Defence, shrine or a place for storytelling? The mystery of the Roundhill’s ancient uses

What was this hill used for in ancient history? Is there evidence, or do we have to guess? In part two of a series, the artist Penney Ellis and I put these questions to the environmentalist and religious historian Martin Palmer.

Mostly we have to infer, and the name Henstridge gives us a very powerful inclination. I think also the fact you are producing a blog about this hill indicates that in some way or another this hill still evokes a very different sense from say just Lansdown for example.

There is something about it that evokes a response. The big issue which has never been satisfactorily answered is whether the top of Henstridge – of the Roundhill – is actually an ancient burial site, an ancient settlement, possibly an ancient temple.

Martin2

Before the copse of trees was planted on there, prior to that in 1798 we have an account of the Roundhill in which the author says it clearly is the site of a tumulus – a burial mound or burial mounds. The trouble is that having been dug up to plant trees most of the evidence has probably been destroyed.

To the best of my knowledge I’m not sure there’s ever been a full archaeological excavation up there. It would be a logical place for there to be at the very least a watchtower. It’s not so much a logical sort of place for burials, because burials tend to be not on the tops of hills but on the edge of hills. This is because they were markers. There are a couple of burial mounds just by Prospect Stile which looks across to Kelston Roundhill. They’re set at an angle to the hill. Really these were markers to say “sorry folks you may be looking for good agricultural, land but this land is taken. Our ancestors are protecting it. Go away.” So Henstridge doesn’t have for me the feel of a burial mound. It does have the feel of a defensive site, but also of a spiritual site.

Qu: So do you think the right thing to do would be to investigate without any real certainty as to what we might find, just to see what’s there?

I would do two things. Yes I think it would be fascinating to explore and see what could be found. But I think the power of a place like Henstridge Hill, and the power of naming, is the stories we can make up about it. A powerful sacred site, a powerful physical feature, draws out of us stories that are about us, that are about our relationship with nature, that are about our relationship with the past and therefore with the future.

So part of what I’d like to see happen there is that it becomes a focal point for storytelling – for contemporary storytelling; for storytelling about what are we, who should we be?

My guess is that the physical features of this astonishing hill have long evoked a sense of reverence, a sense of storytelling.

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