Category Archives: Archaeology

Brigantia , goddess of the Brigantes



Brigantia. Stone relief.

Brigantia or Briganti was a tutelary Romano-Celtic, Gallo-Roman or Romano-British goddess of the Brigantes in northern Britain. She was therefore the eponymous and protective goddess of the Brigantes who were the largest British tribe in Yorkshire and northern Britain in late antiquity. Brigantia is cognate with burgundi of Proto-Germanic origin meaning ‘high’, thus the ethonym Brigantes may translate as ‘the high, noble ones’ or ‘highlanders’. A British goddess at the time of the Roman invasion and occupation she became identified with Caelestis. Known as the ‘high one’. She personified the hegemony of the Brigantes, was a goddess of springs, streams, river and water cults, and corresponds to the Irish goddess Brigit in Ireland.


Hadrian’s Wall, Northumberland

Probably identical with the Gaulish goddess Briginda known only from inscriptions. She was equated with Minerva by the Romans. In the interpretatio Romana she was also equated with Victoria. Two inscriptions from Castleford and Greetland (near Halifax) refer to Victoria around 208 AD. The River Brent, a tributary of the Thames at Brentford is named after Brigantia. At Corbridge on Hadrian’s Wall where she is termed celestial, there is an altar which also mentions Caelestis Brigantia. At Birrens a stone relief on the Antonine Wall in Scotland she is shown with attributes of Minerva. Seven inscriptions to Brigantia include those from Birrens, Dumfries and Galloway. At Irthington in Yorkshire she is referred to as ‘divine nymph Brigantia’.


Inscribed to Caelestis Brigantia at Corbridge, Northumberland.

The bas-relief of the Roman era at Birrens she is crowned as a tutelary goddess with the head of a gorgon on her breast, holding a spear and globe of victory. The Welsh personal and place name Braint seems to originate with Brigantia. The name Brigantia is from the root meaning ‘high’, ‘lofty’ or ‘elevated’. An epithet meaning simply ‘the high goddess’.



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Horse Cults and Horse Sacrifice


Uffington White Horse

The horse, which is regarded as magical and widespread in myth, has been closely associated with humans for millennia having been used domestically and in warfare for cavalry and chariots. Ownership of a horse was a sign of wealth and prestige, and was the mount of kings, nobles and heroes, having been domesticated after 1750 BC with little evidence prior to 2000 BC (Cooper, 1992). Extensive proof of the importance of the horse is evidenced by its continuing “…to be a symbol of great religious significance throughout the pagan period.” (Gelling, 1969). Other interpretations consider the so-called English “…aversion to eating horse-flesh may be one indication of a long-forgotten horse-totem.” (Brown, 1950). Moreover it is believed that the horse “…played a pivotal role as a sacrificial, totemic and symbolic animal in an array of prehistoric and historic contexts.” (Moore-Colyer, 1994).

In symbolic terms the horse represents power and dynamism, wisdom and fleetness of foot and, as such has a duality in solar and lunar terms (Cooper, 1992). The white horse is a solar symbol and, as an attribute of the god Poseidon, is represented by the white horses of the sea. The white horse is not only regarded as sacred from Scandinavia (where Cloud Horses carry abroad the Valkyries), through Italy, Greece and Asia Minor, but in mythology drew the chariots of both Mithras and Apollo. Many solar deities of the Celts are depicted as horses and the may well be an association between the Uffington horse and Celtic horse-gods. Folklore contains horse symbolisms that retained a potency long after pagan practices had declined with one disputed view being that “…at least two of the famous hill figures surviving in England up to recent times were associated with the pagan gods of the Anglo-Saxons.” (Gelling, 1969).

In Scandinavian and Teutonic myth horses are sacred to Odin and Woden. For the Celtic peoples a popular theme in folklore is of horses as water-sprites which includes the Water Horse and the Kelpie. Etymologically  Epomeduos was a Gaulish personal name derived from horse and mead, and similarly aisuamedha  meant horse-strength or home-drunk. In other words the coupling of a king with the divine mare is the reconstruction of the myth or totemic identity. Horse cults have complex links between the European Celts and the peoples of south-eastern Europe and the Eurasian steppe.

The seafaring Semitic Phoenicians practised a horse-cult (Brown, 1950), and their trade routes and sea-voyages reached as far as Britain. Ancient Egypt possessed little horse symbolism even though “…the horse-cult in Britain is to be traced back to Crete or Egypt, then we should be able to trace a horse-ceremony in folklore.” (Corkhill, 1950). Thee Rig Vedas claim Seven Mares pull the chariot of Surya their god of the sun, or ‘Shining Sun Horse’. For the Hindu Varuna, was the ‘God of the Cosmic Waters’ or ‘Cosmic Horse Born of the Waters’. For the Hindu Kallku , as a white horse, was the incarnation of Vishnu. In the mythology of China there is the ‘Cosmic Cloud Horse’.


Lord Surya with his chariot of seven horses.

For the Greeks the ancient Orphics celebrated the goddess Hippa as the ‘Soul of the World’ (Corkhill, 1950). Depicted with a horse’s head (mask?) she was revered as a Great Mother equated with Cybele where she was worshipped as the daughter of Poseidon and Ceres in Arcadia, Phrygia and Lydia. Athena Hippeia is ‘Athena of the Horses’ in which form she was said to be the daughter of Poseidon and Polyphe. In Greek mythology Hippe was also known as Melanippe and Euippe which translates as ‘mare horse’. Her daughter Melanippe (Arne) by Aeolos was turned by Artemis into the constellation Equus the horse more usually identified with Pegasus.

