“The hobbits shuddered. Even in the Shire the rumour of the Barrow-wights of the Barrow-downs beyond the Forest had been heard. But it was not a tale that any hobbit liked to listen to, even by a comfortable fireside far away.” - From ‘The Lord of the Rings’; J.R.R. Tolkien
Maybe my thoughts and feelings about visiting long barrows or a field of burial mounds is informed by reading ‘The Lord of the Rings’. The association with the dead seems quite tangible and sometimes the imagination cannot help but conjure an immediate connection with the long departed. The spirit of dead chieftains, warriors and queens and a reverence for their ghosts saturates the air.
Well, perhaps not always, but I remember very well when Rupert and I first visited Priddy Nine Barrows on a pre production recce the day was freezing, a hoar frost carpeted the grass and a grey mist hung in the air. We felt quite detached from reality.
Standing in that field, surrounded by the undulating low mounds that make up this remarkable burial ground we certainly felt an awe and a reverence for whoever the internees may once have been. And was not that their very purpose? All the more impressive then, that intent reaches across the millennia to two 21st century men freezing their arses off in a field who’ve walked all of 200 yards from the comfort of a camper van.
Anyway, the truth is of all the different types of ancient monuments, barrows and burial mounds hold a particular kind of magic – at the very least, when they are reasonably intact and we can go inside, we can feel we are inhabiting the same space as our ancestors. We perhaps feel more in touch.
So, less of the waffle – here’s a clip from the film:
Here is a nice long clip from the DVD – all about henges. It just so happens that the most important of them occur within a quite small distance from one another in the South of England. Now, the two sites in the film that actually have the word ‘henge’ in their name turn out to be NOT true henges in the sense that the word has come to be accepted. As is shown in the film, although the word originally derives from the name ‘Stonehenge’, it turns out that Stonehenge itself is an anomaly amongst ‘henges’ and does not now count as one – strictly speaking. Woodhenge ‘may’ have been a henge – but was so named long before it was discovered that the post holes that make up all that is now visible of the site was surrounded by a raised mound. As for places like ‘Seahenge‘ for example – well, it becomes clear that the tag ‘henge’ is easily used by the media to indicate that a new discovery – whether of rock, wood or earth – is a pretty ancient one.
This section of the film gave me an opportunity to go to town with CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) and do my best to produce some watchable reconstructions of how the sites MAY have looked. The two ‘true’ henges that are featured – Avebury and Stanton Drew – really are wonders. Avebury is, of course, the most visually spectacular of the two today, but as Rupert and I found out more about what was lurking beneath the soil of the farm field that the stone circle of Stanton Drew inhabits, so our imagination was spurred and led to a surprising idea about their purpose. So, I’m not going to spoil it for you now, but let me just say that, however radical our thoughts may seem, they did not come from nothing. Our main suggestion is supported by evidence from other sites and most notably by Mike Pitts observations about the excavations at Durrington Walls in his book ‘Hengeworld‘. Most of all though, it was the privilege of spending time at these places – being present to their grandeur and scale as a human being that gave rise to our speculations. And speculations is all they are. We don’t pretend to have any answers – we’re not experts – but we do hope that a little “thinking outside the box” can inspire ideas that really do crack the mystery of these wonderful places.
During the making of “Standing with Stones” Rupert and I found ourselves on July 5th 2006 standing on busy Cannon Street in the middle of the City of London. How come? Well, that question is answered in the clip below. Even so, it was pretty surreal to mind ourselves filming an ancient prehistoric monument inside a sport shop in the centre of the great metropolis. Our thanks to the manager of Sportec, Chris Cheek for permission to film in his shop.
By the way, as far as I know, despite reports in 2006 that the stone was due to be removed to the Museum of London, it is still in Cannon Street.
As a little addendum, this clip from the cutting room floor might amuse you …
Thankfully, I did have all the permission to film red tape sorted, so after a few calls to the City authorities, all was fine. Kudos to the police for being on the case.
Here’s an account by Steve Mansfield-Devine of his visit to the ‘Côte des Mégalithes’ and, of course, Carnac in particular. This is the first in a series of eight posts at his fascinating blog, The Human Landscape. The full series can be seen here and I do recommend having a look – especially if you are contemplating visiting the area. Steve’s blog is full of helpful travel and photographic advice.
We like to holiday in Brittany during autumn or winter. On a previous visit, we mooted the idea of driving up to Carnac, but were too busy. It was a disappointment as visiting the alignments had been a dream for 30 years.
