Prof Hutton, Dillington House

30 03 2008

This afternoon to Dillington House, Somerset, to a lecture on the pagan religions of the ancient British Isles by Ronald Hutton. He spoke for an hour, without notes, with great enthusiasm and erudition, encompassing all the latest scholarship. Interestingly, recent re-evaluations of the excavation at Paviland Cave, South Wales have shown the ritual burial of a young man with red-dyed cloth and broken ivory ‘wands’ to be the earliest ritualised human burial anywhere in the world.

At around 30,000 BP, human intellectual evolution seems to have taken an extraordinary leap forward; the human mind turned toward the afterlife, the spiritual and the intangible; burial began to be ritualised and musical instruments, implying song and dance are found. At around 6,000 BP we see the advent of the adoption of farming, a paradigmatic change of enormous proportions for the previously hunter-gather populations of North-West Europe. This change included the importation of completely new species, such as goat, sheep and cattle, and new crops, encompassing nearly all the cereals grown in Britain today. People were thinking bigger; this is seen also by the emergence of earthworks and covered mounds in profusion; almost 40,000 are found around the North-West European facade, and no two are precisely the same. Hutton nevertheless sees potent possibilities for a formal religious idea behind these constructions; they took a great deal of time and effort, which might have been better spent seeing to the necessities of life. Clearly, these mounds were important, in a way that surpassed everyday living.

3,000 BP saw the end of construction of these large structures – climate took a downturn, sending Britain from temperatures comparable to that of the South of France to that of northern Germany. This, added to the deforestation practised by Neolithic man against the almost total forest cover which overtook Britian during the last interglacial, caused a reconcentration on the business of living once more, this time focussed outward onto trade and the demarcation of property – bronze requiring tin and copper, which was hard to come by.

Traditional sources for information about pagan religious practise have been largely discounted. Both the Welsh bardic records and the Irish epics have been judged to be inaccurate or at least unverifiable accounts. The best information we have comes from Roman sources – everyday people, some born British and assimilated in to the Empire, some posted here with their husbands, never to see their homelands again. One woman, Vibia Picata, put up an altar to ‘the celestial goddess of the woodlands and the crossroads’ – this is Hecate.

Perhaps it’s enough to acknowledge that the information is there; there is no more rich ritual landscape in Europe than Britain. There is more evidence to be found here than anywhere; and historic excavations can be re-interpreted, as Paviland shows.

The question is not really what the archaeological evidence can prove, but how far the extant evidence can support the weight of assumption placed upon it. Have we got any right to hark back to an earlier pagan religion at all?





2 responses

4 04 2008

As I told Shepton Witch, I’m pea green. Just pea green. *sigh*

going off on a tangent I remember being just amazed that they found a bone sewing needle in France dating to 30,000 BP. wow.

5 04 2008
The Green Witch

That is an amazing thought. I majored in Archaeology and I was lucky enough to visit the Altamira cave complex in Northern Spain when I was working for the University of Santander. In the cave I saw the famous bison paintings, which were truly beautiful, but the most affecting thing were the handprints, made by placing the palm flat on the rock and blowing red ochre through a straw around the hand. Many thousands of years, and their hands could be ours. In this instance, I felt a direct connection with these people, placing my hand alongside the imprint theirs had left behind. Stunning historical 3-D.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: