Ogbury Barrows by Grant Allen

Story type: Essay

We went to Ogbury Barrows on an archaeological expedition. And as the very name of archaeology, owing to a serious misconception incidental to human nature, is enough to deter most people from taking any further interest in our proceedings when once we got there, I may as well begin by explaining, for the benefit of those who have never been to one, the method and manner of an archaeological outing.

The first thing you have to do is to catch your secretary. The genuine secretary is born, not made; and therefore you have got to catch him, not to appoint him. Appointing a secretary is pure vanity and vexation of spirit; you must find the right man made ready to your hand; and when you have found him you will soon see that he slips into the onerous duties of the secretariat as if to the manner born, by pure instinct. The perfect secretary is an urbane old gentleman of mature years and portly bearing, a dignified representative of British archaeology, with plenty of money and plenty of leisure, possessing a heaven-born genius for organisation, and utterly unhampered by any foolish views of his own about archaeological research or any other kindred subject. The secretary who archaeologises is lost. His business is not to discourse of early English windows or of palaeolithic hatchets, of buried villas or of Plantagenet pedigrees, of Roman tile-work or of dolichocephalic skulls, but to provide abundant brakes, drags, and carriages, to take care that the owners of castles and baronial residences throw them open (with lunch provided) to the ardent student of British antiquities, to see that all the old ladies have somebody to talk to, and all the young ones somebody to flirt with, and generally to superintend the morals, happiness, and personal comfort of some fifty assorted scientific enthusiasts. The secretary who diverges from these his proper and elevated functions into trivial and puerile disquisitions upon the antiquity of man (when he ought rather to be admiring the juvenility of woman), or the precise date of the Anglo-Saxon conquest (when he should by rights be concentrating the whole force of his massive intellect upon the arduous task of arranging for dinner), proves himself at once unworthy of his high position, and should forthwith be deposed from the secretariat by public acclamation.

Having once entrapped your perfect secretary, you set him busily to work beforehand to make all the arrangements for your expected excursion, the archaeologists generally cordially recognising the important principle that he pays all the expenses he incurs out of his own pocket, and drives splendid bargains on their account with hotel-keepers, coachmen, railway companies, and others to feed, lodge, supply, and convey them at fabulously low prices throughout the whole expedition. You also understand that the secretary will call upon everybody in the neighbourhood you propose to visit, induce the rectors to throw open their churches, square the housekeepers of absentee dukes, and beard the owners of Elizabethan mansions in their own dens. These little preliminaries being amicably settled, you get together your archaeologists and set out upon your intended tour.

An archaeologist, it should be further premised, has no necessary personal connection with archaeology in any way. He (or she) is a human being, of assorted origin, age, and sex, known as an archaeologist then and there on no other ground than the possession of a ticket (price half-a-guinea) for that particular archaeological meeting. Who would not be a man (or woman) of science on such easy and unexacting terms? Most archaeologists within my own private experience, indeed, are ladies of various ages, many of them elderly, but many more young and pretty, whose views about the styles of English architecture or the exact distinction between Durotriges and Damnonians are of the vaguest and most shadowy possible description. You all drive in brakes together to the various points of interest in the surrounding country. When you arrive at a point of interest, somebody or other with a bad cold in his head reads a dull paper on its origin and nature, in which there is fortunately no subsequent examination. If you are burning to learn all about it, you put your hand up to your ear, and assume an attitude of profound attention. If you are not burning with the desire for information, you stroll off casually about the grounds and gardens with the prettiest and pleasantest among the archaeological sisters, whose acquaintance you have made on the way thither. Sometimes it rains, and then you obtain an admirable chance of offering your neighbour the protection afforded by your brand-new silk umbrella. By-and-by the dull paper gets finished, and somebody who lives in an adjoining house volunteers to provide you with luncheon. Then you adjourn to the parish church, where an old gentleman of feeble eyesight reads a long and tedious account of all the persons whose monuments are or are not to be found upon the walls of that poky little building. Nobody listens to him; but everybody carries away a vague impression that some one or other, temp. Henry the Second, married Adeliza, daughter and heiress of Sir Ralph de Thingumbob, and had issue thirteen stalwart sons and twenty-seven beautiful daughters, each founders of a noble family with a correspondingly varied pedigree. Finally, you take tea and ices upon somebody’s lawn, by special invitation, and drive home, not without much laughter, in the cool of the evening to an excellent table d’hote dinner at the marvellously cheap hotel, presided over by the ever-smiling and urbane secretary. That is what we mean nowadays by being a member of an archaeological association.

