Hymns of stone IV

Monday, November 17, 2014



From the beginning of the Iron Age in approximately 700 BC, therefore, an advanced concept of territoriality governed relations between the land and the people. It had gathered strength over thousands of years. Leaders, and tribes, were firmly and specifically associated with certain regions. We see this in the laying out of boundaries and in the location of settlements. Yet through the Iron Age there was an intensification of this natural development. Engels once described iron as ‘the last and most important of all the raw materials that have played a revolutionary role in history’. New forms of alliance, and new networks of trade, were gradually established. Objects of ritual and ceremonial value were often made out of the new metal. The trade in iron contributed to the ultimate shape of England, where the various regions were becoming more intensely organized and controlled.

Hierarchy was marked out with chieftains and sub-chieftains, warriors and priests, farmers and craftsmen, workers and slaves. Slave irons have been found at a site near St Albans. A gang chain has been discovered on Anglesey. The funereal practices for the elite dead became more and more elaborate. In the burial places of the Iron Age chieftains the body was surrounded by molten silver, cloth of gold, ivory, suits of iron chain mail, precious cups and bowls. They pre-date the wealth of Sutton Hoo by a thousand years. Trampled earth was uncovered around the base of one mortuary chamber, suggesting dancing. The graves of women of high status contained many ornaments, including mirrors, brooches, bangles, beads, tweezers and bowls. In one burial a great bowl of bronze had been placed over the woman’s face.

Strong regional identities were in place. In the east undefended settlements, very much like villages, lay among open fields. In the south-west small communities lived in defended homesteads, together with unenclosed settlements sited at a distance; this has been interpreted as a division between tribal leaders and their subject people. In the north-east was found a pattern of defended homesteads, while in the north-west a tradition of roundhouses known as beehive huts existed. The culture of Salisbury Plain, sometimes known as ‘Wessex culture’, demanded a pattern of large territorial groupings based around hill forts. There are of course variations on all these themes, from the pit dwellings carved out of the chalk in Hampshire to the lake villages of Somerset where round huts were built upon floating islands of logs.

The hill forts themselves are evidence of a strongly ranked society. They seem to have originated in the neighbourhood of the Cotswolds and then spread over the whole of central southern England. They demonstrated the mastery of land and resources, and were therefore a symbol of proprietorship. Linear earthworks often mark out the boundaries of the territory controlled by each fort. They became more heavily defended over the period of the Iron Age and were sometimes occupied for hundreds of years. They resembled towns as much as forts, with clusters of buildings, streets, temples, storage facilities and ‘zones’ for separate industrial activities. The houses were circular, built of upright posts, woven together with wattle and sticks of hazel; they had doors and porches, facing east, and the roofs were generally thatched with reeds or straw. The thatch was held in place with a daub of dung, clay and straw; since soot from the peat fires was a valuable manure, it is likely to have been replaced each year. Archaeologists, reconstructing the interiors of these houses, have found small cupboards in which weapons were stored. Although their populations ranged only from 20 to 200 people, we may see in them the beginnings of urban life in England. The author believes that London was once just such a hill fort, but the evidence for it is now buried beneath the megalopolis it has become. All the evidence suggests, however, the existence of many small tribes living in a state of constant alert against rivals.

There were indeed cattle raids, conflicts between warriors and large-scale wars. Some hill forts were stormed and burned. Bodies have been found in the ramparts, their bones marked and hacked. We can expect a tradition of heroic songs and tales in which the exploits of an individual warrior or leader were celebrated. They are to be found in the early Irish epics, for example, which may incorporate stories and refrains from the prehistoric age of Irish tribes. An analogy with Homer’s Iliad can be made. Indeed it has been suggested that the epic poem in fact adverts to events in England, in myths and tales that were then carried by bards eastward to Anatolia.

Yet the various tribes or regional groupings did come together in a network of alliances and ties of kinship; how else could trade in commodities such as iron and salt flourish throughout the country? Many of these smaller clans were in time integrated and, perhaps in the face of threat, became large units of territory. These were the tribes of England whom the Romans confronted in their slow progress towards ascendancy. By the end of the Iron Age certain hill forts had become dominant and assumed the role of regional capitals. As the population steadily increased, so agriculture became ever more intensive. The clearance of woodland and forest continued without a break. The farmers began to work the thick clay soils in earnest, with the help of the heavy wheeled plough. This was the solid basis for the agricultural economy of England over the next 2,500 years. Wheat was grown in Somerset, and barley in Wiltshire; that broad pattern is still the same.

A visitor sailed to England’s shores. The Greek merchant and explorer Pytheas made landfall in 325 BC. He named the island as Prettanike or Brettaniai. This is the origin of the name of Britain. The land of the Picts was known by the diminutive of Prydyn. Pytheas visited Cornwall, and watched the inhabitants work the ore and purify the metal. On another stage of his journey he was told by the natives that the mother of Apollo, Leto, was born on this island ‘and for this reason Apollo is honoured among them above all other gods; and the inhabitants are looked upon as priests of Apollo’.

