What an Exhibition! The BM has pulled together an international array of treasures from the Stonehenge era. It is stunning , the objects are amazing. Stonehenge itself is there in the labels but it is not at the forefront – the objects are left to speak for themselves. The labels are there to give some details and some context but they never dominate.
It is beautifully lit and mounted, and really a triumph. I will go back again to see how the labels and information tell their stories and report back at greater length.
See the gateway to Snowdonia and its magnificent Medieval Castle, Town and Bridges
Borrowing my title from Daniel Defoe’s early chorography, my first circuit is from Chester to Edinburgh. Now on our second stop we are taking a virtual tour of the gateway to North Wales – the delightful town of Conwy.
For a small town Conwy has everything – an absolutely magnificent Medieval Castle, a City Wall that is still intact around the entire Circuit. Some of the great feats of bridge and tunnel engineering, and a pocket sized town containing historic buildings, nice pubs, and the ‘smallest house in Great Britain.’
It is not only picturesque but was a settlement of enormous strategic importance in the invasions by the Romans and the English. And to finish the tour we will take a small excursion into Snowdonia to see what it guarded
Julian Cope, of the Teardrop Explodes, wrote a wonderfully illustrated guide book of the megalithic sites in the UK. While you read why don’t you listen to the wonderful ‘When I dream.’
I lent the Modern Antiquarian to someone so have to use the website to share what he said about the standing stones of Bwalch-y-DDeufaen, near Conwy.
‘I’m really taken with these stones. The sense of deep time seems to hang around them, from the ageless mountains, through the monument builders, the tramp of Roman soldiers, into a hinterland of iron and wire. Rather than detracting, the pylons add to this sense that we’re standing in the midst of a palimpsest, layers of time and people still there, just below the surface. And perhaps we’re a shadowy presence in earlier and later times, too.
I’m working on a virtual tour of Conwy (Monday 7th March 7pm) and I remember a wonderful story from my several visits to Conwy pre-Covid. So, in my own words:
A Cobbler with a string of old shoes to be repaired hanging on a string around his neck, came upon a Giant carrying two huge stones in his hands. Behind him walked his wife carrying smaller stones in her apron. They were struggling over the Pass with the weight of the stones, and asked the Cobbler anxiously how far it was to the the Island of Anglesey? The Cobbler asked why they wanted to know and the Giant answered. ‘We plan to settle there and these stones are to build a bridge across the Menai Straits’.
The Cobbler came from Anglesey and was alarmed by the idea of the havoc a couple of Giants would cause. So he replied ‘ I don’t know how far it is but I have worn out all these shoes on the way.’
The Giant looked at the string of worn out shoes, looked at his wife and they decided to abandon their journey. He threw the two standing stones in the air and they landed in the ground where they have stood ever since, and his wife threw her smaller stones away too.
This is an explanation of the 2 large standing stones and two smaller ones at Bwalch-y-Ddeufane. They are either Neolithic or Bronze Age. Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote, int eh Twelfth Century, that the indigenous inhabitants of Britain were giants, descended from Poseidon, and the daughters of Albion. They were wiped out by King Brutus, the Trojan (for that tale come to my Myths and Legends of London Walks).
Bwalch means gap or pass and the track here was the prehistoric track and Roman Road that lead to Mona from Conwy and Chester. In fact they even considered it as a possible route for Euroroute 22, before deciding to continue the route along the A55 through Conwy. It was a massive construction project costing £200 million pounds and only made possible by European money as it was a strategic route to Holyhead and Ireland.
Below Bwalch-y-Ddeufane at Caerhun was the Roman Auxiliary Fortress that controlled this vital crossing of the Conwy. It is thought that this became the Civitas Capital of the Deceangli, who controlled the land from the Conwy to the Dee Estuary before and during the Roman period.
Richard Coates in a ground breaking article ‘A New Explanation Of The Name Of London’ Transactions Of The Philological Society Volume 96:2 (1998) Pgs 203 – 229 suggested the original name of London was Plowonida – or settlement by the wide flowing river. He deduces its name by comparing different versions of ‘London’ in different Celtic dialects and traces them back to what he believes is the common origin. This is the root *pleu meaning fleet flowing river, and onida which means ‘settlement by the’.
