PYRAMIDS, PALACES & GREAT BIG WALLS -
Celts, Druids and Vikings
- Stonehenge, c. 2000 BC Neolithic (New
Stone Age), Monument, Salisbury Plain, England. Reproduction Photograph.
For centuries, the prehistoric
Europeans had built elaborate stone tombs. Around 2000 BC,
probably inspired by their priests, they began to build huge
stone monuments for the living. Earlier suggestions that
these monuments were for ceremonial processions have been
enhanced by the determination that they formed part of an
The first stones were set up at Stonehenge
circa 1900 BC by communities farming the Wiltshire Downs,
who had previously used part of the henge site for burials.
Over the next 600 years, metal-using peoples rebuilt the
site four times using different designs. The technical
skills required to bring the stones to the site, cut them
into shape and then to erect them according to a carefully
pre-determined pattern make Stonehenge an engineering
For centuries, prehistoric Europeans had
built elaborate stone tombs. But about 2000 BC, probably
inspired by their priests, they began to built huge stone
monuments for the use of the living. Earlier suggestions
these monuments were used for ceremonial processions have
been supported by the determination that they also formed
part of an astronomical observatory.
stones were erected by the farming communities of the
Wiltshire downs and plains who were also using part of the
site for burials (mounds). Iron age peoples rebuilt
Stonehenge on at least four occasions. The technical skills
required to bring the stones to the site, cut them into
shape and then erect them according to a carefully
pre-arranged pattern, make Stonehenge an engineering
masterpiece. The main phase of the building alone must have
taken a force of 1000 men over 10 years to complete.
The stones at Stonehenge are
arranged so that on midsummer's Day a man standing at the
center of the monument and looking through the opening
between two of the outer circle of sarsen uprights (the scene
in the presentation photograph) will see the rising sun pass
directly over the upright "Heelstone", outside the
monument. Midsummer's Day was an important occasion in the
lives of the people who built Stonehenge; they saw the full
glory of the midsummer sun as symbolizing re-birth after the
darkness of winter. As late as the 1st century AD, when the
Romans came to Britain, the Celts and their Druid priests
were using the temple. It is thought that the original
builders, some 2000 years previous to that had used it for
The mathematical accuracy in
the Heelstone's positioning, combined with other alignments
indicating the exact position of midwinter sunset and 2
extreme positions of the midsummer moonrise during it's 18
1/2 year cycle has led scientists to suggest that Stonehenge
and other stone monuments were designed as elaborate
observatories. from them, Bronze Age priests might have been
able to build an accurate calendar of the seasons for use in
agriculture, and to predict eclipses of the sun and moon.
The sightings could be taken along the sides and diagonal of
a rectangle, marked out by the monument. Use of the
rectangular layout would have been impossible if the
monument was placed as little as 30 miles to the north or
Gold Cup, 500 BC Central European.
Handle added in Denmark. Reproduction Photograph.
|Although the Norsemen came to
excel at bronze and gold casting, they never achieved mastery
of the techniques for hammered metalwork. The art of beating
metal to paper thin sheets, shaping them into desired forms
and then ornamenting them with designs punched from the inside
had been perfected by Central Europeans. The Northern
travelers admired this work, and imported countless hammered
vases and bowls. This 2500 year old gold cup was recovered in
almost pristine condition from a bog in Denmark. Though the 5"
wide bowl had been imported from central Europe, the handle
was added locally.
Satyr's Head. c. 100 BC Greece,
carved amber. Reproduction Photograph.
|Amber, as an exchange medium
for metal started moving south over an elaborate network of
trade routes during the Scandinavian Bronze Age. Southern
craftsmen soon were carving northern amber into a range of
fantastic shapes for their wealthier customers. It became the
rage of the upper classes first in Greece, then in Rome. Greek
legend had it that amber was the hardened tears of the sisters
of Phaeton, the youth struck down by Zeus for driving the Sun
Codex Aureus, c.870 AD, page from
Gospel book, 50.7 x 33.7 cm parchment. English. Royal Library, Sweden. Reproduction Print.
