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We’re now past the half-way point in Heritage Action member Sue Brooke’s story concerning Caerau Hillfort in Wales. New readers should start at Part 1 or put Caerau in our search box to see previous installments and get up to date.
So, off to Cardiff University I go – clutching the latest draft of my very precious research. I was meeting Oliver Davies in the café of one of the many buildings on the campus in the centre of Cardiff. Olly talked in depth about a project that the University were looking at starting in the area. He knew of the hillfort area and thought it may be good to link in with the work we had been doing at the school and at the church. It was a case of you show me yours and I’ll show you mine.
This was a brilliant idea. The project was just what was needed to work with the young people in the area and to help with understanding exactly what we had tucked away here in Caerau. So, we met again to discuss this with the others involved and it was agreed to go ahead. The CAER (Caerau And Ely Rediscovering) Heritage Project was born. So, from the initial dining room table discussions this project was now becoming something properly formalised and, more importantly, funded. For more information on the project, see the project website.
We met regularly at Glyn Derw High School and various activities were now taking place with properly trained archaeologists and geophysicists all becoming involved. Artists worked with the young people from three local comprehensive schools up at the site and professionals worked with adults, increasing their skills. Something called Time banking was introduced which meant that locals who volunteered at events could collect Time Credits in exchange for their time. These Time Credits could actually be used as a kind of currency – being spent at various venues or used to pay for certain trips. The communities of Ely and Caerau were all involved and it was going really well.
I received telephone calls from the local press – I answered many questions, gave my opinion as ‘local historian’ and generally talked about the church area to anyone who may have been interested. I had even been photographed up at the site when special features had been run in our local paper on the area. One of the most unflattering photos of me, ever taken, was up at the church site one grey rainy morning. This actually caused much hilarity amongst friends and work colleagues, particularly as for some reason the media deemed it fit to mention my age. How rude!
Then at one meeting at the school there were quite a few new faces present. Not that unusual really as often people came along to meetings to discuss specific things. For example members from St. Fagans Museum of Welsh Life or someone from Glamorgan Records Office would often attend to update on a specific issue. However the words Time and Team were now being mentioned. Together and in one sentence. Apparently Time Team had been in touch with Cardiff University looking for a Welsh site to excavate. Someone thought the Caerau site may be suitable.
From previous discussion it’s probably been possible to pick up on the fact that this triangular shaped field over my garden fence was of real importance to me. It may have been full of poo and biting insects but for the last seven years or so it had been my field. No-one else had shown the slightest interest in it except me and Mr B and, occasionally a very reluctant Brooke the dog. I had enough research under my belt to know that this was where the early Caerau people had lived and possibly died. I had spent the last few years researching, photographing, walking and referencing an ever changing and ever expanding document to show my findings and explain how I had come to them. The place held its own secrets that I had yet only been able to guess at. It was a physical place that would be no more if it was dug up and carted off in boxes to some backroom in a museum.
I had absolutely no expectations that there would be any Staffordshire Hoard type discoveries to be made but I thought there may be some evidence of how the people lived up there and, even perhaps why they chose to live there. If it was defensive who were they defending themselves from? Did the Romans live there? Why was the church built at the top of such a steep and inaccessible area?
If word got out about this place would it be dug up at the dead of night and carried off in wheelbarrows, appearing on eBay sometime soon? Would the whole place end up as an area of square box houses with commanding views across Cardiff? What happened if they found human remains?
Of course, being Mrs Angry from Caerau means that at such awkward moments, everyone turns and looks at you. Especially Mr B, who had mentioned this before, only to receive a resounding NO in reply to his question, I think he did actually hold his breath.
Shall we just say that, at this point, I probably mentioned I had serious misgivings.
Follow the story in the next installment, coming soon…
Becoming drawn into research in any area leads you to forming a bit of an attachment to it. As you work your way through pages of books or you trawl the internet for information you begin to find other info, not particularly relevant to this bit of work but interesting nonetheless as it is related in some way. You begin to find out about the houses, where they were, who lived in them and who got taxed on them. Gaps in knowledge are filled.
When you are out and about you see things with new eyes. You also see things like damage, by kids or vandals or, sometimes by organisations who really should know better. So, Mrs Angry developed as a way of highlighting damage and trying to get something done about it. Some things have gone on for so long that it’s really difficult to do anything about it. Doesn’t mean you can’t try though.
The old church of St. Mary’s has been a target since the Reformation. If you recall I myself used to use the area to get out and about with my mates, resulting in being given that uncomfortable lift back in a nice Mini with a little blue light on top. More recently there has been graffiti, litter and associated damage. Locals get to know you and point out things you may have missed. A Facebook page was one of the best early ways of doing this but I was a little dismayed when some young people sent me photos they thought I’d like, taken at midnight on Halloween! So, damage to graves or the main fabric of the church remains gets reported to the responsible authority – quickly. After a while they kind of get used to you and you form a sort of alliance.
