Beowulf and Archaeology. Megaliths Imagined and Encountered.

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    Beowulf and archaeology: Megaliths imagined and encounteredin early medieval Europe   University ofChesterDigitalRepository Item typeBook chapterAuthorsWilliams, HowardCitationIn M. Diaz-Guardamino, L. Garcia Sanjuan, & D.Wheatley (Eds.), The lives of prehistoric monuments inIron Age, Roman and medieval Europe (pp. )Oxford:Oxford University Press, 2015.PublisherOxford University PressDownloaded6-Nov-2017 13:43:07Item License Link to item    1   Beowulf and Archaeology: Megaliths Imagined and Encountered in Early Medieval Europe Howard Williams Department of History and Archaeology, University of Chester, Chester, UK. Williams, H. (in press 2015).  Beowulf   and archaeology: megaliths imagined and encountered in Early Medieval Europe, in M. Diaz-Guardamino Uribe, L. García Sanjuán and D. Wheatley (eds) The Lives of Prehistoric Monuments in Iron Age, Roman and Medieval  Europe, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Abstract The dragon’s lair in the epic Anglo -Saxon poem  Beowulf has been widely interpreted to reflect engagement with Neolithic megalithic architecture. Embodying the poet’s sense of the  past, the stone barrow (Old English:  stānbeorh )   of the dragon has been taken to reveal mythological and legendary attributions to megalithic monuments as the works of giants and haunts of dragons in the early medieval world. This chapter reconsiders this argument, showing how the dragon’s mound invoked a biography of successive pasts and significances as treasure hoard, monstrous dwelling, place of exile, theft, conflict and death. Only subsequently does the mound serve as the starting-point for the funeral of Beowulf involving his cremation ceremony and mound-raising nearby. T he biography of the dragon’s barrow is a literary one, in which inherited prehistoric megaliths were counter-tombs, antithetical to contemporary stone architectures containing the bodies of kings, queens and the relics of saints. Keywords   Anglo-Saxon church, archaeology, Beowulf, barrow, crypt, mausoleum, megalithic architecture, memory, mortuary archaeology Introduction Since the mid-19 th  century, the poem  Beowulf has long been a quarry for inspiration, analogy and insight for those exploring the archaeology of early medieval Britain and Scandinavia (Cramp 1957; Hills 1997; Webster 1998; Owen-Crocker 2000). The dialogue of archaeology and poem has been employed to explore a range of early medieval social practices and structures: the production and circulation of weapons and armour through inheritance and gift-giving, the role of vessels and feasting practices, hall-building and ceremony, the hoarding of treasure and various dimensions of funerary practice including barrow-burial,  boat-burial and cremation. In discussing many of these practices, scholars have recently  pointed to the sense of the past in the poem as a practice-orientated form of social memory, investigating both heroic poetry and the ceremonial use of material culture, monuments, architectures and landscapes identified in poetry and archaeological evidence as distinct but related technologies of remembrance within the hierarchical Christian Anglo-Saxon kingdoms that emerge during the mid- to late 7 th  century AD (Williams 1998; 2006; 2011a &  b; Owen-Crocker 2000; Semple 2013). In this fashion, the assertions of legitimacy and identities by early medieval elites, including their claims to (and over) land, power and  people, were performed through the ritualised reuse, appropriation and naming of ancient monuments and their deployment within rituals and oral performances, including poetry (Semple 2013; see also Price 2010). The locations and immediate environs of major later Anglo-Saxon churches and elite residences, and the maritime and land routes connecting them, provided the dramaturgical and ritualised settings and media by which social memories    2  were transmitted and reproduced. Landmarks such as ancient monuments were actively integrated through reuse for a variety of functions from burial to assembly (Williams 2006; Langlands and Reynolds 2011; Semple 2013). In particular, Sarah Semple’ s (2013) important interdisciplinary survey and analysis of Anglo-Saxon perceptions and reuse of prehistoric monuments from the 5th to the 11th centuries AD, reveals the variegated and shifting  perceptions of prehistoric monuments revealed by later Anglo-Saxon text, manuscript illustrations, place-names and archaeological evidence (see also Semple 1998; 2004). While building on this research, this paper tackles afresh the striking instance, often cited but rarely dealt with in any depth or scope, of the portray of an ancient stone barrow in the late 10th or early eleventh-century poem  Beowulf  . This epic text is the longest English verse source to survive from prior to the Norman conquest (AD 1066) and most likely enshrines a far earlier set of oral poetry circulating during the seventh and eighth centuries if not earlier still. Drawing on John Hines ’s  approach to the relationship between Anglo-Saxon literature and archaeology (Hines 2008; 2013) and Sarah Semple’s specific discussions of ancient monuments as places of fear and torment in the later Anglo-Saxon landscape (Semple 1998; 2004; 2013), I utilise two familiar verse translations (Bradley 1982; Heaney 2002, drawing quotations from the latter) to interrogate what the poem reveals about later Anglo-Saxon  perceptions of megalithic structures and their cultural biographies. The Dragon’s Mound in Beowulf For those unfamiliar with the story, it is important to begin with a brief account of how the dragon’s mound is key within the structure of th e poem. As a young hero, Beowulf travels over the sea to Denmark where he defeats the monster Grendel who had