Folk-Lore/Volume 4/Review/Excavations in Bokerly and Wansdyke, Dorset and Wilts, 1888-91

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Folk-Lore, Volume 4  (1893) 
Review of A. Pitt-Rivers’ Excavations in Bokerly and Wansdyke, Dorset and Wilts, 1888-91

REVIEW.




Excavations in Bokerly and Wansdyke, Dorset and Wilts, 1888-91. By Lieutenant-General Pitt-Rivers, D.C.L, F.R.S., F.S.A., Inspector of Ancient Monuments in Great Britain, etc. With Observations on the Human Remains, by J. G. Garson, M.D. Vol.111. Printed privately. 1892.


If any apology were necessary for bringing under the notice of the readers of Folk-Lore a work of the national importance of General Pitt-Rivers' Excavations, it would be found in the fact that the first two volumes were reviewed in the earlier series of this periodical, when it was known as The Archæological Review. There a general outline was given of the results of the excavation of two Romano-British villages on the author's property at Granborne Chase, and of an ancient camp on Winkelbury Hill. The main interest of the two former volumes undoubtedly consisted in the remarkable discoveries at Cranborne Chase. The two villages, called Woodcuts and Rotherley from the modern names of their sites, were occupied during Roman times by a people of dwarfs, who seem to have lived an agricultural and pastoral life, but whose poverty had been touched with a slight gleam of the luxury of their conquerors. Of their material civilisation the relics told something. The pottery, the bronze and other personal ornaments, the knives and spoons, the nails, the keys, locks, hinges, horse-shoes, and other articles of iron, the quern-stones, whetstones, flints—all told their tale. But of the mental and religious attainments, of the worship and the social rites and intercourse of these strange, forgotten villagers we learned absolutely nothing. No altars, no images, no funeral urns were found—nothing to enable us to

"throw
An arch across the gulf of years,
That we may travel back, and know
The brooding thoughts and haunting fears
And clinging faiths"

that occupied the minds and looked through the eyes wherewith they surveyed the dark wet forest and upland clearing around their rude homes of wattle and clay in those far-off times.

General Pitt-Rivers' new volume is marked by the same admirable characteristics as the previous ones. As before, we are impressed with his minute accuracy, his anxiety to lay before the reader all the facts, independently of any theory, so as to put him in a position to judge for himself on the questions disputed, his careful reasoning, and his wide anthropological learning. The volume is chiefly concerned with explorations of Bokerly Dyke (a rampart about four miles long, which yet throughout the greater part of its length forms the boundary between Dorsetshire and Wiltshire, and runs in a south-easterly direction), and of Wansdyke at places not very far from Silbury. Both these ramparts have been thrown up for purposes of defence against the north and north-east. The frontier defended by Wansdyke seems to have run along the valley of the Avon to a point above Bath, where the dyke crosses the river and appears to join the Roman road from Bath to Marlborough, running continuously with the latter until it reaches the valley of the Kennet. Before the road enters the valley the dyke parts company with it, and continues along the heights through Savernake Forest to the borders of Berkshire, where it turns to the south and is lost. In point of construction,, both Bokerly and Wansdyke are similar, consisting of a ditch with a small external mound and a higher rampart within. They are not of uniform height; and in places both are lost, without any reason to suppose that the loss is due to effacement by agricultural operations. General Pitt-Rivers conjectures that these places may have been formerly occupied by forest, and that it was there easier to make an abattis of felled trees.

In all cases the excavations were continued down to the undisturbed chalk beneath the ditch and the mounds. They revealed, both in the rampart and on the old surface under it, pieces of Samian ware, cleats, and other objects of iron, and, in the case of Bokerly Dyke, Roman coins, which proved that both dykes were erected during, or subsequent to, Roman times. In what circumstances, or during what war, however, the dykes were built is still undetermined. The object evidently was the defence of the south-western corner of the island from enemies coming from the north and east. But who were the enemies, or who the defenders, is a problem that further researches have yet to make manifest.