Working with the young people meant they began to know what the area was and what it meant and they began to take responsibility for it. Their parents and carers came along and they too got interested. The church was the focus of all this so meanwhile the field with its cow poo and very bitey flies remained largely ignored. The people who sat around my dining table during our planning meetings knew from my excitable ramblings that I believed the area, from my research, to be at least an Iron Age hillfort. The professionals I had worked with in CADW had been really helpful to me, not only in supporting my work but helping me answer such questions as was it OK to have a barbecue in the church grounds (always best to ask first!).
I had met the landowner – Ralph David – he was really supportive of what we were trying to do as obviously the vandalism affected him too. It was interesting for me to meet Ralph as, during my research I had found that his family had been the longest enduring family since written records began. Meeting Ralph was also a huge step forward as he gave his blessing to me and Mr B trampling around his land picking up random bits of china and pottery.
I had met with a CADW inspector Jon Berry, at the site one very rainy day and he walked with me – pointing out the bits I had missed. He was really interested and interesting and he was even kind enough to assist me back down the rain soaked muddy hill, thus saving me from completing the journey down on my bum, in an unladylike manner. The point being we started to know each other, who we were and what part we played.
So, being Mrs Angry in a nice way meant I got known and, being angry in a nice way meant I got taken seriously.
The work I was doing began to become more formalised with the intention of running something I called the Caerau Local History Project. This was an idea I had in order to share the information I had found that wasn’t relevant to my on-going research but was valuable nonetheless. This written work was now at around draft nine, having taken four or five years to get to this point. So I bought a small web-site package and loaded up stuff like Hearth Tax lists, census information on families, photos, such as that of the quarryman’s wife below and generally more about how Caerau had, I believe, developed since early medieval times.
So I began to promote this with little cards bearing the web address (which has now expired) and also contact details so that I could answer questions or, better, update with more information if people had it and were willing to share it. I started to get requests on information relating to individuals in the area. People started to tell me stories such as the Whitsun treats in the church grounds, weddings and related information like this. I loved it. This meant anything I found on the way to discovering more about the area in Iron Age times could also be used.
Then I got a rather odd email from someone who wanted to talk about the hillfort site. They were looking at some kind of academic project and had been given my details from CADW. It was a bit of a surprise that my best kept secret (I thought) was now to be the subject of some grown-up discussion.
OK – let’s meet.
The story will continue in the next installment, coming soon…
Exactly a year ago today we published this plea made by Heritage Action Founder Member Jamie Stone on a forum. We think it’s worth repeating – every year if necessary. How about saying something similar on your front page English Heritage?
“It doesn’t matter if it’s a digger destroying a stone row, a quarrying company destroying unique evidence of temporary camps around a henge, modern poems placed over a prehistoric landscape, a farmer allowing livestock to slowly destroy cairns or ploughing flat a round barrow, thousands of people stealing our heritage knowledge in the name of a hobby every weekend, landowners driving 4x4s across chambered tombs, tenant farmers flattening henges, 1000s of people denuding Avebury’s banks by not keeping to paths, unused roads being built over unique archaeology, 100s of people leaving tealights and garbage in barrows or one solitary person clambering to the top of a dolmen.
Don’t tell me it causes no damage. It doesn’t matter that in the greater scheme of things it’s practically irrelevant, because as the people that actually give a damn we should be setting the highest possible standard when we visit a site. We must do that because frankly, most people don’t know, they simply don’t realise.”
We’re pleased to be able to present a guest post by Peter Cornall, the Area Representatives Convenor for the Cornwall Archaeological Society, telling us a little about the Society’s “Monument Watch” scheme and its workings.
The late Tony Blackman was President of the Cornwall Archaeological Society until his untimely death early in 2012. Highly regarded both locally and nationally, in particular for his work with young people, Tony felt keenly the need to offer members of a local Society the chance to play an active role in the archaeology of their area. Opportunities in excavation for amateurs are infrequent, even in a region rich in monuments of the past. Other openings were to be sought, one being helping with the care of Cornwall’s ancient monuments.
Of these hundreds of monuments, scheduled and unscheduled, some may be found to be under no threat at all, while others may be neglected and clearly at risk. All stand to benefit from regular inspection, so it is no wonder that the development of Monument Watch across Cornwall came to seem a highly appropriate objective for the Society. The idea is by no means new, and important groups of volunteers have for some time been active in the protection and sometimes also the physical care and maintenance of monuments in several areas of Cornwall, including the Lizard, Meneage, West Penwith, Newquay and Bodmin Moor. Monument Watch countywide is in debt to their pioneering example.
For many years, the Cornwall Archaeological Society had recognised volunteer ‘Area Representatives’ acting as archaeological watchdogs for whatever group of parishes each felt to be within their reach. The members of this small group met quite informally each spring and autumn to exchange ideas and to report significant items of archaeological news, which might prompt the Society to action, often in concert with the Cornwall Historic Environment Service, English Heritage and the National Trust. It was this group which could be developed into a countywide watchdog for monuments, although this would never be the whole of its work.
