British Archaeology, no 29, November 1997: Features

Ancient attitudes to ancient monuments

Romano-Britons and Anglo-Saxons venerated the remains of earlier times, writes Howard Williams

It has long been recognised that in the Roman and Anglo-Saxon periods, buildings and other structures of earlier periods were often re-used as sites for new buildings, cemeteries, isolated burials, and burial deposits of all kinds.

Various explanations have been given for this activity. Burials in prehistoric mounds reflect ‘convenience and spacesaving’; coins in a barrow reflect ‘accidental loss during grave-robbing’; a Roman temple at an earlier site reflects ‘the Romanisation of a native cult centre’; Saxon burials in a Roman villa reflect ‘continuity of the villa estate’, while Saxon burials in a hillfort suggest it was ‘re-used as a defended settlement or a battle-site’.

Some archaeologists, however, are now beginning to view this re-use of earlier monuments in a new light. The old explanations seem either implausible, or they explain only a fraction of cases. Instead, ritual or religious explanations are now being invoked. I would claim that in the majority of cases, ancient monuments were re-used because they were seen as places where sacred or supernatural forces were present.

Examples of the practice are numerous. Roman temples and shrines were placed inside Iron Age hillforts (eg, Chanctonbury Ring in Sussex), as well as around or next to Bronze Age barrows (eg, Brean Down in Somerset, or Stanwick in Northamptonshire). Roman theatres were built over a Neolithic tomb at Catterick in Yorkshire, and inside a henge at Dorchester in Dorset.

Roman coins and pottery pieces, possibly representing votive deposits, have been found in tombs such as West Kennet long barrow in Wiltshire, and at Minninglow in Derbyshire. Hundreds were discovered in a barrow on Walkington Wold in East Yorkshire.

At Pakenham in Suffolk, excavations in the 1950s discovered a small group of early Roman cremation burials in the side of a Bronze Age barrow. Late Roman burials in barrows are even more common, including those on White Horse Hill, Oxfordshire and at Hetty Pegler’s Tump long barrow in Gloucestershire.

The evidence seems to be concentrated in certain areas of Britain – the Peak District, the Cotswolds and parts of Wessex. Yet the practice was so common, that it makes sense to look for a coherent single explanation. Some have argued that, in the Roman period, it represents an attempt to ‘Romanise’ native cult centres, as a symbol of imperial domination over newly conquered peoples. But if so, we might expect mainly Iron Age structures to be subject to re-use, and particularly in the Early Roman period. In fact, however, more Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments were re-used than Iron Age structures, and the practice was commoner in the Late Roman period than the Early.

Indeed, the practice continued into the Anglo-Saxon period, and only reached fruition in the 7th century – a time of Anglo-Saxon kingdom formation and dramatic religous and social changes in lowland Britain. By this period, Roman sites were being re-used as well as prehistoric. The Anglo-Saxons often preferred round barrows for burying their dead, yet we also find burials in or next to villas (as at Orpington in Kent) and forts (Longthorpe in Cambridgeshire), or at temples, such as the single high-status burial at an isolated temple on Lowbury Hill on the Berkshire Downs. We also find them in Neolithic long barrows (as at Hampnett in the Cotswolds) and in hillforts, such as Highdown Hill in Sussex.

Most famous of all is the Anglo-Saxon royal palace at Yeavering in Northumbria, where a line of timber halls and two cemeteries were centred on a single Bronze Age barrow and a stone circle. Prof Richard Bradley of Reading University was the first to comment on the probable ritual symbolism of this Saxon re-use of ancient monuments.

Early medieval literature points the way, in my view, towards understanding the practice in both the Roman and Anglo-Saxon periods. In the Saxon epic Beowulf, in the Life of St Guthlac, and elsewhere, we read of people going to ancient barrows to make contact with supernatural forces. Similar stories are found in Scandinavian and Irish literature. I would argue that ancient monuments were re-used because their antiquity encouraged their association with supernatural and ancestral powers, and that they became the focus of new local cults to these ancestors and deities.

