CA 402 Letters – August

Your thoughts on issues raised by CA.

Hermits at Stanton Harcourt?

Image: Roger-Davies, CC BY-SA 2.0

Chris Catling’s splendid article on Dr Simon Roffey’s work on medieval hermitages (CA 400) brought back memories of a day of restoration work in St Michael’s Church, Stanton Harcourt, Oxfordshire (above), at the end of the 1960s. I was inside the chancel (c.1250-1260), in the extreme south-west corner, cleaning down the presumably mid-19th-century plaster, when the ghost of an early English low side window began to appear. Less than half survived, having been truncated by the construction of the Harcourt Chapel alongside (c.1470), incorporating a large part of its south wall. Blocking the window in the 15th century had preserved, in remarkably good order, the colours in which the mouldings had been painted when they were sealed. It also confirmed that the much fainter colours still visible on mouldings in the rest of the chancel were indeed genuinely medieval.

That day was particularly memorable because I was unexpectedly joined in the task of extracting the 15th-century rubble infill by the late Viscount Harcourt in person. I shall not forget the sight of his wonderfully polished brown shoes, liberally coated with stone dust. Did one wonder what Jeeves was going to say? We reached the far end of the fill, but were unable to view the outside of the window due to the inconvenient presence in that corner of the chapel of the notable Gothick tomb of Lord Harcourt’s ancestor, the 2nd Earl Harcourt (d. 1809), himself, incidentally, an FSA.

There are numerous possible explanations for these low side windows, none completely satisfactory. The possibility of an anchorite’s cell on the outside of the church from the 13th century on is intriguing. If so, it must have disappeared in 1470, if not before. Upgrading from a single hermit to a full chantry?

Peter Salway, Stanton Harcourt, Oxfordshire

From Elmet to North Wales

Jean Gidman can rest assured the kingdom of Elmet is not forgotten by people in North Wales.

In Llanaelhaearn, at the neck of the Llyˆn Peninsula, Aliortus – a late 5th-century man – was proud to call himself Elmetiaco (‘from Elmet’) on his tombstone, inscribed in correct Latin: ALIORTUS ELMETIACO HIC IACET. This is judged to be the earliest surviving mention of the kingdom.

If you were driving the late Mrs Mary Chitty (Mary Kitson Clark of Leeds, author of a notable 1930s book on food vessels, and sister-in-law of the famous Miss Lily Chitty) home to the tip of the peninsula, she would always ask to stop and visit the church ‘to greet my cousin’.

Frances Lynch, Bangor, Gwynedd

Edwin and Elmet

The recent foray of Sutton Hoo Society members north to Northumbria passed through the kingdom of Elmet on the way up Ermine Street. Desirous to ensure that our members are well-informed, we provided them with a handout to outline the extent of Elmet and its position as a buffer zone between Northumbria and Mercia in the 7th century. The Battle of the River Idle, fought near Bawtry in AD 616 on the edge of Elmet, saw the joint armies of Rædwald (King of the East Angles) and Edwin (ousted King of Deira and exiled at Rædwald’s court) defeat Æthelfrith of Northumbria. Edwin, installed as King of the North, established his centre at Yeavering (Ad Gefrin), which the Sutton Hoo Society members visited as part of the trip. Edwin’s close relative Hereric was exiled in Elmet, where he was poisoned by King Ceretic, probably on the orders of Æthelfrith. Rædwald had refused to similarly despatch or hand over Edwin, partly due to the counsel of his wife who, Bede tells us, indicated that such an act would be dishonourable. Following his installation in Northumbria, Elmet was then subjugated by Edwin, who expelled Ceretic. Bogg’s book ( oldkingdomofelme00boggrich) provided useful background, as did the recent book Lost Realms by Thomas Williams, where you will find a whole chapter devoted to Elmet.

