Sunday, December 27, 2009

The earlier Bronze Age in Ireland II

Stone circle at Beaghmore.
Recent re-examination of the cemeteries indicates a predominance of male burials suggesting a stratified society in which not everyone was accorded the formal rite of cist or pit burial. The rich burial of a young teenage male at Tara, complete with a necklace of jet, amber, bronze, and faience and a bronze dagger and awl, demonstrates, for example, that for some aristocracy was a birthright. Further indication of the wealth to which people might aspire, and the international tenor of the trappings of status, is seen in the corpus of sheet goldwork which includes 85 crescentic gold collars or lunulae, 20 decorated sun-discs, and 2 basketshaped earrings: all types known from Britain and indeed further afield. No doubt bronze objects, such as axes, halberds, and, as we have seen, daggers, belonged to only the richest in society. All that glitters is not gold!

Funerals represented only one facet of ritual activity during the 2nd millennium bc. Communal ceremonial monuments were also created. Although many of these have associated burials, it seems that this was not their primary role, instead the burials may have connected, symbolically, the cycle of human life and death with the cosmological order. In addition to the large embanked enclosures, or henges, which continued to be used into the first few centuries of the second millennium bc, smaller henges and hengiform barrows now appeared throughout the country (indeed, as we shall see, in Ireland the tradition of defining sacred space with a hengiform enclosure continued in various guises into the 1st millennium ad). And, whereas previously henges might have been associated with timber circles and temples, during the 2nd millennium these circles were increasingly made from stone, a development exemplified in the case of Newgrange where the massive pit circle once attached figure-of-eight style to the site was replaced by a great stone circle encircling the mound itself. By their very nature, stone circles are difficult to date but appear to have been built throughout the 2nd millennium bc. Major concentrations occur in Ulster and Munster, with over 90 examples recorded in Cos. Cork and Kerry alone where the dominant type is the ‘recumbent’ circle. Such circles, consisting of five or more stones, are entered between two matching portal stones, the largest in the circle, on the opposing side of which lies the recumbent or axial stone. The axis between the portals and recumbent stone is consistently aligned south-west/north-east, i.e. on the rising and setting sun. Few circles have been excavated. At Drombeg, Co. Cork, five pits were uncovered in the central area. One contained the cremated remains of an adolescent and a sherd of coarse pottery which yielded a date of 1124–794 bc. Similar ‘token’ deposits of cremated human bone were uncovered at Bohonagh and Reanascreena, Co. Cork, and at Cashelkeelty, Co. Kerry. Some of these circles appear to be associated with stone alignments, that is rows of standing stones that can stretch for considerable distances across the countryside.

Analysis has demonstrated that many alignments ‘point’ towards important solar and lunar positions or to places where sun and geography combine to curious affect, as at Lough Inagh, Co. Galway, where the alignment points to a corrie that is illuminated by the last rays of the setting sun during the winter solstice. Alignments may also have defined territorial boundaries across large tracts of open countryside. As in Munster, the stone circles of Ulster are also associated with stone alignments, and this is nowhere better illustrated than at Beaghmore, Co. Tyrone, where seven circles and at least eight alignments comprise one of the most enigmatic archaeological landscapes in Ireland. Unlike the Munster circles, these northern specimens consist of vast quantities of small, portable stones arranged in concentric circles and radial lines. A spectacular group has recently been exposed in cut-away peat at Copney Hill, about 11 km from Beaghmore.

Pollen evidence tells us that these people lived in a still largely forested environment, practising agriculture in clearings on lighter, drier soils, although a general increase in ash from about 2300 bc suggests that forests were lighter than previously. Throughout the course of the 2nd millennium there was progressively more settlement on the uplands. It has been argued that in such a context agriculture was merely an adjunct to the exploitation of the greater ecosystem. So, while the underlying trend is of a steady increase in arable agriculture and increasing reliance on farm produce, the macrofossil evidence indicates that substantial quantities of wild foods continued to be collected. Movement was along trails and droveways and, over boggy ground, on wooden trackways such as those uncovered at Corlea and Annaghbeg, Co. Longford. There are very few settlement sites of the period. Most consist of habitation deposits uncovered during the excavation of multi-period sites with few or no surviving structural remains. A series of possible postholes at Monknewtown, Co. Meath, has been speculatively reconstructed as the outline of a conical, wigwam-type house. There is evidence, however, that the first fulachta fiadh date from around 2300 bc. These are cooking pits where meat was broiled in water-filled, sunken wooden troughs, brought to the boil by having hot stones dropped in. Over 2,000 are known throughout the country and they are an important indicator of the whereabouts of Bronze Age settlement. What are to all intents and purposes identical installations are described in documentary sources of the early medieval period, suggesting extraordinary longevity.

Until recent radiocarbon programmes began to push forward the dates of stone circles and alignments and pull back the dates of fulachta fiadh and widely spaced multivallate hillforts, the archaeology of Middle Bronze Age Ireland (c.1500–900 bc) was dominated by artefact studies. Substantive technological advancements, such as the development of sockets, were made during these centuries. A unique set of stone moulds from Killymaddy, Co. Antrim, bear the matrices of socket-looped spearheads and a dirk or rapier, the first of such weapons in the Irish arsenal, along with tanged knives and a sickle. The problems of mounting a flat axe were overcome by creating axes with side flanges and a stop-ridge which ultimately led to the development of the palstave, principally a woodworker’s tool, which was produced in huge numbers. Indeed, the whole bronze industry had moved onto an altogether more industrial plane, though unfortunately most of the vast quantity of Middle Bronze Age metalwork comprises stray finds. Significant percentages of these, however, come from wet contexts and this suggests that many were votive deposits, with an apparent preference for rivers over and above lakes and bogs. The tools of the bronzesmith’s trade are preserved in a slightly later hoard from Bishopsland, Co. Kildare, and these include among other things a double-sided saw, an anvil, a selection of chisels, bronze socketed hammers, and a vice. This hoard connects the Irish bronze industry with the so-called Taunton Phase of the British Bronze Age, dated to between 1350 and 1200 bc. In addition to the new tool and weapon types, new types of jewellery appeared also, including a variety of twisted gold torcs, or neckrings, and similarly made earrings. Most common, however, are penannular bronze bracelets.

The dearth in burials of this period is compensated for, in some measure, by numerous recent discoveries of settlement sites. At both Ballyveelish (c.1130–810 bc) and Chancellorsland, Co. Tipperary, the habitation area was located within a large oval enclosure (both around 40 m × 30 m) and this suggests that other enclosures of the same size and shape might also date from this period. Although no house structures survived in the excavated part of the Ballyveelish enclosure, a considerable amount of pottery and organic refuse was recovered from the surrounding ditch. Cattle accounted for 43 per cent of the livestock, pig nearly 36 per cent, and sheep/goat 17 per cent, the remainder comprising horse, dog, and red deer. Slaughter patterns suggest that the cattle were reared primarily for beef. Barley and wheat were also grown. The pottery consisted of plain coarse, flat-bottomed ware, probably used for cooking, a type that would dominate the domestic scene until at least the 4th century bc. At Chancellorsland a succession of small oval and sub-rectangular huts was uncovered. Again, there was excellent survival of organic material in the fosse. House plans were also uncovered at Curraghatoor, Co. Tipperary, Lough Gur, Co. Limerick, and Carrigillihy, Co. Cork, and these consist of relatively small circular or oval shaped dwellings around 5 m or 6 m in diameter with walls that are likely to have been of wicker, possibly covered in clay daub or animal skins. At Lough Gur pig dominated the faunal assemblage, with cattle coming in at around 38 per cent. Tillage was also important as attested at Belderg, Co. Mayo, where Caulfield uncovered ‘lazybeds’ in a field system associated with a small round house. With an economy so rooted in the land, O’Sullivan has suggested that wetlands sites, such as those uncovered at Cullyhanna Lough, Co. Armagh, and Lough Eskragh, Co. Tyrone, might only have been seasonally occupied, thus accounting for their comparatively small assemblages.

