Wednesday, 24 July 2024

Parallels between Christianity and Prehistoric expressions of faith in the British Isles

In 1982 I graduated from Sheffield University with a degree in Prehistory and Archaeology, and I went on to be a primary school teacher but my interest in the past has never left me. My main interest is in the Neolithic and Bronze Age periods, in the British Isles: this dates from the introduction of agriculture 6,000 years to 3,000 years ago. It is interesting to find out where these people lived and how they lived off the land. However, my main interest has always been in their beliefs. There are many academic books written on the subject, but I would like to share some of the thoughts and impressions that I have gained when visiting archaeological sites and museums. We will never know exactly what people in the past believed but in trying to piece together the evidence from the past it can shine a light onto our own Christian faith of today.

It seems to me that there is a basic need for humans to express their spirituality wherever they are in time and space. It is easier to find out about the beliefs of ancient cultures like the Egyptians and Romans because they left a written record. When it comes to prehistoric Britain the main source of evidence is from the interpretation of ritual and burial sites.

It is interesting that during this time frame the three Abrahamic faiths were in their infancy, as well as the beginnings of Hinduism in the Indus valley and the flourishing of the Egyptian culture in the Nile valley. As people adopted agriculture they became more sedentary and their relationship with their environment changed. I wonder if this was also the trigger for the creation of more complex expressions of spirituality. During this period there was an explosion of ritual construction in northern Europe, some of the best known are the stone circles and burial mounds.

I find it fascinating that there are so many parallels between Christianity and these prehistoric expressions of faith. Here are I few that I have thought about.

Firstly, there is the importance of artistic expression. One of the finest examples of Neolithic art is on the kerb stones around the tomb of New Grange in Ireland. There is also a wonderful group of rock art in south-west Scotland around Kilmartin. It has been suggested that when someone is in a trance they see patterns similar to those on this rock art. Perhaps spiritual leaders went into trances as a way to connect with spirits and they dictated the patterns to be made on the rocks. People might have traced the patterns in the rocks with their fingers as a meditation in a similar way to Christians walking or tracing a labyrinth. Even in our plain Moravian churches we use art to focus on when we worship, for example the image of the Lamb and Flag and the Advent star.

Secondly the importance of our ancestor is also a common link between Christianity and prehistoric communities. In the Bible all the tribes of Israel can be traced back to Jacob. In the New Testament, Mary and Joseph were required to go to Bethlehem because Joseph was of the house of King David. In some long barrows bones of individuals spanning many generations have been found. Often the bones were sorted into piles of skulls, or long bones; many of the smaller bones are absent. It has been suggested that the bones of the ancestor were taken out of the tomb for rituals and then replaced.

Where prehistoric landscapes are well preserved, for example around Stonehenge and on Orkney many of the burial tombs are very prominent in the landscape even today. This reminds me of walking through Undercliffe Cemetery in Bradford where the richest and most powerful wool industrialists have the largest graves, and many generations of the same family are laid to rest there. In the Moravian Church it is also important that we remember those who went before; I am particularly thinking of the Easter morning service that takes place in God's Acre where those who have gone before are remembered by their name and dates being engraved on plain, flat gravestones.

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Finally, I want to think about the sun, moon and passing of the seasons. Our church calendar goes through the seasonal cycle of celebrations, some are based on the solar calendar (Christmas) and some on the lunar calendar (Easter). The sun and the moon were also important ritually in prehistory. When people think of Stonehenge they often think of druids at the summer solstice; in fact, Stonehenge predates the druids and evidence from the nearby Neolithic settlement of Durrington Walls shows that people were gathering there from all over Britain in mid-winter to feast on pork. It may well have been a ceremonial time during mid-winter to ensure that the sun would come back; the days lengthen again to bring life and growth back to the land. There are two burial mounds which also show the importance of the sun at the winter solstice. At New Grange, in Ireland, and Maes Howe, on Orkney, the burial mounds have a long passageway leading to the burial chamber. In both cases the sun shines down the passageway at the winter solstice lighting up the chamber. Perhaps the sunlight is used to symbolically wake the ancestors buried there to act for them to bring back the longer days at the turn of the winter.

The importance of the moon in prehistory is shown in the spectacularly beautiful gold necklets known as lunulae. These are crescent moon shaped, made from thin hammered gold, sometimes with a punched decoration around the edge. Lunulae have been found in Brittany, southern Britain and Ireland. Research points to the gold coming from Cornwall and the lunulea being made in Ireland.

There is some evidence that stone circles were laid out in such a way the Neolithic and Bronze Age communities could use them to track seasonal changes in the position of the sun, moon and stars. Thus, enabling them to plan when it would be best to do agricultural activities, such as planting seeds.

archaeology 2Some of my favourite artefacts are the gold, pointed hats from France and Germany, the circular decoration on them as been interpreted as the phases of the moon over many years.

We know that the Christian church follows a seasonal cycle of worship and festivals; it seems to me that the importance of observing the passage of the seasons and the cycles of the sun and the moon go back to the far depths of prehistory.

As a Christian, when I visit these prehistoric ritual sites, or see artefacts in museums I feel a real connection with people from the past; that search for meaning of what it means to be human how we connect to the universe and the need for spiritual nourishment; that part of our existence that goes beyond the basic needs for shelter and food.

Sr Elisabeth Hollindrake

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