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Prehistoric walkabouts

28 April 2010

Prehistoric Journeys, Cummings and Johnston, Oxbow: 2007, is an attempt to understand prehistoric movements. People did not simply travel from one place to another for the sake of the journey but for a purpose – trade and barter for example. Mobility and travel are unlikely to have been expceptional in prehistoric societies – unlike later agrarian communities where people were tied to district and could live their whole lives without venturing outside the immediate locale. In fact, life itself was probably part of the travelling process, walking perhaps, unlike mobile nomads and semi-nomads (a later development). Goods are exchanged. Relatives and people with ties are met. Children are born. Bonds are made. Travel also fulfilled a desire for change and exploration of the wider world. In addition, journeys may also have had a ritual dimension on occasion – somewhat like modernish pilgrimage (or Australian Aborigine walkabouts).  Hence, navigational landmarks may have been used, a stone on top of a boulder for example, close to the skyline and therefore easily visible. Aubrey Burl noted back in 1976 that henge were usually located in river valleys – close to water. People moved around on rivers and in boats, and sea-marks are also a factor noted by the author. Boat travellers also used overland routs to avoid treachorous currents – or to take a short cut. For example, the Kilmartin Valley was favoured  as a route rather than going all the way round the Mull of Kintyre with it’s tidal races. The Upper Clyde river (and valley) connected conveniently with the Tweed and Nith rivers, saving a long journey around the top of Scotland. In time, during the Neolithic, such routes filled up with monuments rather than simple way markers. The author then suggests the three Avon rivers of Wessex can be viewed as a similar route, by water and land, which would have avoided the long journey around Cornwall. Wessex, as a result of this ongoing interest, filled up with monuments. However, such monuments were not just markers laid out to guide travellers – but played important tribal roles as gathering places at auspicious points of time in the annual calendar. He then speculates that one of the purposes was to re-enact myth – or retell tales associated with the ancestors. Not so much a religion but a rebonding of tribe and society.

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