Wishing wells and votive offerings

Mammoth and capricorns from Rouffignac (image public domain)

In the Southwest of France, the town of Rouffignac boasts a ‘cave of a hundred mammoths’. Or rather representations of them drawn or engraved on the walls and ceilings. Nowadays the visitor travels one kilometre underground on a small electric train. Every now and then there are isolated mammoths on the walls and claw marks of cave bears on the ceiling; the latter, luckily, are not contemporary with the artists. Suddenly the train stops and there they are, a multitude of mammoths, horses, bison and other horned animals covering the vault of a low ceiling. One horse is about eight feet across. The artist or artists delineating it, lying on the floor about three feet below (as it then was) would not have been able to appreciate it all. It is all breathtaking, simple but effective.

Why did prehistoric people travel so far underground to create pictures they could not enjoy in their entirety? The answer is close at hand: a large, natural but uneven pit descends below the cavern’s floor. From here, no doubt, the deities of the underworld could emerge to appreciate the artistic offerings of humankind and grant the wishes that accompanied them.

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Cryptic inscriptions

The Catamanus Stone, Anglesey (Wikipedia Commons)
Detail from the Catamanus Stone, Llangadwaladr, Anglesey (Wikipedia Commons)

Living in Wales means living in a landscape where the past is never too far away — eloquent place names, ancient monuments, local legends and folklore. A particular class of monuments are those so-called Dark Age memorial stones inscribed with words, runes, pictograms and abstract patterns that litter the countryside, not just here in Wales but around the north and west of Britain. This repost of a review (it first appeared online in May 2014) looks at one man’s interpretation of what some of these enigmatic inscriptions might mean.

Charles Thomas
Christian Celts: Messages & Images
Tempus Publishing 1998

This is a book that is worth persevering with. Despite its often complex arguments it is shot through with Thomas’ dry wit and apposite asides, and — coming as it does from an acknowledged expert in the field of church history and archaeology — it is also worth taking seriously. He introduces the historical, educative and commemorative contexts that post-Roman inscriptions fitted into; he discusses the insular background in the Celtic-speaking regions of Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Cornwall; and he also delves into the religious implications of some of the texts. But he does more than just give an overview of these enigmatic messages.

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The Phoenix and the Fossil

archaeopteryx
Source: Florida Center for Instructional Technology http://fcit.usf.edu/

Phoenix-like, from stone
it rises, wings raised, renewed,
the stuff of legend

Paul Chambers
Bones of Contention: The Archaeopteryx Scandals
John Murray Publishers Ltd 2002

A few years ago I had a notion about the legend of the grail as it appeared in medieval Germany. The Bavarian poet Wolfram von Eschenbach described the grail (grâl or graal he called it) by the strange term lapsit exillis, by which he meant a stone rather than the more familiar dish or chalice. Wolfram has his own conceit about this object:

By the power of that stone the phoenix burns to ashes, but the ashes give him life again. Thus does the phoenix [moult] and change its plumage, which afterwards is bright and shining and as lovely as before.*

When reading this I had a sudden vision of the deceased phoenix on its stone as an archaeopteryx fossil, the first of which had been discovered in Bavaria in the middle of the nineteenth century. Checking the map I later discovered that Wolfram’s home town, now re-named Wolframs-Eschenbach in his honour, is not that far distant from the Altmühltal, a river valley where the limestone quarries that first revealed these winged and feathered creatures are situated. Was it possible that this medieval poet had seen a now vanished archaeopteryx fossil, that it too reminded him of the legend of the phoenix, and that he subsequently co-opted that legend for his version of the wondrous quest object?

I included this notion in a short story I wrote, and passed the hypothesis by the odd mildly intrigued expert, but it remains mere speculation, however much I’d like to believe it may be true. And there it stayed until this account of archaeopteryx (from the Greek for ‘ancient’ and ‘wing’) by palaeontologist Paul Chambers started me wondering about it again. Continue reading “The Phoenix and the Fossil”

The past, now

Current-Archaeology-311
Cover of Current Archaeology 311

In a previous life I was quite into archaeology, young fogey that I was then (old fogey now, of course). My experience includes working on a multi-period hillfort (South Cadbury, Somerset), a Roman villa (Bratton Seymour, also in Somerset) and an early medieval church and Welsh medieval farmstead (Llanelen, Gower). The first lasted a week, the second three years, and the last twenty-one years (from the first recce in 1974 to publication in 1995) with some small investigations subsequently.* The first dig I was involved in coincided with early issues of Current Archaeology, to which I started subscribing, and with very few gaps I have continued to receive the magazine ever since — despite no longer being actively involved with excavation.

It began as a bi-monthly in 1967, becoming monthly exactly forty years later and changing its size once or twice.** Entirely funded from subscriptions (no advertising at all) it encouraged growing loyalty in its readers, to the extent that it now claims some 17K subscribers around the world. Though I’ve since passed on the bulk of my back issues — partly down to downsizing because of moving and partly because theories and techniques and data inevitably move on — I still keep the last year or two of issues to remind myself of where the art of archaeology is now.

I say ‘art’ because, despite the massive use of science, technology and statistics in this field, a lot of archaeology’s success is down to the experience and expertise of the excavation directors: it’s not a skill one can merely apply by numbers, though order and precision is essential of course. Also, archaeology is primarily about humans, their relics and their remains, and humans are rarely consistent across time and place. No one size fits all.