During the past four years the group has doubled to twenty, as new volunteers have been recruited from the CAS membership, each to ‘adopt’ a contiguous group of ‘orphan’ parishes which the new Area Representative feels able to cover. By the autumn of 2012 the whole of Cornwall’s considerable land area and all its numerous Scheduled Monuments were covered by the scheme. (We also have an associate in the Isles of Scilly, who works alongside us.) A Short Guide has been written to describe the role of Area Representative; this paper can be consulted on the AR page of the CAS website, and probably offers the best concise picture of what we are trying to do. Our Monitoring Report Forms can also be found on the website.
This group of monument watchers now includes a wide range of age, experience and expertness, with some of the local heritage professionals doubling as advisers and Area Representatives. After careful discussion, a format for reporting has been devised which meets the recording needs of both English Heritage and the Cornwall Historic Environment Record. Reports on monuments can be submitted at any time either by e-mail or post, and the steady flow of these new-style reports is now of key importance to the sadly shrunken group of professionals in Truro. Thanks to this routine process, monuments under threat can be identified and action taken, while those reported as comparatively safe and sound -happily the majority- need not take up precious time. In this manner, Tony Blackman’s original wish to offer Society members a chance to be more active has led to an important and most timely collaboration between volunteers and professionals, just when resources for heritage protection are under serious threat.
It is possible, I guess, that this account may come under the eye of enthusiasts in other parts of the country where no such collaboration as that described here yet exists. There is one aspect of our Monument Watch which we would not offer up as ideal. Ours has been an organic growth, with the untidiness often associated with such a pattern of development. A group starting from scratch would certainly wish to achieve a more even distribution of responsibility for Scheduled Monuments than ours, which is numerically grossly uneven, reflecting the history of the Area Representatives group and its relatively rapid expansion. We have not seen fit, as yet, to attempt any redistribution of parishes in order to achieve a fairer sharing of burdens. Our answer has rather been to encourage the ARs to form support groups (where these do not already exist) or to recruit friends and fellow-members as sharers in the monitoring work. At the same time, we recognize the inherent difficulty of achieving even an approximate evenness of load, where the variables of terrain, distance, monument type and site distribution are so significant.
Our distribution of MW responsibilities to Area Representatives happens – somehow – to be based on the ancient ecclesiastical parishes of Cornwall; church and civil changes over the years have sometimes complicated matters for us, and more up-to-date boundaries would obviously be easier to use.
Then there must be more exciting – and descriptive – titles for monument watchers than ‘Area Representatives’, even when their duties (like ours) extend further than simply MW, and I am sure that they will be found and employed!
Any scheme starting-up elsewhere would certainly wish to ensure that all its monument watchers could at least send in their reports online, even if not all would be ready to deploy every possible gadget in the field, seeking their targets by GPS, making notes on tablets and taking their photographs on smart phones. Some of us in Cornwall still cherish the compass, the map, the notebook and the camera!
Our grateful thanks go to Peter for taking time out to put together this account of an important part of the Society’s work. If your local society has a similar or comparable scheme, please let us know and we’d be happy to give space to it here on the Heritage Journal.
Ok, so here we are, a week or so into the New Year of the standard calendar. Resolutions have been made, and doubtless broken. You’ve already bowed to the nicotine cravings, been to the pub (more than once!) and given up on the gym (after just two visits!). You’ve lost a pound or so since the Christmas binge, but fully expect the weight to rise (or at least stabilise) again before the end of the month. So here are some suggestions for 2013 that should be relatively easy to achieve:
Visit new sites
Resolve to visit at least one new archaeology/heritage site every month through the year. This will have the benefits, if you select the right sites, of a bit of exercise, fresh air, education and helping to conserve our heritage, either by paying entrance fees to visit a site (English Heritage, National Trust etc) or by generally clearing up, taking litter away etc when you’re there.
Join an Archaeological Society
Last year we highlighted, on a regional basis, many societies throughout England. Many of these are relatively inexpensive to join, and can provide a social atmosphere whilst learning about archaeology, whether as part of a Community Group doing excavations, surveys etc. or as part of a regular meet attending lectures and talks.
Take a course
Universities and Evening Classes are no longer the only way to extend the educational experience beyond your schooldays. A couple of us here at Heritage Action have signed up to Coursera who are providing an online learning course entitled “Archaeology’s Dirty Little Secrets” starting in June, which asks and answers a series of questions about the role and practice of archaeology in the world today. The course is free, and the range of online learning is expanding on an almost daily basis.
Attend a Conference
Whilst many Archaeological Conferences are aimed squarely at the professional or academia markets (and priced accordingly!), there are still a selection to choose from aimed more at the ‘common man’ with little/no qualifications, but with an interest in the subject. Personally, I’ll be attending the two day Current Archaeology Live conference in London in March.
Involve the family
The CBA’s Festival of Archaeology this year is scheduled for the second two weeks of July (13th-28th) and includes hundreds of events around the country, for all ages. Immerse the kids in living like a Roman, take them round a museum, visit a Bronze Age roundhouse, and more!
Contribute to the Heritage Journal
We’re always looking for articles for the Journal, so why not resolve to submit a story or two throughout the year? You can write about your experience at a particular site or event that you’ve visited, an aspect of archaeology/heritage protection that inspires/annoys you, local efforts in your community to boost awareness of our heritage… As Arthur Daley would say, “The world’s your lobster, my son!”
