne is long hill easily visible from the A30, it is a hill with a long history beginning as far back as the Neolithic. Today two features stand out the most, firstly the the tall monument on the central summit erected in 1836 in the memory of Francis Bassett of Tehidy and the second is the small medieval castle perched on an outcrop. The latter was most likely a hunting lodge belonging to the Bassetts, an ancient local family and was first recorded in the fifteenth century. The land surrounding the hill was prime tin mining country and the flanks of the hill are covered in shafts and pits.
Heading further back in time the astute visitor might notice the remains of eleven Iron Age roundhouses on the saddle between the east and central summits, these are part of a much larger settlement on the hilltop, set within a substantial hillfort of forty-six acres. The defences are made up of two ramparts enclosing the hill. However, the occupation of Carn Brea began much earlier in the Neolithic. Surounding the eastern and central summits are another two smaller enclosures, of these the eastern summit has been partially excavated. The date range showed that the ramparts had been built somewhere between 4000 and 3500BC, making it the oldest known fortified settlement in Britain. There were traces of wooden buildings and Neolithic pottery, in addition a large number of flint arrowheads (700+) were uncovered along with evidence for the destruction of the site suggesting the site had been under attack (Cornish Archaeology, 1981, 20).
Looking east the 15th century castle can be seen in the distance. In the foreground the remains of one of the Iron Age roundhouses is visible as a semi circle of stones.
The path through the inner Neolithic enclosure wall.
Winter is the best time to visit – the outer ramparts are clearly visible.
7. Trevelgue Head
So many visitors to Cornwall will invariably end up in Newquay without realising the long and fascinating history of this seaside town. Just north of St Columb Porth on the road to Watergate Bay is the impressive cliff castle of Trevegue Head. It is the most heavily defended of all the cliff castles with seven lines of defence. The first ditch and bank is not so obvious as the next six with largest bank being roughly four metres high. Erosion over the centuries has seen much of the land disappear and it is suggested this included the original entrance. Excavation in th 1930s demonstrated that Trevelgue was continously occupied from the thrid century BC until the fifth/sixth century AD. At least fourteen roundhouses were identified (it is still possible to see the house platforms with a keen eye). Given its position in the landscape, the sheer scale of the defences, some of the artefacts found (bronze horse harness and Roman coins) in addition to the significant amount of evidence for both bronze and iron smelting, it is fair to say Trevelgue Head was most likely a high status site, the home ground of someone of great import.
The importance of this headland and other similar to it along the coast is further attested to by the presence of the two bowl barrows dating to the Bronze Age – these were opened in late 1800s but nothing is known of their contents. Further along the coast is Trevelgue Downs where a further two barrows can be seen. In the eastern barrow a crouched adult skeleton was found within a stone cist with a stone battlexe close to hand. From personal experience I have walked this cliff castle many times and it was not uncommon to espy tiny Mesolithic flints protruding from the exposed edges of the paths. Further testament to the sites long history.
Looking towards the end of the headland. On the right is the first of two Bronze Age barrows.
Eroded banks and ditches of Trevelgue Head.
It had to be on the list – perhaps one of the most controversial of all sites in Cornwall from local resistance to English Heritage’s plans for the site to the myriad of myths and legends associated with Tintagel – no where captures the imagination more. Like several other sites on this list I have already waxed lyrical about Tintagel so will not bore the reader with much of the same (but do follow the link if you want to seperate fact from fiction).
9. Castle an Dinas
An impressive example of an Iron Age hill fort found in mid Cornwall near St Columb Major. Measuring 260m across it would have been a formidable place in its heyday, the substantial ramparts are visible for many kilometres even today. There is some faint evidence for a much earlier enclosure on this hilltop possibly dating from the Neolithic or Bronze Age and the presence of two Bronze Age barrows within the hillfort is further testament to the importance of this place throughout prehistory. In the early 1960s a relatively small excavation was undertaken with the idea of prove the tradition of such places being re-used during the post-Roman phase and although they failed to do this a fine cobbled road was found.