He also reports that he had seen ‘a wonderful sacred precinct of Apollo and a celebrated temple festooned with many offerings’; it was ‘spherical in shape’ and close by there was a city ‘sacred to this god’ whose kings are called ‘Boreades’ after the god of the cold north wind. The identity of this precinct, temple and city have long been a matter of debate. Some argue that Pytheas was describing the sacred landscape of Stonehenge and Silbury Hill; others believe that it refers to a temple of Apollo where Westminster Abbey now stands, and the adjacent ‘city’ of London.

It is clear, however, that Pytheas was reporting the claims of a people deeply imbued in ritual worship, with the names of Apollo and Boreas simply being used by him as tokens of holiness. The Parthenon had already been built in Athens, and all foreign gods were seen by the Greeks in classical terms. The religion of the Iron Age in England, however, has always been associated with the cult of Druidism.

It may also be glimpsed within the sacred geometries of Iron Age art (still known inaccurately as Celtic art). It was an art of vision, penetrating beyond the appearances of things. It traced living lines of energy and purpose with spirals and swastikas, curves and circles, whirling together in an intricate network of shapes and patterns. It is in no sense primitive or barbaric; on the contrary it is ingenious and complex, showing a mastery of artificial form and linearity. These intricate patterns are clearly related to the whorls, spirals and concentric circles carved upon Mesolithic passage graves several thousand years earlier; they suggest a broad continuity of belief and worship throughout the prehistoric age.

At the core of Iron Age religion were the persistent and continuing native beliefs of England, enshrined in certain sacred places. Caves were often holy. The Druids themselves are known to have congregated in sacred groves, where ancient trees provided the setting for ritual practice. Powerful gods had to be propitiated. An early Bronze Age barrow in Yorkshire yielded up certain drum-shaped idols carved out of chalk, with what seem to be human eyebrows and noses. 2,000 years after these images were carved a British writer, Gildas, was still moved to condemn the ‘diabolical idols … of which we still see some mouldering away within or without the deserted temples, with the customary stiff and deformed features’. So there was a long tradition of worship that may have had its earliest origins in the Neolithic period. The image of the horned god Cernunnos has been found at Cirencester. The horse goddess Epona has been discovered in Wiltshire and in Essex. A carving of the hammer god Sucellus has been unearthed in East Stoke, Nottinghamshire. The mysterious god, Lud or Nud, is still commemorated by Ludgate Hill and Ludgate Circus in London.

Religious sanctuaries were established all over the land, and it is safe to assume that even the smallest settlement had its own central shrine. They have been discovered in hill forts, within ditched enclosures, along boundaries, and above barrow graves; they are often marked by the subsequent presence of Roman temples or early Christian churches. Certain places were deemed to be blessed. Many English churches will be lying upon prehistoric originals. In Iron Age England, it was believed that the cock served as a defence against thunderstorms; that is why cocks are still to be found on church steeples. They became known as weathercocks.

Human sacrifice helped to sanctify the land. A male body was found in a bog in Cheshire; he had been bludgeoned in the head, and his throat cut before being deposited in the marsh. Many skeletons have been found at the bottom of pits in southern England, their bodies flexed in an unnatural posture. There is also the known prehistoric affinity for severed heads, believed to be the site of the soul or spirit. Skulls have been found lined up in a row. The bodies of defeated enemies were often beheaded, and their heads buried or placed in running water. Three hundred skulls, dating from the Neolithic to the Iron Age, have been found in the Thames. The river was once an English Golgotha, the place of skulls.

Caesar’s account of the high priests of England, the Druids, adverts to the practice of human sacrifice. They created images of wicker-work which ‘they fill with living men and, setting them on fire, the men are destroyed by the flames’. In his account the Druid priests are the lawmakers of the land who determine rewards and punishments. They settle disputes over boundaries and over property.

The Roman writer Pliny records that they ‘esteem nothing more sacred than the mistletoe’; the high priests ‘select groves of oak, and use the leaves of the mistletoe in all sacred rites’. The sacrificial victim was tied to the trunk of the oak tree, and his priestly killers wore chaplets of oak leaves. They practised divination, magic and astrology; they believed in the immortality of the soul that passes through various incarnations. This doctrine of immortality was considered by the Roman writers to make clear the contempt for death revealed by the native English; the English were noted for this quality of indifference in subsequent centuries.

The Druids worshipped the sun and moon also, but their solar belief persisted long after the passing of the priestly caste. A butcher from Standon in Hertfordshire was accused, in 1452, of proclaiming that there was no god except the sun and the moon. In the second chapter of Tess of the d’Urbervilles Thomas Hardy remarks that ‘old customs’ last longer on clay soils. The power of the Druids was retained by the bishops of the Anglo-Saxon church, just as the tonsure of early Christian monks may reflect Druidical practice.

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