Tuesday 12 November 2019

#041 Avebury Prehistoric Landscape

Six thousand years ago the rolling chalk hills of what is now Wiltshire would have been mostly covered with forests of oak, birch and a variety of native plant species. In the Mesolithic, a person could walk under unbroken canopy from the south coast to the northern highlands. But with the arrival of Neolithic farmers, came new ways of thinking, seeing and interpreting the environment. And slowly but surely, whether by intent or otherwise, the indigenous hunter gatherer’s way of life faded into extinction.
Avebury Stone Circle
What we see now at Avebury henge and stone circles, is the product of several hundred years (between 2850 BC and 2200BC) Neolithic and early bronze age cosmology with several intermediate phases representing shifts in cultural ideas, before eventually being abandoned around 1800BC.

The Avebury ring is the largest Megalithic stone circle in the world, originally comprising of about 100 stones, which in turn encloses two smaller stone circles.
Portion of henge ditch
The henge survives as a huge circular bank and ditch, encircling an area that includes part of Avebury village. The village itself makes it difficult to visualise the expanse of the whole site, which these days can only be fully appreciated from the air. However, in the Neolithic it is likely that the evolution of the henge and circles began in a woodland clearing or an area which had already been widely cleared of trees. With unbroken views across the sanctum, inside the henge.
Stones in the outer ring
In common with other Megalithic sites, there is a corridor of stones connecting to the circle, the West Kennet Avenue. Next to the B4003 road, perhaps its origin was a pathway through forest, but with the felling of the trees, the placement of the stones could have represented a more permanent channel in the now open landscape. Which over time and repetition, may have become more imbued with metaphysical connotations, a spiritual funnel to the gathering and rites practiced within the banks of the henge enclosure.
West Kennet Avenue
The Avebury sacred landscape is vast, shaped for rituals that involved inclusion, exclusion and procession. Features which strongly resonate in locations with the Orkney processionary route along a natural land spit from Skara Brae, the Ring of Brodgar, Ness of Brodgar and Stones of Stennes. Ritual pathways are also found around Stonehenge, the Cursus, Lesser Cursus and The Avenue.
Avebury is part of an extraordinary set of Neolithic and Bronze Age ceremonial sites that seemingly formed a vast sacred landscape. They include West Kennet Avenue, West Kennet Long Barrow, The Sanctuary, Windmill Hill, and the mysterious Silbury Hill.
West Kennet Avenue at Avebury Ring
One mile, as the crow flies, to the south of Avebury is Silbury Hill, the largest artificial mound in Europe. Similar in height and volume to the smaller Egyptian pyramids at the Giza Necropolis, it was completed around 2400BC, but apparently contains no burial. Though clearly important in itself, its purpose and significance remain unknown.
Silbury Hill
However, the act of elevating people, whether physically, metaphorically, or both, within a tribe or society is a familiar concept to us. In the era of the Scandinavian sagas, the Law Speaker stood atop the Logberg (the Law Rock) at Thingvellier and recited from memory the laws of Iceland. In more modern times, people stepped up onto their soap boxes at speakers’ corner, in Hyde Park. At rock concerts the performers stand upon a stage. When we think of ritual, we tend to make associations with ancient or indigenous peoples.
Althing Parliament at Thingvellir
However, rites of passage and tribal conventions are everywhere in our contemporary lives. We see the elite politicians at Parliament question time, squabbling and heckling, projecting their self-importance in order to retain power and influence for as long as possible with all the associated benefits, financial and otherwise. These theatrics promote the idea that governing class is indispensable, whilst they continue to serve their own interests first.

