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Bone Detectives start with Thanet’s Bronze Age secrets….

I have just watched the first episode of Bone Detectives: Britain’s Buried Secrets, featuring Dr Tori Herridge and the delightful Raksha Dave, whom I remember from Time Team, but who is now much in TV evidence. In this new series we’re promised episodes from different periods and different places all over Britain, but this first one was from the Isle of Thanet.

Thanet, of course, is no longer and island, but it was still detached from the rest of Kent as late as Tudor times, when the Wantsum Channel had to be crossed by boat. Earlier than that, it was broad enough to be a strait.

It is suggested that in the Bronze Age, and probably before then too, Britain was thought to be a sacred island of the dead, and seemed to shine out of the sea with its pure white cliffs. The name Thanet may be derived from a goddess of death (I didn’t quite catch the name) and the Wantsum Channel might have been the Styx? Whatever, to get to Thanet, one had to cross water.

The Thanet place of interest in this first episode was Cliffsend, where a housing estate is now but early in this decade there was only large sandy field. The only thing remaining from the field is a single mature tree. There is, apparently, no evidence at all of people actually living here during the Bronze Age, but they did come to what became Cliffsend in order to honour the dead.

When the present housing estate was due to be built, archaeological excavations took place, to investigate the area before it became impossible. What was found astonished everyone. There was a many-barrowed cemetery from around 2000 BC, each barrow about 20m in diameter. There was no sign at all of true settlement, but a lot of broken pottery, animal bones, broken quern stones and so on, which suggested many feasts and ceremonies which must have been to do with death and the dead. Oh, no! Not the dreaded rituals again, complete with processional ways! But in this instance I think the conclusion is probably correct.

The dig became exceedingly interesting and original when it came to a mysterious pit, some 50m NE of the cemetery. Human skeletons were found in it, with right at the bottom, those of two neonatal lambs. Then, on top of them, was the carefully arranged skeleton of a very elderly woman. She was on her left side, curled up tightly, holding a small piece of chalk to her lips in her left hand. Her right hand was more extended, with her index finger pointing toward one of the nearby barrows. There were two more neonatal lambs in her lap, and she had been killed by sword blows to her head.

Now, in the Bronze Age swords were very rare, and probably for ceremonial use only, which suggests that the manner of her death was sacrificial. And not necessarily that she was unwilling to die, because her finger pointing to the barrow might well indicate a plea to the dead for their help with some situation then besetting the area. Her life might well have been the price to pay. Which is guesswork, of course, but there has to be some reason for the way she points. And what is the piece of chalk to her lips all about? That must remain a mystery.

Anyway, the old lady and the four lambs were not alone in the pit, for there were four more remains, two teenaged girls, two juvenile girls, and a mature man, although he was only a partial skeleton and a little distance away, so may not have been really connection with the others.

Some of the bones were sent for testing, and it turned out they were older than the old woman! How very, very strange. Now, if I tell you more, it will spoil the programme’s “punch lines”, so you will have to watch it to find out. But I do recommend this first episode. It bodes well for the rest of the series. You can watch the series on Channel Four at 8 pm on Saturdays, but also find out more on Goodreads

My final comment is on the programme’s sponsor, Tilda (rice), which declares it’s proud to help promote “escapism on 4”. Um, escapism? I’m not sure that a documentary about Bronze Age burials comes under that heading!

It was Julius Caesar who did it, so why blame the Wars of the Roses….?

During the Wars of the Roses, was there ever a deliberate policy of depopulation? By that, I cannot think of an example. Destruction, yes. Killing off the other side’s armed forces, yes. But the annihilation of towns and villages? Or of castles and strongholds, which were surely regarded as great prizes. So how could there be a complete scorching of the earth?

I raise this question because of something I have just read in John Dunkin’s The History and Antiquities of Dartford. The introduction to this work describes Caesar’s first arrival in and advance through the county of Kent. He landed on 26th August, 55 BC, perhaps at Pegwell Bay on the Isle of Thanet, see this article, and left again thirty or so days later.

By James William Edmund Doyle

According to Dunkin, the Romans encountered armed resistance when they reached Detling, where they camped for the night in preparation to cross the Medway at Aylesford. There was a rather nasty battle with the Cenimagni, the local Britons, involving stakes rammed into the riverbed to pierce the oncoming Romans. However, Caesar was triumphant and the Cenimagni leader, Caswallon, was forced to submit.

Caesar continued north, the Dartford area being his next port of call. Close to Hextable, he came upon a large circular mound, called ‘Ruehill Wood’, where the Cenimagni had their stronghold. It was a wonderful vantage point, and more substantial than the Romans expected, with sturdy stone buildings, and he set about destroying it. Completely.

Julius Caesar

From this map website

Then he was wrong-footed, because, rather sneakily, Caswallon began to attack the Roman camp on the coast, obliging Caesar to turn around and hurry back. He certainly hurried, that’s for sure, and boarded his ships to sail away. He would return, of course, but this was the rather ragged end of his first invasion.

Why have I described these events? Because, again according to Dunkin, Hasted in his History of Kent hints that the site of the Ruehill Wood fortress could ‘perhaps [be] the remains of depopulation occasioned by the Wars between the houses of York and Lancaster’. Why the Wars of the Roses? Why not the Civil War? And why should the site have been anything other than ancient? Hasted also states that the manor of Ruehill or, now, Rowhill, ‘was, in the reign of King Edward [not explained which Edward] in the possession of the family of Gyse’, and proceeds to give the manor’s descent through several lords to as late as 1778. So Ruehill/Rowhill certainly wasn’t annihilated into extinction during the Wars of the Roses. Besides, if it had been, we’d surely know of it, even if just as a legend.

This manor house is now the Rowhill Grange luxury hotel and spa, and still commands a great vantage point. However, I cannot think it retains much of the original manor.

Rowhill Grange hotel, 2007
The vantage point of Rowhill Wood from Google Street – the hotel is amid the trees

So why would this site have ever been thought of as anything other than Caswallon’s levelled fortress? And why would Hasted light upon the remains being the work of devastating depredations during the Wars of the Roses?

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