Horse worship was practised by a number of Indo-European and Turkic populations. The water-god Poseidon was originally conceived as a horse. In one popular tradition the goddess Demeter was portrayed with her head and mane of a horse in the Phigalian Cave. A primordial relic of a non-specialised spirit of the corn was represented in the form of a horse. The Poloi, meaning ‘colts’ in Greek, the priestesses of Demeter were so-called in ancient Laconia. In Europe horses are a common form of the corn-spirit. To the Roman god called Consus horses and mules were sacred. In Gallic mythology the goddess Epona was a horse-goddess, as well as mythic remnants of the horse-god Rudiobus. Amongst the religions of Hinduism and Buddhism there is a deity with a horse’s head called Hayagriva. Again, the Indian Gond peoples worhip a horse god who is represented as a stone and named Koda Pen.

An example of a probable ancient horse cult or worship can be seen at White Horse Hill, Uffington, which has been dated to around 1400 BCE. This ‘divine horse’ is therefore too early to be associated with the later worship of the horse and fertility goddess Epona. The White Horse is of Bronze Age provenance and probably a totemic echo. It is interesting to note that the Welsh goddess Rhiannon rode upon a white horse and, moreover, the early Irish kings up to the 11th century were ritually and symbolically wedded to a white mare. The continental Celts in Europe granted sovereignty to the Great Mare Goddess as Epona whose sinister counterpart was Melanippe as the Night Mare or Black Mare, which also is the Rain God and the Devil in European folklore. For the Muslims the horse was an animal dent by god with the Hittites of Asia Minor believing the horse was sacred to their Sun-God.

The ancient Greeks borrowed the ‘horse-cults’ from the Cretans indicating the practices fertility rituals are all “…survivals of a fertility ceremony of great age, and in each case a horse’s head was supposed to confer fertility on young women.” (Corkhill, 1950). There were fertility cult survivals involving horses in Britain that included the Hooden Horse ceremony of Kent that included skulls of horses. Other “…surrogates for a horse-headed goddess of fertility…” (Corkhill, 1950) include the ‘white mares’ Lir Bhan and Lavare Baine in Ireland, similarly the Lavare Vane in the Isle of Man, and Feri Lwyd from Wales.

With regard to horse-sacrifice the animal has been for millennia a sacrificial animal (Cooper, 1992) with a number of Indo-European religious cults showing evidence of horse sacrifice. For Indo-Europeans the mystic union of the horse and their king was the justification for the horse-sacrifice (Dearborn, 1997), and thus derived from an early ritual. The evidence of horse sacrifice is derived from the discovery of the remains in graves, and during Age of the Vikings the horse was often associated with ship burials.


Sacrificial horse pit.  Duke Jing (547-490 BC), China.

It was during the archaeological period of the Iron Age that sacrificed horses were frequently buried or ritually deposited. For example there is “…archaeological evidence for horse sacrifice on a large scale in Sweden in the Migration period.” (Gelling, 1969) and their crowning of the last pagan king meant the killing and butchery of a horse. The blood of the sacrifice was sprinkled on the local Sacred Tree. During the Iron Age in Britain animal remains were interred in storage pits implying “…such pits should be viewed not simply in terms of storage, but as vital elements in complex belief systems.” (Cunliffe, 1992), especially for propitiation of chthonic forces (Green, 1992). In other words the preservation of grain was a religious, as well as an economic act, and was an integral element within Celtic belief (Cunliffe, 1992).

In Rome there was the ancient October Horse festival and ceremony referred to as Equus (Frazer, 1922) and where the horse sacrifice was dedicated to Mars. The festival was marked by a two-horse chariot race with the winner sacrificed to Mars and its head taken to the local sacred hearth of the Regia. In this context one can consider the importance of the horse to the Celts during Roman times and contributed to the divine horse cults in ancient Gaul (Gelling, 1969). According to Geraldus Cambrensis an Irish kingship ritual involved the mock-coupling of the king with a mare which was then killed, dismembered and eaten by the king.

In ancient India the Vedic horse sacrifice is renowned, with its sexual connotations, as a spring and fertility ritual, and highly revered for royal sacrifices (Cooper, 1992). As with the Indo-Europeans the funerary ritual sacrifice meant the horse, or its head, was interred with the dead person. In Vedic terms it was thus at springtime that a warrior was elevated or a queen was ritually coupled with a stallion. The event involved the sacrifice of a horse. This suggests an essential role of the horse as a link between this world and the world of the dead. That horses joined their owners in the Otherworld was a widespread Indo-European belief (Moore-Colyer, 1994).

The deposits of horse remains are of very early origin and Kurgan burials from around 4000 BC reflect the ritual killing of horses for funerary purposes, similarly with Scythian horse burials origination in the 3rd millennium BC (Mallory, 1981; Piggott, 1962). Horse remains have been found in Anglo-Saxon cemeteries associated with a dead man (Gelling, 1969), as well as horse sacrifices found in association with German bogs (Moore-Colyer, 1994). In Iceland horse burials in both female and male graves often have the head of the horse only. This resembles the Iron Age and Celtic belief that the head was the repository of the soul and that animals possessed a propitiatory role in their belief system. There was a tradition widespread in Ireland of burying horse heads under household floors, and that threshold burials were for underworld propitiation, as well as a form of apotropaic magical practice (Merrifield. 1987).

Horse sacrifice and burial of the whole or just bones and teeth in human inhumations was either a “…symbolic token presence or representative of some more complex ritual.” (Philpott, 1991). Horse sacrifice and burial was also common among various Asiatic peoples, especially the Mongols. Horse cults, including those reflected in sacrifice and burial, are to connected propitiatory and fertility rituals. Such rituals are not just aimed at chthonic forces but also as components of rites of passage, and as such the horse “…performed a role of major significance in prehistoric myth, both as a link between the earthly and otherworld existence and as a suitable victim for propitiatory and apotropaic measures.” (Gelling, 1969).

References and sources consulted

Brown, T.  (1950.  Tertullian and Horse-Cults in Britain.  Folklore.  LXI (1). March.

Cooper, J. C.  (1992).  Dictionary of Symbolic and Mythological Animals.  Thorson’s, London.

Corkhill, W. H.  (1950).  Horse Cults in Britain.  Folklore.  LXI (3). Sept.