10. Bodmin Moor
Yes I know this really is cheating…but no list of sites to visit is complete with at least one from Bodmin Moor. However the problem is I could not choose just one, there are so many wonderful sites to visit on the moor. Like its much larger cousin in the next county over, Dartmoor, Bodmin Moor has a wide variety of archaeological sites to visit beginning way back into the Mesolithic (flint scatters possible representing seasonal camps as found on Butterstor) and the Neolithic such as Stowes Pound and Rough Tor which are thought to be tor enclosures similar to Carn Brea and Trencrom further to the west, but it is the Bronze Age which dominates the archaeological record.
There are stone circles, stone rows, menhirs, barrows (earthen mounds), cairns (stone mounds) and of the latter there is in excess of 300 known. The most well known barrow is the Rillaton barrow which is the largest on the moor and where an individual was buried with a bronze dagger, an urn and a beaten gold cup.
“…the distribution of the monuments throughout the whole of the upland suggests that its use had intensified enormously. Virtually every block of land (as defined for example by prominent hills and divided by rivers and streams) is marked by a group of cairns, as if all available land was claimed and accounted for. The analysis of fossil pollens fromthe ancient land surfaces sealed beneath the excavated cairns shows that by this date the upland was predominantly open grassland, with woodland confined to the steep valley sides.” (Herring P & Rose P Bodmin Moors Archaeological Heritage pp17-18)
There are sixteen known stone circles of which the best known is the Hurlers. All the circles seem to have been placed carefully within the landscape – nearly all are within sight of tor which is always to the north of the circle, with Roughtor being the most dominant (nine of the sixteen circles). The stone rows, menhirs and embanked avenues are not as numerous but still make up an important part of the ritual landscape.
A feature of the later Bronze Age landscape of the moor is represented by the vast numbers of settlements represented by field walls and the stone foundations of round houses. There are approximately 1500 prehistoric round houses representing around 200 settlements and although only three have been excavated they are assumed to be all by analogy with Dartmoor to belong in the second millenium BC. Often found associated with these settements are field systems of varying shape and size best seen from the air and on large scale maps.
Ar around 1000BC a deteriorating climate and soils resulted in most settlements being abandoned and the use of the moor being less intensive. The hillfort sites of Bury Castle, Cardinham and Berry Castle are the only easily identifiable settlements of the Iron Age, although it is assumed that the moor continued to be used for the seasonal grazing of livestock, much as parts of it are today.
In the far west of Cornwall lies a trackway that has been trodden by many feet over many millennia. Once a central part of a wider network of tracks it is now only used by ramblers, dog walkers, horse riders and those interested in the sites along its way. What it was called in the past is unknown but today it has become known as the Tinners Way.
Paths and tracks traverse the landscape creating a maze of possible routes from A to B and are probably one of the least understood aspects of the past in Britain. The greatest issue is in the understanding of the chronology of this particular site type.
“Unmetalled roads and trackways are extremely difficult to date. They have no constructional material to aid interpretation and artefacts are rarely present. This difficulty is compounded by the fact that their form has remained unchanged from prehistoric to modern times and that many were in continuous use for centuries, even millennia” (Prehistoric Roads, Trackways and Canals – Historic England 2011)
Historic England/English Heritage have defined a trackway as a ‘linear route which has been marked on the ground surface over time by the passage of traffic. Trackways are usually relatively short routes for local use’. In west Cornwall the Tinners Way has been identified as one such trackway, one which in all likelihood has a lengthy history going back into prehistory. It follows the granite backbone of West Penwith passing by and sometimes through archaeological sites as well as the remains of later of tin mining.
So, from where does the Tinners Way begin and where does it end? Well the answer to that would very much depend on from what direction you are coming as it travels between Cape Cornwall and St Ives. For our purposes here we will begin at Cape Cornwall in the very far west, stopping at various points and ending up on the Island in St Ives.
It is probable that the Kenidjack Valley which runs alongside the Cape was the source of one of the earliest and most accessible deposits of alluvial tin ore. Tin was an important resource to the Cornish economy from the Bronze Age into the 19th century.
