Monday, 27 May 2019

Cuween Chambered Tomb

This is a tomb near Kirkwall on the north coast of Mainland Orkney, built by Neolithic farmers around 3000BC.

Dozens of tombs were built around Orkney and each was probably linked to a small community who farmed the immediate area. There was a small Neolithic settlement at the foot of Cuween Hill. Unlike the chambered tombs of southern Britain such as Belas Knap and Wayland's Smithy, Orkney’s tombs were often in use for a thousand or more years and may contain several hundred bodies.

Cuween comprises five dark, damp chambers leading out from a central chamber. This is reached by a long, low passage entered at a crawl. Some of the chambers are level with the central chamber; others are raised; others have a flagstone divider. The arrangement seems entirely organic with no overall grand design. This is the case with many of the tombs, which each have a unique layout. Perhaps the builders worked entirely through intuition or with the help of spirit guides who, while in a trance state, ‘drew’ the tomb into this world.

Cuween was excavated a century ago and was found to contain the bones of eight people and 24 dog skulls. The small number of human bones suggests the tomb was periodically cleared of bones, or perhaps emptied at the end of its use-life. The presence of dogs is unique, although other tombs contained animal bones such as red deer, otters or sea eagles, and may indicate a community totem or spirit guide. Dogs are commonly seen as guardians of the underworld or as guides for the dead. The dogs were collie-sized and resembled a grey wolf.

The view from the cairn across the farmland and the sea

Cuween probably derives from ‘kewing’, meaning cattle pasture. Due to the short growing season at this northern latitude, cattle have always formed the basis of Orkney’s agriculture. In more recent folklore it was known as the Fairy Knowe.

The tomb was cut out of the bedrock and roofed with flagstones then covered with earth. From a distance it blends into the hillside in this respect resembles the southern tombs. Its purpose was to form a bond with the land, and its influence spread over the farmland below it.

Most of the Orkney tombs face out to sea. The sea was a provider and nurturer as much as the land, and it makes sense for the guardian influence of the ancestors to extend across the water. It may also reflect the journey of the souls of the deceased.

Like many of the tombs, Cuween had been carefully sealed up. This generally seems to have happened around 2500BC, when Orkney’s Neolithic culture dramatically ended. The tombs gradually became the haunt of fairies and ghosts, left undisturbed for fear of violent repercussions from angry ghosts.

Monday, 20 May 2019

Belas Knap long barrow

Belas Knap is a long barrow near Winchcombe in Gloucestershire. It was built in the early Neolithic period and is of similar style to dozens of other barrows found across the Cotswolds and the Severn valley.

The barrow is situated on a wide, rolling hillside, with a wide view in three directions and a steep, wooded scarp dropping sharply on the eastern side. This was probably wooded in the Neolithic period and so would have obscured the only prominent view of the barrow. From all other directions, the barrow quickly blends into the ground. Like Wayland's Smithy long barrow, Belas Knap was not intended to be a visible statement, but conversely the barrow itself has a sweeping view of the landscape. They seem to be about blending with the earth, returning the ancestors and their skills to the earth, as well as legitimising their continuing presence on this tract of land. They reflect heritage and belonging.

            Belas Knap from the east.

                View south from the barrow.

The barrow is aligned to the north. This is unusual: most long barrows face roughly east. Four burial chambers were set into its length and the main forecourt with its stone fa├žade was actually a false entrance. It’s believed the chambers were built separately as individual burial mounds, then later incorporated into a huge barrow. Many barrows including Wayland’s Smithy were originally smaller structures which were extended into huge mounds a century or two later. Even earlier than the chambers was a circular arrangement of stones lying near the centre of the current mound.

The barrow was crudely excavated in the 19th century and restored to its current condition in the 1920s. It was originally 60m long and 25m wide but its edges have now been trimmed due to erosion, agriculture and excavation. Thirty eight bodies were found, dating from 3700BC-3600BC.

Behind the slabs of the false entrance were the bones of one man and five children, along with flints and horse and pig bones. The western side chamber, lined with sarsens and drystone walling, contained fourteen bodies including a woman with fatal head injuries. The southern chamber, now almost entirely destroyed, contained one body. The south-eastern chamber, which is much lower and has to be entered on one’s belly, contained four bodies. The north-eastern chamber which is lined with sarsens contained twelve bodies.

