By the banks of the Nar, and under the trees,
Thirty miles from the town and ten miles from the sea,
Whales from the ocean, cows from the land,
Float the dead to us, and we grind them down.
Hungry the land, hungry the homes,
Hungry the fields and the harvest they grow,
Hungry the plough and the soil it will till,
Hungry for bonemeal, fed from the mill.
Whales from the ocean, sheep from the fold,
Cargoed from rough seas; driven down roads;
Stripped by the slaughtermen: flesh, oil and hide;
All of us bones now, for all of us die.
Bones of my bones, now long ages dead,
That once caged a heart, which once carried a head,
Hands that held hands by the Elbe or the Rhine,
They go to the millstones, and down the mill grinds.
Scatter us now, from hessian sacks,
Hearsed on a farm cart, jolted down tracks
Over crow-studded fields in the bleak winter dawn -
Ashes to ashes, dust to corn.
About the Poem
Among all the topics you’d
think would turn macabre, the history of agricultural fertilisers is not one of
Roughly crushed bone was
used on fields from the late 18th century, to provide nitrogen and
phosphorus, but it was in the early 19th century, as with so many other
things, that the production of fertiliser was industrialised and mechanised. There’s
one standing 19th century bone mill left in the country, at
Narborough in Norfolk. Bones were brought upriver by barge from Kings Lynn, boiled,
chopped to pieces, and finally ground to powder by the same mechanisms which
were used to grind corn into flour.
location of bone mills – in easy access of east coast ports – indicate how much
they benefitted from the thriving whaling industry; but slaughterhouses and
even local villagers contributed bones to the industry for a price. Unfortunately,
the more grisly stories about bone mills also seem to be true. Ships coming
into Kings Lynn sometimes contained the exhumed contents of German burial
grounds, from around Hamburg, and there was a reported saying that “one ton of
German bone dust saves the importation of ten tons of German corn.” It’s
unlikely that Narborough was the only mill to think this way.
Bonemeal, of course, is still readily available at all good garden centres, although these days it tends to be just made of cows. Somewhere, the bone mills still exist. Somewhere out of sight.
Meet me there, by the barrows, at the door to the past,
Where the buzzard holds vigil, where the swift swallows dart,
Amid harebell and bellflower, rockrose and wild thyme,
Where the hare starts away from her form in the grass.
And follow the track as it runs on ahead
Downslope and downwards; into the tree-dark,
Knotted and gnarled with the thick of the past –
Let the living tread softly. Here, the roots hold the dead.
In the hush of the yew-grove, the silence takes form:
Memories of blood and of gold and of kings;
Whispers in Norse drift like wisps on the wind;
And in the green shadows, the gleam of a sword.
Walk where the sun-shafts strike bright through the trees;
Walk where the barrow-king watches your step;
Take nothing from them; hold only your breath;
When dusk falls, tread softly; for they cannot leave.
Uneasy they rest in this yew-hallowed ground,
Far from their homeland, defeated and slain,
Dreaming of battle and the wild sea-way:
Dust now, and ghosts, in the bones of the land.
About The Poem
The yew grove at Kingley Vale is the oldest yew grove in England, and, like most old places, folklore collects around it. No-one knows how old the yew trees are. They are said to come alive at night. And then there are the ghosts.
Mostly, the folklore is about Vikings. Kingley Vale is in the county of Sussex, near Chichester – not an area of the country renowned for its great Viking heritage – but, some time in the 9th century when the Vikings were a-Viking in the south and harrying the country, the men of Chichester were said to have fought a battle against the Vikings in Kingley Vale. The Vikings came off worse – most were slain, and the rest were driven out. Variously, the legend then goes that the Viking kings were buried in the four barrows at the top of the hill, known as the Kings Graves; their followers were left where they fell, in the yew grove; and that the yew grove was planted to commemorate the victory, making the trees well over a thousand years old. Either way, the ghosts of the slain Vikings haunt the shadows under the trees. It’s not a good place to go at night.
