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Cover of British Archaeology

Issue 65

June 2002



Wealthy early Roman graves near St Albans

Dig in West Midlands reveals empty landscape

Medieval enclosed garden found at Welsh border castle

Porcelain finds show changes in 18th century taste

Medieval parchment from site of Canterbury’s friary

In Brief


Fortress Britain
Simon Denison on Britain’s Second World War defences

Great Sites
Paul Bidwell on the Roman legionary baths at Exeter

Engines of Change
David Gwyn on the landscape archaeology of railways

Lord of the Hrungs
David Hinton on the influences behind Tolkien’s epic


Armoured jacks, human sacrifice, and a ‘lost’ Roman town


Stop demolishing Victorian terraces, by George Lambrick

Peter Ellis

Regular column


Mosaics of the Greek and Roman World by Katherine Dunbabin

Migrants and Invaders by Malcolm Todd

The Molecule Hunt by Martin Jones

Britons and Romans edited by Simon James & Martin Millett

The Archaeology of Shamanism edited by Neil Price

CBA update

favourite finds

John Lewis on realising the truth about the Stanwell cursus.


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Simon Denison


Lord of the Hrungs

Tolkien's epic may have been part-inspired by Anglo-Saxon archaeology and story-telling. David Hinton explains

New Zealand may have some excellent landscape scenery, but setting the recent film Lord of the Rings in it might have displeased JRR Tolkien, who once wrote that the hobbits' Shire was 'based on rural England and not on any other country in the world'. Landscape archaeologists may also raise an eyebrow at the stone walls which the film-makers have allowed into what was 'more or less a Warwickshire village'. Tolkien's own illustration of the Shire is of hedged fields and a hill rising from a plain, looking much like Bredon Hill as he would have seen it when visiting his brother's fruit farm in the Vale of Evesham.

Tolkien was Oxford's Professor of Anglo-Saxon when the opening line of The Hobbit, 'In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit', leapt into his mind while he was marking examination scripts in the early 1930s. Consciously or not, his inspiration for that image could have come from the recent excavations of Anglo-Saxon buildings in Berkshire with below-ground floor levels directed by ET Leeds, who was then Keeper of Oxford's Ashmolean Museum. Certainly Bilbo Baggins's Bag End Hall, either in Tolkien's own pictures or in the recent film, owes nothing to 'sunken-featured buildings', and would be better described as part Palaeolithic cave-dwelling, part 20th century aircraft hangar.

Tolkien once admitted to having only a sketchy knowledge of archaeology. His principal interest was in languages, and he wrote his books partly to provide a setting for the one that he had devised himself. Nevertheless, he contributed a long essay on the Celtic name Nodens, a god of the Silures tribe, to the publication in 1932 of Mortimer and Tessa Wheelers' excavations at Lydney Park, Gloucestershire, where an inscription apparently referring to the god had been found on a votive tablet.

Vanished England

Unfortunately the preface simply says that he had 'very kindly presented a detailed report', but does not reveal how he came to hear about the work, and how much he was really in touch with developments in archaeology at that time.

Tolkien's 'cool and clear' Shire represented a vanished England, a memory that served as an antidote to the nightmare of his experiences in the First World War trenches, from which derived the episode in Lord of the Rings when the travellers pass through Shadowlands. Other settings drew upon English landscapes beyond the West Midlands. Tolkien once wrote that Somerset's Cheddar caves provided the basis for the Caverns of Helms Deep, though he was not usually specific about such inspirations.

One landscape that Tolkien knew well was the Berkshire Downs with their Neolithic long barrows and Bronze Age round barrows. He spent a week walking and painting on the Downs in his first year as an undergraduate, and subsequent walks with his children in the 1930s took him back there at a time when stories were shaping in his mind. The Downs helped to create his Barrow-lands, though he repositioned the standing stones 'like jagged teeth' that crowned some of its hills in the Lord of the Rings - the sarsens on the Downs are on the slopes, not the summits. The great White Horse cut into the chalk scarp does not seem to figure directly in the images of Barrow-lands, but such a beast would have drawn the eye of someone whose best-known academic essay was titled 'Beowulf ; the monsters and the critics', published in 1936.

