| 9 July 2007
Bronze Age serpentine mound found in England
Archaeologists have made a find in western England that thy hope will help illuminate the ritual life of Britain's Bronze Age inhabitants — a 60-meter (65-yard) serpentine mound paved with cracked stones believed to be the first of its kind discovered in Europe. Rotherwas Ribbon site crosses the route of the modern road under construction, almost at the perpendicular (road route west-east, 'ribbon' alignment south-north). The feature, provisionally dated to the Early Bronze Age c.2000 BCE, is made up in places of one single, and in places two successive, laid surfaces of deliberately fire-cracked stones apparently derived from a natural deposit forming a ridge half a kilometre to the west.
The 'source' ridge lies on the other (western) side of a settlement (also discovered in the project, but at the end of 2006) that included at least one Beaker period house (2-3 centuries either side of 2000 BCE) and with activity (pits, buildings) probably spanning the later Neolithic to Early Bronze Age period 3000-1800BCE. The 'Ribbon' is not laid upon an entirely flat surface, but one that has been deliberately sculpted to 'undulate' as the feature descends the slight slope from a small range of hills bordering the floodplain of the Wye and its confluence with the Lugg. A small number of finds including struck flints and some sherds of seemingly Early Bronze Age pottery have been retrieved along with a small quantity of bone and other debris from the silts immediately overlying the feature.
Mounds of 'burnt stones' — so-called because they have been cracked by heating and rapid cooling — litter northern Europe; some experts believe they are piles of ancient kitchen trash. The use of the stones to cover the snakelike 'Rotherwas Ribbon' mound, however, suggests that they were also used in rituals by people 4,000 years ago, said Herefordshire County archaeologist Keith Ray. "It's the only structure we have from prehistory from Britain or in Europe, as far as we can tell, that is actually a deliberate construction that uses burnt stones," Ray said. "This is going to make us rethink whole chunks of what we thought we understood about the period."
The mound, found in Herefordshire during the building of a highway, curves gently and has a 'tail-like feature' attached to its end, Ray said. He compared the site to the Serpent Mound in Ohio, an effigy of a giant, coiled snake generally thought to have built by Native Americans sometime before the 13th century.
But the English monument, which is about 3,000 years older than its American counterpart, is covered in burnt stones, whose exact purpose has long left archaeologists scratching their heads. One hypothesis is that the burnt stones were used to cook food. They would have been heated and then thrown into water to warm it, and as the stones cooled they cracked and broke, making them little more than the waste product of prehistoric cuisine. But the use of the stones to decorate the monument suggested that the rocks had ritual — not culinary — purposes, Ray said. The nearby presence of cremated human remains and burnt timbers reinforced the notion that the mound served some sort of religious function.
Henry Chapman, an archaeologist at Birmingham University unconnected to Ray's dig, said Bronze Age people had become increasingly concerned with ritualizing aspects of everyday life, as well as drawing connections between domestic and religious tasks. "Using domestic waste in funeral material is very significant in terms of linking life and death," Chapman said. "It's a really neat expression of the psychology of the period."
Sources: International Herald Tribune, BBC News, 24dash (4 July 2007)
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