The earlier Bronze Age in Ireland I

Copper mine on Ross Island, Killarney
On Ross Island, Killarney, Co. Kerry, O’Brien has uncovered the oldest known copper mine in north-western Europe, dating from between 2400 and 2000 bc. Here, arsenical copper was mined from short shafts tunnelled more or less vertically from the surface. Inside these cramped tunnels fires were lit to fracture the parent rock which was then dislodged using stone mauls or hammer stones. It is very difficult to estimate how much ore was extracted from Ross Island, or indeed Mount Gabriel, Co. Cork, which was exploited between about 1700 and 1500 bc, but the work was clearly labour intensive and the resultant copper extremely valuable. Tin may have been mined across the country in Wicklow, or might have been imported from Cornwall in south-west Britain. Combined, these two metals produced bronze.

Associated with the copper mine on Ross Island was Beaker pottery, a fine, often highly decorated, flat-bottomed drinking vessel which is irregularly distributed throughout western Europe where it has a recurring association with the first use of metal. Consequently, the Ross Island assemblage is central to the question of how knowledge of metallurgy first arrived in Ireland. The traditional view connects the spread of the use of copper with ‘Beaker Folk’ whose migrations were revealed in the distribution of their distinctive material assemblage (which includes conical, V-perforated buttons, barbed and tanged arrowheads, and stone archers’ wristguards) and the appearance of copper metallurgy among the furthest outposts of north-western Europe. Many scholars today, however, question the plausibility of such folk movements. Emphasizing the regional diversities throughout north-west Europe in the Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age, they suggest that rather than people, what spread was a new concept in social organization: the distinctive artefacts are simply internationally recognized symbols of social status. Accordingly, they would argue that the technical know-how required to mine and process copper, and later (c.2200 bc) bronze, could have been passed on by word of mouth along traditional Late Neolithic trade routes.

In Ireland Beaker pottery is often associated with Wedge tombs, built between about 2300 and 2000 bc. Along with embanked enclosures and stone and timber henges, they represent the earliest elements in the lexicon of ritual architecture in Bronze Age Ireland that, over the course of a thousand years, came to include Single Burials, cemetery mounds, standing stones, stone alignments and stone circles, boulder burials, and rock art. With the relative dearth of settlement sites these confusing and often enigmatic monuments have come to dominate our analyses and perception of this period. Though Wedge tombs, of which just over 500 examples are known, are the most numerous Irish megalithic tombs, their origins are shrouded in obscurity. While sharing certain characteristics with Neolithic tombs, their closest parallels are with the allées couvertes of north-western France, and so a connection with that area cannot be ruled out. Wedge tombs have a decidedly western distribution, with notable concentrations in south-western and northern Munster and again along a band curving from north Mayo and Sligo across south Tyrone and into east Donegal. This contrasts with the generally more eastern distribution of the Single Burial tradition of pit and cist burials and introduces the possibility of distinct socio-cultural provinces in early Bronze Age Ireland. Analysis of the mutually distinct Wedge tombs and Single Burials in Munster, for example, suggests to O’Brien that Wedge tomb builders controlled access to ores and distribution of metal, which their Single Burial neighbours in central and eastern Munster could only acquire through barter. Such monopolies led to the emergence of what are known as ‘Big Man’ elites, while down-the-line exchange gave rise to specialized middlemen who must have played a pivotal role in the acquisition of tin, which was not available in Munster.

From the outset (c.2350 bc) there was tremendous variability among the Single Burials which outlasted the use of Wedge tombs by some centuries. During this time the accompanying bowl- and vase-shaped funerary vessels developed from grave good to urn. As the name implies, Bowls are essentially round-bellied pots, highly decorated with impressed and incised ornament that owes much of its inspiration to the Beaker tradition. They are found mainly in the north and east of the country and so complement the distribution of Wedge tombs. The vast majority occur in small, stone-lined cists and more than half accompanied cremated burials. Occasionally, other artefacts such as plano-convex flint knives, leaf-shaped arrowheads, and polished stone artefacts have been found along with Bowls and at Corkey, Co. Antrim, and Carrickinab, Co. Down, riveted bronze daggers were also found. Miniature Bowls (sometimes called Pygmy Cups) are also known. The contemporary Vase Tradition is characterized by tapered bi- and tripartite pots, 11 to 16 cm tall. Handmade, they too are highly decorated and although they share the same northern and eastern distribution, there is a significant grouping in Galway and Mayo. Most Vases have been found with cremated burials and the range of associated grave goods compares to that accompanying Bowls. From around 1900 bc we see the emergence from the indigenous Vase Tradition of two types of large funerary pot (i.e. up to 40 cm tall), the Vase Urn and the Encrusted Urn, types which feature in the burial tradition for about two centuries. They share the stage with two British-inspired urn types, the impressive Cordoned and Collared Urns.

Cordoned Urns are found in simple pits, inverted over the cremated remains of the dead (usually one individual, sometimes more) which were presumably sealed in place with a cloth before the pot was turned upside down. They occur in the east of the country with a particular concentration in the north-east. Associated finds include exotica, such as small oval-shaped bronze knives or razors, which may be symbols of masculinity, and beads of faience, a blue vitreous paste, originating in the Near East. However, the most impressive artefacts to have been found with Cordoned Urns are the so-called battleaxes. Beautifully carved, waisted, and perforated, these stone axes were clearly for ceremonial use and, like the urns, originate in Scotland. Sixty or so burials with Collared Urns have been found in Ireland and these date from between 2000 and 1500 or 1400 bc. Concentrated in the north-east, they too are most frequently found in simple pits, associated grave goods being quite rare. There are noteworthy exceptions, however, as at the Mound of the Hostages, Tara, Co. Meath, where a battleaxe and a riveted bronze dagger were found with a Collared Urn and an inverted Vase.

The forty-plus burials in the Mound of the Hostages at Tara comprise a cemetery mound. As at Tara and Baunogenasraid, Co. Carlow, occasionally Neolithic tumuli were reused as cemetery mounds during the earlier Bronze Age but in other cases, such as at Knockast, Co. Westmeath, new mounds were built. Flat cemeteries are evidently far more difficult to recognize and are usually found by chance during ploughing. Consequently, there has been little concerted excavation of such sites. At Urbalreagh, Co. Antrim, three burials were demarcated by a small penannular ditch. A similar ring-ditch was excavated at Ballyveelish, Co. Tipperary, and was found to encircle a porched mortuary house in the centre of which was a polygonal cist containing the remains of two adults, a young teenager, and two children, as well as an Encrusted Urn and two Pygmy Cups. Many such ring-ditches date from the earlier Bronze Age, though as a type simple ring-ditches were built throughout prehistory. Burials such as those at Tara and the Bowl burial at Knockaulin represent one aspect of the continuing investment into complexes that would, in time, become the royal sites of later prehistoric and early historic Ireland.

Friday, November 6, 2009




Early medieval Brittany: the Dark Age kingdoms. The approximate limit of Breton political power in the 6th century is shown as a dashed line; P = place-names in Plou attested before 1200; the white lines represent the Roman road network.

Despite their location on the European continent, the Breton language and associated culture owe their distinctive shape to origins on the Island of Britain, with especially close affinities to the pre-English groups of Cornwall (Kernow) and south-west Britain generally. For this reason, Breton is classed as an Insular Celtic language, despite its location. Settlers brought Brythonic speech and culture to Brittany (Breizh) in a series of migrations from the 3rd to 9th centuries ad, most heavily c. 450–c. 600, moving into an area of Gaul that had previously been known by the Gaulish name Armorica. The well-documented presence of a leader with the Brythonic name or title Rigotamus and known to the Gallo-Romans as ‘king of the Britons’ with 12,000 men on the river Loire (Liger) c. 470 represents an advanced stage in a process which had by then become well organized and included an important military component.

