Anyone taking a Sunday lunch-time stroll down Redhouse Lane, Shirenewton a few weeks ago would have seen a strange ritual taking place. Doug Gentles was standing over a hole in the ground sprinkling red ochre over the body of a lamb whilst Alf Webb was waving his staff mysteriously and chanting something unintelligible in an obscure African tongue
Was this Witchcraft, Voodoo, Black Magic or some other mystic ceremony? No, just another bit of Experimental Archaeology!
Red Ochre has been used widely by early man in human burial, the most famous example in South Wales being the so called "Red Lady of Paviland" of Goat’s Hole Cave, Gower, excavated by Buckland in 1843 (it was later determined that the palaeolithic skeleton was in fact male). Many archaeologists have assumed that this practice had a decorative, religious significance, since red ochre was also used in cave drawings and other prehistoric art. However, based on his experience in the Kalahari desert in 1941, Alf believes that the scent of red ochre acts as a deterrent to scavengers digging up the body. One of Alf’s colleagues sadly went missing there during a wartime training exercise. Alf returned at the end of the War to investigate what had happened and the local Bushmen showed him his colleagueís grave. When the body was re-interred the bones were red and the Bushmen explained to Alf why they had used red ochre.
In response to a request in the journal "Experimental Archaeology" for a suitable piece of land frequented by foxes and other scavengers, Ian McFarlane knew just the spot having seen a fox run off with one of his chickens in broad daylight. He also scrounged a couple of casualties from his neighbour’s lambing crop. Doug dug (sorry!) two fairly shallow "graves" a couple of yards apart, a few feet from a hedge where Alf had spotted fox runs (and faeces). One lamb was sprinkled with red ochre all over its top surface in the grave before it was covered with soil. The other lamb, buried without red ochre, will act as a "control". If there is a positive result (ie the control lamb being dug up but not the one covered in red ochre), this will suggest that a more extensive trial should take place. A secondary objective of the experiment is to see how long it takes for the bones to be stained red.
Not much is expected to happen until later in the year when food becomes scarce and the bodies become a bit "high". We will let you know the outcome.
As well as being members of CAS-Gwent, both Doug and Alf are officers of our sister society, Dean Archaeological Group. Doug Gentles is also the editor of "Experimental Archaeology". For more information on this contact him on 01594 834343