But, however interesting the problems connected with the dykes may be, the student of folk-lore will naturally turn rather to the village at Woodyates. This is the third ancient village discovered in the course of the author's excavations. It will be remembered that the race who had occupied the villages described in the former volumes averaged, the men 5 feet 2.6 inches, and the women 4 feet 10.9 inches in height. The village called Woodyates, from the name of a modern cluster of buildings a short distance to the south-west of the site, was occupied by a people answering to a similar description. Bokerly Dyke runs through it at the point where the dyke crosses the Roman road from Badbury Rings to Old Sarum. The portion of the settlement examined is chiefly on the outside of the dyke; and how much of it was inside, or how much more outside, is yet unknown. The village, as indicated by the turn just here of the Roman road, appears to have been in existence before the road was made; but some of the drains bear evidence of having been cut subsequently, arguing the continued existence and prosperity of the community. Lastly, the dyke was constructed, the earliest part of it not before the reign of Maximinus II, in the beginning of the fourth century, as is shown by a coin of that emperor found beneath the rampart on the old surface-line. At or after the departure of the Romans, a change, probably to render it more defensible at this point, was made in the direction of a portion of the dyke; and we may perhaps be permitted to surmise that the renewal of troubles, which this alteration indicates, led to the final destruction or abandonment of the settlement.

Before these excavations were begun not a trace of the village was to be seen, and its very existence had been forgotten. In the Itinerary of Antoninus the name of Vindogladia occurs on this line of road, and the distance between it and Sorbiodunum (Old Sarum) is put down as twelve Roman miles. Where Vindogladia was has hitherto been a matter of conjecture. General Pitt-Rivers suggests that it was precisely Woodyates, the distance from Sorbiodunum answering the requirements as nearly as possible. And he points to the fact that preceding antiquaries, though unaware of the existence of Woodyates, have interpreted the name to mean the White Rampart, from two Celtic words, vint, white, and gladh, a ditch or rampart—a name very suitable to Bokerly Dyke when the chalk out of which it was cut was fresh.

As in the case of the former villages, the number and size of the drains are one of its most impressive features. No wells were uncovered like those at Woodcuts and Rotherley; but the drains alone bore witness to a much heavier rainfall than at present. Some of them seem to have been afterwards filled up while the occupation of the site continued. This was found to have been the case also in the other villages, and the excavator has been much puzzled to account for it. Whether these particular drains became unnecessary owing to a diminished rainfall, or whether the ground was wanted for other purposes, must be left for the present among the many unsolved questions concerning these settlements. The general account of the civilisation of the inhabitants of Woodcuts and Rotherley given in the second volume of The Archæeological Review applies also to those of Woodyates. But their pottery, which included numerous specimens of Samian and other ornamental ware, their glass, their bronze fibulae, brooches, spoons, torques, bangles, rings, their iron scythes, cleats, nails, keys, knives, hooks, and other objects of both metals, and above all the hoards of money—1,210 coins have been found in all—though chiefly of brass, and consequently of small intrinsic value, indicate, as perhaps we might expect in a station upon an important road, more trade and somewhat more wealth than were known to the remoter villages in what is now Cranborne Chase.