We do not have abundant evidence to show to what extent Gaulish was still a spoken language in Armorica when the Britons moved in. Clearly, there was some Latin spoken there, as throughout the Western Empire. However, to judge from extant Gallo-Roman remains, Armorica was not one of the most Romanized regions of Gaul. Repeatedly, for spans of several years at a time over the 4th and earlier 5th centuries, Armorica slipped out of imperial control and into the hands of armed peasant rebels, known as Bacaudae. The word itself is not Latin but Gaulish, and is probably related to the Breton and Welsh bagad ‘a band of men’. It seems inherently unlikely that the Bacaudae—from the most underprivileged and anti-Roman classes of the most remote region of Gaul—were all monoglot Latin speakers. We may note also a late Gaulish inscription from Plumergat, indicating that a learned Gaulish was still in use for prestigious occasions in the old territory of the Veneti c. ad 300 or possibly later. One may also point to a number of pre-Breton place-names which are clearly Gaulish, rather than Gallo-Roman, in character, for example, the name of the great megalithic site Carnac ‘Place of stone monuments’. It is likely, therefore, that Gaulish did survive, at least in some areas, to contribute names and words to the incoming Brythonic and possibly even influence its phonetics, morphology, and syntax. Some scholars, notably François Falc’hun, went as far as to argue that Gaulish was still a living language at the time of these migrations, and that Breton (particularly the Vannetais dialect in the old civitas of the Veneti, shows substantial influence from Gaulish, if it is not a direct descendant. However, any such argument flies in the face of the fact that the earliest Welsh, Cornish, and Breton are similar to the point of being often indistinguishable on linguistic grounds. It seems, therefore, that whatever Gaulish might have survived when the Britons arrived, it was the similar but distinct speech of the dominant incomers that was to become the standard variety of spoken Celtic in the peninsula.

Two 6th-century historians, the Byzantine Procopius and the Gallo-Roman Gregory of Tours, both demonstrate that Brythonic Brittany was an accomplished fact. The latter gives a detailed account of a peninsula ruled by chieftains with Brythonic names, whom the Merovingian Franks insisted on calling comites (counts), but who were effectively independent sovereigns. By the 570s Brythonic speakers were already dominant in an even further colony in north-west Spain called Britonia. However, we have only one near contemporary source that describes the migrations themselves, namely the De Excidio Britanniae of Gildas. Writing the better part of a century after the event, Gildas gives a luridly melodramatic account of an Anglo- Saxon ‘conquest’ from which the Britons had to flee, either to the west, i.e., Wales (Cymru) and Cornwall, or overseas to Brittany. Gildas, however, tells us that no British historical records had survived; he was therefore producing a stark and moralistic historical explanation of the distribution of Brythonic, Old English, and Gallo-Latin in his own day, and working from an admitted position of ignorance.

The spread of languages with the decline and collapse of the Western Empire—primarily the early Germanic languages such as Old English—has tended to be understood within the framework of Volkerwanderung (migration of peoples), i.e., a great post-Roman migration period. Applying this idea to Gildas’s testimony, the Breton migrations have been seen as a ‘knock-on’ or ‘billiard-ball’ effect, with Celtic migrants set in motion by an earlier Anglo-Saxon movement. However, a number of factors other than mass migration can influence the change from one language to another, including political or religious authority and social or economic pressure. The Armorican peninsula had close and bidirectional relations with Britain throughout prehistory and the ancient and medieval periods; therefore, the real processes behind cultural and linguistic Bretonization must have been a story of many complex increments. For example, is the Bacaudic prelude to the migrations to be viewed primarily as the story of a local power vacuum or an anti-Roman, philo-Celtic movement, or both?

Early Christian communities were clearly a factor in the Breton migrations. Le Duc has recently proposed that Romano-British Christians moved into Armorica as early as the 3rd century ad, when Christianity was still actively persecuted in Roman Britain (Celtic Connections 1.133–51). In a letter written between 509 and 521, the bishops of Tours, Angers, and Rennes (Roazhon) threatened to excommunicate, for their alien and unorthodox practices, two priests in Armorica with the Brythonic names Louocatus and Catihernus; thus we see the faltering grip of the Gallo-Roman hierarchy on a nascent Brittany with its own distinctive Christian practices. Traditional history has long held that the saints were leaders in the journey to Brittany. Breton Latin saints’ lives support this, both in their descriptions of actual migrations and in the connections between insular Britons and Bretons. Britonia in Spain probably had a similar origin. The study of Breton place-names suggests a detailed picture of settlement by British early Christians in the peninsula, especially the numerous archaic names (often still those of parishes and towns and villages of local importance) that comprise the element Plou- the name of an early Brythonic saint or an obscure element popularly understood as a saint’s name. In many instances, the same saints’ names are found in parish names in Wales and Cornwall.

From the standpoint of social history, the model of colonization—though without the word’s modern political overtones—is probably appropriate for the Breton migrations, in that the movements seem to have been largely voluntary, and conducted on the scale of family groups and small religious communities, rather than mass conquest by a hostile invading force. The prior inhabitants of Armorica—whose initial resistance to Rome had been fierce and whose position within later Gallo-Roman society had been increasingly marginal and precarious—were probably gradually incorporated into the new society rather than being driven out, destroyed, or having suffered some depopulating catastrophe, as previous theories have proposed. Whatever the circumstances of the original impulse to settle Brittany from Britain, it is certain that the connections between Brittany, Cornwall, and Wales were maintained for centuries, facilitated by a common language, trade networks and other economic factors, and the relative ease of travel by sea. Subsequent settlement from Brittany to Britain and vice versa occurred throughout the Middle Ages, both in the context of the Norman invasion of Britain and independently. The family of Geoffrey of Monmouth is believed to have been of Breton origin.

Further reading
Bowen, Britain and the Western Seaways; Bowen, Saints, Seaways and Settlements; Chadwick, Early Brittany; Falc’hun, Les origines de la langue bretonne; Fleuriot, Les origines de la Bretagne; Galliou & Jones, Bretons; Jackson, LHEB; Le Duc, Celtic Connections 1.133–51; Poisson & Le Mat, Histoire de Bretagne.

Hallstatt Elite Burials


The Hochdorf burial is one of the most important archaeological discoveries of the Century for Celtic studies. Like the Egyptian tombs, most Celtic tombs were pillaged by grave robbers and disturbed by careless amateur archeologists of the modern period. Although farmers had been tilling the ground for centuries, the tomb was only discovered in the 1970s. Archeologists have placed the large, mound burial to about 550 BCE which means it was untouched for 2,500 years. The first investigations of the mound took place in 1978-79 by Jörg Biel. The burial gives us an unprecedented insight into the burial practices of the elite in 6th-century.

The Hochdorf burial confirms and summarizes other, less complete burials. This rare archeological find also confirms the legends of the prosperous Celtic past. The large, isolated burial gives extraordinary information on tomb construction. The mound measures 60 meters across. The tomb proper was constructed of a masonry perimeter reinforced with timber. The entrance ramp is on the north face of the mound. The tomb proper (where the body was placed) measures 11 meters square, by 2 meters deep, and is constructed of two walls filled with rubble. The rubble between the two walls--designed to withstand robbers is a feature not found in other tumuli, perhaps indicating the importance of the tomb and its occupant.

Inside, the chamber was found lined with textiles that adorned the walls. Although bacteria-killing oxides from the metal artifacts preserved the fabric, the fabric disintegrated when it was exposed to air. The remains of the deceased indicated the occupant was a 45-year-old man who measured 6' in height. He was placed on cloths of wool and badger skin. Since there are no traces of human hair it is assumed that the body was preserved in a vat of salt. Salt mining, of course, was one of the major industries during the Hallstatt period. The flowers in the tomb were the local blooms of late summer and early autumn.

In addition to items of personal adornment, the tomb included objects for personal hygiene, a razor and nail scissors. The three fishhooks and a quiver with arrows, though no bow, probably indicate his elite status as hunter/warrior as opposed to a worker. A large drinking service comprised of nine drinking horns and a large cauldron decorated with bronze lions and a dinner set with accessories indicate the Celtic elite's enjoyment of hospitality. The cauldron held 104 gallons of liquid: probably mead, a honeyed wine drink of the elite class. The cauldron was a luxury import item, probably made in a Greek colony in the south of Italy.



  • Biel, J., Der Keltenfurst von Hochdorf. Stuttgart: K. Theiss, 1985.
  • Hochdorf. Stuttgart: K. Theiss, 1985.
  • Der Keltenfurst von Hochdorf: Methoden und Ergebnisse der Landesarchaologie in Baden-Wurttemberg : Katalog zur Ausstellung in der Josef-Haubrich-Kunsthalle. Koln vom 31. Januar bis 31.Marz 1986. Stuttgart: K. Theiss, 1985.
  • Moscati, S.,ed., The Celts Milano: Gruppo Editoriale Fabbri, Bompiani, 1991.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Hoard shines light on Dark Ages

By Dr Michael Lewis
Deputy head of Portable Antiquities Scheme, British Museum 

This treasure paints a new picture of our past and the Dark Ages.
What makes it outstanding is the sheer quantity - we're talking about 1,500 objects, almost entirely precious metal.
Normally you would expect a handful of objects each year of this quality for the period in question, which is the 7th Century.
A metal detectorist finding just one of these objects would consider it the find of their life. To find 1,500 is bizarre and it would blow the average person's mind.
Now, everybody wants to know who it belongs to and why it was put there. But those questions are tricky to answer.
From my 21st-century perspective, I find it bewildering that someone could shove so much metalwork into the ground

For the Anglo-Saxon period, this is an awful lot of wealth for one person, or even one people, to have left in one place.
At the moment, we can say what it isn't, even if we can't say what it is. It's not associated with a burial, like Sutton Hoo was, for example.
Precious metal
After that, there are two main possibilities.
The first is that this treasure has been purposefully deposited, like an offering to a god.
But, from my 21st-Century perspective, I find it bewildering that someone could shove so much metalwork into the ground as an offering. That seems like overkill.
The other possibility is it's a treasure chest that got lost, or they couldn't come back for it.
A gold folded cross found buried beneath a Staffordshire field
A folded cross - precious metal seemed to mean more than items themselves
The material is predominantly associated with war - swords, sword fittings, bits of helmets and the like - but all the precious metalwork has been stripped.
That means they're not treasuring the objects as wholes, they're taking the precious metals off and keeping them.
Most things we find from the Anglo-Saxon period are what we call "chance finds", in other words the things people lost, or hoards purposefully deposited, or finds from burials.
But hoarding is more associated with the Viking period. Things like big coin hoards are more a 10th-Century sort of find. This is a strange phenomenon in this country for the 7th Century.
People will now be working to understand when the material was deposited, then we'll look at what we know of the history - which is not a lot - to tie it down.
The finds date from a wide period, which is unusual, so the first thing this may do is help us improve our dating of the Anglo-Saxon period.
Much of what we know about this period is based on archaeology, not written evidence, because that written evidence is so scant.
What would we make of modern society if we just looked at the material culture, with no context?
We've got the objects, but not the historical context.
That's a problem because we understand the world based on what's written down, but we're not that good at understanding people from their material culture.
What would we make of modern society if we just looked at the material culture? What would we try to understand from it with no historical context to put it in?
Rulers overlooked
Yet that's what we're trying to do here.
I don't think it's realistic to identify this with a particular individual. We'll probably never find the owners, although the best bet is a ruler from the kingdom of Mercia, where it was found.
Map of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms
In this period some Mercian rulers, like Penda and Offa, are quite well-known to us. Penda is a bit before this period, and Offa is right at the end, so it has to be someone in the middle.
But our historical sources are limited to people like the monk Bede, who wrote from a Christian perspective.
The Mercian rulers at the time are likely to have been pagan, but they could have been overlooked by Bede even though they might have been important, because he wasn't interested in them - for whatever reason.
So this will help us look back at those sources, and those historical figures, with more scrutiny than we did before.
The Dark Ages were called the Dark Ages because it was seen as a period where, after Roman civilisation, somehow we went backwards in time.
But this demonstrates there were still wonderful objects being produced, and produced in this country.
It will take years, or decades, to get answers, and we still won't get all of them.
We can't just ask questions about this hoard, either - we need to ask questions about how this hoard fits in with everything else we know.
Have we made assumptions elsewhere that aren't right?
Those are the things we'd like to know about. It's very, very early days.

Saturday, June 27, 2009


The evidence for burials discussed so far offers a very complex scenario. The different patterns of deposition of human bodies found within the north European megalithic chambers do not speak in favour of one practice – be it single or communal, full inhumation or partial bone deposits – but rather of different ways of dealing with the dead. That these practices were neither uniform nor static is clearly seen in the changing traditions: initial emphasis on individual burials, albeit sometimes performed against the background of multiple presences within the confines of a single monument, slowly giving way to greater concern with the dead in their ancestral capacity. The original deposits within the passage graves, as well as contemporary deposits within the open dolmens, involve merely selected fragments of human remains; after a period of time some of the chambers may have become family vaults, with complete bodies being placed within them, although elements of secondary burial – bone rearrangements, skull displays and manipulation of other body parts – may well have continued. Such a sequence is now well documented on south-west Fyn, around Sarup. Evidence from Sweden also speaks in favour of some chambers being used to house complete bodies. On the other hand, the interpretation of megalithic burial practices in the remaining regions does not reveal such patterns; this may be on account of poor survival conditions or of different practices. While many scholars strive to arrive at one particular interpretation of megalithic burial practices, reality is not nearly as simple.

The ubiquitous presence of fragmented human bones on settlement sites suggests that some of the dead may have rested there temporarily, perhaps close to their house, in a settlement pit or in a building specifically devoted to such storage. Alternatively, the body may have been buried outside the settlement, in a flat grave, marked to enable subsequent retrieval. Exposure in a tree or upon a raised platform is another common way of allowing the body to reach a skeletal condition; indeed, Strömberg has raised the possibility of displaying bodies on stone platforms in the immediate vicinity of entrances to the chambers (Strömberg 1971). While regularly shaped platforms of stone and possibly timber components of the kind encountered at Ramshög and Hagestad are not commonly found, piles of stones are known from in front of many chambers, and some may well have been used to display bodies; stone cobbled courtyards, of the kind encountered at Nissehøj, could have served such a purpose well. Exposure platforms may also have been located within the enclosed sites of the Sarup type although, as Kaul (1994) suggested, the possibility that bones were moved in the opposite direction – from the chambers to the enclosures – should not be ignored; indeed, other activities are witnessed from the enclosures, and dealing with the dead need not have been the primary function. The precise function of the cult house, known from Denmark and in smaller numbers from Germany, presents itself as another possibility, although such structures do not contain much evidence for any prolonged presence of the dead.

The concepts behind the need to engage in secondary burial rituals during the Neolithic were undoubtedly very complex, and combined a host of social, ideological and religious ideas. Ethnographic evidence suggests that different communities have different ideas with respect to the fate of the individual after death. Some do not believe in any form of afterlife: the Hadza’s view, for example, seems to be that ‘when one dies, one rots and that is that’; the Baka Pygmies, when asked what is the fate of the dead, say ‘When you’re dead, you’re dead and that’s the end of you’ (Woodburn 1982, 193, 195).

On the other hand, there are many communities which, implicitly or explicitly, have views on afterlife, on the fate of the dead and, in particular, on the fate of the spirit or the soul of the departed. In fact, ethnographic evidence for dealing with bodies prior to secondary burial rites is so varied that any comparison of specific ethnographic and prehistoric circumstances is bound to be misleading, although general ideas can be enlightening. The use of selected human remains is generally interpreted as resulting from the practice of secondary burial, which may not just be related to the veneration of ancestors but may also reflect the beliefs of the living about the spiritual element of the dead – the soul.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


Position of burials in chamber I at La Hoguette (Fontenay-le-Marmion), Calvados, displaying spatial arrangements according to sex.

Position of burials in chamber C at Condé-sur-Ifs, Calvados

In the area of north-western France, we note that inhumation of complete human bodies appears to have been quite common, although there were many expressions of this practice. Those buried in sépultures sous dalle (of the Malesherbes type) were simply placed crouched in grave pits, and at Orville an additional twenty individual graves surrounded such a sépulture sous dalle, only one individual being placed in extended position (Simonin et al. 1997). The Chamblandes cists, appearing around the middle of the fifth millennium BC, illustrate an interesting transition from initially single (occasionally double) inhumations to a collective practice over a period of about 1000 years (Leclerc and Tarrête 2006).