Those are our ideas, why not let us know in the comments what your Heritage Resolutions are this year?
English Heritage’s “Heritage Cycle”, published in their Research Strategy for Prehistory, neatly illustrates how awareness of heritage leads to care for heritage….
In the same document they quote the words of the All Party Parliamentary Archaeology Group that noted that prehistory doesn’t feature in the English school national curriculum and that “the UK is the only European state to neglect prehistory in this way” and that “Prehistory should be part of all national curricula“. We couldn’t agree more and it reminded us of what we think is a classic essay written for us by our member Tombo in 2004 soon after Heritage Action was formed. It’s worth publishing once again …
A heartfelt plea for “the myth of barbarism” to be lifted from our prehistory and for our ancient places to be given the care they deserve.
The stone circle of Tomnaverie, in Aberdeenshire, is a powerful symbol of the unhappy situation facing Britain’s rich prehistoric heritage. The builders of this majestic megalithic ring chose to position it like a crown on the head of the hill for which it is named: Tomnaverie, meaning ‘The Mound of the Fairies’. Yet despite the commanding location, the awe-inspiring views over the surrounding landscape and the impressive character of the stones themselves, Tomnaverie is the scene of an appalling tragedy.
As the twentieth century progressed, the Mound of the Fairies was slowly quarried away. Today, the quarrying has claimed so much of the hillside that the cliff-edges begin at the very limits of the stone circle itself, which can now only be reached by what one visitor described as “an ever-diminishing causeway of rock” (Julian Cope, The Modern Antiquarian). Many of the stones were deliberately thrown down (although now re-erected), at an unknown date, still others removed, and even those that remain are scarred and chipped.
Tomnaverie – see how insanely close to the stones the quarry is – during excavation. (Credit Peter Donaldson)
Kemp Howe stone circle, in Cumbria, similarly symbolises the wider context of its tragedy. This ring of beautiful, almost luminescent, pink-coloured stones are brutally bisected by a railway line, slightly over half of the circle completely obliterated beneath the embankment. It is a bizarre experience, to watch commuter-filled carriages hurtling at top speed through this battered beauty. The destruction could have been avoided altogether had the tracks only been laid a handful of yards away. It is as though the railway’s planners and builders did not even notice the circle’s presence.
Britain and Ireland are filled with places of this sort, where the monuments that meant so much to the people of the ancient world have been treated as nothing more than obstacles in the path of the modern world’s progress. Indeed, this website is entirely devoted to raising awareness of ancient sites that are, at this very moment, in danger of falling victim to similar circumstances. At least these places, unlike Tomnaverie, Kemp Howe and many other locations, can still be saved from damage and degradation, if we act now.
It is the purpose of this essay to enquire into the reasons why Britain’s ancient heritage so often faces these threats of wanton and unnecessary destruction. With so many prehistoric monuments at risk the main thrust of Heritage Action’s activities must, of necessity, be to deal with the problem symptomatically, tackling head-on specific threats to specific monuments. Yet it is also important that awareness is raised as to the underlying causes of the malaise, in the hope that the destruction might, in the future, be prevented from arising in the first place.
The myth of history
Humans and their ancestors (people who walked upright and gradually developed culture) have walked the earth for over three million years, yet I write these words in the year 2004. We number our years with reference to the birth of Jesus, dividing the past into BC, or Before Christ, and AD, or Anno Domini (Latin for In The Year Of Our Lord). Even when the more politically-correct terminology of CE and BCE (Common Era and Before The Common Era, respectively) is adopted, the division of the past into two portions remains, and with it the implication that one era, and by far the shorter one at that, is more significant than the other.
The original adoption of this method of numbering the years was very clearly an attempt to deliberately mislead. The nascent church, in a spirit of propagandist fervour, wished to imply that the times before the coming of Christianity were long ages of error, that the pre-Christian world was at best misguided, at worst actually evil. Even now that the church has lost much of its political and cultural power in Britain, our numbering of the years insidiously perpetuates its disregarding of the greater part of our past. A powerful but subtle deception endures.
A road slices through one end of Tregiffian Burial Chamber in Cornwall. (Credit Jane Tomlinson)
We similarly polarise the past every time we speak of ‘history’, a word which has ‘prehistory’ implicit in it. The word ‘history’ is derived from the same root as ‘story’, and in Middle English no distinction was made between the two. Whenever we mention ‘history’, we subtly imply that ‘prehistory’ was the time before the story began, of lesser importance than the story itself. It is interesting to note that in scholarly books about Britain’s past, the word ‘history’ usually refers to roughly the last two thousand years, just like Anno Domini or Common Era.
It might be argued that the influence of the church lingers on in the scholarly study of history. Academic knowledge, like that which is handed on in the history department of a modern university, is built up like the edifice of an ornate building, over many generations of scholars, each adding to the work of the last. Because Britain’s earliest native historians were monks, like Gildas or Bede, there may be some merit in the view that history’s academic architecture rests upon Christian foundations that exert a fundamentally Christian influence on the entire structure.
