Thursday, 24 November 2011

Peaks and rituals

The Dartmoor National Park Authority gave a press release last week on their recent excavations with the English Heritage on Whitehorse Hill where they studied a Bronze Age cist grave this August before its contents were lost due to the disappearance of the peat that had covered it and preserved the tomb. The cist located at the altitude of 600 meters on one of Dartmoor’s highest tors. The archaeologists involved considered that the cist offered high potential for good preservation of any perishable materials and an opportunity to better understand archaeological preservation within upland peat at a time of change in upland management.

The cist was located in an isolated and elevated position well away from other known archaeology. Its unusual location can be puzzling but the ritual use of isolated high ground is not anything new in archaeology and is a well-known phenomenon in different places around the world. The peak sanctuaries of Crete are known to any enthusiast of Greek archaeology and the mummies on the Andes are another case of peak burials. The mountain tops could be seen the nearest platform to the gods and it is no wonder that they presented a natural spot for those trying to approach the skies.

The cist on Whitehorse Hill revealed an in situ burial lying on the base stone of the cist after the large cover stone had been removed. The burial consisted of bone fragments, a shale bead and what appeared to be hair or fur. Two sharpened wooden stakes were also discovered outside the cist, one lying horizontally against one of the side walls and the other still vertically placed into the peat against one of the end stones.

The lifted context was excavated in the laboratory and this work revealed further organic materials; burnt textile had been placed within an animal hide or fur on top of a very thin leather and textile object, itself placed above a mat of plant material. At one end of the fur or hide was a delicate woven bag or basket with fine stitching still visible. The contents inside included beautifully preserved shale disc beads, amber spherical beads and a circular textile band. A further layer of matted plant material covered these objects. The find is dated to the Early Bronze Age. Together with the outfit of Ötzi the Iceman, the finds at the Must Farm in Cambridgeshire and the ‘Bronze Age Pompeii’ in Campania this site adds further to our knowledge about the prehistoric skills and craftsmanship.

However, it is the admiration of high locations anybody can relate to. A climb to the mountain gives one an exhausting experience that is rewarded by a wonderful view. Especially in the past when one could not enter the Google Earth and visit virtually far-flung places and see air photographs on a computer screen, a view over a large stretch of familiar landscape must have been empowering. The possibility to oversee everyday landscape, then often covered by woods that hinder seeing farther, may have been a reason to choose a special site.

When I climbed on Monte Soratte, mentioned already by Horatio during the Roman times, I marvelled on the ‘same’ view as the prehistoric visitors on that spot. We know that they were there since a site with pottery sherds has been discovered relatively near the top. An extraordinary place like that allows you to share a view with the past, however fleetingly. You can appreciate if some of those heights were used to send a loved one to the voyage to the other side.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

A lost road

Anstey Lane is a relatively straight road that connects our village to the city centre. It passes several stretches of ridge and furrow on its way, which shows how these landscapes were intensively used during the Medieval period. Lately these areas were used for pasture so the features survived the beginning of more intensive ploughing.

However, it was not this end of a possible ancient route that made people excited about the possibility of an earlier road line. No, it was the stretch of road at Kegworth that attracted attention. Long Lane there presents an ‘aggered’, raised and cambered, profile and straight alignment. If the Romano-British origins are real, this road would have joined the Roman settlement at Red Hill near Radcliffe-on-Soar to Ratae Corieltauvorum (Leicester).

Stephen Lycett discussed the possible existence of a Roman road on this route, originally suggested by Peter Liddle, the current community archaeologist in Leicestershire, in 1982. The argument depends greatly on the current alignments of public footpaths, their alignments and their connectivity but the alignments of footpaths together with those of field boundaries often do preserve ancient linear features. Further evidence are an eroded agger south of Kegford, the name of Bradgate, ‘broad road’ (brad – gata) or ‘broad gap’ (brad – geat) and a stretch of a double linear feature at Anstey, now under a relatively recent housing development. The distribution of Swithland slate, the product of this Charnwood area, reached Roman settlements of Little Chester, the destination the road took – or was likely to take – from Red Hill.