Cunliffe, B.  (1992).  Pits, Preconceptions and Propitiation in the British Iron Age.  Oxford Journal of Archaeology.  11 (1).

Dearborn, F. et al. (eds). (1997).  Encyclopaedia of Indo-European Culture.

Frazer, J. G.  (1922).  The Golden Bough.  New York.

Gelling, P. & Davidson, H. E.  (1969).  The Chariot of the Sun.  J. M. Dent, London.

Grant, A.  (1991).  Economic or Symbolic.  In: Garwood, P. et al (eds).  Sacred and profane: Archaeology, Ritual and Religion.  Oxford Committee for Archaeology.

Green, M.  (1992).  Animals in Celtic Life and Myth.  London.

Mallory, J.  (1981).  The Ritual Treatment of the Horse in early Kurgan Tradition.  J. of Indo-European Studies.  9 (205-11).

Merrifield, R.  (1987).  The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic.  Batsford, UK.

Moore-Colyer, R. J.  (1994).  On the Ritual Burial of Horses in Britain.  Folklife.  32 (1993-94).

Philpott, R.  (1991).  Burial Practice in Roman Britain,  BAR British Series.  219 (198-205).

Piggott, S.  (1962). Heads and Hoofs.  Antiquity.  XXXVI.


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Dating the Past

Dating techniques are carried out in two basic ways for a site or an artefact ­relative dating techniques, and absolute dating techniques. Dating the past implies chronological sequencing of archaeological entities and past events. Dating is different from time. Time has various cultural interpretations and is therefore a social construct. Time is a construct to establish a chronological framework some of which is absolute and some relative. This means the imposition of time to establish a chronology or linear sequence of events that is therefore continuous. Dating is also a categorisation. Chronology is 1 of 3 main axes of analysis that has 3 conceptual axes of space, time, and form.

Modern techniques include fission track dating. radiocarbon methods and accelerated mass spectrometry (AMS), potassium argon, obsidian-hydration dating, thermoluminescence, and archaeomagnetic techniques. All techniques can be used in conjunction with cross-dating. The cross-dating method determines stratigraphic or assemblage similarities between sites within a region. This extends known dates from one or more sites where chronometric techniques might not work, and therefore develops cohesive chronologies to explore regional social and cultural evolution over time.

Relative chronology states the simple stratographic principle that older materials are found lower than newer and this is the law of superposition. The method is used to establish the relative sequence of depositional events. It is used to determine temporal relationships between occupation events in behavioural sites. With relative methods the increase in fieldwork, coupled with rigorous techniques, led to data increase and then the rapid increase of the empirical database. Relative dates are rarely exact and show non-conformity with fixed periods of time or particular years. It only provides a sequence of objects from a site earlier than a later site. Relative dates are based on stratigraphy, association, and typology. Stratigraphy states that a succession of layers will run bottom to top, latest at the top, and earliest at the bottom. Association states that objects found in layers can be placed chronologically. Thus objects of known date those of unknown date. Items by association are placed thus in a sealed context. Therefore a flint knife of uncertain age in a grave with known late Neolithic pottery is of contemporary use if not in manufacture.

Typology was developed by Montelius (Sweden). Typology sees physical characteristics in evolutionary sequence from lower to higher, and simpler to more complex. With typology therefore there is a relative sequence that is therefore random. Typology is not much use in the British Iron Age (though a preferred method), as seen with the hierarchical classification of Danebury pottery as types to forms to varieties. Typology depends on the assumption that one object evolved out of another. Usually, not universally, there is a sequencefrom the technologically simple to the complex.Thus, by placing objects in developmental order, a relative sequence of ages is established.

Seriation is another relative dating technique. Its principle is that artefactschangein decorative style and form over time. Thus a sequence runs from: (1) early limited use to; (2) acceptance; (3) increased popularity; (4) decline; followed by (5) disuse. However, this trajectory does not provide actual dates. Seriation thereforeattempts to reconstruct typological or stylistic changes in material culture through time. it examines typological or stylistic shifts from different strata and changes placed in chronological order. For example ceramic cross-dating is used to place other sites into regional temporal ordering. Relative dating therefore provides a working sequence but, however. a range of absolute dating techniques is also available.

Absolute dating allows the assignment of specific calendar dates to deposits within sites and also within regions. The simplest technique uses artefacts of known age and is only applicable to certain areas. Early attempts were cross-dating, which was tied in with diffusionism,the mechanism of cultural change, spread, and technological export, and therefore date transference. This created a network of cross-transferred dates. For example the coastal spread of megalithic tombs with the earliest in Brittany.

The most commonly used form of absolute dating is radiocarbon dating, discovered by Willard F. Libby in 1949. Radiocarbon dating thus developed during the 1950’s and 1960’s. Radiocarbon dating determines actual age of carbonised wood and bone for accurate determination of date events. Radiocarbon dating is based on the isotopic or nuclear decay method of inferring age for organic materials. Carbon 14 or C14 provides a common chronometric time scale worldwide and has applicability for the Late Pleistocene and Holocene. The method measures the decay of the radioactive isotope C14. C’4 is absorbed by all living things through CO2. When a plant or animal dies it ceases to take part in the absorption of this isotope. C14 then disintegrates via radioactive decay by half every 5730 years. Measurement of the remaining C14 determines when the organism died.

All organic material is suitable for radiocarbon dating. There is a wide spectrum of carbon containing samples, such as charcoal, wood, marine and freshwater shell, bone, antler, marl is a soil consisting of clay and lime. Tufa is a porous rock formed round volcanic springs.Caliche is a natural form of calcium carbonate encrusting dry, stony soil.Carbon 14 decays to Carbon 12 at a fixed rate. Its half-life equals half the amount left or changed back after 5730 years (originally calculated at 5568 years), therefore half is left after 5730 years. Radiocarbon dating fixes time of death of the sample it does not date context. The range for carbon dating is from 300 to 40-50,000 years and samples of 1 to 10 grams use conventional decay or beta counting. The method is not wholly accurate because of counting errors and contamination from background radiation. For this reason all dates are quoted with a standard deviation(SD) of plus or minus so many years. For accuracy C’4 dates have to be calibrated to calendar dates. This is done by the C14 determination of tree-ringsof known age with the production of a calibration curvefrom which dates can be corrected. It is standard practice for uncorrected C14 dates to be called BP (before present) and corrected C14 dates as cal BCor cal AD.

