Wednesday, 25 July 2012


I decided to study A level archaeology...
First course: Religion and Ritual.

It is odd for me to think about religion
As opposed to practicing it.

I'm not sure how useful some of the concepts I learn to recite by heart (it's the only way it will stick) are.

For instance.

The whole Shaman thing- meaning any idiosyncratic burial that contains something shiny, or wingy (as in wings!) mirrors or...boar's teeth

Is based upon a notion of shamanism as defined by Mircea Eliade.

I'm with Hutton here, Hutton basically puts it/ words to the effect of:
Shamanism is a Siberian religion- not a type of religion

I agree absolutely!

Would British shamanism look like Siberian shamanism?

It may
It may not.

Does it now?
It has to be 'authentic'!

Step out of the Neolithic and Bronze Age
..or even the Chalcolitic.

If the defining characteristic is a belief in otherworlds
And mediation between those world.


If a shaman is a person who communicates with spirits...

All that table-rapping
Of the late 19th, and early 20th century
.. was shamanism?

Well yes!

How useful is that as a definition?

There was so much more to the seances of the 1850s and onwards.

It expressed the tensions within that society of that time.
Like Shamanism does...

But the paraphernalia:
The words-of-power
The nature of the deathless-dead

Is very different in down-town Surbition circa 1900
The Ouija board and the hope that the dead will prove that death is not the end.

Is nothing like a 1990s Tibetan Lama scattering blessed rice through out a house to pacify 'spirits'

The recitation of the names of the dead (a modern day Necronomicon)
By a Lama
Or at a Remembrance day 'ritual'.

People are not clear about what they believe.
Feelings require rituals that feel right.

If you ask me...
Religion divides into two styles:
Transcendence or immanence.

Either the divine is distant (transcendent) and 'enlightenment' is your goal


The Sacred is immanent, within everything.

A shamanic religion is immanent
Not about a better world.
Not Utopian.

Seances could be distinctly Utopian.
Read John Grey's:
The Immortalization Commission: 
Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death

Plus I don't think I'll get any points for quoting Mesopotamian stuff.
AQA mention Gilgamesh in terms of myth..

But this is archaeology.

Mesopotamians are disqualified
Had writing.
History you see...

Robertson Smith and

Mesopotamian stuff can get you into trouble.

On the other hand
I never thought I'd be in a position where being able to quote from Frazer...
Golden Bough Frazer!
Could mean prizes.

Yep, good old 'Sympathetic magic' is there in the AQA syllabus.

So here is my last TMA....
I include it today because I haven't written anything here for ages.

I have gone beyond the 10 points because I have the luxury of more than the exam limit of one-minute per point!

How important were the uses of colour, texture and decoration at ritual sites in prehistoric Britain?
(10 marks)

To modern eyes the colours and textures of British prehistoric tombs and henges seem entirely natural. Prehistoric monuments are comprised of stone and turf, it comes as a great surprise to reconsider the prehistoric landscape as may have appeared to the people who made and used those monuments.

1/ Colour.

White [Bone]
The most common shapes associated with monuments are linear:
standing stone
and long barrow,

And circular:
round barrow,
and causewayed enclosures.

Originally these shapes would have stood stark against the landscape.

In the chalk land surrounding Stonehenge the Stonehenge cursus and the younger barrows that cluster around it would have been white. The chalk dug from the ditches that circle or delineate the monuments was piled up on top of the barrows and along the length of the cursus.

The barrows and cursus (Stonehenge’s henge too) would have been highly visible from a distance. It has been suggested by Mike Pearson Parker that the Stonehenge cursus represented a border between zones. The ‘unearthly white’ lines would have helped people to navigate towards, or away from, these zones and monuments.

Visibility was an essential part of the construction.

Translucent [Moon]
Quartz is sometimes used in the construction of British prehistoric monuments.

Quartz, like flint, has unusual properties which may help to explain its presence in and around prehistoric sites.

The most obvious thing about quartz is that it is shiny which may make it seem otherworldly, reminiscent of light fragmented by water, the aura of migraine, or hallucinogenic entopic patterns.

Quartz may appear to be moon-like, a fragment of the moon itself, or in sympathy with it, capable of transmitting the moons power into the ground that contains the quartz.

