GREAT MONUMENTS GREATRIVERS
Jim Leary and David Field have worked at several of Wiltshire’s great neolithic monuments, not least Silbury Hill and the henge at Marden. Noting that these are sited by springs and streams, they here take a wider view of the religious significance of fresh water in Britain some 5,000 years ago
26|British Archaeology|September October 2011
We imagine rivers today creating boundaries and providing arteries for travel, but they may have been seen quite differently in the past. There are countless examples in the anthropological literature of belief in river spirits and sprites, and of rivers’ sacred, metaphysical or supernatural roles – the Ganges in India being perhaps the best known sacred river. Water is used in many cleansing and purification rituals, not least by Christians.
Archaeologists long ago noted that many henges – distinctive British neolithic ritual monuments, from rings of posts to bank and ditch circles – were sited close to water. John Aubrey made the connection at
Avebury (Wiltshire) in the 1660s. Early in the 20th century Flinders Petrie suggested that the huge ditch there may have held water; Harold St George Gray’s excavations did not totally disprove this theory. Recently Jan Harding has recorded other henges that may have had wet ditches, among them Milfield North and South (Northumberland), Cairnpapple Hill (Lothian) and the Bull Ring (Derbyshire).
Other neolithic sites are by springheads and streams. The henge and cursus monuments at Rudston focus on the Gypsey Race (Yorkshire – a cursus is an unexplained earthwork in which two parallel banks can run for miles); the henges at Penrith are just