A new C14 technique is accelerator mass spectrometry(AMS) which directly detects C14 relative to C’3 and C12. This method allows small samples of the material to be used. AMS is direct or ion countingof CH with a routine sample of 1­2 mg of carbon. It measures age ranges from 40 to 50 thousand years. Future estimations are assumed to be 80 to 90 thousand years. C14 is the secondary effect of cosmic ray bombardment in the upper atmosphere where C14 is oxidised to C1402 and distributed throughout the atmosphere. A small percentage becomes part of the terrestrial biosphere by means of photosynthesis. Living organisms maintain their C14 content in equilibrium with atmospheric C14. AMSdetermines age by measuring residual C14 content. For most periods conventional C14 ages deviate from the real, e.g., calendar, historical and sidereal (measured by the stars) time. Calibrated C14 age considers C14 activity in living organisms not content and is therefore calibrated with dendrochronology. AMS is used in Oxford using small samples of about 500 milligrams and can measure C’4 levels of around 0.0001%. For example a 50 mg human bone sample has its 25% collagen protein isolated. Carbonate is then removed to leave gelatine which is burnt to drive off Coe to derive graphite. Carbon dioxide and liquid nitrogen then convert the CO2 to 2mg of graphite which is placed in the target head for testing. The particle accelerator, using high voltage and electromagnets, takes one hour to measure the sample.

Potassium Argon dating dates rocks and depends on the breakdown of the potassium isotope Ku. It is a viable method for sites earlier than 100,000 years, and therefore can develop outline chronology for early human evolution and origins. Based on the decay of potassium to argon the isotope has a half-life of 1.3 billion (1,330,000,000) years. It is spectrometer measured using volcanic rocks and ble to measure the greater part of geological time. It is used only on rocks rich in Kand has been successful on certain sites e.g., Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania to date the remains of Zinjanthropus or ‘Nutcracker Man’, some 1,750,000 years ago.

Thermoluminesence or OSLis optically stimulated thermoluminescencethat works through firing on quartz fragments and dates when the mineral was last exposed to sunlight. For example, pottery is crushed, fired rapidly, and then the luminescence emitted measured. The result relates to the original firing and the clay crystal lattice. Thermoluminescenceis used to date inorganic materials such as pottery or burntflint. Materials with crystalline structure contain small amounts of radioactive elements which decay at a known rate. These isotopes emit radiation which displaces electrons that then become trapped in the crystal lattice of the material. Trapped electrons are released only when the material is heated to over 500°C. The emission of light is called thermoluminescence. For example, in pottery or the clay lining of a kiln, the process of electron displacement begins when it is fired. Measurement of the released emission when the sample is reheated enables its age to be established. It is a candidate method for samples too old for Carbon 14 dating. Thus at Pontnewydd Cave in north Wales early human remains associated with stone tools were dated at 200,000 years by this technique.


Thermoluminescence of fluorite after heating on a hot plate.

Archaeomagnetic dating is little used. It is based on the observation that the magnetic field of earth is continuously changing in direction and intensity. Baked clay structures which contain iron oxide include ovens and kilns. These retain the magnetisation present at the time of firing. it is therefore possible to measure the deviation of the ancient magnetic field from that of today and thus date the object.

The simple technique of dendrochronologyhas great precision. The method allows for wood to be dated by using tree-ringsas measurement of time. The annual growth of tree-rings varies in thickness from year to year depending on rainfall. Similar thickness variations in all trees in a given region. The pattern of broad and thin rings in one tree closely match the pattern in another. Therefore, with sections of wood of overlapping age, it is possible to correlate rings and build up a scale of dates stretching back into prehistory. It is only usable with large surviving wood pieces, generally from waterlogged environments. For example — The Sweet Track, which is a Neolithic timber walkway in the Somerset Levels dated to the winter of 3807 to 3806 BC.

Dendrochronology is the scientific study of chronological and environmental information contained in annual growth layers of trees. The method uses accurately dated tree-ring sequences, and therefore places past events in time and reconstructs environmental conditions. It is useful in bog and marsh conditions plus dry, arid regions. Created in the early 20th century tree-rings were found to correlate with winter precipitation. The fundamental principle of dendrochronology is cross-dating, or the matching of identical patterns of variation in ring morphology among trees of a particular area.

Archaeological tree-ring collection provides 3 kinds of information ­chronological, behavioural, and environmental. Tree-ring dates, chronologically, have two notable attributes and these are (1) accuracy to calendar year, and (2) no associated statistical error, with the final ring meaning the death of the tree. Behavioural information views tree-rings as artefacts and analyses historical treatment of trees as a natural resource and raw material. Hence analysis of tree-cutting, tree-transport, tool-use, and timber re-use. Environmental information analyses aspects of environmental variability and changes shown by ring widths and species assemblages. Thus dendroclimatology reconstructs past climates and analyses climate sensitive archaeological tree-ring chronologies. Dendrochronology depends on a regional master sequence for certain species of tree, and does not work for non-seasonal growth. On its own it is accurate to the year. The method is calibrated against C14 dates for the Bristlewood pines (known date) which produces a calibration curve and can be tested against Egyptian king lists.

Essay contribution to University of Oxford Undergraduate Certificate in Archaeology (2004).

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Avebury and its Environs as a ‘Ritual Landscape’.