Yet this can only be the beginning of the story, because most contemporary historians have no overtly Christian axe to grind. Moreover, they try to cultivate a keen awareness of the biases inherent in all historical sources, particularly those that were so obviously created within the context of a rigidly religious world-view. The Christian foundations of our scholarly edifice may exert some degree of malign influence on our understanding of the past, but they are by no means the sole cause of the dismissal that is implied by the terminology of ‘history’ and ‘prehistory’.
The written word
The foremost definition of the word ‘history’ given in the Oxford English Dictionary is “continuous methodical record of public events”. Implicit in this definition is the notion that history is, by its very nature, a written phenomenon. After all, how else is a ‘continuous methodical record’ to be kept? Most of the sources from which historians learn about the past are written, because the written word can establish the facts of history with an apparent certainty that no other medium offers. Writing preserves the stories of history in the words of those who actually witnessed them.
Although the Ogham, Runic and Greek alphabets were not unknown in prehistoric Britain, they were not at all widely used. Before the arrival of the Romans, in 43 CE, the written sources that usually inform the study of history simply did not exist here. There is a sense, then, in which the term ‘prehistory’ simply refers to the time before the ‘continuous methodical record of public events’ began. Although this shows ‘prehistory’ to be a far less sinister term than ‘Before Christ’, it does not alter the fact that it rings in most ears as a dismissal: ‘before the story started’.
The Leys of Marlee Stone Circle, near Blairgowrie. How easy it would’ve been for the road to avoid the circle! (Credit Andy Sweet)
The ‘methodical record of public events’ might only have begun with writing, but the story of our collective past is far deeper and older. Indeed, most historians would be the first to acknowledge this, and also to point out that much can be known of the times before writing. Yet our culture’s dismissal of the pre-literate past is undeniable. The space on any school timetable devoted to the study of pre-literate times is as nothing when compared to that spent teaching the written history of the Common Era. Most children leave school without ever hearing the name Silbury.
It might be argued that this is as it should be, that it is entirely right that at least three million years of ‘prehistory’ should be skimmed over in only a handful of pages at the beginning of our history books, that the last two thousand years of ‘history’ are more relevant to our situation today. But then a convincing argument can also be made for the lessons of ‘prehistory’ having more relevance to the modern world than those which ‘history’ offers. Who is to decide which has more merit, and why must the decision be made? Would it not be better to fully inform our children of the entire past?
The multitudinous books on the subject of pre-literate Britain demonstrate that abundant enough material could be found to rectify this imbalance in the nation’s education. The absence of writing does not mean that we do not know enough of those times to describe them to our children in far fuller detail than the oversimplified and distorted outline which is currently on offer in our schools. There is an abundance of evidence from which we can learn of pre-literate times, the numerous monuments that Heritage Action exists to protect foremost in this cultural legacy.
The myth of civilisation
There is a tacit assumption, in our culture, that civilisation is altogether a good thing. Our leaders speak of Western societies as “the civilised world” sharing “civilised values”, referring to their enemies as “the enemies of civilisation”. It is considered high praise to be referred to as ‘very civilised’, and conversely a grave insult to be told that your behaviour is ‘uncivilised’. Civilised, to most people, is synonymous with words like cultured, polite and intelligent. Uncivilised, conversely, is popularly identified with terms such as barbaric, thuggish and ignorant.
The latest edition of the Oxford English Dictionary defines civilisation as “an advanced stage or system of human social development”. The word originates in the Latin civis, meaning ‘city dweller’, which is also the ancestor of our word ‘city’. Despite the dictionary’s vagueness as to the exact nature of this “advanced stage or system”, it is safe to say that the defining characteristic of civilisation is urban life. Cities, so the story goes, are only possible in societies where people’s social skills are sufficiently highly evolved to enable them to live peacefully with large numbers of other people.
The Broad Stone, Dorset. Once part of a stone circle, not quite destroyed but forgotten in the wake of the A35. (Credit Jamie Stone)
The word civilisation, then, implies that the people of non-urban societies are under-developed, immature, uncooperative and anti-social. Indeed, the Romans originally began to refer to themselves as civis out of a smug sense of cultural superiority. It was a word they used to set themselves apart from those who they looked down on as primitive, the ‘barbarians’ who they believed to be too socially backward to live in cities. Civilisation is truly a xenophobic word, both born of and perpetuating a divisive us-and-them mentality.
The British empire in India attempted to disguise its true purpose, the acquisition of land, natural resources and power, with high-sounding talk of a “civilising mission”. Its missionaries made the same claim in Africa, as did the conquistadors in South America, and a legion of other servants of Empire all over the world. The concept of civilisation first came to Britain in exactly the same way: as Roman imperial propaganda designed to denigrate and disregard the ‘savage’ pre-Roman world by implying that the invaders had saved us from barbarism.
