Cosmological Connections

It’s taken us over 10 years of researching the cosmological connections between the Anglo-Saxons and the Suffolk landscape around the Sandlings in order that we could get anywhere near something close to what has become A Ritual Landscape Considered: Cosmography and Anglo-Saxon Ship Burials.

I’ve often been asked “what is it all about?” Well, the story started right back towards the end of 2007, shortly before the publication of my first book in 2008, Seven Wonders: Suffolk’s Ancient Sites – a Vision of an Arcane Landscape. Ostensibly, there is evidence of a landscape planning that connects the three intact Anglo-Saxon ship burials at Sutton Hoo and Snape with the original site of Leiston Old Abbey, whose chapel was founded on an older Anglo-Saxon site, all aligned with the Summer and Winter Solstice.

The path of the solstice alignment across Suffolk, with the three primary points shown.

We later found out that the four famous Royal roads of Watling Street, Ermine Street, the Icknield Way and Fosse Way, were singled out by King Belinus the Great (the legendary King of the Britons who reigned 399-364 B.C.) because they were prime examples of the Celtic system. Each road represented one of the four British Solstice bearings and may have informed the locations of the 6th and 7th boat-burial practices in Suffolk. What more, we learnt that at least two other authors had spoken of this Celtic system in the landscape of East Anglia, citing a surveyed network of sites that included a Saxon shore fort, a large tumuli and other earthworks which were located and constructed in an elaborate network of solar alignments according to a complete system of archaic observation posts and bearing lines. One of these bearing lines related to one of the four Royal roads, in that the Summer Solstice sunrise and Winter Solstice sunset are both on the same axis line, being North-East and South-West, opposite to each other at 180 degrees apart and it is on this axis that the primary boat burials described above were sighted.

The path of the solstice alignment following Ptolemy’s map of the British Isles (150 A.D.) from Robb, G. (2013) from Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo to Colchester and Witham (see Fig 35 – A Ritual Landscape Considered).

So, it’s taken this long, researching so many overlapping disciplines (archaeology, archaeoastronomy, landscape surveying, history, cosmology, settlement forms, geomancy, funerary practices, material culture, Anglo-Saxon history, Norse myths, Scandinavian history and the like) and at least twelve sacred sites, in the background of my day job, whilst all the time new and significant discoveries were occurring. A good example of this was in 2016 at the Anglo-Saxon Palace at Rendlesham Conference, where the findings of six years of archaeological surveying concluded. According to Professor David Gill, Director of Heritage Futures, the findings were “likely to be some of the most important archaeological discoveries in the UK during the early 21st century.” – not to be ignored. So finally, after all this time, we have eventually been fortunate enough to have independent analysis underpin our findings from an Archaeoastronomy section at an observatory in Germany as well as the ability to test the accuracy of the plotting on the landscape with the support of high precision custom mapping software from an Emeritus Professor in Landscape Architecture.

The landscape alignment discovered, is accurate to approximately 0.054 degrees and measures the bearing of the three sites above at 49.78 degrees, with the Summer Solstice sunrise at the time of Raedwald’s death (625 A.D.) measured at 49.37 degrees azimuth, celestial North. A coincidence? – perhaps, and one we were to discover would challenge the views of many, in that our Anglo-Saxon forebears were assumed not to have a real solar tradition, nor was there any strong acceptance for geomantic, cosmological surveying in relation to temple architecture, compared with the more widely accepted ideas regarding our Neolithic past, such as stone circles and long barrows. To me these views always seemed questionable, which is why my curiosity was spurred on, intrigued by the more we discovered.

The path of the solstice alignment bisecting the site of the ship burial at Mound 1, Snape, which was 22 metres wide.

Seven Wonders centred on the Royal town of Bury St Edmunds, and it was whilst attending a study day at Sutton Hoo in 2007, ironically titled St Edmund, last of the Wuffings that I learnt that Edmund, like Raedwald, was himself a Wuffinga, meaning the ‘people of the wolf’ and that these Wuffingas from Sweden claimed in their genealogies to be direct descendants of Odin. I guess this explains, in part anyway, why in the foundations of the great Abbey of Bury St Edmunds built 1,000 years ago, a collection of eight wolf skulls had been buried. It’s tempting to equate the number eight with the eightfold directions of the solar calendar, for as we were to discover, the eight divisions of the horizon were used to obtain the main wind directions and was central to the orientation of and planning of Roman temples and towns, orientating them to the cardinal directions (North, East, South and West) and the sunrise and sunset at both the Summer and Midwinter Solstices (NE, SE, SW and NW). It transpires that it was deemed favourable for both King and country for a new reign to start at Midwinter, which lay behind the Christmas day coronations of William the Conqueror and St. Edmund in 855 A.D, a time that formally coincided with the celebration of the Unconquerable Sun, a festival of light that lead to the Winter Solstice.

The path of the solstice alignment as it meets the Chapel at Eastbridge, the site of the old Leiston Abbey.

