Experimental archaeology is the one path that virtually anyone can take to travel back in time; to get an idea of what life may have been like in the distant past. One such place which encapsulates this philosophy is Butser Ancient Farm, a place I had the chance to visit recently.
Butser began life in 1972, in a different location by the late Peter Reynolds, whose passion for experimental archaeology was contagious. The original farm was situated on Butser Hill, in what is now the Queen Elizabeth Country Park, in part because of the evidence for extensive Iron Age field systems on Butser Hill, still visible in the prehistoric field boundaries and earthworks that cover the landscape. However, it did not open to the public until 1974 and because of its popularity moved to a more accessible site at the bottom of Butser Hill. In 1991 the farm moved to its present location (near Chalton, Hampshire – just off the A3).
At Butser it is possible to see ten thousand years of history come to life; to see plans of archaeological sites rise up from the ground; to feel, touch, smell and absorb some of what it may have been like in the past is an experience that should not be missed. All of the buildings which have been reconstructed are based on actual archaeological sites that have been discovered through excavation.
These excavations often only reveal the faintest of remains, the postholes and their layout is usually all archaeologists have to go on as to the type of building. The artefacts found and their position in the structure can also provide clues as to the use of the space inside and outside. Understanding all the fragmentary pieces of evidence can often take a leap of faith particularly for the general public. In this case Butser provides a physical and tangible connection to the past for the visitor.
However, it is much more than that, it is a place where those who study the past can test theories in, not only ancient technologies and construction techniques but also in how sites degrade. Our understanding of how archaeological sites are formed depend very much on understanding how a place degrades, becoming the humps and bumps we see in the landscape.
In addition to the buildings, there are also gardens containing plants that would have been in use at a particular time – known from faunal analysis during excavations. Ancient breeds of sheep, goat and pig are also a feature of the farm, giving the visitor a well-rounded experience. At certain times of the year, they also host various events such as flint knapping weekends, re-enactment groups, storytelling, solstice celebrations and more.
The following are few photos from my visit this year…beginning in the very distant past of the Mesolithic and Neolithic.
In the days preceding my visit the team at Butser along with volunteers from the HMS Queen Elizabeth had a go at erecting a megalith using only the types of technology available in the Neolithic. They moved and raised a 3.5 ton piece of Purbeck limestone using theorised prehistoric techniques. The stone is roughly the same weight as the smaller bluestones at Stonehenge, which were moved over 140 miles around 5000 years ago.
When performing such tasks it is also useful to observe what is left behind, these ephemeral remains are often the hardest to interpret.
From the Neolithic we carefully saunter into the Bronze Age, the time of the roundhouse and metal working…
The Iron Age –
The Roman villa – as with all the structures at Butser the villa was built using only construction techniques known to be used in the Romano-British period. The mosaic is the only known reconstruction in the UK and the aim was to understand some of the finer points in mosaic construction but also to see what happens to it over time.
The Anglo-Saxon halls are the most recent addition to the farm and demonstrate two different types of building style.
As mentioned before Butser also engages in research and education, none of the buildings, gardens or spaces are static museum pieces, they are constantly evolving – adding to our knowledge. Most years the farm is well attended by schools wide and far who get a hands on perspective of life in the past, archaeology and history.
The gardens and the animals are an equally fascinating aspect to the farm, endeavoring to give a much more rounded picture of the past.
For more information I would highly recommend their website (and archive) – Butser Ancient Farm
Perhaps one of the most dominant and much-loved landscape features of Tamaki Makaurau Auckland are the remains of long dead volcanoes. Fifty-three volcanoes have erupted in the Auckland area over many millennia (the most recent being Rangitoto), some exist in today’s landscape as basins or form lakes and many have been quarried away for stone used in the construction of roads and building, or to simply make room for the ever-developing city.
“For hundred of years, these volcanoes have played a key part in the lives of Māori and Pākehā – as sites for Māori pā and 20th century military fortifications, as kūmara gardens and parks, as sources of water and stone.” (B.Hayward ‘Volcanoes of Auckland’ 2019).
As an archaeologist my interest in the upstanding cones of Auckland’s past volcanoes relate to the features found on and near their slopes, to this extent with the company of the dog, the other half and one of the teens, it was decided to explore those we had seen from a distance as we zipped up and down the motorway.
The four largest maunga (mountains/volcanic cones) in Auckland are Maungarei (Mt Wellington), Maungakiekie (One Tree Hill), Maungawhau (Mt Eden) and Mangere. Today’s visitor to these places may have a skewed view of the maunga, seeing them standing alone within a landscape of roads, housing developments and shopping centers. This was of course not always the case, using archaeology it is possible to strip back the layers of modern city life to see into the past. It is equally important to understand that the maunga were not static occupation sites. There were many changes over time, what we see today is simply the last phase of occupation. One of the most common assumption about all of Aucklands upstanding volcanic cones are that they were solely used for defence in times of upheaval. The common name for this type of site with its banks and ditches is pā – a Māori fortification which in turn has resulted in other misconceptions that will be touched upon below.
It is also important to know that remarkably little archaeological excavation work has been done on the maunga of Auckland. The most well known was the series of excavations done on Maungarei between 1960 and 1972 ahead of several developments (installation of water tank and road access).
As mentioned above, a pā is seen as any type of settlement which has been fortified, their defining features are the banks and ditches surrounding an area of landscape. Situated mainly on hills, spurs and headlands (but not always, such as the ‘swamp pā’ found in the Waikato), there are some five thousand known pā in New Zealand, of which, the majority are found in areas good for horticulture. Other features can include, pits, terraces and house platforms.
The above diagram is from A Fox (1976) ‘Prehistoric Maori Fortifications in the North Island of New Zealand’ depicting the variety of methods used in defence of a pā.
It is perhaps a mistake to assign a singular function to pā – they were used as places of refuge but they were also places were people lived (although not always and in some cases never), where they stored important food and water supplies; they could also be focal points for religious activity. The palisades and ditches were just as likely to be a symbolic boundary separating a sacred area from the everyday, then a fortification built during times of war.
Maungakiekie (One Tree Hill) has four heavily defended summits but at its the very highest point there is an area which is regarded as important and sacred. Called Te Totara-i-ahua after the sacred lone tōtara that grew there in pre-European times (see earlier post) and it has the greatest amount of defenses surrounding it.
One of the most common features found at many pā including the maunga of Auckland are the storage pits. Unlike the ancestral tropical home of the Māori where important food staples could be grown all year round, Aotearoa’s more temperate climate required some lateral thinking by New Zealand’s first people.
Storage pits enable kumara tubers to be stored in conditions that protected them from extremes of temperature both for future planting and consumption. There are several types of storage pits – rua are small cave like structures that are dug into the ground and sealed with a wooden door. The type which is most obvious on Auckland’s maunga are the large rectangular storage pits dug into an area and topped with a pitched roof. Depending on the size the roof was supported by either a single line of central posts or a double line of posts. Other features within the storage pit itself include drainage channels that led to one corner of the structure and a sump – an important feature in Aotearoa’s rainy climate.
The above are from Fox A (1976) ‘Prehistoric Maori Fortifications in the North Island of New Zealand’ and show the two types of storage pits commonly seen on the maunga of Auckland.
As mentioned before the maunga of Auckland existed within a landscape dotted with settlements and gardens. The fertile volcanic soils surrounding the maunga providing a perfect growing medium for kumara and later the potatoe. This combined with the easy access to other natural resources such as fish and shellfish from the nearby harbours east and west of the central maunga made the isthmus a desirable to place to live where resources were plentiful.
“The prospect from the summit is grand and nobly pleasing, I observed twenty villages in the valley below, and, with a single glance, beheld the largest portionn of cultivated land I had ever met in one place in New Zealand.” From Reverend John Butler – travelling with Samuel Marsden in 1820 as he climbed the summit of Maungarei.
The excavations of Maungarei produced radiocarbon dates for the earliest occupation on the lower slopes to the early 1500s. The period from the mid 1500s to the late 1600s was a time of intensive use. But after 1700 Maungarei does not feature in oral accounts of Māori history and was perhaps no longer an important place. The archaeology suggests that it was the two high points which were the most densely protected (tihi) by palisades and ditches. The lower terraces providing evidence of structures (postholes), hearths, fire scoops, midden deposits and storage pits.
“Maungarei was thus the location of repeated settlements, which were sometimes fortified, particularly late in the sequence, but often not.” From J Davidson (2011) ‘Archaeological investigations at Maungarei: A large Māori settlement on a volcanic cone in Auckland, New Zealand’ Tuhinga 22 Te Papa.
Increasingly, archaeological studies are showing that the pā as a site was a late feature of the landscape, dating from the 1500s onwards, not all were in use at the same time and not all functioned in the same way. This would appear to be the case for Tamaki Makaurau Auckland as well. For a long time it has been assumed that the widespread presence of pā in Auckland has meant that the area was in a constant state of flux.
“…Tamaki, in the years of Waiohua ascendency, was one of the most settled and extensively cultivated regions in Aotearoa…in spite of the received wisdom of historians to the contrary, was the the fact that tribes enjoyed long periods of relative peace.” From R C J Stone (2001) ‘From Tamaki-makau-rau to Auckland’ Auckland University Press.
Another of the common features of the maunga are the areas of flat ground surrounding cones. These terraces were used as places for living (some have house platforms), as places for storage pits and as places for gardens.
The above slideshow shows a fraction of the terraces that can be found on any given maunga in Auckland. These examples are from Maungakiekie, Mangere, Maungarei and Maungawhau.
But this is not to say that pā were never used for defence, the banks, ditches and palisades would suggest otherwise. Instead it is suggested that a more balanced view be taken when interpreting such places. Understanding that what we see in the landscape is but the final stage of a long and often complicated history – the evidence from the excavations at Maungarei are a good example of this.
The British countryside is littered with the enigmatic remnants of its ancient past, there are somewhere in the region of ten thousand pre-Roman standing monuments. Modern archaeological techniques and science may be helping us to understand such sites today but once upon a time the people who lived with them found other ways to explain their redoubtable presence. Dating back thousands of years, monuments such as stone circles, standing stones, burial mounds (round and long barrows), stone rows and other such megalithic remains, provide a wealth of folklore as answers to the how, why and who questions of the past.
