Sunday, 9 February 2014

My Day at the Medway Megaliths!

A brief spell of February sunshine illuminated 
Kit's Coty House, a dolmen that survives as the 
entrance to a chambered tomb atop a prominent local hill.
Today I hopped over to the Medway Valley in North-West Kent in order to take a closer look at some of England's lesser known - but still visually impressive - prehistoric monuments: the Medway MegalithsAs someone who technically classifies as a "Kentish Man", having been born and raised in the south-eastern part of Greater London that was once a part of West Kent, I must admit to some special pride and affection for these particular sites. Built of locally sourced sarcen stones, they are the only known megalithic (i.e. stone built) prehistoric monuments still evident in eastern England, and the most south-easterly ones still surviving in the entire British Isles.

Constructed in the Early Neolithic period (fourth and third millennia BCE), when the communities of Britain were transitioning from a hunter-gatherer way of life to a pastoral one based on the herding of cattle, these monuments were erected at a time of major societal change. Archaeological investigation has determined that the majority of these Medway Megaliths were once part of elaborate chambered tombs; mausolea to the dead which may also have served as centres for cultic practice. It has also been highlighted that these buildings would have provided prominent visual markers in the landscape, either stamping a claim of ownership onto the earth or helping to guide nomadic herders in their journeys across the landscape.

Chambered tombs appeared across much of Europe during this period, likely representing the cultic centres of what we today would recognise as a "religion". It is impossible now to decipher the many cosmological and theological beliefs that were associated with this belief system, although given that such an emphasis was placed on the deposition of (at least some of) the dead, many archaeologists have suggested that it may have revolved around "ancestor veneration" (a problematic concept that can be understood in various different ways). However, it should be stressed that such tombs are not scattered evenly across the landscape, and tend to be isolated to specific regions; thus, you have at least six chambered tombs having been build in the Medway Valley, while at least three un-chambered barrows (which are similar in many respects but built without stone) were constructed in the Valley of the River Stour, also in Kent. 

The White Horse Stone, a sacred site
for Odinists and other Heathens.
The Medway Megaliths are also pertinent for those with an interest in new religious movements (NRMs), namely the various forms of contemporary Paganism. Kentish Pagans treat a number of these archaeological monuments as modern day "sacred sites", and perform their rituals at them accordingly, which at times involve the deposition of various items at that particular location. One of the Medway Megaliths is the White Horse Stone, which stands out from the others in that its precise origins are not really known; a standing megalith, we do not know for sure if it was once part of a chambered tomb, or whether its erection even took place in the Early Neolithic, or at a later date. In folklore, it has come to be associated with the legendary figures of Hengest and Horsa, who were claimed to have led the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain in the fifth century CE, resulting in the establishment of England as a linguistic and cultural unit separate from Scotland, Wales, and the South-West. Thus Odinists and other Heathens, members of Pagan traditions which emphasise and celebrate these Anglo-Saxon (and other linguistically Germanic) roots, continue to venerate this site as a very special place.

Those with a deeper interest in these monuments and the ways that they continue to be used by living communities might be interested to learn that I am currently in the pre-production stages of a short documentary film, Living with the Medway Megaliths. This is being produced as part of my work with the filmmaking company, Mindpuzzle Films, who are currently in post-production for their full-length documentary on the German-American community, I (Heart) Berlin.

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