In 1896, a baby was born in Debow, a small village in the south-east of Poland – he was baptised Josef Cłab. He now lies buried in small graveyard just outside the North Yorkshire village of Sutton-on-the-Forest. I don’t know the precise chain of events that brought him to Yorkshire, but we can hazard a guess. He would have been about 44 when Stalin began to annexe Eastern Poland, including the area of Poland in which Josef left. Whether he fled left as a refugee or as a member of the Polish army is not clear – given his age it may have been that he had children in the Polish Armed Forces in Exile. They may have spent time in exile in Siberia, where many Poles then left for Displaced Persons camps in India and both West and East Africa. Many members of the Polish forces fought in the Near East and in Europe. As the war came to an end, it would have been clear that Poland would be under indirect Russian control and would remain the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. For many Poles, this meant that a return home was impossible. In 1946 many were thus enlisted into the Polish Resettlement Corps, part of the British army, before they were demobilised in 1948.
The soldiers and their families were offered new lives in Britain – and for many this initially meant staying in a network of Resettlement Camps, often located on former military and air-force bases, as they had a pre-existing infrastructure ready to be occupied. Initially, there were over 2000 camps. Many settlers were helped to emigrate and others moved out of the camps to forge their own lives in towns and cities across Britain. However, there were still around 50 camps in the mid-1950s and the last one was not closed until 1970.
Whatever his journey, Josef ended up in one of these resettlement camps – at East Moor, near Sutton-on-Forest, just to the north of York. This site had originated as an RAF base, established in 1942. Like most airbases in this part of the country, it was used for bombers by both the Royal Canadian Air Force and the Royal Air Force before closing down in 1946. However, this marked the beginning of its new life as a Resettlement Camp in 1948 and within a year there were 201 families with nearly 190 children resident at the site. Many of the buildings were converted for communal used – including a library, a games room and a church. Life slowly became less communal with a move away from shared catering and a shift towards private, self-sufficiency. There are still pictures showing life at the camp – there were choirs, bands, dances and schools for children and for adults to learn English.
Many moved on, but some died at the camp and, although Catholic, were buried at the Church of England cemetery of the nearby village. Today, there is now a small area of the cemetery given over to these graves – maybe twenty of them. Some with inscriptions in Polish, some in English – some of individuals who had died at the camp, others clearly family members of those who had died here, and had come back to be buried with their loved ones. Although the bulk of the burials are from the 1950s and 1960s, there are some as late as the 1990s. In other cases, older graves seem to have been replaced with newer ones, perhaps as families established themselves and were able to afford something a little more substantial. I’m going to write some more about these in a future blog post.
Today, very little of the camp and the RAF base seems to survive- most of the buildings have been demolished, although a tiny number of structures seem to still survive as a small industrial estate, with most heavily repurposed or converted for other purposes; although one building still lows derelict. All that remains of this transient community of Poles, who after a journey around the globe, via Siberia, Persian, East Africa and the theatres of conflict in Western Europe, are the graves in the cemetery. Although the Polish community in the village has long gone, it is clear that most of the graves are still visited and cared for, although some of the older ones are falling apart. After a lifetime of transience, it is pleasing that even if in death, there is some sense of permanence for these people.
Session for TAG 2020 – Leicester – 17th-19th December 2021
Historians and archaeologists have begun increasingly to engage with the notion of a ‘global middle ages’. By reframing current European perspectives on the ‘medieval’ to embrace wider Eurasia and beyond, this move towards a globalising perspective has developed two main approaches. One has emphasised the importance of networks and connectivity – highlighting the threads and connections that linked Western Europe by land and sea with Africa, the Middle East and Central, Southern and Eastern Asia. Encompassing the silk roads and the maritime links across the Indian Ocean and the Pacific, such perspectives have emphasised the complex streams of materials, people and idea that ebbed and flowed in this period. Such approaches serve to decentre European exceptionalism and contextualise the wider social landscapes and networks that operated in the ‘middle Millennium’ (AD500-1500). An alternative approach to global medievalism has been a more avowedly comparative method, comparing and contrasting different domains of past cultures, such as religious change and conversion, kingship, agricultural intensification or the spread of coin use. This approach identifies similarities and contrasts to draw out how similar social processes or patterns might be articulated in very different ways. This session aims to critically interrogate the notion of the ‘global middle ages’ – does the notion present a refreshing perspective on medieval Europe or is the very notion of a ‘middle ages’ one that is profoundly in the specific trajectory of social development in Europe? Can the emphasis on materiality that characterises archaeology bring a different perspective to the debate to that provided by text and document? It is anticipated that these issues will be explored through a range of theoretical discussions, wider syntheses and detailed case studies.
This is a kind of companion piece to my last entry – I was going to include a lot of this in my original paper for TAG, but there wasn’t enough time to squeeze this all in.
This is a brief contribution to some of the on-going discussions about the depiction of early medieval burial practices in various forms of creative practice. A number of scholars, particularly Howard Williams have explored in particular, how images of mortuary rituals associated with early medieval cultures have been used in museums, television programmes and films. In this blog I want to look at three particular examples of where images of seventh century high status Anglian burials have been integrated into the action.
The first is in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising – a classic child’s novel in which the young protagonist 11-year old Will Stanton is drawn into a cosmic battle between the Light and the Dark played out across time. It draws extensively on British mythology and folklore, particularly elements of the Arthurian cycle and figures such as Herne the Hunter. Taking place over the period between the Winter Solstice and the twelfth day of Christmas, the action centres around the Middle Thames valley, specifically the fictional village of Huntercombe, which seems to be located somewhere in the Slough and Maidenhead area. Although this is a part of East Berkshire that is increasingly built up, the book is set in the early 1970s, when this area was more rural.
Will fights to fulfil a series of prophecies that will allow him to defeat the forces of the Dark, he has to collect a series of magical signs made from wood, bronze, iron, fire, water and stone. As the action intensifies, and the snows melt into torrential floods, Will finds himself on a mystical island in the Thames. Here he as it rises out of the ground, he encounters an early medieval boat burial. Cooper vividly describes it emerging, with a figure-head in the shape of a stag
“He had never seen such a ship. The long timbers of which it was built overlapped one another like the board of a fence, heavy and broad: they looked like oak. He could see no mast. Instead, there were places for row upon row of oarsmen, up and down the whole length of the vessel. In the centre was a kind of deckhouse that made the ship look almost like Noah’s Ark. It was not a closed structure; its sides seemed to have been cut away, leaving the corner beams and roof like a canopy. And inside, beneath the canopy, a king lay. “
The dead king is described, lying with a sword and shield at his side, wearing an elaborately decorated helmet crested by a silver image of a boar. He is surrounded by his burial goods including silver dishes, jewelled purposes and gold-rimmed drinking horns, and in his hands he holds the Sign of Water, the last of the Great Signs.