There are many tales to be told but the following is simply a selection of some well known and some not so well known.
One of the most well-known megalithic sites in Britain is that of Stonehenge with its own fair share of fantastical tales attached. In the 12th century Stonehenge was referred to as the ‘Hanging Stones’ because they appeared to float in the air. Geoffrey of Monmouth writing in the same century declared that Merlin (of Arthurian fame) was responsible for the building of the stones, something which was taken as fact for many centuries.
In Geoffrey’s account the king Aurelius Ambrosius told Merlin he wanted to raise a monument for his nobles who had been killed at Amesbury by the Saxon invader Hengist. Merlin tells the king to fetch a circle of stones in Ireland called the Dance of Giants that had healing properties. Aurelius went to Ireland with an army and fought the local Irish who did not want to give up the Dance of Giants eventually winning. On seeing the size of the stones, they found it impossible to move them, but Merlin was at hand who with the use of ‘his own engines, laid the stones down so lightly as none would believe’.
Of course, we know through scientific endeavor that the largest stones come from nearby Marlborough Downs and the smaller blue stones are from the mountains in Wales, not Ireland. However, it is interesting that there did still seem to be some knowledge, a folk memory, that a part of Stonehenge came from far enough away to be a wonder. It is also of interest that these stones were believed to have healing qualities, as new theories suggest that there was strong connection between healing and the presence of the blue stones in the early phases of construction. Indeed, Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote that they washed the stones and poured the water into baths ‘whereby those who were sick were cured’.
The healing power of certain stones is an enduring feature of the tales associated with them. The most well known is that of Men-an-Tol in West Cornwall, here there is a round upright stone with a hole in it situated between two small uprights. Children were passed through the hole as a cure for rickets; it was also believed to be good for a ‘crick in the neck’ and was sometimes referred to as the Crick Stone – having personally struggled through the aforementioned holed stone, it can be suggested that it causes the ‘crick in the neck’ rather than cures. At Horton in North Somerset there is a similar stone known as the Crick Stone.
In Scotland, at the chamber tomb of Carraig an Talaidh, the portal stone is known as the Toothie Stane as a result of local people who were suffering from toothache would drive a nail into the stone. The idea being that in causing pain to the stone their own would cease. At the Rollright Stones it is said that they confer fertility upon women who touch them with their bare breasts at midnight. In addition, they are offer the power of prayer for the sick a boost if the prayers are said at the center of the Kings Men (the stone circle). The Kings Stone has a peculiar kink as result of the practice of chipping off pieces as good luck charms and amulets against the devil.
One of the most enduring tales associated with stone circles and standing stones is that of dancing. The Merry Maidens, a stone circle near St Buryan in West Cornwall, is said to be a circle of young girls who were turned to stone for dancing on the Sabbath. In field nearby are several standing stones known as the Blind Fiddler and the Pipers who were playing music for the dancers and when they saw their fate, they tried run but God struck them down turning them into stone. A similar tale is told of the Nine Maidens, also in Cornwall.
A common theme in the folklore of standing stones is of people who broke the Sabbath being punished by being turned to stone, something which would have been encouraged by the Church at the time. The stones represented the pagan and ungodly past, any idolatry of such places was to be discouraged. A classic example of the pagan vs the Christian can be seen in the story of Long Meg and Her Daughters, a stone circle in Cumbria. It was the wizard Michael Scott who when passing the place saw it was a witches sabbath and turned the participants into stone – the use of magic in this instance would appear to not sit comfortably alongside Christian beliefs but then if it is used to do God’s work.
In some cases, Christianity has taken an active role in the creation of the folktales surrounding sites. For example, the Long Stone near St Austell in Cornwall is said to once have been the staff and hat of the Saint Austell. The tale states that the saint was one day walking over the downs when his hat was blown off by a sudden violent gust of wind, he thrust his staff into the ground and chased after it. Unfortunately, the violent wind turned into an equally violent storm, driving the saint back to his home without both his staff and his hat. On returning the next day to retrieve his hat and staff he found that the Devil had turned them into stone.
The Devil also features in a legend regarding the Rudston in Yorkshire, this huge monolith stands tall in the local churchyard and the story says that the Devil was up to his usual tricks of throwing stones at Christian places. Picking up a large stone he hurled it at Rudston church, but his aim was lousy, and he missed. The Devil’s Arrows near Boroughbridge consists of three stones and is all that remains of what would have been a very impressive stone row. Legend says that these stones were bolts thrown by an irate Devil aiming for the town at Aldborough and as we have already established his aim was lousy…
An example wrong doer being turned to stone comes from Gwynedd in Wales. The Carreg Y Lleidr stone is said to be a thief who stole some books from a neighboring church and was turned to stone along with the sack of books slung over his shoulder. Here folklore is being used to deter would be thieves and encourage moral behavior.
The connection between dancing and standing stones can also be seen in the notion that at certain times of the year certain stones are reanimated. Thus, Wrington’s Waterstone comes to life and dances on Midsummer’s Day but only when it coincides with a full moon. The previously mentioned Nine Maidens are said to sometimes dance at noon. On Orkney the Yetnasteen, a standing stone in Rousay, comes to life on New Year’s morning when it goes to the Loch of Scockness for a drink. Whilst at the Rollright Stones, the Kings Men are said to resume their human form on occasion, hold hands and dance to a nearby spring to drink.
The Rollright Stones (Oxfordshire) have their own creation myth associated with witches and magic. The name itself refers to a group of megalithic structures which includes a circle of seventy-seven stones called the King’s Men, a trio of standing stones which lean together and are called the Whispering Knights and a single standing stone called the King Stone. The legend first recorded in 1586 in Camden’s Britannia tells of how a king was once heading off in an expedition to become the High King of England. When he and his men reached the site where the stones are today, the owner of the land, a formidable witch appeared and told the king:
‘Seven long strides thou shalt take,
And if Long Compton thou canst see
King of England thou shalt be.’
Determined to do just that, he strode forth but as he took his final step a large hillock appeared magically, hiding Long Compton from view. The witch then said:
‘Rise up, stick, and stand still stone,
For King of England thou shalt be none,
Thou and thy men hoar stone shall be
And I myself and elder tree’
Thus, the King and his men were turned to stone and between them up sprouted an elder tree.
Although the elder tree is no longer present, its inclusion in the tale is significant as it represents the pagan aspects of the site. Elder trees were regarded as the most sacred of trees and there are many superstitions and folklore associated with them. The Whispering Knights are said to either be knights who were plotting against the king or praying for him depending on who you talk to. A local legend tells of women who question the stones, leaning in close to receive their wisdom. The King Stone was known as the meeting place of Long Compton’s witches but was also believed to mark one of the entrances to the fairy halls under the circle.
The Rollright stones also have a connection with King Arthur; the tale of King Arthur finishes with him and his knights lying in an underground chamber waiting for time when Britain is in great need. Where this is exactly is of course left to the imagination but for Oxfordshire locals the chamber is located beneath the Rollrights. There are many sites around Britain which attest some connection with the legend of King Arthur, far too many to go into detail here (may be in another post). Suffice it to say that there are very few counties that do not have a stone or two attached to the name Arthur.
As mentioned before Christianity has on numerous occasions used the presence of stone megaliths to demonstrate their own power of good over evil and the importance of being pious. However, they do not always have it their own way. It was the practice of the early church to build their churches on sites of pagan significance, not always with good results. In Scotland near Garioch there is a site called Chapel o’ Sink stone circle, so named because once there were attempts to build a chapel within the stone circle but each night the walls would sink into the ground to such an extent that work was eventually halted, never to be resumed. There are several other similar legends connected with stone circles in Scotland – those called the ‘Sunken Kirk’.
There are also numerous tales of folk who have interfered with the stones much to their own detriment. Death and sudden illness were not uncommon, acting as a deterrent for those who respected the legends. Animals in particular, are said to be affected by changes made to megalithic sites. When the sites of Lanyon Quoit in Cornwall and the Cairnford stone circle in Grampian were threatened with destruction the local farm animals all fell ill – in time when your livelihood depended on those animals this was a disaster. Another tale tells of two stones being removed the Mains of Hatton stone circle in Scotland and being used as gate posts, they had to be replaced as the horses refused to go through them. Similarly in Scotland a stone was taken from the Grenish circle and used as a lintel over the entrance to a cow shed, but no animal would enter from that day on.
At the Rollrights there are also tales of farmers trying to take the stones to use in farm buildings; one farmer in particular, tried to use the capstone from the Whispering Knights as a mill dam, but every night the uncooperative stone returned to its proper place.
The final site type to consider is that of the barrow. A barrow is in essence a burial mound, some look like pimples on the face of a smooth landscape and others are long mounds built as a statement, many have long gone under the plough and only archaeology can tell they are there. They can range in date from the Neolithic up to the Anglo-Saxon period. The most common stories associated with these types of sites associated these places as the entrances to the Otherworld, a place where the fairy folk abide. Perhaps recalling the stories of the Tuatha De Danaan who were said to have retreated underground on their defeat by the Milesians.
In Tyne and Wear there is a barrow that goes by the name of the Fairies Cradle, it is said that on moonlit nights it is a favorite spot for fairy parades and celebrations. Near Carmyle in Strathclyde there is another barrow called the Fairy Folk Hillock where similarly revels are held by the fairy folk. These are just two examples of the many stories relating to fairy revels at ancient burial sites.
In Humberside the story goes a bit further, here there is a Neolithic long mound called Willy Howe. A chronicler writing in the twelfth century recorded how a man passing the mound found a doorway open on the side, curiosity got the better of him and peered in to find a brilliantly lit chamber in which a gathering of fairies were enjoying a feast. However, he was soon spotted gaping at the door and invited in. His hosts offered him a goblet of wine – anyone who knows anything about the fairy world knows that accepting food or drink there will seal your fate – but not wanting to offend his hosts he accepted and whilst they were not looking emptied the wine onto the ground, fleeing with the goblet. When his story got around, and the goblet inspected no one could identify the metal it was made from. The last recorded location of the goblet was when it was in the possession of Henry II.