From here the trackway heads inland and up onto the moors of Penwith past Carn Kenidjack and the Tregeseal Stone Circles not to mention the mysterious holed stones. Continuing on to the fascinating sites of Chun Quoit and Chun Castle.
Back long before metals were exploited in Cornwall our Neolithic ancestors built great stone tombs, archaeologically these are known as quoits or chambered cairns. Although this is not the place to go into a lengthy discussion on the function of such sites it should be pointed out that many of these sites do seem to appear in significant places in the landscape and thus would seem to have a function beyond simple burial. Along the Tinners Way there are several quoits which serve to mark the way – Zennor Quoit, Mulfra Quoit, and of course Chun Quoit with the possibility of more having been ravaged by time.
Just past Chun Quoit are the remains of what was once a great stone walled hillfort – Chun Castle. The walls are still impressive even after the attempts at removal for use in other building projects (the pavement on Market Jew St in Penzance is made up of stone from the hillfort). Originally occupied in the Iron Age it straddles the trackway, interestingly it was later occupied in the 5th and 6th centuries – a time of unease – and the evidence does seem to suggest it was used as a stronghold for the storage of tin ore.
All along the Tinners Way there is evidence of tin mining (hence the name) – old mine shafts can be a hazard for those wandering off the beaten track (please remember to keep your dogs under control when walking along here). Much of the visible mining remains date from the 17th to the 19th centuries.
On leaving Chun Castle you pass the overgrown Iron Age courtyard house settlement of Bosullow Trehyllys – see an earlier article on the more well known courtyard house settlements of Chysauster and Carn Euny. From here the trackway follows the well trod path past the Men-an-Tol and Men Scryfa.
The first was probably once a chambered tomb which has suffered at the hands of people over a very long time. The latter an inscribed stone dating to the 5th/6th century and is a memorial stone to “Rialobrani Cunovali Fili’ – roughly translated as ‘the royal raven son of the glorious prince’. It’s position along this important route undoubtedly deliberate.
Not far from Men Scryfa is the Four Parish Stone. This stone indicates the point in which the boundaries of the four ancient parishes of Zennor, Gulval, Madron and Morvah meet. This is not the modern civil parish boundaries but the much older church boundaries. A document from the 17th century mentions this place in the landscape, referring to it as ‘Meane Crouse’ or ‘stone cross’ suggesting the presence of a stone cross which marked this important crossroads. Any traveller to Cornwall will note how stone crosses covered in moss and worn by weather are often found at road junctions.
From here the landscape is dominated by the impressive tor known as Carn Galva and whilst not the highest point in West Penwith (Watch Croft the adjacent tor takes that accolade) it is the most atmospheric of tors with its giant granite boulders standing silent sentinel over the millennia. It is now generally believed that Carn Galva is one of the few Neolithic enclosures to be found in Cornwall – Carn Brea, Helman Tor and Trencrom are the more well known.
Further on the walker can take a minor side trip to see the Nine Maidens stone circle and the remains of a roundhouse settlement probably dating to the late Bronze Age/early Iron Age (Bodrifty). Nearby the farmer at Bodrifty Farm has recreated a roundhouse and it is possible to visit but do ask first. After Bodrifty the trackway goes past Mulfra Quoit.
Alternatively and the most likely direction for the trackway to follow is across the moorland of Bosporthennis Common between the highpoint of The Beacon and Mulfra Hill to the parish boundary stone known as the Bishops Head and Foot.
“Used over generations, these trackways created permanent scars across hills and valleys, and formed a web of easily followed routes which were later utilised to mark the extent of private estates which had superseded previous communal use of tribal lands. When the system of parishes was established about the 12th century additional use was made of these muddy tracks to form their boundaries in conjunction with streams and prominent rocks” (Antiquities of West Cornwall – The Tinners Way. Ian Cooke 1991)
It is often speculated that the old parish boundaries are based on ancient trackways and at the Bishops Head and Foot there are important paths which traverse Penwith from Zennor to Castle-an- Dinas and Chysauster (both important Iron Age sites) and on to Mounts Bay. The Tinners Way as already demonstrated follows several sections of parish boundaries along the high ground. The trackway then continues through the parish of Towednack along the base of Rosewall Hill covered in old mining shafts and then onto the village of St Ives and The Island.
