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A heartfelt plea from our member Tombo for “the myth of barbarism” to be lifted from our prehistory and for our ancient places to be given the care they deserve.
The stone circle of Tomnaverie, in Aberdeenshire, is a powerful symbol of the unhappy situation facing Britain’s rich prehistoric heritage. The builders of this majestic megalithic ring chose to position it like a crown on the head of the hill for which it is named: Tomnaverie, meaning ‘The Mound of the Fairies’. Yet despite the commanding location, the awe-inspiring views over the surrounding landscape and the impressive character of the stones themselves, Tomnaverie is the scene of an appalling tragedy.
As the twentieth century progressed, the Mound of the Fairies was slowly quarried away. Today, the quarrying has claimed so much of the hillside that the cliff-edges begin at the very limits of the stone circle itself, which can now only be reached by what one visitor described as “an ever-diminishing causeway of rock” (Julian Cope, The Modern Antiquarian). Many of the stones were deliberately thrown down (although now re-erected), at an unknown date, still others removed, and even those that remain are scarred and chipped.
Tomnaverie – see how insanely close to the stones the quarry is – during excavation. (Credit Peter Donaldson)
Kemp Howe stone circle, in Cumbria, similarly symbolises the wider context of its tragedy. This ring of beautiful, almost luminescent, pink-coloured stones are brutally bisected by a railway line, slightly over half of the circle completely obliterated beneath the embankment. It is a bizarre experience, to watch commuter-filled carriages hurtling at top speed through this battered beauty. The destruction could have been avoided altogether had the tracks only been laid a handful of yards away. It is as though the railway’s planners and builders did not even notice the circle’s presence.
Britain and Ireland are filled with places of this sort, where the monuments that meant so much to the people of the ancient world have been treated as nothing more than obstacles in the path of the modern world’s progress. Indeed, this website is entirely devoted to raising awareness of ancient sites that are, at this very moment, in danger of falling victim to similar circumstances. At least these places, unlike Tomnaverie, Kemp Howe and many other locations, can still be saved from damage and degradation, if we act now.
It is the purpose of this essay to enquire into the reasons why Britain’s ancient heritage so often faces these threats of wanton and unnecessary destruction. With so many prehistoric monuments at risk the main thrust of Heritage Action’s activities must, of necessity, be to deal with the problem symptomatically, tackling head-on specific threats to specific monuments. Yet it is also important that awareness is raised as to the underlying causes of the malaise, in the hope that the destruction might, in the future, be prevented from arising in the first place.
The myth of history
Humans and their ancestors (people who walked upright and gradually developed culture) have walked the earth for over three million years, yet I write these words in the year 2004. We number our years with reference to the birth of Jesus, dividing the past into BC, or Before Christ, and AD, or Anno Domini (Latin for In The Year Of Our Lord). Even when the more politically-correct terminology of CE and BCE (Common Era and Before The Common Era, respectively) is adopted, the division of the past into two portions remains, and with it the implication that one era, and by far the shorter one at that, is more significant than the other.
The original adoption of this method of numbering the years was very clearly an attempt to deliberately mislead. The nascent church, in a spirit of propagandist fervour, wished to imply that the times before the coming of Christianity were long ages of error, that the pre-Christian world was at best misguided, at worst actually evil. Even now that the church has lost much of its political and cultural power in Britain, our numbering of the years insidiously perpetuates its disregarding of the greater part of our past. A powerful but subtle deception endures.
A road slices through one end of Tregiffian Burial Chamber in Cornwall. (Credit Jane Tomlinson )
We similarly polarise the past every time we speak of ‘history’, a word which has ‘prehistory’ implicit in it. The word ‘history’ is derived from the same root as ‘story’, and in Middle English no distinction was made between the two. Whenever we mention ‘history’, we subtly imply that ‘prehistory’ was the time before the story began, of lesser importance than the story itself. It is interesting to note that in scholarly books about Britain’s past, the word ‘history’ usually refers to roughly the last two thousand years, just like Anno Domini or Common Era.
It might be argued that the influence of the church lingers on in the scholarly study of history. Academic knowledge, like that which is handed on in the history department of a modern university, is built up like the edifice of an ornate building, over many generations of scholars, each adding to the work of the last. Because Britain’s earliest native historians were monks, like Gildas or Bede, there may be some merit in the view that history’s academic architecture rests upon Christian foundations that exert a fundamentally Christian influence on the entire structure.