The theme of treasure in these enigmatic humps in the landscape is highlighted by the stories of a King Sil and his treasure who was believed to be buried under Silbury Hill in Wiltshire or the gold horse and rider also said to be under Silbury. There are many tales of gold or treasure within the barrows, often such tales resulted in unscrupulous people digging into the mounds in search of such treasure but also tales of the retribution of the fairy folk for those who would dare to interfere with their sacred places. The traditional guardians of hidden treasure are the Spriggans – they would wait whilst the treasure hunter had dug a substantial hole before appearing threatening the would-be robber. Their appearance is said to be so ghastly that the mortal would depart with haste, and should he return later he would find his hole filled in. The stories tell how Spriggans had the ability to grow in size at will and in other tales they are referred to as the ghosts of the ancient giants.
On Dartmoor there is a triple stone row at Challacombe and at its northern end is Chaw Gully, said to be a ‘dangerous place inhabited by malevolent spirits, where rumors of buried gold have led many greedy treasure hunters to their doom’ (A Burnham ed The Old Stones – A Field Guide to the Megalithic Sites of Britain and Ireland).
In Fife there is a hill named Largo Law where it is ‘said that there so much gold buried in it that the wool of sheep turned yellow through eating the grass that grew upon it’ (M Alexander A Companion to the Folklore, Myths and Customs of Britain 2002). But there is also a rhyme that warns against blowing a horn at Largo Law – something a young man named Norrie failed to heed. Norrie blew his horn, no sooner had he finished then he fell down dead, buried where he lay and covered by a cairn now known as Norrie’s Law. Interestingly, a silver hoard was found nearby in 1819, giving some credence to the legend of treasure.
As we read and listen to the stories connected to these ancient monuments we begin to see the world as it may have been to those who came before. The need to explain their presence in the landscape, to understand how they were built and why within a world view that was perhaps much narrower than ours. Even though the number of fringe explanations in todays world would suggest otherwise – the continued insistence that Stonehenge was built by aliens etc is but one example. Telling stories is an integral part of the human world, often as a way of teaching morals and histories, the difference between right and wrong. Thus, whilst some might dismiss folklore as simply fantastical stories they do provide a glimpse into the minds and lives of our ancestors, helping us to understand the past in different ways, to give the past color and multiple facets.
Its that time of year in the Northern Hemisphere that some folks thoughts turn towards all things supernatural. Halloween or Samhain, to give it its traditional name, is said to be a time when the veil between the world of the ancestors and our world is at its thinnest. The celebration of this festival varies from person to person depending on age, background and of course where you live. Some choose to trick or treat, some go on a ghost hunt, whilst others use this time to remember and celebrate their ancestors.
The history of the festival of Samhain is comprehensively covered in main different parts of the internet and it is not my intention to rehash the topic here. Instead want to consider the idea of hauntings and deep past, after all the roots of Samhain can be found within the distant past with the ancestors.
Hauntings and ghosts in the UK are most commonly associated with castles, old country houses, old pubs and the like – the age and history of these places are enough to provide copious amounts of storytelling fodder. But what about the truly ancient places in the landscape? Surely based on age alone they too should have their fair share of tales…
Stonehenge is probably one of the most famous ancient sites in the UK (for more information feel free to check one of my earlier articles here). However, it does come with some of its own spooky stories…
In 1971, when it was far easier to get up close and personal with the stones, a group of hippies decided to camp out in the center of the circle. All was going well until at sometime around 2am a violent and sudden thunderstorm struck the Salisbury Plains. At the same time a farmer was checking on his stock and a policeman was in the area. Both spoke of a bright blue light illuminating the stones and of hearing screams from the campers. When they rushed to the campsite all they found were the ashes of the fire and smoldering tent pegs – the hippies had vanished.
Stonehenge sits within a much wider ‘ritual’ landscape, surrounded by numerous Bronze Age burial mounds known as barrows. One such group of barrows sits on a ridge known as Kings Barrow Ridge and it was in the woods nearby that a man in the 1950s had a strange encounter. It was late at night and the man in question was on his way home when he became disorientated. Climbing one of the barrows to get a better idea of where he was, he saw some lights in the distance and assumed them to be a farmhouse. Climbing down the barrow he became alarmed when he realised that the lights were moving towards him and they were not electric lights but flaming torches. Assuming they were a group of modern druids enacting some pagan ritual and not wanting to disturb them he hid and waited for them to pass.
Once they had passed he quietly followed them hoping they would be heading back to the main road from whence he would be able to get himself home. After awhile the silent procession reached the edge of the wood and the man recognising where he was, slipped away not wanting to disturb them. Unfortunately, he made that small mistake of looking back, he watched in horror as one by one the torches flickered out and the robed figures disappeared into thin air.
Other interesting phenomena associated with Kings Barrow Ridge are the strange blue flashes of light that are occasionally seen arcing across the barrows and the simultaneous loss of electrical current.
Another well know stone circle is that of Avebury, not far from Stonehenge (please check out my earlier article for more information about Avebury here). Perhaps one of the salient points to remember about Avebury is that a number of the stones have been removed, broken up and used as building material whilst others have simply been pulled over and buried where they lay as a result of anti-pagan fervor during the medieval period. It is said that the buildings which were built using the old standing stones are subject to a poltergeist type manifestation known as ‘The Haunt’. Then there are a number of stories which include moving lights, phantom singing and spectral figures around and within the stones themselves.
One such figure may even be the ghost of the man who died some time in the 1320s. When Alexander Keiller decided to re-erect some of the stones in the circle. Under one such stone the skeleton remains of man were found, the coins and tools on him dated his death to the 1320s, his trade as a barber-surgeon (this stone is now known as the Barber stone). It seems he was helping to dig the burial pit for the stone when it fell and crushed him. His compatriots deciding it was not worth the effort to dig him out for a proper burial and perhaps superstition got the better of them.
A similar story is told about the Caratus Stone (possibly a fifth century AD memorial stone) in Somerset. Here the tale tells of a foolish carter who tried to uproot the stone to get at the treasure which supposedly lay beneath it. Unfortunately for him, the stone (or should that be the ancestors) had different ideas, it fell on him crushing him to death. His apparition is said to frequent the area on foggy nights.
Another story regarding Avebury tells of a young woman called Edith Olivier who during World War One decided to drive to Avebury for the first time. She wrote of the looming avenue of megaliths that lined her route from the west and how once in the village she noticed a crowd of villagers attending a fair. It was not until sometime later she discovered that not only had the avenue she had seen disappeared by 1800 but that there had been no fair in the village since 1850.
Barrows and the Fae
There are many tales of the fairy folk and in different parts of the UK they often have local names, such as in Cornwall where you get piskies who have acquired the status of ‘supernatural vermin’. Also in Cornwall there is a variation of the piskie called a spriggan (a more malevolent type of fae) and it is these which are said to guard the treasures hiding in the barrows. Such traditions of fairy folk protecting the barrows of the ancestors are widespread and perhaps hark back to a distant religion.
On Wick Moor in Somerset there is a barrow surrounded by barbed wire and set within the middle of the Hinkley Nuclear Power Station. Known as Pixie’s Mound, the story goes a man found a small broken toy spade. He mended it and left it by the barrow. When he next passed that way he found the spade gone and a plate of cakes in its place, these he ate and forevermore enjoyed good fortune. During the power stations construction the builders were warned that if they built over the barrow nothing would work. Advice which they took seriously.
Throughout the UK there are many landscapes and places associated with the fairy folk. Often it is the vast lonely moorlands which seem to have more than their fair share of tales told of unwary travellers being befuddled and lead astray by the fae. In the far west of Cornwall there is a lonely stretch of moorland between Woon Gumpus and Carn Kenidjack, here not only does the Devil ride the fairy path on a black horse but dancing lights are often seen while the granite tor wails in the wind. Fairy paths are the dead straight paths which lead between fairy forts and barrows; it is on these you are most likely to encounter the fae.
Bona fide prehistoric ghosts are a rare phenomena but one of the best substantiated ghosts in the Dorset area and most probably the oldest is that of Bronze Age ghost seen on Bottlebrush Down. Here a respected archaeologist R C Clay witnessed (in 1924) whilst driving home one evening from an excavation the apparition of man on horseback galloping beside his vehicle. He wore a long dark cloak and rode bareback, brandishing a weapon angrily. Approaching a barrow Mr Clay was astonished to see the horse and rider suddenly vanish into the burial mound. He is only one of many who have seen this particular spectre.
Other ghostly figures at archaeological sites include a horse and chariot at Ruborough Camp in Somerset which is said to be guarding treasure buried there. Near Thetford in Norfolk on the banks of the river Thet there is a barrow known as Thet Hill. It is regarded as being very haunted, here a red-haired chieftan has been seen. In Wroxham (Norfolk) you may come across the apparition of a Roman soldier who will order you away, it seems he is clearing a passage for a ghostly procession of prancing horse, chariots, gladiators, lions, centurions and their prisoners who make their way from Brancaster to the arena which once stood there.
In the Welsh county of Glamorgan is one of the UK’s oldest archaeological sites. On the coast are the Paviland Caves where a burial of Paleolithic hunter was found and excavated at the end of the 19th century. Labelled the ‘Red Lady of Paviland’ stories abounded about it being a woman imprisoned there during a storm whilst hunting for treasure amongst other things and of course she was said to haunt the cave. However, this is definitely one of those cases where the human imagination was allowed a little too much free reign. The Red Lady was later proven to be a man and considerably older then first imagined.
Worth a mention though and not far from the above site is Rhossli, behind the village is a moorland area which the locals admit to feelings of being watched and menace. Here it is said the air seems full of evil foreboding…
Over the years I have visited many prehistoric sites and have heard the stories of many others. There are often those who speak of feelings of foreboding, of not being welcome. At West Kennet long barrow several people have said they have felt unwelcome. But it would seem that this depends on the person and the when of the visit. I know from my own experience that walking into a stone circle invites contemplation and even unruly children become quiet and reflective without being told. Perhaps this too is a type of haunting when only the energy remains.