The author is clearly drawing here on an image of an early medieval boat burial derived from the seventh century Sutton Hoo boat burial found in Suffolk in the late 1930s, one of the most iconic early medieval burial sites from England. The description of a clinker built boat, the decorated helmet, the weapons, purse and horns are all borrowed directly from the SH discovery. However, there are some creative tweaks. Sutton Hoo had no surviving decorated figurehead, though a stag surmounting a (ritual) whetstone found accompanying the burial, allows Cooper to integrate this with the image of a stag that appears earlier in the book, and also in immediate following scenes with the sudden appearance of Herne the Hunter. There is no boar on the Sutton Hoo helmet, although an iron boar crest is present on the fragmentary remains of the Benty Grange Helmet, which at the time that Cooper was writing was the only other extant Anglian helment (although there have been subsequent discoveries, most notably the Coppergate Helmet from York).
Although clearly derived from well-known archaeological comparanda, in the book the date of the boat is a little muddy. Merriman (in essence, Merlin) tells Will that ‘He has lain in his burial ground for fifteen hundred years’ , which gives a 5th century date – the Dark is Rising being set in the 1970s. He also describes the occupant as ‘An English king of the Dark Ages… the Dark Ages were rightly named, a shadowy time for the world, when the Black Riders rode unhindered over all out land. Only the Old Ones and a few noble brave men like this one kept the light alive’ and then says: ‘He was part-Viking himself’. For an archaeologist, the reference to Vikings would imply a later, 9th or 10th century date, although in truth, the precise date is irrelevant to the narrative beyond placing it in a broadly early medieval context.’
The boat is ultimately set on fire by the Dark and last seen floating down the Thames towards the sea. Crucially, the only people to ever have seen it were Will and Merriman, it was never seen or intended to be seen by a wider audience. It was a secret not to be divulged more widely. Intriguingly, it was also one of a group of other great ship-burials. Merriman states:
“There are three great ship-burials near this Thames of yours, in days past. One was dug up in the last century near Taplow, and destroyed in the process. One was this ship of the Light not destined ever to be found by men. And one was the greatest ship, of the greatest king of all, and this they have not found and perhaps never will, it will lie in peace”.
Yet, again, Cooper is showing some knowledge of Anglo-Saxon archaeology. The reference to the burial at nearby Taplow is indeed based on a real site. A high-status burial in a mound was uncovered by antiquarians in 1883. However, this was not in fact a boat burial, but clearly part of that wider group of very high-status 7th century princely burials. The deceased was accompanied by a sword, shield and spears, as well as belt-buckle, drinking horns, elaborate drinking vessels and a gaming set – all like the Sutton Hoo objects, now in the British Museum.
Cooper’s knowledge of Anglo-Saxon archaeology can be found in elsewhere in the Dark is Rising sequence. In the same novel, in describing the Sign of Light, decorated with gems, rubies and sapphire and bearing the inscription: ‘LIHT MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN’ [The Light ordered that I should be made] – this is clearly a direct borrowing from the inscription on the 9th century gold aestel known as the Alfred Jewel found in Somerset, which carried the formula ‘AELFRED EMC HEHT GEWYRCAN’ [Alfred had me made]. In the preceding novel Over Sea and Under Stone, set in Cornwall, the protagonists discover the holy grail in the Cornish village of Trewissick. This certainly seems to be making some allusion to the 9th century silver gilded chalice found in the 18th century at Trewhiddle, also in Cornwall. Although the fictional cup is more elaborately decorated than the real one, there is evidence that the Trewhiddle chalice once had additional applied decorative elements. Aspects of the description of the grail also suggest the author was familiar with more heavily decorated Insular early medieval chalices, such as the 8th century Tassilo Chalice, located in Austria, but possibly of Northumbrian workmanship. Will Stanton’s encounter with an Anglo-Saxon burial, whilst part of a sequence of terrifying events, was ultimately a positive one – a Sign was recovered and the Dark was vanquished. However, the next case study of fictional interaction between the protagonist and a burial has a less happy ending.
In MR James’ short story A Warning to the Curious, set in the early 20th century an amateur antiquarian, Paxton, discovers an Anglo-Saxon royal burial mound on the Suffolk coast. He fastens on to the trail of this burial mound through a combination of research and an engagement with folklore. It is revealed that local tradition holds that there were three crowns buried in the ground that will defend the land against foreign invasion. This idea of three symbolically important guardian burials, is of course, echoed in the Dark is Rising. This piece of folklore seems to be a work of James’ imagination – drawing on genuine records of an antiquarian discovery of a crown at Rendlesham and blending it with the popular Suffolk symbol of three crowns, conventionally associated with St Edmund.
In the story, two crowns have gone – one of these is explicitly the one from Rendlesham, and the other seems to have been located at the town of Dunwich, much of which has now been lost to the sea. The remaining crown, the goal of the hapless amateur archaeologist, is located in a burial mound close to the coast in the fictional Suffolk town of Seaburgh. The idea of a coastal burial mound protecting the land is surely also an allusion to the final resting place of the Anglo-Saxon hero Beowulf whose ashes were interred in a barrow on the coast, visible to passing sea-farers.
The author, MR James, is also someone who had a good understanding of the archaeology of early medieval England – although he was writing at a time when the discipline was far less developed. A specialist in early manuscripts and palaeography, he once applied to be Disney Professor of Archaeology at the University of Cambridge. It is hard not to read of an early medieval burial mound in a coastal location in East Anglia without thinking of Sutton Hoo, yet James was of course writing several decades before its discovery. However, Sutton Hoo is not the only high status early medieval burial from this area. It is more likely that James was drawing on his knowledge of the burials at Snape (Suffolk). Although about 7km inland, these burials did overlook the estuary of the River Alde. Here excavations in the 1860s (and more recently) uncovered a substantial early medieval cemetery that included a boat burial of later 6th century AD date. Despite not being as elaborate as the Sutton Hoo or Taplow burials (and a little earlier in date) items within the Snape grave included a gold ring and elaborate glass drinking cups and was clearly of high status. The Alde, which can be seen from the site, debouches into the North Sea at Aldeburgh, which, lightly disguised as Seaburgh, was the setting for A Warning to the Curious. Aldeburgh was a town that James knew well and regularly visited when young, as it was home to his Grandmother. Crucially, the period of his regular visits would have overlapped with the period of the major 1860s excavations so it is more than likely that he was aware of what would have been one of the most significant excavations of this period in mid-19th century East Anglia – it was also subject of a paper delivered to the Society of Antiquaries and was published in Archaeological Journal. It seems probable that in his fictional royal burial at Seaburgh, James was reworking his knowledge of the Snape burials.
