The European theatre - Druids: A Very Short Introduction - Barry W. Cunliffe

Druids: A Very Short Introduction - Barry W. Cunliffe (2010)

Chapter 2. The European theatre

There has been a tendency in the past to regard druidism as a largely western European phenomenon relating to the latter part of the Iron Age - the period archaeologists refer to as La Tène (named after artefacts deposited on the edge of Lake Neuchâtel in Switzerland). One of the reasons for this is that La Tène material culture is found in all the areas in which the Druids are attested by the Classical sources and it covers the period c. 450 BC to the Roman era - the period during which the same sources tell us the Druids were active. These coincidences do not, however, mean that druidism was restricted to this period: indeed, it is a reasonable assumption that the beliefs and practices that constitute druidism began earlier and were deeply rooted in western European prehistory. In this chapter we will examine some of these ritual practices in so far as they can be deduced from the scraps of archaeological evidence that survive.

Another assumption that needs to be addressed is that the Druids were the intellectual elite of the Celts. There is some truth in this. The Druids were active in Gaul in the 2nd and 1st centuries BC and, according to Julius Caesar, writing in the mid-1st century BC, the people living in the central part of Gaul between the Seine and the Garonne rivers called themselves Celts. An earlier observer, Pytheas, writing at the end of the 4th century BC, also describes the people living in the Atlantic part of this region as Kelticē. But how extensive were the Celts, and what were their origins and history, are currently the subjects of a lively and complex debate. The old, long-held view, that the Celts emerged in west-central Europe and spread from there eastwards to the Carpathian Basin and beyond as far as Anatolia, south into Italy and the Balkans, and west to Iberia, Britain, and Ireland, is only partly supported by the evidence. The eastward and southern movement has some validity in that the Classical sources document raids and migrations into these areas from the 4th to 2nd centuries BC, but there is no evidence, archaeological or textual, that supports the westerly movement. Yet the Greek and Roman texts speak of Celts in the west of Iberia in the 6th century and in Atlantic Gaul in the 4th, and there is growing evidence to suggest that the Celtic language was being spoken in the far south-west of Iberia as early as the 8th century.

How can all this be explained? If we accept that the prime characteristic of the Celt is speaking the Celtic language, the simplest view would be to suppose that the Celts emerged in Atlantic Europe in a zone stretching from the Algarve to Britain and Ireland, gaining a degree of cohesion from the fact that intense maritime activity bound the Atlantic-facing communities tightly together. In such a context, a common language would have evolved to facilitate communication and, as the river networks became increasingly used for systems of exchange, so the language was adopted by the more inland communities. By the 6th century, when our Classical sources begin, there were Celtic speakers in much of Iberia, Gaul, and probably Britain and Ireland. The famous Celtic migrations that began around 400 BC involved only people on the inland (eastern) periphery of the Celtic-speaking zone: it was they who moved to the south and east.

If this scenario is correct, how does it affect our understanding of the relationship between Celts and Druids? The simplest response would be to allow that druidism may have been a feature of Celtic culture. If so, it may have developed in the west of Europe and have spread to west-central Europe by the 5th century. In the period of migration that followed, it is possible that the beliefs and practices were carried by the migrating communities south into northern Italy and eastwards as far as Anatolia. The fact that there is no textual evidence of Druids in Iberia, northern Italy, or central and eastern Europe may simply be an accident of survival. In other words, we cannot say definitely that there were no Druids in these areas but simply that none are specifically mentioned in the surviving texts.

If this thesis of the westerly origins of the Celts is accepted, then druidism, like the development of the Celtic language, may have had its roots deep in the prehistory of Atlantic Europe. With this in mind, in the rest of this chapter we will review some of the evidence for religious beliefs and behaviour during the time from the beginning of the Neolithic period, in the middle of the 6th millennium, up to the middle of the 1st millennium, when the Classical sources begin to appear. Chapter 3 will look at the archaeological evidence for religious practice in the La Tène period when the historic Druids were known to have been active.

Tangible data reflecting behaviour conditioned by belief systems take a variety of forms in the archaeological record. Broadly speaking, it consists of burial rites, depositions, ‘ritual’ structures, and iconography - that is, the physical manifestations of behaviour as it impacts on the soil or is found in archaeological contexts. What we do not have access to are narratives of belief or the philosophy that underpins them. We may offer interpretations based on the physical evidence, but at best these interpretations will be incomplete and at worst biased by our preconceptions. That said, there is much to be learned from considering the evidence as dispassionately as possible.

