Sep. 9th, 2012

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Sorry, everyone.  The last couple of days I actually - gasp! -  had a SOCIAL life!!! 

Right, back to Cotswold-Severn tombs, and to our Tomb of The Day - Wayland's Smithy.

Wayland's Smithy and myself go back a long way. I was first introduced to this monument in 1989 when, as a bright-eyed and busy-tailed undergrad, I was fortunate enough to travel around Wessex on a brilliant field trip led by the inimitable John Barrett (author of Fragments of Antiquity - which is, incidentally, well worth a read...).  It was a whirlwind tour that included Stonehenge, Avebury, Uffington Castle, West Kennet, Danebury and much, much more, and it probably led to my long-standing love affair with prehistory...

Wayland's Smithy has been heavily restored following excavations, and it's an impressive-looking monument. Here's a view along the mound, which is nicely trapezoidal:-


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But it's in the forecourt area that this monument is most impressive. There's a row of tall stones standing before the chamber (I'm not sure if there are additional chambers located along the length of the mound. There were none clearly apparent, but since I'm also not sure how much of this monument has actually been excavated, that doesn't mean there aren't more lurking...):-



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The traditional view when I was a wee lass ( i.e. an undergraduate) was that these monuments formed communal repositories for the Neolithic dead. The monuments themelves require a cohesive community effort in their construction, and the bones held within were all found jumbled together, with no attempts made to keep individual body parts seperate. The standard interpretation was therefore that in death everyone was treated equally.

Hence, we have an egalitarian society operating in the Neolithic which can be contrasted with that operating in the Bronze Age, where the 'chieftains' are buried in isolated and prominent mounds, accompanied in death by rich objects like bronze daggers, gold earrings and beakers...

This view was being challenged at the time and these days the interpretation has changed. Even though these monuments give the impression that the dead are treated in the same manner, it seems likely that they are not representing the whole community. It's thought that corpses were left outside in excarnation enclosures to be defleshed by natural agents like carrion birds and foxes. Once they'd been reduced to their skeletons, a selected few would be gathered together and returned to the community where they functioned as 'ancestors'. 

Following this thinking, we can see these monuments as a store of ancestral power within the community. The ancestors give their descendants a legitimate claim to the landscape, and being portable relics, their remains can be carried through the landscape. You can, for example, envisage the bones of the ancestors being carried amongst the living in processions carried out at key points in the agricultural cycle, and it may be the case that the avenues at Avebury and Stonehenge have their roots in similar practices.

Though the ancestors became anonymous and equal, it doesn't mean that the living modelled their society in a similar fashion.  A view of the forecourt and chamber area at Wayland's Smithy demonstrates how small the chamber is - you can envisage that during those rituals and ceremonies which involved the ancestors, only a select few would be granted the privilege of interacting with the dead, while the rest of the community looked on:-



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At a later point in the history of this monument, the entry to the chamber has been blocked, which means that access to ancestral remains must have been made difficult, if well nigh impossible.  Similarly blocking is seen at West Kennet, and it may well signify that the original role of the monument had ceased, and that the veneration of the ancestors was being replaced by something else (or perhaps the ancestors were being celebrated in a more metaphorical sense, with the standing stones of the Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age transition being stone representations of ancestral figures.  Your guess is probably as good as mine (with sufficient evidence to support it, that is!!))

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Here's a close-up of the chamber, with its drystone-walled passage (oh, how Cotswold-Severn is that!!).  As a neat way of demonstrating how these ancient Neolithic monuments continue to be appropriated into the present, when we visited the site we saw a) a small shred of cloth tied onto a nearby branch, and b) a couple of strings of beads and a small ceramic cat placed carefully as a votive deposit within the main chamber.


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Yes, it's a definite example of that classic line from Gilbert & Sullivan's Ruddigore: 'I don't know whose ancestors they were, but I know whose ancestors they are...'

[And may I recommend as further reading 'Fragments of Antiquity by John Barrett, Bronze Age Britain by Michael Parker Pearson (Batsford) and/or The Tomb Builders by Steve Burrow.]

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