It is around their burials that the principal interest of folk-lore students will concentrate; for here, if anywhere, we may look for intimations of their beliefs. The relics of material civilisation may be no more than a veneer, entering as little into their real life as the iron axes and glass beads of modern traders do into the life of the savage Papuan. The rites paid to the dead are different. The supreme importance of the three chief moments of human life—birth, marriage, and death—in the investigation of savage and barbarous culture is well recognised. We look to the ceremonies attending them for the expression of the native mind, the outcome of its inmost hopes and fears, of its dearest joys and most poignant sorrows, long after the conditions that ordinarily beset a tribe have been modified by an intrusive civilisation, and even its religion has been changed. Unfortunately, in digging up the relics of a vanished barbarism, we find no record of the ceremonies attending birth and marriage, the remains of funeral ceremonies are all that we can recover; and we seek the more eagerly for what they can disclose to us. At Woodcuts and at Rotherley we were able to learn nothing. We are somewhat better off at Woodyates. A smaller proportion of the bodies were buried in a crouching position than in either of the other villages, fifteen out of seventeen having been buried extended, some lying on the back, others on the side. Five bodies buried in a square enclosure, whose use is one of the problems left open, were in graves nearly east and west, with their heads to the west; but it is impossible to say whether this was done from regard to a religious motive, or simply from convenience of situation. Elsewhere it seems clear that convenience only was consulted. Some of the bodies were buried in coffins either of oak or of some coniferous wood, fragments of which—the only fragments left—were found adhering by rust to the nails. In several instances hobnails were found about the feet, showing that they must have been buried in boots. A bronze fibula, which had no doubt fastened the dress, was found on the thigh of one; and a portion of an iron torque was on the neck of a female skeleton, while a bronze torque was also found in the soil of the same grave.

It is quite possible that in these observances we have a belief in future life indicated. Burial in boots may have reference to the journey which the soul must take to the spirit-land; and the finery wherein the bodies were enveloped, and the care taken to preserve them as far as possible by the use of coffins, may have been due to a regard for the after-life. As much as this, however, was found in the village graves at Cranborne Chase; nor could anything beyond the barest conjecture be based upon it. But the dwellers at Woodyates, in their care for their dead, have told us more. Out of the seventeen skeletons, three had each a coin in its mouth. Under the leg of another, half a brass coin was lying. A fifth skeleton had a coin on its pelvis. Some little doubt may perhaps attach to the last case. The skeleton in question was one of two buried in a grave cut out partly from the undisturbed chalk, and partly in the filling of the ditch of a portion of the rampart. They were both buried lying on the right side; and this skeleton had both hands lying behind it, in such a position that they might have been tied. Moreover, there were at least four other coins of the same period in adjacent parts of the silting of the ditch, two of them within the limits of the grave, but far above the bodies'; so that they may all have been dropped in by accident in filling up the ditch and the grave. The other cases, however, may be taken to be undoubtedly instances of coins having been given to the corpse to pay the fare of the dead into the other world, the classic toll of Charon.[1]

Nor is this all. Pottery, both whole and broken, was deposited with three of the bodies in the square enclosure. The skeleton of a man was found with the fragments of a small bowl, or tazza, of cream-coloured ware at its feet. The skeleton of a young person of doubtful sex had fragments of a similar vessel, but of a somewhat more elegant shape and of imitation Samian ware, at its right foot, and under its left leg a fragment of New Forest cream-coloured ware. In neither of these cases was it found possible to piece together an entire vessel out of the fragments; probably, therefore, the bowls were broken when buried. This points, of course, to the belief that it was necessary to break the vessel, so that its soul might accompany the soul of the dead into the spirit-world. On the other hand, a small pitcher, 6.8 inches high, was found entire in an adult female's grave. The lady had been buried in an unusually strong coffin, or covered bier; and the pitcher was placed either upon or beside the coffin, not inside it. It is, however, well known that it is by no means necessary to place the articles intended for the use of the deceased inside the coffin.

This lady was further remarkable, because upon her breast lay a comb of bone, having on one side fine teeth, and on the other coarse ones. It was evidently meant for her toilette in the next world. How necessary it was considered, we may guess from the frequency with which combs are found, both here and on the Continent, in graves of the period in question, or later. In fact, no respectable, well-to-do corpse—of a woman, at all events—would think of being buried without one. Its importance to the toilette in the next world would doubtless be measured by the requirements of this. Of such requirements we have ample proof in the habits of too many civilised peoples; and these requirements have left a large impress on the folklore of Europe. We may probably regard the owner of the comb at Woodyates as being a person of some position.