So, in the 2nd Millennia BC – the Bronze Age, there was a settlement by the flowing River. He thinks the Thames was the name for the river upstream of the Pool of London, and where it widened into an estuary it was called the Pleu. Etymonline.com says of the name Thames:
Thames – River through London, Old English Temese, from Latin Tamesis (51 B.C.E.), from British Tamesa, an ancient Celtic river name perhaps meaning “the dark one.” The -h- is unetymological (see th).
So, in the Bronze Age there must have been a small settlement probably in the area of the City or on the south bank in Southwark. It’s possible we have already found it in the occasional findings of post-holes, gullies, plough marks, brushwood platforms and burial mounds (particularly in Southwark) that have been found or we may be yet to find it. Or we may never find it. And if we do, unless it is significant in some way or has a signpost on it saying (“You are entering Plowonida”) we will never know.
Of course Coates may be wrong, but he is the most distinguished linguist of recent years to put his head about a dangerous parapet. Antiquarian journals were full of suggestions for the name of London. Previous suggestions include Lake Side Town, Lud’s Castle, Londinos’s settlement. None have survived scrutiny, and very few people were willing to make a guess after the late 70s, until 1998 and Richard Coates. However they all seem to accept that the name is pre-Roman in origin.
Archaeologists since the 1970s have been completely convinced there was no City before the arrival of the Romans. So, why bother finding the original name of a place that did not exist? However, last year in an excavation underneath Amazon’s new HQ, Principle Place, just north of Liverpool Street station, was found over 400 pieces of neolithic pottery, and evidence of extensive feasting. If you put this together with the burials found in the water margins of the River Thames, and the incredible finds of prestige metal objects: helmets, shields, swords, cauldrons, etc. from the River a case is beginning to be made (by David Keys in the Independent for example) that the area of the City of London might have been an important place for gatherings. So is it possible that the origins of London are as part of a ritual landscape?
If this is taken seriously it has a lot of implications for received opinion.
This BBC article reports on a genetic discovery by the Francis Crick Institute, co-authored with Prof. Barry Cunliffe, which shows a new genetic trait arriving in Kent and then, after a pause, spreading throughout England. It did not spread into Scotland and there is not enough data to show whether it moved into Ireland.
It is possible that it either brought the Celtic language with it. Or did it bring the Brythonic version of Celtic to England, leaving Scotland and Ireland speaking the pre-existing Goidelic version of the language branch?
The article also discusses the spreading of a gene for tolerance to lactose which spread rapidly, suggesting it must have contributed greatly to genetic survival. They postulate some existential threat during the Bronze Age which allowed those who could drink milk to survive much better than those who did not.
In researching my Prehistoric Virtual Walk (Sunday 25/04/21 Details) I came across many great sites of interest. Here are a few
Barn Elms – London’s Oppidum?
This is a lecture by Alex Barnes – only 15 minutes, long and about a site in South West London that just might be an important Iron Age centre of power, which might explain all that great metalwork found in the River Thames over the centuries.
I don’t know how I missed this site, as it was reported in archaeological magazines I read, but it is an amazing multi-period site in the Thames Valley. Excavations before gravel extraction have shown a particularly amazing sequence of Neolithic and Bronze Age discoveries.
They found 4 or 5 early Neolithic Houses, about 15% of those that have been found in the entire UK, and an amazing placed deposit, which contained a collection of objects dating back thousands of years. In effect, a ‘museum’ collection.
I’ll let you read it from the horse’s mouth. To read click here.
This has been a long time coming and only made possible by the need to go Virtual during the Pandemic. I have never done a prehistoric walk around London as such. I have done sections of it, and given lectures on the subject. But they were mostly overviews. This has therefore been a challenge putting this together, but a necessary revision of my knowledge.
So please do join me on:
Sunday 25th April 2021 6.30pm
An exploration of London before the foundation of Londinium
It was long thought that London was founded by a Trojan Exile in the Late Bronze Age. But historical analysis and archaeological excavation gradually demoted the idea to a myth.
On this tour we explore what was in the London area before the Romans. We begin at Heathrow and tour Greater London for evidence from the Paleolithic to the invasion of the Emperor Claudius.
We concentrate on the period since the introduction of farming, and bring together evidence for the prehistoric Kingdoms that controlled the area on the eve of the Invasion. We look for henges, barrows, hill forts, hut circles and look at genetic evidence for identity of prehistoric Londoners. The tour will end in the City.
This is a London Walks event by Kevin Flude, ex Museum of London Archaeology and Museum Curator