Round-up of prehistoric sites, museums and resources for Wiltshire

Stonehenge from the Heel Stone

Stonehenge from the Heel Stone

Wiltshire has quite a number of very well-known prehistoric sites (*cough* Stonehenge *cough* Avebury *cough* etc…) but we hope you find something new and useful in this round-up of online resources and places to visit for the county.

The main place to find out about the prehistoric sites in Wiltshire is the Historic Environment Record maintained by the county council. It can be searched online here: Wiltshire Historic Environment Record Advanced Search. Choose a time period and perhaps a place near you and find out what’s on your doorstep.

Some important sites to know about in Wiltshire in chronological order are:

  • Mesolithic occupation at Blick Mead near Amesbury. It’s been in the news a lot lately and a publication is due out soon. It is not the only evidence for Mesolithic occupation in Wiltshire, a settlement was excavated in the 1950s in Downton in south Wiltshire. Neither of these sites, though, are accessible to visit.
  • Three Mesolithic post-holes in the old car park next to Stonehenge, possibly the bases of something like totem poles, though it’s hard to say for sure.
  • Neolithic causewayed enclosures, the earliest type of Neolithic monument possibly used as meeting, market and burial places, are known at Windmill Hill near Avebury and Robin Hood’s Ball near Stonehenge, among others such as Knap Hill near Alton and Figsbury Ring near Firsdown.
  • Entrance to West Kennet long barrow

    Entrance to West Kennet long barrow

    Neolithic long barrows are quite numerous in Wiltshire. All we see is the final monument, which is the relatively uniform long earthen mound, but they all have very different histories, some with wooden and/or stone chambers containing human remains like West Kennet and then the mound, some are mere cenotaphs with no burials beneath, like South Street near Beckhampton.

  • There are two Neolithic cursuses in the county, the Lesser and Greater Cursus north of Stonehenge. Both predate the famous monument by 600 years. They may have been processional routes and the Greater Cursus has a long barrow at one end.
  • The earliest part of the Stonehenge monument is a simple circular ditch with a slight internal bank that was dug around 3000 BC. It was used as a cremation cemetery before the stones arrived 500 years later. A lot of information about Stonehenge can be found on English Heritage’s website.
  • Other henges in the county include Durrington Walls, which is just a couple of miles east of Stonehenge, and was the settlement site of the builders and worshippers at Stonehenge. Information about the most recent excavations can be found on the National Trust website. Next to it is Woodhenge, which is like Stonehenge but was once made of wood (though the little posts in the ground are now concrete). Avebury is the other well-known henge in Wiltshire and it has half a village inside it, so is very accessible.
  • Silbury Hill

    Silbury Hill

    Silbury Hill near Avebury is very imposing alongside the A4 from Bath to London. It is the largest artificial mound in Europe and dates to the late Neolithic. It is not possible to climb it. Legend once had it that it covered the burial of King Arthur, and that a similar, but smaller, mound in the grounds of Marlborough College was that of Merlin, but recent work has confirmed it is of a similar date to Silbury.

  • The Early Bronze Age is visible all over the county in the form of round barrows, many of them near Stonehenge at Winterbourne Stoke roundabout or Normanton Down. There are also the Seorfon round barrows on the A4 between Avebury and Marlborough near the Sanctuary, a Neolithic stone and wood setting. There are pages about the Bush Barrow chieftain who was buried near Stonehenge on the British Museum’s Teaching History in 100 Objects website.
  • Later Bronze Age archaeology is less visible in Wiltshire, and there is very little to see on the ground, but the county gets divided up into field systems around small settlements.
  • The Iron Age sees the rise of hillforts, for instance at Old Sarum near Salisbury (English Heritage has a Teacher’s kit about this site) and many others like Vespasian’s Camp (mistakenly once thought to have been a Roman fort) in Amesbury Park or Sidbury Camp near Tidworth.
  • Rybury Camp Iron Age hillfort near All Cannings overlies a Neolithic causewayed enclosure, so a visit there will cover the Stone Age to Iron Age topic nicely.
  • An enclosed Iron Age settlement known as Little Woodbury was excavated near Salisbury in 1938-9. It can’t be visited now but it’s a well-known site, its importance is explained in this feature from British Archaeology (scroll halfway down the page).

