You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Ancient Britain’ category.
From a distance, British Camp is just one of many peaks comprising the Malvern Hills and tends to go unnoticed amongst the others.
Closer up it becomes clear that it’s a monument to be reckoned with, a series of two thousand year old ramparts surmounted by a Norman motte and commanding extraordinary views to Wales in one direction and the Cotswolds in the other, described by 17th Century diarist John Evelyn as “one of the godliest vistas in England”.
According to folklore it was the place where the ancient British chieftan Caractacus made his last stand against the Romans – although historians think it more likely to have been a few miles away on Caradoc in Shropshire. Still, it was probably built by him and was an auspicious location and home to thousands of people for a number of centuries.
A ringwork and bailey castle was built within the camp, possibly by the last Anglo Saxon monarch, the future King Harold II a few years before he met his end at Hastings. 200 years later the Earl of Gloucester (prompted by a boundary dispute with the Bishop of Hereford) built the Shire Ditch to the North and South of British Camp (possible on the line of a prehistoric trackway).
In modern times composer Elgar became closely associated with the Malverns and was inspired by the folklore to compose his cantata Caractacus. The status of Malvern as a spa town and literary centre and particularly Elgar’s friendships have meant that a host of famous figures have visited the hills and British Camp, including JRR Tolkein (who may have based the White Mountains of Gondor on the hills) and CS Lewis (who is said to have been inspired by a Malvern lampost he saw while walking back from the pub with Tolkein to write about the lampost in Narnia!) So if you want to experience “one of the godliest vistas in England” and follow in the footsteps of many famous people you’d better get up there!
We haven’t had a Quote of the Week for ages, but something in the Yorkshire Times prompted us to start it again.
It’s from an article that poses the question “Are there too many wind farms in East Yorkshire?”. If you’re worried about global warming, you’d probably say no. If you’re a windfarm developer you’d probably say no. If you’re a farmer wanting to make oodles you’d probably say no. And if you are a local who wants cheap local electricity and increased employment opportunities you’d probably say no.
But what if, actually, you think some (though not all) heritage sites and their settings need preserving or treating with respect so that some (but not all) can be passed to the future unscathed, what then? What if you think the pendulum has swung a bit too far in favour of people who want to make gazillions and against those who want to preserve some (but not all) such heritage assets? What if you feel that since East Yorkshire has the highest density of wind turbines in England (226 turbines over 50 metres high have been built, approved or are pending a decision), enough is now enough?
Dr Peter Halkon, an archaeologist and a lecturer at the University of Hull, has spoken for them:
“The landscape of East Yorkshire is varied and subtle. It possesses a beauty of its own. There are very few parts of our region which have not been shaped by human activity since the first farmers some 6,000 years ago. Most of these changes however were in keeping with a landscape created by centuries of settlement and agriculture. Despite intensive use many monuments still survive making this one of the most important archaeological regions in the UK, a heritage which includes the Rudston monolith, Britain’s tallest standing stone, great prehistoric burial grounds and the network of massive linear earthworks.”
He said one of the most important archaeological landscapes in the region is between Market Weighton and Sancton, containing long barrows built five and a half thousand years ago and now home to one of the area’s largest windfarms.
“The views down valleys like this are very important. Now all one sees looking down them towards the Humber are the massive blades of wind turbines. No amount of predevelopment archaeological prospection or excavation can make up for the loss of the visual and symbolic connection between the wider landscape and these significant monuments to past human activities.”
He said he has no objection to small scale, carefully sited single turbines on farms, but said any more large developments “will wreck this beautiful historic landscape”.
by Katharine Range
A Google search among the interwebs won’t yield much on this site (trust me), and truth be told, there is barely anything to see at the site. You may wonder why I even bothered. Well. I think that even sites like these, that are difficult to access and difficult to discern, are still worth noting and acknowledging. Britain is chock full of archaeology and history that is unknown to most people and largely taken for granted. Under every garden shed and cookie-cutter home; under every Tesco and village pub, lies the prospect of evidence of millennia of history. It’s a tantalizing image.
Billingborough is a small village located just south of the A52 midway between Grantham and Boston in Lincolnshire. The first record of the village, so named, is in the Domesday Book of 1086 and is recorded as Billingeburg. It had a mill and half a church. The name is taken from the Old English group name “Billingas” which means the family and followers of Billa, and “burh” which means the stronghold of the Billingas. But Billingborough has a much more lengthy history than the early Middle Ages.
Excavated in 1975-78 minimal evidence was found of activity at Billingborough Fen, which is just south of the town’s Cow Gate, from the Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age. However, substantial remains of a Middle Bronze Age (2nd half of the 2nd millenium B.C.) ditch and bank enclosure were found dating to about 1500 BC. A number of postholes seem to indicate structures, though what type is difficult to determine due to extensive Medieval ploughing. Ditches and pottery were also found. The enclosure is the most extensively and completely excavated site of its type in the area. The settlement was later abandoned, most likely due to marine flooding.
