Also known as Deepavali, this is a Hindu religious festival of lights and is one of the most important festivals within Hinduism. The festival usually lasts five days, or six in some regions of India, and is celebrated during the Hindu lunisolar month between mid-October and mid-November. One of the most popular festivals of Hinduism, Diwali symbolises the spiritual ‘victory of light over darkness, good over evil, and knowledge over ignorance’. The festival is widely associated with Lakshmi, their goddess of prosperity and Ganesha, their god of wisdom and the remover of obstacles, with many other regional traditions connecting the holiday to several Hindu gods and goddesses. In the lead-up to Deepavali, celebrants prepare by cleaning, renovating, and decorating their homes and workplaces with diyas (oil lamps) and rangolis (colourful art circle patterns). During Diwali, people wear their finest clothes, illuminate the interior and exterior of their homes with diyas and rangoli, perform worship ceremonies of Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity and wealth, light fireworks, and partake in family feasts, where mithai (sweets) and gifts are shared. Originally a Hindu festival, Diwali has transcended religious lines and is also celebrated by Jains and Sikhs and is now a major cultural event for the Hindu, Sikh, and Jain peoples. The five-day long festival originated in the Indian subcontinent and is mentioned in early Sanskrit texts. Diwali is usually celebrated twenty days after the Hindu festival Vijayadashami, with Dhanteras, or the regional equivalent, marking the first day of the festival when celebrants prepare by cleaning their homes and making decorations on the floor, such as rangolis. There are then different festivities for each day, for example the third day is the day of ‘Lakshmi Puja’ and the darkest night of the traditional month. Some Hindu communities mark the last day as Bhai Dooj or the regional equivalent, which is dedicated to the bond between sister and brother, whilst other Hindu and Sikh craftsmen communities mark this day as Vishwakarma Puja and observe it by performing maintenance in their work spaces and offering prayers. Diwali festivities include a celebration of sights, sounds, arts and flavours, but the festivities vary between different regions. ’Diwali’ is from the Sanskrit ‘dīpāvali’ meaning ‘row or series of lights’. The term is derived from the Sanskrit words ‘dīpa’, meaning lamp, light, lantern, candle, that which glows, shines, illuminates or knowledge and ‘āvali’, a row, range, continuous line, series. The five-day celebration is observed every year in early autumn after the conclusion of the summer harvest. It coincides with the new moon and is deemed the darkest night of the Hindu lunisolar calendar. The festivities begin two days before ‘amāvasyā’, on Dhanteras, and extend two days after, on the second day of the month of Kartik. The darkest night is the apex of the celebration and coincides with the second half of October or early November in the Gregorian calendar. The festival climax is on the third day and is called the main Diwali. It is an official holiday in a dozen countries, whilst the other festive days are regionally observed as either public or optional restricted holidays in India. In historical terms, the Diwali festival is likely a fusion of harvest festivals in ancient India. King Harsha refers to Deepavali in the 7th century Sanskrit play ‘Nagananda’ as ‘Dīpapratipadotsava’, where ‘dīpa’ = light, ‘pratipadā’ = first day and ‘utsava’ = festival, where lamps were lit and newly engaged brides and grooms received gifts. Diwali was also described by numerous travellers from outside India. In his 11th century memoir on India, the Persian traveler and historian Al Biruni wrote of Deepavali being celebrated by Hindus on the day of the New Moon in the month of Kartika. The Venetian merchant and traveler Niccolò de’ Conti visited India in the early 15th-century and wrote in his memoir, “on another of these festivals they fix up within their temples, and on the outside of the roofs, an innumerable number of oil lamps… which are kept burning day and night” and that the families would gather, “clothe themselves in new garments”, sing, dance and feast. The 16th-century Portuguese traveler Domingo Paes wrote of his visit to the Hindu Vijayanagara Empire, where ‘Dipavali’ was celebrated in October with householders illuminating their homes, and their temples, with lamps. Publications from the British colonial era also made mention of Diwali, such as the note on Hindu festivals published in 1799 by Sir William Jones, a philologist known for his early observations on Sanskrit and Indo-European languages.

Diwali is celebrated in the honour of Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth.