There are several fantastic museums in Wiltshire that are well worth a visit to see some of the finds from these famous monuments.

  • The Wiltshire Museum in Devizes has a permanent display of gold at the time of Stonehenge which includes the burial groups of several people buried around Stonehenge like the Bush Barrow Chieftain and slightly further afield, like the woman of the Golden Barrow from Upton Lovell.
  • The Alexander Keiller Museum is within Avebury henge and stone circle and was first opened by an owner of the site, Alexander Keiller. It has displays of the Stone Age archaeology of the site and nearby places.
  • The Amesbury Archer in Salisbury Museum

    The Amesbury Archer in Salisbury Museum

    Salisbury Museum houses some of the famous burials found in and around Stonehenge, such as the Stonehenge Archer who was killed by arrows in the Early Bronze Age and dumped in the Stonehenge ditch, and the Amesbury Archer, who was buried with ceremony a couple of miles from Stonehenge with the earliest bronze tools known in Britain.

  • Stonehenge has its own museum which contains the remains of the Queen of Stonehenge, among others, a burial group from one of the barrows in the Early Bronze Age Normanton Down barrow cemetery south of Stonehenge. There are also several reconstructed domestic houses based on those excavated at Durrington Walls.

If you think there’s something we missed, please feel free to let us know in the comments.

Archaeology and prehistory blogroll

Since it’s nearly the end of term, we thought you needed some Christmas reading so we’ve combed the internet for the best and brightest archaeology and prehistory blogs and regift them to you, neatly packaged with pretty ribbons, below. Give us a shout if your favourite blog is not featured, we’ll give it a gander and add it on if we think it’s as awesome as you do.

The reconstructed village at Castell Henllys

The reconstructed village at Castell Henllys

Past Horizons collects news stories about archaeology from around the world and doesn’t just focus on prehistory, but has loads of great articles. Go there first for archaeology news.

Digital Digging, created by Henry Rothwell, is a great place to look at various aspects of archaeology and prehistory. There are three main areas of the website we would recommend.

  • Hillfort map – this will be a complete gazetteer of English, Scottish and Welsh hillforts but as yet only has a few counties online.
  • Digital models. These are not supposed to be complete visualisations of prehistoric monuments but do give a sense of what archaeological features, only found in plan form, could look like 3D
  • Grave goods – this is a great series of interviews with interesting archaeologists and others about what they would like to be buried with. It could start a very interesting discussion in your class!

Guerilla Archaeology is a collective of archaeologists, artists and scientists who are keen to bring the past to life in new ways and spend a lot of time having fun at festivals, as far as we can see *jealous face*. Their pages on shamanism in prehistory are really interesting. That’s the religion box ticked!

The Urban Prehistorian, Kenneth Brophy, is dedicated to finding prehistoric monuments in the least likely of places – the middle of towns and cities. It’s amazing how much there is to find! Maybe you could find something in your local town to visit in the new year.

Not always on prehistory but always with a wealth of sumptuous images and thought-provoking posts, Gavin MacGregor’s heritagelandscapecreativity blog is pretty awesome to read.

If you like a dash of feminism in your archaeology cocktail (and let’s face it, who doesn’t? Seriously, who?), then you’ll love Trowelblazers, collecting stories of awesome women in archaeology, palaeontology and geology.

Stonehenge bauble from English Heritage

Stonehenge bauble from English Heritage

Fun and strangely addictive is Clonehenge, a blog that collects images of replicas of Stonehenge from around the world, and ones made of chips, chocolate and even fish-fingers! Set your students a challenge to try to get their own Stonehenge replica on there!

Mike Pitts is the editor of British Archaeology and particularly interested in Stonehenge and archaeology in the media, plus has some lovely photos on his site, making it very attractive.