Standing back from all the detail, a simple underlying pattern can be discerned which may be characterized as the balance of opposites between the earth and the sky - the fertile earth providing the sustenance essential for the community’s wellbeing; the ever-consistent sky offering the signs that chart the passage of time. Both were inhabited by the gods, who had to be cajoled and placated. This stark oppositional model, variously interpreted by different prehistoric communities, offers a simple structure against which we can view and begin to understand the beliefs manifest in the scraps of archaeological evidence that survive.

The disposal of the dead has forever been a concern of human communities. Care for the dead body is evident in the Palaeolithic period, and by the Mesolithic period (9th to 5th millennia) cemeteries of carefully interred bodies are found along the maritime areas of western Europe, the individuals often being accompanied by items such as red deer antler, shell beads, and red ochre, which might be taken to imply some belief in the afterworld. Thereafter, ‘grave goods’, as they are called, frequently recur, with careful burials most notably in the 2nd millennium, when single interments were usually provided with sets of equipment which might reach elaborate proportions. The famous burial found in Bush Barrow, within sight of Stonehenge, was accompanied by bronze daggers and an axe, a sceptre, and gold ornaments, while his near contemporary, a female, buried at Upton Lovell, wore an amber necklace as well as various gold items. The temptation, when confronted with these arrays, is to think of the deceased being decked out in his or her finery and prepared for the afterlife - and so indeed it may have been - but the situation may well have been more complex.

To most societies, death is a process - a rite de passage - which begins with the last breath and ends when the spirit is at rest or has departed: the process may be very short or it may be extended. During this liminal period, the body may be treated in various ways. It may be placed on view as a visible assurance that the death has occurred and it may be the focus of offerings, relatives providing gifts to the corpse, thus demonstrating to others the strength and power of the lineage. In such a case, the objects buried with the dead may not necessarily be the personal equipment of the deceased but may instead reflect how his/her lineage wished to perceive themselves or wanted to be seen by others. In other words, grave goods may have other meanings than simply reflecting the life status of the deceased and a belief in the afterworld.

In some societies, the rite de passage may have been very extended, as is implied by evidence found in the megalithic tombs and earthen long barrows of the 4th and 3rd millennia. In the case of the earthen long barrows, the first stage of the ritual involved the construction of a timber mortuary enclosure in which bodies were laid out as they became available. This may have taken place over a considerable period until such time as the community decided to move to closure, which usually involved the digging of two parallel ditches and the piling up of the spoil over the mortuary enclosure to create a long mound. A similar process seems to have been implicit in the megalithic chambered tombs as, for example, in the West Kennet long barrow. Here it seems that the body of the newly deceased was placed in the main passage until such time that another person died, when the remains of the earlier body were cleared away into side chambers to make space for the new arrival. This went on for some time until the moment of closure, which here involved the placing of a massive stone slab across the entrance.

What beliefs lay behind these complex practices is difficult to say, but one possibility is that the long barrows and megalithic structures were tombs of elite lineages which were maintained in use until the last member of the group had died. The practice of single burial, which followed in the 2nd millennium, appears at first sight to be a major change in the belief system. However, it could be argued that the rows of barrows that dominate the chalk downs of southern Britain represent the burial grounds of single lineages, and that when the last of the lineage had died the cemetery simply ceased to grow.

Attempts to quantify death rates and burial numbers in 2nd-millennium Wessex have led to the conclusion that only a fraction of the population was given careful burial, the rest being disposed of in some other manner, most probably by excarnation, that is, the exposure of the body to the elements and to predatory birds. What social factors governed the selection we will never know, but the implications are interesting. One sector of the population was consigned to the earth - to the chthonic deities - the other to the sky. This same dichotomy, but expressed in a different way, is implicit in the rite of cremation, which begins to replace inhumation in the middle of the 2nd millennium. On the funeral pyre, the spirit of the departed is released into the sky while the physical remains, the ashes, are placed in ceramic containers and buried in the ground.

Although changes over time and regional differences complicate the picture, it is evident from the sketch given here that the belief systems involved in the disposal of the dead were sophisticated. In all probability, they encompassed a sense of a spirit that left the body during the rite de passage and a belief in the protective power of the chthonic and sky deities. Beyond this, however, it is difficult to venture.