Yet this can only be the beginning of the story, because most contemporary historians have no overtly Christian axe to grind. Moreover, they try to cultivate a keen awareness of the biases inherent in all historical sources, particularly those that were so obviously created within the context of a rigidly religious world-view. The Christian foundations of our scholarly edifice may exert some degree of malign influence on our understanding of the past, but they are by no means the sole cause of the dismissal that is implied by the terminology of ‘history’ and ‘prehistory’.
The written word
The foremost definition of the word ‘history’ given in the Oxford English Dictionary is “continuous methodical record of public events”. Implicit in this definition is the notion that history is, by its very nature, a written phenomenon. After all, how else is a ‘continuous methodical record’ to be kept? Most of the sources from which historians learn about the past are written, because the written word can establish the facts of history with an apparent certainty that no other medium offers. Writing preserves the stories of history in the words of those who actually witnessed them.
Although the Ogham, Runic and Greek alphabets were not unknown in prehistoric Britain, they were not at all widely used. Before the arrival of the Romans, in 43 CE, the written sources that usually inform the study of history simply did not exist here. There is a sense, then, in which the term ‘prehistory’ simply refers to the time before the ‘continuous methodical record of public events’ began. Although this shows ‘prehistory’ to be a far less sinister term than ‘Before Christ’, it does not alter the fact that it rings in most ears as a dismissal: ‘before the story started’.
The Leys of Marlee Stone Circle, near Blairgowrie. How easy it would’ve been for the road to avoid the circle! (Credit Andy Sweet )
The ‘methodical record of public events’ might only have begun with writing, but the story of our collective past is far deeper and older. Indeed, most historians would be the first to acknowledge this, and also to point out that much can be known of the times before writing. Yet our culture’s dismissal of the pre-literate past is undeniable. The space on any school timetable devoted to the study of pre-literate times is as nothing when compared to that spent teaching the written history of the Common Era. Most children leave school without ever hearing the name Silbury.
It might be argued that this is as it should be, that it is entirely right that at least three million years of ‘prehistory’ should be skimmed over in only a handful of pages at the beginning of our history books, that the last two thousand years of ‘history’ are more relevant to our situation today. But then a convincing argument can also be made for the lessons of ‘prehistory’ having more relevance to the modern world than those which ‘history’ offers. Who is to decide which has more merit, and why must the decision be made? Would it not be better to fully inform our children of the entire past?
The multitudinous books on the subject of pre-literate Britain demonstrate that abundant enough material could be found to rectify this imbalance in the nation’s education. The absence of writing does not mean that we do not know enough of those times to describe them to our children in far fuller detail than the oversimplified and distorted outline which is currently on offer in our schools. There is an abundance of evidence from which we can learn of pre-literate times, the numerous monuments that Heritage Action exists to protect foremost in this cultural legacy.
The myth of civilisation
There is a tacit assumption, in our culture, that civilisation is altogether a good thing. Our leaders speak of Western societies as “the civilised world” sharing “civilised values”, referring to their enemies as “the enemies of civilisation”. It is considered high praise to be referred to as ‘very civilised’, and conversely a grave insult to be told that your behaviour is ‘uncivilised’. Civilised, to most people, is synonymous with words like cultured, polite and intelligent. Uncivilised, conversely, is popularly identified with terms such as barbaric, thuggish and ignorant.
The latest edition of the Oxford English Dictionary defines civilisation as “an advanced stage or system of human social development”. The word originates in the Latin civis, meaning ‘city dweller’, which is also the ancestor of our word ‘city’. Despite the dictionary’s vagueness as to the exact nature of this “advanced stage or system”, it is safe to say that the defining characteristic of civilisation is urban life. Cities, so the story goes, are only possible in societies where people’s social skills are sufficiently highly evolved to enable them to live peacefully with large numbers of other people.
The Broad Stone, Dorset. Once part of a stone circle, not quite destroyed but forgotten in the wake of the A35. (Credit Jamie Stone )
The word civilisation, then, implies that the people of non-urban societies are under-developed, immature, uncooperative and anti-social. Indeed, the Romans originally began to refer to themselves as civis out of a smug sense of cultural superiority. It was a word they used to set themselves apart from those who they looked down on as primitive, the ‘barbarians’ who they believed to be too socially backward to live in cities. Civilisation is truly a xenophobic word, both born of and perpetuating a divisive us-and-them mentality.
