Hymns of stone II

Monday, November 17, 2014



A division is to be observed within England, established upon two broad zones. The Lowland Zone – comprising the midlands, the Home Counties, East Anglia, Humberside and the south central plain – is built upon soft limestone, chalk and sandstone. This is a place of low hills, plains and river valleys. It is a place of centralized power and settlement. It is soft, and various, and pliable. The Highland Zone in the north and west – comprising the Pennines, Cumbria, North Yorkshire, the Peak district of Derbyshire, Devon and Cornwall – largely consists of granite, slate and ancient hard limestone. This is a place of mountains, high hills and moors. It is a region of scattered groups or families, independent one from another. It is hard, and gritty, and crystalline. These two regions do not face each other; they face outwards, towards the seas from where their inhabitants came. We can see the changes upon the ground itself. In Wessex the border of the ‘finds’ from one settlement stops at the point where the chalk meets the Kimmeridge clays. These people would move no further west. So regional differences began to spread.

Differences, in accent and in dialect, may already have existed. There was an original language in the south-east of which traces still survive in contemporary speech – the words ‘London’, ‘Thames’ and ‘Kent’ have no known Germanic or Celtic root. It is possible that the people of East Anglia and the south-east began to speak a language that developed into Germanic, and that the people of the south-west spoke a language that would become Celtic. The Germanic tongue became Middle English before flourishing as standard English; Celtic speech diverged into Welsh, Cornish and Gaelic. It is pertinent that in Wales and Cornwall Celtic inscriptions can be found in stone, carved during the Roman age, while in southern England there are none. Tacitus reports that, at the time of the Roman colonization, the south-eastern English spoke a language not unlike that of the Baltic tribes. But there can be no certainties in the matter. All lies in mist and twilight.

When the mist rises, we see extraordinary things. Beneath a burial mound in Wiltshire, near Avebury, was discovered what had once been a surface layer of soil dating from 3500 BC; it had been preserved by the construction of the barrow. The significance of this ancient ground was confirmed by the discovery of tiny grooves running at right angles, one to another, so that they form a crisscross pattern. These grooves were cut by a plough. It was a forked tree branch, strengthened by a stone tip, pulled by an ox. It is the first evidence of a field in England. It represents the beginning of farming. We have entered what has become known as Neolithic England. This small patch of land was cleared by the destruction of dense woodland; it was cultivated with the plough; it then became pasture for sheep and cattle; a boundary fence or hedge was erected; the barrow was then built some 1,500 years later. In this sequence of events we see the slow changes of prehistory.

The transition from hunting to farming was itself a very gradual one; there was no agricultural revolution in any meaningful sense, just the increments of days and years and centuries of habitual practice. Custom was the keystone of life. In this long period flint tools were replaced by sickles and polished axes; pottery was introduced to England; new forms of communal ritual emerged. But in the space of an individual generation, which we may estimate between twenty and thirty years, it must have seemed that nothing had changed. When we use terms like ‘Mesolithic’ and ‘Neolithic’, we should remember the underlying deep continuity that represents the nature of England itself.

The slow expansion of farming can be dated from 4000 BC. The woods and forests of the country were cleared, at first sporadically but then extensively; the moors of northern and south-western England, and the heaths of East Anglia, were in part created by human activity. On this newly open ground wheat and barley crops were harvested. Domesticated pigs and cattle were kept, as well as sheep and goats. But sheep were not originally English. All of these animals were brought over in ships, not being native to the island, emphasizing the extent to which seafaring visitors contributed to the now familiar landscape.

This was a time of rising temperature, and in the glowing sun the people expanded; during the entire Neolithic period, from approximately 4700 BC to 2000 BC, the population trebled and has been estimated at 300,000. The pressure of ever-increasing numbers helped to accelerate the intensity of cultivation, and by 3000 BC the available countryside was marked out in small rectangular fields. Where there are fields there will be fences and ditches; there will be stone walls. Fences have been found beneath prehistoric burial mounds, testifying to their ancientness.

The presence of the barrows, where the dead reside upon the landscape, is a further sign of a settled society with its own forms of ritual and worship. Evidence can be found for the construction of houses and of scattered farmsteads with settlement pits, for enclosures where cattle might be herded or fairs and meetings held. One such enclosure, built in Cornwall before 3000 BC, was guarded by a great stone wall; the remains of houses were found here, sufficient accommodation for approximately 200 people. So the beginning of the English village, or of the English town, is to be found in the Neolithic period.

Roads and trackways were built from settlement to settlement. The Icknield Way took the prehistoric traveller from Buckinghamshire to Norfolk. Lanes led from farmstead to farmstead. The Pilgrims Way linked the great religious centres of Canterbury and Winchester. Ermine Street is now known, in part, as the Old North Road. The Jurassic Way goes from Oxfordshire to Lincolnshire. Watling Street ran between Canterbury and St Albans, passing through what may have been prehistoric London. Long causeways were built across the soft fens of Somerset, from timber that was felled in approximately 3800 BC; the varieties of wood used in their construction, from ash and lime to hazel and holly, suggest that they were especially grown for the purpose. The specific properties of the wood, utilized by the Neolithic English, are not known to us. Their technology is lost.

Many of the roads loosely known as ‘Roman roads’ are much more ancient; the Romans simply made use of the prehistoric paths. Modern roads have been built along the routes of these ancient lines, so that we still move in the footsteps of our ancestors. They created a network of communication that extended throughout England. This was a populous and busy civilization, much more sophisticated than was once generally thought. Along these routes were transported axe-blades for the use of farmers or house-builders, pottery of all kinds, and leather goods. Flint was mined in underground galleries entered by hundreds of shafts reaching a depth of 50 feet (15.2 metres); then it was sent over the country.

Yet the great division was steadily growing more pronounced. On the Atlantic side rose up megalithic portal tombs and passage tombs, unknown in East Anglia, the midlands and the south-east. These great stone hymns to the dead, erected for 600 years from 3800 BC, are the emanations of a distinctive culture that originally came from south-western Europe. The same tombs are found in Portugal and Brittany, Scotland and the Orkneys, suggesting that there was in essence a shared European religion inscribed in the siting of stone.

Causewayed enclosures of the same period are to be found predominantly in southern and eastern Britain; these are oval or circular spaces surrounded by a ditch cut into segments. They were used for the purposes of ritual, but the system of belief and practice was different from that of the south-west. Unlike the massive gateways of death revealed in the excavation of portal tombs, the open spaces suggest a more egalitarian or at least communal faith.

From the same epoch emerge the long parallel lines of ditches that have become known as cursus monuments; they cross what must have been cleared countryside, and can extend as far as 6 miles (9.6 kilometres). They are part of a ritual landscape of which the significance is now lost. Yet we know well enough that in this age of England the ground was holy; the stones, and the earth, were sacred. The English of the early Neolithic age had some direct communion with the terrain, and with the creatures that lived upon it, beyond the reach of the modern imagination.

All roads lead to Stonehenge, part of the greatest of all sacred sites. It began with a circle of fifty-six timbers, erected in approximately 2800 BC and placed in a ritual landscape that had already been in existence for 500 years. A cursus, 11/2 miles long (2.4 kilometres), runs just to the north. Also found were pieces of rock crystal that must have been carried from Alpine regions. Salisbury Plain was then the spiritual centre of the island. From here radiate the chalk and limestone ranges of lowland Britain. A network of ridgeways and trading routes converged upon it. It was the largest area of habitable land. It was accessible by rivers. It was a great cauldron of human energy and purpose.

At some point, around 2200 BC, the first stone circle was being formed. The change from wood to stone has been related to a profound cultural movement, resulting in the building of monumental enclosures elsewhere, in the decline of ancestor worship and in bouts of warfare between opposing groups. In Peterborough a male and a female, with two children, were found within the same grave; the male was killed by an arrow in the back. In Dorset several bodies were found lying in a ditch, with a rampart fallen upon them; one of them had been killed by an arrow.

The building of Stonehenge was the largest and most protracted programme of public works in the history of England. A series of bluestones was first erected in 2200 BC; these stones were largely igneous in origin and were considered to have magical healing properties. The bluestones were then dismantled after a life of approximately 100 years and replaced by thirty sarsen stones; they formed a circle around five pairs of trilithons arranged in horseshoe pattern. At approximately the same time a wooden henge, or circular monument, of twenty-four obelisks was erected less than half a mile (0.8 kilometres) from its stone companion; it may have been a burial centre or the site of some other ritual activity.

Another henge and stone circle, known as Bluestonehenge, was erected a mile (1.6 kilometres) to the south-east along the bank of the Avon. A large village was also constructed, less than 2 miles away (3.2 kilometres), variously interpreted as a lodging for pilgrims, a ritual centre, a place of healing, or a home for those who erected the sarsen stones. Whatever the explanation, Salisbury Plain was the site of communal and spiritual settlement on a very large scale. It was once conceived to be a largely empty field, but now we find it to have been a field full of folk.

From this period was found the body of a man variously called ‘the Amesbury archer’ and ‘the king of Stonehenge’; his grave contained over 100 artefacts, including gold hair ornaments, copper knives, pots and boars’ tusks. Over his body, crouched in a foetal position, were scattered flint arrowheads. This was the last resting place of a tribal chieftain. Oxygen isotope analysis revealed that he had been brought up in the colder regions of northern Europe. What was a foreign king doing on Salisbury Plain? Was he on pilgrimage? There is evidence of an abscess and a painful bone infection. Had he crossed the sea to be healed? Or did he reign here as one of the tribal chieftains who, in an era without countries or nations, were not necessarily confined to one region?

In the final phase of building, approximately 1600 BC, the pits or holes for two circles of standing stones were hollowed out; but they were never filled. So the shape, and therefore possibly the nature, of Stonehenge has changed over a period of 1,200 years. It would be strange if it were not so. The same distance of time separates us from the Saxon age. It has been argued that the stones were a burial ground, a centre of pilgrimage and of ritual healing, a great observatory and a celestial clock, a place of public ceremonial and ritual. There is no reason why they could not have fulfilled all of these, as well as other, functions in the various eras of their existence. At the time of their erection these great stones seemed magnificent and immoveable in the earth; now, from a distance of 4,000 years, they dance in a pattern before us.

In all these eras, however, the stones are evidence of a controlling power that could organize vast numbers of people in a shared project. This was a hierarchical society with an elite, tribal or priestly, that could coerce or persuade many thousands of people into fulfilling its ritual will. The inhabitants of Salisbury Plain, to put it no broader, were under the guidance and protection of leaders who were rich in land and in cattle; the more we understand the material remains of this Neolithic culture, the more impressed we become by its range and authority. The construction of Silbury Hill, in the same region as Stonehenge, would have taken the labour of 1,000 men working every day for five years. The construction of Stonehenge itself would have entailed millions of hours of labour. Its bluestones were transported from the Preseli Hills in south-west Wales, some 200 miles distant. So great parts of England were already under organized administration long before the Romans and the Anglo-Saxons came; land, labour and material resources were governed by some form of central control.

It is suggestive that, in the course of the formation of Stonehenge, communal burials were being replaced by individual burials. The ‘king of Stonehenge’ is just one example. In some graves the body of the chieftain is accompanied by weapons, and in others the corpse is surrounded by goods. These are the graves of leaders and high priests, often with their immediate families. England had become an aristocratic, rather than a tribal, society.

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