Friday, August 24, 2007

Is the Swallowhead a Sacred Spring?

Stukeley "There are two heads of the river Kennet: one from a little north-west of Abury, at Monkton, runs southward to Silbury Hill: this affords little water, except in wet seasons. At Silbury Hill it joins the Swallow Head, or true fountain of the Kennet, which the country people call by the old name Cunnit, and it is not a little famous among them. This is a plentiful spring."

...The actual sources are indeed two.. one which rises in Clyffe Pypard field, some four miles to the north-west, and the other in the parish of Broad Hinton, some four miles to the north east of Abury: at the latter village these two streams unite, and flow in one channel to Swallow Head, the very picturesque basin whose springs are generally very abundant, and largely increase the infant river: indeed there are seasons when the two real sources have been known to be dry, and the only water in the Kennet has come from this spring.

Other seasons have occurred within my memory when this, too, has failed, and the dry bed of the Kennet has been planted with potatoes.

p175 in Rev. A C Smith's 'Guide to the British and Roman Antiquities of the North Wiltshire Downs' (1884). Referenced from TMA - SwallowHead Spring

one which rises in Clyffe Pypard field some four miles to the north-west. This statement by the Rev.Smith is probably wrong as there is no evidence of a stream rising at Clyffe Pypard and joining up with the stream from Broad Hinton...

Swallowhead Spring - a sad spectacle today with modern 'offerings' disintergrating on the stones.

The answer to that question is I don't know, but because the enigmatic Silbury Hill is just a few hundred metres away could there be some relationship between the two. First of all, the Swallowhead is at a junction where two small rivers meet, the Winterbourne as it is today called, coming down past Avebury, curving round Silbury and then apparently, as it takes a left hand swing by the spring it changes it name to the Kennet. The Kennet is seen as a new river, because the Swallowhead is its source. Now this conjunction of two rivers is important, some might see it as a marriage of the waters, but in neolithic thinking maybe this merging,- and who is to tell whether in prehistoric times the spring was much more energetic than it is today - was an important fact.

The Willow tree facing the supposed meeting place of Kennet and Winterbourne, taken from the Swallowhead Spring

Why, well looking further afield, a somewhat similar homage to water can be found in other places. Bath which is only about 30 kilometres away has the hot springs which the romans capitalised on and built a great temple to the presiding celtic Goddess Sulis there. Just outside the city, Bitton has a similar conjunction of rivers, the little river Boyd meeting the river Avon, a large barrow also dominates the scenery here..
Stanton Drew circles also have an avenue down to a river; an argument could be put forth here that the river was a means of transporting people, but it is significant that these three stone circles were put up right next to the river, thereby including the river as part of the sacred landscape. And of course Stonehenge with its Avenue down to the river as a processional way, and the disappeared large Hatfield barrow by the river Avon.
Here we come to the term 'sacred landscape' what does it mean? For me it means the long term habit of prehistoric people recognising the landscape as a living form, and in doing so gave it a subjective personality, its life forms being an integral part of their lives. Bringing their dead to a special place, recognising the bones of the dead were similar to the stones that they so laboriously erected to construct megalithic tombs....
There are other pointers that the Swallowhead could have been seen as sacred in the roman period, now this is strong circumstantial evidence, there was a roman settlement at the foot of Silbury with the roman road from London to Bath running alongside. There were several wells discovered in the 19th century round the base of Silbury, one of them had a great quantity of small stones atop a large half ton stone which seemed to be vertical within the shaft of the well. Underneath these stones was a variety of roman stuff, coins, pottery, bones, antler tines and
roman coins. An odd assemblage, though it could be argued that this stuff was votive, it could also be seen as rubbish thrown down the nearest receptacle.
Roman wells have a history all their own excavated they often reveal the destruction of the roman settlement or villa. Bodies, pottery, animals and altars are all to be found deposited therin, a testimony to the overthrowing of the roman regime by the local population.
So a word of caution has to be introduced when investigating the depths of wells, they can contain all manner of historical vandalism.
None of this votive evidence remains at Swallowhead because obviously it has been swept away over a long period of time., but the tantalising 'cave like' atmosphere that the Romans constructed round the hot springs of Aqua Sulis, tells us that a little more was going on.

For instance having mentioned the Bitton barrow at the junction of two rivers, a church also lies within a hundred yards and a 'heathen temple' or roman shrine is said to lie nearabouts.
The Apollo Temple at Nettleton Shrub, situated by the Roman Fosse Road, is also overlooking a brook, the settlement on the other side of the Fosse. There is also evidence of Dubonnic coins found in the vicinity, which could mean that native iron age people also lived/worshipped at this spot as well, and that is why the Apollo temple was sited here.

Counterbalancing my argument, is of course the question of a long time period, and the relationship of particular religious ideas being carried down through the centuries by different generations, who would of course bring different and innovative ideas. Silbury for instance could be the creation of a single mind bent on domination, on the other hand, imitation of other built large barrows could be the reason for its presence in the landscape. The spring could be seen as an ordinary source of water, its magical aspect only being picked up when the right combination of religious ideas came along. For instance at times through the Bronze Age when offerings were deposited in water or bogs. This particular ritual act would have been found in the later Iron age, when the pagan religion of that time worshipped in natural places. Being picked up at this stage by the roman colonisers, who had a similar religious perception of the world. We can, in other word, circumscribe the argument as having started at one point and finished nicely with water worship at the other end, but can not really lay claim that water, or at least the presence of a sacred spring, was a constant factor through the prehistoric period ......

And the further question must be asked, IF the Swallowhead was a special spring, how then did its relationship with Silbury hill feature in the general overlay of sacred landscape, because if Silbury was also built because of the low-lying water aspect of the site and the river that curves round it, and in a sense was part of a 'flooded' landscape,( similar for instance to Glastonbury Tor overlooking its 'fen' landscape,) it would'nt have been important at all...
Palisaded enclosures date....

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