The question of human sacrifice is worth considering. Though indisputable evidence is hard to find, excavation at the 3rd millennium causewayed camp of Hambledon Hill in Dorset showed that human skulls were placed at intervals in the ditches. This could be interpreted as evidence of sacrifice, but it could equally be that the skulls of ancestors were chosen to protect the hill from the intrusion of alien spirits. As so often with archaeological evidence, there are many possible explanations.

How far back in time European communities began to recognize and chart the movements of the sun, moon, and stars it is impossible to say, but for the mobile hunting bands of the Palaeolithic period, following large herds through the forests of Europe and returning to base camps when the hunt was over, the ability to navigate using the stars would have been vital to existence. Similarly, indicators of the changing seasons would have signalled the time to begin specific tasks in the annual cycle of activity. For communities living by the sea, the tides provided a finer rhythm while tidal amplitude could be related to lunar cycles, offering a precise system for estimating the passage of time. The evening disappearance of the sun below the horizon must have been a source of wonder and speculation. Living close to nature, with one’s very existence depending upon seasonal cycles of rebirth and death, inevitably focused the mind on the celestial bodies as indicators of the driving force of time. Once the inevitability of the seasonal cycles was fully recognized, it would have been a short step to believing that the movements of the sun and the moon had a controlling power over the natural world.

The spread of food-producing regimes into western Europe in the middle of the 6th millennium led to a more sedentary lifestyle and brought communities closer to the seasonal cycle, which governed the planting of crops and the management of flocks and herds. A proper adherence to the rhythm of time, and the propitiation of the deities who governed it, ensured fertility and productivity.

The sophistication of these early Neolithic communities in measuring time is vividly demonstrated by the alignments of the megalithic tombs and other monuments built in the 4th and 3rd millennia. The great passage tomb of New Grange in the Boyne Valley in Ireland was carefully aligned so that at dawn on the day of the midwinter solstice the rays of the rising sun would shine through a slot in the roof and along the passage to light up a triple spiral carved on an orthostat set at the back of the central chamber. The contemporary passage grave at Maes Howe on Orkney was equally carefully placed so that the light of the setting sun on the midwinter solstice would flow down the side of the passage before filling the central chamber at the end. The passage grave of Knowth, in the same group as New Grange, offers further refinements. Here there are two separate passages exactly aligned east to west: the west-facing passage captures the setting sun on the spring and autumn equinoxes (21 March and 21 September), while the east-facing passage is lit up by the rising sun on the same days. The nearby passage grave of Dowth appears to respect other solar alignments and, although it has not been properly tested, there is a strong possibility that the west-south-west orientation of its main passage was designed to capture the setting sun on the winter cross-quarter days (November and February) half way between the equinox and the solstice.

Other monuments, most notably stone circles, have also been claimed to have been laid out in relation to significant celestial events. The most famous is Stonehenge, the alignment of which was deliberately set to respect the midsummer sunrise and the midwinter sunset.

From the evidence before us there can be little doubt that by about 3000 BC the communities of Atlantic Europe had developed a deep understanding of the solar and lunar calendars - an understanding that could only have come from close observation and careful recording over periods of years. That understanding was monumentalized in the architectural arrangement of certain of the megalithic tombs and stone circles. What was the motivation for this we can only guess - to pay homage to the gods who controlled the heavens?; to gain from the power released on these special days?; to be able to chart the passing of the year? - these are all distinct possibilities. But perhaps there was another motive. By building these precisely planned structures, the communities were demonstrating their knowledge of, and their ability to ‘contain’, the phenomenon: they were entering into an agreement with the deities - a partnership - which guaranteed a level of order in the chaos and uncertainty of the natural world.

The people who made the observations and recorded them, and later coerced the community into the coordinated activity that created the remarkable array of monumental structures, were individuals of rare ability - the keepers of knowledge and the mediators between common humanity and the gods. They were essential to the wellbeing of society, and we can only suppose that society revered them.

