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.

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