To go a little further back in time, you could look at John Hawks’ blog, which is about early human species. Recent posts have been about potentially the earliest art found dating back about 500,000 years and the loss of skin pigmentation as human populations moved north.

The Day of Archaeology happens every year in July. There are loads of blog posts that showcase a day in the life of lots of different types of archaeologists from around the world. Have a browse.

Me in a replica headdress of a possible Mesolithic female shaman from Bad Dürrenberg, Germany, made by James Dilley of Ancient Craft

Me in a replica headdress of a possible Mesolithic female shaman from Bad Dürrenberg, Germany, made by James Dilley of Ancient Craft

Caroline Wickham-Jones is an archaeologist with particular expertise in Mesolithic Scotland and runs a blog simply called Mesolithic, though she does stray into other periods. And why not.

Staying on a Mesolithic theme, the inimitable Spencer Carter runs a blog called Microburin on his work in archaeology and, whenever he can, especially in the Mesolithic of Teesside.

Excavation blogs

Here are a selection of blogs about excavations happening on prehistoric sites around the country, although most are quiet over Christmas but you can read about what they were doing in the glorious summer.

Multimedia

prehislogo2-1

Prehi/stories podcast with Schools Prehistory’s Kim Biddulph on the Archaeology Podcast Network

And if you don’t feel like reading anything but want a few videos to while away the time, then look no further than Archaeosoup, run by Marc Barkham-Astles. He has videos on just about everything from the Great Orme copper mines in North Wales to the Iron Age chariot burials of Wetwang in the East Riding of Yorkshire.

Finally, if you want some soothing audio on an archaeological theme, have a gander at the Archaeology Podcast Network. There you’ll find podcasts on Archaeological Fantasies, Women in Archaeology, and the Archaeology of the Caribbean among others.

Useful images and resources on Heritage Explorer for Stone Age to Iron Age Britain

Heritage Explorer has lots of images for teachers to use in the classroom from English Heritage’s many archives. They already have lots of useful images for the topic Changes in Britain from the Stone Age to the Iron Age and here are some of them. Follow the links from the images to find more information. Thanks to Heritage Explorer for allowing us to feature these images on our blog.

Aerial photograph of Neolithic and Early Bronze Age Stonehenge in Wiltshire from 1906

Crown copyright NMR

Also see English Heritage’s Stonehenge teacher’s pack.

Aerial photograph of Neolithic Avebury and Silbury Hill, Wiltshire

Crown copyright NMR

Cutaway section through Grimes Graves Neolithic flint mine, Norfolk

Copyright English Heritage Photo Library

Aerial photograph of the Late Bronze Age Uffington White Horse, Oxfordshire

Crown copyright NMR

Reconstruction drawing of Iron Age roundhouses from the 2nd century BC at Danebury hillfort, Hampshire

Copyright English Heritage NMR

There is also this excellent little book written for English Heritage available as a PDF about teaching prehistory. It is a little old and be warned, it says the earliest humans in Britain came in 500,000 years ago (BP). Recent investigations have pushed this back to 800,000 years ago.

Also by going to the Heritage Explorer search page and searching for prehistoric under the when tab you will bring up a huge number of images from English Heritage’s photo library of different sites around the country.

Teaching resources for Changes in Britain from the Stone Age to the Iron Age

There has been a lot of talk on Twitter recently about the lack of resources available to teach this new topic at Key Stage 2. Here at Schools Prehistory we have been scouring the internet for teaching-ready resources to support the themes mentioned in the non-statutory guidance so here they are.

Late Neolithic (sic) hunter-gatherers and early farmers, for example, at Skara Brae

Neolithic in the sentence above is a mistake and should read Mesolithic, which was the period of hunting and gathering, broadly, whereas the Neolithic was the time of farming.

Instead of going late Mesolithic we recommend contrasting Star Carr, an early Mesolithic settlement in North Yorkshire, with Skara Brae.

