Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Labours of Sisyphus

Professor Chris Tilley, Director of the Pebblebeds Project, with one of the pebbles I dug up in my garden

Budleigh Salterton may look like a quaint old English town to the visitor but it's in surrounding villages like Otterton and East Budleigh, birthplace of Sir Walter Raleigh in the 16th century, that you have to look if you want to see really ancient communities. Salterton, as the town was known at that time, was nothing more than a few fishing huts on the marshes, so they say.

For the really really ancient stuff you have to head out to the pebblebed heathlands just a few miles north of Budleigh where the town's amateur archaeologist George Carter made some interesting discoveries in the 1930s.

His theories about Bronze Age shrines hiding under the heather and gorse on Woodbury Common were laughed at during his lifetime, but George Carter's reputation as a pioneer in East Devon archaeological circles is now widely recognised thanks largely to the efforts of Professor Chris Tilley, of University College London's Department of Anthropology, and the team of international experts who have been working with him to sieve the evidence left behind by our Bronze Age ancestors.

My attempt at a vegetable patch, showing the pebbles which grow there naturally

The pebbles which are a major part of that evidence give Budleigh beach its unique character. They play a central role in the website set up by Professor Tilley and his colleagues at http://www.pebblebedsproject.org.uk/t.org.uk/ Personally I have a love-hate relationship with pebbles. Yes, they're pretty to look at, but in such quantities they're about as welcome as slugs, badgers, rabbits and deer when it comes to creating a plant-friendly environment in my little Garden of Eden.

The gods of Greek mythology condemned Sisyphus to be punished by battling against only one admittedly largish stone, but over the last few weeks I've felt my punishment to be a million times worse as I've sieved my way through what seemed to be tons of stony stuff on my way to creating that herbaceous border I've been dreaming of.

Well, the border's now ready for planting with lots of spongy compost and deliciously oozy horse muck with about 80% of the original content removed to form yet another pebble cairn in a corner of the garden.

Professor Chris Tilley explains the Jacob's Well project at the Open Day

So last Sunday with my sieving complete it was off to the Pebblebeds Project Open Day with 30 or so curious members of the public to learn about the punishing schedule that Professor Tilley and his fellow-archaeologists have set themselves, wading through black and boggy stuff in the pebble cairn known as Jacob's Well that they've been excavating.

It's slow progress with those 1mm archaeologists' sieves that they use, and the black stuff is greasy with tar as well as stinking of methane, but they look cheerful enough on their website at http://www.pebblebedsproject.org.uk/project_team.html
and the project is exciting enough to have attracted team members from universities in Sweden, India, Brazil and the Czech Republic as well as specialists and enthusiastic amateurs from the UK.

Dr Karolína Pauknerová, a specialist in anthropology of landscape and experimental archaeology at Charles University in Prague, also explained the significance of the Jacob's Well pebble cairn to the visitors

And the day before our visit must have given them a unique thrill of seeing into the past when Budleigh Salterton resident Priscilla Hull, George Carter's daughter, called at the site. Now aged 90 she recalled as a 16-year-old helping her father with the first proper investigation of Jacob's Well.

George Carter's early exploration of archaeological sites in India during the 1920s had led him on his return to East Devon to interpret the building of such Bronze Age pebble cairns in terms of Indo-Ayran burial rites described at length in the Satapatha Brahama, the Hindu sacred text which describes details of Vedic rituals. His theory did not go down too well with local archaeologists in the UK.

Even more thrilling for Professor Tilley and his team must have been the recent news that two of the oak stakes recovered by George Carter from the Jacob's Well pebble cairn have been carbon dated as 1800 BC.

The site, we learnt, seems to have been used as a shrine by our Bronze Age ancestors to conduct sacred rituals involving fire and water, not only to produce steam but to destroy pebbles. And its location, overlooking the valley of the River Exe is significant. We visitors were able to appreciate the magnificent view on our way to Jacob's Well, but the excavation site itself is now completely hidden by the trees of modern pine plantations.

Visitors on the Open Day were invited to see the cairn at close quarters

Like many of the pebble cairns on Woodbury Common the shrine when it was first built would have had an uninterrupted view of the rising and setting sun, like those you can see at
"Celestial events, and in particular the rising (birth) and setting (death) of the sun were, and still are, an important part of the experience of inhabiting the Pebblebed heathlands," reads the Pebblebeds Project website. "In relation to the fire rituals taking place at the prehistoric cairns sun symbolism would have been of great significance in the ceremonial rites that took place. A direct connection can be drawn between the pyres that were lit and the life-giving force of the sun."

The River Exe, to the west of Jacob's Well, being marshy and tidal might have been seen as a river of death, suggested Professor Tilley. It could have been a burial place where dead bodies were placed to be carried out to sea. And to the east was the River Otter, a river of life. He did admit that this theory might be a bit fanciful.

But then fanciful is the best word to describe a place of magic, and Professor Tilley, who is convinced that the pebbles were magical stones, is one of the many people who believe that this area of the pebblebed heathlands "was, and is, a magical landscape." http://www.pebblebedsproject.org.uk/poetics_of_pebbles.html

Sisyphus too must have had his dreams

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