By burying the dead, depositing artefacts and building religious structures at ancient monuments, individuals and communities were establishing and maintaining relationships with the supernatural world, perhaps as a source of spiritual and political authority. Social identity and status, control of land and even the success of crops may have depended on the ritual veneration of these ancient sites.

This long tradition of ritual activity at ancient monuments represents a strand of continuity in social life in Britain, across the Roman–medieval transition, when so many other practices underwent drastic change.

Howard Williams is a post-graduate student at Reading University

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As Normans tore down Saxon cathedrals

St Wulfstan asserted his Saxon identity in his new church at Worcester, write Sally Crawford and Chris Guy

Why did Wulfstan, Bishop of Worcester from 1062– 95, decide to build a unique round chapter house at Worcester Cathedral soon after the Norman Conquest? This question has puzzled church historians for decades, but the answer may well have been found during excavations at the cathedral this summer, when a curving wall surrounding the chapter house was discovered.

The curving wall and chapter house are presumably closely connected, but how are they related? The key to the mystery is the enigmatic Bishop Wulfstan, who was a friend of Harold, last of the Anglo-Saxon kings. After the Norman Conquest, he was one of the few Anglo-Saxon bishops to retain his post, and one of the first actions he had to take under the new Norman rule was to pull down the two Anglo-Saxon churches on the site and rebuild a grand Romanesque cathedral, parts of which still survive today.

Usually, chapter houses – monkish staff rooms – were rectangular, but in the course of this new development at Worcester, the first circular chapter house in Europe was built. It is possible that the curving wall was built as the foundation of an arcaded corridor; but this seems unlikely because while the circular shape of the chapter house was copied elsewhere in England, no chapter house, rectangular or circular, has ever been built with a corridor around it. It is also possible that our curving foundation wall represents a slightly earlier and more grandiose attempt at a round building, which was abandoned when it was realized that it was simply too big to build. But could Norman architects have made such an error?

Perhaps most exciting is the possibility that the curving wall formed part of the foundations of one of the two Anglo-Saxon cathedrals known to have existed at Worcester before the Conquest. One of these churches, St Peter’s, was built in 680, shortly after the pagan Anglo-Saxons in the Worcester area converted to Christianity. We know it still existed at the time of the Conquest, because there is a record of St Wulfstan using it in the 1030s and 1040s for his private prayers, and there is a reference to the rebuilding of its transept in 1030. Beyond that, nothing is known. We are equally short of information about the second Anglo-Saxon church, dedicated to St Mary and built in 983 by St Oswald, one of the leading churchmen of his time. We know he intended his new cathedral church to be bigger than St Peter’s, and that this building too was standing at the time of the Conquest. According to the documentary sources, Wulfstan only started to pull it down after he had completed the east end of his new church. We know nothing more about it, not even its location – but we do know that Oswald was familiar with the latest architectural designs in church building both in England and on the Continent.

Given the dimensions of the curving wall, it is most likely to be part of Oswald’s 10th century church. However, its size suggests that, rather than being part of an apse, it could be part of the arcading around a round church, known as a rotunda, some 24m in diameter. The rotunda was a design which became very popular in the 10th and 11th centuries. Recorded Anglo-Saxon examples were built, for example, at Canterbury and Bury St Edmunds.

Anglo-Saxon churches that survived the arrival of the Normans tended to be those that were too small, or were too isolated, to be worth rebuilding, and this has created an impression that Anglo-Saxons were only capable of building cramped, unsophisticated churches. If the curving wall at Worcester is indeed pre-Norman, it tells us that the Anglo-Saxons were actually capa ble of building and vaulting large stone structures on a scale comparable with continental buildings – in size the Worcester rotunda compares with Charlemagne’s royal church at Aachen. Certainly this wall would have been part of a building much larger than the Anglo-Saxon cathedrals excavated at Canterbury and Wells. The grandeur of the building and the eminence of Oswald as a monastic reformer (he went on to be Archbishop of York while remaining Bishop of Worcester) show that Worcester must have been a far more important Christian centre in England than has previously been thought.

