Tag Archives: Archaeology

Stone Circles and Sarah

In the second novel – A Megalithic Moon – our heroine, Sarah, finds herself transported back in time some five thousand years (ish).  For archaeologists and those with an interest in the past this is the Late Neolithic, a time of massive stone constructions, of megaliths, of stone circles.

For many years stone circles have fascinated me and so I was really very keen to weave these monuments into Sarah’s story.  There are some 1300 recorded stone circles in Britain and this is not the place to discuss each and every one of them.  Instead I wish to look at two stone circles in particular which feature in A Megalithic Moon, Boscawen Un and Loanhead of Daviot.  For those who want to find out more about stone circles I highly recommend Aubrey Burl’s The Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany published by Yale University Press (2000).

In the very early pages of A Megalithic Moon the reader is introduced to one of my all time favourite sites – Boscawen Un – a stone circle in the heart of West Penwith, Cornwall.

Boscawen Un

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Boscawen Un on a very grey Cornish day…

Not a true circle the stone ring measures 24.9m and 21.9m in diameters making it more elliptical than circular.  The ring consists of nineteen stones varying in height from 0.9m to 1.3m and has two unique features.  Firstly there is a central stone which leans sharply to the north east.  Originally it was believed that the lean on the central stone was the result of people digging for treasure believed to be at its base but recent archaeological work has confirmed that the stone was deliberately placed in the ground at a lean.  Another interesting fact about the central stone is the presence of two faint, but real, carved axeheads near the base which can best be seen at the midsummer sunrise.

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The central stone with its deliberate lean.

Secondly all but one of the stones are of local granite, the odd one out is a solid chunk of white quartz.  For those of a pagan leaning, the quartz stone is significant as it serves to represent the feminine lunar deity (and thus the central stone is the male).  Quartz is often found on sites of ritual significance, the Duloe stone circle (also in Cornwall) is smaller but all of the stones are quartz.  Excavations at the Hurlers, a stone circle complex on Bodmin Moor, uncovered traces of a quartz pavement which highlights the importance of this material in the rituals of the past.  It is easy to imagine how the quartz in its freshly cut state might glow in the light of the moon.  The use of quartz is not restricted to Cornwal and much further afield in Aberdeenshire the recumbent stone circles often feature quartz.

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The single quartz stone in the circle.

The circle was restored in 1862 when three stones were re-erected and the hedge which originally cut through the ring was diverted around it.  Historically Boscawen Un was believed to be the Beisgawen yn Dumnonia named in the Welsh Triads as one of the ‘Three Principal Gorsedds’.  So much so, in 1928 the modern Cornish Gorsedd was inaugurated here.  Unfortunately recent academic work by Rachel Bromwich revealed that the Triads were in fact an eighteenth century forgery.

There is a west facing gap which may represent an entrance not unlike the one found at the Merry Maidens, another well known stone circle in West Cornwall, which can be seen from Boscawen Un.

 

Much later in A Megalithic Moon the reader is introduced to another kind of stone circle but much farther away, those of north east Scotland in Aberdeenshire.  Recumbent stone circles are so called due to a common feature of a large single stone lying ‘recumbent’ between two flanking uprights.  The recumbent always occupies a position on the circles arc between SSE – SW and the uprights are graded in size from the smallest on the northern arc and the tallest flanking the recumbent.  They are unique to this area of Scotland and are not found elsewhere except for in the south west of Ireland.

Unfortunately, agricultural practices of the 17th and 18th centuries resulted in many of the circles being destroyed.  Some well preserved examples which are worth a visit include Loanhead of Daviot, Easter Aquorthies, Sunhoney and Tyrebagger.

Loanhead of Daviot

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This recumbent stone circle is situated near the summit of gentle hill overlooking the village of Daviot and few miles from Inveruries.  Excavations conducted in 1934 provided evidence for the longevity of the site from the late Neolithic through to the Iron Age.  The site itself consists of two concentric rings of stone with a central cairn. In addition adjacent to the main stone circle is a late Bronze Age cremation cemetery.

