Solstice at Britain’s Newest Long Barrow


How will the archaeologists of the future explain how barrow (also known as as tumulus) building stopped in the Neolithic — and then resumed, 5,500 years later?

We know this one was built on a solar alignment, because the BBC tells us so.

See the barrow under construction here. And yes, dead people.

Rethinking Bog People

In college I had a work-study job in the library, and my favorite part was shelving books, because I worked alone, deep in the stacks, and if I found something interesting, I could skim it quickly and either check it out or come back for it.bogpeople_thumb[2]

One day I rolled my cart up to the rows of books awaiting reshelving, and there was one whose spine read The Bog People — Glob.

Was this for real?  BogGlobBog?

It turned out to be serious anthropology: Here is an American Anthropologist review (PDF) from 1969, when it was published. Pagan sacrifices? Medieval murders? I think I learned the word liripipe from reading The Bog People, rather than by joining the Society for Creative Anachronism.

The bog mummies are so fascinating because of their state of preservation. They are not just bones – you can see them as individuals, often wearing the clothing in which they died.

People create stories about them, such as Lindow Man, the so-called Druid prince. Did he suffer a ritualistic Robert Graves-ish triple death — clubbing, throat-cutting, and strangulation?

Others, such as Ronald Hutton, offer a simpler explanation: the so-called throat-cutting was the accidental slash of the peat-cutter’s spade, the ligature merely a cord holding an amulet or piece of jewelry, and the cause of death was a straightforward bludgeoning — why, no one knows.

Archaeologists debate whether the bog bodies were simple crime victims or ritual-murder victims. Were they locals or outsiders? Ordinary people or celebrities?

Because some bear horrific wounds, such as slashed throats, and were buried instead of cremated like most others in their communities, scientists have suggested the bodies had been sacrificed as criminals, slaves, or simply commoners. The Roman historian Tacitus started this idea in the first century A.D. by suggesting they were deserters and criminals. . . .

Niels Lynnerup, a forensic anthropologist at the University of Copenhagen who has studied bog bodies, believes that they were sacrificed—but the enigma, he said, revolves around why.

You look at their faces, and you wonder how they ended up tossed into a pool in a bog.


There, That’s Done, Almost. Also John Cowper Powys

Ruins of Glastonbury Abbey, destroyed at the orders of Henry VIII (Wikimedia Commons).

Where did the week go?

It seems like setting up the AAR sessions — two solo for Contemporary Pagan Studies, two co-sponsored, and one “quad” (four sponsors) — that plus a little snow, some fire department maintenance work, and some chainsaw issues that don’t belong here totally exhausted all my psychic energy. Just need to line up one more panel respondent.

When it is completed, I will publish the line-up of papers.

For refuge, I have fled to Glastonbury, not the real town but a close relative, John Cowper Powys’ massive novel A Glastonbury Romance.

As the explorer/writer Lawrence Millman said in a 2000 Atlantic piece, “One doesn’t read Powys so much as enlist in him.” (Of course, if you read all of A Song of Fire and Ice, you have “enlisted” in George R. R. Martin. Most people watch the TV series.)

This is all the fault of Carole Cusack, who in a recent blog interview on Albion Calling pronounced that “the entire oeuvre of John Cowper Powys should be of crucial interest to contemporary Pagans, but I suspect that he is almost unread these days, to everyone’s detriment, not just the Pagans.”

I took that as a challenge, and the helpful inter-library loan librarian quickly produced not just A Glastonbury Romance (1933) but Powys’ Autobiography (1934), which I read first. I could write more about the Autobiography. It’s frank enough, but repetitious — a good editor could have cut it by 40 percent without cutting meat. To quote Millman,

It is a record not of Powys’s achievements but of his various inadequacies. In it he described his manias and phobias, his “idiotic” mouth and “Neanderthal pate,” and particularly his sexual failures. He discussed “the sickening moments of dead sea desolation that came to me from my ulcerated stomach” and his chronic constipation. He called himself a “scarecrow Don Quixote with the faint heart of Sancho.” And yet the mood of the Autobiography is not gloomy or self-pitying. After all, this book was written by a man who treasured being “ill-constituted.”

I was surprised, therefore, how good A Glastonbury Romance is, if you are willing to give it time. Robert Altman would have struggled to direct a hypothetical movie version, there are so many interlaced stories going on.