In the story, following exploratory excavation Paxton reveals a silver crown, which he takes. However, unknown to him, the mound is protected by a ghostly guardian, who haunts him – and even though he attempts to return the crown to the mound, he is ultimately killed by its supernatural guardian.
The crown is described as being made of silver and ‘set with gems, mostly intaglios and cameos, and was of plain, almost rough workmanship’ Some scholars have seen this as anachronistic- although it has been suggested that this reflects James’ recollection of a Roman gemstone reset into an Anglo-Saxon ring discovered at the cemetery at Snape. However, more recent discoveries of re-used Roman gems in an early medieval English context, such as the 7th century burials from Street House, Redcar (North Yorkshire) has shown that this practice was not uncommon in Anglo-Saxon jewellery. However, I suspect that it is more likely that James’ model for this high status metalwork was not from a dress item, but early medieval book covers. His main academic focus was medieval manuscripts; many early volumes had elaborately decorated ornamented covers, which he would undoubtedly have been familiar with. Good examples are the Ansfriedcodex, now in Utrecht, or the 11th century gospel book from Metz (BnF Latin 9391) – both of which are decorated with cabochon cut gems and re-used Roman intaglios.
If the early medieval burial in the Dark is Rising emerges fully formed from the ground, whilst Paxton’s barrow burial is a little more reticent in revealing its secrets, the final burial I want to look at never actually makes itself known to the protagonists at all In BBC TVs series The Detectorists written and produced by Mackenzie Crook, the two main characters, Lance and Andy are metal detectorists pursuing their hobby, like Paxton in East Anglia – rural North Essex to be precise. The object of their quest is the burial site of Seaxred, King of the East Saxons. Seaxred is a genuine figure, mentioned in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History as one of the sons of Saeberht , the first Christian king of East Anglia. He was killed in battle against an army from Wessex sometime around 626. His actual burial place remains unknown.
However, Lance and Andy are on the trail – they are shown what is clearly 7th century gold and garnet metalwork by a local farmer and they realise that the grave must be somewhere on his land. They try to home in on the site of the grave – Andy’s wife helps here
BECKY: Well, if you’re talking about a high status, royal Saxon ship burial it would have been on the highest point of the landscape with clear views of the sea which is this point here…
SOPHIE You can’t see the sea from Bishop’s farm.
BECKY You can’t now. Over the centuries agriculture has changed the whole make up of the land, in Elizabethan times pine woodlands were planted which thrived in the naturally acidic soil but in the sixth and seventh centuries that same soil would have meant hardly any native trees at all, giving clear views all the way to Southey Creek in the East and the River Crouch in the South. And look, you can’t see it now because a lot of this land is built up or forested but strip away all these features and look at the natural contours of the land, there’s a clear passage. They would have sailed the ship up the river, taken it out of the water right here, and brought it up this valley to here.
This is a lovely piece of landscape analysis – Becky is after all a geography graduate! Yet despite her help, they never quite find the ship. At the end of the final episode of the series, they finally cease digging- as they talk the camera ‘scrolls’ through the earth “ to reveal, just underneath, the grave goods of a rich Saxon ship burial: gold and garnet sword pommels, buckles and clasps, intricately decorated shield bosses and a beautiful Saxon warrior’s helmet” and finally a wide aerial shot revealing the parched outline of Anglo-Saxon boat grave. Our heroes just miss finding their quarry.
This fictional burial seems to be making references to two real-life discoveries. Sutton Hoo is clearly being alluded to, with its location near a creek and the elaborate gold and garnet work grave goods. But the idea of the high-status burial of a king of Essex must surely also be riffing off the discovery of the high profile late 6th century élite burial discovered in 2003 at Prittlewell in Southend (Essex). Although slightly earlier in date that Seaxred and not a boat burial, this incredibly well-furnished barrow burial was widely in the public eye.
Three kings- three burials – all treated in different ways in different fictional works. Yet, they are unified by their depiction as ultimately unattainable. Will Stanton sees the boat burial but then watches it be destroyed, Paxton is doomed to never secure the crown he seeks, whilst Andy and Lance never no how close they are to finding their boat burial. The notion of early medieval high-status burial has obviously struck a chord with three very different writers working in different genres; the idea of elusive early medieval aristocratic burials chimed with all of them. The reasons for this are complex and contextually specific to each writer. Yet, nonetheless there is this common engagement with Anglo-Saxon mortuary culture in all of them. It is tempting to draw a line through these recurring ideas of an unattainable warrior grave through to the older traditions of the missing grave of Arthur – the once and future king, whose grave lies to the west, inaccessible and unknowable in Avalon; though this may be taking things too far. It would be interesting to identify other examples of the depiction of similar burials in fiction. I know of at least one other example; in John Buchan’s 1925 novel John McNab set in the highlands of Scotland, two American characters, the Bandicotts, are, in a sub-plot, searching for the boat burial of the Viking King, Harold Blacktooth. Whilst not specifically related to graves, middle Anglo-Saxon objects appear as MacGuffins in at least two books I’m aware of. In Angus Wilson’s a mysterious phallic figurine is found in the grave of the tomb of an East Anglian bishop, Eorthwald. Although ultimately revealed to be a hoax, the book alludes once again to the Sutton Hoo burial. Meanwhile Colin Wilson’s Inspector Morse novel, The Jewel that was Ours (filmed as The Wolvercote Tongue) uses the disappearance of a gold and garnet belt buckle as a key element in the plot. Rather pleasingly I’ve recently discovered that the fictional Wolvercote Hoard from which the ‘tongue’ came also made an appearance in the Morse prequel series Endeavour (Series 2:1 Trove).
All these examples of the creative engagement with early medieval English material have different undertones and allusions. There is still much to unpick here, particularly I think, with references to the interplay between ideas of England and Englishness and the relationship between these contested and inflected national identities and archaeology – it’s something I hope to return to.
“For those intimate with Hookland, we offer the opportunity to explore and celebrate its archaeology, both in terms of its ancient and more recent past (from the Toad Stone to the pylon’s hum), but also the dark history of surveys, excavations, curses and wyrd discoveries that litter the pages of Archaeologia Hookland. For others, we encourage proposals for papers, talks and creative contributions on the themes of folk horror archaeology, the archaeology of lost and fictional places, and all things landscape punk.”
It is entirely unreferenced, although I’ve put in some links to relevant things. This is a light paper- more Christmas froth than serious analysis, although hopefully people will find some things of interest.
This is a love-letter to a corner of Essex I’ve never visited, a place almost exist, but not quite.