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It was on just such a pleasant excursion that we all went to Ogbury Barrows. I was overflowing, myself, with bottled-up information on the subject of those two prehistoric tumuli; for Ogbury Barrows have been the hobby of my lifetime; but I didn’t read a paper upon their origin and meaning, first, because the secretary very happily forgot to ask me, and secondly, because I was much better employed in psychological research into the habits and manners of an extremely pretty pink-and-white archaeologist who stood beside me. Instead, therefore, of boring her and my other companions with all my accumulated store of information about Ogbury Barrows, I locked it up securely in my own bosom, with the fell design of finally venting it all at once in one vast flood upon the present article.

Ogbury Barrows, I would have said (had it not been for the praiseworthy negligence of our esteemed secretary), stand upon the very verge of a great chalk-down, overlooking a broad and fertile belt of valley, whose slopes are terraced in the quaintest fashion with long parallel lines of obviously human and industrial origin. The terracing must have been done a very long time ago indeed, for it is a device for collecting enough soil on a chalky hillside to grow corn in. Now, nobody ever tried to grow corn on open chalk-downs in any civilised period of history until the present century, because the downs are so much more naturally adapted for sheep-walks that the attempt to turn them into waving cornfields would never occur to anybody on earth except a barbarian or an advanced agriculturist. But when Ogbury Downs were originally terraced, I don’t doubt that the primitive system of universal tribal warfare still existed everywhere in Britain. This system is aptly summed up in the familiar modern Black Country formula, ‘Yon’s a stranger. ‘Eave ‘arf a brick at him.’ Each tribe was then perpetually at war with every other tribe on either side of it: a simple plan which rendered foreign tariffs quite unnecessary, and most effectually protected home industries. The consequence was, each district had to produce for its own tribe all the necessaries of life, however ill-adapted by nature for their due production: because traffic and barter did not yet exist, and the only form ever assumed by import trade was that of raiding on your neighbours’ territories, and bringing back with you whatever you could lay hands on. So the people of the chalky Ogbury valley had perforce to grow corn for themselves, whether nature would or nature wouldn’t; and, in order to grow it under such very unfavourable circumstances of soil and climate, they terraced off the entire hillside, by catching the silt as it washed slowly down, and keeping it in place by artificial barriers.

On the top of the down, overlooking this curious vale of prehistoric terraces, rise the twin heights of Ogbury Barrows, familiar landmarks to all the country side around for many miles. One of them is a tall, circular mound or tumulus surrounded by a deep and well-marked trench: the other, which stands a little on one side, is long and narrow, shaped exactly like a modern grave, but of comparatively gigantic and colossal proportions. Even the little children of Ogbury village have noticed its close resemblance of shape and outline to the grassy hillocks in their own churchyard, and whisper to one another when they play upon its summit that a great giant in golden armour lies buried in a stone vault underneath. But if only they knew the real truth, they would say instead that that big, ungainly, overgrown grave covers the remains of a short, squat, dwarfish chieftain, akin in shape and feature to the Lapps and Finns, and about as much unlike a giant as human nature could easily manage. It maybe regarded as a general truth of history that the greatest men don’t by any means always get the biggest monument.

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The archaeologists in becoming prints who went with us to the top of Ogbury Barrows sagaciously surmised (with demonstrative parasol) that ‘these mounds must have been made a very long time ago, indeed.’ So in fact they were: but though they stand now so close together, and look so much like sisters and contemporaries, one is ages older than the other, and was already green and grass-grown with immemorial antiquity when the fresh earth of its neighbour tumulus was first thrown up by its side, above the buried urn of some long-forgotten Celtic warrior. Let us begin by considering the oldest first, and then pass on to its younger sister.

Ogbury Long Barrow is a very ancient monument indeed. Not, to be sure, one quarter so ancient as the days of the extremely old master who carved the mammoth on the fragments of his own tusk in the caves of the Dordogne, and concerning whom I have indited a discourse in an earlier portion of this volume: compared with that very antique personage, our long barrow on Ogbury hill-top may in fact be looked upon as almost modern. Still, when one isn’t talking in geological language, ten or twenty thousand years may be fairly considered a very long time as time goes: and I have little doubt that from ten to twenty thousand years have passed since the short, squat chieftain aforesaid was first committed to his final resting-place in Ogbury Long Barrow. Two years since, we local archaeologists–not in becoming prints this time–opened the barrow to see what was inside it. We found, as we expected, the ‘stone vault’ of the popular tradition, proving conclusively that some faint memory of the original interment had clung for all those long years around the grassy pile of that ancient tumulus. Its centre, in fact, was occupied by a sepulchral chamber built of big Sarsen stones from the surrounding hillsides; and in the midst of the house of death thus rudely constructed lay the mouldering skeleton of its original possessor–an old prehistoric Mongoloid chieftain. When I stood for the first moment within that primaeval palace of the dead, never before entered by living man for a hundred centuries, I felt, I must own, something like a burglar, something like a body-snatcher, something like a resurrection man, but most of all like a happy archaeologist.

The big stone hut in which we found ourselves was, in fact, a buried cromlech, covered all over (until we opened it) by the earth of the barrow. Almost every cromlech, wherever found, was once, I believe, the central chamber of just such a long barrow: but in some instances wind and rain have beaten down and washed away the surrounding earth (and then we call it a ‘Druidical monument’), while in others the mound still encloses its original deposit (and then we call it merely a prehistoric tumulus). As a matter of fact, even the Druids themselves are quite modern and commonplace personages compared with the short, squat chieftains of the long barrows. For all the indications we found in the long barrow at Ogbury (as in many others we had opened elsewhere) led us at once to the strange conclusion that our new acquaintance, the skeleton, had once been a living cannibal king of the newer stone-age in Britain.

The only weapons or implements we could discover in the barrow were two neatly chipped flint arrowheads, and a very delicate ground greenstone hatchet, or tomahawk. These were the weapons of the dead chief, laid beside him in the stone chamber where we found his skeleton, for his future use in his underground existence. A piece or two of rude hand-made pottery, no doubt containing food and drink for the ghost, had also been placed close to his side: but they had mouldered away with time and damp, till it was quite impossible to recover more than a few broken and shapeless fragments. There was no trace of metal in any way: whereas if the tribesmen of our friend the skeleton had known at all the art of smelting, we may be sure some bronze axe or spearhead would have taken the place of the flint arrows and the greenstone tomahawk: for savages always bury a man’s best property together with his corpse, while civilised men take care to preserve it with pious care in their own possession, and to fight over it strenuously in the court of probate.

The chief’s own skeleton lay, or rather squatted, in the most undignified attitude, in the central chamber. His people when they put him there evidently considered that he was to sit at his ease, as he had been accustomed to do in his lifetime, in the ordinary savage squatting position, with his knees tucked up till they reached his chin, and his body resting entirely on the heels and haunches. The skeleton was entire: but just outside and above the stone vault we came upon a number of other bones, which told another and very different story. Some of them were the bones of the old prehistoric short-horned ox: others belonged to wild boars, red deer, and sundry similar animals, for the most part skulls and feet only, the relics of the savage funeral feast. It was clear that as soon as the builders of the barrow had erected the stone chamber of their dead chieftain, and placed within it his honoured remains, they had held a great banquet on the spot, and, after killing oxen and chasing red deer, had eaten all the eatable portions, and thrown the skulls, horns, and hoofs on top of the tomb, as offerings to the spirit of their departed master. But among these relics of the funeral baked meats there were some that specially attracted our attention–a number of broken human skulls, mingled indiscriminately with the horns of deer and the bones of oxen. It was impossible to look at them for a single moment, and not to recognise that we had here the veritable remains of a cannibal feast, a hundred centuries ago, on Ogbury hill-top.

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Each skull was split or fractured, not clean cut, as with a sword or bullet, but hacked and hewn with some blunt implement, presumably either a club or a stone tomahawk. The skull of the great chief inside was entire and his skeleton unmutilated: but we could see at a glance that the remains we found huddled together on the top were those of slaves or prisoners of war, sacrificed beside the dead chieftain’s tomb, and eaten with the other products of the chase by his surviving tribesmen. In an inner chamber behind the chieftain’s own hut we came upon yet a stranger relic of primitive barbarism. Two complete human skeletons squatted there in the same curious attitude as their lord’s, as if in attendance upon him in a neighbouring ante-chamber. They were the skeletons of women–so our professional bone-scanner immediately told us–and each of their skulls had been carefully cleft right down the middle by a single blow from a sharp stone hatchet. But they were not the victims intended for the piece de resistance at the funeral banquet. They were clearly the two wives of the deceased chieftain, killed on his tomb by his son and successor, in order to accompany their lord and master in his new life underground as they had hitherto done in his rude wooden palace on the surface of the middle earth.

