ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 43, April 1999


Bury the dead in a sacred landscape

Bronze Age barrows are often found near rivers, lakes and springs. David Field explains why

Where did Bronze Age people bury their dead? Where were the favoured locations for their round barrows? For years, there has been an unquestioned assumption within archaeology that over 3,000 years ago people preferred to site barrows on the tops of hills and ridges, or on the `false crests' of prominent hills, as these were places that commanded the widest view.

Quite why this incorrect assumption has prevailed may be partly because it offers an enduring image of funeral ceremonies taking place at visually dramatic points in the landscape. Archaeologists have also tended to focus on the relatively few surviving barrows on the chalk downs, while paying less attention to the greater number of flattened barrows in lower locations such as lower hill slopes and river valleys.

Recent surveys of the evidence as a whole across large tracts of southern England suggest, in fact, that relatively few barrows were positioned on the highest points in the landscape. Most were rather built on sloping ground, usually on the middle or lower slopes of a hill, where drainage is good. Remarkably large numbers were also sited close to springs, lakes, or rivers, sometimes in the valley floor but often along the upper reaches of the river. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that water and well-drained soils were deliberately sought out for the location of Bronze Age barrow cemeteries.

These observations allow us to revise our interpretation of certain aspects of Bronze Age funeral practice. The idea of the existence of `ritual landscapes' in prehistory is now well-established, and from ethnographic records we know that many non-western societies regard the whole landscape as imbued with sacred or mythological significance. It is easy to imagine how features such as caves and springs might be thought to provide a point of contact with the spirit world.

Seen in this light, the positioning of barrow cemeteries may suggest a funeral practice in the British Bronze Age as much concerned with the sanctity of the landscape as with status display, leaderveneration and other such traditional interpretations.

It has long been thought that surviving barrow cemeteries tend to cluster in certain restricted areas - such as, for example, around Stonehenge and Avebury. This clustering has been said to reflect the location of the summer pastures of a transhumant community, or the presence of settlement nearby, or even the existence of a property or territorial boundary. It has also been argued that earlier monuments attract later ones around them.

The assumption has been, however, that these concentrations are genuine. In fact the areas where barrows exist today as earthworks appear to be amongst the few that have escaped episodes of intensive cultivation during the Roman, medieval and later periods.

Recent research by the English Royal Commission in North-East Yorkshire indicates that there is greater chance of survival where barrows are located on steeper ground rather than on gentler slopes, and this is likely to be the case for the southern chalk too. Many large clusters may have been lost long ago. Air photography has revealed many such levelled cemeteries and the emphasis has shifted as a result. The concentration of ring ditches on the Isle of Thanet in Kent, for example, compares with extant barrow distribution around Stonehenge.

Pioneering work by Peter Woodward and Stephen Green in the Great Ouse valley of Cambridgeshire during the 1970s helped to draw attention to the number of levelled round barrows along river valleys. Here, over 400 ring-ditches, most of them likely to be levelled barrows, occurred in often quite large clusters at intervals along the river terrace.

Along the Avon valley, in Wiltshire, air photographs show that a string of levelled barrow cemeteries extend all the way to the river's source, close to the great henge at Marden. A similar pattern can be seen around other rivers, for example the Wylye, Nine Mile River, and the Kennet, all in Wessex, as well as elsewhere.

Other water features may also have been important markers. In Hampshire, for example, some barrows tend to focus on lakes and meres.

New surveys of surviving barrows in the south-east of England, Salisbury Plain, and the Marlborough Downs have also offered a different perspective. Even among surviving examples, few are found on the highest points in the landscape. Instead barrows are found on middle or lower slopes or around the foot of a hill. Sometimes low ridges in the lee of higher hills were used. Many cemeteries of barrows on the chalk - such as Ladywell Barrows, near Imber on Salisbury Plain, Rockley on the Marlborough Downs, and the Seven Barrows at Lambourne in Berkshire - can in fact be interpreted better as groups located around the heads of valleys or at places where springs formerly emerged.

