Sunday, October 18, 2009

Mudlarks and History

You might think (I certainly did) that in a huge city like London, any segment of riverbank was long ago picked over for the archaeological detritus that might be hidden there. Well, we're wrong. Maybe you'd like to distance yourself from me.

I'm not sure why--maybe because the Thames has not been concreted over like most well-behaved rivers--but London's river remains rich in ancient deposits, some dating back to Roman times. Treasure hunters rejoice!

If you want to muck about, though, you'll probably only be allowed to do so on the south bank. The north side of the river is the private domain of serious, if amateur, excavators . Britain issues a very limited number of licenses allowing exploration of this artifact-rich area, so the owners of those licenses have formed their own fraternity: The Society of Thames Mudlarks. This picture, from, shows mudlarks working the shore at Southwark.

The name comes from a term that once referred to street urchins in the Victorian Age. At low tide--and tides on the Thames can drop as much as 25 feet--mudlarks go to work, many using metal detectors. They find coins, tools, and toys--like guns that actually carried a charge and may have blown off a few fingers. Most of the objects fell out of ships through the ages, and anything over 300 years old become property of the Museum of London (though the finders are rewarded).

National Geographic did a piece on the mudlarks in 2004. Last week's Time Magazine featured a fascinating "Postcard" segment about them as well (pg. 6 of the October 12, 2009 issue, or here). Go read it for a hint of the finds, all the regulations about what happens to the goodies dug out of the river mud, and for a profile of Steve Brooker, former pro skateboarder and awesome Mud God of the mudlarks. Just this year, Brooker found a ball and chain once worn (unwillingly) by a 17th-century prisoner. Here's a link to that story in the Daily Mail, which is where the picture below came from. Brooker's find is the only complete ball, chain & lock ever found.

The last paragraph of the Time piece intrigued me. Through a series of mini strokes, I read, Brooker lost large portions of his own memories about three years ago. Irretrievably. Does that have anything to do with his need to uncover history?

During the last few years of my parents' lives (they died within a week of each other, after 55 years of marriage), I became obsessed with family history and genealogy. I made connections all over the country with folks who had the same unusual last name, and found that the 200 or so people in the world who shared that name were, indeed, all related and all traced their history to a town in the Rhine Palatinate region of Germany.

Then my parents died, and I lost interest. With all the fickleness of a spoiled prom queen, I packed away the charts and notebooks and have not looked at them since. Doesn't take much analysis to figure out what was going on there, does it?

So I was curious about Brooker's loss, and how it played into his fascination with mudlarking. This entry from Antiquarian's Attic says that Brooker has been a mudlark for 12 years. I guess my attempt to read something Freudian into his passion is misdirected, but the tail of the mudlarks is still a fascinating one.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Musing on Celts and Written History

Most folks think Irish when they think Celts, and that's fine. Ireland, after all, is still the only Celtic country never conquered by Rome. When scholars and others speculate about Celtic society, they use records found in Ireland because those are the oldest available records about Celtic customs.

The earlier Celtic people of Ireland, Britain, the Iberian peninsula, France (Gaul), Switzerland, Eastern Europe, etc., did not write down their history. They considered history far too important to commit to writing. Instead, it was memorized by the educated classes--the druids--who could interpret it properly.

Buggers. Even that previous paragraph contains a ton of untestable assumptions--about the druids' roles, and the reasons that histories and beliefs were not written down, f'r instance.

Since there are some examples of these ancient tribes using Roman or Greek letters to note very mundane things--like accounting records or praises of deities--we know that the Celts used writing. Julius Caesar (not an unbiased source, IMHO) says the druids would not put their beliefs in writing for religious reasons. Unless we unearth a 2200-year-old history etching somewhere, I guess we have to settle for that explanation.

And that leaves the writings of Celtic Ireland, both pre and post Christian, to give us a clue to earlier Celtic beliefs. But the oldest existing records of ancient Irish history are still about seven centuries removed from the days of an independent, non-Romanized Gaul, and seven hundred years is A Long Time. Not to mention the geographic distance...

I'm playing devil's advocate here, but think about it. Seven hundred years ago, chances are the city/town you live in did not exist. Maybe your country did not exist. Seven hundred years ago, Europe was still recovering from the Black Death that wiped out a third to a half of its population. The Inquisition was just ramping up, so free thought was not only outre but downright suicidal. Most people in Europe were illiterate peasants who lived on the verge of starvation. How much have we changed since then? An immeasurable amount.

What's the point? Just that it seems awfully tenuous to me to speculate about the B.C. Celts and their society based on early Irish texts, such as a law code (the Brehon) first codified in 438 A.D. I'm not sure how old the oldest examples of the law code are--certainly more recent than 438--but tradition says that the laws date back to the 8th century B.C.

