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Lo and Behold!

Periodical enquiries, facts, and problems regarding antiquarianism, the history of science, etymology, palæography, and other sublunary affairs.

Pillow Mounds

The English philologist Hyde Clarke asked the readers of Notes and Queries in 1855 about the origins of a “peculiar topographical term” manifest in the name “Coney gore; [or] sometimes Coneygre, Conegar, Conegare, Conegarth”. He got two answers, one describing a derivation from the Anglo-Saxon “coning or cyning, a king”, and the other more simply equating it with “rabbit warren”. This latter answer, by S.H. Griffith, was supported by a brief quote from his Common-Place Book that he extracted from a newspaper whose name he fails to mention:

“Part of the site of Lincoln’s Inn formerly bore the name of coney-garth or conigera, and acts of parliament were passed in 8 Edw. IV. and 24 Hen. VIII., by which penalties were imposed on the students of that inn for hunting rabbits or coneys in those fielde, with bow, arrows, or darts.”

The folk etymology of ‘king’ was repeated a few times throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, for example in James C. Walter’s Records of Parishes Round Horncastle in 1904, but thankfully it didn’t take hold. S.J. Chadwick even suggested in 1885 that a Coney Garth field in Mirfield, Yorkshire (near Huddersfield), was a renaming of an earlier “king’s enclosure” that was anyway used as a rabbit’s warren. It’s difficult to follow his reasoning: does he think that the local inhabitants had a “coning garth” and decided that they ought to use it for rabbits because of the name? The persuasive capabilities of names is probably not that strong.

The etymology of ‘garth’, at least, is in both interpretations correct. It’s from the Old Norse garĂ¾r, meaning a yard or a fenced area, and most often found combinatorially such as with not only garth but also apple, barn, kirk, minster, willow, and so on. It’s even used as a premodifier in garth-cress, i.e. garden cress, and is still used in the north of England, e.g. by Howard Peach (2003, p.48) in his Curious Tales of Old North Yorkshire.

Correlations sometimes go missed for a long time by science. Nowadays we take so much for granted that meteorites are from meteors: a couple of days ago BBC News reported on the North African meteorite trade that “meteorites are easy to spot in the desert and people will sometimes go in search of them if they see a meteor shower at night.” Yet western science only made the link between stones from the air and meteors in 1803. Perhaps a similar strong correlation may be found between the incidence of the name “coney garth” with the earthworks phenomenon known as pillow mounds.

Pillow mounds are heaped protruberences from the ground that look rather like barrows and are strewn across the English countryside, often being significant enough to be marked on Ordnance Survey maps (at, for example, NY780043). They aren’t all shaped like pillows, with some being cigar-shaped, E-shaped, or other complex arrangements. They range between about 20ft and 100ft long, and some have stone-lined tunnels underneath them. When the phrase “pillow mound” was coined for them in the early 20th century, their origins were still obscure to some. The Antiquaries Journal of 1929 says that “Students of earthworks still find a mystery in these low rectangular mounds found in various parts of the country”, adding that in the north they are known as “giants’ graves”. Others, however, cottoned onto the true tale.

Generally it’s accepted now that pillow mounds were artificial rabbit warrens, to aid the cultivation and farming of rabbits, which are not actually native to Britain. The seeds of this theory were already around in some quarters in 1927, when a commenter in Antiquity said that “Pillow-mounds are now thought in many cases to have been no more than old rabbit warrens.” But the uncertainty remains: in 1981, Richard Muir wrote that “Even the leading experts are unable to decide what all the oblong bumps known as ‘pillow mounds’ were for, though some seem to be medieval rabbit warrens.” More recently, Paul Ashbee in British Archaeology (March 1998) felt the need to qualify the identification of pillow mounds as rabbit warrens with the word “possibly”.

Presumably some pillow mounds are indeed misidentifications of other kinds of mounds, especially barrows, so a more specific term that identifies the use of the earthwork in question would be more clear; “coney mound” being a possible choice. It’ll be difficult to prove which mounds were used for warrening, as even if a warren is still evident it may be incidental to the mound’s actual function. Documentary evidence may be as good a way forward as groundwork.

It’s long been thought that it was the Normans who introduced the rabbit, the Oryctolagus cuniculus, to the British Isles, but an excavation in 2001 of a late Iron Age or early Roman rubbish pit in Lynford, Norfolk, produced remains of a rabbit with butchering marks. Another has been found in Beddingham Roman villa in Sussex with evidence of a Mediterranean origin, pointing to the fact that the Romans may have progressively imported them. Just how common the coney was in Roman times is hard to say, however, and it’s probable that the Normans brought them in much greater numbers. But might the practice of creating pillow mounds date back to the Romans or the post-Romano British period?

As for how long they were in use, Peter Reynolds, in his Iron-Age Farm: The Buster Experiment (1979, p.112) writes that pillow mounds qua artificial rabbit warrens were still being built perhaps as late as the seventeenth century. But perhaps the practice persisted a lot later in some regions. As with the “ich” variant of the first person singular pronoun in English, it may be that deeply rural areas were still using pillow mounds just as antiquarians first started to look into their origins and distribution.

by Sean B. Palmer, 2007-04-18

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© 2007 Sean B. Palmer, inamidst.com