Jul 4, 2007
An archaeologist has made a find in western England that he hopes will help illuminate the ritual life of Britain's Bronze Age inhabitants — a 60-meter (65-yard) serpentine mound paved with cracked stones believed to be the first of its kind discovered in Europe.
Mounds of "burnt stones" — so-called because they have been cracked by heating and rapid cooling — litter northern Europe; some experts believe they are piles of ancient kitchen trash. The use of the stones to cover the snakelike "Rotherwas Ribbon" mound, however, suggests that they were also used in rituals by people 4,000 years ago, said Herefordshire County archaeologist Keith Ray.
"It's the only structure we have from prehistory from Britain or in Europe, as far as we can tell, that is actually a deliberate construction that uses burnt stones," Ray said. "This is ... going to make us rethink whole chunks of what we thought we understood about the period."
The mound, found in Herefordshire during the building of a highway, curves gently and has a "tail-like feature" attached to its end, Ray said.
He compared the site to the Serpent Mound in Ohio, an effigy of a giant, coiled snake generally thought to have built by Native Americans sometime before the 13th century.
But the English monument, which is about 3,000 years older than its American counterpart, is covered in burnt stones, whose exact purpose has long left archaeologists scratching their heads.
One hypothesis is that the burnt — also known as "fire cracked" — stones were used to cook food. They would have been heated and then thrown into water to warm it, and as the stones cooled they cracked and broke, making them little more than the waste product of prehistoric cuisine.
But the use of the stones to decorate the monument suggested that the rocks had ritual — not culinary — purposes, Ray said. The nearby presence of cremated human remains and burnt timbers reinforced the notion that the mound served some sort of religious function.
The use of the fire cracked stones to pave such a monument was previously unheard of, but it did not necessarily rule out the use of stones for cooking, said Henry Chapman, an archaeologist at Birmingham University unconnected to Ray's dig. He said Bronze Age people had become increasingly concerned with ritualizing aspects of everyday life, as well as drawing connections between domestic and religious tasks.
"Using domestic waste in funeral material is very significant in terms of linking life and death," Chapman said. "It's a really neat expression of the psychology of the period."