Secret Britain: unearthing our mysterious past

From a small spindle whorl to an expanse of moorland, there are many objects, individual sites, and entire landscapes in Britain that offer a portal to the past. In her engaging new book, Mary-Ann Ochota is our guide to the archaeology of the country, as she takes readers on a roughly clockwise journey of heritage highlights, starting in Orkney far in the north-east and finishing in the Hebrides in the north-west.

Some of the stops – like Stonehenge – are not so secret, but the book sets out to explore the ‘why?’ surrounding the selected sites, monuments, and artefacts. For it is in this question that secrets often lie. Through research, we may know when, where, and how something was made, built, or deposited, but the why can be open for interpretation.

Among the most secretive sets of objects are hoards, groups of artefacts including coins, jewellery, and swords, perhaps given as a ritual offering or deliberately concealed out of sight for a variety of reasons, such as safe-keeping valuables during a period of turmoil. In Norfolk, we explore the Snettisham Treasure and its hefty Iron Age gold torcs. As Ochota tells us, the first finds at Snettisham were made in 1948 during ploughing, with more unearthed in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, and yet more in the 1990s. Excavations revealed a series of pits, each with a hoard. Intriguingly, the first pits encountered were shallow, but as archaeologists dug deeper they found pits with more valuable objects directly below the upper pits, which appear to have served as decoy hoards. Whether the torcs were buried as gifts to the gods when something went wrong or they were celebratory offerings, whether they were deposited in secret or as community events remains unknown, but it seems that whoever placed the gold, silver, and bronze deep in the ground intended for them to remain well-hidden.

Other secrets include symbols that have not been deciphered on the Pictish stones at Aberlemno, or a discreet, only partly legible and partly translatable runic inscription to the Norse gods Odin and Heimdallr on a simple, small spindle whorl, which shows that even fairly quotidian objects warrant a close look. The inscription may be a prayer by the spinner to protect the wearer(s) of the spun threads, offering an intimate glimpse of family affection in the 11th century.

As Secret Britain shows through the varied selection of monuments, artefacts, landscapes, and even an individual yew tree, not all archaeological mysteries are about spectacular stones and hidden gold. Through her enjoyable and well-illustrated account of Britain’s heritage, Ochota offers plenty of information (more for some entries than others), but also a lot of questions to fire up curiosity about these sites and objects, familiar or otherwise, and highlights the allure of the unknown.

Review by Lucia Marchini.
Secret Britain: unearthing our mysterious past, Mary-Ann Ochota, Frances Lincoln, £20, Hardback, ISBN 978-0711253469.