|The codex aureus is a gospel
book made in England during the eighth century. At some time
in the ninth century it was taken as loot by Viking raiders,
and then bought back and donated to the monastery at
Canterbury by Earl Alfred his wife and daughter, as recorded
in Old English at the top and bottom of Folio 11:
nomine Domini nostri Ihesu Christi, I, Earl Alfred, and my
wife Werburg procured this book from the heathen invading army
with our own money; the purchase was made with pure gold. And
we did that for the love of God and for the benefit of our
souls, and because neither of us wanted these holy works to
remain any longer in heathen hands. And now we wish to present
them to Christ Church to God's praise and glory and honour,
and as thanksgiving for his sufferings, and for the use of the
religious community which glorifies God daily in Christ
Church; in order that they should be read aloud every month
for Alfred and for Werburg and for Alhthryth, for the eternal
salvation of their souls, as long as God decrees that
Christianity should survive in that place. And also I, Earl
Alfred, and Werburg beg and entreat in the name of
Almighty God and of all his saints that no man should be so
presumptuous as to give away or remove these holy works from
Christ Church as long as Christianity survives there.
The book was probably produced in the
scriptorium at Echternach, a Benedictine monastery,
commissioned by Henry III.
Oseberg Wagon, 9th century AD,
Norwegian. Reproduction print.
Weathervane, 11th century,
(adapted from prow ornament) gilt bronze, Swedish. Reproduction Photograph.
|The impressive wagon from the
Oseberg grave (excavated 1903) has a detachable body and most
certainly was made for ceremonial purposes; it may even have
been especially built for the funeral. A number of cart bodies
have been recognized recently in graves of the Viking age:
all, like this one, are from female graves. The ornate,
complex decorative carving on the Oseberg wagon is clearly
seen in the photograph. On the end of the wagon the carving
illustrates the torment of Gunnar in the snake-pit, a
well-known Viking legend. Also seen is the bearded head to
which were fastened the ropes holding down the removable body.
The Oseberg wagon is the only complete wheeled vehicle
preserved from the Viking Age. Because their growing season
was so short and its produce so vital, the Vikings, fearful
that summer fertility might not come, held elaborate
ceremonies each year with the blossoming of Spring. They hoped
in this way to compensate for their small amount of fertile
land, which only Sweden had in abundance. To herald summer,
ornamented carts were decked with flowers surrounding a wooden
statue of the fertility god, Freyr. Drawn by a horse, the cart
went from village to village, as hopeful farmers and their
families welcomed it with flowers and sacrifices. If their
prayers were answered there would be adequate, if not
abundant, supplies of the staples of Viking diet: wheat,
barley, fruit, cabbages and onions, as well as pork and beef.
Should crops fail, families would be reduced to eating lichen,
seaweed and the bark of trees.
|Before being used as a
weathervane on a Swedish church, the gilt bronze standard flew
at a Viking warship's prow.
Stone Memorial with Inscription, 11th
century, Taby Uppland, Sweden. Reproduction Photograph.
|Not illiterate, as frequently regarded, the
Scandinavians of the period covered in this lesson had a script
which had been invented somewhere in the Germanic world for
carving on wood (hence the characters are angular to make it
easy to carve across the grain.) Most of the Viking Age runes
occur on stones raised either to commemorate a man's death or
his good works. this stone from Busby, Taby, Uppland Sweden
tells of a man called Osten who went to Jerusalem and died in
Gokstad Ship, 9th century AD,
Oslo, Norway , (excavated in 1880)
|The elegant lines of the Gokstad
ship make her incomparably the most impressive sailing vessel to
survive from the mediaeval period. She demonstrates the high
standard of the boat-builder's craft in late 19th century
Norway, and her beautiful hull has been copied frequently in
recent years in the building of successful and fast replicas for
Atlantic crossings. Excavated in 1880 from a mound about 50
meters across, the Gokstad ship had been preserved in water in
an impermeable blue clay bed. The grave contained a man, perhaps
50 years old, with a great deal of furniture and equipment. Also
found in the mound were a number of animals, 12 horses, 6 dogs,
and even a peacock.
|Built of oak, except
for the decking , mast, yards and oars which were of pine, the Gokstad
ship measures 23.3 meters overall and has a beam of 5.25 meters.
Her prow and stern are incomplete due to rotting in the grave. The
sides are built up of overlapping planks, which were nailed
together and then lashed to the frames by means of pliable spruce
roots, the two-layer strakes being nailed to the keel. She was a
remarkably light and elastic boat, which made her ideal in the
long Atlantic waves, and she was probably capable of a speed of
some 10-12 knots. These surviving ships are the most impressive
monuments of this period, versatile enough to be used in the open
sea and in shallow water.