The outer circle is 19.5m in diameter and is made up of ten upright stones and one recumbent.  Around the base of each upright a small cairn of stones were piled and in some evidence of burials were found.  Several of the uprights also have faint cupmarks engraved into the stones surface.

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The recumbent stone at Loanhead. Photo by M and K Grundy from geograph.co.uk.

The inner circle is 16.5m in diameter and forms a kerb of low stones to the central cairn which was built over a cremation pyre.  Here some 2.3kgs of burnt bone lay in the central space.  Interestingly the type of stone to be found in the central cairn consists mostly of quartz.

Just north of Loanhead a second recumbent is known, however all that remains is the recumbent itself and its two flankers.  A third circle was recorded in the 18th century to the south of Loanhead in the village of Daviot, sadly nothing remains of this circle.

 

Stone Circles and the Moon

A great deal has been written about the astronomical associations between megaliths and the night sky.  In relation to stone circles it was Aubrey Burl who pointed out that a circle is not the most efficient means to observe the night sky, rather a single line of stones would work considerably better.  Indeed there are scattered throughout the British landscape enigmatic lines of stones and often in association with stone circles, such as the previously mentioned Hurlers on Bodmin Moor.

So if stone circles are not for astronomical observations, what are they for?  Increasingly, there is a body of work which is leaning towards a lunar and/or solar explanation.  Often the emphasis is on the solstices, the rising and setting sun, midwinter and midsummer being the most popular.  However, there is some suggestion that the spring and autumn solstices were just as important if not more so, particularly in Cornwall where the people of the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age were most likely to be pastoralists rather than agriculturalists.

In regard to the recumbents of Aberdeenshire it appears to be the procession of the moon which was important.  Thus the recumbent were laid in line with the southern moon but not as it rose or set but when it was actually up in the sky.

The majority of the recumbent lie in the arc between the moon’s major rising and setting…” Aubrey Burl p227 The Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany.

 Another feature of these recumbent circles is the presence of both quartz and cupmarks and again an association with the moon could be made.  The quartz shining brightly in the moonlight perhaps representing pieces of the moon itself and the cupmarks themselves do seem to generally align with either the major or minor moonset or moonrise.

To the users of the circles it may have been the steady procession of the moon above the recumbent that was wanted rather than a particular moment, minutes of moonlight when quartz glowed luminescently and when nocturnal ceremonies where performed.” Aubrey Burl  p226  ibid.

 And so, all of these elements are woven throughout Sarah’s story and have become my inspiration for the Daughters of the Moon – the Myhres an Loor.

Please find below some links to interesting websites about stone circles and megaliths in general.  Enjoy!

Stone Circles of North East Scotland

The Megalithic Portal

Stone Circles.Org.UK

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Some Megaliths From Brittany

There is a bit of a story behind this trip to Brittany…      

It is possible to catch an overnight ferry from Plymouth (Devon, UK) to Roscoff (France).  You arrive in France at about 5am and then you get to spend the day exploring the local environment before catching the ferry back to Plymouth at around 7pm that night.

For my hubby and I this was always a bit of an adventure and a chance to stock up on wine and cheese.  Regardless to say this was in the time before children.

Well it just so happens that on one trip I convinced my hapless other half to drive just a ‘wee’ way down to Brittany to see the stones at Carnac.  Anyway, the drive was longer than expected and I wish we had more time, it was quite literally a flying visit, as there was a very real possibility of us missing the ferry back to the UK.

The sites I visited were the stone alignments at Kerzerho and Le Menec as well as the Giants of Kerzerho.

Le Menec

Probably the most popular of all the stone alignments in this part of France, it is certainly the one everyone thinks of when talking of Carnac.  The alignment consists of 12 lines of some 1100 stones.  The orientation begins southwest – northeast and then about halfway makes a minor adjustment to its direction and ends in the east.  The stones have an average height of one metre although the tallest stones are found at the western end standing at three metres and the shortest stones are at the eastern end measuring 1.5 metres.