Going on hints gleaned from conversations overhead in pub carparks and church halls I think it’s somewhere in the north of the county. Head away from the A13, the chemical factories, suburban sprawl and oil refineries of the south of the country – turn north from Canvey Island, up past Chelmsford and Braintree, and you’re getting warm. As far as I can discern, we’re somewhere in the lower valley of the Stour; commutable for commercial excavation in Colchester, not too far from the sea and certainly within the broad distribution of 12th century round tower churches. This is a rural landscape, the home of John Constable, Ronald Blythe and Margery Allingham’s detective Albert Campion. We know the name of a number of settlements in the area, including Danebury, a small market town with a fine parish church, several schools and a library – and most importantly, the home of the Danebury Metal Detecting Club, the DMDC; you may have seen, or even own, one of their popular fleeces.
It’s through the eyes of the DMDC and its associated detectorists (not detectors!) that I want to view this historic landscapes through a series of case studies and meditations. I also want to think about the similarities and differences between detectorists and archaeologists and to suggest that in terms of habits and habitats these two, sometimes antagonistic groups, may not be as different as sometimes suggested. I want particularly to view this landscape through the eyes of two individuals – let’s call them Andy and Lance or to be more precise Andy Stone and Lance Stater – Stater and Stone – surely nominative determinism in action.
As members of the DMDC our two protagonists have been involved in a number of the most important metal detecting discoveries in recent years in North Essex. They have both also clearly worked with archaeological authorities; Andy in particular studied archaeology at university as a mature student and has worked on archaeological sites both locally and in Botswana, although finding employment has not always been easy. In recent years, he has left archaeology behind him to focus on restoring a period property with his partner. Lance, although having little education beyond A levels is clearly an auto-didact with a wide general knowledge. It is Lance who has had the most intriguing interaction with the archaeological authorities.
As I’m sure you know it was Lance who discovered the Henburystone aestel, one of the finest pieces of Anglo-Saxon metalwork from Essex (rivalled perhaps only by the Steeple Bumpstead boss, found a little further up the valley of the Stour). Like the Boss, the gold Henburystone aestel was acquired by the British Museum, in the latter’s case, through the Portable Antiquities Scheme for the princely sum of £50,00. On the way here I did check Room 41 at the BM, but sadly neither piece is still on display.
The closest parallel to the Henburystone object is of course the so-called Alfred Jewel, found in North Petherton in Somerset. Aestels are a poorly understood artefact type, probably intended as pointers for assisting in reading texts, they are clearly high-status objects. In King Alfred’s preface to his translation of Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care he noted that “And I will send a copy to every bishop’s see in my kingdom, and in each book there is an aestel of 50 mancusses and I command, in God’s name, that no man take the staff from the book, nor the book from the church.” There are several other aestel’s known from Britain- including the Warminster Jewel, the Minster Lovell Jewell, the Bidford Bobble and the Bowleaze Jewell.
The Henburystone jewel is not the only one found by a detectorist, and the PAS database indicates a number of others, although curiously the finds location of the Henburystone example is not shown. It is not clear whether the Henburystone example was inscribed – the Alfred Jewell carried the inscription “aelfred mec heht gewyrcan”. The only object with a similar inscription I’ve been able to identify is a so-called Sign of Fire seen, but not retained, by one Will Stanton in the harsh winter of 1973. The associated confusing events were noted by Susan Cooper in her study The Dark is Rising where it is recorded as being made of gold and bearing the inscription “liht mec heht gewyrcan”.
Intriguingly, the finder of the Henburystone aestel reported suspicions of a ‘curse’ following his discovery of the object a mysterious figure appeared in a photograph he took of the item, and subsequently he was unable to make any discoveries with his detector.
The presence of a mysterious guardian figure attempting to prevent the discovery of, or failing that, to recover, Anglo-Saxon high-status metalwork is not uncommon. Some of you may be aware of the mysterious case of an antiquarian and amateur archaeologist by the name of Paxton, who claimed to have found important royal regalia in the vicinity of Seaburgh in Suffolk. This incident was reported by noted manuscript scholar Montague Rhodes James in the mid-1920s. Sadly, Paxton was discovered brutally murdered by person or persons unknown; luckily Lance was able to assuage the vengeful spirits. The identity of the guardian was never clear, although if the Henburystone example was one of the aestel’s distributed by Alfred one can’t help recalling his threat “…and I command, in God’s name, that no man take the staff from the book, nor the book from the church”
One of the biggest areas of communality between the detecting and archaeological communities is that of ‘practice’. They share, of course, a pursuit of the past, underpinned by a variety of motives, but at their heart one of the most defining characteristics is not just the end result, but the practice itself. For both it is practice that offers some of the defining terms used to describe the practitioners – detectorist, diggers, dirt sharks – for both groups their province is the soil, the interface between the world above ground and the deeper geology. The soil is also an interface between the present and the past; a place that can be accessed through digging, uncovering and revealing what lies below. But also a world that can be accessed vicariously through geophysical techniques (including metal detecting) and remote viewing techniques, satellite, aerial photograph and Google Earth.
But for both groups, it is the physical aspect – almost the mindfulness of digging itself – moving earth, cleaning, revealing – that is important. Emotionally, it’s about process and flow, and is as much about the opportunities to ruminate and chew the cud as the recovery of the objects. It’s also about the opportunity to be outdoors – in the countryside (often but not always); it’s about the sociality of the endeavour, conversations resumed at tea break, private (and public jokes) and gossip (have you heard what happened to old Bob Cromer?).
The Church Farm Roman burial was more of a joint endeavour between Lance and Andy; the end result of a long-drawn out engagement with a rich archaeological landscape over a period of several years. The venture begun with an attempt to identify the burial site of Sexred (son Saeberht and brother of Saeward) who died in battle in AD626. Although ultimately unsuccessful, it did initiate a sustained engagement with the local landscape of Church Farm, almost but not quite, terminated by an attempt to build a solar array on the land. At a finer chronological scale, the sequence of events that led to the discovery of the Roman burial site and hoard was initiated by the discovery of a hawking whistle, which Andy blew.
The evocation of the past through blowing a whistle is one noted by the previously mentioned MR James, recording the experiences of Parkins, the Professor of Ontography at St Jame’s College on the East Anglian coast. He too found a small whistle whilst engaged in an amateur archaeological endeavour and on blowing it described the tone has having a “a quality of infinite distance in it, and, soft as it was, he somehow felt it must be audible for miles round. It was a sound, too, that seemed to have the power (which many scents possess) of forming pictures in the brain”.
Although in his published version of events James described this as taking place at Burnstow, he subsequently disclosed that Burnstow was in fact based on Felixstow. Felixstow lies just over the county border in Suffolk, at the mouth of the Orwell and the Stour, surely not more than ten miles from Henburystone. Does the Stour valley have a genius loci connected with whistles or pipes? We know from the work of Kenneth Graham that some claim to have encountered a mysterious piping having followed a river upstream where they saw a mysterious horned figure; there is much to be said elsewhere (another TAG?) about the localisation of the Great God Pan in the verdant river valleys of southern England.