Although today there stands a small chapel to St Nicholas on the Island it is thought that originally the headland was a much older promontory fort. Its position which overlooks Porthmeor Beach and the wider expanse of St Ives bay including the entry to Hayle Harbour and with views all the way up the coast would suggest it was an important site.
The Hayle Estuary was an important trading port on this coast until the Medieval period. Dredging in the now silted harbour has in the past brought up finds from all periods including the Roman period and earlier. Overlooking the harbour is the ancient enclosure of Trencrom Hill which as mentioned before can be dated to the Neolithic and later.
“It used to be thought that the earliest routes in Britain were prehistoric ‘ridgeways’, long distance trackways…This idea grew up in the early years of archaeological studies when the most obvious prehistoric monuments, such as Bronze Age burial mounds and Iron Age hillforts, were found concentrated in upland areas.” (Pre-industrial Roads, Trackways and Canals Historic England 2011).
Even though there is no concrete way of dating this particular route there are certainly a lot of indicators which point to it being an important part of the landscape in West Penwith with a long and fascinating history.
A useful wee book to read if you can get hold of one is “The Tinners Way”by Ian Cooke. It is in essence a guidebook for walkers wishing to do the the Tinners Way, detailing the route and the various features along the way.
Summertime in New Zealand means roadtrips and exploring all that our lovely country has to offer. Me and mine decided to spend some time in the goldmining town of Waihi and of course as always this meant a lesson in history, in particular the area around the Karangahake Gorge.
The Karangahake Gorge is situated between the Coromandel and Kaimai ranges and was formed by the flow of the Ohinemuri River. It’s steep sides are covered in native bush, a haven for those wanting to experience the great outdoors. There are plenty of walks and cycle trails to enjoy or you can simply sit by the river and enjoy a picnic. However not so long ago the visitor would have been greeted by an entirely different scene.
On this visit we did the Windows Walk which takes you past and through several of the stamping batterys and the many associated building ruins then into the old tramway tunnels along the Waitawheta Gorge (an offshoot of the Karangahake Gorge). Unlike other goldmining areas, alluvial gold is rare in the gorge and almost all of the gold and silver recovered from here was done by deep quartz mining. This meant only the large well funded companies could afford to operate in the gorge. The three main players were the Talisman Mining Company, The Woodstock Mining Company and the Crown Mining Company. (The latter will ring some bells with those of you interested in Cornish mining history as they were a major player in the mining industry of Cornwall. In fact many of the miners came from Cornwall which was at the time undergoing a decline in mining. Their skills in hard rock mining was in great demand in colonial lands). Today so much of the ruins are covered in dense bush, their edges softened by vegetation and with the sound of either the Ohinemuri or Waitawheta rivers filling your ears it is hard to imagine this as a place of heavy industry.
“A continous rythmic thumping once filled the air here, as stamper batteries (gold recovery plants) of the Talisman, Woodstock and Crown Mining Companies pulverised quartz rock to free the gold within.” (taken from an information board at the beginning of the walk)
Much of the ore came from the steep sided Waitwheta Gorge and was then transported via aerial tramway across the gorge to the tramway and delivered to the stamping battery where it would undergo a series of crushings to extract the gold and silver which was then smelted into bullion bars. The Talisman and Crown Mines were two of the largest of their type in New Zealand and together produced in the region of four million ounces of gold bullion.
The following are some of the photographs taken during our time exploring the industrial archaeology of the Karangahake Gorge.
“Once the ore had been crushed in the upper levels of the battery the fine powder that resulted was subjected to the cyanide process. This involved mixing potassium cyanide with the finely crushed ore in tanks for several days then drawing off the solution and passing it through wooden boxes where the dissolved gold and silver precipitated as a black sludge on zinc shavings. The sludge was then treated with sulphuric acid to remove the zinc. The residue was then smelted into bullion bars (of gold and silver)” – From the above information board.