Landscapes imbued with meaning, with the rituals of the past; vast stretches of empty wild rugged land; brooding moorland; mysterious stones; cursed burial mounds; noises in the mist; shadows at the corner of your eye…Samhain…a time when the veil is thin…a time to honour the ancestors…
Avebury – the largest stone circle in Europe. It is an easy platitude and just as easily the visitor can wander around the giant stones, exclaiming, wondering why and who built the circle. Then with equal ease get back in their car/tour bus, tick it off the bucket list and move on. However, stop for a moment, look around, peruse the maps and the visitor will see Avebury sits within landscape full of engimatic archaeological sites – West Kennet long barrow and Avenue, Silbury Hill, Windmill Hill, the Sanctuary to name a few. Avebury, the largest stone circle in Europe is but a single element of a much wider sacred landscape.
In fact the Avebury landscape can lay claim to having the largest human constructed mound in Europe (Silbury Hill); the largest long barrow in Britian (West Kennet); one of the largest settlement sites of the earlier Neolithic in Britian (Windmill Hill) and the remains of the longest known avenue of standing stones in Britian (West Kennet Avenue). It would be easy to think that the people of Neolithic Avebury had something to prove but that would be putting modern thoughts of competition into a mindset many thousands of years old.
But lets not jump the gun, first consider what came before the Neolithic and then look at each of the sites individually.
Hunter gatherers in Avebury
To date no single site has been discovered which can be dated to the Mesolithic. In fact the hunter gatherer forebears of Avebury offer up very little in the way of evidence to say ‘we were here’. At the most, isolated findspots of flint tools are known and even these are sparse with just over thirty being recorded. However as many a archaeological lecturer will point out ‘absence of evidence does not equal evidence of absence’.
“As a landscape it is not necessarily empty of significance. There is plentiful ethnographic evidence to show how hunter-gatherer communities invest landscapes with symbolic, mythical and narrative meanings” (Pollard J & Reynolds A ‘Avebury. The Biography of a Landscape’ 2002).
Whilst it might not be obvious to modern eyes the positioning of sites in the earlier Neolithic may well be based on long term community memories, stories and myths which stretch back into the Mesolithic. The simple passing of time reinforcing the importance of place.
Windmill Hill was in use long before the Avebury of today was constructed and is one of a group of early Neolithic monuments known collectively as causewayed enclosures. Numerous examples are known across Britain and although they vary in size and geography there defining feature are the concentric rings of ditches with multiple ’causeways’.
“As the earliest recorded monuments designed to enclose open space, causewayed enclosures represent an unprecedented phenomenon in the archaeological record of the British Isles. The deliberate deposition of artefacts and other cultural material into features dug into the ground represents another important new departure. The creation of the monuments – especially the initial act of defining a place as seperate from the outside world – has therefor increasingly been stressed as a key aspect of their function.”
(Oswald A, Dyer C & Barber M ‘The Creation of Monuments: Neolithic Causewayed Enclosures in the British Isles’ 2001 English Heritage).
Windmill Hill consists of three concentric rings of ditches first dug between 3700-3500BC with a total area of around eight hectares. Within the Avebury area there are a further two similar but less well known enclosures dating to this early Neolithic phase – Knap Hill and Rybury. Windmill Hill has been excavated on several occasions beginning in the late 1920s by Alexander Keiller. Further excavations occured in 1957, 1958 and 1988.
The artefacts found during these excavations represent what can be seen as a microcosm of early Neolithic life. The large quantity of animal bones (mainly cattle) and over twenty thousand pottery sherds represent the importance of raising stock as well as food production and consumption, perhaps in the form of feasting. The one hundred thousand pieces of worked flint; worked sarsen stone; chalk artefacts; antler tools, human bone and axes made of non-local stone represent other aspects of exchange and manufacture; human interactions with the living and the dead.
Beyond the artefacts there is the enclosure itself – for the first time areas of the landscape are being seperated out from their surroundings. Whilst we cannot say for certain it is possible that Windmill Hill was already a place with special meaning and the bounding of the land gave the activities which occured here a greater significance. Evidence demonstrates that Windmill hill was not occupied all year round, most likely from spring to autumn.
“By providing a focus for people to come together on specific occasions, the creation and re-creation of the monuments may have helped to confirm links between groups and individuals, simultaneously establishing a place of lasting significance to all.” (ibid)
The importance of causewayed enclosures such as Windmill Hill should not be underestimated. Windmill Hill provides a point of origin for the development of the later ritual landscape all too evident in the Avebury area.
Long Barrows are another type of site which belong to the pre-Avebury stone circle phase and the early Neolithic. Consisting of trapezoidal or rectangular mounds of earth, turf and chalk. There are two types, megalithic or those with stone chambers and non-megalithic or earthen long barrows.
Looking down the megalithic passage.
One of the side chambers.
West Kennet is but one of fourteen long barrows known within a three mile radius of Avebury and is dated to around 3700BC – West Kennet however, is the longest (at 100m long) and the only one in the area which can be easily visited today. Belonging to a group known as the Cotswold-Severn type it was first excavated in 1859 and then in the late 1950s. It consists of five stone chambers connected by stone corridor at its eastern end. The chambers extend twelve metres into the mound and are fronted by an elaborate facade.
Human remains were found in all five chambers, which would definitely suggest a funerary function for the site. Initially these were placed in the chambers as whole bodies but over time these were moved around, re-organised and in some cases completely removed (perhaps finding their way to the ditches of Windmill Hill and the like). After the final internments and over several hundred years the chambers were filled in with chalk rubble, pottery debris, animal bones, bone beads, stone, shell and worked flint. Within and on top of this fill other human bones were discovered, mainly of children and most dating to a later period of around 3300BC. There were ten seperate and distinct layers suggesting that this was a deliberate act and not random.
As a final act in the late third millenium BC a facade of three large sarsen stones was built across the forecourt effectively blocking access into the tomb – this act was contemporary with the main stone phase of Avebury; “…closing the monument and marking the end of ‘an older tradition focussed on ancestors and the past'” (Pollard J & Reynolds A ‘Avebury: The Biography of a Landscape” 2002).
Avebury is approximately 420 metres in diameter and encloses around 11.5 hectares. The bank is on the outside of the ditch and there are four entrances (SSE, WSW, NNW and ENE). The ditch today is four to five metres deep but originally it would have been ten to fourteen metres deep and although grassed over today when first dug the walls of the ditch would have gleamed white, a very obvious feature within the landscape. Contained within the ditch and bank is the largest stone circle in Britain and although many are now missing, it has been estimated that originally there would have been between 95-100 stones around the circumference of the ditch. The largest blocks flank the southern and northern entrances making the route into the centre sinous and not straightforward. At the northern entrance stands a huge stone sometimes referred to as the Diamond Stone and it weighs in at around sixty tonne. Up until the eighteenth century a taller straighter partner stood on the opposite side. The stones are sarsen, a hard grey sandstone with quartz grains. When freshly cut the stones would of looked very different to what they do today.
One of the most influential people in the recent history of Avebury was Alexander Keiller who undertook many of the excavations in the area during the 1930s and resurrected thirty six of the current stones. When he first bought the land only fifteen of the stones remained upright.
Within the larger circle there are two further smaller circles situated on the saddle of a crest over which the entire monument is situated. In their original form each circle would have had around 25-30 stones and a diameter of approximately 100 metres. In the centre of this were two further monuments referred to as the Cove and the Obelisk. The latter no longer exists but we know of due to William Stukeley who describes it as a pillar 5.5-6 metres high. The Cove are a box like setting of three stones of which only two still remain. In addition, fifteen metres to the west is a thirty two metre long row of nine small reddish stones; roughly half way between the southern small circle and the outer circle is another standing stone referred to as the Ring stone as it is naturally perforated. An aerial survey in 1995 identified numerous parchmarks which may represent more stones.
The smaller northern stone circle
The stone row
Further aerial work, geophysical survey and excavation have identified other features not of stone but of timber and earth. Not much can be said of these features in terms of character and date but it is likely some may be contemporary with Neolithic Avebury. For example, excavations in 1939 at the southern entrance uncovered a substantial 1 metre deep posthole suggesting a pre stone phase of timber posts. In the 1980s geophysical survey suggested the existence of multiple timber circle in the north-east quadrant about forty metres in diameter.
One notable feature of Avebury is the relative lack of prehistoric artefacts. When they are found during excavation they appear to be related to the earliest phases of the monument or its construction. The latter are often referred to as depositional deposits such as the antler picks used to dig the ditch which when the ditch was finished were then deposited on the base, in the primary fill and in the bank.
“We should avoid thinking of the construction of a monument like Avebury as a pragmatic process, as though the sanctity of the site was something conferred upon it once building was complete (not that for much of its early life is ever was). The process of digging ditches, creating banks, dragging in and erecting stones, of ‘altering the earth’, was fundamentally significant in itself – a direct intervention into nature and the cosmos. Indeed, the act of building may have been of as much significance as any completed project.” (Pollard J & Reynolds A ‘Avebury The Biography of a Landscape’)
Other deposits are found in stone holes or around stones, although only in some parts of the circle. For example, excavations of the southern Inner Circle found a concentration of worked flint particularly around the Obelisk. The south-west sector by comparison was almost clean of artefacts. In the north-west quadrant a variety of artefacts were recovered including sherds of Grooved Ware, human and animal bone, flint flakes, fragments of axes and sandstone implements. Much of this material appears to have been brought in from elsewhere and some are even older than the date deposition.
Of course, all of this is very interesting but what was it used for? Which is of course a million dollar question…interpretations vary and as more research is conducted and more information comes to light so the interpretations change or are tweaked.
The variety of theories include rituals to celebrate certain times of the year; death; transitional periods within life; making contact with the ancestors or the supernatural. Such activities may have been perceived to be dangerous times and hence the act of enclosing the site kept the people safe. Francis Pryor has suggested that the bank outside the ditch allowed people to witness the activities in the interior but at the same time excluded them by the presence of the ditch. The lack of artefacts inside the circle also suggests that this was not a space for just anybody to occupy.
“In one form or another Avebury succeeded the earlier enclosure to the north on Windmill Hill. Both were locations for the periodic gatherings of large numbers of people; these gatherings involved the deliberate burial of artefacts, animal and human remains (though on a much reduced scale at Avebury); at both sites people were involved in a dialogue with spiritual and supernatural agencies…Avebury is more formalised in terms of architecture, and more restricted in terms of how it could be entered and encountered than Windmill Hill – it is less inclusive. But, like Windmill Hill, Avebury also incorporated references to the wider Neolithic social world and surrounding landscape.” (Pollard J & Reynolds A – Avebury. The biography of a landscape.)