Complete bodies were also interred in some passage graves, for which the Normandy monuments of La Hoguette, La Hogue and Condé-sur-Ifs provide very interesting data, although some of them were excavated in the nineteenth century and thus the information is of a somewhat general nature. We noted previously that some of these mounds - La Hogue, La Hoguette and La Bruyère du Hamel at Condé-sur-Ifs - each comprising several passage graves, were conceived as a single architectural and structural project. Their plan and the layout of the chambers, as well as the nature of burials in each of them, strongly suggest that the number of persons to be interred may well have been projected at the time of construction (Chambon 2003b, 68). Indeed, the dental studies carried out with respect to the La Hoguette chambers present the possibility that these were designed for specific family groups (Piera 2003), although the mitochondrial DNA pattern of the bones from chamber C at Condé-sur-Ifs did not show any genetic connection among the ten individuals analysed (Chambon 2003b, 71).

In at least half of these chambers, complete bodies were deposited and allowed to decompose without any subsequent interference, with adults and children placed in a crouched position on either their left or their right side, although it is not possible to determine whether these represent simultaneous or successive placements. Chamber I at La Hoguette displays an interesting spatial arrangement in relation to sex and location: females were placed to the west and males to the east; those buried lying on their right side were mainly towards the back of the chamber, aligned with their backs to the wall. In chamber II the dead were roughly equidistant from one another, and in chamber C at Condé-sur-Ifs there was a bipartite division of burial space, with a sort of ‘corridor’ leaving the central zone of the chamber free.

The coherence of these individual burials contrasts with evidence from other chambers, either within the confines of the same monument (chambers IV and Vat La Hoguette) or at its close neighbour La Hogue; a similar pattern was observed at several chambers at Condé-sur-Ifs. These chambers reveal a more complex funerary practice, which may have included primary as well as secondary burials, and which most certainly involved a rearrangement of skeletal fragments. Some of the skulls in Condé-sur-Ifs (chambers A2, B and C) are found at a considerable distance from the actual skeleton, lacking mandibles or facial parts; small slabs ‘protect’ skull fragments in chamber IV at La Hoguette, and long bones also show displacement. The most dramatic evidence of manipulation comes from Vierville B, where three layers of human remains are separated by slab pavements.

La Hoguette is particularly interesting in this context, as both forms of burial seem to have been practised, albeit within different chambers. This is one monument at which division of sex seems to have been of some concern to the community that used it, and it is possible that other considerations were also expressed through the differential treatment of the dead – in this case leaving some bodies to rest in peace and rearranging the bones of others.

Friday, May 29, 2009


Reconstruction of Kong Svends Høj passage grave on the island of Lolland.

The rectangular mound is set within a kerb whose long sides are built of stones between 1.6 and 1.7 m in height. The two façades are slightly concave, and here the stones increase dramatically in size, with the tallest in the middle, rising 2 m above the basic kerb. This arrangement also suggests that the mound was roof-shaped, tallest in the middle. The stones in the south-eastern gable, although they differ petrographically (two of granite, two of porphyry and one pegmatite), were chosen specifically for their very strong reddish colour; the north-western gable unfortunately was not complete but the restorers thought that, in contrast, it was distinctly grey in character.

Apart from the impressive kerb, many rectangular and trapezoidal mounds have so-called guard stones (from the German word Wächtersteine) – conspicuously large monoliths associated with the corners. In most cases the chamber contained within the mound is a dolmen, but some passage graves with this feature are also known.



Within the general dolmen category there are also some sites where the ingenuity and skill of the builders, in combination with boulders of particular shapes, has occasionally led to construction of chambers that stand out from the general pattern. They cannot be ‘fitted’ into any of our typological standards but, at the same time, they offer exciting insight into the ingenuity and skill of the builders. A unique example comes from Utersum, on the north Friesian island of Föhr. The chamber, 1.8 m high and constructed of eight orthostats and three capstones, was entirely subterranean and had two passages (3.5 m and 7 m long) running in roughly opposite directions to one another, rising to the surface. The passages’ capstones were later used in the construction of a Bronze Age stone cist that overlay the earlier structure (Kersten and La Baume 1958, 320; Hoika 1990, 60).

Although architecturally simple, the south Scandinavian dolmens were nevertheless very sophisticated constructions, employing elements that would continue to be used throughout the time of megalithic building, culminating in the elaborate passage graves. Dry-stone walling filled the gaps between the orthostats of all forms of dolmen chambers; sometimes the chambers were additionally protected. A good example is offered by the two stone chambers at the long dolmen at Grøfte; these demonstrate most eloquently that the builders were concerned to keep the chambers dry, since both were surrounded by flat split slabs angled around each chamber to divert the rainwater to the outside, away from the chambers and into the mound (Ebbesen 1990, Figures 5 and 10–12).

Sunday, April 5, 2009


Situated on the NE coast of Shapinsay, the walls of the Iron Age broch at Burroughston still stand above first-floor level in places. Its entrance and adjacent 'guard' cell are similarly well preserved, while a wall, ditch and rampart, which probably once encircled the broch, are evident around the structure. These extra defences may have been constructed because of the broch's low-lying position in the landscape.

A broch, the base of which is fairly complete, stands close to the sea, some 32 yds from the low rocky beach. The site was excavated by Petrie and planned by Dryden about 1862 and the plan incorporates some features taken from Dryden's plan which are no longer to be seen.

Except on the E towards the sea, the broch is surrounded by a rampart rising 6'- 7' above the bottom of a ditch nearly 20' wide. The ditch is bounded on its outer edge by a parapet, parts of which still stand from 2'6" to 3' high and Dryden found traces of a stone wall on the inner side of the rampart some 9' from the broch wall. The broch has an average diameter of 33'6" within a wall 10' - 14' thick. The inner wall-face, showing a scarcement, stands approximately 12' high but the outer face was not laid bare in the 1862 excavations. The roofless entrance passage in the E has door-checks, bar-hole and guard chamber and the interior contains a 10' deep well and a later work now hidden by debris, but traces of radiating walls and compartments can still be seen. In the sloping area in front of the entrance the 1862 excavations revealed traces of "out-buildings" connected to the broch by an extension of the entrance seawards. These structures have now become covered with turf.

A broch with outworks . The outer face has been exposed in two or three places giving a wall thickness of 3.7m except in the N where it is only 3.0m but here the coarser masonry suggests a later reconstruction. The outworks probably once completely encircled the broch, but have been destroyed in the E by the later buildings. The name, though still known, is no longer commonly applied to the broch.

About 150m ENE from Easthouse, on the NE shore of Shapinsay, stands one of the most visually interesting brochs of Orkney. It was excavated c.1862 by Colonel D Balfour's estate-workers under the direction of George Petrie, and was subsequently meticulously recorded by Sir Henry Dryden. Excavation was confined to the interior of the broch and to a small area immediately outside the entrance; the interior is now choked with rubble which obscures the architectural features below the level of the scarcement. The entrance-passage is well preserved, and there is an impressive cell within a length of walling that still stands to a height of 3.5m above the rubble. Grazing has recently ceased on the site, which has thus become overgrown; the wet outer ditch and bank are still clearly visible.


The Iron Age hillfort on Tap O' Noth is one of the largest in Scotland, consisting of 21 ha enclosed by a stone rampart. More than 100 house platforms have been recorded between the rampart and a massive wall that further protects the hill's summit. This stone and timber wall, more than 6m in width and 3m high, is vitrified in places - the stones have fused together through intense, prolonged heat. The extremely high temperatures generated by the burning timbers causes the surrounding stone to melt, and this phenomenon has been observed at many forts. On the summit there is a rock cut well or cistern.

The Tap o' Noth is a conical eminence which rises from the W end of the Hill of Noth to attain a height of 1851 ft (564m) OD, and 1300 ft (396m) above the Water of Bogie at Rhynie; it is visible from the sea, 30 miles to the E.

The fort that crowns this site is the second highest in Scotland and consists of a single wall (now overgrown and heavily vitrified) which may have originally been more than 20ft (6.1m) thick and encloses an area about 335ft (102m) by 105ft (32m). A depression about 90ft (27m) from the S end represents the site of a well or cistern.

A second wall, mainly a row of huge boulders, lies low down the N and E flanks of the hill. Outside to the S of the fort platforms similar to those on which timber-framed houses were built have been noticed.