The relevance of this to our culture’s dismissal of the pre-literate, prehistoric past is clear. Historians believe civilisation to have arrived in Britain at the same time as both writing and history: with the Roman invasion. Indeed, the 1994 Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary defines civilisation as “the stage of cultural development at which writing and the keeping of written records is attained “. It seems more than coincidental that our ‘civilised’ society should undervalue its pre-literate past. Those times are also said to be before civilisation, when people are believed to have been brutal and barbaric.
The myth of barbarism
The Roman dismissal of Britain’s pre-Roman past became entrenched ever more deeply in our culture by long centuries of Christianity and persists to this day. It is still the popularly-held belief that the people of pre-Roman Britain were in some way subhuman, animalistic, ape-like (although there’s nothing wrong with being an animal or an ape). Within a few years of the Roman invasion, the social climbers amongst the indigenous population were dressing in Roman clothes, living in Roman-style houses and learning Latin. ‘Roman’ quickly became synonymous with ‘fashionable’.
Barbarism is said to be the absence of civilisation, and the 1949 Oxford English Dictionary defines civilise as “bring out of barbarism”. It derives, via the Latin barbaria (which refers to a country of barbarians), from the Greek word barbaros, meaning ‘foreign, strange, ignorant’. Etymological dictionaries suggest that its ‘bar-bar’ sound was likely to have originated as a mocking imitation of the ‘unintelligible’ speech of foreigners. There is, then, no need for shame in the face of our ‘barbarian’ past: the word barbarian is every bit as xenophobic as civilisation.
A cairn near the famous Callanish on the Isle of Lewis – cut in half by a road. (Credit Andy Sweet)
The slanders that are heaped upon the ‘barbarian’ need to be recognised as the racist slurs that they are. The absence of cities in pre-Roman Britain does not mean that people were anti-social or uncooperative, just as the presence of cities does not demonstrate their ability to live together in perfect harmony. Silbury Hill, described in full elsewhere on this website, is but one spectacular fruit of mass cooperation in pre-urban Britain, whilst the ruthless empire-building of the city-dwelling Romans can hardly be described as either cooperative or sociable.
The absence of civilisation, barbarism, is popularly thought to imply a higher level of violence than that which is found amongst ‘civilised’ people. To modern ears, the word ‘barbarian’ conjures images of muscle-bound, small-brained, sword-wielding savages. Yet there is no evidence at all to suggest that the presence of cities makes a society either more or less violent. Pre-urban Britain was sometimes a violent place, just as it can be today, but then the city-dwelling Romans, with their love of war, crucifixion and the amphitheatre, can hardly be described as a pacifist people.
The idea that pre-literate, barbarian Britain lacked both intelligence and culture because it lacked writing is another popular misconception. Even Caesar wrote with some degree of awe about the sophisticated education of Britain’s Druids, who each memorised a rich oral tradition in its entirety during their twenty years of training. He remarked: “they consider it improper to entrust their studies to writing… [in case] the student should rely on the written word and neglect the exercise of his memory”. Writing was used only for mundane, usually financial, matters.
Britain is filled with prehistoric monuments whose builders could only have been intelligent, thoughtful, patient, inspired, skilful, cooperative and knowledgeable, amongst many other admirable qualities. The sheer scale of monuments like Silbury, Avebury, Stonehenge, Stanton Drew, The Ring of Brodgar and Callanish demonstrate, to begin with, that their builders were materially secure and optimistic about their future. Those who are engaged in a struggle for survival cannot devote the labour of so many to monument-construction without starving to death, their works left unfinished.
The builders of ancient monuments had a highly sophisticated sense of aesthetics. The beauty of their constructions enthrals us to this day, delighting the painter, poet, photographer, musician and film-maker alike. More than being beautiful in their own right, however, the positioning of these monuments reveals an exquisite sensitivity to the aesthetics of landscape. The Castlerigg stone circle, for instance, stands at the centre of a vast, natural amphitheatre, majestic hills towering in a stately ring around it, utterly spectacular scenery that attracts hundreds of visitors every summer’s day.
Other sites reveal the locations from which landscape features take on human forms. At the Callanish standing stones, for example, on the Hebridean Isle of Lewis, the hills on the horizon conspire to form the shape of a recumbent female figure, who has long been known locally as the Cailleach na Monteach (‘hag of the moors’, who is also known as Sleeping Beauty). The various monuments of the Callanish complex all reveal different aspects of Sleeping Beauty’s character: from one stone circle she appears to be pregnant, for instance, whilst at another site she is cradled between two hills like a tiny baby.
‘Sleeping Beauty’ on the horizon nearly fills this picture. Her head is on the right – she’s lying on her back. Nose, breasts, pubic mound, and legs all clearly defined. (Credit: Tim Clark)
Once every nineteen years, as seen from the main avenue at Callanish, the Moon rises out of Sleeping Beauty’s heart and dances eastward along the horizon, barely rising into the sky at all. It sets just short of the main Callanish circle itself, but reappears a moment later through a notch in the horizon, the pale light shivering out from the very centre of the ring. The Moon is a notoriously erratic celestial object, and this spectacular drama can only be made to unfold from a very particular location. Careful scientific observation and an inspired artistic eye were both essential to the positioning of Callanish.
