Reading the Wainwright Prize: Rising Ground

In the run up to the announcement of this year’s Wainwright Prize winner, we’re sharing extracts from each of the shortlisted books – this time with Rising Ground: A Search for the Spirit of Place by Philip Marsden.

Rising GroundIn the village where I grew up, on the edge of the Mendip Hills, a lane ran up from the church and near the top, it forked. One way curved back into the valley while the other, following the slope, continued upwards. That was the way we always took. The tarmac began to fracture, revealing polished knuckles of bedrock, and then that track too dropped down the hill and a smaller path broke from it, pushing up through the edge of a wood, to emerge – quite suddenly – into open ground.

Years later, I can recall with absolute clarity that moment and the sight which always stopped us dead: the miles of bracken stretching away to the south, rising and falling like sea-swells. No building broke that open arena; no cattle, no sheep and no fences. We never paused for long but hurried on to Long Rock – a dragon-back ridge with its view over the Severn Estuary. Beyond it was a sweep of ground and chest-high ferns that ended with a group of yews. Their roots clawed over the edge of the rock and out into space. We lay on our stomachs and looked down into the gorge, and every now and then, far below, a car would beetle its way along the bottom. The opposite side was scattered with scrub. It was wooded in parts and in others, where it steepened, was covered in rocky scrub and scree. At the top, the land opened out again, and we knew that place as well, with its woods off to one side, and a plantation beyond but everywhere else just open ground; as you climbed the central ride and saw the skyline ahead, wide and flat beneath the clouds, you felt certain that you could carry on that way for ever.

On to these blank places – known only as the ‘hill’ and the ‘combe’ – I sketched the map of my childhood. It proved an endlessly supple backdrop to the daydreams of a seven-year-old, or the broodings of a fourteen-year-old. I spent days up there – sometimes with my brother, sometimes with friends, sometimes alone.

It was limestone country, so there were caves. On the hill they were called swallets: sudden pits that looked like outsize basins, dropping to plug-holes that we tried to squeeze into but never dared go far. Down in the gorge was a proper cave called Aveline’s Hole. The entrance opened at the base of the cliffs like a giant’s mouth. We stood outside, then went in a few steps, then further as the years passed, breathing the stale air, sliding on the buttery mud. The tunnel was neither a walk nor a climb but something in between, a slant down into the gloom. But it went nowhere, tapering like a sock to a damp and rocky end. Lots of things were like that: they seemed exciting to begin with but then they just ran out.

Later when we went potholing, with lamps and helmets and ropes, the ways in were much more furtive. Often they seemed to be in a bush. But they opened up labyrinths of tunnels and chimneys and grottos. Now, with real caves to explore, we walked past Aveline’s Hole with hardly a glance. I loved the strangeness of those potholes. They might lead us up and down again by a completely different way, spilling us back into daylight in a different place. Yet in the end the potholing stopped. I think I preferred it out on top, with distance everywhere and the sky.

For years, until I had my own children, whenever I heard the word ‘childhood’, it always brought to mind a picture of the hill and the combe. I saw the lane running up from the church, and that first sight of the open ground stretching away in all directions. I saw the cliffs of the gorge and the caves, and the hillside beyond them with close-cropped grass and scatters of grey limestone rising towards the sky, and I was always amazed how that simple slope could conjure up so much of a life.

In September 2003, a news story caught my eye: ‘UK’s Oldest Cemetery Identified’.

A narrow cave in a gorge in Somerset has been identified as the oldest cemetery in Britain . . . Scientific tests, released yesterday, showed it had been sealed and abandoned more than 6,000 years before the first stone of the pyramids of Egypt was laid. The site, Aveline’s Hole, is unique in Britain and earlier than anything similar on mainland Europe.