The author is relatively positive about this hypothesis. The recently published excavations at Beaumont Leys (Thomas 2011) together with the existence of a kiln site nearby and an Iron Age hill fort farther away along the route show that this area needed a line of communication during the Iron Age and Roman times.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Walk up a mental road

Does the name of your home village or town give you a mental image of a past landscape? The name of ‘Anstey’ is a road name, although it seems to be slightly unclear what it exactly means. In addition, we know that the villagers here changed the name from ‘Ansty’ since there is another village of the same name relatively near outside Coventry. One can imagine there were misunderstandings and unnecessary travel behind this decision. ‘Anstig’ is supposed to mean ‘single-file uphill path’. Some Ansties do lie near crossroads. In our village there is a historic crossroads ‘The Nook’.

Many of the villages in the area have Scandinavian names, such as ‘Thurcaston’ or ‘Thurmaston’. ‘Markfield’ in its turn refers to the Mercians. The next village from us is called ‘Cropston’ and its link to agriculture and crops is not difficult to see. ‘Swithland’ behind Cropston got its name from Old Norse word ‘svitha’, ‘land cleared by burning’. The woodland theme is enforced by the names of ‘Woodland’ and ‘Woodland Eaves’. ‘Quorn’ in its turn does not refer to a meatfree mycoprotein but to ‘cweorn’, a millstone. It was shortened from Quorndon, where ‘don’, Old Norse ‘dun,’ refers to a hill.

When driving back from the city centre heading to Anstey the outline of Old John can be seen at a distance. One can then start daydreaming of a day when a Medieval farmer was taking the same path. In the past the traveller moved uphill towards different villages or towns, perhaps towards Swannington, Ratcliffe-on-Soar or Ashby-de-la-Zouch. They chose a road to follow from the Nook onwards across this wooded land with a population from different origins who may have used slash-and-burn techniques brought back from the northern countries. The traveller may also have passed by the stone quarries at Quorn. In this way the place names create a mental map forming a palimpsest of Medieval Leicestershire.

The placename data is from Gelling and Cole’s book The Landscape of Placenames, which I got as a ‘spoil’ after the dismantling of most of the Madingley Hall library.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Known places, unknown locations

I find locations known from various historical sources but unknown in the real physical world fascinating. In classical studies these were for long a norm and the antiquarians spent lifetimes pondering over the location of such mythical places as Crustumerium or Fidenae. These places were found and confirmed only through archaeological fieldwork, which was something the early antiquarians normally were not accustomed to do. Only after Schliemann found Troy exploring became a norm although historians often restricted themselves to observing potential locations without looking for material evidence.

A very recent example nearer the home where only through archaeological exploration a mythical place has become reality is the battlefield of Bosworth in southern Leicestershire. Immortalized by Shakespeare in his play Richard III this location was even celebrated with a visitors’ centre, currently the only one adorning a battlefield in England, even if its precise whereabouts were not clear. Only recent survey and coring work, presented also in Time Team, has established the true location of the battle of Bosworth. Before 2010 the battlefield was a matter of theorizing, a theoretical landscape.

This idea of mental landscapes that moved around and did not even exist in the end is captivating. Because of the changes in physical landscape at Bosworth it was impossible to locate the swamp that was the defining feature of the battlefield and its surroundings without entering private land and coring for the marshy layers below the surface. This did not hinder historians such as Peter Foss from trying to decipher the place from later descriptions of the battle and explain the different movements during the battle in their chosen location. These interpretations turned out to be fictional and imaginary but they create a sort of alternative reality now when revisited after the surface finds of cannonballs and armour fragments as well as the rediscovery of the swamp have revealed the true battlefield and allow reconstructing the strategic moves in their real locations.