I. The Roos Carr Figures – Voyagers to the Otherworld?
A few weeks ago, fellow awenydd Greg Hill drew my attention to the Roos Carr Figures HERE. These fascinating wooden warrior figurines, eight in total, their shields, and their serpent-headed boats were sealed in a wooden box and deposited in a boggy area (‘carr’ means ‘bog or fen covered with scrub’).
They were found in a layer of blue clay by labourers cleaning a ditch in 1836. Of the eight, only five remain (the fifth was returned after one of the labourers gave him to his daughter as an ‘ancient doll’ to play with), a couple of the shields and one of conjecturally two boats due to decay.
Radiocarbon dating to 606 – 508 BCE places them in the Late Bronze Age or Early Iron Age. Carved from yew they stand between 31cm and 45cm tall. Their faces are angular with prominent noses, slit-like mouths, and striking eyes made of quartzite pebbles set into eye-holes. Elongated trunks with drill-holes at the shoulders for arms taper into thin peg-like legs. Each has a central pubic hole.
The figures were found with a number of dis-attached appendages, some of which were arms, some of which were phalluses, to be placed in the empty holes. Typically, the Victorians mistook the phalluses for oars. Since then their manhoods have been returned to their correct positions.
I immediately fell in love with these little figures who might be interpreted to be living or dead warriors sailing their serpent-ship on a voyage to Annwn, ‘the Deep’, the ancient British Otherworld. Their representation reminded me of the medieval Welsh poem ‘Preiddu Annwn’ ‘The Spoils of the Otherworld’ in which Arthur takes three loads of warriors in his ship, Prydwen, to assault a series of otherworldly fortresses to steal the Brindled Ox and the Cauldron of Pen Annwn.
It suggested the existence of a pre-Arthurian tale in which warriors set out on a quest to Annwn to visit the dead and the deities of Annwn and perhaps bring back treasures to Thisworld.
II. Wooden Idols of Britain and Ireland – Threshold Guardians?
My research on the Roos Carr Figures led me to discovering that a number of wooden figurines have been found across Britain and Ireland. All were found in wet places which were seen as liminal – where crossings of bogs or waters needed to be made – suggesting they were threshold guardians. Some of these ‘idols’ have been interpreted to be gods and goddesses, others spirits of place, and others ancestors and, of course, the boundaries between these terms are intrinsically fluid.
The Ballachulish Goddess was found on Ballchulish Moss, in Inverness-shire, Scotland. Dated to 600 BC it stands at a height of 145cm, the size of a girl, and is the largest of our British figures. Carved from alder wood it has a large head with a long, thin nose, a full mouth, and small white quartzite eyes. Its chest is flat with two pairs of incised circles representing breasts and nipples. The objects it is holding have not yet been securely identified (a couple of scholars have suggested they are severed penises!). Its legs end in a solid block of wood.
It was discovered during building work, in 1880, in deep layers of peat ‘lying face down on the gravel of an old raised beach, around 120 metres from the shore of Loch Leven’ and may have stood beside a pool. ‘Under and above’ were ‘intertwined branches and twigs and ‘straighter poles which might have formed a ‘wickerwork container, or a little shrine’.
Its location, overlooking ‘the dangerous straits linking Loch Leven with the sea’ are suggestive of its worship as ‘the goddess of the straits’ to whom travellers made offerings for a safe crossing.
Another intriguing example is the Somerset God Dolly which is the oldest of Britain’s known wooden idols, dating to between 2285 and 3340 BCE. This hermaphroditic figure was carved from ash wood, was 16cm high, and had a ‘round featureless head, no neck, and a small stubby body with two asymmetrically placed breasts and a large horizontal penis’ ending ‘at the base of the trunk without legs.’
It was found on the Somerset Levels, ‘driven upside down’ ‘within a cluster of pegs’ ‘that formed part of Bell Track A’ and ‘stratigraphically below the Bell B Track’. This suggests it might have been a threshold guardian of the earlier trackway, then made redundant, and buried beneath.
Nearby, in Hillfarrance, an oak forked-branch figure dated to 1131-1410 BCE was retrieved from a pit in a ‘riverine peat wetland’ ‘beside two brooks, both tributaries of the river Tone.’ Only the lower limbs and torso, 45cm long, have survived. It was buried with shards of pottery, a burnt stone and worked wood. Again, this was a deliberate deposition, perhaps of a former guardian.
The Kingsteignton Idol was discovered on the banks of the river Teign, in south Devon, ‘lying up against the trunk of a fallen oak tree’. Carved from oak wood, 33cm tall, it has a ‘long thin body’, ‘elongated neck’, and ‘large head’ with ‘eyes, nose and chin’ ‘indicated’. There is a hole in his neck for insertable arms. Its ‘trunk is straight, square-shouldered, with carefully carved buttocks and erect penis’ and its ‘short, kneed legs end in stubby feet.’ It has been dated to 426-352 BC. It was likely associated with the oak tree, a threshold marker, and may have been its guardian spirit.
On the Dagenham marshes, on the bank of the Thames, down river from London, the Dagenham Idol was found in close proximity to the skeleton of a deer. It has been dated to 2250 BC. Carved from the wood of a Scots pine it stands at 46cm tall and has a large head, flat face, sockets for eyes (‘the right deeper than the left’), and no ears or hair. Its trunk is armless. It has a central pubic hole, potentially for the insertion of a penis and its legs are straight and footless. It might have been a guardian of the marshland and/or river and possibly had an association with deer and other animals.