For Andy, the blowing of the whistle invokes or maybe provokes something different, maybe a vision, a girl blowing a whistle , the same girl watching a funeral, burying the ashes of someone once alive – and other things too, 18th century lovers, tractors from just after the War. But watching overall, always the magpies: “She wants to be flowers but you make her magpies”.
This vision of a sedimented past, bound together by skeins of narrative and affect is a powerful one; this is the archaeological imagination. In the words of Michael Shanks “The archaeological imagination is rooted in a sensibility, a pervasive set of attitudes towards traces and remains, towards memory, time, the very fabric of history. The focus of this sensibility and constitutive imagination is the persistence of the past, the articulation of remains of the past with the present, re-collecting, as a memory practice, bringing what is left of the past before the present, making it live again.”
Lance and Andy may not use the language of Michael Shanks, but for them their pursuit is about more than simple acquisition. In the same way that archaeologists sometimes have a dismissive attitude towards detectorists and their motivation – Lance has a similarly reductive perspective on archaeology:
You see, archaeologists gather the facts, piece together the jigsaw, workout how we lived and find the buildings we lived in. But what we do is different. We pick up the scattered memories. We fill in the personality. We are story tellers and miners of stories. Detectorists are time travellers.
He reduces our profession to acquirers and mappers of data, whilst seeing detectorists as driven by the urge to create narratives. As archaeologists we may instinctively disagree with Lance’s take, whilst simultaneously admitting to ourselves that we’re not always as good about telling stories as we’d like to think we are. We see here the importance of how we approach the past; all parties seeing themselves as custodians of narrative.
But back to the burial. The coin found by Lance, before being stolen by the magpie, seems to have been a gold coin of Septimius Severus. These are rare finds in a British context- indeed, no gold aureus of Septimius Severus have been reported on the PAS database. The indications that it was just one coin in a larger hoard point to the exceptional importance of this isolated cremation burial. The Stour Valley was certainly an area with a high level of Roman activity as might be expected in an area in the hinterland of a major Roman town, Colchester. There is a station in Iter IX of the Antonine Itinerary named Ad Ansam, which is listed 15 miles from Combretovium (Baylham House, Suffolk) and 6 miles from Camulodunum (Colchester, Essex). This site remains unlocated, but one wonders whether the Henburystone discovery may point to the location of either the vicus itself or an unrecognised villa. I’d certainly recommend an assessment of the round tower in the church for possible re-use of Roman CBM, such as is found at other Stour Valley churches such as Little Cornard, Wormingford, Langham, Mount Bures, Alphamstone, and Kedington.
The presence of this burial, the rumours of the proximity of Sexred’s burial sites and the discovery of an aestel, with its possible episcopal links, point to the Church Farm area as being a site of some significance over the longue durée. It is sites like this that attract archaeologists and metal detectorists, drawn like bees to the honey of complex landscape palimpsests, impressive chronologies and exciting artefact assemblages. Inexorably, the gravitational pull of antiquity pulls digger and detectorist inwards, perhaps with the ultimate aspiration that this gravitational pull will become so strong, that as with a black hole, space and time are no longer interrelated realities, but merge indistinguishably and cease to have any independent meaning. Yet, despite these centripetal forces bringing archaeologist and detectorist to the same central foci, there is another centrifugal force that compels them to spend time in the edges, both literal edges: field edges, Portacabins and compounds; but also social edges: the pub, the parish hall and the gazebo.
It’s in their spatial arrangement that detectorists and archaeologist share parallel lives. The materiality and modality of their ecological niches are scarily similar – the gazebo, the parish hall and the pub – all habitats within which the DMDC and professional archaeologist are at home, providing them with shelter and offering arenas for sociality and just perhaps a protective carapace that can help shape and structure interactions with the wider general public. There are few archaeologists who have not spend some time sat behind folding tables in a parish hall overseeing handling collections or holding down a reluctant gazebo at a site open day when it wants to convert itself into a kite in the presence of a slightest breeze.
Both detectorists and diggers are familiar with the flight to the pub at the end of a long day on site – as age creeps up and family life intrudes, the pub becomes an important liminal space that buffers the demands of the profession and family life. Although with family responsibilities, the aspiration to reach the pub is often trumped by the pragmatics of caring duties.
Both groups are adept at creating temporary spaces of sociability – under canvas, under tarpaulins, under trees – where the dynamics of social interaction are maintained and continued. We see this at the trench edge, the field edge, the rally, the excavation and even the perhaps the conference. These spaces are crucial in maintaining conviviality, in the sense of how the term was defined by social theorist, Ivan Ilich. Conviviality in this sense might be defined as the way in which a shared common interest, perhaps trivial in itself, becomes a means by which a group might create a shared sense of collective identity. But this conviviality is not just about interactions and communities of people, but also about the assemblage of past and present that brings people, landscapes and objects into a creative and socialised relationship. The activities of archaeologists and the DMDC are as much about constituting a collective imagining of a past that persists into the present, as about the instrumental goal of artefact or data recovery – and to do this they share more in common than they think. Michael Givens who is one of the relatively few archaeologists who have explored this notion at its application to the past has emphasised that thinking about conviviality celebrates the shifting, emerging, fading, struggling connections and interdependencies that in their unfathomable complexity constitute life, and it is precisely those relationships and interdependencies that echo outwards into social and material networks, backwards into the past, and projecting into the future.
Perhaps the most important message of the work of the DMDC and its members though is a wider moral one- and one that regrettably is more pertinent and timely than I realised when I first thought about this paper. This message is that human connections with the past, and the practices and structures within which he aim to reconstitute them, whether through subjective narrative and imaginative engagement or through a more cool, distanced collecting and collating of data are invariably made better by humility, generosity and by cultivating human and humane relationships with each other and the past. I leave you with this clip from Detectorists to reflect upon this message. Be more kind.
Traditional ritual practices, happening outside or beyond more canonical or formal belief systems can take oral and material forms. Indeed, often such practices are characterised by a blending of the tangible and intangible, drawing on multisensory engagement with cultural and natural objects, place, songs, poems, dance and prayer. This session aims to explore how such traditions are expressed materially. Drawing on conceptual and theoretical developments within folklore, archaeology, ethnography and anthropology, such as the notion of structured deposition, bricolage, relational/assemblage approaches, feminist and queer perspectives, this session will explore the materiality and physicality of folklore, traditional and customary practices in Europe and beyond.
TAG@UCL-IoA will be held between Monday 16 – Wednesday 18 December 2019.
