And did those feet… : The Devil’s Jumps

With acknowledgement to West Sussex County Council and Mike Codd.

Just as the trickster god Loki ran riot through the nine Norse realms, so the Devil scampered all over Sussex, the last of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms to succumb to Christianity. Legend tells us that the Devil fought hard to maintain his final stronghold. Not only did he dig Devil’s Dyke, a 100m long deep V in the chalk hills behind Brighton – actually a post-glacial river cut – but from his burrowing and mischief, he flung great piles of earth this way and that to form the Devil’s Bumps at Bow Hill, after which it was a hop and a skip to the Devil’s Jumps at Treyford.

Of course it turns out the ‘jumps’ – seven round barrows – have been appropriated by Christian storytellers to serve their own ends. Far from being the Devil’s work, archaeological investigations have revealed the round barrow cemetery on Treyford Hill, just off the South Downs Way, high on the Downs between Midhurst and Chichester, to be the magic work of Late Bronze Age barrow-makers, c1500 BC. By that time in our island history, the Neolithic (Stone Age) people of these isles had interbred with a new wave of migrants from Europe known by archaeologists as the Beaker people (for the cups they carried). These Beaker folk – who originated on the Eurasian Steppe, in the PonticCaspian region – ushered in a new wave of metalworking and arrived on these shores in search of copper ore.

As new folk will, they also brought with them new rituals. By the end of the Neolithic period, cremation was widely employed across the British Isles, but there began in around 2000 BC a shift towards individual and group burial mounds, now divided by archaeologists into five types – bowl, bell, disc, saucer and pond barrows.

The chalky grassland covering the five bell and two bowl barrows which comprise the Devil’s Jumps is buzzing in summer with tiny miner bees which live in their own miniature burrows and collect nectar from the Small Scabious abundant on this protected site, fertilising flowers as they go about their business. This precious habitat, leased from the West Dean Estate (the Edward James Foundation), and managed by the Murray Downland Trust, is also home to Dwarf Gorse, Tormentil and Heath Bedstraw, among hundreds of other insects and grasses, flowers and worms. A microcosmic paradise on Earth.

Not all barrows are as thoughtfully protected as the Devil’s Jumps. While there are as many as 2,500 visible Bronze Age barrows dotting the highest points in the Sussex landscape (called tumuli on OS maps), many more have been destroyed by treasure hunters or agriculture. It is estimated there were once around 5,000 across West and East Sussex. Still, they’re everywhere, if you look, and it turns out these barrows have their own story to tell.

Some have turned out to be empty – perhaps filled with human ashes – and at Treyford human bones were found in only two, but across the whole of Britain, there are hundreds and hundreds of finds. In a group of barrows at Oakley Down in Dorset, the 19th century amateur archaeologists William Cunnington and Richard Colt-Hoare unearthed a pair of terracotta incense cups. While no-one can accurately prove what burned in these cups, finds elsewhere in north-western Europe from the same period indicate that opium was widely used at this time, as well as cannabis. In another barrow set in Wiltshire at Winterbourne Stoke, Colt-Hoare (digging around 1809) found one of the longest copper daggers ever unearthed in a Bronze Age context, plus a bronze pin with an ivory handle. Both items accompanied a skeleton which had been laid in a hollowed-out trunk of an elm tree.

Theories abound around such burials. Humans tend to view other humans from their own perspective, of course. For many years, burial gifts were seen as proof of belief in the afterlife, but other theories have jostled to the fore. What if burying individuals and families with cups and daggers, axes and copper jewels is a symbolic giving back to the earth? Metal is extracted and metal is buried again. In return, the earth will keep providing. This idea fits far more snugly with the placing of burial mounds – again and again we find them at springs, confluences of two rivers, facing the sunrise, and high, high, as close as they can be to the expanse of the sky, implying the Bronze Age people who made them –only three and a half thousand years ago – were intimately connected with the rhythms and gifts of the natural world.

Ancient myth and legend tells the same cautionary tale –human beings must make exchanges with the earth in order to survive. The Inuit tale of the god Raven and the Whale speaks of the kidnapping of the whale’s heart and soul and the sea creature’s subsequent death. The Nigerian folk tale Why the Sky is Far Away tells how greed undoes the balance between sky and earth. Over and over, in hundreds of tongues across the globe, folk tales and fairy tales have been telling the same story for thousands of years: look after the natural world and it will look after you; everything – animal, vegetable and mineral – is connected.

Make your way up to the Devil’s Jumps at Treyford on June 21st – the longest day – and you will find the NE-SW line of the Devil’s Jumps aligned exactly with the setting sun. Why? Because the sun is the source of all light and growth. Lining up the barrows with the sun may be a symbolic gesture, but what are symbols – the same as gifts to a loved one, say – if not signifiers of honour, respect and understanding. What we have forgotten, our ancestors always knew.