The British empire in India attempted to disguise its true purpose, the acquisition of land, natural resources and power, with high-sounding talk of a “civilising mission”. Its missionaries made the same claim in Africa, as did the conquistadors in South America, and a legion of other servants of Empire all over the world. The concept of civilisation first came to Britain in exactly the same way: as Roman imperial propaganda designed to denigrate and disregard the ‘savage’ pre-Roman world by implying that the invaders had saved us from barbarism.
The relevance of this to our culture’s dismissal of the pre-literate, prehistoric past is clear. Historians believe civilisation to have arrived in Britain at the same time as both writing and history: with the Roman invasion. Indeed, the 1994 Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary defines civilisation as “the stage of cultural development at which writing and the keeping of written records is attained “. It seems more than coincidental that our ‘civilised’ society should undervalue its pre-literate past. Those times are also said to be before civilisation, when people are believed to have been brutal and barbaric.
The myth of barbarism
The Roman dismissal of Britain’s pre-Roman past became entrenched ever more deeply in our culture by long centuries of Christianity and persists to this day. It is still the popularly-held belief that the people of pre-Roman Britain were in some way subhuman, animalistic, ape-like (although there’s nothing wrong with being an animal or an ape). Within a few years of the Roman invasion, the social climbers amongst the indigenous population were dressing in Roman clothes, living in Roman-style houses and learning Latin. ‘Roman’ quickly became synonymous with ‘fashionable’.
Barbarism is said to be the absence of civilisation, and the 1949 Oxford English Dictionary defines civilise as “bring out of barbarism”. It derives, via the Latin barbaria (which refers to a country of barbarians), from the Greek word barbaros, meaning ‘foreign, strange, ignorant’. Etymological dictionaries suggest that its ‘bar-bar’ sound was likely to have originated as a mocking imitation of the ‘unintelligible’ speech of foreigners. There is, then, no need for shame in the face of our ‘barbarian’ past: the word barbarian is every bit as xenophobic as civilisation.
A cairn near the famous Callanish on the Isle of Lewis – cut in half by a road. (Credit Andy Sweet )
The slanders that are heaped upon the ‘barbarian’ need to be recognised as the racist slurs that they are. The absence of cities in pre-Roman Britain does not mean that people were anti-social or uncooperative, just as the presence of cities does not demonstrate their ability to live together in perfect harmony. Silbury Hill, described in full elsewhere on this website, is but one spectacular fruit of mass cooperation in pre-urban Britain, whilst the ruthless empire-building of the city-dwelling Romans can hardly be described as either cooperative or sociable.
The absence of civilisation, barbarism, is popularly thought to imply a higher level of violence than that which is found amongst ‘civilised’ people. To modern ears, the word ‘barbarian’ conjures images of muscle-bound, small-brained, sword-wielding savages. Yet there is no evidence at all to suggest that the presence of cities makes a society either more or less violent. Pre-urban Britain was sometimes a violent place, just as it can be today, but then the city-dwelling Romans, with their love of war, crucifixion and the amphitheatre, can hardly be described as a pacifist people.
The idea that pre-literate, barbarian Britain lacked both intelligence and culture because it lacked writing is another popular misconception. Even Caesar wrote with some degree of awe about the sophisticated education of Britain’s Druids, who each memorised a rich oral tradition in its entirety during their twenty years of training. He remarked: “they consider it improper to entrust their studies to writing… [in case] the student should rely on the written word and neglect the exercise of his memory”. Writing was used only for mundane, usually financial, matters.
Britain is filled with prehistoric monuments whose builders could only have been intelligent, thoughtful, patient, inspired, skilful, cooperative and knowledgeable, amongst many other admirable qualities. The sheer scale of monuments like Silbury, Avebury, Stonehenge, Stanton Drew, The Ring of Brodgar and Callanish demonstrate, to begin with, that their builders were materially secure and optimistic about their future. Those who are engaged in a struggle for survival cannot devote the labour of so many to monument-construction without starving to death, their works left unfinished.