One other interment only need here be noticed. It was that of a body which had been cremated, and the ashes of which had been enclosed in a dug-out coffin and buried at the bottom of a drain after the drain had been, for some reason or other, filled up. Fragments of pottery of a fine description were found mixed with the ashes. This was a burial which could only have taken place comparatively late in the history of the settlement; and it affords evidence that the custom of cremation went on side by side with that of unburnt inhumation.

On the whole, as at Woodcuts and Rotherley, so at Woodyates, there is no proof that Christianity had been adopted by the inhabitants. This is the more remarkable, because the latter place was situated on one of the great highways. But it must be remembered that a portion only of the village has been uncovered. Further researches may reveal traces of Christian influence, though not of Christian predominance. On the other hand, we learn that the dwellers at Woodyates believed in the existence of a spirit-world, whither the departed soul must journey, for the entrance to which he must pay toll, and where he would lead some such life as that of earth. Thus much may be said of their predecessors of the bronze and stone ages, and of almost all other races. At Woodcuts and at Rotherley, however, there were no relics which told us thus much. And the manner in which the dead were, at those villages, often flung into rubbish-pits, and in one case thrust into the flue of a hypocaust, suggests small reverence for their remains. Little, indeed, it is that Woodyates tells us on these matters. What would we not give for more ? If we could only know what gods the diminutive folk of the south of Britain adored, what were their tribal divisions, their marriage customs, their solemn festivals, it would enable us to rewrite a page of human history that has disappeared. We cannot hope ever to win this knowledge ; but more light may yet be thrown on some of their doings, perhaps on some of their beliefs, by further excavations conducted on the truly scientific methods of General Pitt-Rivers.

The pages of Folk-Lore are hardly the place for discussing the details of the coins, the pottery, and other material relics of art, native and imported, or the human and other bones, to all of which the most careful and impartial attention has been given. They belong rather to other departments of study, though by no means without their interest and their lessons for students of tradition. Meanwhile, it is evident that researches like those before us are complementary to the work which the Folk-lore Society is seeking to do throughout the counties. The present population is the descendant of the past ; and excavations that illustrate the former populations and their condition will help us to understand the peculiarities of the practices and beliefs of later generations. But it is of vital importance that they be conducted by trained explorers, who will both observe and record, not merely what seems important to them at the moment, but also what seems trivial and uninteresting ; for in this way only can we have a body of evidence preserved so as to be available for the discussion of the fresh problems continually arising with the progress of our knowledge. For such a band of explorers, and for such modes of procedure, the Inspector of Ancient Monuments has eloquently pleaded both in word and deed. If Parliament could be persuaded to accord him large and compulsory powers for the preservation and investigation of the monuments, which are a national inheritance and a trust, alas ! too little regarded, it would confer a lustre on itself, and earn the thanks of all who are interested, not merely in British history, but in anthropological science.

It only remains to call attention again to the museum at Farnham, organised on similar principles to that at Oxford, where General Pitt-Rivers has deposited the bulk of the objects recovered during his excavations, side by side with similar objects from foreign countries, and with a valuable and extensive series of models of the villages and of various stages of the excavations (showing the positions of the human and other remains), as well as of other ancient monuments. His anxiety to render these things accessible and attractive is shown by the erection of a small hotel close at hand, and by attention in other ways to the wants and comfort of persons who visit the museum. So successful has the effort proved, that last year 7,000 persons were recorded as visitors. His account of it in the Appendices to the present volume is one of justifiable pride and satisfaction.

E. Sidney Hartland.

  1. There is some evidence, however, that the object of giving the corpse this money is more general, namely, to provide for the wants of the dead in the spirit-world, in which case it is probably a relic of a previous custom of putting more valuable coins, or other articles, into the corpse's mouth. See Dr. De Groot's Religious System of China, vol. i, pp. 278-g.