Friday, 30 September 2011

Word reminder.

A Microsoft Word reminder has popped up to say that I should have finished The Bronze Age today. But I've been wondering Robinsonner fashion, trying to think where to go next for The Iron Age....

Well the sun is shining, the sky is so beautiful.
Where to go?

Glastonbury- the glass castle, or the temple of Nodens at Lydney...?

Someone left a comment on one of my Sanctuary blog posts concerning the burial there. My poster said that the pelvis was female, whilst the other bones were male...because it was a composite body, that is to say more than one mummified and stitched together bodies.

If it was a mummy, then  who ever was buried at The Sanctuary would not have died there. Possibly the same can be said for the little girl at Woodhenge, and the young man in the ditch.

Unfortunatly the body did not look like a 'corpse bundle' - its legs drawn up very close to its chest- which is the way other's have appeared. Nor has it been DNA tasted. So there is no way to know for sure if it was one or more person!

Obviously, what ever was going on here four thousand years ago had nothing at all to do with the abduction aspect of the Persephone myth.

Nor would the corpses be entirely within her realm (as queen of the dead).

Preserved bodies exist in both realms at one and the same time. They can be asked to intercede with the underground forces, their preservation is often taken as a sign of special power. The choten (stupa) in Tibetan shrines rooms is empowered by the ashes of a cremated lama (most will be empty) an object the Pythagoreans would recognise, made up of the four elements (rectangle, circle, triangle, oval) topped by aethyr.

A few high lamas are preserved.

The core idea is that a purified individual does not decay, and the physical form resonates with their psychic form- so the conceit is that the lama is too good to rot and that by being in his presence, his goodness shines through to you.

Pythagoras would have understood...In esoteric Buddhism, all material and non-material phenomenon, everything that happens, is an emanation of the Buddha. All you need to do it to change the way you see if what you were seeing was an image on the cave wall, so just turn around and walk into the light!

The Persephone myth does have an Orphic (Pythagorean) interpretation. I don't feel strong enough to bring myself to think about it yet.I find the subject of the quest for eternal life (or enlightenment) trying.

But the people who originally dug up the bodies in rings and barrows in Britain, had been brought up with Greek myth. This didn't get in the way of their research or evidence, it just informed the way the findings were described.

Aubrey Burl simply reported what Maud Cunnington had said about the child at Woodhenge.
Ronald Hutton repeats it.

In this way Stonehenge may have been reinterpreted as a midsummer site, when really it was made to function properly during the midwinter.

Does it matter?

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Iron Age, where next?

When trying to work out where next to go, I find myself frustrated by the lack of information. Or am I just frustrated by the mundanity of it?

Perhaps the Iron Age feels too recent, not far enough away to grab the imagination of archaeologists. Or the success of new farming techniques led to too many people, settlements just turned into villages and towns, and they are still here, under our feet.

Nevertheless, the only things people associate with the Iron Age are hill forts and 'enclosures' listed as cattle pens- function unknown.

Druids and Celts.

There are no spectacular Iron Age structures left, equivalents of Silbury or Stonehenge, in our landscape, just 'hill forts' hills with ditches ringing the summit such as Hereford Beacon, where it is said, king Caratacus was defeated by the Romans.

There are  deserted villages such as Chysauster.

There may be a fogous and post holes marking out rectangular grain stores and there are reconstructions of  Iron Age settlements to be found such as Castell Henllys.

The Iron Age is understandable, rural, European African- our Iron Age could be a scene from an old BBC documentary showing life in an African village:  round huts and people wearing home-spun, farmers and weavers, a black-smith and story-teller.

Just change the weather.

Neolithic and Bronze Age burial mounds promised rich grave goods and hints of elaborate burial rites. Archaeologists inspired by Lord Carnarvon's spectacular finds hoped to find something like an Egyptian royal burial in rural England.

Sutton Hoo is as good as it ever gets.

When no amazing artifacts or anything much was found in the burial mounds the focus was turned back towards meanings: the symbolism of alignments and beakers, of standing stones and their connection to the stars...

Iron Age artifacts are never so obviously symbolic as the Bronze Age finds of burials with cattle bones, chalk axes and beakers, alignments to sun and moon, solar spirals and sacred offerings.

What happened, why did it end?

No sure answers to that!
There is only when...

The grand, ceremonial phase of the Bronze Age seemed to end between 1500 BC and 1200 BC. After about 1500 BC there is no evidence that ceremonial sites were built anywhere in the British isles and by 1200 BC virtually all the ceremonial sites had been abandoned.