One of the main features of the Windows Walk is the tramway, part of which goes through the side of the gorge (a torch is a must if you do this walk). In its heyday, the ore was transported via tram but because of the steep sides of the gorge a trail had to be cut out of and through the rockface.
The Crown tramway…then…
A bit further on from the modern suspension bridge is the remains of the Crown Mine.
Today goldmining in the area is representated by the large open cast mine in nearby Waihi with the now defunct Cornish Pumphouse from the earlier 19th Century Martha Mine standing ever watchful over.
There are not many places within the city of Auckland where a person is able to get up close and personal with the early archaeology of the region, but the Otuataua Stonefields is one such place. Although this small pocket is classed as a protected site, it is part of a much wider area called Ihuamato which sadly is under threat by developers. The stonefields did not exist in isolation and whilst the archaeology is not obvious to the untrained eye, it is undoubtedly there. It would be shameful if the council allowed work to proceed with out a full archaeological investigation. In general atitudes in New Zealand towards archaeology is a case of “there’s not alot of archaeology here” with the implication because we do not have the lengthy timeframes as elsewhere in the world it is not as important. But this is erroneous and a result of a lack of knowledge – there are over 50,000 archaeological sites listed in New Zealand…The stonefields and Ihuamato are an important part of New Zealand’s very early history and to say otherwise would deny a people their past and demonstrate a dismal lack of understanding.
Two hundred years ago there were some 8000 hectares of volcanic stonefields in the Auckland area, today the 100 hectare reserve of Otuataua is all which remains. Dated to around 1300AD and situated near the international airport the reserve was established in 2001 to protect this important part of the archaeological record and is one of the last places where we can see large scale remains of how people once lived and worked in the volcanic areas of Auckland.
When the first Polynesians arrived in New Zealand they bought with them the full range of tropical plants however New Zealand’s shorter growing season and colder temperatures meant that many of these tropical plants could not be grown. Only plants such as the kumara (sweet potato), taro, yams and gourds had any success, particularly in the volcanic stonefields of Auckland.
Early depiction of women digging in a garden.
Early kumara (sweet potato)
At Otuataua it is possible to see low mounds of the volcanic scoria stone scattered throughout an area referred to as the mound garden used mainly to grow kumara they extended the growing season by about a month.
“The mounds were built as special garden plots, which used the stone’s heat absorbing properties to help warm the earth and retain moisture. Archaeologists have found that these types of mounds often contain specially modified soil, with added organic matter and ground shell.”
(from ‘The Otuataua Stonefields – Official Opening Commemorative Brochure’ Manukau City Council)
It is safe to say that there is probably not a single stone which has not been moved by human hands. Walking towards the sea, you come across an area of low hills and gullies. The gully floors seem unnaturally free of stone, here the stone has been stacked on top of the hillocks to leave the gully floors free for cultivation.
Other interesting archaeological features at Otuataua include the Pa (hillfort or defended settlement) which utilises the volcanic cone. Auckland has many volcanic cones, all of which were used and settled by the Maori throughout history. Here at Otuataua it is no different. Unfortunately this particular cone has been extensively quarried for scoria before the site became a reserve resulting in the loss of a large part of the Pa. However, it is still possible to make out the terraces on the southern side – these are the level areas cut into the lower slopes and were where Maori lived.
The remnants of the Pa.
A second interesting feature is the site referred to as ‘The Big House’. On an outcrop about half way between the mound garden and the gullies is a rectangular outline of stone. This is believed to be the foundation of what was once a large house or structure, nearby are several shell middens. Having never been excavated it is difficult to say what this structure was used for but the presence of the shell middens on the slopes below would indicate meals were eaten here. Perhaps it was a communal place to share food whilst working in the gardens?
All over Otuataua shell middens can be found, not surprising given the proximity to the coast. Fishing, shell fish gathering and horticulture were the mainstays of the local economy.