Dr Rosemary Hoppitt, Sutton Hoo Society

Thoughts on Neolithic stone balls

Image: Johnbod, CC BY-SA 2.0

Several years ago, I was lucky enough to visit the Tomb of the Eagles in Orkney. In the museum some of the finds were handed out for us all to look at. As a sculptor with a lifelong passion for archaeology, I was particularly interested in the carved stone balls. A sculptor strives to translate thoughts into tangible objects and here, it seemed to me, was an early example of this very process. The time and effort involved in making the balls would have been a considerable undertaking, involving the sculptor in a long-term creative process. Such deep artistic involvement has been likened to meditation or trance-like spiritual states. It would surely have involved plenty of thinking time to analyse and consider all manner of spiritual and practical issues during the process of making them.

The proprietor asked if I had any ideas as to their use. I had already formed an idea and replied, ‘Perhaps they knew the earth was round and this is the maker’s representation of their world.’ My theory was met with a mixture of mirth and derision!

Undeterred, I took the opportunity to do some further research. There seem to be three main types of carved ball, which perhaps could be classified as the sun, the moon, and the earth. The spherical or disc shape of the sun and moon are clear to any observer. Would it not have made sense to represent the earth in the same manner? This may initially have been a stylistic device to maintain consistency rather than a literal interpretation. I understand that the first recorded instances of the world conceived as a sphere date from the 5th century BC. Could the suspicion have been around for much longer?

As to my proposed classification: the sun ball is carved with jagged edges, resembling a child’s painting of the sun. One of the ‘sun’ stones has a hole in the centre, possibly to let light through or to be suspended from a beam. The moon: mostly smooth spheres, but including suggestions of possible craters. The earth: these stones include suggested land masses or islands. While in Orkney, I noticed at low tide how there was a similarity of the islands to the interpretations on the carved balls – indeed, there is one stone that has possible waves carved between the land masses. There are other stone objects found alongside the balls that I suspect could be depictions of stars and comets.

I set to and made three balls of my own: sun, moon, and earth. I set these up on the kitchen floor at night, turned off the lights, and placed a bright light behind the balls. The results of light bouncing off these objects was quite astounding: I felt like I was floating in space. Could these stone balls have been revered, indeed even set up on a horizontal surface, like the stone dressers at Skara Brae, perhaps as ornaments or objects of veneration? On the Towie ball, there are three cup holes, perhaps a clue to their significance? There are many environmental examples of cup and ring marks on horizontal surfaces. Could the stone balls have been placed in these cups in a ceremonial attempt to amplify their power? Some have concentric rings like sunburst, suggesting radiating light and energy. Using several stone balls, a ceremony could be performed at an open-air temple.

I have discovered a number of theories on the use of the balls, but I am not aware of any along the lines outlined here. I would be grateful for any further comments and thoughts.

Rob Greenwood, Huddersfield

Edible Archaeology

A rather delicious treat: an ‘Edible Archaeology’ in the form of one of the cakes made by Hannah Fluck for Nancy Grace’s leaving party to celebrate her 37 years of contributions to archaeology in the south-west and the National Trust.

A 3D model of the cake was made by James Brown, and can be viewed on SketchFab:

What south-west National Trust heritage can you spot?

National Trust Archaeology

CA Online: What you have shared with us this month

Gavin MacGregor @gmacg_1

Greet to see the exciting new @ForestryLS The Bare Bones showcased in current edition of @CurrentArchaeo highlighting the Neolithic heritage shared by so many communities linked by seascapes.

Dr Joe Flatman @joeflatman

Crumbs, chief! My latest @CurrentArchaeo column’s crashed into #Cumbria! Lots to admire here from prehistory to WWI: Special shout out to @RoryStewartUK who I know to be a big fan of the county and its #archaeology…

Raksha Dave @Raksha_Digs

August edition of @CurrentArchaeo hit the doormat this morning – never thought I’d make the book review pages but here we are! Big thanks to @joeflatman for taking the time to review #Lessonsfromourancestors – blown away!

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