After about 500 years, the site was again occupied in the late Bronze/Early Iron Age and was used extensively for salt-making. This site is one of the earliest known salt-making sites in the country and a number of features associated with this industry were identified.
“There were four pits containing ashy deposits and briquetage fragments as well as several hearths. These were some gullies which may have been surviving evidence from structures, perhaps temporary shelters or windbreaks. One of the pits appeared, during excavation, to contain an in situ clay structure which disintegrated on excavation. Several scatters of salt-making debris were found across the site. The pottery that was found was not distinctive in form or fabric and was present in only small amounts. It is of a style that dates it probably, to the Bronze Age to early Iron Age. The analysis of the small amount of animal bone (cow, sheep/goat and pig) showed that most of the animals present were exploited for their meat. The development of salt marsh to the east of the site at this period would have provided ideal grazing for sheep, in particular, and meat may have been salted and perhaps traded with settlements in the region”. ( Chowne, Peter; Cheal, Rosamund; and Fitzpatrick, A. P., 2001, Excavations at Billingborough, Lincolnshire, 1975-78: a Bronze-Iron Age settlement and saltern site).
Other sources also identify traces of iron-working and bronze smelting.
Occupation grew more intense toward the last centuries of the 1st millenium B.C. as evidenced by two other enclosures associated with the settlement. During the 1st century A.D., a Romano-British field system was superimposed over the old enclosures. Well-preserved artefacts, including large amounts of pottery, were found representing all phases of occupation. Because of sequence of occupation and the quantities of pottery found, Billingborough Fen has become essential as it generated a recognized pottery sequence for Bronze/Iron Age pottery types and has been used extensively by other conservation and archaeological entities in the area and further afield.
Human bones were also unearthed, comprising one nearly complete female skeleton and one partially complete. One more interesting tidbit. There were also a number of skull fragments. Some had been cut and polished into bowl shapes and are all associated with the Iron Age phase of occupation. They come from several different people and would seem to indicate some type of ritual use. There are comparable examples of this phenomena at All Cannings Cross in Wiltshire and, closer to home, from the Iron Age site at nearby Helpringham. (1st Annual Report of the Trust for Lincolshire Archaeology – October 1985)
This last is quite tantalizing, but in fact all of the wealth of information and artefacts found at this site show the importance of conserving and recording even the most visually insignificant site. Under this flat, unassuming fen, lay layer upon layer of occupation covering about 3500 years, the artefacts of which were used to set a pottery sequence standard used by other archaeologists. Obvious and enigmatic sites are dramatic and visually pleasing, but sometimes I find these unassuming places more intriguing because they are shrouded in so much more mystery and so plentiful while yet unknown. quietly waiting to yield up their story.
A recent article in the Oxford Mail about a new Heritage Trail based upon archaeological finds during development of a new housing estate caught our eye. With so much ‘developer-led rescue archaeology’ being undertaken, often with the ‘preservation by record’ caveat attached, it seems to us that such Heritage Trails could be a good idea going forward for many new housing estates across the country. Not only would such trails be educational, sparking the imagination of the people living in those communities, and connecting tehm to the area’s history, but they would be a constant nagging reminder of what has been lost forever (Oswestry, anyone?)
And of course, involvement with sites doesn’t just have to be about information boards. Although written from an Ireland perspective, the ‘Bored of Boards‘ document available for free download from the Heritage Council of Ireland gives many alternative ways of providing interpretation for heritage sites, particularly in an urban environment. One of the alternatives listed in that document we’ve discussed here on the Heritage Journal in the past: the use of QR codes, such as that provided by the iBeaken system.
Many town centres and villages of course already have Heritage Trails set up. One town relatively local to me that has a trail (actually 7 of them!) is Wheathampstead, in Hertfordshire. There is a town centre trail, marked by mini-plaques on historical buildings, with a map and interpretation board outside the church, and a further six trails through the surrounding countryside detailed on their web site, ranging in length from 4-8 miles and covering the Iron Age, through Roman and Saxon times, to relatively recent historical sites. Well worth a visit if you’re in the area!
Further north, the University of York, in partnership with the grand sounding ‘Institute for the Public Understanding of the Past (IPUP)’ has created a fine Roman Trail as well as other trails in the area (a Viking one is under development) but it would be wonderful from our point of view to see a similar trail somewhere that didn’t rely purely upon historical/preserved buildings but concentrated solely on sites from prehistory, i.e. discovered purely via excavated archaeology rather than above ground remains, which would otherwise be lost forever, and preserved only in a Heritage Environment Record somewhere.
