Durrington Walls, Druids and Doors

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I suspect we’ll be waiting a very long time indeed before any of the purported stones at Durrington Walls are excavated, when we bear in mind the necessary surveys, permissions, requirements for funding and tie-ins with television channels, matters that didn’t concern the antiquarians of a former era who dug into prehistoric monuments such as Stonehenge and Silbury Hill as and when the inclination took them.

So, until such time as the archaeologists unearth one of these stones and publicise the details of the excavation, I thought I would cast my eye over the landscape of Durrington to see if we’ve inadvertently closed ourselves up in a cavern of our own making, to paraphrase the great William Blake, although it will be for the reader of this post to decide for themselves whether or not what I have to say has widened any of these narrow chinks.

I thought it sensible to begin by looking at the name Durrington itself, because I’ve been unable to learn when the term ‘Durrington Walls’ was first used. My Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names says that the name Durrington means an ‘estate associated with a man called Deor(a)’, adding that ‘Deor(a) is an Old English personal name and that Durrington in Wiltshire was recorded in the Domesday Book as ‘Derintone’, as distinct from the Durrington in West Sussex that was recorded in the same tome at the same time as ‘Derentune’.

I wouldn’t argue with any of this, while what the place was known as or how it was named prior to 1086 is anybody’s guess. For my part, I cannot help wondering about the Old English word duru and the Germanic word dor, both of which mean ‘door’, as it seems to me there’s a chance that one or both could conceivably be present in the first element of the word Durrington. I’m not an expert on etymology, so this is little more than a stab in the dark, while I console myself I’m in the lofty company of those proposing a case for archaeological sensations when it comes to this kind of conjecture.

Admittedly, the notion of doors as we understand such things today doesn’t immediately spring to mind when we think of the outsize prehistoric earthworks at Durrington, but I was surprised and intrigued when I checked the aforementioned Dictionary of English Place-Names. I learned of Dore in South Yorkshire, meaning ‘(place at) the gate or narrow pass’, while there’s also Dorton in Buckinghamshire, meaning ‘farmstead or village at the narrow pass’ – in both instances, the dictionary refers to the Old English dor as a component, so it’s clear that the meaning of this word was once that of a gateway or even a narrow pass, rather than a door as we understand such a thing today.

I was also reminded of the wonderful ‘Durdle Door’ in Dorset, but while I couldn’t understand from the text if the word ‘Durdle’ derived from door, it seemed likely because the dictionary provided the word duru, which it described as a ‘door’ or ‘opening’, adding that the first element may be derived from an Old English word meaning ‘pierced’. Going by what this dictionary has to tell me, the word ‘door’ in old English place-names could mean a door, a gate, a gateway, a narrow pass or even just an opening, so is it remotely possible that the name Durrington originally meant something like ‘farmstead or village at the narrow pass, gate, gateway, door or opening?’

Dorton in Buckinghamshire means precisely this, so is it etymologically possible that the 1086 Derintone could have meant the same thing? The truth is that I don’t know, while if it were to stand any chance of being seriously considered, then we would have to find some prominent narrow pass, gate, gateway, door or opening at Durrington, presumably somewhere in the ruins of the enormous prehistoric monument, while it would have to be an opening that existed prior to 1086.

It stands to reason that the further back in time we go, the more well-defined the earthworks at Durrington would have been, before they suffered from millennia of erosion and destruction from farming. It follows that the opening close to the river would have been equally well-defined or prominent, so when we bear in mind how this vast enclosure dominates the landscape, it seems reasonable to me that former occupants of the land might have thought of this doorway, opening or narrow pass as the most noteworthy feature by which to describe the place, just as others in different parts of the country commemorated their own narrow passes or openings with names such as Dore, Dorton and Durdle Door; again, I don’t know for sure, but it doesn’t seem to be out of the question.

