British Archaeology, no 22, March 1997: Features

On the earth-colours of Neolithic death

In coloured tombs, Neolithic folk hoped to rise above death, argues Andy Jones

It has often been assumed that Neolithic chambered tombs were constructed according to the principle of least effort. Yet on the island of Arran, off Scotland's west coast, it appears that the stones used to build chambered tombs were chosen on grounds of their colour, and that the colours had a symbolic significance - allowing us unusual insights into local people's views of their relationship with the land, in life and in death, around 5,000 years ago.

Both in psychology and in anthropology, several studies have been made into the use of colour in human life, particularly in ritual. These studies have suggested that the most important colours in many societies are red and white. The Arran tombs were made up of stones of these two colours - red sandstone and white granites and schists.

Moreover, far from applying the principle of least effort, the Arran tomb-builders went to considerable lengths to include stones of both colours in every tomb. The island is divided into two distinct geological zones - a barren, northern mountainous region of white granites and schist, and a fertile southern lowland region of red sandstone. Stone is plentiful all over the island, but no tombs were built using only local stone. At Carn Ban, for example, a well preserved tomb on a granite hillside, the main megaliths forming the chamber were of granite, but the drystone walling which gave height to the chamber was of sandstone, while the lintel slabs were of alternating slabs of granite and sandstone.

What, however, was the significance of these colours on Arran? In many cultures, red and white are thought of as symbols of the red blood or flesh and white bones of the human body, an idea which would be particularly apt in the case of tombs built to house the dead. On Arran, however, it may be that white and red also symbolised the land itself, the white of the north and the red of the south.

The land and the human body might have been seen as analogous on several levels. Just as the island of Arran is divided into barren white and fertile red zones, so too is the body divided into static white bone and productive red flesh. As the land contains both earth and water, which are hard and soft, the body too contains hard bones and soft flesh and blood.

The overall impression is that the land itself might have been seen as flesh, and at death the bones of the human body were reclothed in the flesh of the land. This idea is especially poignant at one tomb at Clachaig, where the bones of the dead were jammed into the walls of the tomb and encased in red sandstone slabs.

By these means, the Neolithic people of Arran could perhaps have imagined they were rising above the cycle of life and death, by being re-united with the lifegiving earth that had sustained them throughout their daily lives.

The artefacts found in these tombs seem to add another layer to the metaphor. Made of either red flint or black pitchstone, they introduce another colour - black - and in function the artefacts can be divided. The red flint tools are mainly arrowheads and large knives, perhaps used for the killing and primary butchery of animals, drawing out the red blood of the arteries. The black tools, on the other hand, are largely small flakes, perhaps used for later carving, drawing out the black visceral blood of the internal organs.

The tomb-builders of Arran may not have been unique in their vision of death. Elsewhere in Britain, too, coloured stones have been found at chambered tombs. Red and white stones were used in the Clava Cairns in Invernesshire, while at Cairnholy I in Galloway and Newgrange in Co Meath, large amounts of white quartz were scattered in front of the tombs. The tomb of Moisgan Meadhbha in Co Sligo incorporates rocks of two different shades of white.

The meaning of such colours is not always clear. White quartz may have been scattered simply to allow light to be diffracted into the chamber during events of solar significance. However, researchers have only begun recently to notice the colour of stones in chambered tombs. As research continues it may be that many more tombs containing bones-and-blood stones of white and red are found, and that the significance of these colours to the Neolithic view of death will becomes clearer each time a new example is found.

Andy Jones is a research student at Glasgow University

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Swords used in battle suggest war often took place during the Bronze Age, writes Sue Bridgford

The first weapons devised only for war

In recent years, scholars have downplayed the evidence for warfare in the Bronze Age. War has become deeply unfashionable, and many researchers now choose to believe that it hardly took place in prehistory at all. Weapons are often regarded as having had a largely ceremonial purpose, only being used occasionally (if at all) for fighting.

It now seems clear, however, that this scholarly nicety about warfare is misplaced. My own research into Late Bronze Age swords (c 1200-700BC) suggests that most have been used in group combat. Their design and manufacture also suggests strongly that warfare was deeply ingrained in Bronze Age life, and had already been the norm at the time when swords were invented.

Late Bronze Age swords are the first weapons uniquely devised for warfare. The bone and stone projectile points, axes and knives of the Stone Age are essential for hunting (and a variety of other purposes); bronze spears are also viable hunting tools, while the daggers of the Early Bronze Age, and the dirks and rapiers of the Middle Bronze Age, are weapons of individual combat. Late Bronze Age swords, however, are designed for slashing and only make sense when used for fighting in groups.