If you know of any such trails, please let us know so that we can highlight them here and spread the word.
Now that the December hullabaloo has died down, (what? You’re still celebrating??) January is traditionally a time for the holiday brochures to make an appearance, and cold evenings huddled around a fire are spent dreaming of the sunnier, warmer days of summer ahead, and how to spend them. If you’re not one of those who go flying off to foreign climes, but prefer to explore the ancient heritage of the British Isles in a so-called ‘Staycation’, you may well be looking for some ideas.
Luckily, our friends over at the Heritage Daily have recently been putting together a few ‘Top Ten’ lists which may inspire you.
Firstly to set the scene, a list of the Top Ten Archaeological Discoveries in 2013. Not so much here on places to visit, though my personal favourite ‘local’ henge at Norton in Hertfordshire is included here. Whilst there’s not that much to see on the ground at Norton, taking in the wider landscape of the ‘Baldock Bowl’ can reap some rewards, whilst a few miles away is the largest longbarrow in Hertfordshire, just outside Royston.
If stone circles are your ‘thing’, a list of the Top Ten Circles in Britain should provide plenty of inspiration. From Brodgar in the north, to Stanton Drew and Stonehenge in the south, all the major circles are here.
Hillforts seem to be coming under attack from developers lately (see our recent stories on Oswestry), so why not get out and see a few while they’re still relatively free of housing? The Top Ten Iron Age Hillforts list features some spectacular forts, from East Lothian in Scotland, down to the South Coast.
If your tastes verge toward the more ‘modern’ side of ancient heritage, the Top Ten Roman Forts list should do for you, though we’re straying outside our ‘mainly Pre-Roman’ remit here 🙂 As you’d expect, Hadrian’s Wall features prominently – if you’re a Romanist and haven’t walked it yet, I’m assured you’re missing out! But there are also shore forts from around the coast, so whichever part of the country takes your fancy, there should be something there for you.
So plenty there to get your travel plans under way, whether it be for a day trip, long weekend, or something a little longer. Why not tell us your plans for this year? Which sites are you hoping to see for the first time? Which old friends will you be revisiting? Let us know via the Comments.
A couple of months ago, we drove down to Salisbury to take a look at the experimental Neolithic houses being built by English Heritage in preparation for the new Stonehenge visitor’s centre.
Sadly, the buildings at Old Sarum were only ever designed as a temporary exhibit, to try out various ideas and techniques, and have now been demolished. The volunteers who worked so hard on the houses had kept a blog of the process, including covering the demolition and future possibilities, which is well worth reading.
Visitors to the experimental houses exhibit were encouraged to leave an email address where they could be contacted for a ‘later survey and feedback’, and it appears that time has now arrived. If you visited the houses at Old Sarum, but didn’t leave an email address, no matter. You can still take part in the survey, and as a thank you for your time you will be entered into a prize draw with the chance to win one of two cash prizes of £100.
All feedback will apparently be taken into consideration when the ‘real’ houses are reconstructed nearer to Stonehenge later this year. English Heritage have a page which explains the entire Neolithic Houses Project in detail.
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
For those looking to take an interest in our ancient past, now is the time to enrol for courses beginning in October. Those who do not have the time for a full time course but are interested in furthering their knowledge of pre-Roman Britain may be interested to know that the University of Exeter are offering a range of online distance-learning Archaeology courses. None of the below are ‘credit-bearing’, so will not count towards a formal certification, but there is enough material in each of the 20-week courses to provide a solid foundation for more formal studies.
“An introduction to prehistory, discussing common perceptions of this age and showing how archaeology can tell us how prehistoric man lived. This online course introduces students to prehistoric archaeology in Britain, and covers the Mesolithic, Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age.”
“This course will cover the Neolithic period in Britain and Ireland, broadly between 4500BC – 2000BC. The course first sets the scene with a summary of the previous Mesolithic Hunter Gatherer lifestyles and the development of farming which reached Britain around 4100BC and started slightly earlier in Ireland.”
“This online course introduces students to the Bronze Age in Britain (2500-700BC), a time when the stone-working inhabitants first learnt and developed the skills of refining metal for tools and other objects.”
“This online course explores the Iron Age in Britain, from 700BC until the arrival of the Romans in AD43. We will begin with a look at the Late Bronze Age (LBA) and consequent Iron Age as concepts, their chronology in terms of current research, and some discussion of the ‘Celts’, before a short overview of the LBA background and changes in landscapes and societies in this period.”
All the above courses commence on the 8th October, run for 20 weeks of study with a mid-winter break (15 for the Neolithic course), and cost £145 each – the price of 3 or 4 pints per week. Other courses at Exeter cover later periods such as the Roman and Viking eras.