Some of them are pure soap opera: Will Sam admit that he is the father of Nell’s baby? Will John and Mary be happily married even though they are first cousins? Will Mad Bet’s magical working against Mary destroy her marriage? Will the Communists destroy Philip’s factory? What is the nature of the esoteric books that Sam is getting from Owen the Welsh antiquary? And what is the Holy Grail?

Add the (feeble) influence of the dead, the palpable influence of The Past, the wind that blow through people’s dreams, and the all-out astral-plane battles between different factions trying to determine the future of Glastonbury. It’s really quite complex.

You might say that I have enlisted and will see it through to the end.

The Scary Countryside 2: Children of the Stones

The original “Scary Countryside” post.

Uncial script means “old and spooky.”

As mentioned above, “the scary countryside” is a staple meme of television and movies on both side of the pond, but in the UK there is the additional refinement of “the scary countryside where people practice strange and ancient rites.”

That does not work as well in North America unless you set your TV show in Awatowi, which is not going to happen soon.

So M. and I are enjoying a little “back to the Seventies” moment, watching the British TV series Children of the Stones, which so far might be described as The Prisoner meets The Wicker Man meets Groundhog Day. Or something like that.

To quote its Wikipedia entry,

Filmed at Avebury, Wiltshire during Summer 1976, with interior scenes filmed at HTV’s Bristol studios, it was an unusually atmospheric production with sinister, discordant wailing voices heightening the tension on the incidental music. The music was composed by Sidney Sager who used the Ambrosian Singers to chant in accordance with the megalithic rituals referred to in the story.Director Peter Graham Scott was surprised on seeing the script that the series was intended for children’s airtime due to the complexities of the plot and disturbing nature of the series. The series is frequently cited by those who remember it as one of the scariest things they saw as children.

Sounds good to me. More episodes await. If Netflix had existed in the late 1970s, this would have been on the coven viewing list, I am sure.

Trees, Animism, and Yuletide

Christmas tree discarded on public land in southern Colorado. (Photo: Royal Gorge Field Office, Bureau of Land Management)
Christmas tree discarded on public land in southern Colorado. (Photo: Royal Gorge Field Office, Bureau of Land Management)

I wanted to use the photo of the dumped Christmas tree with two different posts. Then I decided to combine them, so keep reading.

1. “Trees” is the theme of this month’s Animist Blog Carnival, hosted by Australian blogger Jay at naturebum. Tree totems, forest fires, Indo-European cosmology, and more!

2. Is there anything grosser than building up to the orgy of gift-unwrapping on December 25 and then declaring the whole holiday season over?A couple of days after that, and the local newspapers are telling you where you can “recycle” your Christmas tree.

But a book review in the British weekly The Spectator notes that at one time, decorations were left up until Candlemas.

‘The season of Christmastide has, in other words,’ [author Nick Grooms] observes, ‘shifted forward, as if it now expresses an impatient and premature desire for gratification. The result is that there are two cold months of winter following Christmas.’

At the very least, tonight is not quite Twelfth Night, unless like one Wiccan friend of mine, you count your twelve days from the winter solstice. So the colored lights will stay on a bit longer.

UK Druids Restore Damaged Ley Lines

A major effort is underway:

The council of British Druids have been working through the night to restore ley lines which have been damaged by recent storms. Many households have been without spiritual energy throughout the Yuletide holiday which has affected psychic connections in many parts of the country. A spokesman for the Druids commented; ‘We are doing all we can to restore the lines during the traditional pagan festival of Winter Solstice and we hope to have positive energy flowing freely between Glastonbury and Stonehenge by the weekend.’

Excavating Witches

It was the obligatory Halloween content over at Bones Don’t Lie, but I had too much else on my plate to link to it then.

The question is, how can you tell if a buried ancient skeleton was that of a witch (in the anthropological sense)? Does the mouth full of iron nails mean something?

And by the way, what happened to the bodies of the “witches” of Salem?

Those latter unfortunate victims gave birth to such a present-day tourism boom that I am waiting for the local promoters to stage a “discovery,” as was done for King Henry II with “Arthur” and “Guinevere” at Glastonbury Abbey. (Assuming that you accept the explanation that the 12th-century “discovery” was a money-raising ploy to help rebuild the burnt abbey.)