Aveline’s Hole! It turned out that a collection of human bones had been found there in the 1920s and placed in the Bristol City Museum. But the museum had been destroyed in a bombing raid in 1941. A few charred remains had been recovered, placed on a shelf and forgotten about. Now using AMS radiocarbon dating, the bones had been taken down and their age identified in a very specific date bracket of astonishing antiquity – between 8460 and 8140 BC.

Shortly afterwards, a paper appeared in the Proceedings of the University of Bristol Spelaeological Society – the UBSS – giving a lot more detail. Written by R. J. Schulting, it is a scholarly work of nearly one hundred pages, full of tables and date ranges and graphs of chemical constituents. Schulting has managed to work out not only what the people ate, but where they came from. In the bones’ collagen, the proportion of stable carbons and nitrogen isotopes point to a diet in which, oddly, marine food did not feature at all (but the sea was a lot lower then – the Severn Estuary some thirty-seven metres below present levels). Strontium extracted from the enamel of remaining teeth was compared with that of the surrounding geology and a close match found, suggesting that those whose bodies ended up here had lived most of their lives around the Mendips. But it was less the details of diet or genetic make-up that gripped my attention than the glimpses of possible practice, of motive and belief. The laying of the bodies in the cave was a deliberate act. They were not buried in the soil or left out on rocks for excarnation. They were taken to the combe, into the underground chamber and ‘articulated’, that is, propped up. A large stone was then used to seal the entrance. Perhaps fifty bodies were taken to Aveline’s Hole, even as many as a hundred. It is the earliest evidence in this country of large-scale ritual.

One phrase stayed with me long after reading the report. Aveline’s Hole, wrote Schulting, may have been chosen because it was a ‘mythic place in the landscape’. Something about the location, about the cave in the combe, had prompted those burials. He mentions the possibility of there being even older human and animal bones in the cave, from the Creswellian period thousands of years earlier.

And from that emerges a dizzying thought – that far back in the ninth millennium BC, the site may have been used because it was already considered old. The astonishment we feel at people performing these rites so long ago might simply be a version of what they felt.

 

Most of what survives from Aveline’s Hole is in the UBSS museum and store, hidden away behind the faculty high-rises of Bristol University. One cold February morning, I arranged to meet the museum’s curator, Linda Wilson, outside Senate House. As she led me through the alleys she spoke of the Chauvet cave in France – where Werner Herzog made his wonderful film Cave of Forgotten Dreams – and how she’d been one of the few invited to visit it and see in the flesh its 40,000-year-old pictures of horses’ heads.

We came to a stable block. It looked almost abandoned, with several windows concreted up. Unlocking the door, Linda pressed a switch and the fluorescent tubes flickered, then half-filled the room with light. She looked up at the ceiling, and tutted. ‘One of those tubes, gone again.’

A steep wooden staircase led up to a couple of rooms tucked in under the roof. In one were racks and racks of metal shelving and a dusty light falling through the Velux. A pair of microscopes stood on one shelf; on another an old computer monitor, its bulky cathode-ray tube itself a relic from another age. The room was dominated by the shelves and by the archive boxes on them – dozens, marked in black marker pen: Wookey Hole – rib and vertebral fragments; Totty Pot, GB, Gough’s; Rhino and Carnivores, Wolf.

A stack of ten or more boxes were marked Aveline’s. Linda stretched to pull the first one down, and lifted the lid. Inside was an assortment of containers – plastic specimen bags, tobacco and pastille tins. A large pale-blue box – Bristow’s of Devon, Assorted Fudge – had scrawled on it in red felt-tip: ANIMAL FRAGS. The next cardboard case contained human remains – loose teeth, and various bones. Wrapped in old tissue, like a Christmas decoration, was a piece of cranium. It was no more than a saucer-sized fragment. I took it out and placed it in my palm. It domed upwards, away from my skin. Reddish soil was encrusted in its crevices. I looked down at the plate-borders, dark squiggles still visible across the surface, and at the porous-looking bone. It was oddly weightless.

