Many people are aware of the apparently long-held tradition surrounding the ravens at the Tower of London – if they leave the site, Britain will fall to invaders. But research has suggested that this story is a Victorian invention. Today there are six or seven ravens in residence, and they are not likely to get very far, as their wings have been clipped! The bird has, however, been the subject of folk-lore and superstition for many past societies, including the later prehistoric (Iron Age) occupants of our Hampshire hillforts.
At Winklebury, Basingstoke, an excavation took place in 1975-76 on a 19 acre ‘plateau fort’. It had the distinction of being ‘CEU 1’, the first dig by the Central Excavation Unit, set up by the Department of the Environment as a crack mobile excavating team. The work revealed Iron Age roundhouses and four-post structures and 180 pits, of which nearly half were excavated. Five human skeletons were noted, as well as skeletons of a cow (neonatal), sheep, pig, red deer, dog, fox and badger (these were probably later intrusions), and domestic fowl. Some of the most striking remains were those of a raven, found spread out on the floor of a pit.
The raven (Corvus corax) has a worldwide distribution and in Iron Age times would have been present all across Britain (today it is found in the north and west). It is an intelligent bird and is often viewed as being ‘close’ to people, being able to understand limited human speech. In addition, their calls seem similar to the human voice. Iron Age attitudes to the raven would have been linked with beliefs about the spirit world; people would have seen them as messengers of the gods and given them the power of prophesy. They were thought to be able to foretell the outcome of battles and the Celtic raven-god Lugh, god of war, was told of the approach of enemies by his raven ‘familiars’.
At the time of the Winklebury excavation the discovery of skeletons in disused storage pits was not thought to be particularly significant, but since then it has been realised that they must be ‘propitiatory burials’ – sacrificial offerings to the gods. At Danebury hillfort, where 2,500 pits were excavated, more than 700 animal burials were noted (though not all recognised as such at the time) and of these around 50 were of ravens or crows. Deliberately buried raven remains are also known from excavations at the Iron Age sites of Balksbury, Owslebury, Little Somborne and Rooksdown (Basingstoke). They are nearly all likely to have been offerings made to ensure good luck, or at least avert bad luck, in the future – perhaps forming a line of communication between the living and the dead.
Some examples of raven-speak – from Irish folklore.
If wolves are coming amongst the sheep the raven calls carna, carna…grob, grob
If a clergyman is going to visit, it calls gradh, gradh
If a warrior is going to visit it calls gracc, gracc
Find out more: Winklebury A1978.4
The raven skeleton is at the Museum of the Iron Age, Andover
Serjeantson & Morris (2011) Ravens and Crows in Iron Age and Roman Britain, Oxford Journal of Archaeology, 30 pp 85-107
Hill J D (1995) Ritual to Rubbish in the Iron Age of Wessex, BAR 242.
Smith K (1977) Winklebury Camp, Proc Prehist Soc, 43, pp 31-129
Series by Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, with help from Stacie Elliot.