Is any of this true? The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records a battle fought against the Vikings in Sussex in 894AD, but doesn’t mention any kind of location. The barrows on the ridge above the yew grove are originally Bronze Age in date, built for chieftains who died millennia previously, although it’s not unknown for earlier barrows to be reused for burials in the early medieval period. And we don’t know how old the yew trees are. Best estimates place them at over 500 years old, but the dating methods used for other, more ordinary trees, fall flat when they meet old yews. They could have been planted in the reign of Elizabeth I. They could have been planted long before.
When it comes to folklore, like all good stories, it really doesn’t matter how literally true it is. Folklore is part of the history and the way of understanding a place as much as later, more scientific, interpretations. It’s been a long time since I last went to Kingley Vale, but I still remember the eerieness of walking from bright, sunlit, cropped-turf downland into the shade and the bare floor under the low-canopied yew trees. It’s not the same as walking through a modern forestry pine plantation; the low branches twist across the ground and block your path, much in the way that rhododendrons do – but really, it defies comparison. An old yew grove is a thing of itself. And as for the ghosts, the souls of the Vikings guarded by the old Bronze Age chieftains in the overlooking barrows… well, I can think of worse places to haunt.
Featured image of Kingley Vale taken from Wikipedia, Creative Commons licence.
This month on PastSong I’m pleased to feature a guest poem and blog by Professor Emeritus Terry O’Connor, University of York. Terry is well-known within the archaeological community and has published more papers and taught more students over his career than anyone would dare to count. Since retiring in 2015, he has become a stalwart member of Ilkley Poetry Stanza, and spends a lot of time on his allotment. He blogs at osteoconnor.wordpress.com, and has published two poetry collections (The Consolation of Bluebells; Out To Grass).
Sleep With Me
Sleep with me. Share the silence
through cold grave-bedded centuries
as our sandy bones disseminate.
New to this land, we made our mark,
raised the roof-ridge, the ale-loud hall,
laid our loved ones in the welcoming earth.
Whisper them now, our heroes’ tales,
the sea-sailed ways, the foemen falling,
the great ones, Hrothgar, Hengest.
In the sweat of my years I was slain,
my strong times, snorting, stamping,
set in my grave, bestowed to the land.
You who rode me, cared for me,
died with me. Now sleep with me.
Share eternity at my hooves’ foot.
About The Poem
Quite a few years ago, I was involved with an excavation project at the Lakenheath air force base in Suffolk. Most of the archaeology consisted of early medieval burials, 5th and 6th century graves that included a couple containing a human skeleton with that of a horse. Preservation of the bones was not good. A sandy subsoil meant that bones had decayed to the point that many were barely distinguishable from the grave fill. None the less, the joint burial of a man and a horse set me thinking. Whose grave was it? I don’t mean who was the person buried here, but was it that person’s grave or the horse’s? After all, who occupied most of the space? The conventional archaeological narrative has it that the human would have been someone notable in his contemporary community and that the horse was an indicator of his prestige. But what if it were the horse that was of high status and the accompanying man was a groom, a servant of the animal?
In assembling the poem, I wanted to reflect something of Anglo-Saxon verse form. I do not have the knowledge or talent to do so fully and accurately, and settled for a thudding use of alliteration and lines compiled of two phrases. I’m not sure if it really works, but it does give the poem a certain flavour, maybe just a hint of a guttural, rhythmic voice in a smoky grub-hut.
“There’s land out there,” she said, “I know it.
“It’s how the waves break, the gulls fly northwards.
“One day I’ll go there.” Then she turned from the shore,
upswept her playing child. I went before them
upwards, on the travelled track,
towards smoke-coil, hearth-light, hearth-song.
Enough for me, this land, with the deer runs,
the wheeling birds at sunset, the circle dances,
the nets to mend and the fish cooked at dusk.
Not her. And so,
When we found her gone, and her brothers wailed,
and her child sat silent, knowing, as if she’d said goodbye,
I thought of her, in her basket-boat,
following the waves, the flight paths, the winds.
Making landfall. Walking,
Barefoot, drenched, onto some new shore.