But it was impossible not to think of what it once held – a human brain, that swollen organ that distinguishes our species, whose synaptic patterns held a lifetime of accumulated desires, struggles, frustrations, joys. Among those patterns perhaps was the memory of a funeral procession to Aveline’s Hole, the same cave in which the individual would later be placed. The bones’ carbon dating suggests a short period of use for the cave, a few generations only, a mini- tradition as enigmatic for witnesses then as it is for us now.

Concluding his article on the finds, R. J. Schulting comes up with a possible ‘why’ for the choice of site. ‘There is something about the early Holocene,’ he notes, ‘that is rather exceptional.’ In the centuries before the cave’s use as a cemetery, sea-level rise had been very rapid, squeezing the hunting grounds of what is now the Bristol Channel. Aveline’s Hole lay on one of the main routes away from the plains, up into the Mendips and off to the east. Schulting suggests that the appropriation of the cave may have been strate- gic: one group’s placing of their dead in its chamber, sealing the entrance, conveyed the message to others that this place, this route, was ‘theirs’.

What struck me most about the theory was that it highlighted the power of place, the accumulated veneration for a hole in the ground. In An Archaeology of Natural Places, Richard Bradley examines how certain sites become culturally important simply because of their physical form. The Sami of northern Scandinavia, for example, deposited valued metalwork at siejddes, sacrificial sites often ‘distinguished from the surrounding landscape by their striking topography’, outcrops of rock that might look like people or animals. Caves in Minoan Crete likewise were used for elaborate ceremonies, and in the caves various rocks appeared to attract different sorts of offerings because of their shape.

If Schulting’s speculation is right, and use of Aveline’s Hole was territorial, then it is the earliest evidence of something that would, over the coming millennia, gather pace. As competition for land grew ever more pressing, each acre of the country was fought over and occupied, claimed and counter-claimed. The system of laws and institutions required to deal with the claims became the basis of the nation. So Aveline’s Hole can be seen not just as the first known cemetery in Britain but in a way as the beginning of the island’s history – and it centred on a ‘mythic place in the landscape’.

The site’s significance may well have derived from its past, from the association it had with ancestral use – the human remains from the Creswellian period. But there was something else, something more private, something that – shared between multiple individu- als, over generations – produced a tradition: the same awe we still feel at the dramatic features of the land, the combination of wonder and bafflement standing at the entrance of a cave.

I went back to Aveline’s Hole that afternoon. Dusk came early; the combe was already filled with darkness. The path to the cavern led down between shadowy patches of leafless scrub. With the hole rising high above me, I stood for a moment looking in. Set against the twilight all around, the blackness inside was of a wholly different grade.

I slipped on a head torch; in its beam the rock glowed pale and yellowy like an old manuscript. I stepped inside. Beneath my feet, I could feel the unevenness of a small gully. I pressed on, down into the tunnel, with a steadying hand on the smoothed-off lumps of bedrock. I remembered the phreatic, throat-like shape from years ago; and the smell – heavy and stagnant – of something I could never quite identify. Half-way to the bottom was a slight recess in the rock. That morning, in the UBSS store, I’d looked at the repro- duction of the Reverend Skinner’s 1819 sketch of the cave’s interior. At this place, he had written ‘several skeletons found here’.

It wasn’t the same cave I’d known as a child. The carbon-dated relics now filled its dank vault with story, with a past, and the scale of that past had ramped up its significance. Turning off the torch, I sat for a while in darkness. For a moment, I could see nothing. But then, as if the mind cannot bear too much void, shapes started to appear. I turned and looked up. Silhouetted against the blue-grey disc of night, the entrance-boulder looked like a single tooth.

Outside again, the cold felt sharp in my nostrils. Zipping my coat to the chin, I walked on up the combe. Overhead the sky was clear, a strip of stars corridored by black slopes.

Taken from Rising Ground: A Search for the Spirit of Place by Philip Marsden

Find details of the full Wainwright Prize shortlist here

The winner will be announced on 22nd April

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