In Polynesia crops such as kumara are left in the ground until they are needed however here in New Zealand with its cooler climate the early settlers found they could not do this as the kumara will rot. Instead it became necessary to harvest the kumara and store it. At Otuataua the visitor will occasionally come across a shallow depression in the ground, roughly rectangular in shape and usually found on slopes or ridges (for good drainage). These are all that remains of the storage pits for kumara. Originally these pits would have had timber walls and thatched roofs. It is interesting to note that the storage pits here at Otuataua are outside of the defended Pa, obviously the people felt secure and safe here on the edge of the Manukau Harbour.
An early depiction of a possible kumara storage hut.
Rongo – these effigies were placed in gardens to encourage a good crop.
During my visit to the stonefields, trying not to lose both the kids and the dog I was walking along the edge of a eroded shell midden when my eye was caught by an unusual stone. Unusual because it was not scoria and was very smooth on one side. The flip side was shaped to fit into the palm of your hand and although I am not much of an expert I am reasonably certain this was a rubbing stone for turning root vegetables such as taro or fern roots into pulp. A necessary procedure if you wanted to eventually eat it.
“When you hear the Cornish folk mentioning the names of their villages, hills, and other landmarks, you will notice something un-English about them. In the accent and cadence of some of the placenames there is an echo of the goblin world. Is there not, in such names as Ogbeare, Killeganogue and Poulza, an oddity – a twist that is just on the edge of the bizarre.”
(Hopkins T. ‘Our Beautiful Homeland: Cornwall’ date unknown)
It is true that the first thing a visitor to Cornwall will notice is the placenames, they are very ‘un-English’ in particular the further west you go. My interest in them began many years ago as a student writing a masters dissertation on the landscape continuity on the north coast of West Penwith.
The study of placenames can be highly complex, after all names do change for whatever reasons and in the case of Cornwall the names are often in Cornish which as a language has also undergone many changes. The Cornish language is related to both the Welsh and Breton languages, all of which are regarded as being descended from the language spoken by the ‘Celts’. The relationship with these Brittonic languages is often used as evidence for the age of a particular placename, albeit in a general sense.
“The name of a village or farm or field may describe the locality as it was when the name was given, or refer to a natural or man-made feature nearby, or include the name of a pioneer farmer or priest (the latter often termed a ‘saint’). Names can seldom be translated with the certainty aimed a in normal translation between languages; generally they can only be interpreted, with a greater or less degree of probability, as unconscious and unintended messages from the past which are seldom free from ambiguity or obscurity. The prime rule in placename interpretation is to attempt none until all available forms of the name have been considered, and then to place greater reliance on earlier rather than later forms.” (Pool P. A. S. 1990 ‘The Fieldnames of West Penwith).
The distribution of Cornish placenames is not uniform across the county, those places nearest the Tamar River – the natural boundary between Cornwall and Devon – have a greater tendency to be more English than those in the far west. In my dissertation I surveyed an area of the north coast of west Penwith (within the parishes of Morvah and Zennor) and of the forty placenames to be found on the Tithe map of 1841 only one had an English name – the hamlet of Wicca.
Below are a handful of the most common prefixes used in Cornish placenames and their meaning (from Weatherhill C. 1998 ‘Cornish Placenames and Language’)
Bos – as in Boscastle, Boscawen or Bosavern. Also found as Bot-, Bo-, Boj-, Bus-, and Bod-. Meaning dwelling or home it seems to be a very early form whose usage dwindles by 1500. It is often followed by a persons name such as Bodilly on the Lizard which can be translated as ‘the dwelling of Deli’.
Car-/Gear-/Caer-/Cr- as in Caervallack, Carwythenack or Carvossa. Meaning an enclosed settlement and occasionally a ‘fort’. Often found associated with late prehistoric farmsteads within round enclosures as well as Iron Age hillforts. Carvedras near Truro can be translated as ‘Modret’s fort’.
Carn – as is in Carn Brea, Carn Meal or Carn Clew. One of the most common still in use today and is used in reference to prominent rock formations, on hilltops it can translated to ‘tor’ whilst at other locations it might mean ‘crag’ or ‘rockpile’. Occasionally it may even refer to a Bronze Age Barrow.