These swords have leaf-shaped blades, balance well forward of the wrist and some even have blunt points. Unlike thin-bladed rapiers, these swords have hilts cast as an intrinsic part of the weapon and can therefore be used for slashing without coming apart. Swords are more likely to disable than kill, but few weapons are as useful in a mêlée. A rapier- or spear-user requires accuracy and time, and leaves himself open to attack from the side; while the user of an axe or club becomes exhausted in pro longed battle. Late Bronze Age swords must have been invented by societies already used to war, and aware of the limitations of other weapons.

I have examined several hundred Late Bronze Age swords and would maintain that the majority bear signs of edge damage consistent with blade-on-blade impact. They tend to have numerous nicks and small wave-like distortions of the edges. The nicks are unlike the signs of attempted complete destruction often found on blades in ritual deposits, and the rippled blades cannot have been caused by faulty casting.

It would be surprising if sword users were not the élite of warriors. Bronze swords are far from easy to make - the clay moulds themselves require careful preparation and only expert casting can prevent the creation of hidden flaws. Hammering and heating the edges repeatedly, without cracking the metal, is particularly difficult in tin bronze. Nonetheless the vast majority of blades have micro-structures which show this was done with consistent results.

Inevitably, the sword itself seems to have become a thing of magic and fear. Its function in warfare must have translated into a complex symbolism of power, loyalty and death - hence the discovery of so many hoards of swords in what seem to be ritual deposits. Weapons-hoards of this period differ from most metal-hoards in their exclusion of other types of bronze artefact and `scrap' bronze, and in the sense that many were deliberately arranged. Explanations of these hoards, other than ritual, make little sense. The idea that one might bury weapons in times of trouble seems counterproductive; and although many deposited swords were broken, they cannot have been intended for recycling as the pieces are almost always too large for a crucible. The rituals of deposition seem to have been clearly prescribed, according to sets of rules, as part of Bronze Age society's sanctioning of weapons and warfare. Many swords were subjected to deliberate destruction before deposition, involving bending, breaking, hacking of edges and, for a few large hoards and some river deposits, burning. In the Iron Age, according to the Danish archaeologist Klaus Randsborg, it was taboo to re- use an enemy's weapon; and perhaps some Bronze Age weapons were destroyed to eradicate temptation. Burnt weapons could result from cremations and some large hoards may even represent victory rituals.

Several `Iron Age' hillforts - such as The Breidden, Beeston Castle, and others in the Welsh Marches - are now being found to have their origins in the Bronze Age. A number of the so-called ring forts of the South also show signs of use by warrior groups. At Springfield Lyons in Essex, for example, the large foundation deposits of broken clay sword moulds clearly indicate military connections. These forts, and the new evidence from swords, suggest that the Bronze Age must now be seen as a period in which warfare, and the threat of war, were deeply ingrained in daily life.

Sue Bridgford is a research student at Sheffield University


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Some castles began as country houses, others remained so, writes John R Kenyon

Country houses behind castle walls

Most people have traditionally seen castles as military fortifications, strong points in times of war or civil unrest, muscular in character, defensive, imposing - and easy to understand.

To some extent, this popular view is correct. A castle was the fortified residence, and often an administrative centre, of a feudal lord; a type of building introduced by the Normans into this country from 1066, although a small number were erected by the Norman favourites of King Edward the Confessor in the 1050s. Few new examples were built in the later Middle Ages, apart from the ubiquitous tower house. The peak of castle building, in terms of fortification, occurred during the reign of Edward I, with castles such as Conwy and Harlech that ringed North Wales at the end of the 13th century.

Yet there are numerous great buildings in Britain which go by the term `castle', but which are in fact grand houses built on a lavish scale. One thinks in particular of those built in the 18th and 19th centuries; for example, the Dukes of Rutland's Belvoir or the ironmaster William Crawshay's Cyfartha in Glamorgan. The historian and archaeologist would not accept these as castles in the strict meaning of the word.

Moreover, research over the past ten years or so has shown that, even with the `genuine' castles of the medieval period, there is far more to their function and development than first meets the eye. Most major castles have been the subject of guidebooks and articles, but there has tended to be a habit amongst writers to accept what previous authors have written. In fact, both excavation and re-examination of upstanding fabric, often as part of longterm conservation strategies, have suggested that the earliest history of some of our castles could be ascribed to a countryhouse phase, whilst some late-medieval buildings regarded purely as fortified strongholds might be better equated with the sham castles of later periods.

It was the excavation of Castle Acre Castle in Norfolk during the 1970s that first showed clearly that the development of a castle was not always straightforward. That some form of `donjon' or keep existed in the upper ward of the castle was known from work carried out in the last century. However, Jonathan Coad's excavations (for what is now English Heritage) revealed that the keep of the first half of the 12th century, possibly built as a result of the troubles during King Stephen's reign, had evolved from a lightly-defended mansion or country house. The castle formed the centre of administration of the Norfolk estates of one of William I's right-hand men, William de Warenne, later to become Earl of Surrey. His wife died at Castle Acre in 1085, so it is not improbable that Warenne's two-storey `country house' was standing by that date. Defence does not seem to have been a priority in the Acre's first phase, although a stone gatehouse was soon added - more important was the desire for a comfortable residence.

It is possible that a similar sequence occurred at Portchester Castle in Hampshire, with a late 11th century single storey hall in the north-west corner of the Roman fort later developing into the castle's donjon or main tower, whilst another late 11th century `house' has been re-excavated recently within the earthworks of Bletchingly Castle, Surrey.

Elsewhere, Philip Dixon of Nottingham University has made a study of a number of castle donjons, for example those at Castle Hedingham in Essex and Knaresborough in Yorkshire, producing novel ideas for the original function of these great towers (see BAN, March 1994). At Norham in Northumberland, a major stronghold on the Scottish border, he and fellow-researcher Pamela Marshall have suggested recently that the donjon as it stands today was the result of rebuilding in the 15th century. In other words, here we have another example of a main tower developing from a somewhat less elaborate building.

Whether one could call this building at Norham in the early 12th century a `country house' is a moot point, but what Dixon and Marshall have proposed is a two-storey building, possibly a hall or ceremonial chamber above a vaulted basement, built within a bank and palisade. This was enhanced later in the century by a tower built against the `hall', containing private chambers. It is argued that these two phases were the work of two Bishops of Durham, Ranulf Flambard (d 1128) and Hugh de Puiset (d 1195). Judging by the reconstruction drawing that accompanied the original publication of this work (Archaeological Journal 150, 1993), one can imagine this building being akin to William Fitz Osbern's great tower or hall at Chepstow, Gwent, built 1067- 71 - the `earliest datable secular stone building in Britain', according to the Cadw guidebook.

As with the early castles, so too with those from the later Middle Ages - it now appears they were not always quite what they seem. One castle that has often been viewed in popular imagination as the epitome of how a medieval castle should look is Bodiam in Sussex, built in the 14th century - one of a number of quadrangular castles of this period which were often built with impressive carved heraldic displays over their entrances. There has been much discussion whether Bodiam represents a serious example of fortification, to assist in the defence of the county (or country) should the French have raided deep inland, or merely a grand country house for a warrior's retirement. The historian Charles Coulson, a specialist in medieval fortifications, has argued that Bodiam is really a `modestly magnificent house' masquerading as a castle, and a recent survey of the castle's environs by the English Royal Commission (RCHME) has provided archaeological support for those who share Coulson's view.

What the RCHME survey showed was that Sir Edward Dalinrigge's castle lay at the heart of a complex of gardens and water features such as ponds (Medieval Archaeology 34, 1990), the whole being a piece of designed and ornamental landscape, a medieval equivalent of what the Earls of Worcester undertook at Raglan, Gwent, in the late Elizabethan period, or what Capability Brown and others created for great estates in the 18th and 19th centuries.

This use of ornamental features to enhance the landscape is not unknown elsewhere, for example at Kenilworth in Warwickshire, and documents record gar dens at other castles. Even stern Conwy in North Wales had some form of garden in its east barbican. At Leeds Castle in Kent, Edward I's detached gloriette (or private royal accommodation), which was linked by a bridge to the north of the castle and was built for his wife, Queen Eleanor, has been suggested as being part of a designed landscape that included the lake surrounding the castle. The Bodiam survey reminds us that castle studies ignore at their peril the landscapes in which these buildings are situated.

This is not to deny that the majority of our castles were indeed seriously fortified residences, with tower and gatehouses designed to keep an enemy at bay, as well as to provide a variety of accommodation within. What these recent innovative studies have shown, or postulated, however, is that one can never take a castle's function or development at face value. Even the most familiar of buildings, it seems, still have secrets to be unlocked and discovered.

John R Kenyon is the Librarian of the National Museums & Galleries of Wales, and the author of a number of publications on medieval and later fortifications

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