Star Carr, Vale of Pickering, North Yorkshire

This site was inhabited very soon after the end of the last Ice Age around 9000 BC. It has the remains of the earliest house found in Europe and red deer antler frontlets that were used in ceremonies, hunting or both. It was on the banks of the now vanished Lake Flixton and so the waterlogged soils have preserved some amazing organic artefacts, such as birch bark roll firelighters and a wooden paddle for some kind of watercraft. From animal bones found at the site it is clear that the people who lived here in a relatively settled fashion hunted red and roe deer, wild cattle and pigs and numerous water birds.

For the Mesolithic in general you could do worse than following @microburin, and especially looking at this blog post: http://microburin.com/2013/06/01/sneak-peek-star-carr-exhibition-yorkshire-museum-mesolithic/.

The history of excavation can be followed (almost like doing the digs again yourself in class) at the Star Carr Research project website http://www.starcarr.com/. Some of their videos about Star Carr are useful, including The Other Side of the Antler, http://vimeo.com/2205880, though it is half an hour long. This 1 minute 30 second video was created for Yorkshire Museum and is a fly-through of what Star Carr and Lake Flixton might have looked and sounded like in 9000 BC http://vimeo.com/66913559.

A great storybook to use to discover more about the Mesolithic is Wolf Brother by Michelle Paver.

Skara Brae, Orkney

Skara Brae is an unusual site –  the remains in the Orkney Islands are not typical of the Neolithic in the rest of Britain. It was first inhabited around 3000 BC and finally went out of use just as bronze was making its appearance, around 2500 BC. It is made up of eight circular stone-built dwellings cut into a midden or rubbish heap. One of the dwellings seems to have been used as a workshop but the other seven were inhabited, probably by a family. They have two stone bed frames on either side of the house, a central hearth and a stone dresser directly opposite the door, which could be locked from the inside to ensure family privacy. The people on Orkney grew barley, kept sheep and pigs but also supplemented their domesticated food with gathered seafood.

Education Scotland is probably the best place to start to explore Skara Brae, as it has links to lots of other resources from other organisation http://www.educationscotland.gov.uk/scotlandshistory/earlypeople/skarabrae/index.asp. If you decide to explore Skara Brae on this website you will find a Flash game that children can click on and learn more about the settlement.

Another Flash game worth taking a look at is on the BBC: http://www.bbc.co.uk/scotland/learning/primary/skarabrae/flash/index.shtml. It’s a little more cartoon-y but it also has loads of videos that explain about Skara Brae very simply and activities to learn more detail or apply knowledge.

Orkney Jar is a website all about the Orkney Islands and their heritage, and it has a great section on Skara Brae: http://www.orkneyjar.com/history/skarabrae/index.html. From there you can also explore the other settlements and religious sites on the islands.

The Boy with the Bronze Axe by Kathleen Fidler is set in Skara Brae.

Bronze Age religion, technology and travel, for example Stonehenge

Never mind that Stonehenge was started well within the Neolithic, around 3000 BC, the final phases of this great monument were undertaken right at the end of the Neolithic around 2500 BC and it continued in use and importance well into the Early Bronze Age. The thing to remember with Stonehenge is that it is only one monument in a complex landscape of inter-related monuments that connect with and reference each other that stretches from the start of the Neolithic to the end of the Early Bronze Age.

There are two main competing contemporary theories about the meaning of Stonehenge. One is espoused by Mike Parker Pearson, that Stonehenge, built in stone, was the focus of burials and was the realm of the dead, as opposed to nearby Durrington Walls. The latter had huge buildings built of wood and evidence of feasting, was the realm of the living and for celebration of life. They were linked by the River Avon, which was the focus of funeral processions.

The other is proposed by Tim Darvill and Geoffrey Wainwright, who point out that the bluestones (the smaller stones used at Stonehenge) were brought all the way from Wales and this might have been because they were thought to have healing properties. The Amesbury Archer, a man who had travelled from the Alps was buried close to Stonehenge around 2300 BC with the earliest copper knife and earliest gold objects found in Britain. Some years before his death he had lost his left knee in an injury and the bones had become infected – had he travelled to Stonehenge in the hope of being miraculously healed?