Avebury stone circles

1.  Introduction

Avebury and its environs form an extensive Neolithic ritual complex in Wiltshire a few miles west of Marlborough. Avebury is one of Britain’s finest examples of a henge monument, as well as one of the largest ceremonial structures in Europe it is the most important British Stone Age grouping. See Figure 1 and Figure 2.

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Figure 1.  Geographical location of Wiltshire.  Source: course hand-out from Powell (1996).

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Figure 2.  Location of Avebury within the county of Wiltshire.  Source: Course hand-out from Powell (1996).

The complex includes Avebury Monument (circa 2900-2600 BC), West Kennet long barrow and England’s largest prehistoric tomb (circa 3600 BC), Windmill Hill Causewayed camp (circa 3600 BC), Silbury Hill which is Europe’s tallest artificial hill, and the remnants of two avenues of standing stones, see Figure 3.

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Figure 3.  The Avebury World Heritage Site.  Source: Course hand-out from Powell (1996).

Avebury can be seen as central to the confluence of two rivers that align with sunrise and moonrise on summer quarter days. This implies ritual significance of the henge location and it is worth noting that there is a line of sight from the south stone circle to the top of Silbury Hill. The Avebury environs complex reflect an awareness of order explained by a Neolithic farming community, especially one that stresses a relationship between earth and sky as well as the cyclical progression of seasons and the animals, crops and the ritual that involves (Dames, 1977). Around Avebury the chalkland of Neolithic farmers reflects their genius within a sacred landscape that is fed by a sacred river fed by sacred springs (Meaden, 1999).

In addition the Avebury area has several Bronze Age round barrows which shows the continued significance during the post-Neolithic. Moreover, recent surveys show more earth and wooden  structural remains at West Kennet Farm from the end of the Neolithic (circa 2300-2200 BC). Therefore, in order to define the ritual landscape of the Avebury environs there will be a description of the Avebury Henge Monument, Kennet Avenue, Silbury Hill, Windmill Hill, the Sactuary, West Kennet Long Barrow, see Figure 4, followed by a discussion of the ritual significance of this complex of structures within the landscape, with a final summary.

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Figure 4.  Avebury and its environs showing the associated complex.  Source: Course hand-out from Dames (1977).

2.  Avebury and its Environs

2.a  Avebury Henge

The Avebury monument is 6 miles west of Marlborough, 8 miles north-east of Devizes, and 9 miles south-south-west of Swindon. The monument consists of an irregular circular bank 427m wide with an inner ditch of 351m diameter (some 6m high), with an outer stone circle 338m wide containing a south circle of 103m, and north circle of 98m in diameter. Within the bank  the village of Avebury, see Figure 5, dates from the Anglo-Saxon period which developed out of the henge’s own continuum of seasonal use and ritual history.


Figure 6. Aerial photograph of Avebury.  Source: public domain.

The monument is surrounded by a deep ditch and outer bank (set with standing sarsen stones along its inner edge) enclosing some 28-29 acres. The central plateau has two similar stone circles. A series of paired sarsens, the Kennet Avenue, leads to the smaller circle known as the sanctuary. A second avenue leading west, the Beckhampton Avenue (recorded during the 18th century) has recently been rediscovered.

Within Avebury there are 98 stones in the outer ring and 27 and 29 in each inner ring, see Figure 6, with an obelisk and minimum 13 stones associated with the south circle. There are 3 or 4 cove stones with another 12 associated with the north circle and Ring Stone. This totals at least 184 sarsens (some of which are up to 50 tons weight). These sarsens are hard grey sandstone ‘rafts’ above the chalk of the Marlborough Downs. It is difficult to determine

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Figure 6.  Plan of Avebury showing the stone arrangement of the henge.  Source: Dames (1977).

the chronology of megalithic Avebury because few radiocarbon dates exist. It is known that within one or two centuries of the 3rd millennium’s beginning (not later than 2800 BC) that the development began (Meaden, 1999), and that during the next 500 years the gigantic component circles, banks, and causeways and avenues resulted in the “…splendid constellation of ordered standing stones…with Europe’s highest artificial mound and the world’s biggest ditch-and-banked stone circle.” (Meaden, 1999). All of these monuments are around the same date and constitute part of a single architectural complex (Bray, 1970).

2 b.  Kennet Avenue

Four gaps in the bank (three marked by huge stones) show the original entrances with the south gap leading to the stones of Kennet Avenue (Burt, 1979). Kennet Avenue comprises two parallel rows of sarsens 50 feet wide, 80 feet apart, and one and a half miles long when ending at the Sanctuary (1 mile to the south east) on Overton Hill, seeFfigure 7.

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Figure 7. Avebury showing the circles and the stones of Kennet Avenue.  Source: Dames (1977).

The avenue has some 200 megaliths with Beckhampton Avenue possibly similar, see Figure 8, which combined with the 60 of the sanctuary and 12 for Faulkner’s Circle, has a total in excess of 600. Burial sites have been found

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Figure 8. Map showing the relationship of Kennet and Beckhampton Avenues to Avebury.  Source: Dames (1977).

beside four of the Kennet Avenue stones, which arise over a ridge and descend towards Kennet Valley. These burial sites were associated with Beaker  and Rinyo-Clacton wares, whilst near the southern end of the avenue an occupation site evidenced Beaker and Neolithic wares.

2 c.   Silbury Hill

Silbury Hill is the largest man-made prehistoric mound in Europe whose present shape is a truncated cone with a base area of 2.1 hectares (Darvill, 2002), a height of 40m and a flat top of 30m diameter, see Figure 9.

silbury hill

Figure 9.  Aerial view of Silbury hill.  Source: Public domain.

