Pagan Britain

Pagan Britain

by Ronald Hutton


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Britain's pagan past, with its mysterious monuments, atmospheric sites, enigmatic artifacts, bloodthirsty legends, and cryptic inscriptions, is both enthralling and perplexing to a resident of the twenty-first century. In this ambitious and thoroughly up-to-date book, Ronald Hutton reveals the long development, rapid suppression, and enduring cultural significance of paganism, from the Paleolithic Era to the coming of Christianity. He draws on an array of recently discovered evidence and shows how new findings have radically transformed understandings of belief and ritual in Britain before the arrival of organized religion.
Setting forth a chronological narrative, Hutton along the way makes side visits to explore specific locations of ancient pagan activity. He includes the well-known sacred sites—Stonehenge, Avebury, Seahenge, Maiden Castle, Anglesey—as well as more obscure locations across the mainland and coastal islands. In tireless pursuit of the elusive “why” of pagan behavior, Hutton astonishes with the breadth of his understanding of Britain’s deep past and inspires with the originality of his insights.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300205466
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 03/10/2015
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 496
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.60(h) x 1.70(d)

About the Author

Ronald Hutton is professor of history, University of Bristol, and a leading authority on ancient, medieval, and modern paganism. He lives in Bristol, UK.

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Copyright © 2013 Ronald Hutton
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-19771-6




Human-like beings have been occupying the land which has become Britain, on and off, for almost a million years, and probably longer. For most of that period, the land concerned was a peninsula of the European mainland, representing a remote hilly margin to the great plains which now lie under the North Sea and to which archaeologists have given the name 'Doggerland'. Whether the first species of human to reach it had a capacity for what we would now call religious belief, and whether such a capacity was possessed by any of those that followed before the arrival of our own, is a disputed question. The balance of opinion currently seems to be shifting towards the view that they had, and especially the Neanderthal people who occupied Europe when anatomically modern humans arrived there. The matter, however, is far from decided. What is absolutely clear is that our own species, Homo sapiens, manifested every sign of possessing the necessary imaginative faculty as soon as it evolved, whether as a result of evolution, as most Western scholars now believe, or as a divine gift, as is still the opinion of some adherents to certain faiths. Every test of evidence which has produced equivocal results when applied to other kinds of human has yielded an unequivocal one in the case of ours, and especially in two areas: the ceremonial burial of the dead, and the production of painted or carved representations, of animals, humans and figures which mix attributes of the two. Together with other traces of a heightened sense of imagination and of symbolic behaviour, such as the making of musical instruments and the regular development of new and better technologies of tool-making, these activities attest strongly to a capacity to conceive of worlds beyond the material and the immediate.

Such a capacity was manifested with particular strength as anatomically modern humans reached north-western Europe from about 42,000 BC onwards: indeed, the quantity of paintings that survives there from their hands is probably greater than that found anywhere else in the world from humans living more than 10,000 years ago. Why this should be has been much discussed. Some commentators suggest that unusually rich hunting grounds there generated exceptionally large and settled populations of people with a greater need to mark territory and reinforce group solidarity. Others attribute this artistic productivity to the collision of our human species in Europe with an existing one, the Neanderthals, producing an enhanced propensity on our part to engage in creative behaviour designed to affirm our identity and mark our world. In the 1990s the term 'the Human Revolution' was coined to describe the quantum leap taken by European material culture with the arrival of Homo sapiens. Whether or not it is appropriate in the world context, it vividly conveys the dramatic change in the archaeological record caused by the arrival of our kind of human. With it, the study of the earliest epoch of human prehistory, the Palaeolithic or Old Stone Age, reaches a point at which a consideration of religious behaviour needs to be part of the process.

Until recently, Britain hardly featured in such an exercise, being regarded as one of the most marginal areas of human activity in Palaeolithic Europe. Since the 1990s that position has altered dramatically, as British sites have been revealed as important even by global standards. Three in particular have been outstanding, and in each case the evidence concerned has posed problems that reach to the heart of the archaeology of the Palaeolithic and raised questions concerning the nature of perception, and of knowledge, itself.

Three Special Places: Paviland, Creswell and Cheddar

The first site is the Goat's Hole cave at Paviland, on the south-western coast of the Gower Peninsula in South Wales. It is associated with an outstanding scholar, William Buckland, the son of a Dorset clergyman who had lost his vision in an accident. Buckland therefore grew up accustomed to describing the landscape around them to his father on walks, and this close observation of it gave him an interest in rock formations. It persisted when he went to Oxford University, and brought him in 1815 to fill its first full-time post in the new science of geology. He was especially inspired by the idea, currently most strongly propounded by French scholars, that rocks contained the remains of extinct species of animal and plant. This new sense of the great age of the planet gave devout Christians such as Buckland the problem of reconciling the evidence of geology with the testimony of the biblical Book of Genesis, and no British scholar attempted more fervently than he, at that period, to find the solution to the problem by practical fieldwork. In other respects he was a remarkable individual. His home was crammed with fossils and rocks, but also cages of snakes and frogs, while the vertebrae of Jurassic reptiles were used as candle-holders. Gapiguines roamed the floor of his office, and occasionally got eaten when the jackal escaped from the living room. His star pet was a bear, which he named Tiglath Pileser after a biblical monarch, and which he sometimes took along to academic functions, dressed in a student's cap and gown. These colourful oddities were, alas, symptoms of an unstable as well as of a broad and brave mind, and towards the end of his life he went clinically mad.

In the 1810s, at the height of his powers, he embarked on a campaign of investigation of caves, which he felt to be ideal sources of evidence for past ages of the earth, as they had been least disturbed by subsequent activity. His first excavation of one, in Yorkshire, met with such success that it drew the attention of local scholars in Gower. In 1822 the doctor and clergyman at the fishing village of Port Eynon began to dig in the caves at Paviland, and found bones and flints. They informed the owners of the land, the Talbots of Penrice Castle, and the lady of the house, her daughters and her friends joined the investigations. They found so much material in the Goat's Hole that they sent a message to Buckland, who came at once, even though the season was midwinter, and set about digging in the cave himself. He found pieces of ivory, mammoth bones, flint and bone tools, and part of a human skeleton, stained with red ochre, which lacked its head and most of the right side. Because there was an Iron Age fort on the cliff top above, he decided that it had been the body of a lady of ill fame, almost literally a scarlet woman, who had kept a tavern in the cave for soldiers from the fort. The nickname 'the Red Lady' has clung to the remains ever since. Buckland's mistake may justly be attributed to his dogmatic determination to reconcile the physical evidence with the scriptural account in Genesis, which he believed forbade him to associate humans with the extinct animals now being found in the caves: by calling the remains an intrusive burial from a much later period, he got rid of the problem. Three comments may be made upon this story. One is that the Church of England did more to promote knowledge of the ancient past at this vital period than to hamper it, by providing the essential financial support for Buckland himself, as a cleric and a member of an Oxford college, and furnishing a living to amateur antiquarians such as the curate of Port Eynon. The second is that the prominence given to Buckland, though natural, highlights the problems of the emphasis on great individuals in history, obscuring as it has often done the vital role of instigation and support played by the local leaders of Gower society. The third is that by packaging the new data in a form which was not immediately offensive to Christian opinion, Buckland made the great age and complexity of the earth much easier for a contemporary audience to accept, and geology a respectable vocation.

During the following hundred years further excavations took place in the Paviland caves, and it became accepted that the Red Lady was a Palaeolithic man, and the first human fossil ever known to science. Renewed interest in him, and the site, was kindled by a project led by Stephen Aldhouse-Green in the 1990s, which carried out a fresh excavation in the Goat's Hole and a systematic re-examination of the surviving finds from it. The human bones yielded ever older results to each dating process: the current one stands at around 32,000 BC, making it possibly the oldest ceremonial human burial yet found in Europe. The man concerned was in his prime, between twenty-five and thirty years old, and probably stood around 5 feet 8 inches (173 centimetres) high and weighed about 154 pounds (73 kilos): not a big person for his time. He had apparently been buried in a two-piece garment dyed red, which was impractical for routine activities such as hunting, and so presumably of a ceremonial kind. With him were placed hoops of mammoth ivory which seem to have been bracelets or castanets, and ivory structures like wands or batons, which were broken before being placed with the corpse. Again, these grave goods are most easily interpreted as having a ritual function. At a point where a pocket would have been was a collection of perforated periwinkle shells, presumably either decorations for clothing or a necklace, or objects to be cast as some kind of divinatory process. From all this evidence, Stephen Aldhouse-Green and his team concluded that the dead man had most probably possessed some kind of spiritual function among his people. The basic pattern of the burial – the laying out of the body, the placement of possessions with it, and the significant presence of the colour red – is found in other graves scattered across Europe over the following ten thousand years. Such conformity to a continent-wide tradition suggests equally widespread shared belief systems (whatever they were): and the Red Lady is at present the oldest known example.

The same research project revealed much more information on the environment of the Gower between 34,000 and 24,000 years ago. Today the Goat's Hole looks out from its cliff face directly on to the seascape of the Bristol Channel: very high tides enter the cave, and the waves below constantly suck and lash at a landscape of weathered limestone boulders, as though a gorgon had passed and petrified an army on the march. Thirty-four millennia ago, the land below was a frozen tundra, which bloomed during the warmer climate of the following few millennia into a range of grasses and herbs making up a richer version of the historic steppes of southern Russia: if the comparison is apt, in the brief summer it would have been a carpet of brilliant flowers, with glow-worms spreading emerald fire across it after nightfall. Grazing it were stiff-maned wild horses, long-nosed saiga antelopes, red deer, reindeer, the extinct species of huge wide-horned wild cattle known as the aurochs, woolly mammoths, and woolly rhinoceroses. Mountain hares leaped among the grass, and through it wandered predators that still survive in Europe such as lynxes, red and arctic foxes, wolves and brown bears, with other, greater, beasts that have long vanished: cave bears, cave hyenas and cave lions, the largest cats that the world has ever known.