If you would like to offer a paper please contact the organisers
I grew up in a landscape of pillboxes. In Berkshire in the
1970s and 1980s concrete and brick machine gun emplacements and bunkers were
part of the scenery; lurking in hedges, standing in the middle of fields, at
the edge of canals, they were part of the backdrop of my childhood. Not
spectacular, not particularly impressive but most definitely there. Their
presence was typical of the wider place of World War II. I was aware that a lot
my relatives had served in it- indeed I assumed that all grandparents and other
elderly must have served. My great grandparents lost their house in the Blitz
and my grandmother watched German bombs falling on the factory where my
grandfather was working his shift (he survived), my great uncle Tony landed at Juno
with the Canadians. Pictures of men in uniform were in family photo albums and
on mantel pieces. It was there on
television on Saturday afternoons in the black and white war films I was weaned
on – The Cruel Sea and The Longest Day.
In more recent years I’ve spent a lot of time in western
Normandy – again, traces of the war are everywhere; bunkers and gun
emplacements near the coast. But there, more than anything are memorials. There
are war cemeteries – American, British and German – but also memorials in towns
and villages, plaques, signs, ad hoc memorials to particular incidents – a
crashed plane or a fierce firefight. There are also memorials to civilians
killed in artillery bombardments, inscriptions recording where resistance
fighters were killed and in many churchyards the distinctive limestone grave
stones of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission It is also there in the
multiplicity of D-Day museums – some modern and sophisticated like Memorial in
Caen, but others often cobbled together from collections of military refuse
left behind on the battlefield, more junkshop than museum. I also often saw
visiting veterans and can remember my wife and I talking to one of the men who
had piloted in the landing craft who we met at one of the landing beaches.
Ove the last couple of years we’ve been bludgeoned by commemoration
and memorialisation of World War I. It was moving, upsetting at times, but all
pervading. Whilst I can emotionally engage with WWI – I lost a lot of family on
the western front and like everyone my
generation I was force-fed war poetry – I’ve always found it more distant and
less immediate than World War II, which for me was always my ‘default’ war.
Like a lot of people I have also felt increasingly uncomfortable about the
saturation of memory about 1914-18, including the increased social peer pressure
to conform to certain norms and its insidious creeping adoption of it by the
establishment. Not that I don’t think that one of the roles of government is to
act as a kind of official mourner, but it felt increasingly politicised. Whilst
the horror and destruction was unequivocal, the wider strategic reasons for the
Great War were morally ambiguous to say the least.
I’ve thus found it interesting to find that I’ve felt quite
emotional about the D-Day commemorations – partly because I’ve experienced the
remains of the D-Day and wider WWII Landscapes in both England and Normandy.
There are also obvious political resonances which can’t be ducked – the rise of
the Far Right, the splintering of international cooperative organisations are
the most obvious ones. One of the important results of the War was also the
development of the Welfare State and the post-war social contract – again, both
increasingly under attack. The war (or its memory) has also been increasingly
used as a crude ideological bludgeon at the less sophisticated John Bullshittery
end of the Brexit debate (“two world wars and one world cup..” – “we survived
alone in the War we’ll do it again”). Sometimes it seems that the UKs greatest
natural resource is limitless supplies of nostalgia.
But despite this politicisation of the War (from both ends
of the political spectrum) I’m loathe to dismiss the importance of these kinds
of acts of national commemoration. There is obviously a thin line to tread
between commemoration of war and glorification of war- but I think that on the
whole people are conscious of this and do their best (although I must admit the
jitterbugging dancers at yesterday’s event made me a little queasy). It’s also clear
that these formal events are important for many (not all) of the veterans
themselves – they provide some kind of public acknowledgement of the magnitude
and consequences of the events.
As I hit my late 40s and given the quiet presence of the war
in the background when growing up, I think I’m also finding the current commemorations
so poignant as they have this autobiographical link. My grandparents and
relatives who served have now died as have most of those who were there. The
often ad hoc memorials and rough and ready museums are becoming slicker and the
quotidian aspects of the surviving war are becoming more explicitly identified
as heritage. When I was a teenager you could easily buy WWII army surplus. 1940s
books and other period odds and sods for buttons in junk shops; now they are
only available as ‘memorabilia’ from specialist outlets. The current international
anniversary is chiming with a personal sense of a familial tumbling over of the
generations and receding of parts of my childhood, in terms of people places and
My son is fascinated by animals and wildlife so over recent years we’ve visited a lot of zoos, and this week we visited Chester Zoo for the first time. It was an fascinating experience, Ned finally got to see an Aye-Aye (which has long been one of his favourite animals) and we got our money’s worth spending a total of six hours there and must have looked at more or less every animal and enclosure. I enjoyed exploring the natural history side of the zoo- I’ve been reading a lot about early naturalists like Alfred Russell Wallace recently, but what really started to catch my eye was the design of the animal enclosures and exhibits; I became increasingly intrigued about certain aspects of zoo design as we made our way round the site.
Obviously over the long-term, museum enclosures have evolved significantly – with early zoos keeping animals in little more than plain pens or cages with little in the way of landscaping, although the notion of providing some kind of scenic content was developing by the later 19thcentury. Perhaps, the best known example of a carefully planned, and broadly speaking, landscaped animal enclosure is the penguin house at London Zoo designed by Erns Lubetkin and the Tecton Group in 1934 with advice from the biologist Julian Huxley. It’s stark and geometric design places it clearly in the early modernist tradition- it was in essence, a “machine for penguining”.
Not surprisingly at a modern zoo, there was none of this kind of stark and spatially limited kind animal display. The enclosures were generally very extensive, with inside and outside areas and provided with planting, landscaping and enrichment activities for the animals themselves. This is likely to be partly driven by the drive to improve the aesthetic experience for the visitor, but I think it also reflects a wider move from a taxonomic/typological view of animals to a perspective that places them in their context, a shift to an ecological approach. This focus on ecosystem is also found in the grouping of animals geographically- Chester has one area for animals from Madagascar, and another from animals and birds from Indonesia and Micronesia (it’s new ‘Islands’ area).
So far, so good – this kind of display is fairly typical of modern zoos. What particularly caught my eye at Chester was the use of human architecture and objects in and around the enclosures. This seems to take two forms. First, a number of displays, such as the large tropical house and the “Land of the Jaguars” included pastiche ancient monuments (fake Mesoamerican sculpture; faux temple architecture etc). These are important in one sense as they presence the fact that even in rainforest and jungle, animals in the wild don’t live hermetically sealed existences apart and distinct from human society What is problematic though is that whilst picturesque, the use of monuments avoids placing modern indigenous societies in the landscapes alongside the animals, but instead mobilises images of past, perhaps extinct, societies, writing out the contemporary populations of these landscapes. I do find this erasure of the modern peoples problematic – even if unintentional – and does tie into some classic Orientalist discourses that see modern indigenous peoples as often inauthentic or diluted versions of ‘purer’ earlier populations.
