Did the Iron Age death ritual involve wild bird sacrifice?
Did the Iron Age death ritual involve wild bird sacrifice? Was Roman Cirencester named ‘Cironium’ not ‘Corinium’? What can we learn from the Monastic Foundation at Anglo-Saxon Lyminge in Kent? The latest volume of The Antiquaries Journal includes 3 fascinating articles that explore these questions, and these are available free of charge until the 31st January 2014. Assistant Editor of the journal, Christopher Catling, gives a brief summary of each of the articles, and why these are so important, below:
Delivering bodies unto water
Does the practice of augury in Britain pre-date the coming of the Romans? That is a possibility raised by a (so far) unique Iron-Age site in the Cambridgeshire Fens, excavated by a team led by archaeologist Chris Evans, that has uncovered evidence for a link between rituals for the dead and the sacrifice of wild birds, including swans, pelicans and geese, herons, bitterns and cormorants and white-tailed eagles, marsh harriers and barn owls. The bones of more than fifty wild bird species were found within and around an artificially constructed platform on the edge of a low island in the middle of the River Great Ouse mixed with the remains of humans brought to the island for riverine interment.
Some of the birds had been butchered and eaten, perhaps as part of a funerary feast, but most seem to have been sacrificed in a ritual in which they might have served as winged messengers, carrying the souls of the dead to the gods. Alternatively their entrails might have been examined for evidence of the divine will, a practice associated with the Romans who were said to have learned bird augury from the ancient Etruscans, though this very unusual site seems to have been in use from the Middle to Late Iron Age, long before the Roman invasion, and in a part of England beyond the influence of Roman ideas at that date.
Rethinking Romano-British ‘Corinium’
The modern town of Cirencester trades heavily on its origins as a Roman town – the second largest in Roman Britain after London – called Corinium Dobunorum (Corinium’of the Dobunni’, the local Iron Age tribe). The town’s Corinium Museum and Corinium radio station, not to mention scores of local businesses, from the Corinium Hotel to Corinium Motors and the Corinium Language Centre, all trade on the historic name. Now, however, Richard Coates, of the Bristol Centre for Linguistics, has re-examined the evidence and says that Victorian historians got it wrong: the town’s Roman name was Cironium.
Whereas linguists have long been unable to explain the origin and meaning of ‘Corinium’, Cironium, by contrast, is easy to explain as being derived from the pre-Roman name for the River Churn, in whose valley the town was founded. How long, one wonders, will it take for the message to reach Cirencester, and for the signs at the entrance to the town to be changed from ‘Welcome to Cirencester, the Roman Corinium’ to ‘Welcome to Cironium’?
Life before the Minster
With the collapse of a central unifying authority in Britain after the end of Roman rule, we know that the Church came to fill the vacuum, and play a very important role in bringing peace, unity and scholarship to the warring kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England, but we know little about the process by means of which this came about, especially in the early decades of the Conversion period. Gabor Thomas has been helping to fill in the blanks, with his major excavation of the royal double monastery (male and female) at Lyminge in Kent, founded in the wake of St Augustine’s mission to England in AD 597.
The Antiquaries Journal Volume 93 reports on recent the first five excavation seasons in which it became clear that the monastery was not a new foundation, placed into an unused part of the landscape, but had previously been used as a major royal gathering place with a large ceremonial hall, and pits full of feasting debris, including broken glass vessels and pig bones. Gabor Thomas argues that the donation of such and important site to the Church for the founding of a monastery signals the centrality of Christianity to the emerging power structures of sixth and seventh-century Kent. The site chosen to signal the transformation to Christian values and ideologies was a long-established site resonant with potent ancestral meanings, only recently aggrandised with a royal accommodation suite, now sanctified by the founding of a monastery and the construction of a minster church and conventual buildings.