Ancient watchfulness: searching for the spirit of place

Marsden examines the notion that there are places on the earth which chime mysteriously with the human spirit, which drew our ancestors to them just as we are drawn there.

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Home: a Time Traveller’s Tales from Britain’s Prehistory 
Francis Pryor
Allen Lane, 352pp, £20


Rising Ground: a Search for the Spirit of Place 
Philip Marsden
Granta Books, 368pp, £20

I was eight or nine when I first stood at the edge of the land at Howick. The North Sea was a steely sheet at my feet, the weather flashed back and forth between sun and biting rain. I don’t think a great many tourists came from New York to Northumberland in those days. My mother loved a good castle: just up the coast was the ruin of Dunstanburgh, and the Percys, their stiff-tailed lions standing guard, still make their home at Alnwick. There’s no castle at Howick but even back then I sensed there was something special – some ancient watchfulness – about this place. I kept the photographs my father took; I knew I would return.

It is that sense of the numinous that Philip Marsden conjures in Rising Ground. Marsden lives in Cornwall: he sets out on a westward journey through its history to examine the notion that there are places on the earth which chime mysteriously with the human spirit, which drew our ancestors to them just as we are drawn there.

As they were drawn, millennia before John of Gaunt stood firm against the Scots at Dunstanburgh or Harry Hotspur paced nearby Warkworth’s walls, to Howick. Francis Pryor relates in Home that a permanent settlement was built at Howick around 8000BC. Discovered in 2002, this Mesolithic house challenged the idea – the accepted wisdom when Pryor was a student in the 1960s – that families in this era never wholly settled, but were constantly moving from place to place and using temporary dwellings.

The radiocarbon dates at Howick showed it to have been occupied for about 200 years. This wasn’t a hut or a shack – terms Pryor finds patronising. This was home, and his book builds a picture of how, 12,000 years ago, a domestic revolution transformed life in these islands, making it possible to imagine that many of the conversations (When will you be back? What’s for dinner? Do you need help with that?) which took place by ancient firesides might not be so different from those we have today.

Each book has very different aims; and yet they make an evocative pair. Over the course of 30 years, Pryor, a former president of the Council for British Archaeology, a frequent guest on Time Team and the author of books such as Britain BC and The Making of the British Landscape, has been investigating this country’s ancient landscapes and ancient lives. During that time, he writes, he has seen evidence of human occupation in Britain pushed back from 600,000 years to more than a million years ago – it was just this year that the oldest human footprints outside Africa, dated to between 850,000 and 950,000 years old, were found on a beach at Happisburgh in Norfolk.

Pryor isn’t a man for the drama offered by “haphazard finds by metal-detectorists”, even when those finds are as spectacular as the Sutton Hoo hoard; his focus is the much more elusive evidence of daily life. “When all is said and done,” he writes, “archaeology is not about beautiful objects, it’s about past societies and the way they functioned.” His goal is to show how prehistoric Britons developed their sense of hearth and home.

So, for him, one of the most moving discoveries in recent years is the remains of a house in the orbit of the Stonehenge site (itself recently shown to be much larger than previously thought), at Durrington Walls. Strikingly similar to Neolithic houses at Skara Brae, in Orkney, “House 851” in Wiltshire showed evidence of two shallow depressions in front of its hearth: “these must have been made by people kneeling in front of the hearth while cooking”. He describes the Neolithic domestic objects found buried in a ditch at Etton, in Cambridgeshire: a carefully folded piece of birch bark, a broken quern-stone, pottery shards – placed in a manner that is clearly symbolic, so that, Pryor writes, he understands that “their first communal monuments were about celebrating life at home”.

This is the opposite of top-down history. Tales may be told of kings and rulers; but life is lived by ordinary folk, and it is the search for these stories that animates Pryor. Home is a book of scholarly rigour shot through with imaginative empathy for our ancestors. He was instrumental in creating the replica prehistoric roundhouses in the archaeo­logy park at Flag Fen, near Peterborough; but it is building his own that gives him a tangible understanding of how much men and women thousands of years ago would have invested in their homes.

It is creating a home that moves Philip Marsden on his journey, too. As Rising Ground opens, he and his wife have sold their coastal Cornish house to move inland to a broken-down farmhouse at Ardevora, on the River Fal. Beginning his reconstruction of the house, he calls to mind Heidegger’s 1954 essay “Building Dwelling Thinking”, in which the philosopher writes of a 200-year-old farmhouse in the Black Forest: “Here the self-sufficiency of the power to let earth and heaven, divinities and mortals, enter in simple oneness into things, ordered the house.” Building and thinking causes Marsden to ask what dwelling in a landscape really means – and so he sets off on a circular journey towards Land’s End, considering not only the landscape but also those who have gone before him and been equally compelled by rivers, coast and moor.

Marsden visits the Morrab Library near Penzance – a treasure-house of local lore, including the archive of William Borlase, who, in the 18th century “did more to commit Cornwall to paper . . . than anyone before or since”. Borlase corresponded with the prominent antiquarian William Stukeley, who styled himself “Chyandox, Arch-Druid” as he travelled the country studying ancient monuments (one evening he dined on top of one of Stonehenge’s lintels).

It’s hard not to smile at such pagan pretence – just as Marsden does, when he finds himself in a group of modern pagans sitting on “the chocolate-brown banquette seats” at a pub in Madron. Looking at the ceremonies that take place at Stonehenge at the solstice, Francis Pryor sees an uncanny resemblance between the Chief Druid’s robes and the garb of a C of E vicar – a reflection of our modern-day idea of a hierarchical society, and a world away from the more family-based social structure that Pryor argues would have existed in prehistoric Britain.

And yet the modern “pagans” enact their rites because they feel drawn to the landscape – as are both Pryor and Marsden, in their very different ways. Put the titles of these books together and you will find a sense of home rising from the ground, as it does for all of us, in one way or another. 

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and an Eccles British Library writer in residence 2014

Erica Wagner is New Statesman contributing writer. A former literary editor of the Times, she has twice judged the Man Booker Prize. Her most recent book is Chief Engineer: The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge.

This article appears in the 08 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Grayson Perry guest edit

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