Some work was done to Stonehenge around 1350 BC to extend the North East avenue, but that was abandoned unfinished.

Burials gave way to cremation, and the burial of urns (Urnfield Culture) often a cluster of about thirty or so, with one marked out by goods or other special treatment.

The years between 1100 to 600 BC seems to be a period devoid of any monuments, burials or ceremonial structures.

People put their energies into creating farm land, building stone walls rather than barrows and henges..and no one died (!)

But in Ireland some traditions continued: Tara, it is said, was used until Christianity rendered it's ceremonies and rituals meaningless...

Religion, the old religion, died in Britain sometime between 1400 BC and 600 BC..?

Do I assume continuity in belief, or is it more like the 'Roman' burials that copied the barrows, close to The Sanctuary? A continuity in the aura, or atmosphere of the place, rather than a continuity in an oral tradition explaining the origins of the sites?

The Iron Age went on for quite a long time...It went on for much longer in Ireland.

But just one location isn't enough to prove anything much, and there is some evidence to suggest that Iron Age people often took stones from henges to make forges, smashing cremation urns and believing Neolithic axes to be thunder-bolts.

All I can say is, if that's the case then the thread of continuity is very thin indeed.

Though the French sites show a continuity in food offerings, pigs for the living, cattle for the dead.

Close by, we have Wychbury Hill. Down the motorway there is the Romano-British  Lydney Park in Glocestershire. A temple dedicated to the one handed god...

The Cuckoo Stone close to Woodhenge had been 'adopted' by the 'Romano-British' and three cremation urns were placed in its shadow.

But none of these places inspire me.

So where is Persephone in this chapter of the story?

Often it is the bogs and rivers that accept sacrifice; the watery, slippery, transient..ever changing.

Or was sacrifice punishment?

The bogs are neither solid or liquid, they are liminal, betwixt and between the worlds. There are signs of punishment, a woman found in the bog, her hair shaved, or crudely cut. Again I ask myself, as with the boy in the ditch at Woodhenge, did physical disability or oddness mark you out for sacrifice, as already half-way out of this world and belonging to the other world of the un-made becoming?

Strabo describes disemboweling as a way to for tell the observing the convulsing of the limbs. Some bog burials had been disemboweled..

Or were these well fed, well looked after people hostages from a rival tribe, sacrificed for the effect it had, to shock and to awe?

Male and female both, no one sex singled out as an offering.

If the deity is female, then perhaps she is more like Grendel's mother...

Of all the film versions of Beowulf, the Icelandic is my favorite.

Friday, 16 September 2011

The way to the Underworld..blood of the lamb.

... it is the offering pit that I dislike the most.

Hard times create hard hearts.

I don't mean the pit inside rectangular buildings (see previous post) to contain the slaughtered cattle. I'm thinking of the shafts...with the (in one case at least) four meter pole erected on the shaft floor and the remains of flesh around it.

I'm not saying that the Wilsford shaft is like that; it was created in happier times and dug out with antler picks in 1700 BC by people now called by contemporary archaeologists,  Deveral-Rimbury. It is six feet wide and reached a hundred feet into the earth. Then the pit reached water, so could not be dug any deeper.

I know what you are thinking...but it was never used as a well, the presence of water may instead have made it a more suitable receptacle for sacrifices.

At the bottom of the Wilsford shaft there were bone pins and amber beads, pots and an ox skull -indicating to me anyway- that this shaft was used as a communication with the Underworld. Right at the bottom, propped against the side of the shaft archaeologists found an oak post.

Offering pits seem to have been dug in the Neolithic too, but as the Bronze Age transformed itself into the Iron Age the contents of the pits become more sinister...

By the time we get to the Iron Age the pits are being offered human flesh:
A late Iron age shaft in Holzhausen in Baviaria with a post at the bottom was presumably used for impaling a human victim; the pole when analysed had traces of human flesh and blood. In East Yorkshire, at Garton Slack a young man and a woman of about thirty were found huddled together in a shaft, a wooden stake between them pinning their arms together; the woman was apparently pregnant, since a fetal skeleton was found beneath her pelvis. Presumably the two adults were ritually killed for punitive purposes. There have also been several instances of foundation burials, often of children, which may or may not have been sacrifices (Green 1992, 183-84).
Holzhausen is a Late Iron Age "ditch-and-berm" constructions known as a Viereckschanzen. It isn't a common term in the UK, such a site would probably be labelled on a map as a Pre-Roman sacred site, or a Romano-Celtic temple. Both Gourney-sur-Aronde and Ribemont-sur-Ancre are Viereckschanzen, but true examples are hard to find in Britain.

But, back to the pits and their meaning; above and below, heaven and earth form the universe.

In Greek myth and ritual the Chthonic and Olympian  belong together. It is fascinating to consider that the Greek gods seem to have mortal counterparts who they will kill: Artemis demands the sacrifice of Iphigenia, Apollo kills Hyakinthos.

Sacrificial pits in ancient Greek times were the Bothros or Megaron, the Megaron in particular is linked to Demeter and Kore, during the Thesmophoria festival women were said to throw piglets into the 'chasms of Demeter and Kore'  recreating the scene of Kore's abduction -when the ground opened to allow Hades through and the pig-Herder lost his pigs.

But said by whom is another matter.

Rome had at least two lapis manalis (stone covering a pit allowing access to the souls of deceased loved ones): one named by Festus the ostium Orci (the gate of Orcus- a god of the underworld, punisher of broken oaths, portrayed in paintings in Etruscan tombs as a hairy, bearded giant. The name probably comes from Greek: Horkos described by Hesiod in his Theogeny, a child of the  Erinyes who personifies the curse that will be inflicted on any person who swears a false oath) and another lapis used to call down rain...

More commonly a lapis manalis was dug as part of the foundations of a new town as a way to offer the 'lords of the soil' libation. It is possible that the gladiatorial games were a continuation or a civilising of this concept of offering blood to ghosts.

The closest thing I've experienced to any of this was the recent outbreak of foot and mouth in sheep and cattle which resulted in an economic and political decision, rather than a scientific one, to kill possibly as many as 10 million animals at a cost to the British tax payer of £20 billion...[LINK]

The whole thing was unbelievable really, a ritual purification of our food because the government must be seen to be doing something. Sensible solutions such as vaccination are out because vaccination would produce antibodies in animals, and the test for the disease is the presence of antibodies...there isn't a system set up that allows vaccination certification to prove 'purity'.

And virus' mutate rapidly, it is hard to create an antibody for all types- but not impossible.

Taking care of sick animals only happens if the causative agent is a bacteria in which case liberal doses of antibiotics are administered, taking care doesn't happen in industrial style farming.

We no longer have any culturally acceptable need of making offerings to the ghosts underground, yet this mass killing echos rituals of the past in a truly disturbing way.

Saturday, 10 September 2011


I blame Aubrey Burl for my dislike of the Iron Age; his books give an impression of the Iron Age as a harder, more feudal time than the preceding Bronze Age.

Unfortunately archaeological findings do nothing to change my mind.

The (war temple?) sanctuary of Ribemont-sur-Ancre, dating from 300 BC contained many iron weapons: swords, scabbards, spears, shields mixed together with human bones: legs, arms, pelvises, hands, feet, etc belonging to about 1,000 men aged between 15 and 40 years old.

Around the outer walls eighty headless bodies of males had been displayed along with their weapons.

There were no skulls, these may have been given to the near by river, Samara..

A more recent excavation seems to reveal that the dead were treated in different ways there, some -the enemy? were used as building material, or hung on the walls.

About twenty individuals had been buried in one enclosure, whilst another grave held the remains of several dozen more.

Were these the protectors, the sleeping warriors, 'sleeping'  like Arthur and his knights, waiting until England needs them?

I don't know if they kept their heads or not, I can't find many details about these sites at all.

There was also a crematoria made of human bones on the site; was cremation an honorific treatment for the dead? were bodies given honour or dishonor in destruction by fire?

To be a part of the crematoria was that a good or bad burial, I wish I knew.

A similar site, Gournay-sur-Aronde has a similar Iron Age construction; it contained many, many bones and iron military artifacts but here, skulls were hung up with the armour.

As at Ribemont, the dead had been young men...possibly the conquered enemy.
Or were they the sons and fathers of the area?

The presence or absence of skulls is interesting.
Strabo -63 BC – ca. AD 24- a Greek historian, geographer and philosopher recorded:
"again, in addition to their witlessness, there is also that custom, barbarous and exotic, which attends most of the northern tribes — I mean the fact that when they depart from the battle they hang the heads of their enemies from the necks of their horses, and, when they have brought them home, nail the spectacle to the entrances of their homes. At any rate, Poseidonius says that he himself saw this spectacle in many places, and that, although at first he loathed it, afterwards, through his familiarity with it, he could bear it calmly. The heads of enemies of high repute, however, they used to embalm in cedar-oil and exhibit to strangers, and they would not deign to give them back even for a ransom of an equal weight of gold."