The chambers were repeatedly visited and opened and sealed, probably used for rites such as marriage, blessing the land and blessing births as well as for burial. Then, like many long barrows, the chambers were eventually sealed for good. This often seems to coincide with the arrival of bronze in Britain around 2500BC.

                  The north-east chamber.

Barrows were often respected for millennia after their closure, although their stones crumbled and collapsed and trees and shrubs obscured them. Belas Knap means ‘beautiful hilltop’. As this seems to refer to the barrow itself rather than the hillside, it is perhaps a name of uneasy respect given by later, more superstitious people to a haunted and feared place. Many ancient sites were avoided as haunts of fairies or dwarfs, later still the work of the devil. This may derive from people unwittingly uncovering the bones of long-dead people, or perhaps it is a long-remembered folk memory of the fearful rites once conducted here.

Monday, 13 May 2019

Lydney Roman Temple

This Roman temple is on a precipitous hill in Lydney in Gloucestershire, overlooking the western bank of the River Severn. Rivers were Britain’s arteries in both a material and spiritual sense, and this site, overlooking the waters which dominate the view today and would have been even more spectacular in historic times when the river was a lot closer, was of strategic importance until the Medieval period.

The view from the Iron Age embankment towards the Roman site, with the River Severn in the distance.

The Roman buildings were built on the remains of an Iron Age hill fort, the latter dating to around 100BC. Both Celts and Romans extensively mined the hill for iron ore until the elaborate temple complex was built around 360AD. Its Roman name was Nemetobala, meaning ‘hill sanctuary’.

The temple was dedicated to Nodens, a Celtic God associated with healing, hunting, the river and fishing. Nodens has no other mention in the ancient world. This is probably unsurprising as in Celtic culture, as well as many other cultures worldwide, the true names of revered beings were rarely known and almost never spoken. Disguised names abounded.

Nodens has been linked to the Irish Nuada and the Welsh Lludd, and was probably associated with the healing God Asclepius by the Romans who respected and assimilated many foreign deities into their culture. Asclepius likely means ‘dog-man’, and several plaques and figurines of dogs have been found in the temple. Dogs were often kept in temples and would lick wounds to aid healing. This would have worked: enzymes in saliva are strongly antibacterial.

                           The Roman baths.

Near the temple was a bath house, probably for ritual use, and a long building comprising a series of rooms probably used as dormitories, dreams being powerful and prophetic and interpreted onsite by diviners. A mansio or guest house illustrates the importance of this site which attracted wealthy pilgrims from far and wide.

The temple was in use long after the collapse of the Roman Empire, after which the Iron Age ramparts were repaired and extended. Sometime during the 5th or 6th century, it was burned down and the roof and walls collapsed inwards, preserving its elaborate votive offerings and mosaic floors for posterity.

The remains of the ancient buildings remained visible for centuries and like many Roman sites the hill, now known as Dwarf Hill, was avoided as the haunt of fairies or dwarfs.

Monday, 6 May 2019

Old Bewick Hillfort

The escarpment which flanks the hillfort, looking across the vale to the Cheviot Hills.

Old Bewick Hillfort is on a steep hill near the Cheviot Hills in Northumberland. It comprises two stone-walled structures of circular banks and ditches, side by side, built against the steep hillside to the south. Little remains of them today but they can easily be seen as circles of green and brown. Bracken is very fussy about growing on the remnants of historic sites, and these patterns are often the first clue to their presence. Several hut circles can be seen.

It is described as a fort but was a relatively small settlement, perhaps for one or two families, although the effort needed to create the walls and ditches perhaps suggests another purpose. It may have had religious significance.

The fort dates to the Iron Age but the site was of significance long before this time. Several Bronze Age cairns were built nearby, and excavation has revealed pottery urns, a necklace of jet and shale, and another necklace of amber. These were prestigious items and suggests the graves of wealthy or important people. The site was venerated long after the Bronze Age.

Cup-and-ring marked rock, prominent in the moorland.

The site is also significant for its cup-and-ring marked rocks. Northumberland is famous for these stones, which are found on many hillsides with substantial views, and those at Old Bewick were the first to be recognised as of ancient origin, rather than the work of an idle shepherd. They are thought to originate in the late Neolithic or early Bronze Age.

They resemble art found in Neolithic passage graves such as Newgrange in Ireland and Pierrowall in Orkney, and engraved slabs have also been found in Bronze Age burials in Northumberland.

Each carving is unique and uses the contours of the rock to enhance its art. They are certainly of great symbolic importance, but their meaning remains entirely unclear.