Nice Story

8 Dec 2016

Bob Trubshaw, writing in Northern Earth 147 (December 2016) has been reading an Oxbow Archaeological publication written by archaeologist Alastair Whittle (in 1997). This concerns what he describes as a 'palisaded enclosure' on the upper reaches of the river Kennet situated on a flat area of land, or flood plain, between the West Kennet long barrow and Silbury Hill (easily accessible as it is alongside the A4 road). Actually, there is nothing much to see from an eyeball view as the enclosures consist of post holes - up to 2000 of them. These form several oval enclosures and the archaeological interest is in what was their purpose, although just being there and recorded is a mystery for later generations perhaps. Some of the post holes are 2m deep and it is thought they could have held posts up to 6 to 8m tall (the part sticking out of the ground). Gate posts (for metal farm gates) are usually around 2 feet into the ground but the topography close to the Kennet may actually have caused them to be set deeper. All we need to know is that some kind of palisade was built, probably quite tall, and it obscured view of what was going on inside. Was this to stop something getting out of the enclosures or was it to deter people from having a look?

Also discovered were a large number of animal bones. These come from cattle, sheep/ goats, deer, dogs etc but overwhelmingly from pigs. It was also clear that not all the meat had been eaten and some of the prime cuts had been ritually deposited (as they say in polite circles). These represent, it seems, the leftovers of mass feasts, the bones of the meat that had been consumed, some of which was assigned to the gods. There is quite an extensive literature on the 'champions portion' which featured in Iron Age societies in Europe - presumably with older parallels as the site being looked at here is Neolithic and third millennium BC. Evidence of mass feasts, dominated by pork consumption, has been discovered elsewhere in the Neolithic, famously at Durrington Walls (near Stonehenge) and Marsden Henge (between Stonehenge and Avebury). Silbury Hill and West Kennet long barrow are all part of the wider Avebury landscape - and the latter is a hands-on experience when walking the stones.

The strange thing about the pigs on the Kennet is they seem to have had rotten teeth - and every dentist will tell you sugar consumption rots your teeth. How did pigs get the wrong side of the dentist? They appear to have been fattened on foods containing maltose - ie from malted barley. This is a leftover product of brewing. So many pigs with rotten teeth suggest a brewing operation on a massive scale, according to Trubshaw (and Whittle). Presumably, the beer was used to wash down the pork - but did both foods have a ritual connection as after all pigs and boars are very often depicted as avatars of deities and drinking alcohol is associated with ceremonial practise (as various other mind altering substances). If so we may suppose that vegetables were not on the menu - or perhaps they left no trace. Trubshaw, following Whittle, then explores the ritual killing of the pigs - all part of what was going on. Flint arrow heads were used to despatch the animals and it seems the enclosures may have also been used for ritual pig hunts in an enclosed space so they could not escape. Ritual slaughter survives into the modern world - as barbaric as it might seem to many people. In the Neolithic animals were not just for consumption but had a religious significance too. The two things were closely bound up with each other. The inference is that only a religious setting and mind-set would condone such a method of despatch - in this instance a pagan one that is not properly understood.

Trubshaw even comes up with a novel interpretation of the Avebury henge - ritual cattle hunts (in the autumn when cattle feed is diminishing but also coinciding, we may note, with the season of Halloween). The ditches at henges such as Avebury were very deep when cut and once had straight back sides which would trap any bovine that was forced back into them by humans play acting a hunting pantomine (although real arrows were used). We are visualising staged drama - re-enactments of the behaviour of deity as preserved in myth. The killing of a malevolent side of the gods. In ancient Egypt this would have been the god Set - in Neolithic Europe something along similar lines.