Too Quiet Flows the Don

The stone head from the Iron Age glowers out of its glass case as if outraged by the indignity of imprisonment, its relegation from totem to tourist attraction.  Not that there are ever many tourists in Doncaster Museum, especially on a unseasonably warm day when the sun-punished town seems full of the grit and stink of 10,000 cars, passing and repassing endlessly through the town on their way to or from the A1, the Great North Road that has stitched together London and Scotland since time out of mind.

The head is clinically divorced from its Celtic context, when such tokens were set above doorways to encapsulate divinity and warn of the significance of passing between zones, but it still holds a stern and saturnine power, linking directly to an unimaginably distant culture and its lost landscape—the soggy swamps that once made Doncaster a kind of island in a huge central English sponge refreshed constantly by the Cheswold, Dearne, Don, Idle, Ouse, Rother, Skell, Torne, and Went, and other watercourses too numerous to name.

The Celt who crafted the head was one of the tribe that gave the River Don its name, Dôn (“river god”)—the simplicity showing just how central to all considerations was this great waterway linking the Pennines to the North Sea.  The Romans thought it worthwhile to found the fortified way station of Danum here on this lowest crossing point of the river, part of...

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