We left the standing stone and walked back through the gate onto the Edge. Normally we would walk back a different way, but the path is a morass at the best of times and it had rained a lot in the area lately. At least the path would be fairly dry this way. The trouble was, we didn’t know what to expect. It is always a delicate decision… how much should you say, indeed, how much can you say without someone calling for the men in white coats to haul you away?
The first time we had walked this way hadn’t been so bad. That is a matter of opinion, I suppose and depends largely on how you view the whole process of death. But it is not the first site where the stones suggested excarnation. The idea of stripping flesh from bone to help your loved ones rejoin the ancestors may seem less than palatable to our culture, but it is and has been a common practice both in this country and around the world. Oddly enough, it was something I had never really thought about… though had I done so I must have realised that the practice went on even into the Middle Ages here. When important or saintly people died and their remains had to be transported long distances, the bones would be defleshed to protect against decomposition en route…and to provide relics too.
I had first been obliged to consider excarnation after a visit to another site… one we would be visiting later that afternoon. It was only afterwards that I had begun to do some digging and found that air burial and other methods of excarnation had been used by our Neolithic ancestors. It made sense of the stacks of long bones and skulls found in so many of our ancient burial places, but it had never occurred to me before and it is not something that the archaeologists tend to mention in general articles or on prime-time TV.
One theory suggests that the soul was seen as being bound to the flesh and could not be freed to join the realm of the ancestors until the flesh was gone. This would make ensuring rapid excarnation a final act of love and respect. Even in later centuries, there is an echo of this, when Silius Italicus (c. 28 – c. 103) wrote of the deaths of Celtic warriors:
‘to these men death in battle is glorious;
And they consider it a crime to bury the body of such a warrior;
For they believe that the soul goes up to the gods in heaven,
If the body is exposed on the field to be devoured by the birds of prey’.
So, the first time we had passed this way, in the company of friends, we had done little more than look at the stones and decided that it must have been an area for the preparation of the dead. My companion had moved me along, quite rightly… not the best subject for post lunch conversation perhaps.
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