English Heritage has recently opened its new visitor centre, along with reconstructed Neolithic houses based on various ground plans found around Britain. They also have loads of resources online to explore, from a timeline of the building of Stonehengetaking a virtual tour of the monument, to an interactive map of the surrounding landscape, with this page covering the technological side of how the monument was built.

Wessex Archaeology was the company that excavated the Amesbury Archer’s burial and do take a look at their website to see: the excavation, more about the burial, explanation of the importance of the finds and, finally, a blog post discussing whether he was a pilgrim or a magician.

Wiltshire and Devizes Museum houses the contents of several very rich burials from the Early Bronze Age excavated in the Victorian period, including the Bush Barrow chieftain, the Golden Barrow female leader and the Upton Lovell Shaman.

Studying the Bronze Age would not be complete without considering bronze itself, and one way of doing this is to explore the copper mine at Great Orme near Llandudno in Wales. They have a section of their website dedicated to articles about the mine: http://www.greatormemines.info/Articles.htm.

The last chapter of Stig of the Dump might be a good one to read alongside studying Stonehenge, as the modern children are transported back to Stig’s world at the solstice during the building of a stone circle.

The Secrets of Stonehenge by Mick Manning and Brita Granstrom was recommended by @zooarchaeologis.

We are selling a set of lesson plans on the various theories about Stonehenge over the centuries.

Iron Age hillforts: tribal kingdoms, farming, art and culture

The problem with hillforts is that they are actually a number of distinct monuments that have been lumped under one heading. They also date from the Late Bronze Age through to the Late Iron Age, and many were constructed on the site of earlier monuments and were then built on again in the Roman period. Confusing!

Hillforts may have been used as temporary refuges in times of inter-tribal warfare, some of them were continuously occupied and some were probably used as seasonal or annual meeting places for widespread communities that may have identified as the same tribe. They would also have been imposing and visible symbols of political control over a landscape.

Regular settlements in the Iron Age (and, indeed, the preceding later Bronze Age) would have been made up of one or more roundhouses (made of wood, wattle and daub and thatched, or made of stone and roofed with turf), possibly reconstructed several times over the course of centuries, and sometimes enclosed by a bank, ditch and fence and sometimes not. It is in the later Bronze Age that large swathes of the landscape get divided into fields, though these are mainly thought to be for controlling cattle.

At the risk of being political, one of the main things to understand about the Iron Age in Britain is that there were no Celts, as such. Celts were really real, and had migrated from central Europe to western Europe, but they didn’t get to Britain. It is likely that Britons shared a language and a culture with those who called themselves Celts, who lived in what is now France and other countries. The art of western Europe in the Iron Age is usually called Celtic art, as well, and it was enriched by amazing works of art created in Britain as much as the continent.

A brilliant resource created by Captain Hillfort himself, @henryrothwell, is The Digital Hillfort Map Project, which will eventually have every hillfort for England, Scotland and Wales.

The most completely excavated hillfort is Danebury in Hampshire. Hampshire County Council’s website has some information and images of the excavation, artefacts and reconstructions of how it might have looks.

Having said that Celts never got to Britain, a great site for exploring what life was like in the Iron Age is the BBC Wales Celts site, which has various tasks such as building a hillfort, designing a torc (a gold or silver neck-ring), weaving or building a chariot. Another great BBC resource is the Iron Age village in which you can learn to make fire, grind grain, bake bread and spin yarn, all without any Celts.

The warrior culture of Iron Age Britons can be explored through this BBC Flash game about the Wetwang chariot burial. Up in this wonderfully named east Yorkshire village was found a spectacular chariot burial dating to about 200 BC, one of only seven found in the area. What was really amazing was that it was a woman’s burial – an early Boudica?

The only book we have found so far, and we haven’t read it, is Adventure on the Knolls by Michael Dundrow. We’d love to know if anyone has read it and what they think.

Book Review: The Secrets of Stonehenge by Mick Manning and Brita Granstrom

Archaeologist and parent blogger Claire Walsh has very kindly agreed to let us reblog her review of this children’s book about Stonehenge. For more from Claire visit www.beingamummy.co.uk.