Most recently news has come to light of an unusual feature within the centre of the southern inner circle. A research team led by the University of Leicester and University of Southhampton found a series of stone holes which formed a square shaped monument around the now lost Obelisk. Although currently undated, it has been suggested that this may be the oldest part of the entire site and may even be a form of dedication to an even earlier house structure. Only excavation will answer these questions and once again our understanding of this site will need re-evaluating. The team also found evidence for short lines of stones which radiated out from the square to edge of the inner circle.
In the later part of the Neolithic another type of megalithic monument emerged in the landscape – the Avenues. Leading from the henge at Avebury were two double lines of megalithic stones, one heading from the southern entrance – the West Kennet Avenue; the second heading from the western entrance – the Beckhampton Avenue. Of the two only the West Kennet can be easily walked today.
Both avenues are similar in construction – each are around fifteen metres wide and consist of paired of sarsen blocks that have not been modified. The stones are set every 20 – 30 metres and are around 1.5 – 3 metres tall. The West Kennet leads to the site known as the Sanctuary on Overton Hill and is made up of around one hundred stones. It has been suggested that the avenues were not laid out in one go but were constructed in a series of stages. Dating of the avenues has been relatively problematic due the ‘clean’ nature of the sites, although the Beckhampton Avenue is regarded as being the later monument – but not by much. The current date range is between c.2600-2300BC.
The full length of the Beckhampton Avenue is not yet known and was first recorded by William Stukeley in the 1720s and even then it was in a very sorry state. By the nineteenth century only two stones remained upright known as the Longstones (or Adam and Eve). For many years there was some doubt as to what Stukeley recorded but excavations in 1999 and 2000 proved the presence of the avenue and an associated Cove at the Longstones. This area of the Beckhampton avenue underwent a series of changes and readjustments overtime eventually ending with a box shaped setting of stones forming a terminal end to the Avenue.
In regards to purpose it is fair to say that the avenues represent a need to prescribe particular pathways of movement and approach to and from Avebury. It has also been suggested that the processional ways are all about social grading – someone is always in the lead whilst others must follow. In addition, the movement through the landscape also serves as a form of remembrance – linking significant places of cultural memory together.
“At another level, the avenues transformed a landscape of scattered monuments and significant places into a unified complex that was to be approached, read and understood in a very particular way.” (Pollard & Reynold ibid).
As mentioned above the Sanctuary is connected to Avebury via the West Kennet Avenue. Located on the southern spur of Overton Hill it is a complex monument which began life as a circle of timber posts roughly twenty metres in diameter, later becoming a larger double stone circle monument. Although our understanding of the constructional history is not complete it does seem as if many of the timber posts remained in situ during the construction of the stone circles and beyond. Giving an image of a ‘confusing mass of posts’ in both timber and stone. Today the site is marked by two rings of low concrete posts. In the 1720s the field was taken under the plough and the stone removed.
However, it’s importance must not be underestimated. With commanding views along the Kennet valley, the long barrows at East and West Kennet are visible as is Windmill Hill. In addition, there is a long history of activity on the site stretching back into the fourth millenium BC. The most predominant artefact type found on site is flint knapping debris and animal bone, although finds of pottery and human bone were also found as formalised deposits.
Thirty seven metres high, thirty metres across at the top and five hundred metres around the base – Silbury Hill is the largest prehistoric human made mound in Europe and probably the most enigmatic too. It sits on the valley floor close to where the River Kennet rises at the Swallowhead Springs. It seems the construction of the site began around 2400BC although an end date is even less certain. Many attempts have been made to tunnel in to see if anything lies inside and as of yet nothing has been found. Work in 2007 suggests that the mound grew as a result of many small events, giving an image of pilgrimage.
As to its purpose, well…
There are of course many more monuments within the Avebury landscape – the West Kennet Enclosures; Knap Hill; barrows and other stone circles at places like Winterbourne Bassett – but unfortunately this blog post is already long enough. If you are interested then I do recommend reading Avebury. The Biography of a Landscape by Joshua Pollard and Andrew Reynolds. But most of all I do encourage you to get out and see these places for yourself – it is through experiencing the places of our past do we begin to get a glimmer of understanding.
The following are some online sites that may be of interest:
The original article from which this post comes from was first published in June 2014 for The Celtic Guide, a free to download magazine.
Water – it is life giving and for some life changing.It shows us a reflection of ourselves and without it we and all around us would cease to exist.It is essential to our being.Many cultures, past and present, have recognised this simple fact.For the ancient Egyptians it was from water that all creation began, in ancient Mesopotamia water was regarded as a symbol of absolute wisdom.In many situations water is given anthropomorphic qualities which are almost always female.Interpretations of the meaning behind the names for the Rivers Dee and Don in Scotland range from ‘the goddess’ to ‘the mother’.Identification with the female is common thread across the world’s cultures.
Today the most sacred river to Hindus is the river Ganges; it is worshipped as the goddess Ganga who descended from heaven to earth.To bathe in the waters of the Ganges is to wash away your sins; her waters are seen as both pure and purifying.It is also believed the Ganges flows in heaven, earth and the netherworld and is regarded as a crossing point of all beings, the living and the dead.Thus it is very desirable to have the ashes of a loved one scattered on the Ganges.This belief in the sanctity of the river, and all rivers, began early in Indian culture and has continued uninterrupted for several thousand years.
Heading far to the west and much closer to home, we arrive in Britain and ask ourselves was water important to our ancestors?The answer would be a definitive “Yes”.In fact, the importance of watery places in Britain’s past is a given for archaeologists and other like-minded individuals.There have over the years been numerous outstanding excavations and archaeological finds to back this up.
The relationship people had with water in both Britain and Irelands past can be seen as far back as the Neolithic.During this time people were beginning to make their mark on the landscape constructing sizable and (fairly) permanent monuments such as Stonehenge, Ness of Brodgar and New Grange.Such sites are usually part of a wider ‘sacred’ landscape, often surrounded by many other monuments of varying type and size but what is of interest to us here is their relationship to water.Thus the Stonehenge sacred landscape is bounded by the River Avon in the south and east, whilst New Grange and associated sites are nestled in what is known as the Bend in the Boyne (the river Boyne).The Ness of Brodgar, as well as a large number of other sites, in Orkney is situated on thin strip of land with the saltwater Loch of Stenness on one side and the freshwater Loch of Harry on the other.In this landscape there is very little to differentiate the water from the sky.
The reasons for the placement of such sites near rivers may never be fully understood but it is possible to say the symbolism is inherent but as Francis Pryor says in his book Britain BC (2003) “…it would be very easy to oversimplify our reading of that complex, layered symbolism that contained within it the shared histories of the people who created, nourished and guarded it.To say, for example, that water symbolised a soul’s journey to the next world is banal.It may have done – indeed it probably did – but it also marked boundaries in this world, and provided corridors along which people could move without crossing too many tribal frontiers.”
The Neolithic would have been a very alien world to our modern minds and trying to assess the symbolism of a natural phenomenon is fraught with numerous pitfalls.Regardless, it is important to take heed the role of waterways in Neolithic life.The lifestyle of the Neolithic would have been reasonably mobile, with people moving around the landscape following the seasons.
“Where people moved around the land, pathways between places would be emphasised, and monuments placed beside them.Given the scale of many Neolithic monuments, they may also have been placed at locales where groups were in closer proximity at certain times of the year.” (Barnatt J. ‘Monuments in the Landscape: Thoughts from the Peak’ Prehistoric Ritual and Religion. Eds. A Gibson and D. Simpson).
After the Neolithic we have the Bronze Age, a period heralded, as the name would suggest, by the appearance of metal objects (bronze, copper and gold) within the archaeological record.We also see an increasing (albeit gradual) degree of sedentary behaviour, with family type groups concentrating their activities at permanently laid out farms and fields.Many (but not all) of the monuments of the Bronze Age began to reflect this more localised behaviour with smaller monuments being built by these groups for their own use.The monuments are now found in all manner of landscapes and it would it appear that water is no longer of importance.However, excavations at sites such as Flag Fen, Lincolnshire and the finds from Duddington Loch, Edinburgh or the Rivers Thames, Trent or Witham to name a few all suggest that watery places were still of great ritual importance.
In the early days of discovery such finds were often attributed to accidental loss however the excavations at Flag Fen have seem to indicate the majority of the items deposited were done intentionally and with no desire to retrieve them.In 1984 Francis Pryor began excavating a post alignment at Flag Fen.It was 10m wide and consisted of five roughly parallel rows of posts.During the 1989 dig season the excavators began to find some unusual artefacts, some three hundred and twenty metal objects, mostly made of bronze and dating from the Bronze Age.Swords, daggers, jewellery, axe-heads, spearheads and pieces of a metal shield were amongst the artefacts uncovered.Interestingly every object had been deliberately damaged before being placed carefully into the water.The deliberate destruction of artefacts prior to deposition at Flag Fen is not an isolated example.
At Duddington Loch a number of bronze objects were found, mostly weapons, and once more all had been broken or burnt prior to deposition.Still in Scotland, Late Bronze Age swords were found in the River Tay and three Late Bronze Age shields were recovered from a bog in Yetholm, Roxburgshire.Another feature of Bronze Age deposition is its longevity, At Flag Fen and the bog sites of Ireland such as Dowris, Co. Offaly; Mooghaun, Co. Clare and the Bog of Cullen in Co. Tipperary deposition did not occur as a single event rather it was the result of many individual events over a number of years.In the case of the Irish bogs over two hundred bronze artefacts have been found, deposited over a number of years.
The tradition of deposition in watery places continues into the Iron Age. Still the weapons appear in rivers, for example, the Battersea Shield found in the River Thames, a horned helmet from under the Waterloo Bridge and the Witham Shield from the River Witham. An excavation at Fiskerton in Lincolnshire also discovered a causeway that led to Lindsey a significant patch of dry land which is essentially an island bounded by the rivers Humber and Trent to the north and east and the Witham and fens to the south.Here the archaeologists found swords, spearheads and other artefacts deposited into the wet ground.Interestingly it has been suggested that the deposits coincided with periods when the causeway was being rebuilt around the time of lunar eclipses.
