Archaeology of the British Isles: With a Gazetteer of Sites in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland

By Andrew Hayes | Go to book overview

4

MEGALITHS AND MOONSHINE

In the monuments they built to worship their gods and venerate their dead the first farmers have stamped their mark on the British Isles. But the hopes and fears, myths and legends, that motivated their construction have been irretriev ably lost. Archaeologists can do no more than recover the material traces the rituals have left behind. Yet even this makes it quite clear that we are dealing with a very different world from fantasies of Druids, Extraterrestrials or Golden Age Sages that have been conjured up from the imaginations of the romantics. For the sake of convenience the monuments are often divided into ‘Neolithic’ and ‘Bronze Age’, but this obscures their underlying continuity. Fashions in monuments might wax and wane, but all were constructed and used by the same types of communities to fulfil similar religious, emotional and social needs.


Barrows

Neolithic communities of the third and fourth millennia BC tended to bury their dead communally under barrows. Archaeologists traditionally classify them into many different types. Among the most important are the long barrows of England and Wales—trapezoidal mounds in which burials were made within a stone or wood chamber at the broader, eastern end. The bare stones belonging to some of these chambers occasionally survive by themselves as dolmens or cromlechs long after the covering mound or cairn has been removed. There is also evidence that some of these monuments were intended to be freestanding, not buried beneath a mound at all. In Ireland and northern Scotland are found the passage graves: circular mounds with a single burial chamber at their heart reached by a long passage.

Most communities buried their dead, but only a few articulated skeletons have been found during the excavation of barrows. Instead there is commonly a jumble of bones marked with the distinctive signs of weathering. It seems that corpses were not placed immediately within barrows, but were first ex posed to the elements until most of the flesh had decomposed. Only then were the bare bones interred. This custom is one that has continued to be practised by some tribal people right up to the present day. Some communities preferred to cremate their dead. The builders of the Irish passage graves, for example, placed the ashes of many individuals in large stone bowls in their burial cham bers.

Corpses were probably exposed in mortuary enclosures, marked out by bank, ditch or palisade, inside which there was often a timber mortuary house. The remains of several examples have been discovered during excavations of earthen long barrows. At Foulmire Fen (Cambridgeshire) one took the form of a

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Archaeology of the British Isles: With a Gazetteer of Sites in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page 3
  • Contents 5
  • List of Illustrations 6
  • Acknowledgements 9
  • Preface 11
  • 1 - Vendetta 13
  • 2 - Out of Africa 26
  • 3 - Brave New World 39
  • 4 - Megaliths and Moonshine 53
  • 5 - The Roundheads 67
  • 6 - Men of Iron 82
  • 7 - The Romans in Britain 97
  • 8 - Anglo-Saxon Attitudes 114
  • 9 - Celtic Twilight 130
  • 10 - 1066 and All That… 143
  • Further Reading 201
  • Index 203
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