So, although we can only make a guess at the sort of rituals, proclamations or subjugations made from the summit of Silbury Hill, perhaps by tribal leaders or shamanic priests, the size of the construction certainly effectively projected these messages to the surrounding audience and landscape.
West Kennet Long Barrow
Within sight of Sibury Hill is the West Kennet Log Barrow. It is one of the largest, most impressive and most accessible Neolithic chambered tombs in Britain. Built in around 3650 BC, it was used for a short time as a burial chamber, nearly 50 people being buried here before the chambers were blocked. It is classified by archaeologists as one of the Cotswold-Severn class of tombs.
Entrance to West Kennet Long Barrow
Concealed entrance viewed from above
The tomb is on top of a natural hill. Placing the dead nearer to the sky, perhaps an important element in an astronomical cult. In common with other Neolithic tombs, the deceased were likely to have subject to an excarnation process before the bones were carefully sorted and placed within the chambers.
West Kennet main passageway
Across Western Europe, Early Neolithic pople built chambered long barrows, rectangular or oval earthen tumuli which had a chamber built into one end. Some of these chambers were constructed out of timber, although others were built using large stones, now known as "megaliths". These long barrows often served as tombs, housing the physical remains of the dead within their chamber. 
West Kennet side cell / chamber
Individuals were rarely buried alone in the Early Neolithic, instead being interred in collective burials with other members of their community. These chambered tombs were built all along the Western European seaboard during the Early Neolithic, from southeastern Spain up to southern Sweden, taking in most of the British Isles.
West Kennet side cell / chamber
The architectural tradition was introduced to Britain from continental Europe in the first half of the fourth millennium BCE. Although there are stone buildings—like Göbekli Tepe in modern Turkey—which predate them, the chambered long barrows constitute humanity's first widespread tradition of construction using stone. The specific design featured found in the West Kennet Longbarrow, classify it among others with similar features in the Cotswold and Severn valley area.
Entrace end of the barrow
Within the Alexander Keiller Museum in Avebury village is an impressive and diverse collection of artefacts recovered from the soil. Many of the items bring context and insights into the life of our Neolithic and Bronze age ancestors. Red deer antlers, the tool of choice before metal, were used as picks to quarry chalk and create the deep henge ditches.
Red deer antler picks
There are some fine examples of decorated pottery, itself part of its own cultural phase, known as the beaker culture.
Decorated earthen ware
Many animal bones have been found. Bovine bones in quantities which indicate great gatherings of people and feasting. However, the numbers of cattle killed, possibly at the behest of the elite class, may not have necessarily been in the best interests of the population. Similar evidence of great killings has also been uncovered in the Stonehenge area.
Goat skeleton
Other animal bones such as goat and dog, allude more to domestic life and paint a picture of dwelling houses with small holdings of arable crops, with the younger generation tasked with shepherding the smaller animals.
Neolithic lamp
Animal fat lamp, modern museum recreation
Animal fat lamps extended the useful hours of the day for creative activities, such as the decorative etching of a small piece of chalk.  With a couple of pieces of chalk picked from a beach on the Isle of Wight, I remade these artefacts.
Neolithic decorated chalk talisman
What I noticed, as I was etching the lines, is that the image resembled a leaf, but then the circular feature also looked like an eye. Archaeologists have speculated that this item may have been a talisman. With this in mind I embellished the chalk piece with a through hole, so with the addition of a leather lanyard or woven string, it could be used as an adornment. In common with a earlier paleolithic lamp recreation (see #037 Paleolithic Lamp and the dawn of creativity ) I added a design on the underside: A basic labyrinth pictogram of a type from the late Neolithic - Bronze Age.
Chalk stone lamp & talisman by Stu Westfield, Nov 2019
Underside of chalk lamp and talisman by Stu Westfield, Nov 2019
The artefacts and evidence from within the Avebury prehistoric landscape, tell us a story of highly developed and evolving cultures. A tribe, or society of tribes, which had time and energy to devote to the sharing of cultural ideas. People who were doing a lot more than merely surviving, but interacting with their environment physically and spiritually in a way that they best understood it.
Chalk stone lamp by Stu Westfield, Nov 2019
In 6000 years time, with the benefit of scientific developments and discovery, our successors may look back upon our times in the same way. They may even wonder at how our current elite brought down our civilisation with their obscene, rapacious greed.

Our stone age crafts made in Hayfield are inspired by the human journey from paleolithic beginnings to the Viking era. Ranger Expeditions also offer challenge trekking days and discovery themed walks guided by local Mountain Leaders. 

