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Issue 120

Sep / Oct 2011



All the latest archaeology news from around the country

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THE BIG DIG: Roman roads

Digging up the Picts

Sacred waters

Manga at the museum – NOT ONLINE

7 societies

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ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


Great monuments Great rivers

Jim Leary and David Field have worked at several of Wiltshire's great neolithic monuments, not least Silbury Hill and the henge at Marden. Noting that these are sited by springs and streams, they here take a wider view of the religious significance of fresh water in Britain some 5,000 years ago.

Water Droplet

We imagine rivers today creating boundaries and providing arteries for travel, but they may have been seen quite differently in the past. There are countless examples in the anthropological literature of belief in river spirits and sprites, and of rivers' sacred, metaphysical or supernatural roles – the Ganges in India being perhaps the best known sacred river. Water is used in many cleansing and purification rituals, not least by Christians.

Archaeologists long ago noted that many henges – distinctive British neolithic ritual monuments, from rings of posts to bank and ditch circles – were sited close to water. John Aubrey made the connection at Avebury (Wiltshire) in the 1660s. Early in the 20th century Flinders Petrie suggested that the huge ditch there may have held water; Harold St George Gray's excavations did not totally disprove this theory. Recently Jan Harding has recorded other henges that may have had wet ditches, among them Milfield North and South (Northumberland), Cairnpapple Hill (Lothian) and the Bull Ring (Derbyshire).

Other neolithic sites are by springheads and streams. The henge and cursus monuments at Rudston focus on the Gypsey Race (Yorkshire – a cursus is an unexplained earthwork in which two parallel banks can run for miles); the henges at Penrith are just metres from the river Eamont (Cumbria); the Knowlton Circles sit along the headwaters of the Stour (Dorset); and groups of monuments cluster round the Thames at Dorchester (Oxfordshire). In shape and topographic location, Marden henge is much like the possible henge at Waulud's Bank in Luton (Bedfordshire), which encloses five springs at the source of the river Lea.

The proximity of cursus monuments to rivers has also been commented on for decades, and recently Alistair Barclay, Gill Hey, Kenneth Brophy and others have sought a metaphorical link. Indeed, as with henges, some cursus ditches may have held water. Can we now say the same thing of neolithic round mounds?

To the Hatfield Barrow at Marden and Silbury Hill we can now add the broadly contemporary Marlborough Mound (News, Jul/Aug 2011, 119), like Silbury close to a spring on the river Kennet. Conquer Barrow, at the Mount Pleasant henge (Dorset) is above the floodplain but close to the river Stour, while the Great Barrow at Knowlton lies by the river Allen. The great Duggleby Howe (Yorkshire) is close to the springhead of the Gypsy Race stream, while Newgrange and related monuments (Co Meath, Ireland) lie alongside the river Boyne, some of them on the floodplain. The round barrow at Pitnacree (Perthshire) is just one of a number, some of "great size", that closely hug the floodplain and alluvial gravels of the river Tay.

The same is true for many bronze age round barrows, of more recent date. Indeed, the well known Golden Barrow at Upton Lovell (Wiltshire) – one of whose burials was accompanied by quantities of amber, gold and other treasures – is one of seven alongside the river Wylye that were levelled in the 19th century to make floated water-meadows. Large round barrows, recorded from the air at Charlton near Marden and almost levelled, were so close to the river Avon that the ditches must have held water.

Marden sweat lodge

We were inspired to think about these sites after working at Silbury and Marden in Wiltshire. Enclosing 11 hectares (27 acres) within its ditch, the henge at Marden is slightly larger than its major Wessex counterparts (Avebury, Durrington Walls and Mount Pleasant), but its irregular plan is dramatically different. Careful survey shows it comprises four straight lengths of earthwork, each over 100m long, which together cut off a loop in the stream near the source of the river Avon – incorporating the stream as an integral part of the circuit. The river bluff continues the earthwork's line, emphasising the close relationship of river and enclosure.

Even today, when utilities have taken great quantities out of the aquifer, the ditch holds water for part of the year. There are springs in and around the enclosure. On the east side the course of bank and ditch appears to be influenced by the location of a spring. A little beyond, a sinuous linear depression appears to mark a former or seasonal water feature, discharging into the Avon. The enclosure's north entrance faces the source of the Avon visible a kilometre away, while a newly discovered south-east entrance faces the further side of a river meander.

It is as though the ditch had a metaphysical purpose, to capture the water in the north and ease its passage round the meander. The low-lying nature of the topography and the brooks, streams and springs are key to understanding this monument.

We found a small henge within the enclosure, an amphitheatre-like depression with an external bank nearly a metre high and an overall diameter of 90m (News, Sep/Oct 2010, no 114). Coring by Matthew Canti shows that the now filled ditch reaches the considerable depth of 5m. Close to the floodplain, the depression or ditch must have held water, while a platform probably stood clear, perhaps for water-related ceremonies.

On the bank of this henge was a unique structure, consisting of a 3m×4m sunken chalk floor – material that must have been brought from at least 2km away. In the centre was a circular burnt area, which magnetic susceptibility tests showed resulted from intense heat. There were no ashes or charcoal there, but outside the building we found a hearth, or perhaps a bonfire site, filled and surrounded by charcoal and fragments of burnt sarsen stone.

