Winter – 3

Winter would have brought a period of enforced leisure for our ancestors. Their days would have become shorter with the increasing hours of darkness, until in midwinter the daylight hours would make up only one third of the time.

All outdoor activities would effectively cease in the darkness, and even during the day the worsening weather would limit what could be achieved outdoors. But other than those tasks that could be carried out, what did they do in these times? how did they pass those long hours?

At times, no doubt, there would have been feasting and merry-making because they would have required some cheer and a sense of well-being to help them get through the winter. But they must also have been mindful of husbanding scarce food resources through those long barren months.

it may be that they played games. Although archaeology hasn’t furnished us with evidence of board games or dice or variations on these, it is still possible they would scratch, perhaps, some form of grid into the beaten soil of the floor and play games of skill or chance. It is not beyond possibility that some flat rocks with strange scorings and lines on them were used for that purpose.

With no TVs or books or computers, it might seem to us that time would have weighed heavily on their hands. But you are used to what you are used to, and they would have seen things differently. They may have looked forward to a period of relative inactivity; long hours of no talk, sitting or lying down, the mind slowing down until hours were passed in no thought. Did they then also pass unusually long hours in sleep? A kind of semi-hibernation as a way of conserving energy?

But long hours also, of talking. They must have talked: of daily life and plans and past disasters and glories, of gossip, and told stories both new and handed down from previous generations. These stories would have been incredibly powerful tools for the preservation of the tribe. With no written word, the spoken word becomes the only way knowledge is transmitted. And thus it has to be memorised, both for use and also to transmit in the future. As aids to memorising, powerful tools are repetition, rhyme and rhythm. We cannot know exactly how this was utilised, but it cannot have been long before poetry and song evolved.

It can be no coincidence, but in all the early societies we know of who had no written records, those of which we know about through records left by others – such as the Romans writing of the Britons – it is clear that poetry and song were important, and the bard a highly valued member of that society. Indeed, the writings left by Romans, who tended to denigrate anyone not Roman as barbarian and primitive, violent, and uncultured, still make it clear these ‘barbarian’ tribes valued poetry and song highly. Partly, this must have been for educational purposes, but they seem also to have been valued for themselves, for their beauty. It is taking things too far to suggest this proves the same would have applied in Neolithic times, but it is certainly possible. At some point, there would have been music. I imagine this developed out of ritual, perhaps through repetitive chanting and the beat of drums…

And so, I can imagine this at first being perhaps the preserve of the shaman, until becoming a specialised ‘post’ – that of the bard – and acquiring the value of entertainment, as well as instruction.

Flint Flakes and Very Big Snails

We are now allowed to go out to exercise for an unlimited amount of time each day.

This may not have been top of everyone’s Relaxing-the-Lockdown-Rules-Wish-List, but other than the opportunity to finally begin to see some family and friends, I think it was top of mine. On this first day of slightly increased freedom, I take camera and notebook and go off for a longer walk than I’ve been used to this last couple of months. Nothing particularly long, but it feels good to know there is no reason at all for me to limit my walk or have to justify it to anyone.

Naturally, there are other walks I want to do even more, but I’m still reluctant to use public transport to get to somewhere I want to walk and, to be quite frank, the government has not made it clear whether I’m allowed to (although they’ve given the police a major headache if they want to try to control it). So for the moment, the South Downs will have to wait.

But now I am thinking of a walk I did almost exactly a year ago, to reacquaint myself with an area of the North Downs I lived close to a long time ago. I planned to walk along an ancient trackway running along part of the ridge of the Downs, and marked as such on the Ordinance Survey map. This is an area where many Roman remains have been found over the years, mainly in the wide river valley nearby, but I had no idea how old the trackway was thought to be, whether it pre-dated the Romans or was more recent.

But many of these routes were in use long before the Romans arrived, since the early Britons found the lower lands were frequently too marshy and thickly wooded for either easy settlement or for travel. And so it is highly likely this route is several thousand years old. One of the Old Ways. And just walking along it gives me a sense of continuity with the past.

In a wooded area the footpath passed a wide, shallow pit, although there was nothing marked on my map. Mindful that it was always possible it had been dug out by early settlers mining flints, I stopped and poked around in a few areas of exposed earth until I found a couple of flint flakes that appear to have been worked.

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To my un-scholarly eye one flake appears to just be a waste flake struck off the flint being knapped (R), but the other could be the tip of perhaps a knife that was being worked but broke in the process, or even a stone chisel (L).

Having adjusted the focus of my eyesight, as it were, to looking for worked flints, I almost missed the fact that the obvious snail shell partially revealed nearby was larger than it should have been, measuring about 5 cm across.

The Romans brought all sorts of goodies to Britain, including a large edible snail (there’s no accounting for tastes) that we now call the Roman Snail. Although found over much of Europe, they have become rare in recent times. In the UK, too, they are now only found in a few areas, including parts of the North Downs, and are protected under Schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act making it illegal to kill, handle or possess them without a licence.

The shell I found obviously belonged to one that had long ago gone to meet its maker (or maybe a few herbs and a thick gravy), although I had no way of telling how long ago.  Whether there is still a population of living snails in that area I don’t know either, since that is information that tends to be kept as secret as possible.

But both the finding of the flint flakes and the snail shell seemed to reinforce that feeling I had of continuity with the past.