The remains of a stone enclosure can be seen at the western end amongst some farm buildings.  There was once a similar enclosure at its western end.

Kerzerho Alignments

These have a similar layout to Le Menec and cover almost two kilometres.  Today there are several hundred stones but it is believed the original number at least 1100.  The alignment  runs east to west and is intersected by a road and a village.

Kerzerho Giants

Two huge standing stones sit nestled in forest, they are six metres high and weigh approximately 40 tonnes between them.  They are aligned north to south and are thus perpendicular to the Kerzerho alignment.

The following are the few photos I managed to take.

 

Useful websites include:

www.megalithes-morbihan.com

Megaliths of Carnac

Megalithic Portal – Guide to Brittany

 

Megalithic Malta

In 1999 I visited the fascinating island of Malta with my then boyfriend (now husband), dragging the poor lad around more archaeology than he had seen in all his life…

Whilst there is a huge amount of archaeology in Malta, from all periods in time, it was the megalithic monuments which caught my attention during this trip.  Not to mention we only had a week on the island and you would probably need a whole lot more time to visit all the archaeological sites Malta has to offer.

Unfortunately at the time of our visit the Hypogeum or Hal Saflieni was closed for some desperately needed love and attention – much to my disappointment.

It is believed the first human inhabitants of Malta came from Sicily in the Neolithic.  This early phase is named for the site that epitomises this time – Ghar Dalam, a cave site in the south of the island.  This early phase begins approximately 5000BC and ends with the first temples being built around 4100BC.  The Temple Period is divided into four phases.

Zebbug – 4100-3700BC

Mgarr – 3800-3600BC

Safliene – 3300-3000BC

Tarxien – 3150-2500BC

The temples for which the first two phases are named have now disappeared either under the urban sprawl of Valetta or as is the case of Mgarr subsumed into the backstreets of the town itself.  The Safliene phase is characterised by Hal Safliene (Hypogeum), a subterranean temple carved out of the limestone bedrock to accommodate 7000 dead.

The final Tarxien phase is the one visitors to Malta will be most aware of.  The temple complexes of Tarxien, Mnajdra, Hagar Qim on Malta and Ggantija on Gozo constitute the climax of the temple building phase.

Although the temples complexes span quite a period of time they do have some common features in terms of the architecture.  To begin each will have a oval forecourt bounded by the temple facade constructed of large stone slabs.  The doorways all consist of two large uprights topped with an equally large lintel.  The passageways are always paved.  Once inside the complex, the visitor finds themselves in an open area which then  gives way to a series of D-shaped chambers or ‘apses’.

The main variation from one site to another is the number of ‘apses’. Often the walls of the temples are decorated with carvings in relief of spirals and naturalistic forms of plants and animals.  Cup marks are also a popular form of decoration.

Here are some of the photos of this trip.

Further sources of information:

Sacred Sites Webpage

The Megalithic European by Julian Cope

Visit Malta Webpage

Megalithic Temples of Malta – Wikipedia

 

The Place I Call Home

For the majority of the time I will be blogging about either New Zealand or Cornwall and if you read the page which tells you about me, you’ll know why.  But as a first post I thought I would share a little of the early history of the place I call home.  I live in a small suburb on Auckland’s North Shore – Birkdale.  Wedged between the greater suburbs of Birkenhead and Beachhaven it tends to be forgotten a little or included into the either of those other suburb and to be honest, the story of Birkdale is inextricably tied to the stories of both Beachhaven and Birkenhead.

Early History

The isthmus of Auckland (Tamaki Makau Rau) is thought to have been first settled around 1350.  A combination of fertile soil for horticulture and two harbours with abundant resources resulted in a thriving population.  On the volcanic peaks (Mt Eden, One Tree Hill etc) which dominate the Auckland skyline there is ample evidence of these early settlements.