Grey [Sky or death]
Most stone at British sites is grey, even the Bluestones at Stonehenge are more grey than blue. Blue stone is  Preseli Dolerite- a dark grey stone flecked with ‘stars’.

Blue (and British skies are often more grey than blue...) may represent the sky by appearance alone

A more chilling and possibly more likely interpretation is that grey stone may represents the stillness and grey pallor of the dead.

When walking around Bronze Age and Late Neolithic monuments it is easy to get the impression that the people 'died but never lived', remains of habitation are rare, whilst the long barrows and henges are our main link to the past. These places were connected with death  and the living.

Death was not a secret, the changes in appearance wrought by death would have been common knowledge.

Sarcen stone from Fyfield is grey.
Red stone or granite are not easy to find in Wessex, nevertheless, the grey colour of the stone may have accumulated meaning by use rather than have been especially selected for.

Red [Flesh]
The colour red has been present in British prehistoric tombs in two forms, red ochre was used to colour the body of a young man buried during the Palaeolithic period, in Goats Hole cave, Wales. The colour perhaps representing the blood of new birth and acting as a prayer for rebirth, or the ochre may have been applied  simply because red looks better and hides the colour of death.

At Carn Ban, on the Isle of Arran, red sandstone was contrasted with white granite. At Clachaig (Arran) an inhumation was found, encased in red sandstone slabs. Perhaps the juxtaposition of defleshed bones and inhumation is reflected in the colours of the stones used to construct the tomb; the sandstone symbolising red blood or flesh and the granite representing the colour and hardness of the bones of the human body.

Colours- Direction:
A finally possibility not yet considered is that the colours used in prehistoric monuments are symbolic of compass directions, as used in the Medicine Wheel, and in Tibetan religious paintings. There is sufficient evidence to conclude that compass direction (found without a compass) was considered to be significant enough to be incorporated into henges and burials.

Stonehenge and Woodhenge have north east alignments, and many burials in round barrows were positioned head to the north. Without a compass -and a concept of the earth as having poles- direction is related absolutely to the sky, the sun and moon.

A single quartz standing stone, amongst a ring of eighteen non-quartz stones at Boscawen-Un was positioned at the South West, possibly in alignment with the winter solstice sun-set, or midsummer full moon set.

Long Meg (an outlier stone close to a henge in Cumbria) is made of red sandstone, whilst the rest of the stones in the circle are grey. Long Meg is also at the south west of the centre of the circle. Curiously a local legend says that if Long Meg is broken, she will drip blood.

Quartz and red-sandstone were both used to mark the same position.

Interpretation isn't going to be easy without more information.

2/ Unusual properties: 

[1 Fire]
Flint is found in chalk land and the flint often looks like bone. This in itself makes chalk 'magical'.

The chalk may have been regarded as a regenerative agent, or at least capable of growing a 'bone-stone that contains fire'.

Striking flints together causes sparks and fire.

[ 2 Lightning]
At Newgrange passage grave in Ireland, quartz and granite rock were used to produce a dark and light textured surface around the monument, whilst at another passage grave, Bryn Celli Ddu, in Anglesey, quartz was found both in the construction of the passage tomb, and below it in an older henge monument where it had been scattered along with cremated bone, at the foot of some of the standing stones.

Perhaps more important than a possible ‘lunar’ or colour correspondence; when pieces of quartz are struck together the stones flare with triboluminescence, a property that would make the stone seem very powerful.

[ 3 Sun].
The first metals humans learnt about were golden: copper and gold. Gold can be found as metal, shining like the golden rays of the rising or setting sun made solid and fallen to earth. Or as the Aztecs described it: excrement of the sun. Copper has to be smelted from copper-bearing stone, but it too is lustrous with a warm, golden colour. When golden objects are found in burials they are primarily ascribed either decorative or utilitarian functions. The man known as The Amesbury Archer who died perhaps before knowledge of mixing tin with copper to make bronze had been discovered (2300 BC), was buried with golden ornaments- possibly hair beads- and a copper knife. A latter burial- Manton barrow 1700 BC- contained the body of a woman buried with a very finely made gold and amber disc (possibly an ear ornament for a stretched piercing).