So, the magazine aims to “bridge the gap between the amateur and the professional in archaeology”. This means that mainly professional archaeologists write the feature articles in a language that a non-specialist but intelligent reader can follow. News and views and reviews are also included (hence the ‘current’ appellation), often with light-hearted observation thrown in (forget the po-faced stereotype of the academic historian or amateur nerd).

Issue 311 is particularly interesting from my point of view. There’s news about the site of Glastonbury Abbey (a traditional burial place for King Arthur) which recent research both confirms was occupied in the Dark Ages and throws doubt on the antiquity of so-called Dark Age graves (which in the 60s Radford claimed could include Arthur’s). There’s also a feature on British migration in Roman times, showing from the distribution of Romano-British brooches that insular Celts travelled extensively not just in Europe but North Africa and the Levant. And more work has been done on the origin of the bluestones of Stonehenge (Merlin was popularly supposed to have raised the pillars at this ancient monument), linking them to Craig Rhos-y-Felin in Pembrokeshire. Amongst the range of periods covered (from the Romans to Shakespeare’s home, from the late Bronze Age to the Industrial Age) there’s also room for the iconoclasm and wit of contributing editor Chris Catling, who casts his gimlet eye on such issues as how to pronounce Shrewsbury (posh or contemporary? authentic or orthographic?), mummification in Britain and Horace Walpole’s link to what’s claimed to be Shakespeare’s skull.

I think I shall be subscribing for some time to come.

* Not three or twenty-one years in a single span, of course! Usually two seasons of one or two weeks, or even just a long weekend, were the norm each year.

** This is the second in a very occasional series of reviews of anything that doesn’t fit comfortably into the category of ‘book’. This includes periodicals, journals, magazines,minizines and any other non-bookish reading matter that grabs my fancy.

Breezing through Roman ruins

Excavations at Uriconium (Wroxeter) by Francis Bedford (photo: public domain)
Excavations at Uriconium by Francis Bedford (photo of hypocaust and Old Work public domain)

Ellis Peters City of Gold and Shadows Heron Books 1982 (1973)

Take an assortment of singular characters, one missing person and a generous helping of archaeology; when you blend them together you’ll likely get something like this, a whodunit by Ellis Peters set in her favourite area — the Welsh Marches — and based on the ruins of a fictional Roman city that is rather reminiscent of Wroxeter in Shropshire. Though I’ve not knowingly read any of her work before (certainly before I was aware that this was the twelfth in a series) I wasn’t disappointed in this offering — what would be known in North America as a cozy mystery — especially as it worked very well as a standalone novel.

An essential aspect of a ‘cozy’ is that it often features a strong, intelligent woman as amateur sleuth; and here it is Charlotte Rossignol. Half-French, a classical musician at what one hopes is the start of a successful career, she is drawn by the concerns that a lawyer (“like a very well-turned-out troll from under some Scandinavian mountain”) has over her missing archaeologist uncle, Alan Morris. Visiting the subject of his latest (or last?) monograph, the ruins of Aurae Phiala near Moulden village in Midshire, she makes the acquaintance of a number of very distinctive characters, any of whom could be responsible for some of the odd incidents that start to occur. Who is Gus Hambro, and why is he behaving suspiciously? What is schoolboy Gerry Boden up to? What’s the nature of the relationship between site custodian Steve Paviour and his young wife Lesley? Is gardener Orlando Benyon all that he seems to be? What does graduate student Bill Lawrence know? How does DCI George Felse deal with the strange events that closely follow one another? And do we ever find out what happened to Charlotte’s missing uncle?

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Monoliths: myths and legends

Terry John  Sacred Stones
The standing stones of West Wales:
their history and traditions
Gomer 1994

Where I currently live in Pembrokeshire it’s hard to escape standing stones. If I go out our gate and walk in a clockwise direction, in the course of a five-mile walk I will pass three of them, one unnamed, another two all that remains of a complex called Cornel Bach. If I go on another clockwise four-mile road walk I’ll pass two stones, one unnamed, another — possibly not in situ –all that remains of some stones at the aptly named Temple Druid. Within a relatively short walking radius I can pass the only surviving prehistoric stone circle in the area at Gors Fawr near Mynachlogddu or another complex at Meini Gwyr near Glandy Cross in Carmarthenshire. Up on the nearby Preseli Hills there is a stone enclosure called Bedd Arthur or Arthur’s Grave, and a pair of menhirs called Cerrig Meibion Arthur or the Stones of the Sons of Arthur. And of course the hills are where the bluestones of Stonehenge were quarried — reputedly. You can hardly take a step without tripping over one.

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A curate’s egg of a gazetteer

Arthurian Coats of Arms (Bodleian Library)
Arthurian Coats of Arms (Bodleian Library) http://medievalromance.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/Arthurian_coats_of_arms

Derek Brewer and Ernest Frankl
Arthur’s Britain: the Land and the Legend
Guild Publishing 1986 (1985)

This illustrated gazetteer has an authoritative introductory essay by the late Derek Brewer, a distinguished academic and publisher who died in 2008. The illustrations which accompany the introduction all come from late medieval manuscripts in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, and show how their techniques and purposes changed from the fourteenth to the fifteenth centuries. The photographs in the gazetteer proper are by Ernest Frankl, with accompanying maps drawn by Carmen Frankl; I’m guessing that both Ernest and Carmen have since passed away as Trinity Hall Cambridge has an Ernest and Carmen Frankl Memorial Fund to cover travel for educational purposes.

Part of a series of souvenir guidebooks by Pevensey Press, Arthur’s Britain consists of Continue reading “A curate’s egg of a gazetteer”