We covered up the reopened sepulchre of the old cannibal savage king (after abstracting for our local museum the arrowheads and tomahawk, as well as the skull of the very ancient Briton himself), and when our archaeological society, ably led by the esteemed secretary, stood two years later on the desecrated tomb, the grass had grown again as green as ever, and not a sign remained of the sacrilegious act in which one of the party then assembled there had been a prime actor. Looking down from the summit of the long barrow on that bright summer morning, over the gay group of picnicking archaeologists, it was a curious contrast to reinstate in fancy the scene at that first installation of the Ogbury monument. In my mind’s eye I saw once more the howling band of naked, yellow-faced and yellow-limbed savages surge up the terraced slopes of Ogbury Down; I saw them bear aloft, with beating of breasts and loud gesticulations, the bent corpse of their dead chieftain; I saw the terrified and fainting wives haled along by thongs of raw oxhide, and the weeping prisoners driven passively like sheep to the slaughter; I saw the fearful orgy of massacre and rapine around the open tumulus, the wild priest shattering with his gleaming tomahawk the skulls of his victims, the fire of gorse and low brushwood prepared to roast them, the heads and feet flung carelessly on top of the yet uncovered stone chamber, the awful dance of blood-stained cannibals around the mangled remains of men and oxen, and finally the long task of heaping up above the stone hut of the dead king the earthen mound that was never again to be opened to the light of day till, ten thousand years later, we modern Britons invaded with our prying, sacrilegious mattock the sacred privacy of that cannibal ghost. All this passed like a vision before my mind’s eye; but I didn’t mention anything of it at that particular moment to my fellow-archaeologists, because I saw they were all much more interested in the pigeon-pie and the funny story about an exalted personage and a distinguished actress with which the model secretary was just then duly entertaining them.

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Five thousand years or so slowly wore away, from the date of the erection of the long barrow, and a new race had come to occupy the soil of England, and had driven away or reduced to slavery the short, squat, yellow-skinned cannibals of the earlier epoch. They were a pastoral and agricultural people, these new comers, acquainted with the use and abuse of bronze, and far more civilised in every way than their darker predecessors. No trace remains behind to tell us now by what fierce onslaught the Celtic invaders–for the bronze-age folk were presumably Celts–swept through the little Ogbury valley, and brained the men of the older race, while they made slaves of the younger women and serviceable children. Nothing now stands to tell us anything of the long years of Celtic domination, except the round barrow on the bare down, just as green and as grass-grown nowadays as its far earlier and more primitive neighbour.

We opened the Ogbury round barrow at the same time as the other, and found in it, as we expected, no bones or skeleton of any sort, broken or otherwise, but simply a large cinerary urn. The urn was formed of coarse hand-made earthenware, very brittle by long burial in the earth, but not by any means so old or porous as the fragments we had discovered in the long barrow. A pretty pattern ran round its edge–a pattern in the simplest and most primitive style of ornamentation; for it consisted merely of the print of the potter’s thumb-nail, firmly pressed into the moist clay before baking. Beside the urn lay a second specimen of early pottery, one of those curious perforated jars which antiquaries call by the very question-begging name of incense-cups; and within it we discovered the most precious part of all our ‘find,’ a beautiful wedge-shaped bronze hatchet, and three thin gold beads. Having no consideration for the feelings of the ashes, we promptly appropriated both hatchet and beads, and took the urn and cup as a peace-offering to the lord of the manor for our desecration of a tomb (with his full consent) on the land of his fathers.

Why did these bronze-age people burn instead of burying their dead? Why did they anticipate the latest fashionable mode of disposal of corpses, and go in for cremation with such thorough conviction? They couldn’t have been influenced by those rather unpleasant sanitary considerations which so profoundly agitated the mind of ‘Graveyard Walker.’ Sanitation was still in a very rudimentary state in the year five thousand B.C.; and the ingenious Celt, who is still given to ‘waking’ his neighbours, when they die of small-pox, with a sublime indifference to the chances of infection, must have had some other and more powerful reason for adopting the comparatively unnatural system of cremation in preference to that of simple burial. The change, I believe, was due to a further development of religious ideas on the part of the Celtic tribesmen above that of the primitive stone-age cannibals.