In Ireland the Ralaghan Figure was found in a peat bog and the Lagore Figure on a crannog in a peat lake. A model dug-out canoe was discovered at Clowanstown 1, County Meath, and might be seen to resemble the serpent boat of the Roos Carr Figures, paddling the lake, and between worlds.
The existence of these idols provides evidence that, from the early Bronze Age into the Iron Age, the people of Britain and Ireland saw wet places as sacred and inspirited as well as potentially dangerous. The gods and spirits appeared to them in anthropomorphic forms and were carved into wooden idols, which were seen to embody them, and to which offerings were likely made for safe passage.
For unknown reasons some of these idols were deposed and buried in or near the place where they stood. Had they reached the end of their power and thus served their purpose? Had they requested to be returned to the waters of their origin? Were they seen as just as or more powerful when buried like the dead? The answers to these questions are as unknowable as the minds of our distant ancestors
III. Wooden Idols and Ritual Landscapes in Northern Europe
Numerous wooden idols serving a similar function have been recovered from across Northern Europe. The best example of a ritual complex is Opfermoor Vogtei in Germany. Situated on a bog, which includes a shallow lake, it was in use from the 5th century to beyond the Roman period.
Within circular enclosures of hazel branches were altars where wooden cult figures were worshipped. Wooden idols were also found on the edges of the lake where they overlooked the waters.
During excavations on Wittemoor timber trackway across a bog in Berne, Lower Saxony, in Germany, six wooden figurines dating to the Iron Age were found. Two of them stood on either side of the track where it crossed a stream. Both were ‘carved in silhouette out of oak planks 3 to 7cm thick’. The male was 105cm tall ‘with a rectangular body’ and the female 95cm tall ‘with breasts or shoulders indicated by a slanted cut, broad hips and vulva’. The male slotted into a plank and the female stood on a mound. The other figures are described as ‘cult poles’. Fire sites ‘at each end of the crossing’ and ‘stones and worked alder sticks’ around two of the poles suggest offerings were made.
These discoveries show that wooden idols served a significant function within ritual landscapes for the Germanic peoples. As representations of gods and goddesses and spirits of place with threshold functions they were raised on altars, fires were built in their honour, and offerings were made to them.
Similar idols, such as the Braak Bog Figures, have been found elsewhere in Germany. From Denmark we have the Broddenjberg Idol and figurines were found in Wilemstad in the Netherlands.
One of the most impressive, from Russia, is the Shigir Idol. Dated to 10500 BCE, the Mesolithic period, around the end of the Ice Age, it is ‘the oldest known wooden sculpture in the world.’
Found in a peat bog in Shigir it is carved from larch and may have originally stood at at 5.3m tall. It has a small head with narrow eyes, a triangular nose, circular mouth, and pointed chin. Its body is flat and pole-like and covered in ‘geometrical motifs’ including ‘zigzag lines’ and ‘depictions of human hands and faces’. It speaks to me of a death god filled with the spirits of the dead.
It has been proposed that the decorations tell the story of a creation myth or ‘serve as a warning not to enter a dangerous area’. Whatever the case, it would have been a formidable figure at the centre of a ritual landscape, seen for miles around, imbued with great meaning for the early hunter-gatherers.
What strikes me the most about these wooden idols is that they seem hauntingly familiar. I’m not sure if this because, as a Smithers, I have Saxon ancestry and connections to the figures from Germany or because, when I’ve been travelling wetlands, physically and in spirit, I have caught glimpses of dark figures who might be wetland spirits or echoes of their representations.
What is certain is that the presence of spirits and the urge to carve them from wood has been felt across Northern Europe since, at least, the Ice Age. In the Norse myths, the first humans were created from ash and elm by the gods and, in the Brythonic myths, soldiers were conjured from trees by a deity. I wonder whether our creation of wooden idols was seen to mirror this divine process?
Bryony Coles, ‘Anthropomorphic Wooden Figures From Britain and Ireland’, Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, 56, 1990
Clive Jonathon Bond, ‘The God-Dolly Wooden Figurine from the Somerset Levels, Britain: The Context, the Place and its Meaning’, Anthropomorphic and Zoomorphic Miniature Figures in Eurasia, Africa and Meso-America, Oxford: Archaeopress/BAR International Series 2138
Jeremy Clark, ‘The Intriguing Roos Carr Model Wooden Boat Figures Found Near Withersea, East Yorkshire’, The Yorkshire Journal, Issue 1, Spring 2011
‘Ballachulish Figure’, National Museums Scotland, https://www.nms.ac.uk/explore-our-collections/stories/scottish-history-and-archaeology/ballachulish-figure/
‘Introducing the Kingsteignton Idol’, Artefactual, https://artefactual.co.uk/2014/06/29/introducing-the-kingsteignton-idol/
‘Roos Carr Figures: Faces from the Past’, Hull Museums Collections, http://museumcollections.hullcc.gov.uk/collections/storydetail.php?irn=484&master=449
‘Shigir Idol’, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shigir_Idol
‘Wittemoor Timber Trackway’, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wittemoor_timber_trackway