If this theory is correct, then we also have an explanation for the shape of the chapter house at Worcester. Wulfstan cannot have decided to pull down the Anglo-Saxon cathedral because it was too small (it was big enough to have 18 altars), or because of personal ambition – his biography recalls that he wept at the prospect of destroying St Oswald’s work. Instead, he was doubtless obliged to pull down the Anglo-Saxon buildings by order of William the Conqueror, but by building his chapter house within the earlier rotunda, he was asserting his respect for St Oswald, his independence from the Normans, and his Anglo-Saxon origins.

Dr Sally Crawford, a Lecturer in Archaeology at the University of Birmingham, and Chris Guy, Worcester Cathedral Archaeologist, jointly directed the cathedral excavations this year.

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Stonehenge, land, sky and the seasons

As debate about Stonehenge continues, John Barrett reminds us of the point of it all

The lengthy recent attempts to improve the setting of Stonehenge have made our greatest prehistoric monument the subject of much public debate over the past year or two.

All the debate, however, has been about how best to display the monument – whether and how to remove roads and fences, where to site the visitor centre, and so on. None of the debate has been about how to understand the monument. This is a shame, because it is only when you understand Stonehenge that you can properly decide how best to present it. Understanding Stonehenge also allows you to give the monument’s millions of visitors the type of information that could transform their visit into a genuinely satisfying experience.

Unfortunately, even archaeologists have rarely attempted to understand the experience of Stonehenge, and instead have concentrated on explaining its more prosaic characteristics – the chronology of the building sequence, for example, or its various possible astronomical alignments. It is the inadequacy of the information given about Stonehenge, just as much as the messiness of the monument’s display, that makes our man agement of this great monument such a disgrace. Previous attempts to interpret Stonehenge have mainly concerned themselves with the questions of who built Stonehenge, how, and why? We now know that the main stone structure arose out of a complex building sequence undertaken between about 2500– 1900BC in the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age. It is generally assumed that the building of such a complex monument – a process involving the transportation, dressing and erection of the stones – must provide some indication as to the level of social organisation which had been achieved in the area by this period. It was once thought that exotic foreign influences lay behind Stonehenge, but the monument is now regarded as the product of indigenous communities and a manifestation of their increasing levels of social complexity.

The question as to why Stonehenge was built is rather more complex. Most archaeologists become notably vague when questioned on this matter. It would appear, from their vagueness, that we simply have to accept that complex societies, such as chiefdoms, build complex monuments. It is as if those monuments could take any form – pyramids in one case, large mounds in another and in our example, a circular building. In the final analysis they are all the same because they were all the focus of considerable communal effort and their construction and use in some way helped sustain the political institutions of the time.

Such generalised and abstract reasoning, however, seems rather unsatisfactory. Stonehenge has a very particular architectural form and we might expect archaeologists to have something to say about this characteristic of the monument.

A few people have been less reticent. They have studied the plan of the monument in detail, counting the stones, measuring the distances between them, considering the ratios of their numbers and above all evaluating the various astronomical alignments available to an observer standing in the centre of the circle. On the basis of such work Stonehenge has been regarded as a giant computer, an observatory, and a calander.

These functional explanations don’t satisfy much either. They always seem to be either very partial, very abstract, or highly contentious. They also seem to depend on the idea that if we could understand the origins of Stonehenge and the motivations which lay behind its construction, we would then be able to understand it, and the way it was perceived 4,000 years ago – which is of course not the case at all.

Perhaps we should approach the problem from another direction altogether. Instead of explaining Stonehenge let us try to understand it directly. What were the consequences of having built Stonehenge, and how would it have changed people’s perceptions of the world?