Tradition is very unreliable. My own family tradition handed down the story for 2 or 3 generations that a great-great-great grandfather of ours was a judge in the old country. Guess what? Someone did some Real Research and found out the tradition was completely bogus. No judges, only farmers and seed merchants. Period. So if tradition can be fictionalized within sixty or seventy years in one family, what can happen over seven centuries?

OTOH...This was a society that trained men and women to memorize long histories, we are told. And if the histories were sacred to them, would anyone dare screw them up? But OTOH...even written histories get warped over time. Every re-writing changes something very subtly, doesn't it? Language changes, and those who study this claim that it changes at a measurable rate.

I got into an argument with an engineering type person a couple of months ago about that. He was irate that language changed. He felt that someone should stop it from changing. He truly believed that was possible, and he felt that due to a lack of conscientious effort on the part of English professors, he had been cheated out of his right to comprehend and enjoy Shakespeare and Chaucer in their original words.

I thought he was crazy, though I didn't say so. Still, he grew quite heated over his points, and I can only assume that most people don't bother arguing with him often.

I digress. But this is a blog; I'm allowed.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

A Previously Unknown Stone Circle Found...

...only a mile from Stonehenge! Wow. I'm ferklempt.

The archaeologists are calling it Bluestonehenge or just Bluehenge, and are pushing the idea that Stonehenge was a burial site. Perhaps, they say, Bluestonehenge is where bodies were cremated before burial at Stonehenge. I can't point to any flaws in that theory, but it does assume a lot. However...quien sabe?

After thousands of years, we learn that another stone circle was off the River Avon? This is too cool. Here's the CNN story. It seems that only the pits are left--the blue stones, from Wales, were removed about 4500 years ago and may actually be the bluestones of Stonehenge. But originally, they stood in a vast circle a mile distant.

This Chicago Tribune story gives a bit more detail--there were 25 stones in this newly-found circle, and they stood for about 500 years before being moved. After that a round ditch about 74 feet across replaced the stone circle.

It's just amazing to me that new discoveries are made at some of the most famous and studied sites on earth.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Everything You Want to Know About Druids

There are several books with the title "Druids," including a novel by Morgan Llywelyn which I sorta reviewed here. Tons o' fun.

Ancient Druidic Rite

A digression:

You know that when you read a novel, the author is allowed to Make Things Up, right? This picture, for instance, represents a lurid, fictional scene. Not Real.

With non-fiction books, the author is not supposed to Make Things Up. Some of them do, though. How can the reader beware of this practice?

Your best bet is to look at the credentials of the author.

If s/he is a university professor, chances are the information in the book is carefully researched. The author has an academic reputation to uphold, and that probably is more valuable to him or her than the success of the book.

If the author has no real credentials, and especially if the book is self-published or from a publisher you never heard of, be careful of taking the words to heart.

Digression over.

The nonfiction books with "Druid" in the title fall into two categories: those dealing with the historical, Celtic Druids, and those devoted to neo-druidism.

Druids Celebrate Spring Equinox At Stonehenge

The two categories are completely separate. Neo-druidic books that promise to teach druidism are promoting a philosophy, religion, and lifestyle that was invented in modern times, and uses impressions of ancient druids as its inspiration--like the happy couple to the right.

Look, no one knows what ancient druids believed. They left NO written record, and the writings about them are filtered through Romans and Greeks. Those authors may have been lying, or misinformed, or faithful reporters...we don't know.

That leaves a handful of books by scholars and historians about druids. Of these, I recommend Peter Berresford Ellis' book, The Druids -- or, as Amazon bills it, A Brief History of the Druids (The Brief History). Even though it features Stonehenge on the cover (a construction that preceeds Druids and Celts by a coupla millennia), it's the most recent book that gathers together all that we can know about Druids--from archaeology (including Lindow Man), ancient writing, and Irish and Welsh traditions.

Ellis takes the position that Druids were the educated segment of society--the doctors, lawyers, judges, scientists, and yes, priests. He compares them to the Brahmins of India. He makes conjectures, sifts through the evidence. If you read a book by a different expert, s/he might have different opinions.

Druids are mysterious. They were the elite and guarded secret information. That information died with them, though.

I'm reminded of a line from the book Indeh by Eve Ball--a book about the Apache...a line I can't find right now! Dang. I hope I don't butcher the quote, but one of the Apaches who was telling his history turned to Ms. Ball and said, "You white people, you keep everthing up here in your head, and nothing in your heart."

Why didn't they write anything down? I imagine they didn't want their most sacred information being poured over by whatever enemy got their hands on a scroll, but that's my opinion.