News from the latest edition of Current Archaeology:
Work has begun on the eighth season of excavation at Saveock Water in Cornwall, one of Britain’s most intriguing archaeological sites. Not only does the site, located in a sheltered river valley, have a Mesolithic dwelling platform and two large Neolithic water tanks lined with white quartz (purpose unknown, but probably ritual), there is also the little matter of the mysterious pits filled with swan’s pelts, bird claws, whole magpies, 55 eggs from different birds from bantam size to duck egg, quartz pebbles, human hair and fingernails and part of an iron cauldron.
So far 35 such pits have been excavated and the tops of many more have been recorded. The pits are typically rectangular, 42cm long by 35cm wide and 17cm deep and aligned north-south or east-west. In some cases the contents are clearly intact and complete and in others they have been removed, leaving just a few feathers and stones. A newly excavated egg pit, plotted in 2005 but only examined in detail in April 2008, has revealed the body of a black cat buried amidst a large number of eggs with embryonic chicks inside.
Site Director Jacqui Woods says, “I have spent most of my career in archaeology disproving the ritual tag that some archaeologists put on things they don’t understand. So it is ironic that I should be directing such a site that was so obviously the result of pagan rituals of some sort!”
Having failed to find any parallels so far, Jacqui has decided the pits might be connected with the Cornish St Bridget or St Bride, the patron saint of brides, who has the swan as her symbol. “My own theory (and it is only a theory),” she says, “is that maybe if you got married and did not get pregnant in the first year, you might make an offering to St Bride of a feather pit. If you finally got pregnant, you had to go back to the pit and take out the contents and burn them and set the spirit of the swan free. If you never got pregnant then the pit remained untouched.”
If so, this was risky business. Recent carbon dating test show that the contents of one of the pits dates from the 1640s, right in the middle of the period when, as anyone who has ever read Christopher Hill’s book, The World Turned Upside Down, will know, zealous puritans were seeking to eradicate superstitious and folkloric practices. The penalty for so-called ‘witchcraft’ was death. Perhaps this is why the ladies of Saveock chose this secluded site for their rituals.