When men began to bury their dead, they did so in the firm belief in another life, which life was regarded as the exact counterpart of this present one. The unsophisticated savage, holding that in that equal sky his faithful dog would bear him company, naturally enough had the dog in question killed and buried with him, in order that it might follow him to the happy hunting-grounds. Clearly, you can’t hunt without your arrows and your tomahawk; so the flint weapons and the trusty bow accompanied their owner in his new dwelling-place. The wooden haft, the deer-sinew bow-string, the perishable articles of food and drink have long since decayed within the damp tumulus: but the harder stone and earthenware articles have survived till now, to tell the story of that crude and simple early faith. Very crude and illogical indeed it was, however, for it is quite clear that the actual body of the dead man was thought of as persisting to live a sort of underground life within the barrow. A stone hut was constructed for its use; real weapons and implements were left by its side; and slaves and wives were ruthlessly massacred, as still in Ashantee, in order that their bodies might accompany the corpse of the buried master in his subterranean dwelling. In all this we have clear evidence of a very inconsistent, savage, materialistic belief, not indeed in the immortality of the soul, but in the continued underground life of the dead body.

With the progress of time, however, men’s ideas upon these subjects began to grow more definite and more consistent. Instead of the corpse, we get the ghost; instead of the material underground world, we get the idealised and sublimated conception of a shadowy Hades, a world of shades, a realm of incorporeal, disembodied spirits. With the growth of the idea in this ghostly nether world, there arises naturally the habit of burning the dead in order fully to free the liberated spirit from the earthly chains that clog and bind it. It is, indeed, a very noticeable fact that wherever this belief in a world of shades is implicitly accepted, there cremation follows as a matter of course; while wherever (among savage or barbaric races) burial is practised, there a more materialistic creed of bodily survival necessarily accompanies it. To carry out this theory to its full extent, not only must the body itself be burnt, but also all its belongings with it. Ghosts are clothed in ghostly clothing; and the question has often been asked of modern spiritualists by materialistic scoffers, ‘Where do the ghosts get their coats and dresses?’ The true believer in cremation and the shadowy world has no difficulty at all in answering that crucial inquiry; he would say at once, ‘They are the ghosts of the clothes that were burnt with the body.’ In the gossiping story of Periander, as veraciously retailed for us by that dear old grandmotherly scandalmonger, Herodotus, the shade of Melissa refuses to communicate with her late husband, by medium or otherwise, on the ground that she found herself naked and shivering with cold, because the garments buried with her had not been burnt, and therefore were of no use to her in the world of shades. So Periander, to put a stop to this sad state of spiritual destitution, requisitioned all the best dresses of the Corinthian ladies, burnt them bodily in a great trench, and received an immediate answer from the gratified shade, who was thenceforth enabled to walk about in the principal promenades of Hades among the best-dressed ghosts of that populous quarter.

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The belief which thus survived among the civilised Greeks of the age of the Despots is shared still by Fijis and Karens, and was derived by all in common from early ancestors of like faith with the founders of Ogbury round barrow. The weapons were broken and the clothes burnt, to liberate their ghosts into the world of spirits, just as now, in Fiji, knives and axes have their spiritual counterparts, which can only be released when the material shape is destroyed or purified by the action of fire. Everything, in such a state, is supposed to possess a soul of its own; and the fire is the chosen mode for setting the soul free from all clogging earthly impurities. So till yesterday, in the rite of suttee, the Hindoo widow immolated herself upon her husband’s pyre, in order that her spirit might follow him unhampered to the world of ghosts whither he was bound. Thus the twin barrows on Ogbury hillside bridge over for us two vast epochs of human culture, both now so remote as to merge together mentally to the casual eyes of modern observers, but yet in reality marking in their very shape and disposition an immense, long, and slow advance of human reason. For just as the long barrow answers in form to the buried human corpse and the chambered hut that surrounds and encloses it, so does the round barrow answer in form to the urn containing the calcined ashes of the cremated barbarian. And is it not a suggestive fact that when we turn to the little graveyard by the church below we find the Christian belief in the resurrection of the body, as opposed to the pagan belief in the immortality of the soul, once more bringing us back to the small oblong mound which is after all but the dwarfed and humbler modern representative of the long barrow? So deep is the connection between that familiar shape and the practice of inhumation that the dwarf long barrow seems everywhere to have come into use again throughout all Europe, after whole centuries of continued cremation, as the natural concomitant and necessary mark of Christian burial.

This is what I would have said, if I had been asked, at Ogbury Barrows. But I wasn’t asked; so I devoted myself instead to psychological research, and said nothing.

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