About The Poem
“That grave contained the skeleton of a young woman. I like to imagine she was lovely. Around her neck was a string of red deer teeth – collected from as many as 40 different animals. Such a keepsake, made from the trophies of 40 different kills, speaks of a great and skilful hunter. It is not much of a leap to see it as a gift given only to the most important person in his world, his daughter or his wife.” (Neil Oliver – The Vikings, p27; describing a Late Mesolithic grave from Vedbaek, Denmark).
Here’s the thing about the Mesolithic. It happened a long time ago. Between 10,000 and 7000 years ago, between the end of the last Ice Age and the introduction of farming to northern Europe, before Doggerland was flooded and before Britain was severed from the Continent by the North Sea, people knapped fine flint blades and followed where the food went and made clearings in the undergrowth and dug pits and lived lightly. What’s left of them is bones, pollen grains, flint scatters. Everything else they made is gone(1).
What we know about gender roles in the Mesolithic in Britain is almost nothing. What we assume is something completely different. For almost as long as we’ve imagined the past we’ve imagined it this way: Man, The Hunter; Woman, the Gatherer. Woman, staying at home with the children and keeping the hearth fires burning. The 1950s transported back in time 7000 years. “In the 1960s,” one influential gender theorist writes, “archaeologists favouring a sociobiological understanding of the human condition revived a century-old notion, that… there was a strict sex-based division of labour wherein men hunted and made (stone) tools while women gathered plants and tended the young and sick. While this idea still remains popular, there has never been any archaeological or skeletal evidence to validate such a strict model of gender-differentiated work.” (2). Instead, where burials exist and have been studied, both women and men were buried with high-status goods. Gender differentiation was probably both important and a foundational aspect of the way societies were organised, but there is nothing which can tell us what, specifically, that looked like.
Women don’t always stay home with the children. When archaeologists work out how to picture the distant past, we often reach for analogies – modern hunter-gatherer communities or those documented in the recent past, who might have organised themselves along similar lines. In these communities, mothers are not necessarily responsible for the brunt of the childcare. Older children often look after younger ones, and fathers, brothers, and uncles all get involved, as childcare is a highly valued task. There’s an entire biological hypothesis that the reason women survive beyond their child-bearing years is so that grannies can exist to take over the childcare and free up the physically-able younger women to do more active tasks (3).
And so, when I read Neil Oliver’s interpretation of the grave at Vedbaek, I found myself seething. Why on earth isn’t she the hunter? Did it have to be her father or her husband? Couldn’t it have been her mother? Or her fearless elder sister? Or her devastated best friend from childhood? Why, time and again, still, are women imagined as staying at home? Keeping the hearth?
Perhaps we need to rewrite our imaginations. Around 6000 years ago, Robert MacFarlane writes, someone set sail northwards from Orkney – enticed perhaps by jetsam washing in from the north or by the northwards flights of birds towards the ends of days – and reached Shetland (4). More than likely it wasn’t one person but several; maybe it wasn’t even intentional, but instead a fishing party, caught by the tides, had to take a chance on finding a land they weren’t even sure existed. But if our narratives demand a dramatic figure, standing on the shore and staring northwards, just for once let’s make her female. Dark-skinned (5). Capable. Restless. Voyaging.
1 – This isn’t actually true, and I wouldn’t be an archaeologist if I didn’t mention Star Carr and the amazing finds Professor Nicky Milner and her team have been making there.
2 – Dobres, M. 2004. Gender in the Formation of the Earliest Human Societies. In Meade, T., et al. A Companion to Gender History. Quote taken from p213.
3 – This hypothesis has been hanging around in science for so long that it’s actually made it onto Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grandmother_hypothesis). It’s only a hypothesis and it’s contested. No-one knows why humans have a menopause; most animals don’t.
4 – MacFarlane, R. 2012. The Old Ways. Penguin, p91.