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Be all that as it may, something else that sprang to mind when I pondered Durrington was the existence of the ancient British tribe the Durotriges, because the first part of their name seems to appear in the name Durrington, although admittedly not in its variants of Derintone and Derentune. In his Brittania of 1607, William Camden had this to say about the tribe in question:

“That name Durotriges, being ancient and meere British, may seeme by a very good and probable Etymologie to be derived of dovr or dwr , which in the British tongue signifieth Water, and of trig , that betokeneth an inhabitant, as if a man would say Dwellers by the water or Sea-side. Neither verily from any other fountaine than from water are we to fetch those names of places in old France or Gaule, which used in times past the very same language that our ancient Britaines did, which either begin with Dur and Dour or doe in the same; as for example Durocases, Durocottorum, Duranius, Dordonia, Durolorum, Doromellum, Durodurum, Breviodurum, Batavodurum, Ganodudum [sic], Octodurum, and a number of that sort, as well in Gaule as in Britaine.”

I have no idea if Camden’s assessment is correct, because I’ve been unable to find a detailed explanation of the name elsewhere. In his Geography, Ptolemy describes a place called Durium as being one of the towns of the Durotriges, while the Dictionary of English Place-Names suggests that Durnovaria, another Durotrigean settlement, might mean something like ‘the place of fist-sized pebbles’.

The whole thing is admittedly an almost impenetrable morass, but if we’re to consider the likelihood that this ancient tribe named themselves after either water or cobbles, then it seems to me not impossible that their name may have had something to do with doors or doorways, although I can’t claim the credit for this original observation, as this belongs instead to my friend Dr Robin Melrose.

To my mind, this idea is feasible and even likely, if the Durotriges called themselves by a name that recalled in some way or recognised how their forebears had played a part in constructing the great monuments of what’s now southern England, most notably Stonehenge. As for the idea that Stonehenge was a place of doorways, then I would say that the many narrow gaps between the sarsens make this self-evident, while it was articulated by Henry of Huntingdon in the twelfth century when he wrote “Stanenges, where stones of wonderful size have been erected after the manner of doorways, so that doorway appears to have been raised upon doorway; and no one can conceive how such great stones have been so raised aloft, or of why they were built there.”

Over the years, I’ve read of a great many suggestions for the origins of the word ‘Druid’, but when I bear in mind the etymology for the word ‘door‘, it seems highly likely to me that the Druid name meant something like Door Man or Portal Keeper, especially when I think of the close links the Druids’ forebears almost certainly had with physical structures such as Stonehenge, with its myriad portals. All things considered, it seems to me at least possible that some faint echo of Druids and/or doors lives on in the name Durrington, but I’m well aware that our senior archaeologists would sooner spend their life savings on a documentary wherein they announce their shared, solemn belief that Stonehenge was built by spacemen from the Pleiades, rather than so much as entertain the notion that the Druids or their forebears had anything at all to do with the monument.

It may well be that all these matters I’ve raised here are nothing more than curiosities or unrelated coincidences, so as ever, I’m happy to abide by what Marcus Aurelius had to say about expressing an opinion, when he wrote “If someone can prove me wrong and show me my mistake in any thought or action, I shall gladly change. I seek the truth, which never harmed anyone: the harm is to persist in one’s own self-deception and ignorance.”

More coincidences concerning Stonehenge and Durrington Walls, this time from the world of art, to follow in another post.

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One Response to Durrington Walls, Druids and Doors

  1. The first record I can find of the name “Durrington Walls” is in a book by Richard Colt Hoare published around 1810. Like you I continue to be baffled by the name Durotriges, but I rather like the suggestion by Rivet and Smith in “The Place-Names of Roman Britain”. They link Durotriges (speculatively!) to an ancient Irish kingdom called Dartraige, said to have been founded by Dartaid, “Heifer” or “Bull Calf”. Given the importance of cattle at Stonehenge, this suggestion makes a lot of sense, especially if the territory of the Durotriges once extended that far north (it’s possible, since Amesbury in the Late Iron Age seems to have been part of the territory of the Atrebates, who may have driven out the Durotriges).

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