When I first became interested in megalithic sites, as part of an art school project back in 1977, I read about Carnac and its thousands of stones arranged in mysterious rows with both fascination and despair. The despair came from knowing I would never see them. For a working class boy living in Cheshire, the idea of travelling to France just to visit some stones was too fantastic. Now I live about 3.5 hours drive away (3 hours if I drive like a Frenchman) and have at last realised that dream.
I will blog about the sites we visited and sights we saw in subsequent postings – with some pix, once I’ve finished working on them. But first, a general impression.
I wasn’t disappointed. Yes, the main Carnac alignments are now fenced-off, but in the off-season you can stroll freely about the main part of Le Ménec and Kerlescan. And Le Petit Ménec isn’t fenced and is possibly the most beautiful and moving of the monuments.
Other sites weren’t so impressive and my advice to anyone new to the area would be to seek out the more remote and less-visited sites. Le Grand Menhir Brisé, for example, notwithstanding its astonishing size (albeit broken into four pieces) and the accompanying cairns, is in a carefully manicured enclosure, with hedge and visitor centre, hemmed in by modern housing, and feels like a bland piece of sculpture in a small, municipal park. All sense of mystery, any intimation that this may once have been an auspicious place, has been eradicated. It’s like a neolithic theme park. I called it ‘MegalithWorld’ but Trish, my wife, came up with the better, if more savage, ‘McMegalith’. We encountered a few McMegaliths – perhaps a reflection of just how common they are in this area.
Far more interesting, more intimate and infinitely more spooky was the nearby dolmen of ‘Les Pierres Plates’ – but more of that later. Read much more here …
“SCIENTISTS have unearthed what appears to be a mammoth wooden version of the famous Stonehenge monument at the Hill of Tara.
In a revealing new RTE documentary, many theories and insights into the country’s prehistoric past and 150,000 ancient monuments are unveiled and explained.
For the first time, people will be able to view a computer-generated recreation of what archaeologists believe was a major wooden structure — a version of Britain’s Stonehenge — at the ancient seat of the Irish high kings in the Hill of Tara in Co Meath.
Archaeologist Joe Fenwick revealed a LiDAR (Light Detecting and Ranging) laser beam had been used to scan the ground surface to create a three-dimensional map, which revealed more than 30 monuments around Tara.
Using another technique — described as taking an X-ray through the hillside — archaeologists discovered the huge monument, a ditch stretching six metres wide and three metres deep in the bedrock.
The ditch, circling the Mound of the Hostages passage tomb, separated the outside world from the ceremonial centre of Tara.
It was believed the ancient architects had also surrounded the ditch with a massive wooden structure on each side — a version of Stonehenge — on a large scale. Its sheer size meant a whole forest would have had to be cleared to build it.
“In scale, it is comparable, for example, to Croke Park’s pitch. The Hill of Tara had enormous ritual significance over the course of 5,000-6,000 years, so it’s not surprising that you get monuments of the scale of the ditch pit circle,” said Mr Fenwick, from the Department of Archaeology, NUI Galway.
Cutting-edge technology is helping to provide a new insight into the lives of our ancestors, according to the documentary makers behind ‘Secrets of the Stones’.
It shows Ireland’s first civilisation began 7,000 years ago, they withstood major climatic changes and voyaged throughout Europe, returning with new religions and mementos.
An RTE spokesman said the broadcaster, along with the Department of Education, would be sending two free copies of the book accompanying the series to all second-level schools in the country.
The first part of the ‘Secrets of the Stones’ will be shown on RTE One at 6.30pm on Easter Monday.”
Original article here.
“Visiting my first-ever Neolithic circle of standing stones—Beltany Circle—is inextricably linked in my memory with another far more terrifying first: driving alone on the left-hand side of the road.
As I planned my trip to Ireland, I realized that my pilgrimage to prehistoric stones and countryside spas and B&Bs required a rental car. However, I was traveling alone on this trip—there would be no brave companion to volunteer to take the dreaded right-sided wheel or navigate clockwise roundabouts.
So, I reserved an automatic car—no shifting gears with my left hand, thanks very much!—and then spent weeks anticipating the horror of making right turns in heavy traffic. My one consolation: My first week in Ireland was at a weeklong Patchwork Farms creative writing and yoga retreat in Downings, Donegal, which I reached from Dublin via bus and taxi.