Constructed around the same time as Avebury (circa 2600 BC), Silbury Hill is a huge conical chalk mound surrounded by a deep quarry ditch, constructed in an effort that surpasses even Avebury (Bahn, 2001). It has an internal structure and recent excavations (R. Atkinson) found no traces of burial within or beneath. Yet 3 phases were determined and revealed a stepped pyramid shape. Phase 1 started 2800 to 2700 BC and completed 2000 BC was possibly a spiral or flat circular area some 20m across and enclosed by a wattle fence (Darvill, 2002), the centre a turf covered clay mound. Silbury 11 enlarged Silbury 1 with quarried chalk to 73m diameter, and then Silbury 111 (circa 2200 BC) extended the structure to 160m diameter to form a stepped cone. Its purpose remains unclear but it must be associated ritually with the surrounding complex.

2 d.  Windmill Hill

One of the largest causewayed enclosures in Britain, see Figure 10, it has an area of 8 hectares, outer ditch of 360m diameter, with 3 roughly concentric rings of interrupted ditches (Darvill, 2002), and “…provides clues to the


Figure 10.  Windmill Hill.  Source: public domain.

activities of the ancestors of the megalith-loving peoples.” (Meaden, 1999). Earliest occupation was around 3800 BC with the enclosure built circa 3500 BC with a number of infant burials and human remains scattered throughout the ditch floors (Darvill, 2002). Type site of the Windmill Hill Culture representing the earliest Neolithic ware (characterised by carinated round-based bowls) of south-west England (Bahn, 2001). The purpose of the enclosure has been much debated and is regarded by some as a seasonal gathering place for surrounding farming communities, a gathering for rituals, festivals, and trade (Darvill, 2002; Whittle, 1999). In ritual terms the mound has been described as the image of a pregnant Mother Goddess in harvest (Dames, 1976). This concept envisages the ritual role of the mound as a giant umbilicus or enormous single mammary gland.

2 e. The Sanctuary

The structure was possibly a timber circle (an open enclosure) started around 3000 to 2700 BC and completed circa 2000 BC during the Beaker period and the transition to the Bronze Age, see Figure 11.Image (411)

Excavation plan of the Sanctuary after Maud Cunnington.  Source: Meaden (1999).

The sanctuary had a complicated history with several stages of reconstruction (Bray, 1970). However, it does appear to be intimately connected to the Avebuty complex and probably played a significant role, even as a temple, in rituals and festivals.

2 d.  West Kennet Long Barrow

One of 27 in the Avebury landscape it is a simple structure with insertion of a megalithic tomb chamber at the southern end, see Figure 12. A megalithic construction(circa 3600 BC) it is 100 yards long with a concave facade

Image (412)

Figure 12.  Plan of the standing stones of the West Kennet long barrow (after Piggott).  Source: Meaden (1999).

at its east end of sarsen stones (Bahn, 2001). These were intended to block an earlier entrance to the two sides and terminal burial chambers sealed at end of use of the barrow. The barrow (excavated by Stuart Piggott)


Figure 13.  The West Kennet long barrow.

contained remains of at least 46 individuals with disarticulations suggesting ritual practices concerned with ancestors. This chambered tomb indicates that people live in or near Avebury long before the stone circles were raised.

3.  The Avebury Ritual Landscape

The components of the Avebury complex are situated on the rolling chalk downs within sight of each other and indicate a purposive clustering (Dames, 1977), suggesting “…the monuments were created as a coherent ensemble to stage a religious drama…” (Dames, 1977). In Neolithic religious ceremonies were the recognition of opposites such as Goddess and God, Moon and Sun, Earth Mother and Sky father (Meaden, 1999). Moreover, the stones at Avebury (as elsewhere during the Neolithic) were gender classified and so “…were assigned solar-calendrical duties, the objective being fertility.” (Meaden, 1999). The megalith sarsens were seen as Type A (male) and taller than wide, with Type B (female) broader than long. In addition Neolithic religion ascribed right-handedness to the divine female and left-handedness to the divine masculine. An example can be seen in the Avebury sarsen 106 which purports  to be in possession of a prominent vulva mark, see Figure 14.


Figure 14.  Photograph of stone 106 of the Avebury inner circle showing the prominent vulva mark in relation to the once existing male obelisk.  Source: Meaden (1999).

The sexual metaphor in shamanic and fertility rituals is often shown with rock art motifs that symbolise the vulva, with the entry of the shaman into spiritual realm regarded as a form of ritualised intercourse (Pearson, 2002). The Avebury complex has been described as the scene of a cyclical drama that took a year to perform with “…each edifice offering in turn a special setting for the celebration of a particular event in the farming year, matched to the corresponding event in the human life cycle.” (Dames, 1977). In the Avebury area around 2600 BC the Neolithic inhabitants of the locale have left pottery evidence for ceremonies of fertility and ritual use of human bones (Burl, 1979).

Avebury henge itself is a ritual enclosure as evidenced by its circular form of a bank outside the ditch with substantial buildings within. Thus the circularity and repetition of Neolithic ritual practice combined with the “…architecture of the entire cycle was designed to be read as a sequence of visual images of the Neolithic deity.” (Dames, 1977). The deposition of white chalk balls in the ditches of Avebury suggests egg, and therefore fertility (Burl, 1981).

The implication is that a mythological cycle exists for the Avebury environs coupled inextricably to the worship of the Mother Goddess (implying a matriarchal form of social organisation) linked to creation and fertility. Meaden (1999) argues that the stone circles of the Avebury complex express “…the notion of genital shrines of fertility and creation.” The Avebury environs, as a ritual pathway, do seem to reflect a cyclical drama with each monument an important landscape stage in a ritualised drama that starts at one monument and proceeds to another until completed. Each stage, each monument, symbolising an even in the life of the community and their Mother Goddess.

4.  Summary

Some 4500 t0 4000 years ago the monuments of the environs of Avebury were at the height of their glory, the whole complex having been constructed by Neolithic tribes living about 20 miles apart on the chalk downs of Wiltshire (Meaden, 1999). Building ceased at the end of the late Neolithic and the old chambered mounds were sealed. With the onset of the Beaker period there began the practice – some 1000 years – of burial beneath round barrows. During the Middle Bronze Age there occurred the abandonment of Avebury as a ritual centre and the beliefs that created it and maintained it were eclipsed by other outlooks, other interpretations.

