Sacred Land, by broadcaster and theologian Martin Palmer, takes you on a unique journey of discovery into the hidden history of Britain.
From long barrows and stone circles, to the shape of old fields and the design of towns and churches, Sacred Land equips you with the tools and knowledge you need to unlock the meaning, stories and history that are literally embedded in our landscape.
Extract from Chapter 3:
Our sacred history
If the landscape has been created by stories, by faith, by a sense of the sacred, then how do we uncover those stories and learn when they were first told? This book is designed to reveal the physical signs of the psychological and spiritual layers of narrative, religion and vision.
In this chapter, I shall outline the most momentous events in Britain’s history and explain how to find evidence of them in the landscape that surrounds us and lies beneath our feet. Learning about these events will help us understand our own times and our own environment.
History is not all about dates (although the most significant dates of major events will be provided when necessary). The root of the word is the Latin for ‘enquiry’, so history should be a search, an exploration of the stories that have brought us to where we are today.
A great deal of conventional history focuses on the particular but neglects the wider narrative that gives individual events significance and meaning. For example, archaeology textbooks often simply state that the ‘long barrow’ style of burial mound was abandoned around 3000 BC, then move on to the next topic. But to a religious historian, a historian of ideas, this abandonment prompts numerous questions that demand answers. It is the search for these answers, this enquiry into a greater narrative, that provides the framework of this book. That journey will reveal the process that created the British landscape, by which I mean not only the physical environment of fields, forests and buildings but the internal, spiritual landscape of the people whose beliefs shaped that world.
UNTOLD APOCALYPSES: 1.5 MILLION BC
TO 5000 BC
Ever since human beings first appeared on Planet Earth, Britain has been subject to astonishing extremes of weather and conditions.
During several ice ages, the land was covered by up to a hundred metres of ice, and the British Isles (including Ireland) formed part of the European mainland – with dry land in place of the Channel, the North Sea and the Irish Sea. At other times, the ice melted and water flooded into those channels, while the land turned to tundra. In even warmer periods, Mediterranean-style landscapes of broad rivers and lush woodland developed.
Each succeeding ice age ground its way across our landscape. In the warmer periods, such as the Hoxnian Interglacial Stage – between 420,000 and 360,000 BC – people moved north into Britain. We know this because a couple of thousand sites featuring Hoxnian-era flint tools have been identified. The most famous are Jaywick Sands at Clacton-on-Sea, Essex, and Swanscombe, Kent, where some magnificent handaxes have been found. However, while there are many sites, it is likely that only a few scattered groups of hunters lived in Britain during this period. These hunters created tools from the stones of Britain, but they had negligible, if any, impact on the landscape. The same was true of all of those who followed them, at least until Britain emerged from the last of the great ice ages around eleven thousand years ago.
Thereafter, humans in Britain started to shape the natural world and started to tell their stories through it. Then, as soon as they began farming, they launched the great cycles of history, the first four of which each culminated in a dramatic collapse – and Apocalypse.
The Ages of History
These are the generally accepted periods of British prehistory and history. The great cycles and collapses are highlighted in bold.
• Palaeolithic (Old Stone Age): c. 500,000 to c. 10,000 BC
• Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age): c. 10,000 to c. 5000 BC
• Neolithic (New Stone Age): c. 5000 to c. 2000 BC
• First Cycle: c. 5000 to c. 3000 BC. Ancestor worship, ending with the collapse of upland farming and the abandonment of long barrows.
• Bronze Age: c. 2000 to c. 750 BC
• Second Cycle: c. 3000 to c. 1160 BC. Stone circles, ending
with the eruption of a volcano off Iceland.
• Iron Age: c. 750 BC to AD 43
• Roman period: AD 43 to 410
• Third Cycle: c. 1160 BC to c. AD 400. Celtic and Roman traditions, ending with collapse through environmental abuse and the impact of plague on the Roman Empire and in Britain.
• Anglo-Saxon period: 410 to 1066
• Medieval period: 1066 to 1485
• Fourth Cycle: c. 550 to the early 16th century. Monastic and
Catholic Christianity, ending with the rise of the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation, triggered by the Black Death.
• Tudor period: 1485 to 1603
• Stuart period: 1603 to 1714
• Georgian period: 1714 to 1837
• Victorian period: 1837 to 1901
• Modern period: 1901 to the present
• Fifth Cycle: Early 16th century to the present. Protestant individualism and the Enlightenment, leading to the Industrial Revolution and urbanisation.
THE FIRST GREAT CYCLE: ANCESTOR WORSHIP AND THE NEED FOR THE SACRED
Throughout history, sacred places have been built to last. In Britain, there are still hundreds of stone circles, thousands of burial mounds and tens of thousands of ancient churches. All have long outlived the domestic dwellings of the people who created them.
The placing of sacred sites is also crucial. For instance, many Neolithic sites are on the edges of hills or raised land. In part, this was probably done for pragmatic reasons: for defence; because the lowlands were wetter and marshier than they are today; because the valleys were more densely forested. However, it was also a statement to anyone wandering past that this area had already been claimed, or that there were people up there who might be willing to trade. In a world where law courts and legal codes did not exist, the authority and legitimacy of the dead, of ancestors and of semi-divine beings were the only certainties. Many ancient sites are therefore believed to be sacred zones within which safety could be assured and agreements had to be honoured.
As far as we know, Britain’s earliest form of religion was ancestor worship. This was why the great long barrow burial mounds were built. Between approximately 4500 and 3000 BC, Neolithic families would revere their dead ancestors at these places. With the dead watching over their fields and settlements, they could be relatively confident that their land rights would be respected. In Britain, we abandoned that practice many millennia ago, but in China the rural dead are still buried alongside their fields and venerated as protectors of the crops and the land itself.
Understanding the siting of the long barrows on ridges near the tops of hills requires us to make a psychological leap. Most of us now dwell in the lowlands, in valleys, so when we visit a Neolithic site, we generally have to walk up to them. But that gives a false perspective of how they were viewed by those who created them. We need to understand that they were built primarily by people who lived on hilltops, so they would not have been overlooked by these tombs. Rather, they located them on the edge of their world, so that their ancestors looked down and away to the valleys. They were built as landmarks of boundaries – both physical, in terms of farmsteads, and possibly also spiritual, marking the border between the world of humans (up here) and the world of nature and wilderness (down there). Once you see them as outposts that look down, you get a very different sense of why they are located where they are. They mark a danger zone between the hilltop communities and the perils below, with the dead acting as guardians for the community.
Many prehistoric tombs performed a similar variety of functions to today’s parish churches: rites of passage, weddings, newborn celebrations and wakes were almost certainly held there. This makes sense, as there would have been little point in building such huge constructions merely for burial rites. Moreover, if your ancestors are your deities, then you would surely want to celebrate with and beside them.
In addition to their typical location on hillsides, most long barrows seem to have been sited very carefully, with the builders paying particular attention to the view, the shapes of natural features around the site, and their orientation to certain solar or lunar phenomena. We still have little idea how these various elements contributed to these people’s great story, but they surely did. Nothing ever happens randomly. Everything has a purpose and meaning beyond the mundane.
Sacred Land is published by Piatkus. Please click here for more information.
Here's a selection of keyword-matched articles that you might also find interesting: