Two years ago I posted about a visit to the Late Neolithic stone-and-timber circle known as Woodhenge and reflected on its striking 20th-century reconstruction in concrete. I reported on the sad theft of its sign board, historic in itself.
On my previous visit, I let my kids augment the flint capping that marks the site of an Early Bronze Age inhumation grave of a child aged about 3 years near the centre of the monument. The only existing votive offerings at the grave at that time by others were copper coins and a smooth pebble. On that visit my elder girls aged 4 and 6 at the time decided to leave a modest deposit of daisies on the grave and a nearby concrete post.
Visiting again, I found that the child’s body is now the focus of more elaborate present-day burnt and floral offerings, whilst elsewhere in the monument there was an elaborate deposit of rice and chick peas.
It seems that the child’s grave at Woodhenge is a particular focus of modern votive attention; an ancestor created by archaeology. What is important here is that this is yet another example where the obsessive focus on bones misses the point about present-day interactions with mortuary archaeology. Here, concrete and flint provide powerful cenotaphic loci of memory in 21st-century ritual practice. Present-day pagans, like the wider culture in which we operate, are sophisticated in appreciating cenotaphic material cultures and this archaeological example brings this to the fore.
As you might anticipate, dear reader, aware of my atheistic and academic perspective on such matters, I am less interested in the pagan spiritual dimensions of these practices, but their bearing on other visitors, be they Christian, agnostic, Muslim, Sikh or anything else. More importantly, I’m interested in how this grave sets up a situation where children encounter infant death.
This grave and its offerings by persons unknown speak to all who visit the site from across the world, creating a prehistoric ‘tomb of the unknown child’ to be experienced by all and sundry. The humble flint marker, through its floral deposits, becomes a grave again, and one that many recognise as a funerary monument, prompting visitors to reflect on infant death and mortality, including child visitors. The key point for me is that this is not the precise intention of either the creators of this marker nor those leaving the floral offerings. The ‘grave’ emerges from the relationship between the two and the visitors dialogues about it. As such, the grave of the unknown child is generated and palpable at Woodhenge through the interaction of flint, flowers and visitors.