The builders of ancient monuments had a highly sophisticated sense of aesthetics. The beauty of their constructions enthrals us to this day, delighting the painter, poet, photographer, musician and film-maker alike. More than being beautiful in their own right, however, the positioning of these monuments reveals an exquisite sensitivity to the aesthetics of landscape. The Castlerigg stone circle, for instance, stands at the centre of a vast, natural amphitheatre, majestic hills towering in a stately ring around it, utterly spectacular scenery that attracts hundreds of visitors every summer’s day.
Other sites reveal the locations from which landscape features take on human forms. At the Callanish standing stones, for example, on the Hebridean Isle of Lewis, the hills on the horizon conspire to form the shape of a recumbent female figure, who has long been known locally as the Cailleach na Monteach (‘hag of the moors’, who is also known as Sleeping Beauty). The various monuments of the Callanish complex all reveal different aspects of Sleeping Beauty’s character: from one stone circle she appears to be pregnant, for instance, whilst at another site she is cradled between two hills like a tiny baby.
‘Sleeping Beauty’ on the horizon nearly fills this picture. Her head is on the right – she’s lying on her back. Nose, breasts, pubic mound, and legs all clearly defined. (Credit: Tim Clark )
Once every nineteen years, as seen from the main avenue at Callanish, the Moon rises out of Sleeping Beauty’s heart and dances eastward along the horizon, barely rising into the sky at all. It sets just short of the main Callanish circle itself, but reappears a moment later through a notch in the horizon, the pale light shivering out from the very centre of the ring. The Moon is a notoriously erratic celestial object, and this spectacular drama can only be made to unfold from a very particular location. Careful scientific observation and an inspired artistic eye were both essential to the positioning of Callanish.
Further examples of this sort of monumental art and science abound, from the Cumbrian stones known as the Giant’s Grave, which reveal a sleeping giant in hills called Black Combe, to Stonehenge’s famous alignment on the midsummer sunrise. These places are far too numerous to detail fully here, and I recommend Julian Cope’s The Modern Antiquarian to those wishing to learn more of them. Suffice it to say that the legacy of the megalith-builders reveals them to have been skilled artists, astronomers, mathematicians, engineers and much more.
Why has the ring of Tomnaverie been all but ruined by quarrying that could have taken place elsewhere? Why have the railway tracks at Kemp Howe obliterated over half of the stone circle, when the destruction could have been avoided by laying them a few yards away? Why has Silbury Hill been in danger of collapse for nearly four years now, as I write these words, when the damage could have been repaired? Why are the Thornborough Henges in imminent danger of suffering the same senseless fate as Tomnaverie?
Kemp Howe Stone Circle – some of its stones are believed to still be under the railway embankment
(Credit Stubob )
Our prehistoric heritage is desperately undervalued. If it were Canterbury Cathedral, and not Silbury Hill, that were at risk of collapse then the structure would have been made sound long ago. The comparison is very relevant: Silbury has a clear historical importance in terms of both national and world heritage, and is of central significance to the spirituality of many thousands of people in both modern Britain and the world at large, as it was in the ancient past. In the face of such unequal treatment our culture’s undervaluing of its prehistoric heritage is hard to deny.
This essay has argued that the many dangers facing Britain’s ancient monuments, and also much of the damage already done, are symptomatic of a wider problem in our understanding of the past. I have attempted to give what I see as the reasons for the tragic disregarding of the greater part of our past. I have pointed out what I believe to be prejudices in the way our culture views the people of prehistory. I have traced what I see as the historical causes of these prejudices, arguing that they originated in the Roman empire and were perpetuated and deeply embedded in our culture by the Christian church.
I am by no means the first to suggest this, and these arguments have been gradually taking root in our cultural consciousness over recent years, awareness spreading with the popular books and television programmes by authors like Julian Cope (The Modern Antiquarian) and Francis Pryor (Britain BC). A re-evaluation of our past may be underway, and it is possible that soon the judgemental measuring up of prehistoric Britain’s culture using the distorted Roman standard of civilisation will be ended. In the mean-time prejudices persist, and we who care must take all the action that we can to protect our past.
Out there on the heath, hidden from the city-centres, our precious ancient heritage stands forgotten, ignored and, all too often, endangered. It is our heritage, and it belongs to us all. If it is to be saved then awareness and action are the duties of each and every one of us. Are we to sit indoors whilst the quarrymen and road-builders draw up their plans, unaware of our loss even when we are robbed? Will we always write off the majority of human beings to have ever lived as uncivilised barbarians? Are we to be dispossessed, or educated and empowered?
The rest is up to you.