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Press release from HOOOH, 8 October 2015, Attention: Immediate
World War 1 commemoration made ‘bargaining chip’ in hillfort housing bid
A major World War One commemoration is in doubt after being used as leverage for housing in the shadow of Old Oswestry hillfort, campaigners have revealed. English Heritage hoped to excavate WW1 practice trenches on the hillfort plateau in 2016 as part of a special programme of national events marking Britain’s First World War centenary. The project was set to research the relationship and activities linking Old Oswestry, Park Hall military camp and Oswestry-born, WW1 poet and soldier, Wilfred Owen, who was stationed at the camp in October 1916. It is thought that Owen trained on the hillfort’s practice trench network which replicated those used on the Western Front during the First World War.
But correspondence acquired through Freedom of Information by campaign group, HOOOH, reveals that the project hit problems during negotiations with the planning consultant and farmer behind the housing bid. Referring to the commemoration in a letter in November 2013, J10 Planning wrote to English Heritage’s estates manager: “My client would be delighted to support your aspirations, but feels unable to agree being positive until such time as he has managed to obtain support from your ‘whole’ organisation in respect of the development and betterment proposals. I trust you appreciate the difficult position my client therefore finds himself in.”
HOOOH understands that English Heritage will need the farmer’s permission to carry out the dig on the hillfort plateau which he tenants for cattle grazing. But according to latest information, campaigners say that the project remains on hold until agreement is reached.
Historic England (formerly English Heritage) has opposed two out of three proposed housing sites on farmland abutting the hillfort in Shropshire’s SAMDev local plan. However, it has signed a statement of common ground with Shropshire Council agreeing development on the third site, known as OSW004, subject to master planning conditions. Campaigners are shocked and disappointed that the proposed housing appears to be standing in the way of a poignant and important WW1 commemoration that would reinforce Old Oswestry’s heritage legacy. John Waine of HOOOH said: “This is a WW1 commemoration project of national significance with the potential of bringing huge value for Oswestry and the deeper understanding of WW1 history. Sadly, it appears that without the farmer’s permission, Historic England remains unable to excavate a trench on the hillfort plateau. Should this kind of negotiation, bartering WW1 memories for profits, play a part in a supposedly transparent planning procedure? Does it not completely undermine the integrity of the process? We believe so.”
“The project has already been severely held back. If it’s going to happen at all, Historic England needs to crack on. HOOOH calls upon Historic England, the farmer and Shropshire Council to publicly state where they stand on this keynote WW1 project. We hope that common sense will prevail.”
HOOOH also points to recent press comments by Historic England underplaying the significance of views across land south-east of the hillfort in defending its acceptance of development at OSW004.
Rosie Ryder of Historic England said: “In the case of Old Oswestry, after careful consideration we decided that the views to the west, north and east make a greater contribution to its significance than views to where the council’s proposed site would lie, because that view looks directly towards the town.”
HOOOH says this rejects evidence it presented at the Inspector’s public hearing which clearly articulated the heritage significance of Old Oswestry’s relationship with the Iron Age tribal centre of The Wrekin to the south-east, and the ancient roads in this direction that Old Oswestry was located to protect and control.
Neil Phillips of HOOOH said: “You have to wonder whether Historic England might be taking this stance just to salvage the WW1 dig.”
The archaeological excavation of a section of the practice trenches was set to uncover both WW1 history as well as pre-history giving insights into the origins of the 3,000 year old hillfort. The last archaeological excavation on the hillfort was carried out in 1939-40 by Professor William Varley.
Old Oswestry’s network of WW1 practice trenches is one of few examples of its size and complexity that has survived complete. Even now, the trench layout can be clearly seen from aerial photography revealing its impressive scale and detail.
Based on other archaeological evidence, it is known that further extensive practice trenches exist elsewhere within the hillfort’s hinterland. The trenching catered for well over 4000 soldiers at any one time during the First World War.