Myths of the Downs

There were Anglo-Saxon burials near the White Horse, and the Downs and the Vale below became disputed between Mercia and Wessex. This contested landscape would have been particularly likely to attract myths about its monuments in the Anglo-Saxon period to emphasise their no-man's-land position. The Neolithic chambered long barrow just off the Ridgeway to which Tolkien used to take his family on their Sunday outings had acquired the Anglo-Saxon name Wayland's Smithy by the middle of the 10th century, when it was recorded as a boundary mark in a charter (a legal document recording the gift or sale of property). The name associated it with one of the best-known figures in Scandinavian sagas, Weland, a smith with superhuman skills.

Frodo's barrow

It was in a barrow like Wayland's Smithy with its stone chamber that Tom Bombadil rescued Frodo, who had just had one of his Beowulf moments, striking off the hand of the barrow-wight who lived inside - Beowulf himself, of course, had gone even further in his fight with Grendel, cutting off a shoulder and arm. The image of the warriors laid out with swords, shields and treasures is partly Beowulf, partly Sutton Hoo. Although Tolkien wrote testily that it was nonsensical to see 'Wayland Smith . . . reflected in both Tom Bombadil and Gollum', the barrow had had its effect upon his imagination.

Also walking the Downs in the 1930s was Leslie Grinsell, devotee of barrows and subsequently Curator of Bristol Museum, who published his booklet on White Horse Hill and Surrounding Country in 1937. Grinsell suggested that Weland's is not the only legendary name that can be linked to the Downs. He identified another of the charter boundary marks, beahhildae byrigels, as 'Baduhild's burial-place', and hwittuces hlaewe as 'Wittick's barrow'. In the Weland story, Baduhild was an unfortunate princess whose involuntary affair with the smith led to the birth of a son, Wittick.

In recent years these identifications have been disputed, but they were current during Tolkien's lifetime. Another boundary-mark, eceles beorh, could have been part of the Weland story. Although usually translated 'church barrow', with the first word from the Latin ecclesia, 'barrow of someone called Ecel' is possible, and Ecel is temptingly close to Egil, the name of one of Weland's brothers.

Weland and Baduhild are shown on one of the panels of the Franks Casket, a whale-bone box probably carved in the north of England in the first half of the 8th century. A figure labelled 'Aegili' features on its lid. Another panel has a bird, a three-cornered knot, a horse, a man with a spear, barrows and three mysterious cloaked figures, perhaps valkyries, which may all be associated with the Germanic god, Woden.

Some land-marks in the Downs charters could also have a Woden theme. Margaret Gelling, who has published all the Berkshire charters, proposed that rammesburi is from hraefn, 'raven', his bird. And could the early name of the Uffington hill-fort, aescaesbyriges, and the name for the whole territory, aescesdun, lead back to aesir, the family of the gods of whom Woden was a member? It is as if there is an affinity between the Casket and the Downs. Several other names are suggestive too.

Rings of the Lords

Did Tolkien know these names? They had all become easily accessible through the publications in the 1920s of GB Grundy, and Tolkien's interest in place-names is well-attested. One of his stories is set around Worminghall in Buckinghamshire, which may prosaically mean 'nook of land belonging to a man named Wyrma', but which may instead contain the Anglo-Saxon wyrm, for mythical monster, used of the dragon in Beowulf. Tolkien translated 'Worminghall' as 'Aul[a]e Draconariae' ('dragonly hall') in Latin.

Baduhild unwittingly brought her fate upon herself when she visited Weland to have a ring repaired, and a ring was associated with Woden. Tolkien disliked suggestions that his stories derived in any significant way from others, but he is known to have read the libretto of Wagner's Ring cycle in its original German. Ring-giving to symbolise lordship and friendship was a powerful image in Anglo-Saxon poetry. What, then, of another boundary-mark on the Downs, hrung putt, 'circle-pit'? Its first word gives us the modern 'ring'. Did Tolkien's Crack of Doom into which the ring was finally cast take its inspiration from a Berkshire landmark that could be translated as 'ring-pit'?

At some time, the stories were Christianised, which may show how powerful they were in people's minds. By the 18th century, the 'eceles beorh' name had been forgotten and the feature renamed Dragon Hill. The stories told about it then featured St George, whose nearby White Horse fed from The Manger, formerly the hrung putt.

In drawing on the Berkshire Downs for inspiration, Tolkien's stories thus take their place as part of a long tradition.

David Hinton is a Professor of Archaeology at the University of Southampton

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