At Gourney-sur-Aronde there were two kinds of animal sacrifices: pigs and lambs -for the living. The pigs and lambs were slaughtered and eaten within the enclosure, but cattle were offered to the 'Lords of the Soil' the cthonic deities.

Bulls were killed and their bodies left to rot in a pit.

Celtic myth may not be the most authentic source, but certain themes in the tales seem verified by archaeological findings; the bog sacrifices especially.

The triple death inflicted on the people offered to the bog is strangulation, stabbing and being hit over the head to cause three deaths, one for each sacred realm of heaven, earth and hel. Rasputin likewise dies a triple death- poisoned, shot and finally drowning in the Neva river. It is also said that he suffered a fourth death, that of being stabbed and the severing of his penis. A final scene shows us Rasputin's body being taken to cremation in the woods. As his body was being burned, Rasputin appeared to sit up in the fire. His  attempts to move and get up thoroughly horrified bystanders...apparently one should cut the tendons of a corpse before cremation to prevent this.

Not that that has anything to do with the Iron Age, but goes to show the anxiety around murder, and the feeling that killing someone before his time has come, is heavy duty.

Iron came to Britain sometime around 750 BC and wasn't the single cause of the changes that were soon to take place. Bronze, glittering like gold in the sun, had given status to the warriors whose barrows cluster around Stonehenge. Elaborate trade routes followed rivers and crossed seas to Europe exchanging copper for tin and bringing in amber from the Baltic.

But something happened to change everything, the weather, wars and upheavals in distant lands, and it took another two hundred years before society reconfigured itself, assimilated change and found a new way to live.

 Sometime between 800 BC to 750 the Bronze Age in Britain came to an end; people buried hoards of bronze artifacts  -no one knows why-  I guess that burying it was a way to hide the family riches until better times, and that the symbolic value of the bronze was now either useless or a liability. If it was a liability, then  bronze had not lost its symbolic value at all; indeed it had become too precious. Perhaps it is more correct to say that The Bronze Age came to an end when the symbolic value of an item became less than its practical use, and bronze became useless.

At the moment the value of gold and silver is still climbing as people lose faith in money (a purely symbolic item) and buy gold, believing that gold will always be valuable. What is happening now in the world economy may be a crisis, but it is nothing like as catastrophic as what happened in the late Bronze Age.


 One of the earliest iron artifact in Britain so far, belonged to 750 BC and was a small sickle made in exactly the same shape and design as its bronze counterpart indicating that craftsmen had not yet worked extensively with iron and learnt how to exploit it.

The art of smelting iron is dated to around 1200 BC in the Mediterranean...some evidence points to the Hittites as the first Iron Age people, smelting iron as early as 1500 BC.

Two maps of the Hittite empire, neither say which year they represent!


Though their iron production was not large scale: Egyptian frescoes and Hittite art show Hittite warriors wearing bronze helmets and sometimes bronze scale armor, though I'm not sure how anyone can tell that unless the frescoes are in colour?

When the Hittites conquered Mesopotamia they adopted many aspects of Akkadian  culture including cuneiform and cosmology. And yet there is something else there, a battle between the older and younger gods that isn't emphasized as much in mythology derived from Sumerian ideas.

Hesiod's Theogeny seems to draw directly from the Hittite version of the Akkadian Enuma Elish.

How much mythology migrated with the secrets of iron smelting it is very difficult to know. Norse mythology in particular contains mythic elements from Greek myth that in turn echoes Marduck's battle with Tiamat via the Hittite version: Tarhunt's battle with Illuyanka.

The Akkadian queen of the Underworld, Ereshkigal becomes the Hittite Goddess Lelwani.

 I wish that I knew how much myth diffused into Britain along with the knowledge of Iron...

The Iron Age hill forts appear in Britain between 550 and 500 BC as a new social order is established. They have been interpreted as castles, or market places, or stores for near by villages. The Iron Age seems to be almost a  new Neolithic -as farming became the new technology of that time, so once again farming became the central preoccupation of people helped by a whole host of efficient farming techniques resulting from the use of iron ploughs and sickles.

The Iron age, following Hesiod's explanation, is a cruel time and we are still in it.