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Altars not burial mounds?
On OS maps you may find the words 'tumulus' or 'tumuli', from Latin tumulus 'hillock, heap of earth, mound'. The names of these mounds may sometimes end in '–low', as in Baslow (Derbyshire), Wilmslow (Cheshire) or Taplow (Buckinghamshire). Originally these were Bassa's hlaw, Wilhelm's hlaw and Tappa's hlaw – hlaw being one of the words Anglo-Saxons used to refer to both pre-existing mounds and ones they built or revamped. In older archaeological tomes such mounds are called 'barrows', from a different Old English word, spelt either beorg or beorh, which means eitaltaher a mountain or a heap.
In more modern archaeological works neither tumulus nor barrow appear. Instead the same sites are referred to as 'burial mounds', as if the sole function of these mounds was to protect the dead. Clearly the mounds are protective. Indeed, the original sense of the Old English word mund was 'protection'. Only later did the word change from being an adjective to a noun, referring to the 'heap'.
Archaeologists rarely have the opportunity to excavate parish churches and their churchyards. When they do, they discover vastly more burials than have ever been discovered under or around any burial mound. Yet they do not refer to churches as 'funerary chapels' or 'sepulchres'. Documentary and 'ethnographical' evidence makes it abundantly clear that parish churches, despite all the burials, are not primarily about interring the dead. Churches are the 'house of God', numinous places, places to go to feel nearer to the Holy Trinity and (at least for Catholics) any number of intercessionary saints.
Anders Kaliff has looked with fresh eyes at the later prehistory of Scandinavia and argues that we should think of burial mounds as 'sacrificial altars' where offerings to the ancestors were made. We have enough background information to be fairly sure that in Scandinavia, Rome and China – among many other cultures – then the deal was simple. If the living looked after the ancestors with the traditional rites and offerings, then the dead would intercede with the gods on behalf of the living to make sure everything went as well as possible.
This seems a fairly sensible arrangement – and not that far removed from the local saints of pre-Reformation Christianity interceding with Christ on behalf of anyone making an offering at their shrine.
What is different is that such offerings to saints were not thought of as 'sacrifices'. Furthermore, when we place flowers on the grave of a friend or relative we do not think we are offering a 'sacrifice'. Even if we place flowers or other memorabilia on top of the coffin in the still-open grave, we do not think of them as either sacrifices or 'grave-goods'. The nearest term in modern English which refers specifically to such gifts is 'floral tributes'. When we walk into a florists we use a phrase such as 'a funeral wreath' to describe what we want.
So, contrary to Kaliff's term 'sacrificial altars', did the people performing rites at Scandinavian 'burial mounds' think of themselves as making 'sacrifices'? After all they were simply doing what had always been done, as this is what the ancestors would have expected. Perhaps we should be even more neutral in terminology and simply refer to them as 'ancestral shrines'.
We cannot be sure what was offered at the 'tumuli' shown on OS maps. There is no reason to suppose that food and drink did not feature prominently, and probably flowers and such like too. Each family or clan group would no doubt have their own idiosyncrasies within a broader tradition. If we look to China – where, at the full moon in August, the ancestors are still honoured in ways which can be traced back for at least 2,500 years – then these graveside rites would be akin to modern birthday parties. Not simply because they would be occasions for everyone to get together. But in the more fundamental sense that birthday parties, while fitting into a broader expectation of what such events entail, will be celebrated a little differently in different families and even year-from-year.
Most importantly, both Western birthday parties and Chinese festivals for the ancestors are organised by the family. There is no counterpart to the Church of England in China which sets out how the annual cycle of festivals should be organised. Chinese religion is integral to the family and immediate community, not a separate institution. Neither was there a 'state religion' in Iron Age Scandinavian or pre-conversion Anglo-Saxon England – instead each local king appointed a leader of religious rites, a tradition which passed unchanged into the early Christian era when bishoprics initially had the same extent as the kingdom.
Or maybe the worldview of the original barrow builders was considerably more complex. Did their festivities, like the Chinese, celebrate ancestors who had completed the journey from life, through death, to rebirth, to be welcomed back as immortal progenitors, creators and maintainers of the values of the kinship group?
When we walk up to a 'barrow' and think about the people originally interred therein, we should also think of their descendants who celebrated there, presumably once a year, making the appropriate 'offerings'. If Chinese worldviews are anything to go by, then we should also be thinking about the complex worldview which was renewed by these rites. The term 'burial mound' begins to seem as much a misnomer as calling a parish church a 'sepulchre'.
Originally published in Northern Earth No.140, p9–10.
Articles about the prehistory of Avebury and environs
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Articles about the prehistory of Avebury and environs
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