Back in May I led an archaeology themed guided walk along part of the Ridgeway National Trail at Ivinghoe Beacon as part of the Chiltern Walking Festival. I was dressed as a Stone Age woman all in skins and fur but I covered the archaeology of all prehistoric periods at Ivinghoe Beacon and the surrounding area. I brought along some replica artefacts for people to connect with as we walked and tried to build up a period of a changing landscape from the Ice Age to the Iron Age.
I have been thinking about a number of things since. The choice of Stone Age clothing was not mine but my clients. I would have preferred, before the walk, to have been Bronze or Iron Age so that I could feel like my character could look back at the past. But, in reality, would a person in the first or second millennium before the common era have had any concept of the developments in the past before them? Well, yes, but they would have been mythical and largely not factual, I would have thought. So I ended up not in character at all, as I wanted to talk about so many different periods. Still, I rock that Stone Age look.
The other issue that came up was the authenticity of the Ridgeway and the related Icknield Way. A whole heritage industry has built up around the idea that these were long distance routeways from the Neolithic onwards but the evidence is less than compelling. It has become an axiom repeated again and again with little reflection or reference back to its origin myth in Henry of Huntingdon’s Historia Anglorum. The article I encountered a few years ago, “The Icknield Way – Some Queries” by Sarah Harrison in the Archaeological Journal, had clarified some of this for me and I felt that I couldn’t in all conscience perpetuate this legend.
The essence of Harrison’s queries are that the old arguments for the existence of the Icknield/Ridgeway long distance route is the survival of upstanding monuments on the chalk uplands, but the emergence of developer-led archaeology has shown that there is just as much if not more settlement in the valleys, but it’s just been covered with alluvium or flattened by later ploughing. The only other argument is that there is flint from Norfolk in Wessex, but there are plenty of other ways it could have got there. A counter-argument is that any actual tracks found near the route of the so-called Icknield/Ridgeway are generally aligned a different way.
It felt good to do research again when doing this walk. I had a good sense of what I wanted to say but I went back to the sources to get the specifics. The original excavation of Ivinghoe Beacon in the 1960s was reported in Records of Buckinghamshire and, though referenced by later articles, one aspect was never again mentioned, and that is the recovery of a trepanning disc from a human skull that had been turned into a pendant. Imagine my delight! I promptly made one myself (from a sheep shoulderblade though!) I got some good reactions from that.
Cotton, M. A. and Frere, S. S., 1968. Ivinghoe Beacon excavations 1963-65. Records of Buckinghamshire 18 (3). pp 187-203.
Harrison, S 2003. The Icknield Way: Some Queries. Archaeological
Journal 160:1. pp 1-22. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00665983.2003.11078167