Eventually another ritual practice came to Avebury around 700 to 800 years ago when “…a community which had been living quietly inside and outside Avebury Henge for some 5 centuries came under the influence of condemnatory preachings of the Church and centuries of wilful destruction followed.” (Meaden, 1999). Even though the ritual practices are no longer performed the evidence remains that the environs of Avebury were a ritual landscape and in some respects still are, perhaps the landscape is more enduring than those who try to destroy are after all.

References and Sources Consulted

Bahn, P.  (2001).  The Penguin Archaeology Guide.  Penguin, Harmondsworth.

Bray, W. & Trump, D.  (1970).  A Dictionary of Archaeology.  Penguin, Harmondsworth.

Burl, A.  (1979).  Rings of Stone.  Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London.

Dames, M.  (1976).  The Silbury Treasure.  Thames & Hudson, London.

Dames, M.  (1977).  The Avebury Cycle.  Thames & Hudson, London.

Darvill, T.  (2002).  The Concise Dictionary of Archaeology, OUP, Oxford.

Gimbutas, M.  (1989).  The Language of the Goddess.  Thames & Hudson, London.

Grinsell, L. V.  (1958).  The Archaeology of Wessex.  Methuen, London.

Meaden, T.  (1999).  Secrets in Stone.  London.

Pearson, J. L.  (2002).  Shamanism and the Ancient Mind.  Altamira Press, USA.

Powell, A. B. et al.  (1996).  Archaeology in the Avebury Area.  Thames Water, Wessex.

Whittle, A. et al.  (1999).  The Harmony of Symbols.  Oxbow, Oxford.

Essay contribution to University of Oxford Undergraduate Certificate in Archaeology (2003).





Filed under Archaeology

The Landscape Context of Danebury Hillfort



Danebury chalkland setting

Danebury in its chalkland setting


Hampshire sited on a hill some 465 feet above sea level. Seldom does the downland around Danebury hillfort rise above 330 feet. Occupying the termination of an east to west ridge it is surrounded by countryside of light soils and undulating slopes. ows Danebury’s present-day location is a chalkland setting and Figure 1 is an aerial photograph of Danebury showing ramparts, main entrance and overlapping earthworks protecting the gate. The region surrounding Danebury comprises a chalk , The hillfort of Danebury dominates the rolling downland landscape of western downland landscape situated between the rivers Test and Bourne. The area stretches from the higher downs situated to thenorth of Andover southwards to the periphery of the Hampshire Basin (Cunliffe, 1993a). On the southern boundary Tertiary clays and difficult sandy terrain proved an inhospitable prospect to prehistoric communities. It is intended to describe the Danebury region, outline the development of Danebury hillfort, and discuss the region in its main phases — the Neolithic, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age. In this way Danebury can be placed in the context of its surrounding landscape over a period of several millennia.

Danebury aerial

Aerial view of Danebury Hill Fort

The Danebury Hillfort and its Region 

Danebury is the most studied hillfort in Britain with some one fifth of its interior excavated. Danebury shows evidence of three distinct circuitous earthworks, an inner, a middle, and an outer. The rampart system encloses an area of some 12 acres. The site had originally three entrances, one wider than the other two, the whole complex approached by a linear earthwork. This earthwork, which linked with the enclosure ditch, was of double ditched form. It is known that that some early hillforts developed out of pre-existing ditched enclosures which were alsoattached to linear boundary earthworks (Cunliffe, 1993b). It is known that Danebury became the centre of tribal territory covering some 30 to 40 square miles (Cunliffe, 1978) and , in common with other hillforts, developed as a focal point along a complex of linear ditches constructed previously (Cunliffe, 1993b). Figure 2shows the hillforts of southern Britain and their relation to Danebury.

The development of the landscape surrounding Danebury can be understood by referring to a number of key locations or sites. Firstly: Woolbury is a neighbouring hillfort situated east of the river Itchen and related to an extensive linear boundary system that stretched several kilometres; secondly, the Bury Hill site shows two separate and distinct developmental phases; thirdly Sudden Farm with its now ploughed out double ditched enclosure (Cunliffe, 1993a). The later phase of Bury Hill — a double rampart and ditch — indicated possible competition with Danebury. The development of Sudden Farm is Late Iron Age and follows the abandonment of Danebury.

Neighbouring hillforts and other major Iron Age sites of the Danebury region proves that Danebury is only one site in this complex landscape. As will become apparent the area was densely populated and extensively exploited by prehistoric communities from the first millennium BC. Additional sites are Meon Hill (an Iron Age farm) two and a half miles south of Danebury, plus other nearby hillforts Quarley Hill, Figsbury, and Balksbury. The early Wessex hillforts, including Danebury, were of a standardised pattern comprising contoured works of some 5 to 6 hectares in extent. In addition there were two entrances on opposite sides. Most of the evidence for hillforts in Wessex is derived from Danebury. Within Danebury are functioning areas that were continuously replaced and repaired. This organised internal structure, coupled with evidence of intensive occupation of Danebury, established a general pattern to which Maiden Castle and South Cadbury also conformed. At Danebury, as with Maiden Castle, one entrance was extended forward for defensive purposes with passages projecting beyond the actual wooden entrance gate.

The Danebury Region during the Neolithic Period

During the Neolithic period of around the 4th to the 3′ millennium BC there is evidence of 15 or 16 long barrows, two flint mining areas, as well as a group of 3 pits containing Peterborough pottery. These long barrows form three groups around hills that were later fortified — Sidbury, Figsbury, and Danebury (Palmer, 1984). In addition two more long barrows are found at Sudden Farm and Martins Farm. It is thought the grouped long barrows may represent the existence of separate communities which “… may focus on certain ‘locations within larger territories…” (Palmer, 1984). At Danebury this may be probable. The long barroWs at Fussell’s Lodge gave 3230 BC plus or minus 150, and those at Nutbane of 2730 BC plus or minus 150. Similarly the flint mines of Easton Down gave 2530 plus or minus 150. There have been no definite henge monuments found in the region and there is little evidence of later Neolithic occupations (Palmer, 1984).