If we accept that barrows may have been placed near rivers and springs for sacred reasons, it remains to ask what those sacred reasons might be. No answer is certain. But it is nonetheless interesting that in China, cemeteries have for centuries been placed in carefully chosen positions in the landscape. Ideally such sites are well-drained - to allow the life-force to `drain away' - being situated on slopes with a water feature or sump at the foot, and sheltered from supposedly evil north winds by a mountain or hill. These factors are considered of such importance that where no natural drainage feature is present a ditch is often dug to provide one.

In a sacred landscape, prominent landscape features often develop their own mythology. In this light, it may be no accident that the many barrows along the South Downs escarpment are not mirrored by a similar distribution on the North Downs. The South Downs escarpment faces north, the North Downs face south. The North Downs escarpment therefore receives more light - encouraging different vegetation - and the complementing opposites of light and shade, north and south, could perhaps have had some sacred significance; albeit one whose exact meaning may no longer be recoverable.

It also seems that a concept of harmony within the landscape may have played some part in the placing of burial mounds. Barrow cemeteries are rarely geometric, but are often aesthetically pleasing. The final plan often seems to have been deliberately arranged, even though individual barrows may have been constructed over centuries.

A number of barrow cemeteries may also have been aligned on celestial features, along a north-east/south-west axis. The barrow cemetery at Winterbourne Stoke crossroads, near Stonehenge, is perhaps the best known example. This is the same alignment incorporated in Stonehenge itself, in a number of other stone circles and also in typical middle Bronze Age co-axial field systems (see BA, November 1997, May 1998).

The Bronze Age landscape, therefore, appears to have been arranged according to a cosmological plan that was widely understood and accepted. Now, the latest survey work suggests that the burial mounds of the dead, like the monuments, field systems, and possibly even domestic architecture of the living, were ordered according to a system in which the landscape itself played a defining role.

David Field is an archaeologist with the English Royal Commission (RCHME), which merged this month with English Heritage

NEXT MONTH: Neolithic cursus monuments, which tell a similar story

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Ancient history of trips to the dentist

Archaeologists are beginning to recognise evidence for past dental treatment, says Chrissie Freeth

Death and taxes are not the only guaranteed curse of everyday lives. Every culture, regardless of date, area or sophistication has been plagued, to some degree, by toothache.

Because teeth are the hardest substance in the body and often survive after death, the extent of dental disease in the past is now quite well known - in Europe it starts half a million years ago with Boxgrove Man and has had a seamless history since. Less well known, but equally interesting, is the evidence for dental care. This also has a long history which can, in part, be recovered by archaeology.

The first level of dental care is oral hygiene. Toothbrushes, however, are a relatively modern phenomenon. In the past a finger, piece of cloth, or some more abrasive object would have been used, and these may leave distinctive marks on enamel. Teeth belonging to Isabella of Aragon (1470-1524), for example, wife of the Duke of Milan, were studied in Italy and were thought to suggest that she had used pumice or cuttlefish bone to remove black staining on her teeth. The stain may have been caused by mercury used to treat syphilis. Not only did Isabella remove some of this staining, she removed some of her enamel as well. It has been argued that she was the inspiration for the Mona Lisa, and if true, trying to hide the state of her teeth may explain the Mona Lisa's curious smile.

Abrasive toothpastes are also likely to leave scratches on teeth, and some pretty extraordinary recipes are known from documentary records. The Ebers Papyrus of about 1500BC recommended ground pebbles, honey, verdigris and pulverised fruit; the Greek doctor Hippocrates favoured ground mice, the head of a hare and white stone; one Roman recipe suggested ground oysters, eggshells, cattle hooves and horns; and in a medieval concoction we have dried bread, cuttlefish, rock salt and pumice. There is also evidence from a later period for the use of powdered alabaster, brick dust, china, earthenware and soot. It is hardly surprising, given these recipes, that microscopic abrasion can be found on some ancient teeth - one example is on those belonging to Christian III of Denmark (1503-59).