Further examples of this sort of monumental art and science abound, from the Cumbrian stones known as the Giant’s Grave, which reveal a sleeping giant in hills called Black Combe, to Stonehenge’s famous alignment on the midsummer sunrise. These places are far too numerous to detail fully here, and I recommend Julian Cope’s The Modern Antiquarian to those wishing to learn more of them. Suffice it to say that the legacy of the megalith-builders reveals them to have been skilled artists, astronomers, mathematicians, engineers and much more.
Why has the ring of Tomnaverie been all but ruined by quarrying that could have taken place elsewhere? Why have the railway tracks at Kemp Howe obliterated over half of the stone circle, when the destruction could have been avoided by laying them a few yards away? Why has Silbury Hill been in danger of collapse for nearly four years now, as I write these words, when the damage could have been repaired? Why are the Thornborough Henges in imminent danger of suffering the same senseless fate as Tomnaverie?
Kemp Howe Stone Circle – some of its stones are believed to still be under the railway embankment
Our prehistoric heritage is desperately undervalued. If it were Canterbury Cathedral, and not Silbury Hill, that were at risk of collapse then the structure would have been made sound long ago. The comparison is very relevant: Silbury has a clear historical importance in terms of both national and world heritage, and is of central significance to the spirituality of many thousands of people in both modern Britain and the world at large, as it was in the ancient past. In the face of such unequal treatment our culture’s undervaluing of its prehistoric heritage is hard to deny.
This essay has argued that the many dangers facing Britain’s ancient monuments, and also much of the damage already done, are symptomatic of a wider problem in our understanding of the past. I have attempted to give what I see as the reasons for the tragic disregarding of the greater part of our past. I have pointed out what I believe to be prejudices in the way our culture views the people of prehistory. I have traced what I see as the historical causes of these prejudices, arguing that they originated in the Roman empire and were perpetuated and deeply embedded in our culture by the Christian church.
I am by no means the first to suggest this, and these arguments have been gradually taking root in our cultural consciousness over recent years, awareness spreading with the popular books and television programmes by authors like Julian Cope (The Modern Antiquarian) and Francis Pryor (Britain BC). A re-evaluation of our past may be underway, and it is possible that soon the judgemental measuring up of prehistoric Britain’s culture using the distorted Roman standard of civilisation will be ended. In the mean-time prejudices persist, and we who care must take all the action that we can to protect our past.
Out there on the heath, hidden from the city-centres, our precious ancient heritage stands forgotten, ignored and, all too often, endangered. It is our heritage, and it belongs to us all. If it is to be saved then awareness and action are the duties of each and every one of us. Are we to sit indoors whilst the quarrymen and road-builders draw up their plans, unaware of our loss even when we are robbed? Will we always write off the majority of human beings to have ever lived as uncivilised barbarians? Are we to be dispossessed, or educated and empowered?
The rest is up to you.
Tombo – May 2004
English Heritage have just expanded their laudable information resource by adding guidance on Community Right to Bid. The idea is that if a property that has a community use comes up for sale then community groups have the right to make a bid to buy it.
There’s always a bit of a worry that, like all localism and Big Society talk, it’s a fig leaf for less statutory protection, but apart from that it seems like good news in general…. providing local authorities can be persuaded to list the asset as having community value. In the case of prehistoric sites that might be very difficult…..
EH says “The scheme is obviously principally aimed at securing the on-going community benefit of local shops, pubs, libraries and the like. These buildings will frequently also be heritage assets. Whilst their heritage value or significance cannot be described as a community use in the meaning of this regime, there is clearly nothing wrong in using this mechanism to secure the opportunity to negotiate the acquisition of important heritage assets that also have a community utility.”
Nothing wrong, but can it be done in the case of an unprotected prehistoric lump in a field? Can that be represented to local councillors as having, as the Localism Act requires, “current or recent use which can be shown to further the social wellbeing or social interest of the community”? If not then the Act is clear, “Properties which have not had a social use for some years [and some years probably includes three millennia!] or have been empty or derelict are not covered by the Act.”
This perhaps is where megaraks and picnickers and twitchers and such like come in. If they can show they’ve been regularly using a monument for a few years then the Community Right to Bid might kick in. Is it a case of use it or lose it? Does a listing on popular sites such as The Megalithic Portal and The Modern Antiquarian offer evidence that some megalithic sites, despite being empty or derelict are nevertheless furthering the social wellbeing or social interest of the community just as much as “local shops, pubs, libraries and the like”? Nothing wrong with trying to say so, EH seem to be saying.
Today we are launching our new public forum. It will be for the discussion of anything relating to ancient heritage promotion and protection and we intend it to be lighthearted and polite at all times.
This will be our second attempt at a public forum, the first crashed and burned but taught us a few lessons. We’ve codified those lessons into some simple rules of behaviour: Be polite at all times, no discussion of metal detecting, no anonymous proxies and the moderator is always right!
So if you can stick to those, please pop along, we’d love to see you…
You can register at www.heritageaction.org.uk/forum.
