The whole of life can be described as ‘ritual’, the routines of getting out of bed and washing, making, serving and consuming food and so on. Archaeologists strive to find out as much as is possible about the people of the past but the everyday activities can only be guessed at in many instances.
They start by looking at the available evidence and that can be quite scarce. However, it is possible to find sites and monuments on the ground and which are connected to that often overused word ‘ritual’.
For a start we have the standing stones along the Fruid road. No one knows much about them and it appears they have even been moved and put back in modern times. They do however make the convincing remains of a stone circle (but only excavation could prove or disprove that). Stone circles have their origins in earlier circles made of timber in the previous Stone Age, stone circles and settings are found the length and breadth of the country and on the more remote islands also. The famous and unique Stone Henge in Wiltshire was built by Bronze Age farmers on the site of a henge built by their Stone Age ancestors.
It is known that observation of the sun and sometimes the moon was made from these sites in order to determine the time of year. They were the first clocks, marking calendrical time by watching the sun rise and set at the mid winter and mid summer solstices and the equinox periods in between. The longest and shortest days could therefore be marked and then the time sub divided as the days passed. This has been proved at the nearby Wildshaw Burn Stone Circle near Crawfordjohn, where all these events can still be seen – provided the sun shines!
Standing stones are found at Drumelzier Haugh and at Lyne, however these features remain enigmatic, all we do know is they were not burial sites.
Perhaps the most numerical and least understood sites to be found in the hills and belonging to the Bronze Age are little piles of burnt rocks lying in heaps of charcoal from burnt wood. These are known as Burnt Mounds. Entirely through the survey work of the Biggar Group we can now see that these monuments are often to be found lying between the settlement sites. While the houses are seldom near spring courses, the burnt mounds are always beside a spring or burn. It is known that these sites were used to heat water by hot stones, but it is not known why.
The sites are easy to find because they are bumps on the ground and when tested they are shown to the heat reddened and cracked stones lying in wood charcoal. The charcoal is the black gold to archaeologists because it can be examined to see what type of wood it originally was, it is important to realise that the entire landscape at this time was mixed broad leaf woodland. Secondly the charcoal can be radio carbon dated to an accuracy of about 50 years or so. So the date of the activity is easy to establish (but costly at £350 a time) and an understanding of the local environment is established.
When excavations at burnt mounds have taken place in southern Scotland, evidence of food preparation or consumption is never found, nor are any tools, to suggest some industrial activity such as processing skins, which could be a smelly business and to be kept away from the house. One thing it could be is cleansing, although practically impossible to prove. Such activities as washing or a sauna type event would leave few clues behind apart from the mounds themselves.
It is very easy to replicate a burnt mound activity as has been done often at Biggar museums. A bonfire is prepared with fist size stones below it, a container is filled with water, this can be a wooden or stone trough, or a pit in the ground lined with clay or an animal skin, certainly pottery was never used. The glowing stones are picked out of the fire embers with two sticks as tongs and dropped into the water. The effect is immediate, within a minute or two the water is boiling; of course a steam effect can be had by dropping water onto the hot stones. As soon as the stones hit the water they practically explode, and each freshly exposed surface releases super heat. To keep the ‘pot’ boiling indefinitely, an occasional stone is added. The process is super efficient and no modern household could achieve the same result as quickly.
It all points to our ancestors being quite a competent people and certainly their lifestyles were lived in harmony with their environment.