British Archaeology, no 23, April 1997: Features

Hearing again the sound of the Neolithic

Neolithic circles and tombs echo and resonate, discovers Aaron Watson

Prehistoric monuments stand silent in the modern landscape, and scholars have tended to focus on visual aspects - for instance their location, form and alignment - in order to understand how sites like stone circles and megalithic tombs were used and experienced in the past.

Yet a current study of ancient structures has found that some possess remarkable acoustic properties, suggesting that sound may have played an important role in any ceremonies held at the monuments in prehistory. Two sites have been investigated so far - the recumbent stone circle of Easter Aquorthies in Aberdeenshire, and Camster Round, a passage grave in Caithness - both of which contain an enclosed arena where rituals could have been performed.

During a visit to Easter Aquorthies it became apparent that the open-sided megalithic `box' created by the recumbent and its flanking stones appeared to bounce sound around the interior of the circle. Subsequent testing with audio recording equipment confirmed that these blocks were reflecting sound - rather like a stage and the surrounding set in a theatre. They would have provided an impressive visual backdrop, but were also the source of a curious echo which varied as people moved around the circle. These effects would have remained unknown to anyone outside the circuit of standing stones - suggesting that these sounds were only meant to be heard by people actually participating within.

The use of sound, perhaps to enforce divisions in prehistoric society, is also apparent at Camster Round. The confined central burial chamber of this tomb can only accommodate a small number of people at any one time and is entered by crawling through a long and claustrophobic passageway. The acoustic contrast between interior and exterior is more extreme than at Easter Aquorthies. Individuals present within this cavernous environment would have experienced enhanced sounds and echoes, but anyone remaining outside would have been unable to discern what was happening within because of the covering mound of stone. The only place around the cairn's exterior where emerging sound can be heard is in the `forecourt' area by the entrance - a zone recognised by archaeologists as a focus for activity at passage graves.

Passage graves across Britain have strikingly similar internal arrangements - they all possess central chambers connected to the outside world via a narrow passageway. Research conducted with Dr David Keating of the University of Reading Cybernetics Department has suggested that this architectural layout is perfectly suited to generate an acoustic phenomenon called Helmholtz Resonance - the hollow type of sound created by blowing a stream of air across the top of an empty bottle.

The resonant properties of a number of tombs have now been modelled, including well known examples such as Newgrange in Ireland and Maes Howe in Orkney. The results suggest that these places may have resonated at frequencies which are too low to be heard by human beings. It is possible, however, that this resonance may have been perceived as a feeling rather than a noise, similar to the sensation of standing near large bass speakers.

How, then, could people in the Neolithic generate Helmholtz Resonance? Interestingly, acoustic physics suggests that these low frequencies could best have been initiated by performing rhythmical drumming in the chamber, with the speed of the beat relating to the size of the tomb. Camster Round, for example, resonates at a frequency of 4 hertz, which could be produced by drumming at the rate of four beats per second. Maes Howe resonates at 2 hertz, or by drumming at two beats per second.

Drumming has accompanied ritual in many societies through time and it is not impossible that it was employed in prehistoric Britain. Perhaps we can envisage entering the darkened environment of the chamber where the stale air, peculiar smells, and presence of the dead would heighten the senses to any sounds being made. Combined with echoes and possibly resonance, these elements could have amounted to a remarkable and affecting experience.

Aaron Watson is a research student in the Department of Archaeology at Reading University

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The stone crosses of the Danelaw were erected by Vikings under threat, says Phil Sidebottom

Monuments that mark out Viking land

Early medieval crosses in England have long been seen as no more than elaborate, decorated gravestones reflecting the `period fashion' of their day. In the traditional theory, they are said to have been produced between the 8th and the 11th centuries - those with no recognisable Scandinavian design elements being made during the 8th and 9th centuries, and monuments of Anglo-Scandinavian design being produced between the 9th and 11th centuries.

Unfortunately, very few of the stones can be independently dated, and this chronology is based on a series of relative dates (where fixed points are scarce) and ultimately on the stylistic assumption that the stones' design reflected the `moral mood' of the nation. The theory goes that the Anglo-Saxons became decadent and this was manifested by poor carvings. This `moral decline' left them open to successful invasion by the Vikings. The Vikings, in their turn, became decadent and thus started carving badly. In other words, the poorer the carving, the later the date.

A recent survey of almost 300 stones in seven counties centred on Derbyshire, however, has produced a new interpretation of why and when the stones were erected. My research suggests that all the stones were put up in one short phase in the early 10th century, and that the different stylistic types of carving reflect different regional groups of carvers, rather than changes in fashion through time. In the study region, all the stones were found in Viking-controlled areas - none in AngloSaxon areas - and, like totem poles, it seems they were put up to stake a claim of control over an area of land, and to symbolise group identity at a time of political threat from Anglo-Saxon Wessex.