As the end of their 2012 dig season came to a close, so the Norton Community Archaeology Group (NCAG) held an Open Day at their Stapleton’s Field dig on what was the hottest day of the year so far. This is the third season of an ongoing project design (PDF links) begun in 2010 to investigate crop marks on aerial photographs which suggested a possible henge structure. Although most participants in the dig are amateurs, the summer excavation work is directed by North Hertfordshire District Council’s Archaeology Officer, Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, and advised by local archaeologist Paul Palmer.
I headed up the A1 to Letchworth in good time for the start of the open session and decided to take a slight detour to look at the museum in Letchworth. It is housed in an elegant Edwardian building facing Broadway Gardens, in the centre of Letchworth, beside the Library. The ground floor contains a wildlife exhibition – lots of stuffed animals and birds. The ‘Before the Garden City’ exhibition is on the first floor, sadly inaccessible for the disabled except via two flights of stairs via a small mezzanine floor. The exhibition itself is quite extensive, though some renovation work is being carried out: some display cases were empty or partly so, information boards referred to missing exhibits etc. but despite that, it gives a good flavour of the depth of archaeology in the area. NCAG have a display there too, outlining their excavations and findings.
I had heard that the museum also had a roundhouse, but when I enquired at the desk was told this is in the museum garden, only viewable on ‘open archaeology days’, but that I might be able to see it from the children’s section of the library next door. I declined this offer, and set off for the dig site.
I parked on a grass verge on Norton Road just west of the bridge over the A1, and set off around the footpath to the site. Across the field I could see a good crowd, obviously being told about the site. Was I too late?
I found my way eventually, having taken a turn onto the wrong footpath and being stymied by barbed wire fencing frustratingly separating me from the site and causing me to walk the length of the field twice to gain access, just as the tour was ending. I would estimate between 80-100 people on that first tour, a good turn-out!
There were gazebos set up with some information boards, both on general archaeology techniques (geofizz etc) and the site dig in particular, and as I was perusing these, Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews was announcing that a second tour was about to start. Again, a good 70-80 people were gathered, having missed the first tour.
We started by the south corner of the 40m square excavation, where Keith explained a brief history of the dig site and the mystery of a ‘square enclosure’ around the suspected henge. The enclosure turned out to be a Roman ditch, with lots of roof tile, and some evidence of iron smelting and manufacture in the area, although no forge was found. Keith postulated that the area was a site for manufacture, and possibly sale of iron goods, the ditch being a defensive mechanism to keep out burgulars. Any buildings may have been timber-framed structures, built on (rather than in) the chalk base. The lack of a forge could be explained if the forge were to have been built into the bank of the henge which was slightly uphill, and subsequently ploughed out and scattered, leaving no trace. This would make economic sense at the time, as building a forge was a large undertaking, and why not use what’s already there?
We then moved uphill to the west of the excavation, where barely visible remains of a chalk ring could be made out on the ground. This was the remains of the henge, which was composed of not one, but two banks; a large outer bank some 55 metres or so in diameter, and a smaller inner bank and ditch. This has been interpreted as a possible ‘missing link’ between the earlier formative-henge monument type, and the later classic henge form. If this is the case, then this makes the site very important indeed.
The smaller bank had an entrance due East, and a central, flat chalk platform which may have been used to view the equinoxal sunrise – important dates in the neolithic farming calendar. A cremation burial was also found within this inner bank, along with a large post hole – for a ‘totem’ pole possibly? The cremation was of an adolescent, some 8-9 years old, as evidenced by a milk tooth found within the remains.
The bank and ditches have been dated via various pottery finds of known types. The cremation mentioned above having been in what may have been a collared urn style pot, but one of much better quality than usually associated with the type.
There was some discussion of the wider landscape, the ‘Baldock Bowl’ as Keith has called it – the subject of his recent talk at the Welwyn Archaeological Society Conference – “it’s like someone dumped a lump of Salisbury Plain in Hertfordshire!”
All too soon the tour of the site was over, and Keith was answering questions from the couple of dozen people who had remained. As I left, I overheard plans being discussed for next season’s excavation in 2013.
An interesting day of outreach to the local community, who were obviously (from the numbers present) very interested in the early story of their local area. Well done to all involved!
Note: Apologies to all involved for any inaccuracies in my account above, I was working from memory rather than notes.
All pictures above © Alan S. unless stated.
The hill has long been known as an important archaeological site because of the four Bronze Age burial cairns there: Cat Cairn; Baron’s Cairn; Crab’s Cairn; and Tullos Cairn, all of which are scheduled sites. In total over 150 archaeological sites, from the prehistoric to WWII have been identified on the hill so far.
A previous community excavation in 2010 was well attended by budding archaeologists, and volunteers are now being sought for another season of excavation work planned for August 22 to September 4, including weekends. Those wishing to get involved should contact CFA Archaeology by calling 0131 273 4380 or e-mailing email@example.com as soon as possible.
For visitors, there will be an organised open day on Saturday, September 1 from 10am-4pm when there will be opportunities to dig and take part on guided walks of the historical sites on Tullos Hill.