Monday, 12 September 2016

Abbots Bromley Horn Dance

12 September 2016, Abbots Bromley, Staffordshire

The annual Horn Dance takes place today, Wakes Monday, one of few ancient customs to have survived into modern times. The antlers (or horns) are collected from the church in the morning, then the Horn Dancers, comprising six Deer-men, a Fool, Hobby Horse, Bowman and Maid Marian, perform their dance to music provided by a melodian player at locations throughout the village and its surrounding farms and pubs, taking in a walk of 10 miles or so. At the end of the day the horns are returned to the church.

No one seems to know when the Horn Dance ritual started, but it is recorded as being performed at the Barthelmy Fair in August 1226 and the currently used reindeer antlers have been carbon dated to the 11th century. But just how old is the Horn Dance?

The dancers, c. 1900 (Wikipedia commons)
So what's going on here: men dancing in horned headgear seems to be a throw-back from a very ancient cult and immediately suggestive of Shamamism.

Not only was the red deer a major food source and antlers used as picks in the construction of ancient monuments but there appears to have been a red deer cult stemming back to at least the Neolithic in Northern Eurasia. It always strikes me as very convenient that the ancient people who constructed these ancient megalithic monuments, such as Stonehenge, left antler picks in the bottom of the trench or under a stone, providing a dating source for the construction of the monument. Perhaps it was more than that, after all why discard your tools?

Stonehenge Offerings: The deposition of cremations (skulls), burials of adult and child remains, antlers,bone pins, pottery and mace-heads. Also shown is the NE-SW axis and the southern most moonrise (bottom right)
 - after Castleden, 1993.
At Stonehenge we find the Aubrey Hole nearest the centre of the north-east entrance, AH55, was honoured with a deposit of two antlers, perhaps stressing the axis of the monument. Another, AH21, close to the southern entrance was found to also contain antlers.

Furthermore, between the sarsen circle and the ditch at Stonehenge are two irregular, concentric rings (or a spiral) of pits known as the Y and Z Holes. Discovered by William Hawley in 1923 these enigmatic pits are the last known structural activity at Stonehenge, dated to around 1,600 BC.

A jumbled stack of five broken stag antlers; two picks and three entire antlers were found in the bottom of Y Hole 30; significantly, again adjacent the monument axis. Radiocarbon dating has revealed the antlers are much older than other artefacts deposited in the same series of pits suggesting they had been curated elsewhere prior to deposition.

Clearly this is structured deposition; evidence of an ancient deer cult or just discarded prehistoric tools?

Much of the above I posted as a comment on Kris Hughes blog Go Deeper

Abbots Bromley Horn Dance

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  1. Interesting what you say about antler deposits on the axis of Stonehenge. The Horn Dance originally took place as a mid-winter ceremony. And we all know the Stonehenge axis points at the mid-winter solstice.

  2. And the antlers are apparently of a type of red deer that was extinct in the British Isles from the end of the last Ice Age. How did they get here? As the antlers are dated to the 11th century it is thought that they may have been brought over by the Vikings.

    1. Thanks Tom. There's clearly more than just 'Merrie England' celebrations going on here.
      Best wishes


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