Toothpicks can leave grooves between the teeth, and it has been claimed that they were used by Homo habilis 1.8 million years ago. Both Isabella of Aragon and Christian III have these tell-tale grooves on their teeth, and no doubt many other examples could be cited. Metal toothpicks are known from Bronze Age Mesopotamia, but most early toothpicks were probably made of wood and have not survived. If oral hygiene wasn't up to scratch, the likely result would be tooth decay. Cavities are one of the most commonly reported pathological lesions seen in archaeology, and we know of some attempts to fill them.

A 15th century Danish man had used a rosary bead as a filling and numerous examples of suspected fillings - including wax, gum, and resin - have been reported in remains from the Americas. British examples of gold fillings and silver/mercury amalgams were found in post-medieval remains from Spitalfields and St Bride's in London.

If decayed teeth remained untreated, the pulp could become infected and an abscess develop. A sinus (or hole near the root of the tooth) might then form naturally to allow the pus to drain away, but we sometimes find a perforation of the tooth made by drilling. The earliest known example is from Neolithic Denmark, and a Danish researcher found that, using a wooden bow drill available in the Neolithic, it took 5½ minutes to make such a perforation. Several medieval examples of drilling - dating from the 11th-18th centuries - have been identified in remains from North America (including Alaska, Colorado and Illinois).

Decorative modifications such as drilling holes into teeth, insertion of inlays, and the filing down of the biting surface have been reported in cultures such as the Maya of South America - although not yet in Europe. Such non-therapeutic dentistry may have been purely cosmetic or have marked a rite of passage, tribal affiliation or social status.

If a tooth could not be saved, it had to be removed. If this could not be done by hand, instruments such as the forceps, pelican or key could be used. The forceps is known from the Greek and Roman periods, while the pelican is first mentioned in the 14th century. Several 17th and 18th century examples are known. This instrument had a hook that fitted over the tongue-side surface of the tooth, a bolster on the cheek-side surface, and a handle with which the tooth was levered out. The key is first mentioned in the 18th century and worked in a similar way. From classical to medieval times extraction was regarded as a treatment of last resort.

Archaeological evidence for extraction is usually ambiguous - who is to say whether a missing tooth was extracted by an instrument, or was gently worked free by hand? - but fractured crowns, damaged neighbouring teeth, cut-marks in the gum, or fracture or dislocation of the jaw may indicate an over-vigorous attempt at extraction. Excavations in the cemetery of the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary produced several examples of such oral damage, and this was interpreted as the post-mortem extraction of teeth in order to sell them. Nobody likes to lose their teeth. It not only symbolises old age and loss of vitality, but may also lead to digestive problems and a speech impediment. It is therefore not surprising that attempts were made in the past to compensate for tooth loss by the use of dentures, transplants, implants, bridges and crowns.

The earliest example of a dental prosthetic is Phoenician and dates to the 6th-4th century BC. It is made of gold wire and holds two carved ivory false teeth. However, the most prolific manufacturers of dental prosthetics in the archaeological record are the Etruscans (also 6th-4th century BC), from whom around 20 examples are known. Most consist of bands of gold into which false teeth were riveted, with empty lateral rings which were anchored around sound teeth. The false teeth may have been made from gold or from human or animal teeth. Despite documentary evidence from the medieval period - writers such as Gerard of Cremora (1114-87) and Guy de Chauliac (1300-68) mention false teeth - artefactual evidence is sporadic until the 18th century. In this period, false teeth were usually riveted into a base of ivory. This material was problematic as it tended to discolour and decay causing an offensive smell and unpalatable taste. The false teeth themselves were made from animal teeth or bone, from mother of pearl or silver, and what are now known as Waterloo teeth. These were human teeth extracted from hanged convicts, plundered graveyards, battlefields and mortuaries and from the destitute willing to sell them.

Porcelain dentures made a brief appearance and did not have some of the problems associated with ivory. However, because they were expensive, fragile and noisy they were not popular. The use of porcelain to make individual teeth, however, was more successful. The availability of anaesthetic in the 19th century - and therefore pain-free extraction - led to increased demand for affordable, natural-looking and comfortable dentures, a demand later fulfilled by vulcanite and acrylic resins.

