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KRONOS Vol X, No. 1

AN ANCIENT CELTIC WATER CULT: ITS SIGNIFICANCE IN BRITISH PREHISTORY

ALBAN WALL

Early Celtic civilization in western and northwestern Europe can be distinguished by numerous ritual and cultural trademarks. The one I shall be dealing with here concerns the practice these peoples followed in treating rivers, pools, lakes, wells, and other bodies of water, as entrances to the underworld, and of placing or casting into them various objects as votive offerings. As one authority on the subject stressed: "Springs, wells and rivers are of first and enduring importance as a focal point of Celtic cult practice and ritual.''(1) Evidence for this particular cult is to be found mostly on the Continent, but what is found in Britain is just as remarkably convincing.(2) Moreover, the extension of this cult to dry pits and shafts in lieu of actual wells seems to have spread in both locales. As Anne Ross stated:

"Apart from making votive offerings in pools and lakes, the Celts put objects of a similar kind into wells and springs and into pits and shafts clearly having a comparable significance in their traditions. "(3)

Archaeological investigation has shown how extensive and deeply ingrained was this cult in Celtic ritual. With this fact firmly established, it is of interest to single out for special attention a shaft recently discovered in Holzhausen, Germany, which has been dated to the La Tene phase of Celtic culture, dated roughly from about 550 to 15 B.C.

"Forming part of a ritual sanctuary enclosure, the shaft was found to be cylindrical in shape, 6.5 m deep and 2 m in diameter, with a somewhat funnel shaped mouth. In the centre of the lower part of its filling was a wooden post, 10 cm in diameter and 2 m long, which had been set up and packed into position. Traces of blood, flesh and animal fat were found . . . Professor Piggott also draws attention to other shafts with posts at their bases in southern Germany, and to one from Vleddar in the Netherlands, dating again to the late Bronze Age, not identical, but similar."(4)

The sites mentioned in the foregoing paragraph are all readily classifiable as Celtic and identified as belonging within the overall framework of Celtic ritual and tradition. It is important to note also that numerous of these Continental sites, including those discovered in southern Germany and the Netherlands, date to around 1200 B.C., a time which falls within the European Late Bronze Age.

What is noteworthy is that an almost identical shaft to the one found at Holzhausen has been discovered at Swanwick, not far from Southampton, on the southern coast of Britain. (See Figure 1.) Like many of its Continental counterparts, this particular pit is also datable to the Late Bronze Age.

[*!* Image] Figure 1. Ritual Shaft Holzhausen, German. Ritual Shaft Swanwick, England.

"It consisted of a circular shaft 24 ft. deep and 14 feet in diameter, growing slightly narrower as it increased in depth. At the bottom was a central wooden post, 8 in. in diameter and 5 ft. high, packed around with clay. A horizontal band of charcoal occurred, above which were about 20 clay loom-weights and a fragment of a saddle quern. Traces of dried flesh or blood were discernible. The loom-weights date roughly to 1200-1000 B.C."(5)

The similarity of the Holzhausen shaft to that at Swanwick is more than striking, as is readily discernible in the diagrams comparing the two. Aside from being nearly equal in size and shape, the character of their contents is remarkably alike. Each had a wooden post packed into position at the center of its base, and in each there were found traces of animal flesh and blood along with various votive offerings. It seems obvious that both were products of the same cultural tradition.

In describing another such site discovered in Britain, Anne Ross declared:

"It is clear that the early Celtic peoples regarded all such places as entrances to the otherworld, and the literatures of the Celtic world support this supposition. One of the earliest of these shaft-wells dates to before the period with which we are concerned, namely, to the Bronze Age, and is located in Wiltshire, about 2 miles from Stonehenge. It consists of a shaft, cut through the chalk to a depth of some 110 ft., terminating in a well, containing the remains of wooden buckets and ropes, and having in it pieces of broken Bronze Age pottery . . . Its proximity to Stonehenge and its great depth suggest that it was of a ritual nature and may perhaps have been connected with the cults practiced at Stonehenge."(6)

When it is borne in mind that the initial migration of Celtic peoples into Britain is generally considered to have taken place not much earlier than 500 B.C., (7) it may be justifiably asked how Celtic ritual pits and wells, dating back to about 1200 B.C., came to be located in southern England.

The simplest, and most logical, answer to this archaeological anachronism must surely be that the Celtic migration into Britain took place at a much earlier date than previously credited. *

[*Another possibility does exist. The Celtic remains, presently dated to ca. 1200 B.C., may ultimately require a downdating on the historical timetable. - LMG]

The water and shaft cult were not the only cultural traits that these proto-Celts, as they rightly may be called, carried with them into Britain. There are other peculiarly Celtic ritual practices, traces of which are also found there. Among these was the custom of cremating the dead. One north-Alpine branch of this seemingly ubiquitous family has been designated by archaeologists as the Urnfield people because they employed cremation and buried the ashes in urns in fields set aside for that purpose.(8) It is significant to note that - at some period during the British Bronze Age - treatment of the dead changed, for the most part, from inhumation to cremation.(9) Within the same general archaeological time period, migrating waves of Urnfield people were carrying crematory customs southward into the Iberian Peninsula.(10)

There later followed numerous phases of recognized Celtic incursions into the British Isles.(11) Different times of arrival, however, does not necessarily mean difference of race but, as is obvious in this case, merely tribal distinctions within the same family. When these later immigrants arrived on the scene in Britain, they must have been greeted by a people whose language and customs they were already thoroughly familiar with and whose ethnic characteristics they shared.

Independent of evidence being accumulated in other areas of research, the identical water cult practiced in known Celtic areas of occupation on the Continent as well as in Britain during the same archaeological time period - the Bronze Age - proves conclusively that the Celts were already in the British Isles at that time.

REFERENCES

1. A. Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain (London, 1967), p. 20 (emphasis added).
2. Ibid., p. 22.
3. Ibid., p. 24 (emphasis added).
4. Ibid., p. 27.
5. Ibid. (emphasis added).
6. Ibid., pp. 26-27 (emphasis added).
7. G. Hawkins, Stonehenge Decoded (N. Y., 1965), p. 17.
8. Academic American Encyclopedia, "Urnfield" (Grolier, Danbury, Conn., 1982). (See also A. Ross, op. cit., p. 9.)
9. J. Romilly Allen, The Antiquaries Books (London, 1904), pp. 17, 21, 22.
10. Academic American Encyclopedia , op. cit.
11. J. Hawkes, A Land (London, 1978), p. 168.

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