Driving to Beltany
While relaxing with other writers, I prepped myself mentally: I sat directly behind drivers and pretended I was piloting the bus through crowded streets and across one-vehicle-at-a-time bridges. Except for the ultra-narrow byways requiring that you back up if you meet oncoming traffic, country roads felt far more relaxing.
And so, after swallowing a capsule of herbal anti-anxiety valerian, I loaded my suitcase into the “boot” of my little Ford, buckled my seatbelt, and pleaded with the ancient Irish warrior goddesses to give me courage and a clear shot on the road.
Luckily, I had minimal town driving before I hit the highway, then I was off on smaller country roads toward the village of Raphoe, where I followed signs pointing me to Beltany Circle. The whole trip lasted less than an hour, but it felt like a lifetime.
My guidebook, The Traveller’s Guide to Sacred Ireland by Cary Meehan, mentioned that this circle sat amongst farmland, but until I got there, it was hard to imagine. Even with the signs, I was sure I was trespassing down someone’s private farm road—and technically I was—but in Ireland, megaliths are public property, even if they’re in your back yard.
Here, I parked close to a large farm, peeled my fingers off the steering wheel, took a deep breath of the damp country air, and walked up the hill through an eerie, dark passageway of trees.
At one spot, there was a break in the trees, and I peeked through to see it: Beltany, my first stone circle! Its name refers to Beltaine, the pagan celebration of the first day of summer, celebrated on May Day (May 1). Beltany Circle’s largest slab is aligned with the sunrise on Beltaine.” …
Read the rest of the story here …
“Cocev Kamen is one of the most imposing and significant cultural monument (with geographic coordinates N. 42o.05’. 024’’ and E. 021o. 59’ and 227’’ and an elevation of 481m). On the left hand side of the rock, near the entrance of the rock building, a cross, dating back from Bronze Age, was engraved in the cup mark context. As a matter of fact “Tsotsev kamen” is a significant prehistoric temple and observatory.
One of the two paths leads towards a natural cave, which was rearranged for the needs of Paleolithic and Neolithic inhabitants. Gea Mater, a bone, has been discovered near the cave which tells us that the cave was used by Paleolithic people. There were two rows of rock seats engraved inside the cave, which combined with the cave’s floor created a structure looking like a theatre. Above this, and until the Bronze Age, there was a smaller natural cave, where the spiritual leaders organized cave warming for spirituals needs. There were tubs with double space: smaller and bigger, similar to the tubs discovered in Pelagonium.
The question about the usage of these tubs has been answered: They did not have any practical usage, but one held ritual-ceremonial functions for the God of Wine and the God of Fertility. At the bottom of the cave one made rock engravings in the style typical of the valley, as well as the square type, associated with the God of the Fertility. The engravings (cup-mark associated with small channels) on the rock near the megaliths, suggested that the cave was used to worship the God of Fertility. One part of a broken offering was left in the cave while the other part was brought back home. The second space of the site is more impressive. In front of the throne there was a plateau of 51m2 for official people who followed the ceremonies. The excavation site represented a prehistoric observatory. In fact, near the throne there were a few seats built in the rock, which were part of a sophisticated observatory.
Megaliths were found more than four hundred meters to the east of these stone seats. There is painted rock art to the west of “Tsotsev Kamen”, the production of a developed prehistoric culture.
The presence of the world largest sun symbol made in rock confirms that this site represents an extremely important cultural, historic, written, ethnological as well as religious heritage.”
The full paper complete with photos is available here.
I first came across reference to Cocev Kamen at this blog. Well worth a visit – lots of fascinating entries.
Ten of the best UK standing stones
Rupert Soskin has travelled the length and breadth of the UK and Ireland photographing megalithic sites. Here are his favourites
“Picking a top 10 from our wealth of prehistoric monuments is a little like choosing your favourite records of all time: almost impossible – it depends on your mood.
Some sites are overwhelming in their complexity, others are peaceful and solitary. Some by the road, others a two-hour walk away, but whatever your preference, there are more than enough to keep any megalith fan happy for years.
So, donning my many-mooded hat, I have chosen the following for their extraordinary diversity of megalithic magic.