5 – Pale skin pigmentation is currently believed to have arrived in Britain after the advent of farming. Ancient DNA research has shown that Cheddar Man, a skeleton found in Cheddar Gorge and dated to c.10,000 years ago, was dark-skinned but pale-eyed, so why not assume that our lass could have looked similar. (For more details, see https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/cheddar-man-mesolithic-britain-blue-eyed-boy.html)
And you with your bright smile in the last of the light,
The day before you went away;
The picture of you that's still propped on the shelf,
With the telegram, bearing your name.
I’ve missed you by years, but I stand where you stood,
And the storm rumbles low overhead,
But the fug of the engines has gone from the air,
And the flashes of gold are just gorse.
Oh war takes away – war takes away,
In Dresden, Stuttgart, and Mainz,
The fire and rubble under your plane,
The grief that crept in with the dawn.
Oh war takes away – war takes away,
Cigarettes, curses and talk;
The clatter of engines, the shouts and the guns,
Have faded to silence once more.
If wishes could summon you, here you would stand,
One hand on the wheel of your plane.
But there’s only the sound of the wind in the trees,
And birches, and bracken, and rain.
About the poem
A few miles south-east of York, there are the remains of an old airfield. Long concrete runways, semi-circular Nissan huts mushroomed out of the ground, blocky signal towers. Two enormous hangars, filled with a variety of 1940s planes, from petite fighters up to the bombers, built to carry a five-man crew and closer to a flying house than they are to a biplane. There are still posters on the walls of the mess hut.
The former RAF Bomber Command station at Elvington has been preserved as the Yorkshire Air Museum and Allied Forces Memorial. It’s a good place to go for a wander round and a cup of tea. Just down the road from it, though, there’s Skipwith Common. Skipwith Common is now a National Nature Reserve and an SSSI, but during World War Two it served as a training airfield for the RAF crews selected to fly bombers. Concrete roads and airstrips are buried within deciduous woodland. The brick bomb bays are overgrown by birch trees, and small black Hebridean sheep graze the drainage dykes.
Remembrance seems sometimes to ask for simple narratives – to remember those who gave their lives for our freedom – but my family is full of complicated stories. My great-grandparents were killed in a bombing raid on the south coast. My grandfather and his brother, two young airmen, returned from war to find their parents gone. But my brother lives in Germany now, in a city centre full of 1960s buildings. When I commented, when I was visiting, on how modern everything was, he told me, “Every major city in Germany is like the centre of Coventry. They all got bombed flat by the Allies in the war.”
My grandfather served as a navigator on an RAF Lancaster bomber in the second World War. On his very first mission, his plane was shot down in the night over Occupied France. The crew – those who survived – were rescued by the French Resistance and were smuggled in stages halfway across France and then helped to escape into Spain over the Pyrenees. Odd though it seems, being shot down probably saved my grandfather’s life. The agreement with the French Resistance was that no-one who they had helped to safety would be sent back to fight on European soil, for fear they would be caught by the Germans and would betray the Resistance networks. My grandfather, instead, was posted to the east, and served out the rest of the war in relative safety.
125,000 men served in RAF Bomber Command. 57,205 were killed. It’s a death rate of only a little less than 50%. At the same time, across three days in February 1945, the bombing raid on Dresden killed around 25,000 people. War takes away. And war takes away.
I am weary today of all wanting.
I will be content with the trees,
And their shadows, which dapple my footsteps,
And the branches that wait for their leaves.
They have nothing to tell me of glory,
Ambition or work or of pride,
But only the soil and the weather,
The stuff of the earth and of life.
How fruitless it is, all our longing!
Hopes blossom, or not, in their time,
Glorious as leaves in their season,
That nourish, and fade, and die.
The woodland will wait out the winter,
Sap sluggish, and roots buried deep,
Making beauty of ice and of darkness,
Of heartwood and humus and cold frosted leaf.
No horse for you, my bonnie lad,
No sword dies to your name.
I stood beneath the stars all night
And watched the hungry flames.
And you will feed the ravens, love.
And we eat to you this hour,
But the meat to me is bitter,
And the mead we drink is sour.
Nine months I formed the clay of you,
Then nine years from your birth,
Today I shaped and fired the clay
To hold you in the earth.
Tomorrow they will pick your bones
Out from the pyre’s wreck.