A close examination of the decorative elements of the stones suggests that each stylistic group of monuments belongs to one of the secular territories of the Danelaw - the Viking-controlled area of eastern England in the 9th and 10th centuries - such as North and `Outer Mercia', Elmet, the Pecsaetna, and Viking Lincoln. The stylistic groups respect the boundaries of these subdivisions at this time, rather than previous or later territorial boundaries.

The monuments are only found east of the boundary between North and `Outer Mercia' on the one hand, and South Mer cia on the other, which this and other evidence suggests was almost certainly the line of demarcation used for the partition of Mercia in 877 between the Vikings and the English. In the Mercian heartlands, no stone crosses of any allotted period are found in, or around, the old South Mercian centres. For example, none has been found at the major royal centre of Tamworth, at Stafford or at the diocesan capital of Lichfield.

One group of stones, however, follows a different pattern, and relates not to Danelaw territories but to areas of Hiberno-Norse settlement, which probably occurred during the early 10th century. These monuments are located on the more marginal lands around the southern Pennines, and their iconography shows parallels with monuments in the Wirral, North Wales, Cumbria and the Isle of Man, major areas of Hiberno-Norse settlement. They also occur in regions rich in Norse place-name elements. Because these monuments are small and roughly carved (at least to our eyes), they have been regarded as `late'. However, they merely reflect the lesser wealth of these comparatively marginal communities.

All of the traditionally `Anglian' dated monuments (ie those with no recognisable Scandinavian iconography) were found to be restricted to the old units of Elmet and the Pecsaetna (south-western Yorkshire and the Peak District). These are areas where - although part of the Danelaw - there is no evidence for direct Viking settlement. Just because a monument doesn't look Viking, however, doesn't mean it has to be pre-Viking. Indeed, during the first half of the 10th century the Peak was controlled by a Northumbrian Saxon called Uhtred. My belief is that all the monuments were carved at the same time.

Why, then, were they erected? The most plausible reason was to acknowledge the submission of the Danish North after 920 to the West Saxons and the Roman Church, who were then operating in partnership. The crosses appear to have been erected at the centres of the old estates, most of them in churchyards (where they can still be found today), as though accepting the authority of the Church as well as the West Saxon king. At the same time, the iconography on the monuments displayed a more subtle message of group cohesion, and a claim to jurisdiction over the territory.

In one sense, it appears the monumentbuilders were successful in their aim. The Vikings were not expelled en masse from the Danelaw and they seem to have kept some control over their own areas.

Dr Phil Sidebottom is a part-time Lecturer in Archaeology at the University of Sheffield

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Studies of genes and language can solve problems of early medieval migration, writes Martin Evison

Lo, the conquering hero comes (or not)

For much of the early part of this century, historians - relying on the near-contemporary writings of Gildas, Bede and Asser - described an early medieval Britain swept by conquering hoards who devastated or destroyed the native population. No sooner had the AngloSaxons established themselves as the new incumbents, it seemed, than the Vikings descended to wreak havoc on the emergent English nation.

In the post-war era, explanations of cultural change invoking invasion became unfashionable. The extent of the AngloSaxon colonisation was diminished. Even the violent and rapacious Vikings were rehabilitated, and their numbers concomitantly reduced.

Why is it that archaeologists' views have swung from one extreme to the other? Perhaps the reason is that, for most of the island's history, it is not possible to use the archaeological record to distinguish between the arrival of new ideas or things, and the arrival of new people. Using archaeology alone, our views on cultural change will inevitably swing back and forth, heavily influenced by the political milieu within which archaeology is practised.

There are other sources, however, which archaeologists may use to build up a more sophisticated picture of settlement and social change in the past. These are language and genetics.

In the days before mass communication, languages could only spread at a rate that personal contact would allow. The rapid distribution of a new language over a large geographical area therefore implies settlement by a new group of people. Similarly, some gene distribution patterns can only be explained as a consequence of the movement of people and the continued residence of some of their descendants in a new locality. It is now becoming clear that the historical, genetic and linguistic evidence for the early medieval period cannot be properly explained either by migrations alone, or by the view that the indigenous population adopted new ways largely of their own accord.

Taking the Anglo-Saxon migrations first, there is archaeological evidence of substantial cultural change in the post-Roman period, some of which can be associated with cultural and architectural styles occurring on the continent. There was also a widespread displacement of the native Brythonic tongue by what was to become English. A convincing argument for the displacement or destruction of the native population?