J MacDonald 1891; J E Kilbride-Jones 1935; M A Cotton 1954; R W Feachem 1963; R W Feachem 1966.

Tap o' Noth. Remains of 'an ancient fortress, formerly thought to have been the mouth of a volcano, but now known to be one of three forts constructed of stones vitrified by the force of fire, of which kind many have been lately discovered in Scotland'.

Francis Douglas, 'A general description of the East coast of Scotland', Paisley, 1782

At 563m the summit of Tap o' Noth offers as spectacular a view from a fort as you could hope to see. Northwards you look across the Moray Firth and obliquely up the Sutherland coast to Caithness, while eastwards the view embraces the breadth of Aberdeenshire to the North Sea. On a clear day the visitor could be forgiven for not even looking at the fort, with its huge scree of rubble dropping down around the summit and the massive lumps of vitrified stone, congealed masses of molten rock, lying in the rubble. Small wonder the first antiquaries to visit the site thought it was the crater of a volcano. This was a truly massive wall, faced with stone and laced together with timbers. But if its sheer scale impresses today, imagine it alight. With its timber frame on fire, reaching temperature in excess of 1000° C at its core, the fort would have glowed and sparked like a furnace. Imagine a display like that in the night sky for a week, an act of utter desolation visited upon every person living within its view. Could a fire on this scale really be an accident, or do the huge lumps of vitrified stone stand witness to a violent political act in a past that is very remote to us today.

Thursday, March 26, 2009


Evidence for town defences has been found at Dublin, Waterford and Limerick. The Dublin evidence for town defences is the earliest and most complete found to date. It is clear that Dublin was enclosed by an earthen bank in the 10th century and that a larger second bank was built outside this around the 11th-century town. It also appears that according as the latter bank was being enlarged, especially by the addition of layers of estuarine mud in the 11th century, a stone revetment was placed in front of it. It seems that in places this wall was more than a facade and was a free standing town wall. Both Dublin and Waterford were encircled by such walls in the Hiberno-Norse period. Limerick’s bank may have been stone-faced; Wexford appears to have been defended by a stone wall at the time of the Norman Invasion.

The most extensive series of defences were excavated at Fishamble Street, Dublin among a succession of nine waterfronts along the south bank of the River Liffey. These waterfronts included two possible flood banks and two definitely defensive embankments which date from the Viking period and a stone wall of about 1100. The earliest embankments were low and non-defensive and were located above high-water line. They were not more than 1m high and do not appear to have been palisade. It is not clear how much of the settlement they encircled. Their primary function was to keep dry the properties on the sloping ground above the foreshore where there is some evidence for the accumulation of possible yard detritus before the construction of the embankments. Some time later in the 10th century an extensive embankment was erected along the high-water line. This appears to have been built in a number of sections although probably conceived as a unit and probably erected by royal authority. It was built on top of dumped organic refuse and was established by a pre-existing fence. The bank was bonded in mud and its location on a naturally rising slope made its external aspect higher than its internal. It was protected from the erosive action of the tidal river by a breakwater which was secured in a channel cut into the rocky foreshore. A cobbled stone pathway existed inside and parallel to the bank along the western stretch and towards Fishamble Street. A ditch, 1.6m deep and 2m wide, was cut into the natural limestone immediately outside part of the bank. A series of planks were set edge-to-edge on the outer slope of this part of the bank, each with a large mortise through which they were probably originally pegged to the bank. These planks appear to have been intended to provide a smooth beaching/docking slipway for ships or, less likely, they may have been the surviving lowest part of a palisade erected on the forward slope of the bank. This first defensive Viking embankment seems to have encircled the whole town because it appears also to be represented in Ross Road on the south side.

Little time elapsed between the abandonment of the first bank and its replacement by its successor, which in places incorporated the earlier structure. A second larger embankment was built in at least four different stages and erected at the river - ward side of its predecessor, probably around the year 1000. Gravel, stones and earth were used in its construction, the dumped layers being rein forced by discarded post-and-wattle screens and by layers of brushwood. At one stage in its history this bank was crowned by a post-and-wattle palisade; later, when the bank was heightened, a more robust stave wall, anchored from behind, was placed on top. In its final phase, this bank was covered over with estuarine mud brought from the bed of the river; this dried out and formed a firm surface. This second defensive embankment also encircled the whole town. It too appears at Ross Road as well as on two sides of Dublin Castle, in the Powder Tower, where the eastern ramparts of the Viking town were unearthed with a short southern stretch west of the Birmingham Tower. Part of its eastern stretch may also have turned up in Parliament Street, where the defences overlooked the west bank of the Poddle. It seems that an even higher bank was erected before the construction of the stone wall.

It is likely that for a considerable part of the Hiberno- Norse period Dublin was encircled by the earthen embankments just described. Towards the end of the 11th century a stone wall about 1.5 m wide and possibly as much as 3.5 m in original height was built outside these embankments. The average surviving height of the wall was about 2 m along Wood Quay, across which over 100 m of wall was uncovered. The wall was composed of a rubble fill within mortared stone facings. A number of splits in the coursing of the inner face of the wall indicated that the outer face might have been built first and the wall completed on the inside. It seems that the wall was not meant to be completely free-standing and that its lowest part may have been a revetment or quay wall which fronted a bank of organic and mud layers dumped behind it. The recent discovery of a long stretch of this wall at Ross Road in the southern part of the Hiberno-Norse town strongly suggests that this wall also encircled the whole town. It is possible that the reason the Dún of Dublin was marvelled at as one of the wonders of Ireland in a poem about 1120 in the Book of Leinster was because this stone wall was a relatively new feature at that time.

The development of Waterford’s defences seems to parallel the Dublin experience. However, it was only after the expansion of the town that embankments were added and this was well into the 11th century. About 35 m of the 11th-century earthen bank have been exposed in four separate excavations. This bank was accompanied by a ditch, which varied in depth between 2 and 2.5 m and was 2.5 m wide at the base. The bank is described as ‘substantial’ and was made of turfs interleaved with clay and was up to 4 m in width, the original height probably being in excess of 3 m (surviving to a height of 1.65 m). The bank was built in sections by gangs of workmen under the control of some municipal authority. Interestingly, oak beams ‘may have formed some sort of superstructure on the bank’ and these have been dated to 1070-90. Planks on the front face of the first defensive bank at Fishamble Street, Dublin present a possible parallel.

In the second quarter of the 12th century the bank was demolished and the ditch backfilled to accommodate a substantial stone wall of which 22 m survived to a maximum height of 1.65 m or 8 courses of construction. The wall was built as a revetment against the eastern half of the bank and, according to the excavator, was never entirely free - standing. Like the Hiberno-Norse wall around Dublin, it had a projecting footing and was slightly battered. It had a rubble core and was built in different sections with vertical joints appearing between these sections; all of this finds parallels in the Dublin wall. There was a cobble pathway outside the wall.

Uniquely to date, the Waterford excavations also produced evidence for a pre-Norman gateway. This was at Peter Street, where the outer face of a 1.72 m wide gateway in the town wall exposed. It consisted of ‘two ashlars built jambs… above projecting plinths’ which survived to a height of 3 and 4 courses.

What was described as a 10.1 m stretch of a ‘clay bank riveted by a limestone wall’ turned up at the King John’s Castle site, Limerick. It had a maxi - mum surviving height of 1.7 m and had a 1m wide pathway on a berm at its base, beyond which was 2.8 m deep ditch. It is thought that these features may represent the south side of a ‘massive stone-riveted earthen rampart which, from the associated finds, may date to the 12th century.’ That this ‘earlier structure was utilised in the Norman defences for a limited duration’ was confirmed by the discovery of its being bonded to the later, mortared east curtain wall of the castle.

There is no archaeological confirmation to date for the Viking Age defensive embankment pro - posed for Wexford. The Bride Street excavations revealed no trace of a bank. The absence of banks from the relatively closely located Bride Street and Oyster Lane excavations could mean that Wexford was not defended by a bank along its 11th-century waterfront. The surviving walls of Wexford seem to date much later. Giraldus Cambrensis uses the term murum for Wexford’s defences, a term he also uses for the town walls of Dublin, Waterford and Limerick which implies that the towns in quest - ion were each defended by stone walls before the coming of the Anglo-Normans in the 12th century.