Chy-/Che-/Ch-/Ty- as in Chun, Chyanvounder or Chynoweth. Meaning either ‘cottage’ or ‘house’. Thus Chyandour can be translated as ‘house by the water/stream’. This prefix replaces the earlier ‘Bos’.
Hen – as in Hendra or Henscath. Meaning old as in former, ancient. Hendra can in its simple form mean ‘old farm’ but is better interpreted as ‘farm which still stands on its original site.
Lan – as in Lamorran or Lanzeague. Meaning ‘church enclosure’ it became redundant by 1500, historians usually take the presence of this prefix as an indicator for an early church site often surrounded by an enclosure which in some cases is a reused prehistoric site.
Tre-/Trev-/Tr- as in Tregenna or Tregeseal to name but two – this is by far and away the most common of all prefixes. Meaning “farming settlement’ and later used to denote a larger settlement such as village. They are often followed by a persons name such as Tregiffian or ‘Gifyan’s farm’ and in other cases it might be followed by a descriptive word such as Trencrom or ‘the farm on the curve’.
Venton-/Fenton- as in Venton Vedna or Ventonraze. Meaning ‘a well’ in the sense of a natural spring, an artificially dug well is ‘Peeth’. Often the prefix is followed by a name of a saint such as Venton Uny or ‘the well of St Euny’ others might be followed by a distinguishing feature such as Ventonwyn or ‘the white well’.
Of course understanding the meaning behind the names is not the only source of information. Looking at the distribution of certain placenames within a given area may hint at the evolution of the human landscape. In some areas it is possible to see the stratigraphy of the landscape. An essential part of such a study involves the use of maps.
No study of the landscape can be conducted without a good range of maps. Early Ordnance Survey maps and Tithe maps are crucial in understanding any landscape before modern incursions such as motorways, housing subdivisions, caravan parks and business parks, make an appearance. Even in the case of West Penwith the choice of the 1841 Tithe Map during my dissertation was to ensure that any more recent names attached to barn conversions and holiday lets did not lead to false results. Maps can also show features which may no longer be obvious on the ground such as hedges which may have later been removed and mining remains among others.
Of course very early maps can be quite frustrating as often the information included is not clear and/or very selective according to who made the map and why. Just because a settlement does not appear on one map does not mean it did not exist at the time of surveying. For example, the Domesday Book records only a handful of settlements in the whole of West Penwith. It seems highly unlikely that the region was all but empty, but given this was an economic text and not a history one it is not too surprising either. To this extent gaining insight from a wide range of maps is often the best course of action.
Another source of information which can often be overlooked in the study of past landscapes are fieldnames. Although they are less well documented and it is not until the Tithe Apportionment of 1841 that fieldnames are properly recorded, albeit by this stage most are in English. It is also important to note that by their very nature fieldnames are transient, their names can change as their usage does. However there is on occasion names which stick and just occasionally these names can hint at a previously unknown archaeological site or field usage. For example Park an Vellan could suggest the presence of a mill (vellan being a form of melyn or mill) and Park Menheere suggests the presence of standing stone.
In the case of later English fieldnames some may well have been directly translated from the Cornish and are thus older than expected. So Spring Field may have originally been Park an Venton or Barrow Field was Gweal Creeg.
The study of placenames, maps and fieldnames is one of the least intrusive forms of research a person can do and yet can yield a myriad of information that in some cases was not known. When combined with other sources such as documents and aerial photography it becomes a powerful part of archaeological research providing fresh insight into our ancient landscapes.
Once you have got your eye in so to speak, it will be forever impossible to go for a simple walk in the landscape. I am doomed to be wandering the landscape always looking for patterns, asking what does that name mean and is it in it’s original form.
Gelling M. (2000) Place-Names in the Landscape Phoenix Press
Hopkins R. T. (?) Our Beautiful Homeland: Cornwall Blackie and Son Ltd
Pool P. A. S (1990) The Fieldnames of West Penwith Published by the Author
Weatherhill C. (1998) Cornish Place Names and Language Sigma Leisure