White bones are for forever, love,
And time is for the rest.
Then my bonnie lad, I’ll carry you.
To the hills of the long-gone
And lay you in the earth to rest,
And rise, and journey on.
About the Poem
I have a PhD in
archaeology, specifically early Anglo-Saxon burial rites, and yet when it comes
to reconstructing a 5th-century funeral there are still very many
more questions than answers.
It is certainly
true that, while the dead were often sent on their way with animals on the
pyre, it is very rare for children below the age of puberty to have a horse in
their burial. There is evidence pointing towards feasting associated with
burial rites, but we don’t know where or when this feast might have occurred. Log
pyres would have had to burn for a long time to get a body properly cremated,
and probably they would have been tended overnight.
The cremated dead were buried in pots, and in the east of England, those pots were agglomerated into large urnfield cemeteries – places of the dead, like Spong Hill in Norfolk, or Sancton in East Yorkshire, which must have been used by communities from miles around. The cremated bone we have in these pots is only a fraction of what comes from a fully-cremated human body, but how they chose those bones is speculation. When bone burns, it turns first reddish, then black, then grey, then white. White, calcined bones, like the ones we mostly find in the pots, show up best against the black ashes of a burnt-out fire. But was that distinction important to them, in their beliefs? Who now knows?
Even the raven is contentious. Ravens were associated with death and the battlefield by about the ninth century, but in the fifth? The one thing I am sure about in this poem (aside from the horses) is that children died. I’ve handled their bones; I’ve put them through graduated sieves; I’ve coughed at the dust it threw up and tried to protect my computer from the worst of it. I’ve turned them into numbers and sighed over the lack of them, which makes statistics difficult. I’ve written tidy comments about them in articles: “There were few immature individuals with horses in the earliest phases at Spong Hill…”
What this evades is grief. For all the sparseness of their possessions in the grave, the death of a child cannot pass unaccompanied by sorrow. The image of a mother mourning her child crosses unimaginable spans of time, and makes the past immediate – the here-and-now into there-and-then. Perhaps we, who handle the bones of the past, ought to acknowledge that grief rather more often. But then again, perhaps there’s a reason why we don’t.
They say they left, but I don’t know. I never saw them go, but now there’s rumours – fire and war and far off things. Here at the edges, the roads slide into disrepair and the forts aren’t hungry for meat, but the cows still graze, and eat, and the sheep each year, they take us on up to the moors and back down again for the winter. Can’t get the good pots, not any more, and him in the village who made the cheap stuff, he’s doing a decent trade.
The soldiers left, and now they say, what’s to become of us? They say, the estate-man buried his gold, to keep it, and I say, what’s the use in that? In the autumn, it doesn’t give you meat and blood – won’t reap the harvest, won’t placate the gods. Let their roads fall into disrepair. Let us forget their names. I know the rivers, the standing stones, the ridges, the bones of the land. The hills will remain.
About the poem
I don’t know what the fascination is, but every story or poem or song I’ve ever heard about the Romans in Britain has told the story of foreigners. They come to Britain as part of the machinery of empire and shiver in the rain and complain about the miserableness of this godforsaken island. Having been to Housesteads Fort on Hadrian’s Wall in winter, I can’t find it in me to blame them.
The Roman hold on the north of Britain, particularly the north-west, was tenuous and heavily based around the military. Look at maps of Roman Britain and Cumbria and Lancashire appear as a blank space: no villas, no towns, between Aldborough in the east and Carlisle in the north. The only sign of Roman presence are the military forts and the roads linking them. The rural economy in the west changed relatively little with the Roman conquest, and relatively little throughout the subsequent four centuries of empire. In 410AD, when the Emperor Honorious withdrew the remaining troops and money from Britain, when the rest of Britain fell into political and economic chaos, when the Anglo-Saxons started arriving on the eastern and southern coasts, the demands of agriculture in the remote north-west were still much the same as they always ever had been. It’s not hard to imagine that, somewhere around Keswick or Buttermere, there might have been a farmer who never even noticed that the Romans were gone.