In this panorama, the Goat's Hole stood out for humans as somewhere special: the Aldhouse-Green project has also confirmed that the quantity of artefacts found in the cave far exceeds that discovered at any other site in Britain or neighbouring parts of Europe from the Early Upper Palaeolithic, the first 20,000 years in which our species is known to have been active in the region. Not even the other caves on that coast of Gower, which are numerous and include one almost next to the Goat's Hole, have produced anything like its amount of material from that period. The deposits were made in repeated visits over a long span of time, covering up to 11,000 years: among those made later than the burial were bone objects which could have been blades or stylized female figurines. Stephen Aldhouse-Green and his colleagues suggested that the key to its unusual status may have lain in its position under a prominent crag, now named Yellow Top because of the mustard-coloured lichens which cover it and seem to make it glow in sunlight. To humans approaching across the plain to the south, it would have acted as a natural beacon signalling the presence of what is now the South Welsh massif. More prosaically, the cliff would have made an ideal killing ground over which hunters could have driven herds of animals to their death. Paul Pettitt has suggested that for people moving north and west into what has become Britain from adjacent areas of Europe, a large river flowing along the present line of the English Channel represented a serious barrier. The easiest route round it was along the Atlantic coast of what is now France, which meant that their first sight of the upland area which has become the island of Britain would have been the modern Gower. Yellow Top would therefore have been a landmark of extraordinary importance.

It needs to be emphasized that the earlier excavations at the site, at which many of the most significant finds were made, were extremely badly recorded, and that much of the material recovered, such as that collected by the Talbots, has subsequently been lost. This makes anything like a full reconstruction of the burial of the Red Lady impossible. It will never be clear whether the body was whole when buried or already half missing: observers at the time of excavation were indeed not certain whether Buckland had found the remains of one person or two. Some of the surviving finds made with it are still enigmatic: the segments of ivory could indeed have come from wands, but may have had quite another purpose. The role that the dead man played during life is of course entirely conjectural: there remains the possibility that his trappings had connotations of political or social power rather than of spiritual authority in particular. None the less, the Goat's Hole may be regarded as the most important Early Upper Palaeolithic site in north-western Europe, and seems to have had associations, like the Red Lady himself, which were numinous rather than merely practical. This probability, linked to the very long period during which the Goat's Hole was in use, now makes it a prime candidate for the reputation of being the first great sacred place thought to have existed in what are now the British Isles and the adjacent parts of Europe's mainland. Its growing significance has as yet made little difference to it as a physical entity. The cave itself is effectively now a shell, completely dug out, and its position has not become any more accessible since Buckland described it as 'altogether invisible from the landside, and ... accessible only at low water, except by dangerous climbing along the face of a nearly precipitous cliff'. In many ways, its wild and lonely situation enhances its dignity, in contrast to sites more open to tourism.

The second outstanding site is Creswell Crags, a gorge just over half a mile long upon the border between the counties of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. Buckland made cave-digging, in search of human prehistory, an enthusiasm among British scholars, and the caves of the Creswell gorge were emptied in a series of campaigns between the 1870s and 1920s. Large quantities of animal bones and flint tools were discovered, and also, most exciting, the only figurative pieces of Palaeolithic mobile art yet uncovered in Britain, to compare with the large amount found on Continental sites. Two in particular drew attention, on segments of animal rib bone. The first was the front half of a horse's body, covered and preceded by a series of vertical lines, the second an upright shape interpreted by the discoverer as 'a masked human figure in the act of dancing a ceremonial dance'. As humans are relatively rare in Palaeolithic paintings and carvings, this made the discovery all the more important, especially as it seemed to have a connotation of ritual. In 2003 the site became the focus of a major research project based in the universities of Sheffield and Hull and led by Paul Pettitt and Paul Bahn, which immediately achieved spectacular success by revealing the existence of the very first Palaeolithic pictures ever found on the walls of British caves. They had been there all the time, carved on the interiors but unnoticed by scholarship, partly because they are visible only from certain angles and partly because they are obscured by Victorian graffiti. Britain had been presumed to possess none of the celebrated Old Stone Age pictures with which French and Spanish caves are decorated: suddenly it had proved to contain fine examples.

Excerpted from PAGAN BRITAIN by RONALD HUTTON. Copyright © 2013 Ronald Hutton. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements vi

A Note on Definitions vii

List of Illustrations x

Preface xv

1 The Palaeolithic and Mesolithic: How Ritual Came to Britain 1

2 The Earlier Neolithic: A Craze for Monuments 32

3 The Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age: The Time of the Sacred Circle 81

4 Late Prehistory: Earthworks, Pits and Bones 161

5 The Roman Impact: Temples, Statues and Inscriptions 227

6 The Conversion to Christianity: A Clash of Religions, A Blend of Religions 274

7 The Legacy of British Paganism 340

Conclusion 397

Notes 401

Index 460

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