If you know of similar online courses, or have experience of attending such a course, please let us know in the comments.
Experimental archaeology employs a number of different methods, techniques, analyses, and approaches in order to generate and test hypotheses, based upon archaeological source material, like ancient structures or artifacts. It should not be confused with primitive technology which is not concerned with any archaeological or historical evidence. Living history and historical reenactment, which are generally undertaken as a hobby, are the layman’s version of this academic discipline.
One of the main forms of experimental archaeology is the creation of copies of historical structures using only historically accurate technologies. This is sometimes known as reconstruction archaeology; however, reconstruction implies an exact replica of the past, when it is in fact just a construction of one person’s idea of the past; the more archaeologically correct term is a working construction of the past.
A popular construct of experimental archaeology is one in which our ancestors spent a lot of their time: the Roundhouse. Various designs, from different time periods have been used, from the Bronze Age through to the post-Roman Saxon period. Comparing some of the efforts, it sometimes seems that the only common factor in the design is the ’round’ shape!
Many of these efforts can be visited by the public, others are ‘locked away’, only available for private hire, or no longer exist.
Anglesey – Llynnon Mill
Completed in 2007 these two reproduction Late Bronze Age/Early Iron Age Roundhouses now form part of a living museum on the Llynnon Mill site near the village of Llanddeusant on Anglesey. Open from Easter to late September, an admission charge applies.
Cambridgeshire – Flag Fen
Two roundhouses here, one Bronze Age, the other Iron Age within the Flag Fen Archaeology Centre grounds near Peterborough. Admission charges apply.
In 2002, students from the Ridge Danyers Sixth Form College were involved in a European Community Culture Programme, The Mnesonyme Project, to reconstruct an Iron Age Roundhouse on the site, which remains in place, providing an evocative reminder of how the area might have looked during this period. Accessibility is currently unknown.
Cornwall – Bodrifty
The Roundhouse is an “authentic and atmospheric replica, based on the largest (‘Hut A”) in the scheduled Bodrifty Iron Age Settlement just three fields away. The construct is available for let as a holiday home with a difference!
Dorset – Ancient Technology Centre, Cranborne
The Iron Age roundhouse here had stood for 26 years, but last year (2011) the decision was made to
rebuild it. Thatching was due to be completed earlier this summer and the new building should now be
available for use once again. Also on site are 5 other ancient building reconstructions, including a
Viking Longhouse and Neolithic Log Cabin.
Essex – Hadleigh Country Park
Since 2000, the Country Park at Hadleigh has run a ‘living education’ programme based on the Saxons –
Hadleigh is of Saxon origin meaning “clearing in the heath”. Site staff wanted to expand this work to cover other periods in history and at the same time provide a much-needed building to give school groups a sheltered working environment. Many options were considered, but the wish to build something dramatic and unique to the county led to the proposal to build a replica Iron Age roundhouse.
Hadleigh’s roundhouse is based on a floor plan from an archaeological excavation at Little Waltham,
Hampshire – Butser Farm
Ever since Butser Ancient Farm has been running, there has always been a ‘great’ round house, based on an archaeological excavation. The first one was on Butser Spur, set up in 1972, based on a house named ‘The Balksbury House’ from Balksbury Camp, an Iron Age plateau enclosure situated on the outskirts of Andover. In 1976 a second site, known as ‘The Pimperne House’ and based on an excavation on Pimperne Down, Dorset was started in the valley bottom nearby, at Hillhampton Down. This was dismantled in 1990. In 1991 the project moved to the Bascomb Down Site, where it still continues. The Longbridge Deverel House’, built in 1992 was based on an excavation at Cowdown, in Wiltshire. The house was dismantled in 2006. In 2007 work started on ‘The Little Woodbury House’ (House1) from Britford, near Salisbury, Wiltshire.
Oswestry – Park Hall
In 2009 a reproduction of an Iron Age roundhouse was built at Park Hall to complement the development of the nearby Old Oswestry Iron Age Hillfort. Visitors can view the Roundhouse and its interior at any time (Admission fee to the park applies). Interpretation boards and artefacts offer an insight to the life of Iron Age people.
Pembrokeshire – Castell Henllys
Castell Henllys (Welsh, “castle of the old court”) is an important archaeological site in north Pembrokeshire, Wales, between Newport and Cardigan. This Iron Age hillfort has been the subject of an ongoing excavation for more than twenty years, accompanied by an exercise in reconstruction archaeology whereby experiments in prehistoric farming have been practised. Four roundhouses and a granary have been reconstructed on their original Iron Age foundations.
If you have a favourite replica roundhouse, why not leave a comment and tell us about it? And if you’re visiting one of the sites above, or anything similar this month, please fill in our brief survey.