Implants - and transplants, which are the use of teeth from other people - differ from dentures in that the false `tooth' is inserted into the empty socket in the jaw, and held in place with a wire or silk ligature. Only a small number of archaeological cases are known, the earliest of which dates from 6th century BC Anatolia. Implants have been made from stone, iron and shell. Transplants became more popular during the 18th century.

The relative paucity of skeletal evidence for dental care does not, probably, indicate that dentistry was not practised in the past. Teeth are easily accessible and it is reasonable to assume that attempts were regularly made to alleviate toothache.

To some extent, the evidence for dentistry may simply not survive. Dentures may have been removed before burial; organic fillings could have decayed, and graves may have been plundered for gold teeth. More likely, however, is that evidence for dentistry is still not being recognised during skeletal examination. The subject is fairly new in archaeology, and no syntheses of published findings are yet available. More evidence, without doubt, awaits discovery.

Chrissie Freeth is a doctoral student at the University of Bradford

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Fact, fiction, legend and Lorna Doone

Rob Wilson-North investigates the archaeology of Exmoor's best-known fictional settlement

Exmoor, straddling the boundary between Somerset and Devon, is a wild, remote place of heather moors, deep wooded gorges and the most spectacular coastal cliffs in southern England. It is also a place where historic landscape and literature are inextricably linked.

Daniel Defoe regarded the moor as `a filthy, barren ground', yet the dramatic coastal scenery and historic remains inspired the Romantic poets Coleridge and Wordsworth, who thought nothing of walking 40 miles from their homes at Nether Stowey in the Quantock Hills to the Valley of Rocks near Lynton. More recently, Margaret Drabble chose this landscape as the setting for her eccentric main character in The Witch of Exmoor (1996).

Nowhere on Exmoor, however, is more deeply imbued with literary associations than Badgworthy (pronounced `Badgery'), where archaeology and romantic fiction meet face to face in the story of Lorna Doone.

Most of us remember reading RD Blackmore's Lorna Doone or think we know the story. But for those who live in and around Exmoor, the legend of the Doones has become inseparable from the modern landscape. Ordnance Survey maps proclaim `Doone Country' across parts of the moor, and other names such as Mother Melldrum's Cave are linked with the legend.

The origin of the legend is obscure, but it was in existence by the beginning of the 19th century, and centres on a band of outlaws - the Doones - allegedly descended from Scottish nobility, who lived on Exmoor in the 17th century, where they robbed and pillaged the local community. There is nothing in historical sources from the period to prove or even suggest their existence. What is certain is that Richard Blackmore, living at his father's rectory in the village of Oare on Exmoor, knew of the Doones, and published his historical novel in 1869.

The novel is a romantic story of rural life set against the political machinations leading up to Monmouth's rebellion of 1685. Its hero and narrator is John Ridd, a yeoman farmer from Plover's Barrows Farm, near Oare on Exmoor. When John is only 12 years old, his father is murdered by the Doones. John returns home from school to run the farm, and by chance wanders into the Doone Valley where he meets the beautiful Lorna Doone. The story chronicles their clandestine meetings, dangerous to them both, because Lorna is betrothed to the evil Carver Doone, the murderer of John's father.

John and Lorna endure many hardships and partings before they finally marry. On their wedding day, in Oare church, Lorna is shot by the furious Carver Doone. A distraught John, imagining Lorna to be dead, pursues Carver across the moor, who meets his end by falling into one of Exmoor's treacherous bogs, the Wizard's Slough.

Blackmore set his fictional story in the real landscape, describing the moorland and coastal scenery, and relishing the resonant place names: Cloven Rocks, The Devil's Cheesewring, Slocombeslade, Black Barrow Down. The fortress-like settlement of his outlaw clan he placed in the long narrow valley of Badgworthy Water. This is a remote valley, steep sided, and close to the high moor, and ever since the book was published visitors have walked the long three miles to see `Glen Doone'. As early as the 1930s local lads were selling lemonade to the tourists! Today, visitors come from all over the world in search of the Doones.

The `Doone village' can be found at a point where Badgworthy Water and a neighbouring valley meet. And sure enough, the foundations of a number of buildings, lying close to the river here, bring to mind Blackmore's description:

For she stood at the head of a deep green valley, carved from out the mountains in a perfect oval, with a fence of sheer rock standing round it, eighty feet or a hundred high; from whose brink black wooded hills swept up to the sky-line. By her side a little river glided out from underground with a soft dark babble . . .