We think this was a sweat lodge. The stones could have been heated outside in the fire and placed in the centre of the building; water from the ditch or the Avon could then be poured on them to produce a steam bath as part of a purification ritual. The question arises as to whether similar buildings occur elsewhere on or within henge banks. It is time to revisit other henges.

Just 100m to the north, and still within the Marden henge, remnants of a once massive ditch 100m in diameter can just be seen; coring indicated that this was also 5m deep. Inside it once stood a large mound known as the Hatfield Barrow, as much as 15m high and reputedly second only to Silbury Hill in size. Writing in 1798, James Norris said the moat-like ditch was constantly fed by springs, while in 1812 Richard Colt Hoare also noted that the ditch retained water. Excavations here in 2010 hinted that the development of the Hatfield Barrow, like that of Silbury Hill, was complex. The mound may have developed from earlier structures: the ditch, for example, could be part of a second internal henge.

Silbury springhead

Silbury at Night

Silbury Hill's ditch, though much silted, still floods occasionally today.

Silbury Hill occupies a similar springhead location, on the chalk massif 11km north of Marden. A multi-million pound conservation project during the first decade of this millennium focussed on the mound rather than the ditch, after the former showed signs of collapse (feature, Jan/Feb 2011, no 116). As with barrows generally, there is a common view that the ditch is a quarry for the mound – not an important feature in its own right.

But as long ago as the 1950s Herbert Taylor pointed out that a shallow ditch around a barrow – at Tyning's Farm in the Mendip Hills, Somerset – was neither quarry nor physical barrier, and must have had metaphysical purposes. P Darling noted that the ditch at an African site was perceived as hindering the passage of malign spirits, bogging them down. R Warner invoked a similar interpretation for some ditches in Ireland.

Such an approach is attracting renewed interest. The Silbury ditch, and its massive rectangular cistern-like extension into which the Beckhampton brook flows, may have been as important as the mound. In central America, archaeologists consider cisterns to have been foci of ritual and ceremony. It is conceivable that such features were of similar importance here.

As at Marden, the Silbury ditch often holds water today; hydrological reports indicate that neolithic water tables would have been similar or higher than present. Perhaps water-related ceremonies occurred around the lip of the cistern. Seen from the mound summit, the water-filled ditch reflects the sky – a fresh, glaring white monument would have been quite dazzling. From the ground the mound's reflected, inverted image would seem to disappear as through a mirror into the underworld: historically, mirrors have been considered implements of shamanic ceremony and power.

Low-lying and surrounded by higher terrain, Silbury was not meant to be seen from afar. It marks the river Kennet's source, at a confluence of springs and winterbournes: it is a monumentalised springhead. Easily visible and just a kilometre downstream, the contemporary palisaded enclosures at West Kennett, which the excavator, Alasdair Whittle, interpreted as ceremonial feasting centres, also pointedly incorporated the same river.

Timeless raindrops

A river and its valley are often described as a single entity, but their geography varies greatly along their course. Environmental archaeologist John Evans showed how such change might affect use. Upstream the valley is often narrow and steeply sided, so settlement or other activities might occur on the plateau above. In the middle reaches, the valley widens, the river begins to meander and more activities are possible beside it and on the valley slopes. Yet further downstream settlement can spread right across the broad floor; the valley slopes may be too distant for daily use.

The river also changes. A bubbly, rushing white-water stream at source develops into a wider, slower, meandering watercourse, before becoming broad, silt-laden and sluggish towards the mouth – like a human life, passing from energetic youth to experienced, slow maturity. Such progressions may have encouraged particular activities and ideas along a river's course, and explain why major monuments are often in the more youthful sections. The scarcity of burials during this period of the neolithic (3000–2500BC) has led to suggestions that cremated remains may have been cast into rivers, the young stream representing birth and regeneration, the mature river a metaphor for death.

Water was needed in great quantities for stock, or provision of fish, and for people to drink, wash and work. Activities will have responded as a river's character changed. Peter Jordan described how the Sami, in Finland, used the land on either side of rivers in different ways at certain times of the year. The great rivers of neolithic Britain could have been used in a similar fashion, sometimes bringing people together, sometimes forming boundaries.

In the mature reaches, overbank floods may create a relationship of appeasement with the river, much as George Catlin recorded on his journey along the Missouri in the 1830s. There the Mandan people annually commemorated the great mythical flood, ceremonially throwing collections of stone axes and knives into the river to placate its spirit and avoid a repetition. There are echoes here of the lone jadeite axes found in marshland alongside the river Avon at Breamore (Hampshire) and by the Stour at Canterbury (Kent), or the accumulations of stone axes found along the river Thames, particularly the massive concentrations in the wide meanders in west London.

Chris Tilley has noted that rivers provide orientation and direction. The Hatfield Barrow lies at the head of a river that runs south into the English Channel. The Kennet at Silbury is ultimately part of the Thames that flows east towards the rising sun. The monuments' position at the origin of these rivers emphasises ownership, belonging, ancestry and right of tenure, metaphysically and practically.

In A River Runs Through It (1976), Norman Maclean used fishing and river scenes as metaphors of life. "Eventually, all things merge into one", he wrote, "and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are words, and some of the words are theirs."

Undoubtedly rivers played a significant role in the lives of neolithic people in Britain, as they had done to earlier communities and as they continued to do so to those that followed.

Jim Leary is archaeologist (prehistory) at English Heritage (Portsmouth), and David Field is archaeological investigator at English Heritage (Swindon).

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