Many Hindus associate the festival with goddess Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity, and wife of Vishnu but the Hindus of eastern India associate the festival with the goddess Kali, who symbolises the victory of good over evil. Hindus from the Braj region in northern India, parts of Assam, as well as southern Tamil and Telugu communities view Diwali as the day the god Krishna overcame and destroyed the evil demon king Narakasura, in yet another symbolic victory of knowledge and good over ignorance and evil. Trade and merchant families and others also offer prayers to Saraswati, who to them embodies music, literature and learning and to Kubera, who symbolises book-keeping, treasury and wealth management. In western states such as Gujarat, and certain northern Hindu communities of India, the festival of Diwali signifies the start of a new year. Mythical tales shared on Diwali vary widely depending on region and even within Hindu tradition, yet all share a common focus on righteousness, self-inquiry and the importance of knowledge. It is thought that the telling of these tales are reminiscent of the Hindu belief that good ultimately triumphs over evil.

Lakshmi and Ganesha worship during Diwali.

During the season of Diwali, numerous rural townships and villages host melas, or fairs, where local producers and artisans trade produce and goods. A variety of entertainments are usually available for inhabitants of the local community to enjoy. The women, in particular, adorn themselves in colourful attire and decorate their hands with henna. Such events are also mentioned in Sikh historical records. Nowadays ‘Diwali mela’ are held at colleges, universities, campuses or as community events. At such times a variety of music, dance and arts performances, food, crafts, and cultural celebrations are featured. Economically, Diwali marks a major shopping period in India and is comparable to the Christmas period in terms of consumer purchases and economic activity. It is traditionally a time when households purchase new clothing, home refurbishments, gifts, gold, jewellery, and other large purchases particularly as the festival is dedicated to Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth and prosperity, and such purchases are considered auspicious. Many consider Diwali to be one of the major festivals where rural Indians spend a significant portion of their annual income, and is a means for them to renew their relationships and social networks. Other goods that are bought in substantial quantities during Diwali include confectionery and fireworks. Stock markets like NSE and BSE in India are typically closed during Diwali, with the exception of a Diwali Muhurat trading session for an hour in the evening to coincide with the beginning of the new year. Sadly however there have been issues at this festive time, as the use of fireworks also causes an increase in the number of burn injuries in India during Diwali. One particular firework called an ‘anar’ (fountain) has been found to be responsible for 65% of such injuries, with adults being the typical victims. Thankfully, most of the injuries sustained are only minor burns requiring outpatient care. In addition, concern has been raised in the use of firecrackers on Diwali increasing the concentration of dust and pollutants in the air. After firing, the fine dust particles get settled on the surrounding surfaces which can affect the environment and in turn, put people’s health at stake.

However, here in Leicester the celebration of Diwali is one of the biggest outside of India with everything from dance, fireworks, food and fashion making it the perfect place to enjoy Diwali. The festival began with the city’s famous lights switch-on on Sunday 9 October and culminated with a glorious fireworks display and entertainment on Diwali Day, Monday 24 October. There were also a wide selection of events taking place around the city during the fortnight including a Diwali Mela Bazaar, Rangoli exhibition and waterside celebrations. The festivities began with the illumination of the Diwali lights along Belgrave Road, on Leicester’s ‘Golden Mile’, on Sunday 9 October. Up to 40,000 people watched the lights switch on, which followed a vibrant programme of music and dance on the Belgrave Road stage, presented by the Leicester Hindu Festival Council and Leicester City Council. The stage programme for Diwali lights switch-on ran from 5.30pm to 8pm on Belgrave Road with the lights turned on at 7.30pm followed by the fireworks, which this year could be viewed from Belgrave Road. The Diwali Village on Cossington Street Recreation Ground featured a full stage programme showcasing local talent, children’s fun-fair rides and stalls including food and concessions, from 3pm to 9pm.
The Golden Mile is bathed in light throughout the festive period until Diwali Day, when the celebrations continue with events on Cossington Street Recreation Ground. On Diwali Day, Monday 24 October, the Diwali Village was again be on Cossington Street Recreation ground from 3pm along with a full stage programme of entertainment at 6pm presented by the Leicester Hindu Festival Council. This year Leicester’s Wheel of Light returns. The big wheel will be located on Belgrave Road from Friday 7 October to Sunday 6 November.

There is more that can be written about the individual events associated with Diwali but they are too much to be detailed here. Suffice it to say I hope you have all had a happy Diwali and look forward to the next ‘firework’ event which is of course November 5th!

This week… a White Elephant.
White elephants were once considered highly sacred creatures in Thailand and the animal even graced the national flag until 1917, but they were also wielded as a subtle form of punishment. According to legend, if an underling or rival angered a Siamese king, the royal might present the unfortunate man with the gift of a white elephant. While ostensibly a reward, the creatures were tremendously expensive to feed and house, and caring for one often drove the recipient into financial ruin. Whether any specific rulers actually bestowed such a passive-aggressive gift is uncertain, but the term has since come to refer to any burdensome possession, pachyderm or otherwise.