The area of Birkenhead, Beach Haven and Birkdale was densely forested and as a result not as heavily populated but it was the sea which drew people to the area.  The sea provided an abundance of resources for Maori from flounder in the Kaipataki Inlet, shellfish from Oruamo Creek and the shark fishing grounds just below Kauri Point.  Evidence for this can be seen in the form of coastal shell middens found all around the coast.

 

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Traces of a shell midden.

Occupation sites are difficult to pinpoint but there is some evidence from oral histories and archeologically of an important pa (hillfort) called Te Matarae a Mana in the area of Kauri Point/Quarryman’s Bay during the 1700s.  In addition it is believed there is at least two other headland pa in the area, although all trace of these no longer remain.

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This headland seen from the beach at Kendalls Bay is thought to be the site of an important pa (defended settlement).

 

The musket wars of the 1800s decimated the local populations of Maori and by 1844 the area of Beach Haven was sold to the new settler government and became deserted.  Eventually, European settlers began to arrive hoping to carve out a new life for themselves.  One of the first families to arrive was the Gruts from the Jersey Islands in 1857.  But life was much harder than many anticipated, the heavy clay soils and dense bush took its toll.

Although the city seems so very close to this part of the North Shore, back then before the harbour bridge the only way to market was by ferry/boat as the overland route was long and arduous.  The first ferries ran from what is now downtown Auckland to Birkenhead in 1854 and remained a vital lifeline for people up until the Harbour Bridge was completed in April 1959.

 

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The view to the city and harbour bridge from Birkenhead wharf.

Strawberries

In the 1870s several families had a breakthrough in the form of growing fruit trees, and by the 1880s some thirty orchards were recorded in the area around Zion Hill in Birkenhead (then known as Woodside) with more being established towards Beach Haven and the present day Birkdale.  During the late 1800s it was discovered that strawberries grew particularly well in the area.  Strawberries and fruit in general, quickly became a major part of the economy.

The whole community were involved in the strawberry picking – Birkdale Primary School was known to be lenient about homework during the picking season.  The strawberry fields became so well known that people would ferry over from the city at the weekend for strawberry afternoon teas and in 1898 the Thompson family began making jam in Birkenhead which eventually became New Zealands largest jam company of Thompson and Hills.

This prosperity encouraged even more people to settle the area and in 1888 Birkenhead (which then still included Beach Haven and Birkdale) became a borough and its first mayor was elected – Charles Button.

Gumdiggers

One of the most impressive features of the North Shore bush is the magnificent Kauri (agathis australis) trees.  Around the roots of these trees it is possible to find a resin called Kauri gum. This gum forms when the resin leaks out of the cracks in the bark, it hardens when exposed to air and lumps will fall from the tree eventually fossilising.  In appearance it looks very similar to amber.

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There are still some impressive groves of the mighty kauri standing in the area.

Maori had many uses for the gum, fresh it could be used like chewing gum (kapia) and as it is highly flammable it made a good firestarter.  When it was burnt and mixed with animal fat it became the dark pigment in moko tattooing.

For the European colonists the export of Kauri gum was of major importance, for Auckland as a whole it was the main export for most of the second half of the 19th century.  Between 1850 and 1950 some 450,000 tons were exported to England.  Its principle use was as a varnish.  Kauri gum when heated mixed easily with linseed oil and at lower temperatures and by the 1890s some 70% of all oil varnishes in England used Kauri gum.

The people who harvested the gum were often transient living in rough huts or tents, it was hard work and not very well paid.  Even so, in the 1890s 20,000 people were recorded as being engaged in gumdigging throughout Auckland, Northland and the Coromandel.  At one point digging for Kauri gum even became a weekend activity for the city side dwellers of Auckland with many catching the ferry to Birkenhead to dig for gum around the suburb.  It became such a problem with roads being potholed and private farms dug into, that local authorities brought in special measures to control the matter.

As it was the quality of the gum in Birkenhead was not as high as elsewhere and eventually the gum ran out, the last permit was issued to a Mr Wheeler of Verran’s Corner in 1931.

From this point on the history of the area now becomes one of entreprenurial settlers, families and a sugar factory.