Perhaps not. If that happened, we might expect to find that gene frequencies in England resemble those of the 'AngloSaxon' homelands in northern-central Europe. Current research by population geneticists, however, suggests the opposite. For example, a particularly distinctive genetic variant common in Frisia and Schleswig turns out to be rare in all parts of Britain, including the South East, one part of the country where the historical, archaeological and linguistic evidence for displacement is at its greatest. Whilst there are slight changes in other gene distributions in Britain which are very roughly associated with the borders of Scotland, Wales, and the West Country - where, in the traditional view, the remnant native population survived - these are parts of `clines' (gradients) which extend right across Europe and need have nothing to do with early medieval history.

Studies in northern England have again shown little relationship with gene frequencies in modern populations in Germany (although there may be some relationships with Scandinavia). In other words, the genetic evidence does not support the hypothesis of the widespread destruction or displacement of the native population by invaders from what is now northern Germany.

A re-consideration of the linguistic evidence began some decades ago and also suggests that the displacement of the native language was not caused by a displacement of native people. There is historical and linguistic evidence that suggests it may have been common for place-names to be translated from Brythonic into Old English. Inter-marriage between members of `Anglo-Saxon' and `Welsh' houses is also evident in the texts, and personal names occur which contain `Welsh' elements in parts of England long after `Anglo-Saxon' domination was thought complete. Many place-names in England have Brythonic origins, although these diminish in frequency toward the South and East. Whilst the English language was clearly in the ascendant, there is evidence to support a continued presence of an identifiably Brythonic population as the early medieval period began to unfold, even in southern England, and for a degree of bilingualism.

The arrival of communities of settlers from north-central Europe may have provided a stimulus for change for a large part of a bewildered and factional post-Roman society in southern Britain. Becoming `English' may have been a conscious choice for many native communities; a limited one perhaps, but one where adopting the linguistic and cultural trappings was a stepping-stone to benefiting from and influencing new economic and political activity, and an alternative to prolonged conflict or attrition.

Whilst Alex Woolf's description in this magazine (see BAN, November 1994) of the native British `gradually dying out as a result of feuding between clans, lack of access to patronage, legal wrangles and petty squabbling' is an excellent metaphor for the demise of native political power in post-Roman England, it should not perhaps be taken too literally. The British survived, essentially, by becoming English. Presumably, many elements of insular culture must have been transformed and incorporated in the process. Biological kinship was not a requirement for being `English'. The myth of kinship grew with the subsequent construction of English history.

If the myth of native decimation at the hands of the Anglo-Saxons can be dispelled, can the same be said of those other legendary hoards, the Vikings? Here the historical evidence of settlement and conflict seems, if anything, better. Although archaeological evidence to corroborate the sites of numerous battles is poor, there is extensive place-name evidence, centred on northern and eastern England, which supports historical descriptions of invasion and settlement.

So far, the clearest genetic evidence supporting the arrival of migrants from Scandinavia has come, surprisingly, from areas which might be considered backwaters from the mainstream. Studies of gene distributions in the central area of Cumbria and the eastern half of North Derbyshire both seem to show some evidence of affinity with modern Scandinavian populations. Historical evidence attests to Viking settlement in each of these areas and there is some place-name evidence which supports this. But why should the genetic traces crop up here, and not in areas where far more substantial Scandinavian settlement can be assumed?

The explanation may be one of simple demography. Environmental evidence and Domesday records both suggest that North Derbyshire and, especially, central Cumbria are likely to have had sparse populations during the early medieval period. The arrival of communities of settlers of Scandinavian origin may have had a large demographic impact in these areas. Elsewhere, even substantial numbers may have been assimilated by inter-marriage with thriving local populations leaving little clear evidence of movement from Scandinavia for geneticists to find.

In central and eastern England, it seems both migrant and local populations were prepared to integrate and reforge new community identities, albeit under the influence of the dominant political powers. A degree of linguistic similarity may have fostered both political and kin-based assimilation, and this may have assisted the decline of the Scandinavian languages, which appear to have dwindled away after only a few generations even in the most heavily settled areas. By contrast, in Cumbria and North Derbyshire, Brythonicspeaking communities may have persisted even into the Viking era. Here perhaps, language formed a further demographic barrier, both to ethnic integration and gene flow, allowing some genetic traces of Viking settlement to remain in the modern population. Even so, in these communities too, the English language and identity eventually prevailed.

The early medieval period was a time in which settlement of new groups of people, and the construction of entirely new identities, were relatively commonplace. Certainly there was antagonism and even conflict, but accommodation was the rule. It has become increasingly clear that it is not valid to equate people, language and culture; and it is a popular misconception that we are what our genes make us. A sense of ethnic or national identity is not necessarily a question of language, and certainly not one of genetics; rather, it is a state of mind.

Dr Martin Evison is a research consultant to the Department of Forensic Pathology at Sheffield University

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