However, the latest displays, in the “Island area” did presence modern populations more clearly. There were attempts to replicate the distinct native architectural of the islands of Papua, Bali, Sumatra, Sumba and Sulawesi. Unlike the other displays, here the ‘sets’ were dressed to indicate the presence of a contemporary native population – jerry cans, textiles, even a tuk-tuk were all visible – clearly attempting to integrate the animal and human populations – the implications are that the wildlife lives alongside people. The wider display was structured around an explicit narrative of conservationists going on an expedition to preserve and protect native wildlife.
Interestingly, according to the architect, Dan Pearlman, it embedded a narrative that a team of conservationists has left remains of their visit – such as equipment, notebooks etc – allowing visitors to ‘become part of the research team’ whilst on their visit. Again, there was a danger of this kind of narrative falling into a ‘white saviour’ trap – but underpinning this more importantly was an interesting next step in presenting wildlife. Having moved from a taxonomic model to an ecological model – the presencing of contemporary humans in zoo exhibits is arguably linked to a conservation model, that emphasises the threats to natural environment. It represents an existential transition in the display of animals which demonstrates the contingent and dynamic nature of ecosystems rather than assuming that they are timeless and static. Interestingly, I’ve noticed this approach used elsewhere- when I visited the Audobon Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans last year, one of their tanks, showing maritime life in the Gulf of Mexico, was structured around the 5m high legs of an off-shore drilling rig – this was constructed in 1990 with funding from a consortium of oil companies who invested in drilling in the nearby Gulf. The idea was to show that nature and oil extraction could live happily side by side- ironically since the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spillage in the gulf, the display is more likely to evoke reminders of the precise opposite.
NB: This was blog entry was largely conceived before I came across the interesting work by Cornelius Holtorf on the archaeology and heritage of zoos – there are resonances in our approaches, but also some differences.
Photo of the structure looking north from the south end
I’ve spent a lot of time visiting Holy Island – Lindisfarne over recent years, and every time I come I discover something new. Over the weekend I was up leading a conference fieldtrip, and after the tour was over I went down to the little beach below the parish church on the west side of the island, overlooked by St Cuthbert’s Island. I’d originally planned to pick up some seaglass (top tip – it’s a fantastic place for seaglass!). However, whilst gazing wistfully out to sea, I noticed that one of the ridges of what I assumed was a natural rocky outcrop on the shore looked very straight and relatively coherent. Once I’d got my eye in, it was distinctive enough that I thought it merited a closer exploration. I walked out and had a good look (see pictures) and I’m pretty convinced that this is not a natural feature and has clearly been deliberately constructed.
As you can see from the images – the stones are not part of a natural outcrop of rock but comprises a series of larger squarish blocks of stone with a crude infill of a smaller rubble fragments. The coherency of the structure is not as clear as it appeared from the shoreline, but the larger blocks appear to form a distinctive feature with the rubble more spread around by the action of the sea. This side of the island faces onto the mainland so is not exposed to the full force of the North Sea and I’ve rarely seen large waves here, which seems to have preserved this structure fairly well. Overall, based on a quick measurement from Google Earth, the structure seems to b about 70m long, running roughly parallel to the shore (N-S) from a point about 65m from St Cuthbert’s Island.
Stone structure circled in red- St Cuthbert’s Island to the south
So what is it? My current best guess is that it is the remains of a stone fish trap. Fish traps and weirs are not unknown from the coast of Northumberland – there is a nice set, entirely undated and uninvestigated in Budle Bay a few miles south of Lindisfarne on the other side of Ross Point, one was identified at Dunstanburgh below the Castle and it has been suggested that an early stone feature close to the later harbour at Beadnell may be a stone fish trap (Adrian G. Osler & Katrina Porteous(2010)‘Bednelfysch and Iseland Fish; Continuity in the pre-Industrial Fishery of North Northumberland 1300–1950,The Mariner’s Mirror,96:1,11-25; Oswald et al., ‘Dunstanburgh Castle, Northumberland, Archaeological, Architectural and Historical Investigations’, English Heritage Research Department Report, Series 26 (Portsmouth, 2006), 80.)
The classic shape for a fish trap is a simple V-shape, which would allow the tide flow to draw fish into the point of the V where they could be collected. The structure I have found does not conform to this – it is a simple straight stone bank. In many ways this is reminiscent of the stone feature known as the ‘Black Dyke’ that lies in Budle Bay, but other parallels can be found e.g. the stone fishtrap at Balleghan in Lough Swilley (Co. Donegal, Ireland) (Montgomery, Paul. (2015). Intertidal Fish Traps from Ireland: Some Recent Discoveries in Lough Swilly, Co. Donegal. Journal of Maritime Archaeology. 10. 117-139). The publication of the Balleeghan example suggests that this was originally a V-shaped trap with only one arm surviving which is a possibility in this case. The examples from Budle Bay show a mix of V-shaped traps and simple banks/barriers.
Range of fish traps and similar structures in Budle Bay
It is not easy to date this structure- some of the work on Irish fishtraps suggests that generally wooden fish traps might be earlier (prehistoric/early medieval) with stone fish traps coming in later (medieval/post-medieval), although it is unclear how firmly this applies to the Irish examples and how far the Irish chronology can be applied to English material. It is noticeable though, that as far as I can ascertain there are no documentary references to the Budle Bay or putative Holy Island fish traps – including in the account rolls from the medieval Holy Island Priory. There is a place name on Holy Island – “The Yares” (a local dialect term for fish trap) which belongs to an area of the sea lying between Castle Point and the sandbank known as Long Batt, but this seems to be too far south to relate to the structure I’ve found; there is also a place name “The Cages” just to the south of Beal on the mainland, more or less opposite Holy Island village, but again too far away to be related to the new structure.
Overall, it is clear that fish traps were used in this area – not surprising given the tidal range and large open sand flats – however, we know precious little about their functioning or their date. I’d hazard a guess that these Northumberland examples are broadly medieval – the lack of any documentary trail suggests they are probably not later. However, it is quite possible that they are of an earlier (early medieval?) date. The key job now is to (a) record this example properly (b) have a think about how such a stone structure might be dated.
Today I stumbled a nice example of the intersection of landscape and archaeology and folk tradition. We visited Nun Monkton, a village a few miles to the north-west of York. It’s a classic medieval village, with the houses arranged around the broad open green, with the church at one end. The green is dominated by a huge maypole that stands over 80’ high at the west end of the green. Maypoles are not an uncommon site in English villages, but this one is a whopper and believed to be the tallest one in England.
Maypoles tend to sit at the ‘twee-er’ end of the folkloric spectrum, and tend to evoke images of Edwardian school children dancing with ribbons attached to the top of the pole. However, this kind of distinctive ribbon dance was an introduction from the Continent in the later 19thcentury. More traditionally, maypoles were focus for seasonal festivities, but often of a more ribald and boozy type, although they were commonly associated with music and dance. They were often dressed or adorned with greenery and boughs, not surprising with a monument so clearly associated with the beginning of May.