The secrets of stonehenge

Being an archaeologist I’m always on the lookout for great books on archaeology for children. We spend quite a lot of time visiting archaeological sites, so to come across a book about Stonehenge suitable for children was brilliant. We love Stonehenge and were lucky enough to visit it a few years ago at dawn and we even got to go inside the fence (which doesn’t exist now). I’ve been trying to interest the children in Stonehenge and this book is really helpful in trying to do that.

This book was written in conjunction with English Heritage experts and provides a child friendly, up to date interpretation. It covers a lot of the topics which experts have been puzzling over for years such as why the monument was erected and who lived there. All of this has been brought to life with the use of some brilliant illustrations. It really is a fantastic introduction to the site. I’d recommend that this book accompanied you on a trip there if you were planning a visit.

When the new National Curriculum comes into force in September there will be a section on prehistory. This means that this book will become a really helpful addition to your bookshelf. Given the enigmas of prehistory I’m sure that it will inspire as many questions as it answers!

If you want to find out more about Mick Manning and Brita Granstom have a look at their website. They have produced a wonderful selection of books, I for one will be ordering quite a few of them. You can order a copy of The Secrets of Stonehenge here.

Look out for more book reviews coming soon.

Stonehenge lessons completed and ready to order

Very exciting news! We have finished the first set of lessons for you to order! Go over to our lesson plan page to see how you can order and be amazed at the low-low prices! The first lesson is free, for one thing!

The set of lessons is about Stonehenge as that’s what we thought a lot of teachers would be interested in teaching. Stonehenge is pretty well known, after all. Obviously, Stonehenge itself is getting geared up for teaching visiting groups.

We are getting interesting feedback, though, that teachers want to know about their local prehistoric sites. We’ve got some advice for researching your local prehistory.

Here’s a taster of what’s in the Stonehenge lessons, which include slides, teacher’s notes, lesson plans and worksheets. They’ll all be supplied as PDFs.

stonehenge portfolio copy

Stonehenge: a new dawn for education groups

Susan Greaney has been very busy for the past few years, as Senior Properties Historian for English Heritage, on the interpretation for the new visitor’s centre at Stonehenge, which was launched last year just in time for the important winter solstice. Here she tells us what awaits visiting schools to Britain’s most iconic prehistoric monument.

You may have seen in the news that the Stonehenge visitor centre has now opened to the public. Housing a fantastic exhibition, an indoor café and a shop, this building has transformed the experience of all our visitors.

For the first time there are also high-quality facilities for schools and education groups, making a visit to Stonehenge easy, informative and hopefully inspiring! A fully equipped education room is available both for free self-led visits as well as Discovery Visits, led by our experts. Opening for bookings from this week, the new space has its own toilets, bag storage and interactive whiteboard.

Groups can find out more about Stonehenge in the extensive exhibition gallery, where for the first time archaeological objects from the World Heritage Site are on display. A variety of films, models and displays, as well as a changing temporary exhibition, help to tell the story of the unique monument and its surrounding prehistoric landscape. From Easter 2014 the reconstructed Neolithic houses in the outdoor gallery will also be built and available for education groups to use.

A school group getting closer to the stones

A school group getting closer to the stones

Our new Discovery Visit ‘Neolithic Life’ will explore how people lived at the time of Stonehenge, with pupils able take part in a number of hands-on activities such as cookery, fence building and rope making. As well as exploring how, why and when Stonehenge was built, the visit encourages pupils to use enquiry skills to investigate why Stonehenge and the surrounding area was so important in prehistory. This session will be available from 6th May and you will be able to book from mid-March.

With prehistory on the primary curriculum for the first time, now is the perfect time to bring your school to Stonehenge. More information about the facilities available, online resources and how to book can be found on the English Heritage website.

The prehistory of Christmas

If you’re planning your 2014 history curriculum soon and thinking of teaching Stone Age to Iron Age Britain in the autumn term, fear not about tying it in with Christmas. There are loads of ways in which you can use Christmas to discuss prehistoric life and ways of seeing the world.