*HOOOH: Hands Off Old Oswestry Hillfort
Kate Clarke on 01691 652918 or 07835 924069 or John Waine on 07972 113619
An open letter of objection by 12 leading British academics of archaeology can be viewed here: http://www.britac.ac.uk/news/news.cfm/newsid/1209
- FOI document can be found here: http://tinyurl.com/ppzd73e
- Recent press comments by Historic England here: http://tinyurl.com/psjl9jg
- HOOOH’s (Hands Off Old Oswestry Hillfort) evidence on heritage views can be read here: http://tinyurl.com/nmxju65
- Wilfred Owen, who was killed in action in November 1918, is believed to have written the poem ‘Storm’ while stationed at Park Hall Camp in the shadow of Old Oswestry.
- World War I sites are considered archaeologically significant, a view that is being reinforced as we mark the centenary of this most poignant period of world history.
- As part of the 2014-2018 Centenary, Historic England has initiated a major project to record the colossal ‘footprint’ left by the First World War on the fabric, landscape and coastal waters of England.
- HOOOH has been waging a two-year campaign against housing allocations in Shropshire Council’s SAMDev local plan that could open the floodgates to town growth into Old Oswestry’s ancient landscape.
- While two out of three sites were removed in February 2014, the largest for 117 houses (OSW004, off Whittington Road) remains following examination by government- appointed Inspector, Claire Sherratt. She is expected to submit her final report on the plan to Shropshire Council during October 2015.
- After objecting to OSW004 following public consultation on SAMDev’s ‘soundness’ in April 2014, Historic England has since signed a Statement of Common Ground with Shropshire Council agreeing to development subject to conditions mainly concerning design and layout.
- Campaigners have threatened a judicial review if Shropshire Council adopts SAMDev with OSW004 included, and is currently in talks with a planning lawyer.
- Situated just north of the Welsh Marches town of Oswestry, Shropshire, the Iron Age hillfort of Old Oswestry dates back to 1000 BC.
A guest article by Heritage Action member Jamie Stone.
Several years ago with fatherhood looming on the horizon, I had the great fortune to have to move to the Peak District to be near family. It’s not that I was lacking in prehistory in Somerset where I lived, living fifteen minutes walk from a hillfort and ten mins from the second largest stone circle in the country as I did, but the Peaks is something else. The eastern moors have mostly escaped modern farming leaving a landscape of bronze age fields, with associated barrows, cairns and stone circles, whilst the white peak’s more intensively farmed and mined landscape, still has several long barrows and many round barrows, not to mention a henge or two.
After a couple of years getting properly acquainted with the Peaks by myself, I started to look about online for similar minded local types to go for walks with and to bounce ideas and potential sites off and found very little unfortunately so I decided to start a group on Facebook; Peak District Prehistory. With a stated aim of a “Group to discuss prehistory in the Peaks; Sites we’ve been to, can’t find and/or organise meet ups.”, a bit of shameless promotion on a few prehistory website forums and 2 years on, we are a motley crew of just over 100 members. We natter a bit, share weird carved rocks and unusual sites we’ve encountered, delight each other with great pictures of prehistory in the Peaks and generally promote and protect the scarce and precious resource we share with the wider community.
Two weeks ago saw the latest in a series of organised bimbles or leisurely walks, sorted out via the medium of Facebook using the group. This time around was Gardom’s Edge, or more precisely the shelf between Gardom’s Edge and Birchen Edge, an area used from the Neolithic to the Iron Age and beyond, with evidence of Bronze age fields, standing stones, rock art, hut circles, an enigmatic row of pits and an equally enigmatic bronze age/neolithic horse shoe shaped enclosure. The walk took in most of that and more, with us chewing the fat over a 3 mile walk which took about 5 hours to complete including a lunchtime picnic next to a replica of the most impressive piece of rock art in the peaks.
If you have an interest in Peak District prehistory and would like to talk about it with like-minded types, please feel free to join our Facebook group. We have plans for many more bimbles over the next few years which we would love to see you on.
