An extract from Julia Blackburn’s ‘Time Song: Searching for Doggerland’ – our Book of the Month for February – featuring our good friend Tim Dee.
19 June 2017 and the sky is as blue as any image of heaven and there’s not a breath of wind and I’ve just been told it’s hotter today in England than it is in Madagascar. Two months ago I was in Denmark making a radio programme with my friend Tim Dee. We flew to Copenhagen and then drove to Jutland along flat motorways of which I remember nothing apart from the orange juice we bought in a motorway café which had transparent floating bits in it that must have been made out of jelly. For the radio programme we went to see Tollund Man and other bog bodies within the museum caskets that hold them and we visited the old peat bogs from which they had been lifted.
On our way back to Copenhagen we stopped at the Vedbaek Museum which houses the contents of a Mesolithic burial site found by accident in 1975, when the foundations for a new village school were being dug in some rough land on the edge of a fjord. Seventeen graves, containing the remains of twenty-two people, all of them dating from nine thousand years ago.
The museum was opened in 1980 and it’s a sort of annexe to the main Søllerød museum which specialises in modern art. When we came in and asked to buy tickets, the young woman at the desk thought we had made a mistake, surely we had come to see the Rauschenberg exhibition. She was thin and angular and shy and bold all at once and she made me think of a learner driver who lurches the car forward and then stalls it with equal suddenness. She gave a little shriek of delight when we said we really had come for the burials.
The building comprised three little rooms following on from each other and the displays were simple and without any special effects. The first glass cabinet contained a branch to represent a place in the forest where a squirrel jumps from a tree top in flight from the lightning-fast bite of the pine marten and the jumping squirrel and the lunging pine marten both looked weary and a bit motheaten from holding the pose for so long. Then there was the shell of a swamp turtle found in a swamp, the bark from a linden tree, a capercaillie with the black fan of its tail feathers raised for a courtship dance and a great auk which, as the notice explained, had been reconstructed from the bodies of eleven razorbills.
The next cabinet contained the complete skeleton of a dog. The legs were bent as if the animal was still in pursuit of the prey it would dutifully bring back to the hunter and the body was honoured with a scattering of ochre the colour of dried blood.
And now to the people. We saw the skeleton of a woman who was estimated to be in her fifties and thus very old. Her head lay on a pillow of whitened deer antlers that sprouted out around her skull as if she was wearing them as a great bleached crown. Even though her skull was thrown back into a look of macabre laughter, there was a tremendous dignity about her, the sense that she was a person of importance, a person who demanded respect. Then there was a man who had been killed by an axe blow to his head and the stone axe was next to his shattered skull, telling the story of what had happened. A woman lay beside him and their young child was between them, the bones of the three bodies touching each other as if for comfort. The long thin feet of the adults were like the feet of wading birds.
But the one who impressed me most was a woman who had been buried with her newborn baby. You saw the tenderness of the two of them lying there together and from the way they had been so carefully placed you could feel that their death had caused much sorrow. She was young, not yet twenty. Her head had been covered by a leather cap decorated with perforated deer teeth and snail shells, but the leather had vanished and all that was left was a scattering of teeth and shell. Her tiny baby was at her right side and her right hand was turned so that her fingers were cupped protectively beneath his feet. His ribs were partly broken and splayed out in a configuration that made them look like a butterfly. A flint knife blade had been placed on his belly, maybe to indicate the hunting he would have done, had he lived to be a man.
What makes you pause and catch your breath, bringing the prickling of tears to your eyes, is the fact that the baby had been placed on the outstretched wing of a swan. The bones of the arch of the upper part of the wing seem to be growing directly out of the woman’s shoulder and although the white feathers vanished long ago, it is not difficult to imagine them softly cradling the little body. I could almost hear the creak of the wing as the bird lifted the child up from its grave and into the element of air.
‘Time Song’ is out now and available here, priced £20.
You can read Sue Brooks’ review of the book here.