The entrance to Newgrange. Note the 'roofbox' that would let light in at midwinter sunrise. By Superchilum (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The entrance to Newgrange. Note the ‘roofbox’ that would let light in at midwinter sunrise. By Superchilum (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Christmas is placed very close to the midwinter solstice. Many Neolithic (new Stone Age) monuments are aligned on the midwinter sunrise or sunset and so it is likely that there were ceremonies held around this time to ensure the coming of spring. Monuments with this alignment include Maes Howe on Orkney, Newgrange at Brú na Bóinne in Ireland and, of course, Stonehenge. The rites may have involved some kind of sacrifice, an altogether bloodier affair than modern druidical get-togethers.

Much of the rest of the links to Christmas traditions are very much based on supposition from later traditions and educated guesses about the way people used to live. Sometimes there’s not always the evidence available to support these suppositions.

Fire is still used in the Up Helly Aa midwinter festival in the Shetland Islands. Based on Viking traditions, these would have stretched back into the Iron Age. The idea of bringing light to the darkest time of year cannot have been difficult to come up with in prehistory, as in later centuries. Bronze Age burnt mounds spring to mind, such as those found at Bradley Fen, Whittesley in Cambridgshire. These were placed on the edge of the fen, just on dry ground. Burnt mounds are a mass of cracked and burned flint pebbles, usually next to a water trough or natural watercourse, and often associated with animal bones. Light and feasting were clearly part of the prehistoric ritual year, but was it at midwinter? Archaeologists aren’t sure.

Iron Age quadrangular pillar from Pfalzfeld, Germany. The faces are crowned with mistletoe leaves. By w:de:Sozi, Sozi (photographed by myself, V2/4) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Iron Age quadrangular pillar from Pfalzfeld, Germany. The faces are crowned with mistletoe leaves. By w:de:Sozi, Sozi (photographed by myself, V2/4) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The tradition of bringing greenery into the home has a very long history, too. What could be more of a symbol of fertility and the promise of the return of spring than an evergreen, whether that’s holly, ivy or a pine tree? Despite the lyrics of the song, holly and ivy have very little to do with celebrating the birth of Christ. Another evergreen is known to have been of importance to Iron Age druids: mistletoe. Whether you use Asterix or Caesar as your source, it’s clearly documented that druids collected mistletoe for use in their ceremonies, along with sacrifice, and there is mistletoe iconography in Celtic art on the continent.

Gift-giving would have been a regular occurence in prehistory, used to negotiate social relationships between peers, and between the more and less powerful. Much of what we see as ‘trade’ would actually have been gift exchange. If communities are getting together for midwinter ceremonies, gifts are bound to be given and received.

Decorated Saami drum used by shamans. The world is divided into three layers. The upper world related to sky - there's clearly a reindeer up there! By Christopher Forster and Tor Gjerde (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Decorated Saami drum used by shamans. The world is divided into three layers. The upper world related to sky – there’s clearly a reindeer up there! By Christopher Forster and Tor Gjerde (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Ethnographic evidence is not terribly fashionable at the moment, but it seems relatively acceptable to look to the traditions of the Saami (previously known as Laps) in northern Norway and Sweden. Some Saami continue their ages old semi-nomadic way of life herding reindeer. They were forcibly converted to Christianity in the 17th century, but a great deal of information exists about their pre-Christian traditions, which include flying reindeer pulling a supernatural being behind them. Remind you of anyone?

The Christmas story is, of course, very much embedded in this midwinter mixture (which also includes many aspects of pagan Roman Saturnalia). Exploring the pre-existing traditions that it was introduced into would give pupils a really rounded view of why we do what we do at this time of year.

References

Aldhouse-Green, M 2005. The Quest for the Shaman. Thames & Hudson, London.

Green, M 1997. Exploring the World of the Druids. Thames and Hudson, London.

Pryor, F 2003. Britain BC. Harper Perennial, London.