Friday, May 30, 2008

Red Ochre and Red Deer

Alice C. Linsley

The red deer that are native to western Europe and Africa were an important symbol among the prehistoric populations of England and Wales. Red deer (Cervus elaphus) are the largest native land animal found in the UK. The stags are larger than the hinds (females), and have wide branching antlers. The coat is reddish-brown in summer.

Recent research suggests that prehistoric peoples brought red deer to Scotland by boats, possibly from Gaul, Corsica, and Sardinia. DNA analysis revealed that deer on Scotland’s most northern islands is unlike the species of deer found on mainland Scotland, Norway, Britain, Ireland, the western European mainland or Scandinavia.

Red deer antlers were used in rituals and the red colored hides were used to bury the dead. The hides may have served a symbolic blood just as in other places nobles were buried covered in red ochre.

A New York Times article states:

New radiocarbon dates from human cremation burials among and around the brooding stones on Salisbury Plain in England indicate that the site was used as a cemetery from 3000 B.C. until after the monuments were erected around 2500 B.C., British archaeologists reported Thursday.

“It’s now clear that burials were a major component of Stonehenge in all its main stages,” said Mike Parker Pearson, an archaeologist at the University of Sheffield in England.  (Read it all here.)

The number of cremated bones found at Stonehenge is not large, suggesting that this burial site may have been reserved for high-ranking persons. This made me think of the burial sites of noble persons who were covered in red ochre.

What I find most interesting about this report is the discovery of a red deer antler. Indeed this may be a clue to understanding Stonehedge.

The New York Times report goes on to say, “In other recent findings at Stonehenge and adjacent sites, archaeologists uncovered a piece of a red-deer antler that was apparently used as a pick for digging. It was found in what is known as the Stonehenge Greater Cursus, a cigar-shaped ditched enclosure nearly two miles long that is thought to have a sacred significance. Julian Thomas, an archaeologist at the University of Manchester, who led this investigation, said the antler was dated at 3630 to 3375 B.C. That puts the cursus about 1,000 years before the large stones were erected, meaning, he said, that “this landscape maintains its significance over a long period of time.”

The red deer antler may have been used as a digging tool, but more likely it is part of a ceremonial mask or head dress. British archeologists are aware that long before Stonehenge was erected, ancient inhabitants of the British Isles used such head dresses in religious ceremonies dating back to 9,500 BC. At Starr Carr, 21 such red deer skulls with antlers were discovered. All had holes that would have been used to tie them to the head with a leather thong for ceremonial use.

The Red Deer of Europe, western Asia and North Africa is a distinct species from the red elk of eastern Asia and North America. The discovery of red-deer antlers at the site suggests a connection to the older Mesolithic (9,500 year old) Star Carr community in North Yorkshire England. These red stag and hinds roamed from North Africa to Ireland. The red color symbolized revitalizing blood for many tribal peoples, especially in Haplogroup R1b. That would explain the presence of red deer antlers at Stonehenge. A parallel is the burial of rulers in red ochre dust.

"In European art, color is generally understood in terms of the primary colors red, yellow and blue," says Karen Milbourne, an expert in African art. "But throughout much of Africa, the primary colors are red, white and black. They don't mean the same thing to every group, but they appear over and over again."

According to Milbourne, the color white signifies the spirit world of the ancestors, procreative power, and the nurturing quality of mother's milk. Black connotes the unknown or the mysterious. Red signifies the blood shed in warfare, hunting, animal sacrifice and in childbirth. Among many ancient peoples, burying dead rulers in red ochre expressed the hope that they would have life beyond the grave where they would intercede for their people before the Creator. This practice has been observed in burial sites in Czechoslovakia, Wales, France, Syria, Turkey, and Australia.

Related reading:  Mining Blood; Life is in the Blood; The Scarlet Cord; The Pleromic Blood and GnosticismThe Pleromic Blood and Gender Distinctions; What Constitutes Being?


Dharmashaiva said...

In Vedic tradition, white represents sattva (or light, or balance), red represents rajas (or passion, or energy), and black represents tamas (or weight, or mass). All of the cosmos is composed of the combination of sattva, rajas, and tamas.

Alice C. Linsley said...

Dharmashaiva, Again you have made an excellent observation, showing the connection between the Vedic tradition and the African symbolism. More evidence of common roots in the the Afro-Asiatic Dominion.

It is always good to hear from you!

The Very Rev'd G. Richard Lobs III said...

Another home run. Thanks for new insights. GRL3

Kwame said...

Alice, thanks for this illuminating post! You've just raised a long held dream of visiting Stonehenge to a whole new level of determination!

Alice C. Linsley said...

Mike Parker Pearson's theory of stone symbolizing the eternal realm of the ancestors and wood symbolizing the temporal realm of the living is very credible. This binary worldview is characteristic of ancient peoples and is seen in the binary arrangement of the 2 ceremonial structures. The stone structure is designed to welcome the rising sun at the soltice and the wood structure to say farewell to the setting sun in the west. I was impressed by his work as I watched the National Geographic special on Stonehedge.

Patrick said...

Interesting observation but I think you need to distinguish a little more between the world views of the Mesolithic hunter-foragers of Star Carr and those of the Neolithic/Bronze Age users of Stone Henge and it's associated ritual landscape.

Also, the practical considerations of the best digging tools and archaeological survival bias have to be kept in mind.

For more on the ritual significance of the antler frontlets at Star Carr see
(Athens login required)

Or my (embryonic) project to create a visualisation inspired by Conneller's ideas.

Alice C. Linsley said...

"I think you need to distinguish a little more between the world views of the Mesolithic hunter-foragers of Star Carr and those of the Neolithic/Bronze Age users of Stone Henge and it's associated ritual landscape."

I agree. This really isn't my area of expertise. I simply wanted to make an observation. Thanks for the links! I'll read them.