Returning to our simplified model, it could be argued that the monuments we have been considering were a reflection of the community’s engagement with the powers controlling the sky. What, then, of the chthonic deities of earth and water? There are some clues from the archaeological record. In the 3rd and 2nd millennia, a commonly observed phenomenon was the digging of pits, many of which appear to have had no utilitarian function but which often contained collections of artefacts or animal bones suggestive of deliberate deposition. The interpretation frequently put forward is that these structures represent offerings placed in the earth to propitiate the chthonic deities. One outstanding example is the shaft of mid-2nd millennium date found at Wilsford, 1.5 kilometres south-west of Stonehenge. The shaft, 1.8 metres in diameter and 30 metres deep, penetrated the chalk sufficiently to reach the water-table. The interpretation of the structure as a ritual shaft is not entirely straightforward since there was no convincing evidence of a votive deposit within the fill, and indeed a wooden bucket and length of rope found in the bottom might suggest a more prosaic explanation, but that said, even if the shaft had functioned as a well the water itself, coming from deep in the rock, would surely have been regarded as sacred. Ambivalent attitudes to wells are seen throughout time, particularly in the medieval period when many wells and springs were believed to be presided over by saints, usually females. In the prehistoric period, it is quite conceivable that any act of penetration in the soil was seen as a violation of the domain of the deities and had to be mitigated by offerings and observances.

The amount of material deliberately consigned to the earth increased dramatically throughout the late 2nd and early 1st millennia and survives now in the archaeological record as ‘hoards’, usually comprising collections of bronze implements. In the past, hoards of this kind were generally regarded as deposits ‘hidden’ with the intention later to recover them, but, while this may be so in some cases, most hoards are now thought to be offerings made to the deities. If so, they could be thought of as a tithe of a product made from materials drawn from the earth which has been returned to the earth to maintain harmony. Bronze hoards appear to increase in number through time, reaching to a crescendo of deposition in the 7th to 6th centuries. Armorica (the name given in ancient times to the part of Gaul that includes the Brittany peninsula and the area between the Seine and Loire rivers, extending down the Atlantic coast) presents an extreme case. Here, in this final stage of hoarding, more than 300 deposits comprising 40,000 or so axes have been recovered, but most of the axes were not functional. They were now made with a high lead content, which makes them too soft to use, and they had not been properly finished. The implication, then, is that the Breton axes may have been made specifically for deposition, and it is possible that the high lead content was a deliberate attempt to bulk out the metal supply so that more could be manufactured.

What factors led to the increased volume of hoarding, and to the extreme Armorican response, it is impossible to say. The suggestion that it was in some way linked to the replacement of bronze by iron as the metal of choice for tools and weapons seems too simplistic. A more likely context may be the change in agrarian productivity which seems to have taken place after the middle of the 2nd millennium. Corn-growing became increasingly important, with more of the landscape laid out as permanent fields devoted to cereal production. This development may have been a response to population growth or to an enhanced social value attached to maintaining a surplus - perhaps both - but in any event, fertility and productivity, perceived to be in the gift of the gods, would have had to have been ensured through propitiation. Could it be that the large quantities of bronze now consigned to the soil was one of the ways in which the chthonic deities were placated? As we will see later (in Chapter 3), as bronze hoarding came to an end, a new tradition of placing dedicatory deposits in disused corn storage pits began to be widely practised, continuing the tradition of gift but now in a context directly related to the wellbeing of the crop.

Alongside ‘hoarding’, there is a parallel tradition which involves the deposition of goods in watery contexts - in rivers, springs, and bogs. The implication is that such locations were perceived to be the liminal spaces through which it was possible for our world to communicate with the world below. A vivid example of this, though from a later period, is the sacred hot spring in the centre of Bath into which the Romans threw a range of offerings, dedicated to the goddess Sulis. Among the items consigned to the water were messages to the deity inscribed on sheets of lead calling for the goddess to act on behalf of the suppliant. Clearly the spring was a channel of communication.

Throughout prehistory a range of artefacts, mainly tools and weapons, were deposited in watery contexts. One of the earliest in Britain is the superb polished jadeite axe, originating in the western Alps, which was placed in a bog alongside a wooden trackway - the Sweet Track - built across the Somerset marshes in about 3000 BC. It must have been an object of huge social value the deposition of which was an act of great piety. We can only guess its meaning, but it is tempting to think that it was placed to ensure the safety of those using a trackway which the community had imposed upon the domain of the presiding deity.

In the 2nd and early 1st millennia, material thrown into rivers becomes increasingly common - a tradition which, as we will see, is maintained and intensified in the Iron Age. The principal items are weapons, leading to the suggestion that these might have been the spoils of battle dedicated to the gods in recognition of a victory. Some of the individual weapons may have had long histories, their fame sealed by successful use. The deposition of such an item would have been an occasion of great note.