Monday, March 9, 2009

Logistics of defence of the West Saxon

At the heart of royal security was the network of some thirty proto-urban ‘burhs’, fortified centres evenly located throughout Alfred’s kingdom: no territory lay beyond a day’s march. The scheme was probably informed by many precedents: alongside eighth-century Mercian burhs and West Frankish fortifications of the later 860s is the likely influence of Rome, in the ‘Leonine City’, papal defensive work completed in the early 850s. Organizational mechanisms drew intensively on West Saxon common burdens. The fullest picture emerges from the Burghal Hidage, seemingly written in the latter part of Edward’s reign, though probably based on earlier information. To each burh was assigned a garrison for defence and repair, drawn from territory measured in hides. Four men would be needed for each pole (5½ yards) of perimeter wall; each hide would supply one man. The figure of 2400 hides for Winchester would provide for the adequate defence of 9900 feet of wall; its Roman walls measure 9954 feet, a discrepancy of less than one per cent. Comparable matches have been detected at many other sites, although some assessments remain problematic. Burghal walls consisted of a deep bank of earth, clad with timber revetments at the front and rear, and surmounted by a fighting platform and palisade, also of wood. Intra-mural streets, running continuously behind the wall, enabled efficient deployment against attack. The burhs were not only protective, but supplied permanently manned bases from which sorties could be mounted against local threat. The Chronicle consistently refers to burgware, burghal ‘inhabitants’, yet the context often supports reference to the garrison alone. The suffix –ware related closely to waru (‘defence’), accorded prominence in the Burghal Hidage. Resistance of this sort forced invaders northwestwards in 893; viking armies never penetrated far within Alfred’s defended kingdom.

The burghal network was complemented by efforts to reorganize army mobilization, the fyrd. The Chronicle adds by way of explanation that ‘the king had divided his fyrd into two, so that always half its men were at home, half on service, except for those men who were to guard the burhs’. The most likely implication is that while each burh would be garrisoned on a continuous basis, only half of all other men liable for military service would be required on campaign at any one time, the other half being allowed to remain ‘at home’, in a system of periodic rotation. Such mechanisms met agrarian as well as military needs. Increased viking mobility forced defenders also to deploy horses, placing a premium on the supply of basic provisions. Viking survivors at Chester in 893 faced the fyrd’s ravaging of the surrounding countryside, killing cattle and seizing corn to feed horses. The aim of adequate provisioning seems to have outweighed the difficulty of achieving smooth rotation; men ‘at home’ would have aided agrarian continuity. The two roles were complementary: in 895 the fyrd reportedly camped close to a viking fortress on royal orders, specifically to protect the local corn harvest.

The Chronicle assigns two further innovations to Alfred’s initiative; whatever the nature of such attributions, both made notable adaptation of established tactics. One was the construction of double riverine fortifications, also deployed in 895 on the river Lea; the vikings were forced overland, abandoning their ships to destruction and requisitioning. Charles the Bald had employed similar tactics on the Marne, Seine and Loire. Only two bridges were actually fortified, at Pont de l’Arche and Les Ponts-de-Ce´, but both involved fortifications on either side of the river.13 Bridge-work had long numbered among the common burdens; as early as 811 a Kentish charter had referred to ‘bridge-building against the pagans’. Many Alfredian burhs lay at the mouths of navigable rivers and at vital crossing-points; both locations may have extended an existing strategy. The other innovation, in ship design, is harder to assess, reportedly involving faster ‘long ships’ of sixty oars or more. Specially constructed on royal orders, such ships differed from a known design of forty oars. Alfred’s prototype ‘long ships’ are accorded only mixed results; by the early eleventh century, when sound evidence next emerges, ship crews were commonly assessed in units of sixty men. Earlier naval engagements had been won in 851, 875 and 885; at the least, this report shows the importance of seaborne forces as a first line of defence.

Alfred’s reforms extended across all three common burdens; fulfillment hinged on the co-operation of aristocratic landholders, under co-ordinated local direction. For Asser, the entire process led back to Alfred’s nautical helmsmanship, guiding the ship of his kingdom ‘through the many seething whirlpools of this present life’. In place of sailors were all bishops, ealdormen, reeves and ‘dearest’ thegns; the king had secured their passage ‘by gently instructing, cajoling, urging, commanding, and (in the end, when his patience was exhausted) by sharply chastising those who were disobedient’ in such a way that he converted all participants in power ‘to his own will and to the communal benefit of the whole realm’. The image was more than wishful thinking: supported by the intensive environment of Alfred’s household, it gains substance from every aspect of documented action. The ‘persuasion’ that emerges was fundamentally material, rooted in further measures likely to have eased the worst pressures on local resources. Explored in the following sections, such interaction supplies a context for still deeper aspects of material encouragement, in continuous gesture and wise rule.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Friday, February 27, 2009


The top is encircled by a grassy bank which is all that remains of an iron-age fort. The walls of the fort were made of vitrified stone – rocks heated to such a high temperature that they melted and fused together. How such a high temperature was reached and why it was done are still a mystery to archaeologists. The summit is marked by a small cairn and has terrific views, especially over Perth and the Tay to the north, backed by the first hills of the Highlands. Slightly further round the summit edge is a curious flat stone slab with a deep hole carved into it, overlooking the M90 stretching away south towards the central belt

The name Moncrieffe comes from Moncrieffe Hill south-east of Perth made from hard ancient lava. The River Tay lies to the north and the River Earn to the south; they join just east of the hill.

The Celtic name Monad Croibhe (which is in fact Gaelic but the Pictish would have been similar ie. Old Welsh Minit) meaning Hill of the Tree. The Battle of Monad Croibhe is said to have been fought in 28AD between two Pictish armies. Moncrieffe Hill overlooks the sacred Pictish sites of Scone and Abernethy and the royal Pictish palace of Forteviot.

This area was granted to Sir Robert de Meyneris, Chamberlain of Scotland, in 1248 after which time one branch of that family took their name from the lands. The Moncrieffe badge displays an oak, that revered tree of ancient Celtic times.

Murchadh Monaidh Chraoibhe. Name change from Murchadh Garrioch.

Submitted as Murchadh Monagh Craebi, the submitter requested authenticity for 13th C Gaelic Scotland and desired an appropriate Gaelic form of the byname Moncrieff. Watson, The History of the Celtic Place-Names of Scotland, p. 400f says that "Moncrieff near Perth is considered to have been the scene of 'bellum Monid Chroibh,' 'the battle of Monad Croib,' 728 (AU)." The standardized form of Monad Croib appropriate for the 13th century is Monadh Craoibhe.

In Gaelic, locative bynames which are based on names of cities or towns are formed by putting the place name in the genitive case. The genitive case of Monadh Craoibhe is Monaidh Chraoibhe, pronounced roughly \MOH-nee KHREE-vuh\, where \KH\ is the sound of ch in Scottish loch. We have changed the name to Murchadh Monaidh Chraoibhe to meet his request for a Gaelic form of Moncrieff. However, we cannot make the name authentic for the 13th century as the only examples of locative bynames that we have in Scottish Gaelic are used by the Lord of the Isles and his predecessors, and by a petty king and some of his ancestors. These are not reliable examples of what normal people used as bynames. We do have examples of simple locative bynames in Irish Gaelic in the 13th century, so the byname is registerable.

His previous name, Murchadh Garrioch, is released.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Pitt Rivers and archaeology in England

Portrait of General Pitt Rivers.

Wor Barrow: 'The first long barrow scientifically excavated'. Wor barrow is one of a number of major Neolithic long barrows on Cranborne Chase. Pitt Rivers excavations here were arguably his most ambitious. They uncovered a rectangular wooden mortuary enclosure containing six burials. The complete excavation of this important site revealed that it had been a place of burial for the local population for thousands of years with later burials being placed around the monument from the Neolithic through to the Roman period.

Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers

Lieutenant-General Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers was born in 1827 in Yorkshire to a wealthy land-owning family. In 1841 he entered the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst and was commissioned into the Grenadier Guards in 1845. He fought for a short time in the Crimean War, and served in Malta, England, Canada and Ireland. He finally retired in 1882, at the age of 55, with the honorary rank of Lieutenant-General although he remained on the active list until 1896. Pitt Rivers married Alice Stanley in 1853, and had nine children. In 1880 Pitt Rivers unexpectedly inherited the Rivers estate and name from his great uncle. The country estate was a substantial one and he also received an annual income of a little under £20,000: for the remainder of his life he led the life of a wealthy landowner. In 1882 Pitt Rivers was appointed the first Inspector of Ancient Monuments and in 1881-2 he was President of the Anthropological Institute. He died in 1900, at the age of 73.

Pitt Rivers' interest in collecting archaeological and ethnographic objects came out of his early professional interests in the history of firearms. It is generally believed that Pitt Rivers did little field collecting but, in fact, he did obtain a few objects whilst on active service, during a tour of Europe, in Malta and during the Crimean War. Although he collected some artefacts whilst 'in the field', the vast majority of objects in his collection came from dealers, auction houses, and from fellow members of the Anthropological Institute (such as E.H. Man, John Petherick, Richard Burton and E. Belcher). It is difficult to estimate the overall size of Pitt River's collection. Some 20,000 objects were donated to the Pitt Rivers Museum in 1884, but there was also a sizeable collection of objects displayed at his personal museum in Farnham, Dorset after this date.

Pitt Rivers always believed in the collection of everyday objects as well as 'work of art' and this is reflected in his collection. Pitt Rivers described the intellectual framework for his collection and museum displays as:

The objects are arranged in sequence with a view to show ... the successive ideas by which the minds of men in a primitive condition of culture have progressed in the development of their arts from the simple to the complex, and from the homogeneous to the heterogeneous. ... Human ideas as represented by the various products of human industry, are capable of classification into genera, species and varieties in the same manner as the products of the vegetable animal kingdoms ... If, therefore we can obtain a sufficient number of objects to represent the succession of ideas, it will be found that they are capable of being arranged in museums upon a similar plan. [Pitt Rivers,1874:xi and xii]

Needless to say, attitudes to the objects and the intellectual basis upon which they are studied have changed since Pitt Rivers' collections were given to the University. Today the museum is still organised typologically but does not (and could not) show the supposed evolution of objects from the simple to the most complex.

Archaeology became very important to Pitt Rivers; he purchased archaeological items from dealers and sale rooms, but also carried out excavations of his own, principally in Ireland during his service there in the 1860s, and in England (London, Yorkshire, Sussex and his own estates in Dorset). He documented his archaeological work fully, causing detailed site plans to be prepared and wooden models to be made.

Pitt Rivers very soon exhausted the space available in his own house to show his collections. In 1873, he decided that his collection should be publicly exhibited and arranged with the South Kensington Museum to display around 10,000 objects at the Bethnal Green branch of that Museum. In 1878 his collection was moved to the South Kensington Museum. In 1880 he decided his collection should have a permanent home and eventually settled upon the University of Oxford. On 30 May 1882 the University accepted the offer of Pitt Rivers' collection; a three storey annexe, measuring approximately seventy by eighty-six feet, was built onto the eastern side of the University Museum (of Natural History) to house the collection. Henry Nottidge Moseley, Head of the Department of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy, was put in charge of the collection and Edward Burnett Tylor was appointed the first Lecturer in Anthropology in Britain. The University undertook to carry on Pitt Rivers' general method of arrangement of objects during his lifetime and agreed that "any changes in details ... shall be such only as are necessitated by the advance of knowledge". Although Pitt Rivers' original stipulations had suggested an on-going concern with his collection once it was given to Oxford, he did not display much interest in it, transferring that to his new museum in Farnham, Dorset.

Further Reading

Blackwood, Beatrice. 1970. The classification of artefacts in the Pitt Rivers Museum Oxford. Occasional Papers on Technology no 11 Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford

Bowden, Mark 1984 [reprinted 1990] General Pitt Rivers" the father of scientific archaeology Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum

... 1991. Pitt Rivers - The life and archaeological work of Lt. General Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers DCL FRS FSA . Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

Bradley, Richard 1983 'Archaeology, evolution and the public good: the intellectual development of General Pitt Rivers Archaeological Journal 140: 1-9

Chapman, William R. 1984. 'Pitt Rivers and his collection, 1874 - 1883: The chronicle of a gift horse' in Cranstone and Seidenberg 1984

.... 1985. 'Arranging Ethnology' in Objects and Others, History of Anthropology Series ed G. Stocking, University of Wisconsin Press

.... 1989. The organisational context in the history of archaeology - Pitt Rivers and other British archaeologists in the 1860s Antiquaries Journal 69 23-42

.... 1991. Like a Game of Dominoes: Augustus Pitt Rivers and the Typological Museum Idea' in S. Pearce Museum Economics and the Community vol 2 New Research in Museum Studies Athlone London

Cranstone, B.A.L. and S. Seidenberg. 1984. The General's Gift - A celebration of the Pitt Rivers Museum Centenary 1884-1984 . JASO Occasional Paper, Oxford, UK

Gray, H. St. G. 1905. 'A Memoir of Lt-General Pitt-Rivers' [sic] in Excavations in Cranborne Chase vol V. Somerset [privately published]

Oxford University Anthropological Society. 1953. Anthropology at Oxford: The Proceedings of the Five-hundredth meeting of the Oxford University Anthropological SocietyOxford

Petch, Alison 1996. 'Weapons and the 'Museum of Museums' Journal of Museum Ethnography , vol. 8 May 1996: 11 - 22

.... 1996. [editor] Collectors and Collecting Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford

.... 1997. The early history of Lieutenant-General Pitt Rivers's collection and the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford [PRM booklet]

.... 1998. [editor] Collectors and Collecting Volume 2 Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford

.... 1998. 'Cataloguing the Pitt Rivers Museum founding collection'. Journal of Museum Ethnography

.... 1998. ''Man as he was and Man as he is': General Pitt Rivers' collections' Journal of the History of Collections 10 no. 1 (1998) pp 75 - 85 Oxford University Press

.... 1999 Cataloguing the Pitt Rivers Museum founding collection. Journal of Museum Ethnography 11 1999 pp 95 - 104

.... 2000 Coote, Jeremy; Chantal Knowles, Nicolette Meister, and Alison Petch 'Computerizing the Forster ('Cook'), Arawe, and Founding Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum', Pacific Arts , nos. 19/20 (July), pp. 48-80.

.... 2002. ' Assembling and Arranging: Pitt Rivers' collections from 1850 to now' in 'Collectors: Expressions of Self and Othe r Occasional Papers Series: Horniman Museum and Museu Antropologico of the University of Coimbra

.... 2003 'Documentation in the Pitt Rivers Museum' Journal of Museum Ethnography , No. 15 pp 109-114

Pitt Rivers, Augustus Henry Lane Fox. 'Primitive Warfare. Parts I - III'. JRUSI 11 [1867] 612-43 and JRUSI 12 [1868] 399-439 and JRUSI 13 [1868] 509-39 [repeated in 'The Evolution of Culture']

.... 'On the principles of classification adopted in the arrangement of his anthropological collection now exhibited in the Bethnal Green Museum.' JAI 4 [1874] 293-308

.... 1874. Catalogue of the Anthropological Collection lent by Colonel Lane Fox for exhibition in the Bethnal Green branch of the South Kensington Museum June 1874 Parts I and II . London, Science and Art Department of the Committee of Council on Education HMSO [Re-issued 1879]

.... 1906 [ed. J.L. Myers, introduction by Henry Balfour] The Evolution of Culture and other essays Clarendon Press Oxford UK

Thompson, M.W. 1976 Catalogue of the correspondence and papers of Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt -Rivers (1827 - 1900) Royal Commission on Historical MSS List 76/75

... 1977. General Pitt Rivers: Evolution and Archaeology in the Nineteenth Century. Moonraker Press, Bradford-on-Avon UK

Thompson, M. and C. Renfrew. 1999. 'The catalogues of the Pitt-Rivers Museum, Farnham, Dorset' Antiquity 73 pp 377 - 392

Tylor, E.B. Dictionary of National Biography entry for Pitt Rivers

By Alison Petch

August 2005