Don’t forget, for those here in the UK, our clocks go back an hour at 2:00am on Sunday morning. Enjoy the extra hour!

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Trafalgar Day

Trafalgar Day is the celebration of the victory won by the Royal Navy, commanded by Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson, over the combined French and Spanish fleets at the Battle of Trafalgar on 21 October 1805 and the formation of the Navy League in 1894 gave added impetus to the movement to recognise Nelson’s legacy, and grand celebrations were held in Trafalgar Square in London on Trafalgar Day, 1896. It was commemorated by parades, dinners and other events throughout much of the British Empire in the 19th century and early 20th century. It continues to be celebrated by navies of the Commonwealth of Nations. Its public celebration declined after the end of World War I in 1918. Perhaps the massive casualties and upheaval had changed the general public’s perception of war as a source of glorious victories to a more sombre view of it as a tragedy, for which the newly instituted Armistice Day on 11 November was created. However, Trafalgar Day was still marked as a public day each year. Around 1993, it was rumoured that the government might make it a public holiday in place of May Day and this plan was revived in the 2011 Tourism Strategy created by the then coalition government, but to date this has never happened. The year 2005 was the bicentennial of the Battle of Trafalgar, and the Royal Navy led Trafalgar 200 celebrations. The 2005 International Fleet Review held off Spithead in the Solent on 28 June was the first since 1999 and the largest since our late Majesty The Queen’s 1977 Silver Jubilee.

On 21 October each year the commissioned officers of the Royal Navy celebrate the victory at the Battle of Trafalgar by holding a Trafalgar Night dinner in the Officer’s Mess. At a Trafalgar Night banquet or dinner, a speech is usually made by a guest of honour who ends it with a toast to “The Immortal Memory …” and the rest of the wording of the toast varies depending on what is said in the speech. On 21 October 2005, the 200th anniversary, the traditional toast was given by the late Queen Elizabeth II as “The Immortal Memory of Lord Nelson and those who fell with him”. Such dinners also occur each year on or around 21 October in locations other than Royal Navy ships. In addition, the Royal Naval Museum in Portsmouth hold a ‘Trafalgar Night Dinner’ each year on a date close to 21 October, whilst the British ambassador in Washington hosts such a dinner at which the guest of honour may be a senior officer in the United States Navy.

The Lord Mayor of Birmingham lays a wreath at Birmingham’s statue of Lord Nelson on Trafalgar Day in 2007

Here in the UK, our Sea Cadet Corps hold a youth cadet parade known as the National Trafalgar Day Parade on Trafalgar Square, London each year. The parade is formed with a platoon from each area, a guard and a massed band. This is held on the closest Sunday to 21 October. Units and Districts from around the country celebrate this day – usually with a town parade. Birmingham celebrates the anniversary with a ceremony at the statue of Lord Nelson, the oldest such statue in the United Kingdom, in their Bull Ring. The ceremony is led by the Lord Mayor of Birmingham and involves men and women of HMS Forward, Sea Cadet units from across the West Midlands and various civic organisations, including The Nelson Society and the Birmingham Civic Society. Afterwards representatives of naval and civic organisations lay wreaths and a parade marches off to Victoria Square, the public square in front of the seat of local government, where the Lord Mayor takes the salute. Another aspect of the Birmingham celebration is that the statue is regaled with swags of laurel and flowers, possibly due to its location by the wholesale flower markets of the city. This tradition, marked through most of the nineteenth century, was revived in 2004.

Flags fly from the Nelson Monument on Calton Hill on Trafalgar Day.

The Nelson Monument is a commemorative tower in honour of Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson, located in Edinburgh, Scotland. It is situated on top of Calton Hill and provides a dramatic termination to the view along Princes Street from the west. The monument was built between 1807 and 1816 to commemorate Nelson’s victory over the French and Spanish fleets at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 and his own death at the same battle.

The Nelson Monument on Calton Hill, Edinburgh.