Deposition in earth and in water - including no doubt the sea - suggests that reverence for the natural world played an important part in the belief systems of the people. It is not unlikely that other natural phenomena - a striking rocky crag or an ancient tree - were also treated with reverence, but direct archaeological evidence is generally lacking.

In addition to these natural portals to the gods, there were also man-made locations. We have already mentioned the stone circles and stone alignments found along the length of the Atlantic zone. To these we may add the remarkable circular timber monuments, like Woodhenge and Durrington Walls near Stonehenge and the Sanctuary near Avebury, composed of concentric circles of massive upright timbers which may have been similar in function to the stone circles and appear to have been built to reflect celestial alignments. And then there is the confusing scatter of enigmatic structures which enlivened the landscape from the mid-4th to mid-2nd millennia - the causewayed camps, cursus monuments, and henges, the last two categories being confined largely to the British Isles. All three were forms of enclosure, their limits defined by ditches which bounded an area, separating it from the world outside.

The causewayed enclosures, as their name implies, were characterized by discontinuous ditches and may have performed a range of functions. Some, like Windmill Hill in Wiltshire, are thought to have been meeting places used, perhaps, for ceremonial gatherings at certain times during the year. Others, like Hambledon Hill in Dorset, seem to have been places where the dead were excarnated. The portmanteau term ‘henge monument’ covers a variety of enclosures of different sizes and configurations. Many of them are associated with depositions, sometimes in pits, which, together with the lack of evidence of normal domestic activity, suggests some kind of ritual function. Finally, there are the cursus monuments - very long enclosures defined by parallel ditches. The largest is the Dorset Cursus, averaging 100 metres wide and 10 kilometres long. The cursus in the vicinity of Stonehenge is the same width but only 2.7 kilometres in length. How such structures functioned in the ritual landscape has long been a subject of lively debate but remains unresolved. The 18th-century antiquarian suggestion that they may have been for running events (hence the name) may not be too far-fetched.

The rich and varied ritual landscapes of Britain, Ireland, and Armorica, though different in their detail, reflect societies which, throughout the 3rd and into the 2nd millennia, were investing much of their surplus capacity in creating structures and spaces for ritual observance. Ritual sites are known in Gaul from this period, but the structural details differ and, on present evidence, there seem to be far fewer of them. Yet taken together, the conclusion must be that, wherever you were, the gods, and man’s physical response to them, were never very far away.

To attempt to construct belief systems from scraps of mute archaeological evidence is a near-impossible task, but from the facts so briefly surveyed above some general observations can be made. Perhaps the most striking aspect of life in the Neolithic and Bronze Age is the high level of communal investment in the monumentalization of ritual practice through monument building, whether it be places of assembly for the living or of repose for the ancestors. That a huge amount of society’s energy went into these constructions is an indication of the importance of ritual observance. Reverence for ancestors and, in the 2nd millennium, the consignment of grave goods with the body, may well reflect a belief in the continuity of spirit and some understanding of an afterlife. Finally, there can be little doubt that the celestial calendar was well understood and that it formed the structure around which the year, with its ceremonies and observances, was fashioned.

The rich fabric of prehistoric belief, revealed by the archaeological evidence especially in Britain, Ireland, and Armorica, could only have been maintained by specialists - a group with coercive authority capable of abstract thought, philosophical speculation, and scientific observation, who passed on their learning from one generation to the next. Although there was no doubt considerable regional variation, and there were changes in practice over time, the broad similarities along the whole Atlantic interface are impressive.

So, where does this lead us? Could it be that the Druids, who are known to the Classical world from the 4th century BC, had their roots deep in this prehistory - that the accumulated wisdoms which they guarded and taught were the legacy of learning and practice going back into the 2nd and 3rd millennia BC? There is nothing at all unreasonable in this suggestion, indeed there is a logic in it, but there is no way in which it can be validated: it remains at best an interesting speculation. One further observation needs to be made. Julius Caesar, as we have seen, recorded his belief that druidism originated in Britain and that those who wished to study it were advised to make a journey to the island. From where he gathered this belief and whether it was valid we will never know, but there remains the intriguing possibility that he was right. Britain was an island redolent of ancient religious practice; perhaps his informants had access to oral traditions that spoke of these times.