ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 44, May 1999


Beowulf again

From Ms Ann R Elton

Sir: I refer to Richard Ansell's comment (Letters, March) on Paul Wilkinson's article in November about the possible location of the Beowulf story in Kent.

Mr Ansell dismisses the suggestion that the place-name of Harty is linked to the Beowulf place-name Heorot. He is correct in stating that its name was Herte in the Domesday Book of 1086. Wallenberg, in his Place-names of Kent, gives this as the first record, giving the derivation as OE heorot (`hart') + ieg (`island'). Ekwall's Concise Dictionary of English Place-names concurs, as does the more recent work of Margaret Gelling, but here the meaning is given as `Stag Island'. That is to say, Herte, Heorot, and Harty Island all mean the same thing.

Mr Ansell goes on to dismiss the idea that the cliffs of Sheerness (a town on Sheppey Island) were `shining', and that the Swale was a major waterway. Ekwall and Gelling do, however, give the meaning of Sheerness as `bright headland', based on the OE scir. Moreover, the Rev W Bramston, in his History of the Abbey Church of Minster (1896) states of Sheppey that `the cliffs are about six miles in length, the highest of which is above the village of Minster' - a few miles east of Sheerness.

Bramston adds, of the Swale: `This water seems formerly to have been accounted part of the River Thames, and to have been the usual (as being the safest) passage for the shipping between London and the North Foreland.' He goes on to quote Leland's Itinerary in support. Certainly the boundaries between land, sea and river have changed greatly over the years.

Beowulf in Kent? - a controversial theory. But Paul Wilkinson should be given credit where he has got his facts right.

Yours sincerely,
12 March

From Dr Paul Wilkinson

Sir: In response to Richard Ansell's letter, I mentioned Sheerness in my original article because of the Anglo-Saxon element `shining'. There may be no cliffs there now but the coastline at this point has eroded over some miles, so we cannot be certain what was there in the 5th-6th centuries.

The `tiny River Swale', as he calls it, is not so much a river as a tidal estuary which in the 5th-6th centuries covered an area of about 50 square miles. The adjacent River Thames was not used by merchant shipping until the 14th century. It was (and is) a maze of sandbanks and dangerous channels, and was not opened to merchant shipping until the Queen's Channel was found in 1360. Mariners used the route of the Wantsum, Swale Channel and London River for the simple reason that it was safe. It also had a tide which ran at about three to four knots, which took them up to London and brought them down again.

The letter from RA Nicholls, in the same issue, is more important and exciting. Contrary to Mr Ansell's assertion that Nagden Bump was `a natural hillock of clay', Mr Nicholls, a geological engineer, has proved that it was an artificial mound. Given its dimensions - 60ft high by 120ft long by 60ft wide - it was one of the largest man-made mounds in Britain.

I have spoken to Mr Nicholls, and he has confirmed that when the Bump was removed, the engineers did not excavate below ground level. As we know from Sutton Hoo, boat burials are often below ground level.

The mound was certainly in existence in 1520 as it is shown on a pictorial map of the Faversham District drawn up on the orders of Henry VIII. The name, however, is Scandinavian, and according to Wallenberg means `a mound or hill with a stone point or small figure' - a typical description of a burial mound. Who knows what may lie still undiscovered there?

Yours sincerely,
10 March

OGS Crawford

From Dr Bob Bewley

From Mrs Anne Induni

Sir: During the war, my father found himself in a hospital bed next to OGS Crawford (`The tale of Mr Crawford and his cap', March). He grew up near Hadrian's Wall and was very interested in the past. They became life-long friends, and my father was one of the airmen who took people flying in order to take aerial photographs.

My father's interest has been passed on to me, and to my son, so I am grateful to OGSC in a rather particular way. I happen to have a worn copy of Long Barrows and Stone Circles in the Cotswolds and the Welsh Marches, by Crawford, published 1922, and would be happy to donate it to anyone who might have a use for it.

Yours sincerely,
19 March

Human origins

From Mr Peter Catterall

Sir: I was very pleased to read the article by Larry Barham (`From art and tools came human origins', March), which discussed the relevance of mitochondrial DNA to theories of the relationship between Neanderthals and modern humans - a subject I have followed with interest for some time.

Dr Barham set out the reasons for concluding that, because of the absence of Neanderthal mitochondrial DNA in any living human population, it is 400,000 years since the two species had a common ancestor. Now, may I put forward the earthy, breeding point of view of a retired vet?

Imagine the situation: a man and a woman of proto-Homo sapiens sapiens, with the beginnings of modern features, encounter a man and a woman of proto-Homo sapiens Neanderthalensis. The Neanderthal male kills the archaic modern human male and mates with his woman. The offspring receives no mitochondria from the Neanderthal because only females transmit this type of DNA. The child does, however, receive Neanderthal genes. Suppose though, that by his superior skills, the H sapiens sapiens kills the Neanderthal. He is not attracted to the muscular uncouth female Neanderthal - which is just as well as she probably would have killed him. So no transmission across races here either.

Is it not possible that for many thousands of years, occasional matings occurred, passing genes in one direction but no mitochondria? Some, at least, of these Neanderthal genes would have Darwinian survival value, possibly for instance larger brain volume, and areas of the brain dealing with creative or intuitive abilities which may have developed to compensate for under-developed speech centres.

Some of these genes may have survived to the present day, although not now with any survival value, simply because of the substantial rate of transmission. An example might be the convoluted bone structure lately reported to exist in the nasal cavity of Neanderthal skeletons, which is also found in some individual members of present-day populations in the Near East. This complicated bone structure is liable to become diseased causing bad breath.

Yours sincerely,
Belcoo, Co Fermanagh
11 March

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