Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Large Durotriges settlement discovered

Durotriges territory (approx)
graphic: Jpb1301
Bournemouth University students have been excavating what is being called Britain's oldest planned town discovered to date (ca. 100 BC), placing Calleva Atrebatum (Silchester) in second place. Although the oldest structures at Calleva are rectangular and Gaulish, and perhaps reflect the arrival of Commios from Gaul, the newly discovered settlement appears to be entirely British.

What interests me the most is that it is believed that there are about 200 roundhouses at the site. So far, sixteen have been excavated. This site presents an unprecedented opportunity to compare a British settlement with Late Iron Age Irish settlements (tuath) as described in the early Irish laws. A material comparison is not possible: no Iron Age humble dwellings have been discovered (I think they used beehive shaped houses of peat blocks, others have suggested that they lived in tents as what appears to be a tent peg of the period has been discovered there).

The Irish laws, penned in the early Medieval, are believed to have been first developed in the Iron Age and reveal a tightly structured society where the size of one's house is always according to one's rank in the society. This divisioning of society is completely different from the popular idea of a tribal chief (and family) far above those (the peasants) below: the rank is reflected in the numbers of clients, retainers and livestock permitted. As time went on, it seems that the numbers of divisions did increase, but we really have no information of how Britain compared at the end of its Iron Age. In the middle Iron Age in Britain, the sudden abandonment of hillforts, in some cases, might point to a less structured society where matters of inequality could lead to the occasional revolution.

The newly discovered Durotriges settlement is, so far, showing no signs of military defenses and appears to have been a peaceful place. It should be easy to tell if Ireland's divisions of society came about through a widespread sociocultural evolution as it appears to have from Caesar's description of how all levels of Gaulish society was formed into two factions with druidic (legal) representation at all levels of the society. All that is needed is to record the diameters of each roundhouse, taking note of the numbers of storage pits if they can be firmly associated with a specific house. Then it should be possible to tell if the area of a house was determined by one's status in the town.

The strange arrangement of animal (and one human) remains at the bottom of filled storage pits at the site has led to what I think to be wild speculation about the inhabitants' religious beliefs. For example, the so-called "hybrid" animals such as a sheep given a cow's head does not necessarily point to a corresponding creature in Celtic mythology. It could be as simple as, when recovering the bones of an animal that had been exposed to the elements (and wild animals) in the practice of excarnation, someone discovered that the head and been carried off by an animal and was lost. If they believed that a whole animal was needed, they might just have taken whatever skull was nearby. To argue for a religious system at play, one would really have to cite some corroborating evidence. Had a horse skeleton been discovered with a human head, one could point to Armorican coin designs and a bronze figurine from Trier. There are other "hybrids", too, such as the ram-headed serpent associated with Kernunnos on the Gundestrup cauldron, and on my mount from Champagne where the ram-headed serpent has also a fish tail, and hippocamps are also known in Celtic coin design. The sheep with an extra head (presumably given one and not a buried "freak") could also point to a doubt as to which skull belonged to "Bessie" and her owner thought that taking both sheep skulls that were found at the right spot would be the safest move.

Next, I would like to see some evidence for the existence of a pre-Roman Celtic deity being represented in Britain and the syncretistic path that deity took through space and time. The report is indicative of another "offerings to the Gods" meme which never carries any contextual evidence in any such report. The abandonment of a grain storage pit could mean a number of things: its seal was defective and the grain spoiled; its owner died and the grain was distributed among heirs; the entire village was abandoned because of a serious outbreak of infectious disease. Any of these eventualities could have been answered in a ritual manner: we cannot separate religion from any day to day activity at that time. Such a separation is historically later. We cannot even say that any religious practice was Celtic, no ancient author ever called a Druid a priest, they only said that the Druids supervised over sacrifices, ran schools and provided legal representation for the population. If we consider these very different occupations then the Druids were not specialists. Perhaps it would be a better approach to say the Druids were "protective guardians" of their culture which included people who still maintained indigenous beliefs, or that those indigenous beliefs had been locally syncretized with the broader La Tène religion. We cannot, either, associate the storage of grain with hopes for a bountiful harvest as the meaning of the storage pit has nothing to do with growth, only persistence.

The main problem is that most psychological types who are drawn to archaeology, are also the types who do not give much thought to religion and have little interest in it (i.e philosophical materialists). Such types most often substitute isolated memes for any analysis, while they are very specific and analytical about the archaeological material context.

Tomorrow, it's cephalopod time again.


  1. Hi John:

    That last paragraph is food for thought. Certainly the term 'philosophical materialists' applies, but I tend to view them as 'designer archaeologists/historians.'

    I also tend to believe that, archaeology, like patriotism, is often the last refuge of the scoundrel.

  2. Hi John,

    I think your idea of 'designer archaeologists/historians' could also include those who write about "ancient aliens" and "lost continents" and the like. Those who use archaeology in the service of dictatorships and other dubious political motives and are fired only by reward or protection might have no psychological impediment to any sort of interpretation and their problems are more to do with their personal ethics (or lack thereof). Nationalists, however, can be found on both sides of the introvert/extrovert scale, but I think are most often on the latter side.

    Memes are a product of the collective consciousness, and as such are more likely to affect people who are really more group-oriented than individualistic. On the extreme ends of the introvert/extrovert scale (in order) are the delusional psychotic who lives in his or her's own reality and would be usually seen as crazy by most people, and the dangerous psychopath who is often mistakenly seen as very normal and even "nice" -- the Ted Bundy type.