Hymns of stone III

Monday, November 17, 2014

The contours of the Bronze Age, succeeding the Neolithic in the standard time-lines of prehistory, are still to be found everywhere. They have endured for almost 4,000 years, and can be seen in a certain light. In the hour before sunset, when the rays of the sun lie across the English fields, the old patterns of the earth rise up and the land seems to return to its origins. The banks and ditches of hundreds and hundreds of small rectangular fields can be discerned. The sweep and extent of these fields are truly extraordinary; they can only really be comprehended from the air and, seeing aerial photographs for the first time in 1929, the historian G. M. Trevelyan was moved to declare that ‘the discovery of these old Celtic fields, from under the palimpsest of later agricultural systems, is the most romantic thing that has come to stir our historical imaginations since the first Cretan finds’.

A lost world was revealed. The uplands and downlands of southern Britain were laid out in fields, with hedges and stone walls stretching for mile after mile; drove-ways and waterholes can be seen among these rectangular ditched fields. It is a feat of organization to rival that of the building of Stonehenge, and bears all the marks of powerful central planning. It seems likely that many thousands of square miles of land were laid out in one significant single act or set of acts, an example of land planning that has never since been rivalled in English history. In the process the English landscape was created.

This intensive cultivation is the best possible evidence for a steady rise in population. By 1900 BC there were as many as a million people, rising to more than 2 million by the time of Julius Caesar’s invasion in 55 BC. It was of course an agricultural society, with its own regional variations. More and more territory was brought into cultivation, and has continued as productive arable land ever since. The woodland was cleared. Grass for pasture was created. There were more sheep than there would be in the sixteenth century AD. There was little appetite, or perhaps leisure, for monumental construction; working the land had become a more important activity.

Settlements were to be found everywhere, most of them located away from the monumental sites. Single households, and small hamlets, abounded. Enclosures were surrounded by a fence or ditch. ‘Hut circles’ were in fact groups of round stone houses with beehive roofs where the perfume of burning peat mingled with the smells of the farmyard. If every settlement was a light, then the whole of England was now ablaze. The island people were settled on Dartmoor, in the Lake District and on the North York moors.

They buried their dead in family units, the bodies cremated and laid in decorated urns. So the cemeteries of the Late Bronze Age, from approximately 1300 BC, have become known as ‘urn fields’. Their discovery in the middle of the seventeenth century inspired the antiquary, Sir Thomas Browne, to compose Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, or a Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk. He was moved to declare that ‘what time the persons of these ossuaries entered the famous nations of the dead, and slept with princes and counsellors, might admit a wide solution. But who were the proprietaries of these bones, or what bodies these ashes made up, were a question above antiquarism; not to be resolved by man, nor easily perhaps by spirits.’ In this he has caught the remoteness of the long-dead, of whose rituals and customs we can have no conception.

Yet in certain respects they are not so distant as the philosopher implied. The men wore woollen cloaks, above a tunic known as a kirtle; the kirtle was still being worn in the sixteenth century. The women wore tunics and jackets, covered also by a woollen cloak. Shoes were made of skin, and men wore woollen caps. The women of more elevated status wore elaborate necklaces of jet, in the manner of Victorian ladies. One grave has yielded evidence of a woman who had a concealed ‘pad’ to bolster her hair. Men and women of the higher class sported ornaments of gold and bronze, as well as blue beads imported from Egypt. Amber jewellery was imported from the Baltic region, testifying to the range of international trade in Bronze Age England. Browne did not know that the people of this ancient period ate soups and stews as well as dressed meat; they consumed a kind of dried porridge made of wheat, barley and oats. Beer, wine and other alcoholic drinks were an integral part of the diet. Varieties of berry as well as hazelnut, herbs and seaweed, were eaten.

In his disquisition Browne went on to note that ‘the iniquity of oblivion blindly scattereth her poppy, and deals with the memory of men without distinction to merit of perpetuity’. In the matter of their faith, at least, he has proved to be correct. The devotions of these people cannot be divined except in the broadest terms. The focus of ceremony and worship shifted from the sky to the earth; the steady exploitation of the land by Bronze Age farmers would have increased the significance of fertility rituals. There was in particular a pronounced attention to water and to watery places – springs, rivers, fens and marshes among them. The Thames, for example, became the home of Bronze Age weapons and other artefacts. In the Thames itself the offerings of weapons, bones and ornaments were kept separate and distinct; at Eton there are many skulls but no metal. Tools were left in dry, and weapons in wet, locations. An intricate taxonomy of worship cannot now be comprehended. Wooden platforms and causeways were built beside the river, part of the sacred space in which the priests of the people dwelled.

