17.04.18, Melrose, Religion in Britain from the Megaliths to Arthur

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Máire Johnson

The Medieval Review 17.04.18

Melrose, Robin. Religion in Britain from the Megaliths to Arthur: An Archaeological and Mythological Exploration. Jefferson: McFarland, 2016. pp. 284. ISBN: 978-1-4766-6360-9 (paperback) 978-1-4766-2426-6 (ebook).

Reviewed by:
Maire Johnson
Emporia State University

In Religion in Britain from the Megaliths to Arthur, Robin Melrose explores the archaeology of Britain and Ireland from the Neolithic through the early Middle Ages in search of clues concerning the nature of religious beliefs and practices in this long era. He parallels this archaeological evidence with linguistic and textual sources as a means of fleshing out the extant data about religion in the prehistoric period. Throughout the book, Melrose augments analysis and description with numerous photographs and drawings. The main points of Religion in Britain from the Megaliths to Arthur are: that the Druids of the Iron Age were the continuation of a Neolithic priesthood; that the deities of prehistoric Britain may be perceived in the archaeology of that era in conjunction with later textual sources; and that Arthur himself was "originally, in part at least, a pagan god or gods who took on a human shape in the Christian era" (13).

In the preface and introduction, Melrose establishes that the analysis of this book rests on the foundations laid by Barry Cunliffe and John Koch concerning the origins both of the Celts and of Druidism, with some modifications to each. Melrose accepts the prior arguments of both scholars that archaeology, textual references from inscriptions and Greek and Roman writers, and linguistics together suggest the rise of the Celts not in central Europe with subsequent migrations to the west, but on the Atlantic coasts with subsequent movements to the east. However, where Cunliffe has argued for the earliest development of druidic practices and beliefs in the period of 4000-2500 BCE, Melrose has adopted Koch's approach that both the Celts and the Druids emerged between 1500 and 700 BCE. Melrose also follows Koch's redefinition of prehistoric Britain as divisible into the Age of Megaliths, encompassing roughly 4000-1600 BCE and therefore the Neolithic and Early Bronze Ages, and the Age of Depositions, or c.1300 BCE-43 CE, covering the Late Bronze and Iron Ages. After the Age of Depositions, Melrose describes the Roman and the Early Medieval periods, the latter of which Melrose terms the "Age of Arthur" as "a shorthand for traces of earlier beliefs which persisted among newly converted Christians, and which came together in the first Arthurian stories and in the Welsh mythological tales known as the Mabinogion" (13). Melrose divides this chronology across the chapters of his book. Chapter 1 addresses the Neolithic stone monuments of the Megalithic Age, considering the archaeology of those structures aligned with astronomical events such as the solstices or equinoxes. Melrose asserts that the high degree of organization inherent to these sites, along with their "focus on astronomy," imply the existence of a dedicated priesthood, which Melrose suggests "may well have been" the roots of the Druid priesthood (32-33). Chapter 2 moves from the Neolithic into the Early Bronze Age, and attends to the rise of Beaker Culture and the subsequent shift of burial customs from plain graves to those containing rich grave goods, and from the universal practice of cremation to a mixture of cremation and inhumation. Among the items found in such interments are gold "sun disks," which Melrose parallels to similar disks on the continent; their presence, he asserts, mingles with the remains of cattle and/or horses at or near such locales to signify both a belief in, and a practice of sacrificing animals to honor, a sun god (49).

In chapters 3 (Late Bronze Age), 4 (Iron Age), and 5 (later Iron Age), Melrose assesses the Age of Depositions. In this period, the archaeology shifts from megalithic construction to the votive offering of deliberately-damaged metalwork either in watery contexts or in earthen pits. In chapter 3, Melrose suggests that the numerous "burnt mounds" of England, Wales, and Ireland--that is, of mounds containing burnt stones, charcoal, and organic remains--signify the worship of a god of fire and water in Late-Bronze-Age Britain. In the archaeology of feasting, such as raised platforms and extensive middens, Melrose sees proof of rituals and priesthoods associated with his proposed divinity. On the other hand, dry-ground feasting sites and particularly their middens were, he argues, dedicated to the earth goddess and provide "perhaps the best evidence for priests and religious ceremonies" that offer the initial signs of Druidic knowledge and observance (74-75).

In chapter 4, Melrose first turns his attention to a sky god; in his view, Britain and Ireland's Iron Age hillforts were "almost certainly dedicated" to this deity (78). Melrose suggests both that the Roman accounts of continental Celts using excarnation for the honored dead may explain the practice's frequency in Early and Middle Iron Age Britain, and that the exposure of excarnation was one method of sending the souls of the deceased to the sky as to an afterlife; he also cites Julius Caesar's report that the Gauls considered themselves descended from Dis Pater, the Roman god of the underworld, as indicating that the interment of human remains in pits or ditches may have been intended to return the deceased to a Celtic version of this deity. In chapter 5, Melrose demonstrates the role played by continental influences in Late Iron Age Britain's chariot burials, new settlement patterns, and new types of religious shrine. Because, as Melrose demonstrates, the timbers for building a variety of structures were felled in cycles that coincided with lunar eclipses, he suggests that Iron Age priests continued the knowledge and traditions of their forebears from the Neolithic and Bronze Age--and that these later priests were likely the Druids themselves.