plagued King Hrothgar’s hall: Heorot . The hero then defeat’s Grendel’s mother within her cave. As an old king, having ruled his land for fifty winters in Geatland (line 2209), a new subterranean threat emerges from the wilderness surrounding his own kingdom: a dragon. The dragon’s mound is   the setting for Beowulf’s third and final encounter with a monster and his subsequent death and funeral (lines 2200-3182). The poem  Beowulf tells us that the dragon’s lair was a stony barrow (Old English:  stānbeorh )  built by an ancient race of giants on a headland by the sea, subsequently sought out and guarded by the dragon. The barrow was disturbed by an exile from Beowulf’s kingdom  who retrieved a goblet to use as a gift for Beowulf, his lord, to appease and atone for unnamed crimes. As recipient of the cursed gift, Beowulf and his kingdom receive the wrath of the dragon who, upon waking, realises the treasure is missing and exacts revenge through aerial fiery destruction of the kingdom’s halls  (lines 2312-2324). Guided by the thief and accompanied by a small retinue, Beowulf goes to the barrow and, leaving his companions above-ground, alone enters into the mound via the hidden path to slay the dragon. His companions flee but one of them, Wiglaf, enters the mound to assist his lord in the fight. Beowulf and Wiglaf slay the beast but the hero dies from his wounds. Under Wiglaf’s direction, Beowulf is cremated on a nearby headland and a mound is raised over the pyre-site as a landmark for seafarers. The cursed treasure from the dragon’s mound  –   described as consisting of weapons and armour, feasting gear and a standard  –   is buried with the hero and king; the riches are not divided and circulated among Beowulf’s people . Since the Victorian era, it has been recognised that the poem might be describing a Neolithic  passage grave or chambered tomb. This interpretation has received repeated but brief commentaries by many discussants of the relationship between the poem and archaeology (e.g. Wright 1847; Cramp 1957; Hills 1997; Webster 1998). Most recently, Semple (2013)    3  cites  Beowulf as a key source in relation to a range of other literary, documentary, visual and toponymic evidence that reveals how ancient monuments were perceived as places of both fame and infamy in the Christian later Anglo-Saxon landscape (here taken to refer to the late seventh to eleventh centuries AD). The argument that the dragon’s mound might be a  Neolithic monument finds support from the concrete evidence that early medieval burials of the late 5th to late 7th century AD could be deliberately inserted into, and situated around,  Neolithic long barrows, a practice that was part of a wider funerary reuse of prehistoric and Roman-period ruins and monuments (see Williams 1998; 2006; Semple 1998; 2013). Furthermore, toponymic evidence reveals how striking megalithic monuments, notably Wayland’s S mithy, Oxfordshire, could be afforded ambivalent legendary associations (Grinsell 1991; Owen-Crocker 2000, 62-3).  Beowulf is thus taken to provide a key case study of a wider phenomenon: the mythological and legendary afterlives of megaliths in the medieval world, places of fear rather than veneration (see also Holtorf 1996; Hutton 2009; Vejby 2012). The remainder of this chapter seeks to query and enhance this well-established argument  by exploring the biography and materiality of the dragon’s mound as portrayed in the poem. A Biography for the Dragon’s Mound   While archaeologists have tended to explore the archaeological biographies of megalithic monuments (e.g. Holtorf 1996), I here want to apply this approach to the poem itself. The dragon’ s mound is portrayed as on the periphery of Beowulf’s kingdom —   like Grendel and Grendel’s mother’s mere was for Hrothgar  ’s    —   a liminal place physically and conceptually on the very edge of the human world, ‘on a wide headland/ close to the waves’ ( lines 2243-4) near the cliff top (line 2417). The mound and its landscape setting reveal its multi-temporal quality in the poem; we are told of at least six phases of use: i.   the location was selected and the stone barrow made by the Last Survivor  —   the only remaining member of the ancient race  —   as a cache to contain his dead people’s treasures (lines 2242-2269); ii.   sometime later, it was sought out and became the habitation for a sleeping dragon guarding the treasure (lines 2270-75); iii.   three hundred years later it became the landscape where only an exile dared to venture to steal a goblet, thus rousing the dragon to vengeance (lines 2214-18); iv.   in response, it became a place of conflict and death where Beowulf and Wiglaf encountered the dragon and both the dragon and Beowulf perished (lines 2410-2820); v.   it became a funerary landscape comprised of at least three commemorative nodes: a.   the empty stone barrow from whence the dragon’s corpse  and the treasure were taken (lines 3129-31);  b.   the site of Beowulf’s cremation over which a mound was raised and in which the dragon’s treasure was interred: a landmark for seafarers (lines 3136-3182); c.   the sea- cliff over which the dragon’s body was consigned to the waves (line 3131). vi.   at Beowulf’s funeral, a lamenting woman foresaw a future in which the Geatish kingdom was destroyed: imagining cataclysmic events that created an abandoned set of monuments on the headland: the dragon’s mound and Beowulf’s counterpoised  (3150-55). This ‘monument biography’   rendered the dragon’s mound a mnemonic time-mark  –   simultaneously famous and infamous  –   linking together each biographical stage from its  building to the poet’s present: a cache of giants’ treasure , a dragon’s den , a place of exiles and theft, a place for heroic conflict and death and finally a component in the mortuary drama
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