This monument was constructed at the highest point of Calton Hill, at 171 metres (561ft) above sea-level, replacing an earlier mast used to send signals to shipping in the Forth. The monument was funded by public subscription and an initial design prepared by Alexander Nasmyth. His pagoda-like design was deemed too expensive, and an alternative design in the form of an upturned telescope (an object closely associated with Nelson) was obtained from the architect Robert Burn. Building began in 1807, and was almost complete when money ran out the following year. Burn died in 1815, and it was left to Thomas Bonnar to complete the pentagonal castellated building, which forms the base to the tower, between 1814 and 1816. The tower was intended as a signal mast, attended by sailors who would be accommodated within the ground floor rooms, although by 1820 these were in use as a tea room. Public access was available from the start, for a small fee and the rooms were later used to house the monument’s caretaker. In 2009, as part of the ‘Twelve Monuments Restoration Project’, the tower was comprehensively restored, including repairs to stonework and metalwork. The monument is a category A listed building, it is 32 metres (105ft) high, and has 143 steps leading to a public viewing gallery. The design reflects the castellated prison buildings which stood on the south side of Calton Hill in the early 19th century. A plaque above the entrance to the monument carries the following dedication:
“To the memory of Vice-Admiral Horatio Lord Viscount Nelson, and of the great victory of Trafalgar, too dearly purchased with his blood, the grateful citizens of Edinburgh have erected this monument: not to express their unavailing sorrow for his death; nor yet to celebrate this matchless glories of his life; but, by his noble example, to teach their sons to emulate what they admire, and, like him, when duty requires it, to die for their country. AD MDCCCV”. Above the plaque is a stone carving of the ‘San Josef’, a ship captured by Nelson at the Battle of Cape St Vincent in 1797.

The Time ball on the Nelson Monument.

On top of the tower is a ‘time ball’, a large ball which is raised and lowered to mark the time. It was installed in 1853 and became operational in March 1854 to act as a time signal to the ships in Edinburgh’s port of Leith and to ships at the anchorage in the Firth of Forth, known as Leith Roads, allowing the ships to set their chronometers. The time ball was the idea of Charles Piazzi Smyth, the Astronomer Royal for Scotland, and was originally triggered by a clock in the adjacent City Observatory to which it was connected by an underground wire. The mechanism was the work of Maudslay, Sons & Field of Lambeth, London who had previously constructed the time ball mechanism for Greenwich Observatory. The installation was carried out by James Ritchie & Son and who are still retained by City of Edinburgh Council to maintain and operate the time ball. This ball, constructed of wood and covered in zinc, and originally weighing about 90kg, is raised just before 1pm, and at precisely 1pm, is dropped from atop the mast. The commonly stated mass of 15 cwt (762kg) is a myth stemming from an exaggeration by Smyth in 1853. Later, in 1861, the One O’Clock Gun was established at Edinburgh Castle to provide an audible signal when fog obscured the time ball. The time ball was operated for over 150 years, until it was damaged by a storm in 2007 but in 2009, as part of the restoration of the monument, the time ball was removed and the mechanism repaired. The time ball was brought back into service on 24 September 2009. The mechanism is now operated manually, based on the firing of the One O’Clock Gun. In addition, the Royal Navy’s White Ensign and signal flags spelling out Nelson’s famous message “England expects that every man will do his duty“ are flown from the monument on Trafalgar Day each year.

I was pleasantly surprised in my research to find other memorials of Nelson. One was in the village of Dervock in County Antrim, Northern Ireland, has the only known memorial which takes the form of a stained-glass window depicting Admiral Lord Nelson just minutes before he was killed on board HMS Victory in 1805. It is thought that this is now the only memorial on the island, as Nelson’s pillar in Dublin (the earliest memorial to Admiral Nelson) having been destroyed in 1966, so in 2015 residents organised their first ever “Trafalgar Day”. Meanwhile in Gibraltar, the Trafalgar Day service takes place at the Trafalgar Cemetery, where the senior Naval Commander reads an extract from the Gibraltar Chronicle newspaper, the first periodical to report on the battle. Some sailors died in Gibraltar of wounds received at Trafalgar; they are buried in Gibraltar. HMS Victory, with Nelson’s body on board, underwent repairs in Gibraltar prior to sailing for Britain. In the Isle of Man, John Quilliam, 1st Lieutenant of HMS Victory in 1805, is buried in the graveyard of Kirk Arbory, Ballabeg. An annual parade and church service takes place on Trafalgar Day. There are also other celebrations around the world as the victory is celebrated in Nelson, New Zealand, usually in Trafalgar Square and sometimes involves pupils from the local Victory Primary School. Many streets in Nelson are named after Trafalgar and crew members of Victory. The event is celebrated each year in the Australian town of Trafalgar, Victoria, in which the small town of 2,200 holds an annual Battle of Trafalgar Festival with the Trafalgar Day Ball held on the Friday or Saturday closest to 21 October each year.

