The Religious Landscape of the Druids

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A group of Druids at Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England

Iron Age religious rituals impacted little on the landscape. But archaeology offers tantalising clues to the spiritual beliefs and practices of the Druids.
Historical Views of the British Iron Age

The historical view of Iron Age beliefs in Britain was that the inhabitants tended to prefer to hold their rituals in untouched, natural settings, unlike their ancestors who had built grand monuments. Structures such as Stonehenge had fallen out of use by the Iron Age and evidence for any replacement or alternative monuments was scant. This view has since been revised. Whilst natural landscape features such as bogs, wells and rivers were certainly of ritual significance in the Iron Age, the discovery of Pre-Roman shrine sites prove that Iron Age people did construct religious buildings but they tended to be on a much smaller scale than those that had gone before them. Iron Age Britons were certainly creating large structures, such as such as Maiden Castle in Dorset, but they were defensive in nature and their purpose was most likely to protect local communities from their immediate neighbours.

The apparent lack of archaeological evidence for Iron Age religious buildings has often been seen to vindicate the earliest Roman accounts of religious practices in Britain. Roman writers, particularly Julius Caesar and Tacitus, recorded the religious ceremonies that revolved around the local deities they encountered. Both men made particular reference to the Druidic practice of human sacrifice. Modern scholars have argued for decades over the veracity of the Roman accounts. However some spectacular archaeological discoveries suggest that human sacrifice may not have been completely unheard of in Iron Age Britain.

Bog Bodies and Human Sacrifice

Bog bodies are an archaeological phenomenon that occurs throughout Northern Europe and the most famous English example is Lindow Man who was discovered in 1984 in a peat bog near Lindow in Cheshire. Forensic analysis of his remains showed that he was a man in his mid-twenties and, when he died, he was well nourished and well groomed. His manner of death was excessive and gruesome. He had been struck of the head more than once. Garrotted with a sinew thong and his jugular vein had been severed by a precise cut to the throat. Finally, he had been shoved face down in to the bog.

Archaeologists have debated the reasons for Lindow Man’s death and the deaths of others like him from across the continent. In his description of Lindow Man, Justin Pollard argues that there is a religious purpose to these deaths. He states that “what we do know is that the people of the Iron Age believed watery areas such as marshes and bogs to be charged with religious significance. They were perhaps viewed as liminal places where this world and whatever ‘other’ world they believed in met. As such it is not unusual to find objects ‘sacrificed’ here.” (2007, p214) In this scenario bog bodies would represent a form of ultimate sacrifice, perhaps made during times of stress or catastrophe when the usual offerings would not suffice.

R.C Connolly takes a completely different view of the death of Lindow Man. He argues that “we are more likely witnesses after the crime of an Iron Age mugging or death from combat. Whether he was fighting naked or his clothes have degraded is open to question. If, as is suggested by his hair, nails and bodily habitus, he was more than a simple peasant, then perhaps his clothes were worth taking.” (1985, p17) However this theory, whilst it may explain one or two bog bodies, hardly explains them all. It is more likely, that these people are sacrifices made to some kind of water or underworld deity at times of war or environmental degradation when the usual offerings or coins or weaponry were deemed inadequate. Equally they could be seen as some kind of magical warning or magical talismans. Whatever the meaning of these deaths is, what the bog bodies show us is that Iron Age religious practices were much more subtle in their effects on the landscape that the rituals of either the Neolithic or Bronze Age.

Votive Offerings

If human sacrifices were rare events in Iron Age Britain other offerings and ritual depositions were much more common. Items that have been uncovered by archaeologists at Iron Age sites range from animal carcasses to coins and weaponry. Often these sacrifices were, prior to their deposition perfectly usable items or healthy animals. One rare example of this kind of sacrifice was the ritual burial of four horses found in 2004 at Nosterfield Quarry in Yorkshire.

Detailed analysis of these skeletons by zooarchaeologist, Steve Rowland, showed that the animals had been male and approximately seven years of age at the time of their death. Evidence of arthritis on the spines and ribs indicate that these were working animals which suggests they must have had considerable value to their owner.

Images or horses were also popular on Iron Age coinage and coins, along with other metal artifacts were common offerings during this period. In his discussion of Iron Age coin and metal offerings, John Creighton notes the distinct correlation between the locations of these ritual deposits and traditional Iron Age land boundaries. He states that “as well as weaponry and larger metal artifacts, the distribution of coin also relates significantly to boundaries, particularly in the earlier period when gold dominated production.” (1995, p298) This would suggest that not only were these depositions made as votive offerings to a deity but they may also have been seen to have a protective quality or magical significance that prevented incomers from over-running the land belonging to other communities. Certainly, as territorial markers they would have been all but invisible in the landscape compared to the barrows of earlier societies. Therefore their purpose must lie in the rituals and religious beliefs of the people who deposited them.

Iron Age Temples and Shrines

That land boundaries should have ritual as well as practical significance is further reinforced in the later Iron Age by the development of a new style of religious architecture, the Iron Age temple or shrine. Some of these temples were built within the precincts of existing Iron Age hillforts such as at Danebury, however many, like Havering Island and Heathrow were distinct structures in their own right. There are perhaps only a dozen of these sites known in Britain and one, near Duxford in Cambridgeshire was excavated in 2001. The site consisted of a triple-ditch enclosure surrounding a timber built temple complex and a series of pits dug for the reception of votive offerings. These deposits contained both human and horse bone, pottery, metalwork and quern stones. The location of the site would have been of particular importance to local inhabitants of the time. Sited on the top of a chalk knoll, the temple overlooked the point at which the Icknield Way, which runs from Wessex to East Anglia, crosses the River Cam. This junction formed part of the border between the territories of the Trinovantes and Catuvellauni tribes and it remained an important area of settlement right in to the Anglo-Saxon period.

Conclusions

What is most striking about the ritual beliefs of Iron Age people in Britain is the subtlety with which they left their mark on the landscape. Whilst Neolithic and Bronze Age people dedicated huge amounts of labour and materials to the building of ritual structures which would have been useless for both defense and long term habitation, Iron Age Britons apparently reversed this policy, building large hillforts which still appear impressive today but restricting their ritual activities either to the existing landscape or to more discreet, timber built structures which have barely left a mark in the archaeological record. Their view of the ritual landscape of Britain was shaped not only by the natural world they saw around them but also by the maturation of systems of social hierarchy and tribal loyalty that had first begun to form in the Bronze Age. Land and tribal boundaries were of equal significance as the local deities who inhabited springs and wells and the people who lived within those boundaries secured their safety and prosperity, not only through the practical means of wars, treaties and marriages but also through a system of sacrifices and votive offerings.

References:

  1. Connolly, R.C (1985) Lindow Man: Britain’s Prehistoric Bog Body. Anthropology Today. 1. (5), 15-17
  2. Pollard, J (2007) The Story of Archaeology in 50 Great Discoveries London: Quercus