Melrose assesses Britain's Roman period in chapter 6. Though he observes many ways in which Rome's presence brought greater urbanization, new burial rituals, new deities, and new shrines to the archaeological landscape, he also notes that Roman practices generally left room for the continuation of native British traditions. He then focuses on the "Age of Arthur" in chapters 7 through 10, a period he views as beginning with the withdrawal of Rome's legions and the rise of Christianity in Britain. Because art- likely means "bear," Melrose argues for a connection between Arthur and a pre-Iron Age veneration of bears in chapter 7; there he also reports the earliest references to Arthur in literature from Ireland, Wales, and Britain. In chapter 8, Melrose examines medieval Welsh tales such as The Spoils of Annwn, in which Arthur's ship, Prydwen, travels to the Welsh otherworld and thus links Arthur--albeit as a secondary character--to supernatural attributes and places.

Chapter 9 looks at instances in medieval Welsh and Latin literature that present Arthur as a more significant figure who kills witches and monsters or, in the case of saints' Lives, is viewed rather less favorably. Here, Melrose traces the history of Arthur's image from a shadowy ruler whose function is as a comparative model against which warriors and enemies are measured to a man depicted as the king of Britain; at its most developed, this narrative includes Arthur's transportation to the Isle of Avalon, a kind of otherworld, to heal and await the proper time to return to the mundane world and restore the glories of England. Based on these data, Melrose asserts that Arthur was "originally a god connected with rebirth or reincarnation, dwelling on a sacred island, perhaps associated with the sun, the moon, or other heavenly body, who...once presided over a mythological golden age" (202). Chapter 10, for its part, discusses the islands of Britain considered holy in the early medieval period, examines hillforts with some connection to Arthur or Arthurian legend, and argues for a Bronze Age origin of the tale of Tristan and Isolt, an Arthurian story the extant versions of which date to the twelfth century.

Melrose concludes his book with chapter 11, in which he asserts that the Druids of Iron Age Britain were essentially replaced by prominent Christian figures like saints and monks. To Melrose, the Druids of the Late Bronze and Iron Age would have lived in sacred places characterized by astronomically-aligned Neolithic structures, which would then have attracted Christian foundations in the Early Middle Ages. He argues that the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogion, Math Son of Mathonwy, provides information about "Druids in Welsh mythology" (234). In part because the name Math may etymologically descend from "the ancient word for 'bear'," Melrose suggests several parallels between Math and Arthur (243). Ultimately, Melrose concludes that Arthur's origins are "complex" and draw from "Neolithic bears and shamanism, prehistoric sacred islands, and influences from Germanic or Thracian soldiers in Roman times;" to Melrose, "Arthur seems to have brought together British pagan beliefs spanning a period of at least three millennia" (248).

The great strength of Religion in Britain from the Megaliths to Arthur is its abundant archaeological evidence. Melrose has gathered together an impressive amount of data from numerous locations, including middens, megalithic monuments, hillforts and promontory forts, chariot burials, Roman towns, feasting locales, and more; indeed, such an assemblage of sites and artifacts is, on its own, a very useful resource. In addition, the 94 black-and-white photographs filling the book add information and interest to Melrose's detailed textual descriptions.

At the same time, it is not entirely clear why Melrose presumes that a deity of the earth must be feminine when--as he states--Roman writers described the Celts as believing in a version of the god Dis Pater. Similarly, though Melrose does discuss Indo-European versions of a male god of fire and water elsewhere, it is not evident why the deity of water in Britain must have been male. Indeed, inscriptions in Gaul and Britain mention primarily goddesses as associated with springs and rivers, and a number of whom modern rivers are named (e.g., the Seine [Sequana] and the Boyne [Boann]) for these deities. The British goddess Sulis, too, became conflated with Minerva at Bath (something Melrose does discuss). There are also several instances in which Melrose uses medieval material the oldest extant version of which appears to be no older than the eleventh century--and in some cases no older than the fourteenth or fifteenth century, e.g., Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur of 1485--to provide glimpses into the prehistoric past. This approach can be inherently problematic, as it presumes that such glimpses are accurate representations rather than literary archaisms. The extant Arthurian corpus of the eleventh and later centuries arose in a strongly Christian milieu, represents a courtly world of elites living in castles and engaging in quests and acts of derring-do; this is an environment vastly different from that of prehistoric Britain. Though assuredly Arthurian stories do have otherworldly components, it is risky to presume that those components must descend from or reflect the attitudes of Britons from up to a thousand years previously. Finally, and rather less significantly, Melrose adopts a sixth-century date for the Life of St. Mochudu (244), while more recent scholarship, such as that of Pádraig Ó Riain in A Dictionary of Irish Saints (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2011, p. 471), tends to place it closer to the early thirteenth century.

There are a few minor proofing errors. There is a missing comma after "on the other hand" on line 16 of p.15. The word "along," line 15, p. 27, should be "a long." "Monument," line 9, p. 69, should be plural. Anne Ross's name is misspelled on line 15, p. 109 and in the bibliography on p.271. The period after "ditch," line 9, p. 123, should be a comma. The 't' is missing from "Catuvellauni", line 3, p. 134, and the first 'r' is missing from "Gloucestershire," in the heading of line 4, p. 157. The period after "Arthur," first line of quoted narrative, p. 203, should be a question mark. "Swear," line 14, p. 240, should either be "swore" or "swears," and the period after "lands" in line 5 of the first quoted passage, p. 246, should be a comma.

All in all, Religion in Britain from the Megaliths to Arthur offers an eminently readable archaeological survey of Britain from the Neolithic to the Middle Ages, and it collects a wide variety of site data and artefactual information from across this chronological period. The issues noted above may offer some challenges to Melrose's conclusions, but they do not negate the likelihood that his work will prompt new ways of looking at Britain's archaeology and Arthurian material. Indeed, his ideas unquestioningly offer fertile ground for further exploration and debate.

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