I also found a further, unexpected link to Horatio Nelson in the form of the headmaster of my old school, the Sir Harry Smith school in Whittlesey. It is simply that the full name of my headmaster was Irving Nelson Burgess, who was born in October 1905, a hundred years after the death of Admiral Nelson.

This week…
Three words which sound the same but are very different.
Peak, Peek, Pique.

  1. You have to strive to reach the peak.
  2. If you look quickly at something, it is a peek.
  3. A feeling of irritation or resentment, like in the phrase “he left in a fit of pique”.

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The Bindi

Having lived and worked in Leicester for a number of years now, I have met a few different people of different cultures. Some folk are Hindu and I have noticed the mark on the forehead of many females, so I wondered about its significance. I have learned that the mark is known as a bindi and it is a Hindu tradition that dates to the third and fourth centuries. The bindi was traditionally worn by women for religious purposes or to indicate that they are married. But today the bindi has also become popular among women of all ages, as a beauty mark. Further research has told me that a bindi is a brightly coloured dot, or in modern times a sticker, which was originally worn on the centre of the forehead by Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains from the Indian subcontinent.

A Hindu woman in Kullu, Himachal Pradesh wearing a bindi.

The bindi is applied in the centre of the forehead close to the eyebrows and worn in the Indian subcontinent, in particular amongst Hindus in India and Pakistan as well as other areas in and around South-east Asia. A similar marking is also worn by babies and children in China and, as in the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia, represents the opening of the ‘third eye’ chakra. It is also the point or dot around which the ‘mandala’ is created, representing the universe. Traditionally, the area between the eyebrows (where the bindi is placed) is said to be the sixth chakra, the seat of ‘concealed wisdom’. The bindi is said to retain energy and strengthen concentration, as it represents the third eye. The syllable for this chakra is ‘OM’. In metaphysics, ‘bindu’ is considered the dot or point at which creation begins and may become unity. It is also described as ‘the sacred symbol of the cosmos in its un-manifested state’. It is said to be linked to the pineal gland, which is a light sensitive gland that produces the hormone melatonin, regulating sleep as well as waking up. Ajna’s key issues involve balancing the higher and lower selves and trusting inner guidance. Its inner aspect also relates to the access of intuition. Mentally, Ajna deals with visual consciousness and emotionally it deals with clarity on an intuitive level.

The Goddess Tara depicted with Ajna, or third eye chakra.

This chakra is the point in the centre of the forehead commonly considered as the centre of consciousness. In Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, the bindi is associated with Ajna chakra and divinities in these religions are typically depicted in a meditative pose with their eyes nearly closed, with the gaze focused between eyebrows. The spot between the eyebrows known as Bhrumadhya is where one focuses one’s sight, so that it helps concentration. In South Asia, the bindi is worn by women of all religious dispositions and is not restricted to religion or region.

A relief from stupa, 2nd century BC.

The red bindi has multiple meanings and one simple interpretation is that it is a cosmetic mark used to enhance beauty. Archaeology has yielded clay female figurines from the Indus Valley with red pigment on the forehead and hair parting, but it is unclear whether this held any religious or cultural significance. In Hinduism, the colour red represents honour, love, and prosperity, hence it was worn to symbolise these aspects and in meditation, the point between the eyebrows is where one focuses one’s sight, to help concentration. The encyclopaedic ‘Dictionary of Yoga’ also reports that this ‘Ajna chakra’ is also called the ‘third eye’ and that this chakra is connected with the sacred syllable ‘Om’. On activating this centre, the aspirant overcomes ‘Ahankāra’ (the ego or sense of individuality), the last step on the path of spirituality.