The significance of water is apparent throughout prehistory, with burial mounds and henge monuments sited by the rivers of England. For example, 368 Neolithic axes have been found in the Thames. It has been surmised that the deposition of Bronze Age work was part of a rite in propitiation of the dead and therefore a form of ancestor worship. If the dead were believed to cross between two worlds, they would have a particular affinity with the river; the river gains access to the underworld through a myriad passages, and springs ever fresh and renewed from its source. There is another, and perhaps more prosaic, explanation for the fervour elicited by water. There was literally water in the air. In the late Bronze Age the weather was growing cooler and wetter.

So we see the Bronze Age English in glimpses. A stirrup is found in a grave. Some seeds are deposited at the base of a bowl. The bones of a sheep are excavated from the refuse pit of a settlement. Weapons are uncovered everywhere – spearheads, socketed axes, rapiers and, at a slightly later date, swords. There is evidence of harnesses, and bronze fittings, for horses. And there were chariots. In Peterborough have been uncovered the traces of wheel ruts that would have supported a vehicle with a width of 31/2 feet (1 metre).

From all these traces and tokens we can infer the presence of a warrior aristocracy, in a kingdom or group of sub-kingdoms that stretched from Dorset to Sussex. The culture of the middle and late Bronze Age is roughly contemporaneous with that of Troy, as depicted by Homer, and it had the same predilection for kings and warriors, feasting and ritual battle. It was a warrior society with small-scale sporadic fighting between elites, with gift exchanges between leaders, and tribute from the subject population in the form of food. That was one of the reasons why the land was so extensively farmed.

Defended settlements, and other enclosures containing buildings, were ubiquitous. These are the prototypes for the hill forts that are characteristic of southern England in the Iron Age. In Dorset, for example, a fence made out of great tree trunks – set in a trench some 10 feet (3 metres) deep – was built around an area of 11 acres (4.4 hectares).

Strong regional identities were already being formed, as well as regional divisions. The trading advantage of the Thames Valley region with its access to the European mainland, for example, helped to eclipse the agricultural wealth of Salisbury Plain. The north was engaged in stock-raising, while the south tended to concentrate upon cereal production. Trade encouraged interdependence.

Commerce of all kinds was increasing throughout this long epoch. Trade is the key to the growth of civilizations. Trade is the motor of wars. Trade fosters technologies. Trade creates towns and cities. Certain types of sword were manufactured in western France and found their way to England’s eastern counties. Highly embellished barbecue spits were fashioned in Spain and exported to England. Metal work from the ancient city of Mycenae, in Greece, has also been found. Gold ornaments were sent from Ireland. Linen and woollen fabrics were in turn exported to Europe, together with slaves and hunting dogs. Children worked in the tin mines of Cornwall, digging out the precious ore with bones and hammer-stones; the metal was then despatched to the coastal ports for shipment.

And of course when tin was added to molten copper, the metal from which this age is named was formed. Bronze implements changed everything, from the cutting down of forests to the building of houses. They made fighting more efficient. Bronze ornaments, bronze spears, bronze shields, bronze buckets, bronze chisels, bronze skewers and bronze knives were in abundant supply; the Bronze Age Englishman could shave himself with a bronze razor, using oil as the lubricant.

There is a theory that once a new process has been discovered and utilized, it appears in many other places simultaneously. Once something has been learned, it is conveyed across the whole human species. This is likely to explain the manufacture of bronze, since it could not have emerged from one source. Bronze of the same date has been found from Switzerland to Thailand. So people of approximately the same culture met on equal terms. We imagine visitors of high status sailing to England; there may have been embassies from Troy itself or from the court of the pharaoh Akhenaten in Egypt.

The Bronze Age did not come to an end; the movement from bronze to iron reflects a change in technology leading to slow cultural change. The process took hundreds of years, during which period bronze and iron were simultaneously in use. Of course none of these ‘ages’ existed in the minds of those who experienced them. The Neolithic inhabitants of England lived in the same places as the Mesolithic people. Bronze Age fields and cemeteries are on the same sites as their Neolithic forebears; Bronze Age settlements were continuously in use through the Iron Age, and the people of the Iron Age consistently respected the burial mounds and boundary lines from the previous age of the human world. They honoured the structure of the landscape around them.


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