But further down on either bank were covered houses, built of stone, square and roughly cornered, set as if the brook were meant to be the street between them. Only one room high they were, and not placed opposite each other, but in and out as skittles are, only that the first of all, which proved to be the captain's, was a sort of double house, or rather two houses joined together by a plank bridge over the river.

It is hardly surprising that the remains recall Blackmore's description, for it was precisely this site that inspired his account. What Blackmore saw at Badgworthy were the archaeological traces of one of the best preserved deserted medieval settlements in the west of England, mapped for the first time by the English Royal Commission during a recent survey of Exmoor (see inset).

The place name means `Baga's farm' and is first recorded in 1170 when the land was given to the Knights Hospitallers and was described as `the land of the hermits of Badgworthy'. Who these hermits were, and how and where they lived remains a mystery. By the 13th century there was a priest named Elias and a chapel at the `vill of Badgworthy', but by the early 15th century documents record that the tenements were in decay, and new tenants could not be found.

The place was abandoned, chiefly, perhaps, because the climate was becoming wetter and colder, which made an already arduous farming life unbearable. In the early 19th century only a man and his grand-daughter lived there, and they were to die in a terrible snowstorm in the winter of 1814.

The grassed over wall-footings of at least 12 buildings can be seen. They were low, single-storey houses and barns, built of stone with thatched roofs. Some are loosely grouped around little yards; others seem to be randomly placed. Around the village are the traces of strip lynchets - terraced fields - and proof that the medieval farmers were growing crops even at this high altitude. Other big enclosures or fields provided more favourable grazing than the barren moorland.

So could the legendary Doones really have lived here? The legend associates the family with this western part of Exmoor but with no village in particular. The archaeological evidence at Badgworthy suggests complete desertion in the 15th century, with just one post-medieval building standing at some distance from the centre of the village. Perhaps it was in this house that the luckless grandfather lived with his little girl. There is no archaeological evidence for an outlaw settlement here dating from the 17th century.

Moreover, in the mid-17th century the Royal Forest was under the control of James Boevey, an extremely litigious man. No reference to a band of outlaws operating in the area can be found in any of the cases in which he was involved, or in any other contemporary documents.

Badgworthy's story is fascinating, however, with or without the Doones. An ancient farm existed here long before King Harold was killed at Hastings; later it became the dwelling place of a group of medieval hermits, which evolved into a remote rural settlement. Now it gives us an evocative reminder of farming life in the medieval period. There are indeed few places where the sense of the past is so strong. It was this powerful sense of the past in the modern landscape that gripped Richard Blackmore, and which continues to enthrall visitors to the site today.

Rob Wilson-North and Hazel Riley conducted the RCHME survey of Exmoor. RCHME merged this month with English Heritage

EXMOOR'S high moorland has the feeling of a wilderness, but all around are the monuments of the past.

Some are unmissable like the impressive Bronze Age barrows which can be seen silhouetted on many Exmoor skylines, and which medieval travellers used as waymarkers and to define the boundaries of the Royal Forest. Other monuments are ambiguous, like the prehistoric stone settings arranged in rectangles or diamond-shapes, or in other more random patterns. Some of these emerge in summer when the peat retracts, only to be buried again when the winter rains swell the ground. They are the only monuments of their type in England, and their purpose remains obscure.

Elsewhere there are remarkable numbers of small earthwork enclosures, probably dating from the Iron Age, and several deserted medieval villages surrounded by their networks of abandoned fields.

Such a precious and elusive historic environment can only tell its story when its sites are mapped and studied. That is why the English Royal Commission (RCHME) has been working with the Exmoor National Park Authority and the National Trust to investigate the moor.

Through fieldwork and air photography, the survey has encompassed archaeological sites of all periods from the earliest stone monuments of the Neolithic to the training facilities of World War II. The results will form the basis of the first comprehensive book on Exmoor's archaeology for 30 years.

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