Friday 8 November 2019

#040 Iron Age Enigma

Over the past few years, I have travelled to the Isle of Mull and archipelagos of Orkney and Shetland exploring and documenting evidence of our Neolithic stone age ancestors in short films and earlier blogs. In a world where everything was made from wood, plant materials, antler, bone and stone, the richness of their cultures and cosmology has been astonishing.
Neolithic-Bronze Age archaeology at Jarlshof, Shetland
However, I also found amazing structures from the next revolutionary period: The turbulent, tribal and somewhat disturbing developments that came with the Iron Age.
Stu at Mousa Broch, Shetland Islands
The iron age brought an end to the closing chapter of the stone age. People had previously learnt to smelt copper and alloy it with tin to form bronze. But cast bronze is brittle and its practical usage was limited. The form of items made in the bronze age closely mirrored those of the preceding Neolithic. Archaeologists have speculated that the purpose of these artefacts was principally ceremonial or ritual.

Another disadvantage of bronze is that copper and tin are rarely found anywhere near one another. And, though copper is easy to find, tin is a relatively rare metal. The collapse of trading structure at the end of the Bronze age forced early metallurgists to experiment with iron. Iron itself is not much harder than bronze, but it was discovered that adding about 2% carbon produced steel.

Steel could hold a better edge and made for superior tools which further revolutionised agricultural efficiency. Steel also made better weapons for people to intimidate, injure and kill each other. Communities responded by making defensive structures, such as the hill forts of southern England or the Broch roundhouse buildings found throughout Atlantic Scotland. Archaeological examination of skeletons from this time shows terrible cutting and slashing wounds, leading to conclusions of strong tribal identities within the population.
Broch visualisation cross-section
Brochs' close groupings and profusion in many areas may indeed suggest that they had a primarily defensive or even offensive function. Some of them were sited beside precipitous cliffs and were protected by large ramparts, artificial or natural. Often they are at key strategic points.
Defensive use of steep sided creeks at Midhowe Boch, Orkney
However, there may never have been a single common purpose for which every broch was constructed. There are differences between the various areas in which brochs are found, with regard to position, dimensions and likely status. For example, the broch "villages" which occur at a few places in Orkney have no parallel in the Western Isles.

Interpretation and reconstruction of brochs indicate these structures had multiple uses. As a home, storage for foodstuffs, stabling for animals, as well as being defensive.
Generally, brochs have a single entrance with bar-holes, door-checks and lintels. There are mural cells and there is a scarcement (ledge), perhaps for timber-framed lean-to dwellings lining the inner face of the wall. Also there is a spiral staircase winding upwards between the inner and outer wall and connecting the galleries.
Spiral staircase, Mousa Broch
Brochs vary from 5 to 15 metres (16–50 ft) in internal diameter, with 3 metre (10 ft) thick walls. On average, the walls only survive to a few metres in height. An example of a broch tower with significantly higher walls is Mousa in Shetland.

The Shetland Amenity Trust lists about 120 sites in Shetland as candidate brochs, while the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland identifies a total of 571 candidate broch sites throughout the country.
Distribution of Brochs
Radiocarbon dates for the primary use of brochs (as opposed to their later, secondary use) still suggests that most of the towers were built in the 1st centuries BC and AD. A few may be earlier, notably the one proposed for Old Scatness Broch in Shetland, where a sheep bone dating to 390–200 BC has been reported.