1. Callanish, Isle of Lewis, The Hebrides
Perhaps the most intricate of all, Callanish is testament to our ancestors’ vast knowledge of astronomy. Standing on the Hebridean Isle of Lewis, overlooking the chill waters of Loch Roag, the cruciform arrangement of megaliths has a stone circle at its axis, all aligned to view the heavens. Most notably, the full lunar cycle of 18.61 years. Once in each cycle, the moon is low enough in the sky to skim the horizon before it sets. Callanish was built with such precision that after appearing and disappearing between the stones, the moon finally seems to set within the circle itself. It begs the question: how many generations of observation were necessary to plot the alignments before erecting so many stones with such accuracy.
2. Skara Brae , Mainland, Orkney
The majority of ancient sites are mysterious because we’re never exactly sure how they were used, or by how many individuals. But on Mainland, Orkney, at the prehistoric village of Skara Brae, the people are almost tangible and for once, everything seems so familiar. The houses seem impossibly modern. Five thousand years old but with recessed shelving, dressers and, most extraordinary of all, a drainage system. The village is also not far from the island’s other “show sites”: the Stones of Stennessand the Ring of Brodgar, the latter being the third largest Henge in the whole of Britain.
3. Assycombe, Dartmoor, Devon
I love this place. Hidden in the southern part of the plantation forest which skirts Fernworthy Reservoir on Dartmoor, the stone row at Assycombe has an almost Lord of the Rings feel to it. A long way from any road, the place is still, silent and rarely visited. I have been here on a number of occasions and never seen anyone nearby. The secluded forest setting probably gives a false impression. This place must have been very busy in those far-off times. Other rows and stone circles abound on Dartmoor and without its covering of trees, this area would seem more like one busy, sprawling settlement. However, for a modern-day walker in search of peaceful solitude, Assycombe is as good as it gets.
4. Knowth, Boyne Valley, Co Meath, Ireland
If you like rock art, this place is a must-see. Astonishingly, the remarkable group of mounds and passage tombs at Knowth are home to over a quarter of all the rock art in Europe. From simple spirals to carvings which look like diagrams, this is a remarkable place to visit. The site is one of a group in the Boyne Valley which includes the renowned passage tomb of Newgrange, also adorned with plenty of beautiful engravings.
5. Formby Point, Liverpool
Take a day at the seaside with a little prehistoric magic thrown in. Formby Point is another of those rare places where individual people, rather than societies have left their mark. Six thousand years ago these sands were baked hard in the sun, capturing a wealth of footprints and animal tracks. It’s an amazing feeling to actually walk in the same footsteps as one of our distant ancestors, following their path towards the sea and back. The waves are gradually wearing them away but the same waves sometimes expose new prints too, so it can be an exciting day out, searching the sands for an ancient snapshot in time.
6. Moel ty Uchaf, Gwynedd, North Wales
High on a hill near Llandrillo, the cairn-circle of Moel ty Uchaf is the perfect place to relax and watch the sun set behind the distant hills. There are a number of burial sites in the surrounding fields so a few thousand years ago the site was probably a little busier than it is today. Take a look at the field walls on your way up the hill. They are full of bigger stones which have clearly been taken from other nearby ancient sites long since disappeared. All too often these farm walls are the only remaining clues to structures and settlements that once brought life to the now-quiet landscape.
7. Castlerigg, Cumbria
To me, the most majestic of all our stones circles, Castlerigg is also one of the oldest, built over 5,000 years ago. It is spectacularly placed. Surrounded by mountains, the feeling is that the entire landscape is part of the site, like a huge natural cathedral. It is likely that this was once a centre for axe-trading, a sort of prehistoric market place. Inside the eastern edge of the ring is a large rectangular arrangement of stones where excavations revealed a charcoal pit, but no sign of burials. I call it the barbecue area.
8. Trethevy Quoit, Cornwall
Trethevy Quoit is a monster. This huge dolmen stands by the road close to modern houses and shows an aspect of prehistory that is often overlooked: we still live in the settlements chosen by our ancestors. Finding sites within modern towns and villages sometimes seems incongruous, but they just show us that these places have been inhabited for thousands of years. Who knows what lies beneath those houses? The sheer size of Trethevy, especially the precarious-looking capstone, can only make us marvel at the ingenuity and skill of the builders: Just how did they do it?