A recent gorse fire on Carn Brea, near Redruth in Cornwall, could provide an opportunity for further investigation of this interesting site. The fire – cause currently unknown, but arson is suspected – covered an area of around 3 hectares on the night of 26th May. The gorse (which burns easily and gives off a lot of heat – it was a source of fuel in past times) had grown quite high and dense in the affected area, and strong winds hindered firefighters attempts at controlling the blaze. I was actually in the area only last week, and Carn Brea is a well know landmark, providing good views on a clear day to an extensive section of the north coast of Cornwall, from Godrevy to St Agnes.
Carn Brea was first investigated in the early 1970’s by a team led by Roger Mercer, and their findings led to a new site classification: the Early Neolithic Tor Enclosure. Dating from nearly 6000 years ago, stone walls were built up between outcrops of the granite bedrock to form defensive enclosures around the top of the hill. Signs of early habitation were found, in the form of ‘lean-to’ buildings against the insides of the enclosing walls. In addition, up to 700 leaf-shaped arrowheads were among some outstanding finds – evidence of a past attack on the settlement. Nearby outcrops of rock suitable for manufacture as axes and edge grinding stones, blanks and incomplete and finished axes found on the site suggest the settlement was used for the manufacture and trading of tools. These investigations showed that the east end of the hill was the focus of most activity, whilst the fire was on the northwest flank, which was most heavily covered in vegetation. The hill displays evidence of human use almost continually since the Neolithic, with mining, quarrying and the building of a monument and a castle in more recent times.
Whilst gorse fires are dangerous, and damaging, the eco-structure tends to recover quite well from such events and the clearance factor can open up the landscape to inspection where before only vegetation was visible. It is to be hoped that the opportunity will be taken (once fire investigations have completed) to further survey the area in the weeks to come.
For more information about Early Neolithic Tor Enclosures, see Simon Davies’ excellent paper (PDF link)
Update (1st June): The blaze, which covered an area equivalent to 10 football pitches, destroyed gorse, heather and bilberry and it is estimated that the area will take ‘years’ to recover, according to the environment manager at Cornwall Council. Nesting birds, small mammals and reptiles were among the casualties of the fire, which was apparently started by a disposable barbecue.
Next month in Worcester there’s a Practitioners Forum on Prehistory and the National Curriculum. It is “An initial meeting open to everyone who is interested in supporting schools in delivering the the National Curriculum topic of Prehistory for Key Stage 2. This is a big leap for schools, especially since most teachers will never have learned prehistory themselves.” More prehistory in schools is a theme we’ve been banging on about since the day we were formed (see Reclaiming Prehistory which pretty much comprises our founding statement, written by one of our members in May 2004, almost 10 years ago) so it’s great to see some of the developments that have come about in the past few years (excluding PAS’s reprehensible resource showing kids how they can use a metal detector to grab stuff of course).
A few years ago in our Inside the Mind series we asked Julian Richards what he’d say to Parliament if he could address them for 30 seconds and he said “I would ask why school pupils in this country are taught nothing about their pre-Roman heritage”. At about the same time English Heritage’s draft Research Strategy for Prehistory explained how education about sites is key to their preservation ….
The same document also quoted the All Party Parliamentary Archaeology Group which noted that prehistory didn’t feature in the English school national curriculum and remarked that “the UK is the only European state to neglect prehistory in this way”. But now thank goodness things are changing and there are a number of initiatives connected with educating children about their local prehistory. It was interesting to see there were children amongst the attendees at Oswestry Town Council’s recent meeting about Oswestry Hill Fort and even the Council welcomed the fact. Maybe the Heritage Cycle is working!
There are also some great Prehistory teaching resources out there, things to excite kids of any age, including us. Perhaps the best is “a Teachers Index on Prehistory” called “Show Me” which says “We show you the FUN stuff from the UK’s museums and galleries”. Who could resist some of their news stories – “Woolly Rhino Skull Found In A Digger Bucket”, “Could Hobbits Have Been Real After All?” and “Should the setting of Oswestry Hill Fort be messed up?”.
That last one’s a lie of course, but it does beg the question, just how political should education about local prehistory be? English Heritage says education promotes preservation (“by understanding the historic environment people care for it”) so should the National Curriculum be actively promoting preservation or coyly skirting round the issue of whether building houses close to monuments is damaging them? Maybe the Worcester Forum will issue a closing statement on the question!
Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!
“Environment Secretary” is such an inaccurate term to describe Owen Paterson – for hardly a week goes by without him angling to damage it.
Just last week he was doing the dirty on Oswestry, despite it being his own constituency, refusing to get involved in the issue of whether the Hill Fort’s setting should be damaged and saying these things are best decided by local councillors. As if !
This week he has returned to his previous theme of biodiversity offsetting. But it’s a new and nastier form of it – he thinks there should sometimes be an option for developers to be allowed to destroy ancient woodland if they agree to plant many more new trees elsewhere….
Maybe we’re misjudging him, but isn’t it strange that every single decision Mr Paterson makes in defence of the environment involves opportunities for the Government’s developer-friends to make loads and loads of wonga!
PRESS RELEASE – THE SUSTAINABLE TRUST CARWYNNEN QUOIT
A LEG UP FOR THE GIANTS QUOIT!
Despite appalling weather, our relentless volunteer diggers arrived on Monday morning to start working the site at Carwynnen Quoit, prior to the restoration of the first stone. An eleven day community dig will expose the socket for the stone, and further investigate the area to the rear of the monument. A new trench is being opened further up the field. The excavation will be carried out in the same manner as the autumn 2012 dig, with a small Historic Environment team leading the volunteer team.
We have an official open day on Sunday 27th October, between 10.30 and 4pm where you can engage in a free guided tour, and see an exhibition of the work so far. There will be demonstrations of ancient technology and experimental archaeology with Sally Herriett. She looks forward to introducing you to her unusual world, and sharing her passion for all things Prehistoric, presenting artifacts and demonstrating Flint Knapping. At 2pm she will be describing her work especially for children.
We are trying to preserve the grass in the field for as long as possible, so it would be appreciated if you would park in the campsite next door, or walk over from Treslothan Church (15 mins). If you remember Carwynnen Quoit before or after it fell in 1966, come and share your memories with us. The film on our giantsquoit.org homepage made use of some recordings we made during the last phase of the project. A second film is in production and we welcome your contribution to our collection of local memories. On 31st, at around 10.30am, at Samhain or All Hallows Eve, we intend to restore the first upright stone and you are welcome to come and watch. In Spring we will continue the restoration. A time capsule will be buried. If you have any suggestions for its contents, let us know!
Pip Richards – email@example.com
Ten years ago today, at the suggestion of our much-missed friend Rebecca van der Putt, a diverse group of ordinary people interested in prehistoric sites met at an extraordinary place for a picnic.
From that first meeting grew Heritage Action which subsequently morphed into The Heritage Journal which aims to promote awareness and therefore the welfare of ancient sites. It has perhaps filled a gap as it seems to have struck a chord with many people, both professional and amateur. 140 archaeologists have contributed articles to it and it is currently followed by more than 4,500 people on Twitter (including Nelson Mandela!).
We can’t claim the Journal always says things that everyone agrees with – that would be impossible bearing in mind how many individuals contribute content to it but we can claim two things – first, that everyone that puts it together or writes anything in it has their heart in the right place when it comes to ancient sites and second that anyone with an interest in prehistory who reads it regularly is likely to find at least something to pique their interest. At least, that’s the aim. The guiding principle is to try to make it like a magazine, updated nearly every day and with articles that are as diverse as possible. If you don’t like Stonehenge you could scroll down or use the search box to read about the last black bear on Salisbury Plain, the Hillfort Glow experiment, the stony raindrops of Ketley Crag, the policeman who spotted three aliens in Avebury or indeed that the Uffington Horse may be a dog!
Now that we’ve reached this milestone (which coincides with this year’s Day of Archaeology – do please join in there too, if you can!) the question arises – where does the Journal go from here, and for how long? It’s a matter for conjecture for it depends entirely on the efforts of contributors and the wishes of readers. A number of veterans from the original picnic are still involved and we’ve also been joined by a number of excellent new contributors but we’re always on the look out for still more. Please consider helping (an article, many articles or a simple news tip-offs and a photograph – whatever you like) as it’s a worthy cause that is only truly valid if it’s a communal entity with multiple public voices. In addition, any suggestions for future innovations or improvements will be gratefully received (brief ones in the Comments or longer ones at firstname.lastname@example.org).