Similar to the Bronze Age, the bogs and lakes of the west seem to be the place of choice for ritual deposition.The most well known is Llyn Cerrig Bach (originally a lake) in Anglesey.From here some one hundred and fifty objects were recovered.The finds from Lylyn Cerrig Bach are regarded as the most important collection of La Tene style metalwork in Britain to be found.The artefacts found included two slave chains, swords, spearheads, a bronze trumpet, cauldrons, iron bars, blacksmith tools and animal bones.Once more all had been deliberately broken and deposited over a long period of time, approximately from 300BC to 100AD.In fact there may have been a double whammy of sacredness here, as it has been suggested that islands represented sacred spaces because they were bounded by water on all sides.
This connection between water and the deposition of weapons is embodied by the later legends of King Arthur.In Malory’s version King Arthur instructs Sir Bedivere “…take thou Excalibur, my good sword, and go with it to yonder waterside, and when thou comest there I charge thee throw my sword in that water”.For some this could be regarded as a cultural memory, a continuation of a ritual performed by our ancestors for many generations.
But it is not only lakes and rivers that were important there were also the peat bogs.Finds from peat bogs are of a relatively common occurrence given the use of peat for fuel.Of course the most famous of all bog deposits are the human bodies. Bog bodies are well known in several European contexts for example, Tollund Man found in a Danish bog.However, there are also examples from Germany, Holland, Norway and Sweden.The tradition goes right back to the Mesolithic and culminates in the Iron Age and early Roman period.
One of the most dramatic discoveries in Britain was that of ‘Lindow Man’ found in a peat bog at Lindow Moss in Cheshire.The remains were of a young male (mid 20s) who had been violently killed from a blow to his head, strangled and a cut to his throat. A detailed examination of the remains suggests he was of a high status.His teeth were healthy, his nails manicured and his beard and moustache neatly trimmed, in addition there were none of the usual signs on the bones that he had ever done any heavy manual labour.Radiocarbon dating has his death and deposition at somewhere in the mid first century AD.
Many reasons for such a grisly deposition have been put forth, from murder and violent robbery to human sacrifice.Sacrifice in the Iron Age was well known and took many forms either as the sacrifice of an object, an animal or a person.
“The Celts did not love their deities; they made contracts with them as they did in their own society.By making offerings into pits, wells, springs, peat bogs and all watery places, no doubt with the solemn attendant ritual, the druids were in fact ‘binding’ the gods into making reciprocal gifts to mankind…” (A Ross ‘Ritual and Druids’ in The Celtic World ed M Green).
It would seem that the greater the ‘ask’ the greater the sacrifice.The Lindow man was deposited at a time of turmoil in Britain, northern England was not properly subjugated by the Romans until well into the first century AD, perhaps he represents a last ditch attempt by the Druids asking for the Gods intervention? Perhaps his grisly death is a reflection of ‘destroying’ an object before it is deposited into its watery grave? Throughout Britan and Ireland there have been almost two hundred documented cases of bodies found in bogs.Not all are dated to the Iron Age and not all can be given a ritual explanation.
Any discussion on the sacredness of watery places needs to include springs and wells. Unfortunately, the majority of springs have been tampered with, cleared out and utilised to such a degree in our history the evidence is very sparse indeed.Some prehistoric sites are associated with springs through proximity such as Swallowhead springs which is near the Neolithic monuments of Silbury Hill and West Kennet long barrow.However, the best preserved piece of evidence comes from the town of Bath.Here we have the very famous Roman baths based around the springs dedicated to the goddess Sulis Minerva.The impressive complex of baths and temples built by the Romans began some fifteen years after the Boudiccan rebellion.It does seem this was an attempt to do honour to a local deity – Sulis – by aligning it with one of the more significant Roman deities – Minerva.It is well recorded by the Romans the importance of this site to the local people.Thousands of coins of both Roman and Celtic type have been found in or near the hot springs in addition to many curse tablets of a Roman date.
This tradition of offerings to a spring or well continues into the modern day.Throwing a coin into a well to make a wish is a common practice as is the tradition of well dressing.Every summer throughout the counties of Britain wells are cleaned up and made pretty.The longevity of this practice is well attested, in 960 a canon was issued that expressly forbade the ‘worship of fountains’ and yet it could not be suppressed, eventually the church turned these pagan sites into Christian holy wells.In some cases the well or spring has a special tree nearby, a Clootie tree.The clootie is a piece of cloth that has been dipped in the spring’s water and then tied to the tree, after which a supplication is given to the saint or deity of the spring.Many of these springs are associated with healing, in some cases the clootie represents the ailment and it is believed that once it has perished then so will the ailment.
Clooties hanging on a tree by Madron Well – West Cornwall
Chapel Euny Holywell – West Cornwall. Photo by Frances Watt.
Furthermore it is not unusual for a church to be built near a sacred spring or well such as St Oswalds in Cumbria or at Golant in Cornwall. Some have even embraced the sacred well as is the case for St Winefride’s well in Holywell, Wales. In fact the overall sanctity continues well into the Christian era, monasteries can be found on islands (St Michael’s Mount or Lindisfarne) and many other Christian religious houses are situated close to rivers.
This article merely scratches the surface but from reading and research it soon becomes apparent that water in all its forms has played a major role in the history and prehistory of our world.It has defined where we live and it has defined how we live, indeed if we live at all.That our ancestors’ revered water should be of no surprise to us and yet often it is.
“Water is life’s mater and matrix, mother and medium.There is no life without water.” Albert Szent-Gyorgi
“Nothing is weaker than water, yet for overcoming what is hard and strong, nothing surpasses it.”Lao Tzu
Stonehenge – a name that evokes a great many emotions in a great many people. For some it is a place of pilgrimage, a place to connect with the ancestors and for others it is seen as a tourist trap or something to tick off the bucket list. For centuries it has captured our imagination; never has a heritage site been so controversial – something which continues to this day. In this post it is not my intention to give a full on thesis about Stonehenge, there are plenty of books/websites who do this already. Instead it is simply an overview of what is currently understood about the site, its surrounding landscape and my own personal thoughts.
Stonehenge is situated on the Salisbury Plains, to the south is the busy A303, a main road between the south-west and London, and for many years the equally busy A344 ran alongside the site. This latter road was removed sometime ago to improve the visitors experience. Today there are ongoing discussions regarding the upgrading of the A303 and a proposed tunnel. It is a highly emotive subject, on one hand I understand the need to improve the road situation (ask anyone who is stuck in a traffic jam on the A303) but as an archaeologist I am also aware of the sensitive nature of the surrounding heritage landscape (and yes I am on the fence). Mike Pitts in his recent post discusses the pros and cons for those of you who are interested.
For the visitor today the focus is on the large stone circle with its trilithons, they marvel at how it could have been built by ‘primitive man’ often leading to suggestions of alien intervention and lost technologies. But such thoughts only serve to belittle our ancestors and our past. Others may ask why did our ancestors build Stonehenge? Often the answers are unimaginative and simple – sun-worship; display of power; ancient computer; druid temple – once more when we look only for one answer to a what is obviously a complicated site of great longevity we belittle their achievements. Instead if Stonehenge was understood in terms of the wider landscape and as a site whose history spanned several millenia we might come to some small understanding of how and why.
In today’s world of instant gratification where everything has a beginning and an end, it is hard to imagine beginning a project knowing you might not see it finished but this was a reality for the builders of Stonehenge. It has lead some to suggest that it was not the end product which was important but the doing, the act of building which was in fact the purpose. Suggesting a cyclical thought pattern which can be seen in other aspects of prehistoric life – round houses, stone circles, round barrows. in addition, time itself was most likely viewed in cycles, the phases of the moon and the movement of the seasons are all cyclical events which would have been of great importance to prehistoric people trying to make sense of their world.
“So was Stonehenge ever ‘finished’? The answer to that has to be no, because completion was never the intention of the people who created it.” (Pryor F. 2016 ‘Stonehenge: The Story of a Sacred Landscape).
It is well known that Stonehenge itself had many incarnations, perhaps meaning new and different things with each alteration or rebuild. To understand Stonehenge it is important to consider it in the wider context of the surrounding landscape (there are literally hundreds of prehistoric monuments around it) in all the different phases.
The Mesolithic Story
The story of the Stonehenge landscape begins back in the Mesolithic, ongoing recent excavations at Blickmead are providing archaeologists with tantalising clues as to why this area was important to our ancestors. The site is situated near a spring by the River Avon, excavations began in 2005 and almost immediately were fruitful. Basically, the deposits consisted of an array of Mesolithic settlement debris, mostly flint fragments (tens of thousands) but also a great number of animal bones. Interestingly, the site also yielded the largest collection of auroch bones ever found on a Mesolithic site in Britain so far. Other animals which were hunted and consumed included red deer, wild boar and salmon – this has led archaeologists to suggest that feasting was a common occurence around the spring. The spring itself is quite unusual as it has the tendency to stain flints and other materials a bright magenta pink – the importance of springs in later prehistory is well attested to.
In 1966 row of four large pit like features were found during upgrades to the old carpark close by Stonehenge. When excavated one was found to be a the root-hole of a tree and the other three were holes dugs to hold large poles. Examination of the material from these features gave a date range from between 8500 and 7000BC. The posts would have been approximately 75cm in diameter and were from pine trees. Later in 1988 another post-hole was discovered south and east of the original pits but it was contemporary.
So here we have a landscape already well populated by hunter-gatherer communities who revered certain natural features long before Stonehenge makes an appearance. A landscape which had meaning to the people who inhabit it; who had traditions and memories of place.
At around 3500BC (Neolithic) with the arrival of farming these communities and their traditions had evolved and more permenant features began to make an appearance on the landscape. Long barrows such as those at East and West Kennet or Winterbourne Stoke were the first to appear and by 3400BC the Stonehenge Cursus and Lesser Cursus was under construction.
3000BC – The first official phase of construction
In many parts of Britian at this time a new type of monument was being constructed, these were earthwork enclosures which are referred to as henges. They consist of irregular cut ditches encircling a defined area with corresponding banks. Stonehenge’s earliest phase was one such earthwork. Here there were two entrances one faced north-east and the other faced south. The north-easterly entrance remained in use for much of the sites lifetime and appears to be important to its function. The entrance is aligned along a line of natural gullies which face towards the midsummer sunrise in one direction and the midwinter sunset in the other.