Historically, the ornamental bindi spangle consists of a small piece of lac over which is smeared vermilion, while above it a piece of mica or thin glass is fixed for ornament. Women wore large spangles set in gold with a border of jewels if they could afford it. The bindi was made and sold by lac workers known as Lakhera. In Hinduism, it is part of the ‘Suhāg’ or ‘lucky trousseau’ at marriages and is affixed to the girl’s forehead on her wedding and thereafter always worn. Unmarried girls optionally wore small ornamental spangles on their foreheads. A widow was not allowed to wear a bindi or any ornamentation associated with married women. In modern times, self-adhesive bindi’s are available in various materials, usually made of felt or thin metal and adhesive on the other side. These are simple to apply, disposable substitutes for older lac bindi’s. Sticker bindi’s come in many colours, designs, materials and sizes. There are different regional variations of the bindi. In Maharashtra a large crescent, moon-shaped bindi is worn with a smaller black dot underneath or above, associated with Chandrabindu and Bindu chakra represented by crescent moon, they are commonly known as ‘Chandrakor’ in this region, outside Maharashtra they are popularly known as ‘Marathi bindi’. In the Bengal region a large round red bindi is worn, brides in this region are often decorated with ‘Alpana’ design on forehead and cheeks, along with the bindi. In southern India a smaller red bindi is worn with a white tilak at the bottom, another common type is a red tilak-shaped bindi. In Rajasthan the bindi is often worn round, long tilak-shaped bindi are also common, as well as the crescent moon on some occasions. Decorative bindi’s have become popular among women in South Asia, regardless of religious background. Bindi’s are a staple and symbolic for women in the Indian subcontinent. In addition to the bindi, in India a vermilion mark in the parting of the hair just above the forehead is worn by married women as commitment to long-life and well-being of their husbands. During all Hindu marriage ceremonies, the groom applies sindoor in the part in the bride’s hair. Apart from their cosmetic use, bindi’s have found a modern medical application in India and iodine patch bindi’s have often been used among women in north-west Maharashtra to battle iodine deficiency. But it seems that in South-east Asia, bindi’s are worn by Balinese, Javanese, and Sundanese of Indonesia. Historically, it was worn by many ‘Indianised’ kingdoms in Southeast Asia. Bindi’s are decorated on wedding brides and grooms of Java and other parts of Indonesia, even worn by non-Hindus, but bindi’s in Indonesia are usually white or green, rather than red or black as in India. Bindi’s are popular outside the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia as well, but they are sometimes worn purely for decorative purpose or style statement without any religious or cultural affiliation. Decorative and ornamental bindi’s were introduced to other parts of the world by immigrants from the Indian subcontinent. Bindi’s are also part of Bangladeshi culture and women there, irrespective of their religion, adorn themselves with bindi’s as an ethnic practice. In Pakistan, bindi’s are worn by some Muslim girls during Eid, though they are ordinarily worn by Hindu women in the Punjab and Sindh.

However, some international celebrities have been seen wearing bindi’s and the appropriateness of such uses has been disputed. Reacting to a celebrity wearing a bindi whilst singing a particular song, a Hindu leader said that the bindi has religious significance and should not be used as a fashion accessory, but an Indian actress praised the choice as ‘an embrace of Indian culture’. I have an idea that this will continue to be disputed by quite a few people.

This week…
Computers are being used more and more these days and many advances have been made regarding speech recognition. We can ask a computer to tell us what the traffic conditions are, what route to take or what the weather is like. I just hope it doesn’t get to this though.

Imagine yourself at some time in the distant future. You have computers that you talk to directly and they speak back. You have just landed on a planet you’ve never been to before and you ask your computer to check the atmospheric conditions outside. It replies: “Hmmm… it’s ok, but it smells a bit…”

(This courtesy of the late Douglas Adams, author of ‘The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy).

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Before The Romans

Greetings! I am back to my blog writing. I also tend to work just a little bit ‘in advance’, in case of unexpected delays, as happened recently! So, carrying on from a blog post the other week about prehistoric Britain, I am definitely not going in too deeply as to ‘what happened next’ in this country but giving you now what is perhaps more interesting information as we reach the Neolithic age. This was the period of domestication of plants and animals, as well as the arrival of farming and a more settled, sedentary lifestyle. For example, the development of Neolithic monumental architecture, apparently venerating the dead, may represent more comprehensive social and ideological changes involving new interpretations of time, ancestry, community and identity. In any event, the ‘Neolithic Revolution’ introduced a more settled way of life and ultimately led to societies becoming divided into differing groups of farmers, artisans and leaders. Forest clearances were undertaken to provide room for cereal cultivation and animal herds. Native cattle and pigs were reared whilst sheep and goats were later introduced from the continent, as were the wheats and barleys grown in Britain. However, only a few actual settlement sites are known here, unlike the continent. Cave occupation was common at this time.

A ‘Seamer’ Yorkshire type flint axe used for cutting down trees in the Later Neolithic, found in Bedlam Hill.