9. Barclodiad y Gawres, Anglesey
This enchanting and mysterious site overlooking Caenarfon Bay looks like a second world War bunker from the outside, but that makes it all the more surprising to find what lies beneath. Bold, abstract carvings adorn the imposing stone which stands like a guardian inside the entrance. Other spiral markings have been carved into other stones within the burial chambers themselves. The most remarkable thing about this site, however, is that archaeologists discovered the central area to have held a ritual fire which had burned for a long, long time. Analysis revealed the ingredients to have been a witches’ brew containing eel, wrasse, whiting, rabbit, shrew, mouse, snake, frog and toad. All these creatures must have held some magical significance to our ancestors, other that, or it’s the curious remains of a long forgotten dinner recipe.
10. Arbor Low, Derbyshire
Arbor Low is situated amid rolling farmlands and is not among the largest of British henges. But its smaller size somehow makes its form easier to appreciate. The deep inner ditch; the high, steep banks; and the raised central platform, all point towards a place of spectacle. What makes this place so exciting is that as you approach, you can only see the steep slope of the bank. Climb to the top and the sudden appearance of its great arena takes your breath away … Spectacular!”
• Standing with Stones: A Photographic Journey Through Megalithic Britain and Ireland by Rupert Soskin is published by Thames and Hudson
A CONTROVERSIAL area of land in Swindon that is earmarked for a housing development could instead become Swindon’s own “mini-Avebury”, according to campaigners.
The claim comes after ancient stones, which could be part of Swindon’s Neolithic history, were unearthed at Coate.
The two sarsen stones were uncovered by the Highways Agency last week opposite Day House Farm, near the protected Coate Stone Circle.
The find has excited speculation that more historic stones may still lie undiscovered in the area.
Campaigners against a planning application by the Swindon Gateway Partnership to build 1,800 homes and a university campus on land near Coate Water say the development could rob the town of huge potential historic and tourist value.
Jean Saunders, from the Jefferies Land Conservation Trust, said: “There is a real chance here to create almost a mini-Avebury.
“This particular area is steeped in pre-history. We know of a Bronze Age settlement just south of Coate Water, two round barrows opposite Richard Jefferies’ old house at Coate, two stone circles on Day House Farm and lines of stones linking these together with others.
“It would be criminal to surround these ancient relics of the past with modern buildings. Who knows how many more of these old stones lie undiscovered? Can Swindon afford to lose more of its history?
“This raises a lot of unanswered questions. We are very aware of the importance of this whole area and it is not just Bronze Age, but medieval and Roman.
“This is something I wanted to bring up at the inquiry but because the developers didn’t actually put forward an archaeologist there wasn’t the chance. The problem was that English Heritage and the county archaeologist dropped their objections at the eleventh hour, so it no longer became an issue for the planning inspector.”
Felicity Cobb, from the Save Coate campaign, said: “It would be nice if the planning inspector took this into account but I’m not holding my breath.”
Wiltshire county archaeologist Melanie Pomeroy-Kellinger said: “I haven’t been able to go and see the stones yet but they do occur naturally in the area. There is a stone circle nearby which is a scheduled monument.”
The inquiry into SGP’s planning appeal officially closes on March 27, after which the planning inspector will make his recommendations to secretary of state Hazel Blears.
by James Wallin
A Bronze Age sauna and one of the oldest prehistoric roundhouses in the UK have been unearthed on a site earmarked for a park and ride scheme in Somerset.
Archaeologists have uncovered 3,000 years of history at the site near the junction of the A358 and the M5 at Cambria Farm, in Taunton, Somerset.
The Iron Age roundhouse with a diameter of 56ft (17m) is one of the largest prehistoric roundhouses ever found in Britain.
It is thought to date from around 700BC and has been uncovered alongside three other roundhouses.
A mound of burned stones indicating a 2,500-year-old sauna has also been discovered as well as the remains of a Roman farm.
A number of skeletons, all but one Roman, have also been unearthed after archaeologists spent more than three months on site.
Other finds have included a pair of Roman shears, three Iron Age spearheads, loom weights and Roman brooches, as well as large amounts of pottery.
Steven Membury, historic environment officer at Somerset County Council, said: “We think the site began about 2,500 BC with ritual use around a spring where the burned stones were found.
“The idea that the stone indicate ‘sweat houses’ is just one theory.
“We can tell that the huge roundhouse burned down but we think we have one surviving post which we will be able to carbon date.
“Another of the roundhouses dates from around 400-100BC, and we have found Glastonbury ware pottery inside.
“It’s the first opportunity we have ever had to look at an Iron Age settlement like this.”
Construction work will begin on the park-and-ride scheme next month
Original article at The Telegraph here.