This in itself does not mean that gold and copper were more symbolic than utilitarian. But the golden colour was echoed in bronze and in amber artifacts decorated with cruciform patterns interpreted as representing the sun.

In modern times gold has come to represent incorruptibility, as it does not tarnish, and with a knowledge of chemistry comes an idea that gold and copper are very different metals. In the past the difference between 'golden' metals may not have been so clear.

[4 Static electricity]
During the Bronze Age amber was imported from the Baltic region of Europe. Amber necklaces found (not exclusively) in Wessex and Orkney are associated with elite social status. Amber was a prized material, as mentioned before, it is often a sun-shine golden color, and therefore it is logical to link amber with the sun.

Likewise jet beads (fossilized stone) imported from Whitby, are found in some Bronze Age burials. A burial (dated 1500 BC) excavated on the Island of Inchmarnock revealed a woman buried with a beautiful jet necklace.

Both jet and amber take on a static charge when rubbed with fur. Thales (Greek mathematician circa 600 BC recorded this phenomenon) and the Romans knew of this property and considered jet and amber 'protective' or at least magical.

Gold, amber, jet and bronze were prestige materials; probably more beautiful than useful, possession of any one or more of these materials indicated status.

 A recognition of their unusual (counter-intuitive) properties added to the symbolic value of the material

[ 5 Patterns.]

Earthworks created during British prehistory [Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age] can be broadly divided into two main shapes: the circle (Bell barrows, henges, causewayed enclosures) and the line (cursus, long barrow and avenue).

The circle of the henge acts as a ‘station’
A place people gathered at to move on from, or a destination- a place people went towards and then acted within.

The line functions to order movement.
The Avenues at Stonehenge and Avebury directed movement from one monument or geological feature towards another: At Stonehenge the avenue directs people from the river towards Stonehenge, whilst at Avebury, the avenue connects the main circle at Avebury to The Sanctuary.

A cursus, though it is a line progressing through a landscape doesn’t seem to lead anywhere. Indicating that it may represent a border or barrier, a way to divide the land into zones.

Petroglyphs likewise focus on the circle (cup-marks) and lines. Stones marked in this way are found in the north of Britain on Moor land. The significance of the cup and ring marks are difficult to interpret as cup and ring marks are not easily recognised icons.

It has been suggested that as they are in areas where stone was quarried and shaped into axes, the petroglyphs indicated this in some ways. Cup and ring marks are also found on ‘Long Meg’ an outlier stone close to a ring of stones in Cumbria.

Petroglyphs are also found in association with passage graves, especially in The Boyne Valley. Here, spirals, zig-zag lines and lozenge shapes are found both outside and inside the tomb. The origin of these carvings may be a desire to record entopic images created by the brain when a person takes hallucinogenic substances, or undergoes a period of fasting, or sensory deprivation to experience altered states of mind.

In this context, the petroglyphs could map the journey the spirit takes after death.

At least two of the Boyne Valley passage graves have winter solstice alignments, it is tempting to try to read the stones as a map combining information about the movement of sun and moon with ideas of spirit journeys.

Each monument required many months and years to create, much thought and planning went into each site. The significance of materials- the juxtaposition of wood and stone for instance (The Sanctuary and Woodhenge), and the locations of sites in relation to natural features such as springs or rivers is very unlikely to have been random or haphazard.

Unfortunately all we know for certain is that the effort required to drag massive stones from the ground was considerable. At both Avebury and Stonehenge attention was paid to how the stones were arranged beyond simply using the stones to delineate, or define space.

At Avebury, long and narrow stones are paired with much wider stones possibly to represent male and female forms. These stones were not carved or dressed, whilst at Stonehenge the stones were shaped and arranged, and different types of stone were used.

Knowing this it is impossible to dismiss the buildings as purely ergonomically designed structures; the stones must have been meaningful and important to the people who dug the pits, dragged, shaped and positioned the Sarson, granite and wooden posts required to create megalithic structures.

Ultimately, it is reasonable to believe that the materials, textures and colours used in British prehistoric monuments convey important information about the beliefs of the people living at that time. The use of prestige goods during the Bronze Age such as amber and gold (wealth) indicates increasing social stratification.

But it is important to understand that the symbolic attributes attached to materials such as gold and amber could have been quite different to the symbolic attributes given to them today.