Idling away a Saturday morning, I came across a re-run of the one of the last Time Team television programmes, which looked back at some of the more gripping moments from its 20 year history, with the emphasis on experimental archaeology.
The final sequence concerned a site popularly known as Seahenge, aka the Holme Timber Circle. To paraphrase Wikipedia, Seahenge was “a timber circle with an upturned tree root in the centre, […] apparently built in the 21st century BC, during the early Bronze Age in Britain…”
The programme, as usual, seemed more concerned with how it was built, rather than why. This is perhaps understandable, given much of mainstream archaeology’s predilection for setting itself up as the arbiter of factual, objective truth. However, it seems to me that ‘facts’, ‘objectivity’ and ‘truth’ may all be (to a greater or lesser extent) subjective, according to the view we see through the lenses of our preconceptions. So we saw a reconstruction of how the archaeologists believe Seahenge was built, with just a brief interview with a couple of the participants as to what they thought the original was used for. As one might expect, we were immediately into the realms of ‘ritual’ – whatever that may mean – with one male archaeologist framing his thoughts in terms of the inverted oak trunk penetrating the ground, while the one woman interviewed took the opposite side of that particular binary coin by referring to the site in terms of enclosing the trunk. At base, both seemed to be describing it in terms of fertility symbolism with the focus on the inverted trunk, while a third archaeologist, also male, believed the site might have been used for excarnation. The circle’s alignment with the summer solstice sunrise and the winter solstice sunset, as stated clearly earlier in the programme, was conspicuous by its absence from these learned peoples’ theories.
Me, I don’t even pretend to know the minds of the Ancestors. All of the archaeologists’ ideas may be correct, or they may not, or there may be other reasons why Seahenge was fashioned in the form it was, in that specific location at that particular moment. What I do know is that the images I saw, of the physical remains of the site resonated with me in ways I can’t find words for – and the scenes of the removal of the component parts I found strangely upsetting.
I’m still working through my thoughts about what the word Awen means to me; nevertheless the sense of the rude awakening of an immensely old and wise presence was, to me, almost palpable, even through the medium of a pre-recorded tv show. And, although my feminist convictions and life experiences make me extremely wary of men in general, I couldn’t help but agree with the (apparently) lone male protestor that the archaeologists had no authority to tear down the site wholesale and remove it for preservation and display in a museum, miles away.
Coda: Having rewatched the entire Time Team programme, it occurs to me that those whose prime directive was the removal of the timber circle, come what may, may well have benefitted from holding their horses long enough for the experimental archaeology – the reconstruction of a replica timber circle – to have been carried out before piling in with shovels, mechanical diggers and all the other trappings of modern technology. In the words of the archaeologist Francis Pryor, interviewed by presenter Tony Robinson during the closing minutes of the programme:
FP: I think what I’ve learned, I think largely due to our Pagan friends, is that, as an archaeologist, I’m too analytical, I’m too removed from it and I think I’ve learned to get back into treating it as a religious site, a religious thing.
TR: Francis, if you were walking along a beach tomorrow and out of the sand came another henge type thing, what would you do different?
FP: Nothing. Absolutely nothing… except as regards the people who have interests in it, like the Pagans and the Druids. I think I would try much harder to get them on our side because they care about the past just as Maisie [Taylor, wetland archaeology specialist] and I care about the past, and there are an awful lot of people out there who don’t care about the past. And these people, I think, are a serious worry, because if you don’t care about the past, you don’t care about humanity, and that’s what makes us civilised. So, I’d like to get the Pagans and the rest with us, fighting on our side, to get people to take the past seriously… Because it matters.
Hmmm. So at least Mr Pryor’s horizons seem to have been expanded by the experience – which is more than can be said for Ms Taylor, who resolutely clung to the curious notion that the only thing that matters is empirical evidence, collected by any means necessary and its access restricted to certain establishment figures, regardless of the views of anybody outside a small and powerful elite. However, Mr Pryor’s words also carried the subtexts of ‘us and them’, of ‘fighting’ against uncivilised proles, which I find almost offensively patriarchal and confrontational. It can only be hoped that, sooner rather than later, the powers-that-be – English Heritage, I’m looking at you – will develop a more enlightened, less exclusionary approach to every aspect of what, after all, is all our history. Then, perhaps, the heavy-handed and insensitive arrogance of the authorities can be reigned in, and the sacrilegious destruction of sites like the Holme timber circle can be prevented from happening ever again.
Image found at (I think – I’ve lost the link) Norfolk Tourist Information
Modified by Penny C
ETA, 14 April 2013: A video of the full Time Team programme can be found online here:
http://vimeo.com/59170730 or here:
Note: the tv company, in its infinite wisdom, has blocked the viewing of the video on YouTube for people in the UK. No, I don’t understand the thinking behind that decision, either.