Stonehenge is a building, and for buildings to be effective, inhabitants have to know when and how to gain entry, what to do once inside, and how to leave. Many buildings define areas of controlled space: not everyone may enter them, and once inside, particular areas may be also be reserved. Understanding how to negotiate these controls involves knowing the rules of the game, but buildings also offer clues, and these clues can affect the ways the rules are played out, and how the building is inhabited and experienced.

Understanding Stonehenge therefore involves looking for these types of clues about how access into and around the The correct approach: the Avenue leading to Stonehenge from the north-east is picked out in light snow building was controlled. The key to this lies in the monument’s approach, which in its final phases was from the north-east along an avenue defined by a double line of bank and ditch. This runs straight towards the stones from the dry valley of Stonehenge Bottom, and also runs eastwards away from Stonehenge Bottom before curving south to meet the river Avon.

Today this avenue is still just visible on the ground and if you walk south-westwards along it from the bottom of the valley, and up the slope of the valley side, something remarkable happens. Initially Stonehenge is almost out of view, but as you proceed the monument immediately occupies, indeed dominates, the skyline. From this position it is possible to recognise, from the perspective of the building and from the different heights of the stones, the logic of what lies before you.

An entrance portal is today only represented by one erect stone, the heel stone. So often photographed from the interior as a small and distant monolith, the heel stone now rises before you as a massive slab of undressed sarsen. Originally one of a pair, it marked the entry point immediately outside the ancient earthwork, within which the stone circle stands. Just behind these portal stones, and within the earthwork, stood three additional stones, represented today only by the fallen slaughter stone.

Behind this complex entrance is the great circle of dressed sarsen, linked together in an unbroken ring by the lintels. These act as a continuous barrier or screen through which there is no obvious entrance gap. The line of approach taken along the Avenue and between the en trance portals, however, provides a clue as to where entrance is to be expected, and so too does the stone setting which is enclosed by the circle. This inner setting is visible along the entire approach by virtue of the height of its stones which project above the lintels of the outer circle. Five pairs of sarsens, each pair originally linked by a single lintel, form a horse-shoe arrangement which faces out towards the Avenue. Of these ‘trilithons’ the backmost group was also the tallest.

Without ever passing between the portal stones the building has revealed something of itself – a series of enclosed spaces, the inner of which faces out towards those who approach.

On entry through the sarsen cirle, immediately inside of which there is another circle of much smaller bluestones, you enter the space enclosed by the trilithons. In front of these there is a further horseshoe arrangement of bluestones. The area is small and although a wide space separates each trilithon, the upright pairs of individual trilithons are so closely set that it would be impossible to pass between them. Overall the feeling is of a restricted and enclosed space dominated by the height of the trilithons.

The clues offered at this point are that further progress westwards is no longer possible, and the only option is to turn back and look north-east, the way you have come, past the heel stone, down the line of the Avenue, and towards the far horizon.

Imagine such a procession around the time of mid-summer. Those who moved up the Avenue and into the centre of the circle had walked westwards, towards the dying of the sun. By turning eastwards a new dawn could be observed with the sun rising directly above the line that had been followed along the Avenue. Those few who undertook this procession – and the centre of Stonehenge cannot contain many people – might have seen themselves as occupying a point about which the heavens and the seasons turned, the very centre of a sacred landscape. Anyone excluded from the centre of the monument may have recognised the importance of the place but they could not have experienced the harmony between sky, land and people that was revealed to observers standing in that one enclosed space. For Stonehenge slowly reveals an order which, while visible along the Avenue, is only finally experienced by entering the circle itself.

I have often wondered who the last person was to make this short journey. Today fences and the A344 cut across the Avenue in front of the heel stone. Visitors trudge around the circle having approached it from the wrong angle or dodge the traffic to gaze at the stones from beyond the fence. No one seems to leave the carpark by crossing one of the stiles into the field on the other side of the road before walking towards the building along its entrance way. To do so is to grasp its secret.

A country which cares about its built environment and its history must surely remove the A344 and allow the real splendour of this prehistoric building to be experienced once again.

John Barrett is Reader in Archaeology at the University of Sheffield

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