These natural gullies would have been visible to the people of the Mesolithic and may have been why the large pine posts were erected where they were – the midsummer and midwinter solstices were just as important then as they were to the later prehistoric communities.
Inside the earthwork enclosure around the inner edge of the bank were fifty-six regularly spaced pits – these are now known as the Aubrey Holes. There is some discussion as to what they were or what they contained – small stone uprights or wooden posts? However, what is known is that eventually they did contain cremated human remains. Similar deposits have been found in the partly filled ditch and cut into the bank suggesting that at this stage in its history Stonehenge was used as a cemetary, among other things.
The Building of the Stone Monument
At around 2500BC Stonehenge began to resemble a site we are much more familiar with. It is at this time that the massive sarsen stones from the Marlborough Downs were moved to the site and erected. If that was not all at the same time the smaller but no less cumbersome, blue stones from the Preseli Mountains in Wales were transported and erected at Stonehenge. The Heel stone was moved to its current position and four smaller sarsen stones (the station stones) were erected inside the enclosure just inside the bank.
The first two diagrams above demonstrate one theory of how the trilithon stones were erected. The third diagram shows the sophistication of the construction, with each lintel fitting neatly into each other – borrowed from the Univeristy of Buckingham’s MOOC “Stonehenge”.
In a mere one hundred years it seems the two main structures of the trilithon horseshoe and the circle was completed. Interestingly it seems that greater care was taken in the shaping and construction of the stones visible from the north-east side and the main entrance. The bluestones were also erected at this time but not in the form we see today at Stonehenge. Excavation has shown us that there were two concentric arcs of stone holes, known as the Q and R holes were found on the north and east sides of the central area. It has been suggested that these were not representative of a complete circle as there is little to no evidence on the southern or western sides of corresponding holes.
2200BC – Consolidation and Alterations
From this time on Stonehenge underwent a series of minor alterations although the large sarsen stones remained in their positions although much later in the Bronze Age shallow carvings of axeheads and the occasional dagger were added. There are some 115 carvings and these have been dated stylistically to between 1750 and 1500BC.
The smaller bluestones however were rearranged and by 2200BC the incomplete circles were dismantled and repositioned to form a circle concentric to and just inside the circle of larger sarsen circle whilst a second oval of bluestones (spotted dolerite) was also formed within the trilithon setting. Later a number of stones were removed from the oval to form the horseshoe setting which is seen today.
At around the same time the ditch was recut and a small bank was constructed and the Avenue was constructed. This later feature follows the solstice alignment with ditches and banks for part of the way and then veers off to the east ending in a valley of the River Avon. Recent excavations at the place where the Avenue meets the River Avon have uncovered evidence for a previously unknown henge monument made up of bluestones. These were likely to have been removed to supplement the bluestones already at Stonehenge.
Surrounding the monument are significant numbers of round barrows dating from the Bronze Age, some of which contained rich burials with artefacts made of bronze, gold, jet and amber. Suggesting a society rather different from the one which was able to come together communally to construct Stonehenge and yet the place, the landscape and the site still had a powerful pull to these people – it is no different today…
Above are two of the many round barrows littering the landscape around Stonehenge.
The pictures above show a reconstruction of houses found during excavations at Durrington Walls which date to approximately the same time as when the main phase of construction at Stonehenge was underway. It is interesting to note the layout of the houses with the ‘dresser’ opposite the door and the beds to the right as you enter. This layout is reminiscent of house layouts at Skara Brae and later similar layouts are seen in Bronze Age roundhouses.
Stonehenge is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Britain; it evokes a variety of emotions; it is a British icon and yet so many people still only today see the stones. Yes they are impressive but there is so much more to their story than what you see. To really understand Stonehenge the curious need to look at the wider landscape and then look further again. Afterall, not too far away is the equally astounding landscape surrounding Avebury. What was the relationship between these two sacred landscapes? What can they tell us about the people who lived at the time? These landscapes were created by a people who viewed the world very differently to ourselves and carry a language, a dialogue that would have been obvious to those who lived in the Neolithic and even the Bronze Age. In our modern world where landscapes are viewed as places to use – either to make money or in terms of leisure pursuits – it is often hard for us to step back in time to view the landscape as living breathing entity without which we could not survive.
Stonehenge and its surrounding landscape undoubtedly meant many things to the people who occupied it (and probably those further afield too), the stones themselves were taken from the land and perhaps used to create a space where the natural world could be contained; where a semblance of control was maintained; where perhaps a balance was found between the natural world and the constructed world.
There are a great deal of books and websites which delve into the Stonehenge enigma in far greater detail. I have listed some of those below (browse Amazon for comprehensive lists). In particular I would like to recommend the free online course run by Buckingham University via Iversity (click here for more details).
Pryor F (2016) Stonehenge: The Story of a Sacred Landscape
Parker-Pearson M et al (2015) Stonehenge: Making Sense of Prehistoric Mystery
Parker Pearson M (2013) Stonehenge: Exploring the Greatest Stone Age Mystery
Bowden M et al (2015) The Stonehenge Landscape: Analysing the Stonehenge World Heritage Site.
If archaeology is your thing (and it’s certainly mine) then Cornwall is a great county to visit with a mulititude of sites to visit, especially if you want to get away from the crowds and sitting on the beach has lost its appeal. From the outset I should point out the following are my favourite sites/landscapes to visit (it was quite difficult to keep it to just ten and yes they are mostly prehistoric sites), others may have different views – the list is purely my own opinion. Feel free to comment on your favourites.
1. Chun Castle and Quoit
Okay so I have cheated a bit – here we have two very different sites but their proximity to each other I think allows for a bit of cheating…
Firstly, Chun Quoit – quoits are neolithic monuments found throughout Cornwall (there are about a dozen known sites) consisting of upright granite slabs topped by a large capstone. They can also be called portal dolmens, chamber tombs or cromlechs. Some are in a better state of repair than others and Chun Quoit is perhaps one of the few which has been interferred with the least. Chun Quoit consists of four large uprights supporting a capstone which is estimated to weigh over 8 tonnes. It is also possible to see the remains of a circular stone cairn and associated kerbstones (the stone rubble at ground level) which would have originally surrounded the Quoit but not covering it leaving a the facade and the capstone visible.
Two hundred metres to the east of the quoit are the impressive remains of Chun Castle. Unlike many other Iron Age hillforts which utilise an earthen ditch and bank system Chun Castle is entirely stone built. It consists of two large concentric stone walls and is 85 metres in diameter. There is some evidence that the hillfort was built over an earlier enclosure represented by a shallow ditch and low bank on the southwest side. Inside the hillfort there is a stone lined well and escavations during the late 1920s found evidence for a later post Roman occupation of the hill fort. Iron Age occupation consisted of at least a dozen round houses which based on the pottery found date the site to the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC. Sitting high on the ridgeway known as the Tinners Way the site would have been visible from many miles around, from here it is possible to make out several other hillforts in the distance such as Caer Bran. Below the hillfort about 500metres to the north east is the site of Bosullow Trehyllys – a courtyard house settlement of the late Iron Age (see the earlier post on Chysauster and Carn Euny), it is unexcavated but appears to consist of at least three detached courtyard houses and a number of round houses.
I wanted to include a courtyard house settlement in the list and it was a choice between Carn Euny and Chysauster. In the end Chysauster won mainly because it is easier to get to but also because the visitor can get a good idea of size of this unique house type. However, I would recommend a visit to Carn Euny too – the fogou makes it well worth while. I have discussed both sites already in a previous post – Chysauster and Carn Euny – A Unique Settlement Type – so won’t say much more than that.
3. Treryn Dinas
Treryn Dinas falls into the category of Iron Age cliff castle or promontory fort – one of many coastal headlands with Iron Age defences in the form of earthen or stone ramparts and external ditches usually across the neck of the headland. The term ‘cliff castle’ does not denote a particular function, some were large enough to have settlements within their walls, such as The Rumps and Trevelgue Head, others were much smaller and perhaps served as trading posts or lookouts. Treryn Dinas, however, appears to more than that – the visitor only need to look at the position and surroundings of this site to realise it is special.
Overlooking the beach at Porthcurno, the ramparts enclose a large rocky headland which contains the Logan Rock – a substantial boulder perched on the outcrop which in times past would rock in the wind and was only dislodged in 1824 by cocky young lieutenant and the crew of the HMS Nimble. The local people were rightfully upset at this and the lieutenant was charged to replace the rock at his own expense and with the help of the admiralty it was eventually returned to its original position, although it is said to no longer rock as easily as it had done once before.
According to folklore the earliest inhabitants of the headland were the giants who protected the neighbouring communities in return for cattle and other necessaries. Giants are a common feature in Cornish folkore and seem to be particularly associated with large outcrops of granite which feature in the landscape. From an archaeological point of view Treryn Dinas has four lines of defence with the last crossing the low neck of the headland. It consists of a deep ditch and a stone faced wall behind which are the foundations of two buildings either side of the presumed entrance. The general view is that this site is one of spiritual significance which may date many centuries earlier than the Iron Age. Finds of Bronze Age pottery have been found wedged in the crevices of the outcrop, the Logan Rock itself may have been seen as supernatural and there is the problem of that fourth line of defence. You will note in the photograph below that this line of defence is not particulary defensible as it easily looked down from the landward side, in addition the amount of useful land on the headland is extremely limited and the only thing the fourth rampart is ‘protecting’ are the rocks themselves.
Looking to the headland – below the rock outcrop is the remains of the internal wall protecting the headland.
The substansial outer bank on the landward side.
In the parish of St Buryan is the stone circle of Boscawen-Un, dating to the early Bronze Age and consisting of nineteen stones there are several interesting features of the site. The most obvious is the stone which is slightly south of center, it leans sharply towards the north east and at its base there are two very faint relief carvings of axe heads. A past student once suggested to me that the stone itself looked like a large stone axehead which had been struck into the ground. Minor excavations have further revealed that its leaning position was intentional and not the result of subsidence. The second interesting feature of this stone circle is the large block of quartz to the south west which is part of the circle. Our understanding of the role of quartz within prehistoric rituals is poorly understood but there is an increasing amount of evidence which points to its importance.