Better still, we’ll shortly be holding a pow-wow and lunch (details to be announced) to discuss how the Journal should progress from now on. You’re more than welcome to come.
This is the first of in an occasional series in which we ask members and readers (including you if you would like!) to give us a brief impression of their very earliest encounters with ancient sites. First up is Founder Member Graham Orriss…
I’m certain I’m not alone here, but as a child, I didn’t appreciate the wealth of ancient history I had access to. In fact I found the whole idea of “history” quite a boring one! I had no interest in it whatsoever. Which was a shame, as my friends and I were regular visitors to such amazing sites as The Five Knolls, on Dunstable Downs. My Dad frequently took us to the hillfort at Totternhoe Knoll for a run around; the chalk pit at Sewell, which houses part of the ramparts of Maiden Bower; Ivinghoe Beacon… I had no idea what any of these things were until long after I’d moved away from the area.
The trouble, as far as I can see, is that Dunstable (the town that I grew up in) was very important in Roman times, where it was known as “Durocobrivae”. Therefore, anything prior to the Roman’s arrival was pretty much glossed over in the classroom.I have vague memories of mentions of prehistory, but there was very little. Sadly.
I rarely have an excuse to go back there nowadays. I had a great childhood, running around these sites with no knowledge I was doing so. I’d love to see what I enjoyed as a child through adult eyes; see what I missed. Maybe it’s a good thing. I enjoyed them in my own way without hindrance, as I now enjoy them as an adult with respect.
One of the sites I had on the target list for my recent trip to Cornwall was the Goldherring Settlement near Sancreed in West Penwith. Dating from approximately the 1st Century BC, the site consists of a walled settlement, set within a wider field system, with dwellings, including a Courtyard House, and a nearby well.
Close by is the settlement at Carn Euny, the Iron Age Hill Fort of Caer Bran and Chapel Carn Brea as well as the much earlier stone circle at Boscawen-Un. The Goldherring settlement had three main periods of occupation, starting in the late 1st Century BC or the early 1st Century AD. The field system dates from the 3rd Century AD and in early Medieval times (as well as possibly earlier) the site was used for the smelting of tin.
Located on CRoW access land, on the eastern slope of a small hill some 500 feet above sea level, thanks to clearance work the settlement is surprisingly easy to access.
I parked at the Boscawen-Un layby on the A30 at OS Grid Ref SW409277 and walked back towards Penzance for a couple of hundred yards. The field on the left came to end, and there was a gated track on the left. I walked up the track, following it to the right, then round to the left until the track ended at a gate to a ploughed, cultivated field. Off to the right was an information board, and rough path leading along the field boundary to the settlement, which is located at OS Grid Ref SW411282.
As mentioned, a lot of clearance work has been done, and it’s possible to just make out the form of the elements of a courtyard house within the main enclosure, although a weathered tree is now growing in the middle of the complex. Not a textbook layout, but the basic form is there if you look hard enough.
There is a well nearby to the east, but the clearance work hasn’t yet got that far and I was unable to make my way through the brambles. The site was also used for processing tin in the medieval period, so there’s a lot here to try to identify. Fancy led me to believe that maybe one area may have once been an underground fogou that had subsequently lost its roof but it could equally have been a later storage building. The site is on a slope and the current ground level is very undulating. Would it have been like this in the past when in use I wondered?
The settlement was excavated in the late 1950’s by A Guthrie. A full excavation report was published in the Cornwall Archaeological Society journal ‘Cornish Archaeology’ issue 8 (1969), sadly no longer available from the society as far as I know, though secondhand copies may be obtained at a price. There is some discussion of the age of Courtyard Houses, including that at Goldherring, in an article by Henrietta Quinnell in ‘Cornish Archaeology’ #25, available for download in PDF form.
I would urge anyone in the area to visit this overlooked site for themselves, before the bracken, brambles and gorse reclaim it and it becomes hidden from view once more.
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