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A Ghost Wall or Fence is a concept I keep coming across in historical fiction set around the Iron Age or Sub-Roman Britain. Generally, it appears as a boundary made of deceased peoples bones to either keep spirits enclosed or to ward off outside intrusion.

I first came across it in Bernard Cornwell's Warlord Chronicles, a Historical Fiction novel set in Sub-Roman Britain following one of Arthur's warriors as they try to defend against Saxon incursions, we see it used in the line:

Powys's levy stayed on the hill, too scared to cross the ghost fence, …

and:

'A ghost fence might deter the enemy', Taliesin remarked when he had chanted a prayer for the four burning men whose souls were drifting with the smoke to find their shadowbodies.

Later on, a version (at least in name and function) of it appears in The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind where it is used as such:

The Great Ghost Fence (usually shortened to simply 'the Ghostfence') was an enormous shield-like wall surrounding the crater of Red Mountain. Developed to keep the Blight and Corprus monsters contained within the Red Mountain Region, …

And most recently it appears as the title for Sarah Moss's latest book 'Ghost Wall', the Evening Standard's review of it even states that:

A ghost wall is an Iron Age form of defence, where tribes laid skulls out to scare invaders.

The only (pseudo) historical reference I've been able to find is an entry in the Annála Uladh for the year 561 that looks like it could have inspired later writers:

U561.2

The battle of Cúil Dreimne. It was Fraechán, son of Teimnén, who made the druidic 'fence' for Diarmait. Tuatán son of Dimán son of Sárán son of Cormac son of Eógan cast the druidic 'fence' over them. Maglaine leaped over it and he alone was killed.

I've quickly surveyed Aldhouse-Green's writings (if anyone were going to write about this I strongly guess it'd be her) without any luck nor have I come across any excavation reports describing any similar structures for Iron Age, Roman, or Sub-Roman Britain.

Does anyone know of any archaeological or historical evidence in Iron Age to Sub-Roman Britain for this practice as described? Or is this a purely literary invention and if so does it originate with Cornwell?

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    This question seems to be about the origin of a meme/trope in literature, not about history in any meaningful sense. – Pieter Geerkens Sep 6 '18 at 14:52
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    The Question is whether the trope is a historically attested practice or 'just' a trope – Charlie Tizzard Ó Kevlahan Sep 6 '18 at 14:53
  • As chimps are known to, at times, eat their deposed leaders, it would seem that assigning magical properties to the remains of the dead is a trope older than our species itself. All the rest is just artistic re-invention. link link – Pieter Geerkens Sep 6 '18 at 14:58
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    Yes, ritualistic and magical properties being attested to human bones is widely documented in most cultures across the world, and as you note, other species. – Charlie Tizzard Ó Kevlahan Sep 6 '18 at 15:17
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    I believe this question is clearly historical and in scope. Is there evidence of this practice in history? – Mark C. Wallace Sep 7 '18 at 8:27
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'Ghost walls' is a concept that is used in archaeology. But maybe not just so fanciful as in these historical fiction books:

Meanwhile, trial trenches at the north end of the adjacent long and narrow meadow—on the surface of which, when ploughed, stray finds of Roman pottery and coins had often been made—revealed a well-defined layer of Roman building debris associated with ‘ghost-walls’, or foundation-trenches from which all masonry had been removed by stone-robbers. Below this was a stratum of dark occupation-earth with an abundance of pottery indicating the presence of an extensive Early Iron Age settlement.

J. S. P. Bradford And R. G. Goodchild: "Excavations at Frilford, Berks., 1937-8", Oxoniensia, Vol 4, 1939.

The Oxford Archaeology Dictionary refers to this as:

See robber trench. ...

Or examplified in Hadrian's Ghost Wall:

The key to understanding Hadrian’s Wall is that the Romans built a temporary frontier of wood in the East, and wood and earth in the West, to protect them while they constructed the permanent stone frontier. It follows that there would also be temporary forts and other structures amounting to a whole ghost timber and earth version of Hadrian’s Wall.

It seems reasonable to assume that the fancy name gives rise to imagination if you hear it.

Some books mention 'ghost fences' en passant in the way described in the question:

Alistair Moffat: "The Borders: A History of the Borders from Ealiest Times", Birlinn, 2011.

Alistair Moffat: "The Sea Kingdoms: The History of Celtic Britain and Ireland", Birlinn, 2011

And a few more. Seemingly with a claim to be real science.

But, as you can see, this concept seems to be a pet peeve of one man, outside of fiction and academia.

  • I think this pretty much answers my question, interesting that Cornwell's usage predates Moffat's though? – Charlie Tizzard Ó Kevlahan Sep 7 '18 at 13:00
  • In regards Roman walls, the Antonine Wall has a number of distance marker stones. Two are known to show Roman cavalry riding down native Britons. There's an article about them here. Depending on which way the stones were facing, they could count as a ghost wall albeit Roman against Celt not vice versa. They could equally have been propaganda aimed at the men stationed at the wall that the enemy is beatable. – Daniel Sep 8 '18 at 10:34
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Never happened. Celts regarded heads as trophies, they were considered important enough to show guests when they arrived. They had a similar place as trophy heads of modern hunters.

There were a couple of temple sites in southern Gaul such as Roquepertuse where niches were cut into stone pillars and skulls placed in them. This was for display not a warning. The skulls were possibly enemy warriors as the site contained a number of seated warrior statues including what appears to be them holding severed heads on their laps.

A different site at a temple in northern Gaul was the remains of hundreds of headless warriors found at Ribemont-sur-Ancre. The bones were stacked together but believed to have originally been part of a large trophy where the (headless?) bodies of fallen enemies were tied to racks to be eaten by birds and weather away, the remains finally being buried.

It's reasonable to assume that had the Celts created any kind of ghost wall the Romans would have mentioned it as proof of their barbarity. As it was the Romans talked about the sacred groves as places of dread.

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    I took the liberty of adding a supporting link for you, but really more ought to be added. Any answer that makes an extraordinary claim, and especially one that makes claims of behavior some might consider abhorrent, really requires outside support. As a site matter, this is policy. As a tactical matter for you, it may help fend off downvotes, particularly from people who identify ethnically with the ancient people in question. – T.E.D. Sep 7 '18 at 14:45
  • Thankyou. I'll include supporting evidence in future. I merely wanted to point out what is commonly known about the Celts, as in appears frequently in books about them which includes head taking as normal behaviour. So displays of human remains would not be regarded as threatening to them. – Daniel Sep 8 '18 at 6:22

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