In Norse mythology, we learnt that Odin arranged the periods of daylight and darkness, and in turn the seasons, placing the sun and moon in the heavens, regulating their respective courses, and is himself the ‘All Father’, emblematic of the sun. Furthermore, recent studies have demonstrated that the Anglo-Saxons accurately replicated aspects of Romano-Celtic temple tradition, and in Blair’s scholarly Building Anglo-Saxon England (2018) he describes them as trying to look Roman before remarking “why should the Anglo-Saxons have been incapable of design technologies that we take for granted in the Neolithic?” However, the general picture of the Anglo-Saxons is that they diverged somewhat from Teutonic mythology in their beliefs, lessening somewhat in intensity from their neighbours across the Continent; however they never lost their love of Germanic legends, holding a widespread belief in charms, the spiritual potency of trees, wells, armies of elves and dragons. This idea, that the passage to Britain across the North Sea somehow affected the quality of their faith once they arrived has been described as “a doubtful view, to say the least, since a longer passage at a later date had no such debilitating effect on the beliefs of the Norsemen who went to Iceland” and is one that the authors share.

There are examples across the continent, in Sweden for instance, that challenge these assumptions of celestial and solar worship. The Rosaring road is a rare early Viking road constructed in 815 A.D. +/- 80 years, stretching for 540 metres. At 3.5 metres wide is believed to have been constructed and orientated for ritual use with this processional roadway orientated North-South appearing to have been used for a number of astronomically related events, including the Milky Way which passed over it about three hours before midnight at the time of the Winter Solstice, lighting up the whole length of the roadway just a quarter of an hour before the sun passes over it. At the coastal province of Noord-Holland, a study into the comparison of settlement forms found that particular deposits of materials, defined by large scale patterns, were individual features that formed a representation of the stars in order to create large recognisable patterns of the constellations; a landscape of the sky. The formulas used in setting out and aligning the pits on the ground included a system of orientations on the constellations in the sky as well as with the suns orientations at points in the year against the horizon, particularly at auspicious times of the year, namely the Winter Solstice, the longest night, when the ‘gods’ mythical landscape was inverted.

The path of the solstice alignment from Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo, bisecting Mound 5.

It turned out the Sutton-Hoo sceptre had been described as an emblem of a Celtic solar cult, and may not be of Anglo-Saxon origin. In terms of kingship, the core perennial concerns of a solar cult are that the movements of the sun are the very template for cosmic and royal order. A symbol of kingly authority, it was carefully designed in order that they could rotate, supporting the concept of solar travel. The sceptre is an axis mundi staff, in microcosm, its bearer the king, functioning as the binding link between earth and sky, upper and lower worlds, for it was obvious to all that the sun did not simply set in the evening, it actually went into something, into the land or into the water. The Germanic belief was that water acted as a liminal gateway between our world and the world of the unseen and it is believed that the core perennial concerns of a solar cult are that the movements of the sun become a template for cosmic and royal order.

Returning to the solstices, we were to learn that over time, the two points where the ecliptic, the band of stars that contain the zodiac constellations and the Milky Way met, that the constellations of Gemini (divine twins helping the sun in transformation at sunrise and sunset) and Scorpio became more and more associated with the solstices. The symbols of solstice duality involved birds (Summer Solstice/Gemini) and serpents (Winter Solstice/Scorpio) and that it was at these heavenly gates, where the milky way and the band of constellations crossed, these celestial crossroads were believed to be where the descent and ascent of souls occurred. In myth, Odin transforms himself into both an eagle and a serpent and the Milky Way, which has been described as polysemous, resembling both a river when it hugs the horizon or a tree when it extends vertically, attracting serpents and birds in its tree aspect. The axis mundi, the Milky Way with its roots in the underworld, its branches touching the sky-world, was the horse through whose precinct Óðinn had to pass and Odin /  Woden in England, presided over death and transformation. The myth of the warrior-god who must restore the harmonious balance over nature, by restoring order over chaos was re-enacted at the Winter Solstice. Like Odin, the king has traversed both worlds, has become the snake and the eagle, and birds were perceived as transcendent creatures and divine messengers in Norse cosmologies. Birds were also human souls of the dead and the eagle is symbolic of Odin / Woden, but also of kingship, life and wisdom.

Boat burials were an attempt to align the local elite with the ritual-cosmology of the Scandinavians, and the boat, which like its masculine counterpart the serpent, also stood for regeneration and both symbols are enshrined in the mythic grave goods at Sutton Hoo. Buried there was the royal standard, prosaically described as a lamp stand, weapon rack or royal banner holder, some believe this to be a symbol of Roman gromatic surveying technology, like the one buried in Grave AX at Yeavering, dated 600-627 A.D. beside a ‘celestial surveyor’ or ‘astronomer’.

Like their Celtic predecessors, Anglo-Saxon heathen worship seems to have taken place in open-air sanctuaries. They connected with distinct features in the landscape, supporting the pre-Christian belief in an ensoulled landscape and may even have been an expression of ongoing Romano-Celtic beliefs. East-West axial alignment, considered now to be one of the features of high status Anglo-Saxon settlements, also included non-architectural features such as wells, crosses, cemeteries and old ritual sites and such monuments were built to influence the way people experienced the landscape and how they were configured serving to structure the ways that people understood both space and time. The place below the horizon where the sun disappeared to and rose from was the underworld and was important in the cosmological sense; being the abode of the gods.

So, if you are interested in connecting with an alternative view of the Anglo-Saxon past amongst the East Anglian landscape, dive in and explore A Ritual Landscape Considered: Cosmography and Anglo-Saxon Ship Burials.