Danebury Region During the Bronze Age

During the Bronze Age circa 2″d and early !$t millennium BC there is little evidence of settlement until later in the 2″d millennium BC when some small rectilinear enclosures were constructed. During the Bronze Age there were two phases of activity encompassing earlier Bronze Age round barrows, and a middle Bronze Age period which developed a linear ditch system (Palmer, 1984). It is thought the linear ditches were constructed using the round barrows as sight markers, and two examples are the spinal linears at Quarley. The radiocarbon dates for the round barrows are for the first half of the 2″d millennium BC. The barrows are appear related to field systems as well as an association existing surface water, the water sources of Wallop and Pillhill brooks. Moreover there is a definite connection with the rivers Test and Anton. The environs of Danebury, during the Middle and Later Bronze Age, field blocks developed in association with systems of linear ditches, e.g., the Quarley linears have Bronze Age radiocarbon dates, as do the linear ditches of the area around Sudden Farm.

It is at this time that there is a return to building ditched enclosures as shown at Thorny Down and Boscombe Down, with further enclosure identification at East Winterslow and Brigweston Down East. These enclosures are accompanied by settlement sites and are contemporary with the ritual pits found at Danebury. Danebury Hillfort itself now “…appears as a focus of several linear ditches but there is no evidence that they are certainly of the bronze age…” (Palmer, 1984). Indeed Danebury there seems to be a similar sequential development to that found at Quarley Hill (Cunliffe, 1993b) with Danebury functioning as a nexus of a linear boundary system where a palisaded enclosure was built. Furthermore the hillfort is within a ditched enclosure at the terminus of a Late Bronze Age linear. In addition evidence obtained from the early palisaded enclosure showed the remains of a number of four-post storage structures. It is only later, during the mid-6th century BC, that Danebury’s palisade was replaced by a rampart and ditch (Cunliffe, 1990).

The Danebury Region During the Iron Age

The Iron Age period extends from around 600 BC up until late post-Roman times of 5th century AD. There is now a far greater occupation density compared to previous ,periods which is the result of “…continuing gradual development of the agricultural potential of the land.” (Palmer, 1984). Figure 4shows the Iron Age activities in the Danebury region. Hillforts were constructed, with a variety of styles, in same numbers in Wessex during the 6th and 5th centuries BC.


Artist’s reconstruction of Iron Age Danebury

It is not possible to show continuous occupation of Danebury but structure density and occupation quantity suggest intensive use for a considerable time (Cunliffe, 1993b). Hil!forts in Wessex, therefore, continue into the middle Iron Age and include Danebury, Maiden Castle, and South Cadbury. They were re-defended on massive scale and occupation became increasingly intensive. The early phase at Danebury, with a radiocarbon date of 500 BC plus or minus 80, shows many roundhouses, circular pits and silos sunk into the ‘chalk. (Darvill, 1998), with evidence that outer ramparts may have been used as cattle corrals (Dyer, 1992). Danebury now indicates a site of aggregated families under a coercive authority (Ounliffe, 1993b).

danebury iron age pots

Iron Age pots from Danebury hill fort

After this period there developed organised territories centred on hillforts which, after the third century BC, led to the construction of complex ditched enclosures. Seven sites west of the river Bourne were spaced at 1000 metre intervals. The linear ditch system indicates communication was one of their major functions. Relationships appear which suggest an association between fields and enclosures with the fields controlled by an adjacent hillfort.

Consolidation of territorial control and construction of developed hillforts indicates warlike society and local conflict. Many hillforts were built during the 5th and 6th centuries BC but during the 4th there was a decline. Surviving forts were now more heavily defended. Danebury became the centre of a redistributive system and local There is much evidence that Danebury was also a centre of ritual activity and religious practice during the early and middle Iron Age.


The clues to the Danebury contextual landscape are to be found in the organisation of Iron Age society. The cultural background, of the ancient landscape that stretches over several millennia is very complex and represents “…a palimpsest of hundreds of years of human, activity…” (Cunliffe, 1993a). Aerial photography shows that hillforts, farms, settlements, field systems, and linear boundaries existed in large numbers. During the period 1000 tO 600 l3C the landscape underwent large scale reorganisation and development of agricultural and trade systems. Earlier phases, are difficult to determine because of the dense occupation of the later period.

Also by the late 4th century BC, only Danebury remained in occupation having been refortified and intensively used on a large scale. One explanation is that the early Iron Age was a period of competing social or tribal groups which by the end of the 4th century BC had consolidated into a single polity (Cunliffe, 1993a) with Danebury assuming a position of central leadership. By the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC the usable Wessex downland was a landscape of wide and intensive settlement. The landscape context of the Danebury region became one characterised by a mixed economy controlled by a centralised power — with Danebury featuring as a ritual centre, and an active site for defence, exchange and redistribution.

Essay contribution to University of Oxford Undergraduate Certificate in Archaeology (2003).

References cited and sources used

Cunliffe, B. 1978. Iron Age Communities in Britain. Routledge, London. Cunliffe, B. 1990. Before Hillforts. Oxford J. of Archaeol. 9. 323-36. Cunliffe, B. 1993a. Danebury. Batsford/English Heritage. London.

Cunliffe, B. 1993b. Wessex to AD 1000. Longman, London.

Darvill, T. 1998. Prehistoric Britain. Routledge, London.

Dyer, J. 1992. Hillforts of England and Wales. Shire’Archaeology, Bucks.

Fagan, B. 1996. Oxford Companion to Archaeology. OUP; New York.

Palmer, R. 1984. Danebury. Royal Commission on Historical Monuments, London.

Renfrew, C. & Bahn, P. 2000. Archaeology. Tt6mes & Hudson, London.



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