Jigsaw Mummies

Tom Shippey

  • Pagan Britain by Ronald Hutton
    Yale, 480 pp, £25.00, November 2013, ISBN 978 0 300 19771 6
  • The King in the North: The Life and Times of Oswald of Northumbria by Max Adams
    Head of Zeus, 450 pp, £25.00, August 2013, ISBN 978 1 78185 418 1

The history of paganism in Britain spans more than thirty thousand years, almost the whole time that humans have inhabited these islands, bar a few state-enforced Christian centuries in the medieval and early modern periods. It also takes in many different kinds of belief, for some of which we have written records – Roman, Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, Norse – while others are known only from archaeology and from the landscape, which is still marked by many thousands of monuments, some large and obvious, most overgrown or unnoticed. The cairns and barrows and material evidence of grave rituals all signal belief of some kind, but the beliefs of the prehistoric millennia may have been as different from one another as any one of them was from the later documented religions; and the changes from one practice to another, like the change from long barrows to stone circles, or the later and sudden abandonment of henges, even the ‘superhenges’ that had taken a huge amount of labour to create, may have been the result of upheavals fully as great as the conversions of pagan Celts and Anglo-Saxons to Christianity.

Scholars know far more about the pagan millennia than they did even a few years ago, and more information is being unearthed all the time. A paradox that emerges from Ronald Hutton’s extraordinarily wide-ranging survey is that the more data archaeology supplies, the less sure we are of what it all means, or meant. Take the case of the Red Lady of Paviland on the Gower Peninsula, the earliest indication of religious sentiment in Britain. Here, in 1822, amateur archaeologists uncovered a headless skeleton, its bones stained with red ochre, buried with bracelets of mammoth ivory and broken wands. Its discoverers thought they had found the body of what Hutton calls ‘a lady of ill fame’ who had probably plied her trade at the Iron Age fort on the cliff above. We now know that the Red Lady was male, the bones have been dated to 32,000 bc, far earlier than the fort, and the careful arrangement of the body suggests that the dead man ‘most probably possessed some kind of spiritual function’. But what can it have been?

We can only guess, and it’s true that the temptation to make guesses about prehistoric paganism is immense, especially in Britain, where the signs of it are so visible. The beliefs of Stone and Bronze Age Britons were expressed in constructions that involved quite fabulous amounts of work. The six-mile-long ‘cursus’, or embanked walkway, outside Wimborne in Dorset represented half a million man-hours of labour, carried out by labourers using deer-horn picks and shovels made from the shoulder blades of cattle. The bank at Avebury would have taken a million hours. As for the time spent hauling stones and dressing them to a flat surface at Stonehenge (and some of these stones are sarsen, which is harder than granite), what can have motivated the masons to keep pounding away with their stone mauls? And Stonehenge is only one of twelve hundred henges discovered in the British Isles. They must mean something. But again, what?

Repeatedly Hutton confesses that we have ‘no reliable evidence’ and that ‘nothing is certain.’ Yet his survey also makes clear that a quantity of strange facts are being unearthed all the time. On South Uist, archaeologists thought they were on to something when they discovered human bodies under the floor of prehistoric roundhouses. They were buried there as dedications, surely, or maybe as a result of ancestor worship? Then it turned out that the bodies, preserved in peat bog, had been dead for centuries before being reburied. And even stranger, when examined in detail they turned out to be assemblages of several bodies: in effect, ‘jigsaw mummies’. Such careful and complex behaviour must mean something. But what?

What should we make of the chariot cemeteries of East Yorkshire? Most of the bodies face east, and are interred with the left foreleg of a sheep or pig, but some face west, in which case it is the right foreleg. The graves which contain actual chariots have a different system. Is this a matter of social gradations? Competing cults? Just as inscrutable is the much later Roman cremated while sitting in a chair with a cockerel in his lap. Was the cockerel a meal? To wake him up? A gift to Mercury? At Kimmeridge in Dorset, again in Roman times, a group of elderly women were buried with their severed heads, without lower jaws, placed by their feet, and each one was provided with a spindle whorl. Was this execution, or a rite de passage? Questions like this appear again and again throughout the book, with innumerable detailed and even forensic clues but no satisfactory answer.

This has never prevented people from coming up with solutions, on most of which Hutton pours regretful cold water. Over the last hundred years and more, it has been popular to think that past ages worshipped what is variously called the Great Mother, Earth Mother or Mother Goddess. Distinguished scholars pioneered the idea, including Sir Arthur Evans, who excavated Knossos, and the Cambridge classicist Jane Harrison, who proposed a prehistoric and peaceful woman-centred civilisation in Greece. The discovery of Palaeolithic ‘Venus figurines’, statuettes with exaggerated breasts and hips, seemed to support the notion. D.H. Lawrence, Robert Graves and Rudyard Kipling all picked up the idea, so that by the early 20th century, Mircea Eliade commented: ‘A “search for the Mother” had become a major component of the “unconscious nostalgias of the Western intellectual”.’ The only such figurine found in Britain, however, is probably a fake, and belief in passively fertile Mother Goddesses has now gone out of fashion.

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