The construction of the earliest earthwork sites in Britain began during the early Neolithic (c. 4400BC to 3300BC) in the form of long barrows used for communal burial and the first enclosures linked via causeways, sites which have parallels on the continent. The former may be derived from the long house, although no long house villages have been found in Britain, just individual examples. Evidence of growing mastery over the environment is embodied in the Sweet Track, a wooden trackway built to cross the marshes of the Somerset Levels and dated to around 3800BC. Leaf-shaped arrowheads, round-based pottery types and the beginnings of polished axe production are common indicators of the period, also evidence in the use of cow’s milk comes from analysis of pottery contents found beside the Sweet Track. According to archaeological evidence from North Yorkshire, salt was being produced by evaporation of seawater around this time, enabling more effective preservation of meat. Pollen analysis shows that woodland was decreasing and grassland increasing, with a major decline of elms. There is evidence that winters were typically 3 degrees colder than at present, but summers were some 2.5 degrees warmer. The Middle Neolithic (c. 3300BC – c. 2900BC) saw the development of monuments close to earlier barrows and the growth and abandonment of causewayed enclosures, as well as the building of impressive chamber tombs. The earliest stone circles and individual burials also appeared. Different pottery types appeared during the later Neolithic and new enclosures called henges were built, along with stone rows and the famous sites of Stonehenge, Avebury and Silbury Hill, so building these seems to have reached its peak at this time. Industrial flint mining began, along with evidence of long-distance trade. Wooden tools and bowls were common, and bows were also constructed. Changes in Neolithic culture could also have been due to the mass migrations that occurred in that time, but the science of genetic anthropology is changing very fast and a clear picture across the whole of human occupation of Britain has yet to emerge.

We then move into what is seen as the Bronze Age, as new techniques in the skill of refining metal were brought to Britain. Previously, items had been made from copper but from around 2150BC metal-smiths had discovered how to smelt bronze, which is much harder than copper, by mixing copper with a small amount of tin. With this discovery, the Bronze Age arrived in Britain and over the next thousand years, bronze gradually replaced stone as the main material for tool and weapon making. Britain had large, easily accessible reserves of tin in the modern areas of both Cornwall and Devon and thus tin mining began. By around 1600BC the southwest of Britain was experiencing a trade boom as British tin was exported across Europe, evidence of ports being found in Southern Devon, whilst copper was mined at the Great Orme in North Wales. Some of the people were skilled at making ornaments from gold, silver and copper, as examples of these have been found in graves of the wealthy Wessex culture of central southern Britain. Early Bronze Age Britons buried their dead beneath earth mounds known as barrows. Later in the period, cremation was adopted as a burial practice with cemeteries filled with urns containing cremated individuals appearing in the archaeological record, with a deposition of metal objects such as daggers. People of this period were also largely responsible for building many famous prehistoric sites such as the later phases of Stonehenge along with Seahenge, also known as Holme I, a prehistoric monument located in the village of Holme-next-the-Sea, near Old Hunstanton, Norfolk. A timber circle with an upturned tree root in the centre, Seahenge, along with the nearby timber circle Holme II, is dated to have been built in the spring-summer of 2049BC, during the early Bronze Age in Britain. Contemporary theory is that they were used for ritual purposes, in particular Holme II has been interpreted as a mortuary monument that may originally have formed the boundary of a burial mound. The Bronze Age people lived in round houses and divided up the landscape. Stone rows are to be seen on, for example, Dartmoor. These people ate cattle, sheep, pigs and deer as well as shellfish and birds, they also carried out salt manufacture and the wetlands were a source of wildfowl and reeds. There was ritual deposition of offerings in the wetlands and in holes in the ground. There is evidence of a relatively large scale disruption of cultural patterns which some scholars think may indicate an invasion (or at least a migration) into Southern Great Britain c. the 12th century BC. This disruption was felt far beyond Britain, even beyond Europe, as most of the great Near Eastern empires either collapsed or experienced severe difficulties. Some scholars consider there are six ‘living’ Celtic languages, the four continuously living languages of Breton, Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Welsh, along with the two revived languages Cornish and Manx. A recent study has uncovered a migration into southern Britain during the 500-year period 1300BC – 800BC and these newcomers were genetically most similar to ancient individuals from Gaul, with higher levels of ancestry. During 1000BC to 875BC, their genetic markers swiftly spread through southern Britain, making up around half the ancestry of subsequent Iron Age people in this area, but not in northern Britain. This evidence suggests that, rather than a violent invasion or a single migratory event, the genetic structure of the population changed through sustained contacts between Britain and mainland Europe over several centuries, such as the movement of traders, intermarriage, and small scale movements of family groups. This has been described as a plausible reason for the spread of early Celtic languages into Britain. Whilst there was much less migration into Britain during the Iron Age, it is likely that Celtic reached Britain before then. Interestingly, a study has also found that lactose tolerance rose swiftly in early Iron Age Britain, which was a thousand years before it became widespread in mainland Europe, suggesting that milk became a very important foodstuff in Britain at this time.