GURNESS BROCH – North West Mainland Orkney
In common with about 20 Orcadian broch sites include small settlements of stone buildings surrounding the main tower. There are "broch village" sites in Caithness, but elsewhere they are unknown.
Gurness Broch
Settlement here began sometime between 500 and 200 BC. At the centre of the settlement is a stone tower or broch, which once probably reached a height of around 10 metres. Its interior is divided into sections by upright slabs. The tower features two skins of drystone walls, with stone-floored galleries in between. These are accessed by steps. Stone ledges suggest that there was once an upper storey with a timber floor. The roof would have been thatched, surrounded by a wall walk linked by stairs to the ground floor. The broch features two hearths and a subterranean stone cistern with steps leading down into it (resembling the subterranen chamber at Mine Howe, Tankerness). It is thought to have some religious significance, relating to an Iron Age cult of the underground.
Gurness Broch
The Gurness Broch's  location is facing Midhowe Broch on the opposite shore of Eynhallow Sound. Perhaps as a highly visual projection of tribal strength. But also, the building materials for each of these brochs are easily taken from the rocky flagstone outcrops on each shoreline. Thus readily enabling increases in size and complexity of the broch settlement structures, as well as projection of tribal strength.
Natural building materials on the shore at Midhowe Broch
MIDHOWE BROCH – Rousay, Orkney
Midhowe Broch is situated on a narrow promontory between two steep-sided creeks, on the north side of Eynhallow Sound. The broch is part of an ancient settlement, part of which has been lost to coastal erosion. The broch interior is crowded with stone partitions, and there is a spring-fed water tank in the floor and a hearth with sockets which may have held a roasting spit.
Midhowe Broch
The broch is surrounded by the remains of other lesser buildings, and a narrow entrance provides access into the defended settlement. The other buildings seem to have been built as adjacent houses, but later in the site’s history they were used as workshops, and one of these buildings still retains its iron-smelting hearth

MOUSA BROCH – opposite Shetland mainland, located by the sea.
Mousa Broch
In Shetland they sometimes cluster on each side of narrow stretches of water: The broch of Mousa, for instance, is directly opposite another at Burraland in Sandwick. 
Remains of Burraland Broch
Mousa's walls are the best preserved and are still 13 m tall; it is not clear how many brochs originally stood this high. A frequent characteristic is that the walls are galleried: with an open space between, the outer and inner wall skins are separate but tied together with linking stone slabs; these linking slabs may in some cases have served as steps to higher floors. It is normal for there to be a cell breaking off from the passage beside the door; this is known as the guard cell. It has been found in some Shetland brochs that guard cells in entrance passageways are close to large door-check stones.
Mousa Broch
Although there was much argument in the past, it is now generally accepted among archaeologists that brochs were roofed, perhaps with a conical timber framed roof covered with a locally sourced thatch.
Mousa Broch interior
Mousa Broch continued to be used over the centuries and is mentioned in two Norse Sagas. Egil's Saga tells of a couple eloping from Norway to Iceland who were shipwrecked and used the broch as a temporary refuge. The Orkneyinga Saga gives an account of a siege of the broch by Earl Harald Maddadsson in 1153 following the abduction of his mother who was held inside the broch.

CLICKIMIN BROCH – Lerwick, Shetland
Broch island on Clickimin Loch
Originally built on an island in Clickimin Loch, it was approached by a stone causeway. The broch is situated within a walled enclosure and, unusually for brochs, features a large "forework" or "blockhouse" between the opening in the enclosure and the broch itself.
Clickimin Broch blockhouse
OLD SCATNESS BROCH – Sumburgh, Shetland
Located close to arable land and a source of water (some have wells or natural springs rising within their central space).

JARLSHOF BROCH – Sumburgh, Sheltland
Remains of Jarlshof Broch after coastal erosion
The remains at Jarlshof represent thousands of years of human occupation, and can be seen as a microcosm of Shetland history. In a similar story to the discovery of Skara Brae in Orkney, a storm in 19th century washed away part of the shore, and revealed evidence of these ancient buildings and one of the most complex archaeological sites in Britain.
Complexity of Jarlshof site, pic Scottish Heritage
Buildings on the site include the remains of a Bronze Age smithy, an Iron Age broch and roundhouses, a complex of Pictish wheelhouses, a Viking longhouse and a mediaeval farmhouse.
Pictish wheelhouse at Jarlshof
Most brochs are unexcavated. Those that have been properly examined show that they continued to be in use for many centuries, with the interiors often modified and changed, and that they underwent many phases of habitation and abandonment. The end of the broch building period seems to have come around AD 100–200

Our stone age crafts made in Hayfield are inspired by the human journey from paleolithic beginnings to the Viking era. Ranger Expeditions also offer challenge trekking days and discovery themed walks guided by local Mountain Leaders.