As with many maypoles in England, the actual pole itself is not that old- the current maypole only dates to 2004, but its predecessor was erected in 1875, having been shortened in 1975 and the 1920s. Before, this a painting shows a pole in place in the 1840s and there are traditions that it stood there since at least the 1790s. The local village history has lots of information about the festivities around the 1875 erection which involved eight local vicars, a May queen, two river steamers from York and a brass band. As so often with this kind of landmark, it was a focus for hi-jinks with the front gate of the local pub being found on top of it after Mischief Night 1953.
However, it is the earlier history of the location that turns out to be particularly interesting. First, adjacent to the maypole is the sorry-looking remains of a medieval stone cross. It’s not in great condition and little survives but the base. The juxtaposition of the cross and the maypole is certainly significant. Yet, the real interest is a report on a tradition that took place in the village recorded in that stalwart record of folk traditions Notes and Queries (4thApril 1868, 361-2). It describes a tradition known locally as ‘Rising Peter’, which took place on June 29th each year (St Peter’s Day). According to N&Q, on the Saturday before the feast day the villages accompanied by fiddlers and players processed to where the maypole stood. A sycamore tree stood next to it, beneath was buried an rough wooden effigy or statue of St Peter in a wooden coffin (and apparently sometimes dressed in ridiculous clothes) – it was then processed to the nearby pub where it was shown publicly until the first Saturday after the feast where it was taken back to the tree and reburied until the following year. The whole process and the intervening feat period seem to have been associated with the feasting.
The report notes that the tradition had died out by the time the note had been written (1860s) but had only become moribund in late years. Suggesting that it had been a practice that had survived at least into the early 19th century. Significantly, this means that it must have been at least partly contemporary to the use of the same site for the maypole.
The curious coincidence of the maypole, the cross and the site of ‘burying Peter’ clearly marked a point of some ritual and customary significance to the local community. Importantly, its position on the village green meant that it was located on common land, and not private property. Often rites and ceremonies related to the affirmation of shared ownership and defining the boundaries of common land focused on processing around the edge of a territory – such as occurred at ‘beating of the bounds’ processions that often took place on rogation days. In this case, the green was a tract of common land over which villages had customary rights of access and use was situated at the heart of the settlement, but a similar kind of processionary tradition seems to have taken place. Although impossible to date the origin of this tradition, a medieval origin would not be unlikely and the dramatic reconstruction of the ‘death’ and resurrection of a holy statue has clearly parallels to aspects of pre-Reformation dramatic liturgical practice. Although the origin of the maypole may not be quite so early, the spatial link is clear and also there seem to be a temporal connection – the maypole seems to have been danced around not just at May but also on St Peter’s day, and the re-erection of the pole in the 1870s took place on and around this day.
A final interesting note, and something that I only noticed on leaving the parish church, is that the maypole and crossbase lie exactly on the same west-east alignment of the parish church. As you come out of the church door, they are directly in front of you, although a couple of hundred yards away. This can’t be coincidental, and implies some kind of spatial connection between the church and this secondary focus of more ad hoc votive activity.
Today we took a visit to the Rollright Stones in Warwickshire. With my archaeology head on I should probably have been more interested in the Neolithic and Bronze Age megalithic monumentality – or even the adjacent Anglo-Saxon cemetery. However, what caught my eye was the evidence for contemporary votive deposition practices. The use of prehistoric sites for modern New Age spiritual processes is not exactly an understudied phenomenon. . has long been associated with neo-Druidism and a range of other modern paganism practices; and rag trees can be found at many prehistoric monuments, such as Avebury. This is also true at the Rollright complex – consisting of an early Neolithic portal dolmen, a later Neolithic stone circle and a Bronze Age standing stone – a rag tree has grown up to the east of the stone circle, a wide range of small votive depositions had taken place on the stones themselves and a modern willow sculpture had also been co-opted as a kind of rag tree.
Two things in particular interested me. First, the ad hoc nature of the rag trees. The notion of tying a rag or strip of cloth to a tree deemed as having some spiritual significance is an old one, and one that has been revived by many followers of the constellation of New Age beliefs and practices that have grown up from the 1970s. What I found particularly intriguing was the range of items that had been used as rags. There were obviously a range of textile rags and ribbons- either torn from larger pieces of fabric or originally intended for wrapping presents or decorating clothes. More striking was the wide range of other items that had been tied to the branches of a tree and the willow sculpture. I noted a torn strip of J-Cloth, bits of bin bag and carrier bag, knotted receipts, a fragment of military uniform – most spectacularly there was even a pair of women’s knickers! This seems to suggest that whilst some people had come to the site with the deliberate intention of tying a rag to the tree, for many others it was an entirely an extemporised decision, using materials to hand – whatever could be scraped up out of a car footwell, a handbag or a coat pocket. The decision to tie a rag often seems to have been an improvised action rather than a formally planned one with advanced intentions.I suspect that there are other issues relating to intentionality at play here – whilst those who plan ahead may have a more coherent sense of the symbolism and meaning (personal and cosmological) behind the act of tying a rag to the tree, those who act on the spur of the moment may have done so for other, perhaps less theorised reasons. There may well have been an element of mimesis and copying an intriguing practice rather than anything more structured.
A second thing I noticed was the distinction between the range of a objects placed on the stone circle and the items placed on the portal dolmen. On both there was wide range of organic and deposits, including flowers, sprigs of mistletoe and berries. However, the only inorganic objects, primarily coins and the occasional other item, such as a small knife, were only found around the dolmen – the key difference here is that whilst there is complete unfettered access to the stone circle, the dolmen is surrounded by an iron fence, which whilst allowing items to be tossed onto the stone, prevent their unauthorised removal (although a padlocked gate in the fence would allow authorised access to the deposits). I wonder whether coins and other objects were sometimes placed on the stones but were quickly removed- I can imagine small change in particular being something that inquisitive children (and impecunious adults) might easily remove.
So in summary – there are some interesting tensions at play in the depositional practices at the Rollrights; the balance between planned and ad hoc deposition, and also the distinction between the retrievability and non-removal of items. The evidence of burning in the centre of the circle and an attempt to either hide it or reinstate the damaged area also raises issues about authorised and un-authorised ritual activity on the site (as a Scheduled Monument the burning of fires at the site is forbidden). It would be interested to carry out a more formal longitudinal study of the practices at the site- I’d like to have a better sense of the distinction between more formalised ritualised practices, such as those carried out by organised pagan groups and more informal and personal individual acts of deposition.
For some more reading about contemporary votive depositional practices have a look at
Foley, R. 2010. Performing health in place: The holy well as a therapeutic assemblageHealth & Place 17(2):470-9