Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Iron Age, where next?

When trying to work out where next to go, I find myself frustrated by the lack of information. Or am I just frustrated by the mundanity of it?

Perhaps the Iron Age feels too recent, not far enough away to grab the imagination of archaeologists. Or the success of new farming techniques led to too many people, settlements just turned into villages and towns, and they are still here, under our feet.

Nevertheless, the only things people associate with the Iron Age are hill forts and 'enclosures' listed as cattle pens- function unknown.

Druids and Celts.

There are no spectacular Iron Age structures left, equivalents of Silbury or Stonehenge, in our landscape, just 'hill forts' hills with ditches ringing the summit such as Hereford Beacon, where it is said, king Caratacus was defeated by the Romans.

There are  deserted villages such as Chysauster.

There may be a fogous and post holes marking out rectangular grain stores and there are reconstructions of  Iron Age settlements to be found such as Castell Henllys.

The Iron Age is understandable, rural, European African- our Iron Age could be a scene from an old BBC documentary showing life in an African village:  round huts and people wearing home-spun, farmers and weavers, a black-smith and story-teller.

Just change the weather.

Neolithic and Bronze Age burial mounds promised rich grave goods and hints of elaborate burial rites. Archaeologists inspired by Lord Carnarvon's spectacular finds hoped to find something like an Egyptian royal burial in rural England.

Sutton Hoo is as good as it ever gets.

When no amazing artifacts or anything much was found in the burial mounds the focus was turned back towards meanings: the symbolism of alignments and beakers, of standing stones and their connection to the stars...

Iron Age artifacts are never so obviously symbolic as the Bronze Age finds of burials with cattle bones, chalk axes and beakers, alignments to sun and moon, solar spirals and sacred offerings.

What happened, why did it end?

No sure answers to that!
There is only when...

The grand, ceremonial phase of the Bronze Age seemed to end between 1500 BC and 1200 BC. After about 1500 BC there is no evidence that ceremonial sites were built anywhere in the British isles and by 1200 BC virtually all the ceremonial sites had been abandoned.

Some work was done to Stonehenge around 1350 BC to extend the North East avenue, but that was abandoned unfinished.

Burials gave way to cremation, and the burial of urns (Urnfield Culture) often a cluster of about thirty or so, with one marked out by goods or other special treatment.

The years between 1100 to 600 BC seems to be a period devoid of any monuments, burials or ceremonial structures.

People put their energies into creating farm land, building stone walls rather than barrows and henges..and no one died (!)

But in Ireland some traditions continued: Tara, it is said, was used until Christianity rendered it's ceremonies and rituals meaningless...

Religion, the old religion, died in Britain sometime between 1400 BC and 600 BC..?

Do I assume continuity in belief, or is it more like the 'Roman' burials that copied the barrows, close to The Sanctuary? A continuity in the aura, or atmosphere of the place, rather than a continuity in an oral tradition explaining the origins of the sites?

The Iron Age went on for quite a long time...It went on for much longer in Ireland.

But just one location isn't enough to prove anything much, and there is some evidence to suggest that Iron Age people often took stones from henges to make forges, smashing cremation urns and believing Neolithic axes to be thunder-bolts.

All I can say is, if that's the case then the thread of continuity is very thin indeed.

Though the French sites show a continuity in food offerings, pigs for the living, cattle for the dead.

Close by, we have Wychbury Hill. Down the motorway there is the Romano-British  Lydney Park in Glocestershire. A temple dedicated to the one handed god...

The Cuckoo Stone close to Woodhenge had been 'adopted' by the 'Romano-British' and three cremation urns were placed in its shadow.

But none of these places inspire me.

So where is Persephone in this chapter of the story?

Often it is the bogs and rivers that accept sacrifice; the watery, slippery, transient..ever changing.

Or was sacrifice punishment?

The bogs are neither solid or liquid, they are liminal, betwixt and between the worlds. There are signs of punishment, a woman found in the bog, her hair shaved, or crudely cut. Again I ask myself, as with the boy in the ditch at Woodhenge, did physical disability or oddness mark you out for sacrifice, as already half-way out of this world and belonging to the other world of the un-made becoming?

Strabo describes disemboweling as a way to for tell the observing the convulsing of the limbs. Some bog burials had been disemboweled..

Or were these well fed, well looked after people hostages from a rival tribe, sacrificed for the effect it had, to shock and to awe?

Male and female both, no one sex singled out as an offering.

If the deity is female, then perhaps she is more like Grendel's mother...

Of all the film versions of Beowulf, the Icelandic is my favorite.