A ‘Wandsworth Shield’ from around 750BC – 43AD.

Around 750BC ironworking techniques reached Britain from southern Europe. Iron was stronger and more plentiful than bronze and its introduction naturally marks the beginning of the Iron Age. Iron working revolutionised many aspects of life, most importantly agriculture, as iron tipped ploughs could turn soil more quickly and deeply than the older wooden or bronze ones, and iron axes could clear forest land more efficiently for agriculture. There was now a landscape of arable, pasture and managed woodland. There were many enclosed settlements and land ownership was becoming important. It is generally thought that by 500BC most people inhabiting the British Isles were speaking ‘Common Brythonic’, according to the limited evidence of place-names recorded by Pytheas of Massalia. By the Roman period there is substantial place and personal name evidence which suggests that this was so, Tacitus also states in his Agricola that the British language differed little from that of the Gauls. Among these people were skilled craftsmen who had begun producing intricately patterned gold jewellery, in addition to tools and weapons of both bronze and iron. It is disputed whether Iron Age Britons were ‘Celts’, with some academics actively opposing the idea of ‘Celtic Britain’, since the term was only applied at this time to a tribe in Gaul. However, place names and tribal names from the later part of the period suggest that a Celtic language was spoken.

The Stanwick Horse Mask, La Tène style mount, British, 1st century AD.

The traveller Pytheas, whose own works are lost, was quoted by later classical authors as calling the people ‘Pretanoi’, which is cognate (having the same linguistic derivation) with ‘Britanni’ and is apparently Celtic in origin. The actual term ‘Celtic’ continues to be used by linguists to describe the family that includes many of the ancient languages of Western Europe and modern British languages such as Welsh without controversy. Iron Age Britons lived in organised tribal groups, ruled by a chieftain. As people became more numerous, wars broke out between opposing tribes. This was traditionally interpreted as the reason for the building of ‘hill forts’, although the siting of some earthworks on the sides of hills undermined their defensive value, hence the term may represent increasing communal areas or even elite areas. Except some hillside constructions may simply have been cow enclosures. Although the first had been built about 1500BC, hillfort building peaked during the later Iron Age and there are over 2,000 Iron Age hillforts known in Britain. By about 350BC many hillforts went out of use and the remaining ones were reinforced. Pytheas is quoted as writing that the Britons were renowned wheat farmers. Large farmsteads produced food in industrial quantities and Roman sources note that Britain exported hunting dogs, animal skins and slaves.

The last centuries before the Roman invasion saw an influx of Celtic-speaking refugees from Gaul, now approximately modern day France and Belgium, known as the Belgae, who were displaced as the Roman Empire expanded around 50BC. They settled along most of the coastline of southern Britain between about 200BC and 43AD, although it is hard to estimate what proportion of the population they formed there. Also a Gaulish tribe known as the Parisi, who had cultural links to the continent, appeared in northeast England. From around 175BC, the areas of Kent, Hertfordshire and Essex developed especially advanced pottery-making skills. The tribes of southeast England became partially Romanised and were responsible for creating the first settlements (known as oppida) large enough to be called towns. The last centuries before the Roman invasion saw increasing sophistication in British life. About 100BC, iron bars began to be used as currency, whilst both internal trade and trade with continental Europe flourished, largely due to Britain’s extensive mineral reserves. Coinage was developed, based on continental types but bearing the names of local chieftains. This was used in southeast England, but not in areas such as Dumnonia in the west. As the Roman Empire expanded northwards, Rome began to take interest in Britain and this may have been caused by an influx of refugees from Roman occupied Europe, or Britain’s large mineral reserves. There is so much more to tell about Great Britain, but that’s all on the subject – for now at least!

This week…the Riot Act.
There is a phrase sometimes used by people, for example angry parents who might threaten to ‘read the riot act’ to their unruly children in order to tell them off. But in 18th-century England, the Riot Act was a very real document and it was often recited aloud to angry mobs. Instituted in 1715, the Riot Act gave the British government the authority to label any group of more than 12 people as a threat to the peace. In such circumstances, a public official would read a small portion of the Riot Act and order the people to “disperse themselves, and peaceably depart to their habitations.” Anyone that remained after one hour was subject to arrest or removal by force. The law was later put to the test in 1819 during the infamous Peterloo Massacre, in which a cavalry unit attacked a large group of protesters after they appeared to ignore a reading of the Riot Act.

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