Okay, so now I really am cheating but the fact is any visit to Cornwall should definitly include a fogou and I couldn’t decide which I preferred – Carn Euny or Halligye are the easiest to get to and Halligye the largest (it can be found on the Trelowarren Estate, near Helston) however, Carn Euny does have a courtyard settlement, the nearby hillfort of Caer Bran and the fogou itself has a beehive shaped internal chamber. So you can see my dilemma…I have already written about fogous in an earlier blog so shall not rehash what we know and don’t know about these enigmatic structures.
6. Carn Brea
Situated between Redruth and Camborne is long hill easily visible from the A30, it is a hill with a long history beginning as far back as the Neolithic. Today two features stand out the most, firstly the the tall monument on the central summit erected in 1836 in the memory of Francis Bassett of Tehidy and the second is the small medieval castle perched on an outcrop. The latter was most likely a hunting lodge belonging to the Bassetts, an ancient local family and was first recorded in the fifteenth century. The land surrounding the hill was prime tin mining country and the flanks of the hill are covered in shafts and pits.
Heading further back in time the astute visitor might notice the remains of eleven Iron Age roundhouses on the saddle between the east and central summits, these are part of a much larger settlement on the hilltop, set within a substantial hillfort of forty-six acres. The defences are made up of two ramparts enclosing the hill. However, the occupation of Carn Brea began much earlier in the Neolithic. Surounding the eastern and central summits are another two smaller enclosures, of these the eastern summit has been partially excavated. The date range showed that the ramparts had been built somewhere between 4000 and 3500BC, making it the oldest known fortified settlement in Britain. There were traces of wooden buildings and Neolithic pottery, in addition a large number of flint arrowheads (700+) were uncovered along with evidence for the destruction of the site suggesting the site had been under attack (Cornish Archaeology, 1981, 20).
Looking east the 15th century castle can be seen in the distance. In the foreground the remains of one of the Iron Age roundhouses is visible as a semi circle of stones.
The path through the inner Neolithic enclosure wall.
Winter is the best time to visit – the outer ramparts are clearly visible.
7. Trevelgue Head
So many visitors to Cornwall will invariably end up in Newquay without realising the long and fascinating history of this seaside town. Just north of St Columb Porth on the road to Watergate Bay is the impressive cliff castle of Trevegue Head. It is the most heavily defended of all the cliff castles with seven lines of defence. The first ditch and bank is not so obvious as the next six with largest bank being roughly four metres high. Erosion over the centuries has seen much of the land disappear and it is suggested this included the original entrance. Excavation in th 1930s demonstrated that Trevelgue was continously occupied from the thrid century BC until the fifth/sixth century AD. At least fourteen roundhouses were identified (it is still possible to see the house platforms with a keen eye). Given its position in the landscape, the sheer scale of the defences, some of the artefacts found (bronze horse harness and Roman coins) in addition to the significant amount of evidence for both bronze and iron smelting, it is fair to say Trevelgue Head was most likely a high status site, the home ground of someone of great import.
The importance of this headland and other similar to it along the coast is further attested to by the presence of the two bowl barrows dating to the Bronze Age – these were opened in late 1800s but nothing is known of their contents. Further along the coast is Trevelgue Downs where a further two barrows can be seen. In the eastern barrow a crouched adult skeleton was found within a stone cist with a stone battlexe close to hand. From personal experience I have walked this cliff castle many times and it was not uncommon to espy tiny Mesolithic flints protruding from the exposed edges of the paths. Further testament to the sites long history.
Looking towards the end of the headland. On the right is the first of two Bronze Age barrows.
Eroded banks and ditches of Trevelgue Head.
It had to be on the list – perhaps one of the most controversial of all sites in Cornwall from local resistance to English Heritage’s plans for the site to the myriad of myths and legends associated with Tintagel – no where captures the imagination more. Like several other sites on this list I have already waxed lyrical about Tintagel so will not bore the reader with much of the same (but do follow the link if you want to seperate fact from fiction).
9. Castle an Dinas
An impressive example of an Iron Age hill fort found in mid Cornwall near St Columb Major. Measuring 260m across it would have been a formidable place in its heyday, the substantial ramparts are visible for many kilometres even today. There is some faint evidence for a much earlier enclosure on this hilltop possibly dating from the Neolithic or Bronze Age and the presence of two Bronze Age barrows within the hillfort is further testament to the importance of this place throughout prehistory. In the early 1960s a relatively small excavation was undertaken with the idea of prove the tradition of such places being re-used during the post-Roman phase and although they failed to do this a fine cobbled road was found.
10. Bodmin Moor
Yes I know this really is cheating…but no list of sites to visit is complete with at least one from Bodmin Moor. However the problem is I could not choose just one, there are so many wonderful sites to visit on the moor. Like its much larger cousin in the next county over, Dartmoor, Bodmin Moor has a wide variety of archaeological sites to visit beginning way back into the Mesolithic (flint scatters possible representing seasonal camps as found on Butterstor) and the Neolithic such as Stowes Pound and Rough Tor which are thought to be tor enclosures similar to Carn Brea and Trencrom further to the west, but it is the Bronze Age which dominates the archaeological record.
There are stone circles, stone rows, menhirs, barrows (earthen mounds), cairns (stone mounds) and of the latter there is in excess of 300 known. The most well known barrow is the Rillaton barrow which is the largest on the moor and where an individual was buried with a bronze dagger, an urn and a beaten gold cup.
“…the distribution of the monuments throughout the whole of the upland suggests that its use had intensified enormously. Virtually every block of land (as defined for example by prominent hills and divided by rivers and streams) is marked by a group of cairns, as if all available land was claimed and accounted for. The analysis of fossil pollens fromthe ancient land surfaces sealed beneath the excavated cairns shows that by this date the upland was predominantly open grassland, with woodland confined to the steep valley sides.” (Herring P & Rose P Bodmin Moors Archaeological Heritage pp17-18)
There are sixteen known stone circles of which the best known is the Hurlers. All the circles seem to have been placed carefully within the landscape – nearly all are within sight of tor which is always to the north of the circle, with Roughtor being the most dominant (nine of the sixteen circles). The stone rows, menhirs and embanked avenues are not as numerous but still make up an important part of the ritual landscape.
A feature of the later Bronze Age landscape of the moor is represented by the vast numbers of settlements represented by field walls and the stone foundations of round houses. There are approximately 1500 prehistoric round houses representing around 200 settlements and although only three have been excavated they are assumed to be all by analogy with Dartmoor to belong in the second millenium BC. Often found associated with these settements are field systems of varying shape and size best seen from the air and on large scale maps.
Ar around 1000BC a deteriorating climate and soils resulted in most settlements being abandoned and the use of the moor being less intensive. The hillfort sites of Bury Castle, Cardinham and Berry Castle are the only easily identifiable settlements of the Iron Age, although it is assumed that the moor continued to be used for the seasonal grazing of livestock, much as parts of it are today.
Before we delve too deeply into fogous and the mystery surrounding them it is probably a good idea to describe what a fogou is. The word ‘fogou’ is very simply Cornish for ‘cave’ and this gives us our first clue. It is, in essence a subterranean (or semi-subterranean) structure. Occasionally other writers will compare the Cornish fogou with the Scottish or Irish souterrain but beware of this pitfall; the Cornish will not thank you for it.
The structures in themselves are “…a low passage walled with dry masonry and roofed with large stone slabs, generally but not invariable underground and generally attached to an Iron Age settlement.” (Weatherhill, Pool and Thomas 1980 ‘The Principle Antiquities of the Land’s End District’).
Typically, fogous vary between 12 to 15 metres in length and 1.5 to 1.8 metres in width. The passage walls have a degree of curvature with courses of corbelled masonry to reduce roof width and in most cases the passage itself curves or branches making it difficult to see the end as you enter. Most have a wide accessible entrance today, but it does seem that for many the original access point was a low restrictive doorway called a ‘creep’.
As mentioned before fogous are almost always associated with a settlement dating to the Iron Age and for many they would have been the only stone structure within that settlement. The distribution of these sites is restricted to areas west of the Fal Estuary with the majority being in West Penwith. There are at least twelve sites known for certain and at least another a dozen or so possible sites suggested from placenames, fieldnames and those described by past antiquarians. For example, the West Penwith Survey identified one such site at Lower Leah from a description left by J T Blight in 1850 of a subterranean chamber in which burial urns and fused tin were found.
No two fogous are exactly alike and to further emphasise this, the structures at Carn Euny and Bosporthennis each have what is known as a ‘beehive hut’. The name is something of misnomer as the structures were highly unlikely to have anything to do with bees or bee keeping. The name was given due to the shape of the chamber, which resembles a beehive.
Excavations at Carn Euny during the 1960s and 70s depict a settlement which was occupied for about seven hundred years from around 500BC. There were several phases, the earliest consisted of timber structures and the last was the construction of the stone courtyard houses which are visible today. The ‘beehive hut’ is associated with the earliest phase of settlement, a second phase of roundhouses are associated with the construction of the long passage and by the time the courtyard houses were constructed the passage was made to link into the courtyard house north of it.
Inside the fogou
Inside the beehive
The entrance to the fogou at Carn Euny – not the original entrance.
The most recent fogou to be excavated is that of Boden Vean on the Lizard Pennisula. This particular site was first recorded in 1816 by the vicar of Manaccan and then was promptly lost. In 1991 the current landowner was having some pipe work done in a field when a cavity emerged and the fogou was rediscovered. Geophysical survey identified several anomalies, one of which turned out to be a Bronze Age roundhouse and subsequent excavations demonstrated that the fogou was part of an enclosed Iron Age settlement known as a ‘round’ (which can rather confusingly be anything but round…).
Fogous and their Function
What were fogous used for? This is the heart of the mystery. The lack of consensus, of agreement as to what the function of a fogou is defines Cornish archaeology and archaeologists. There are three possible explanations – a place of refuge, storage and ritual. Lets’ examine each of these in turn.
Refuge – this particular theory has generally fallen out of favour. The argument against this theory relates to the accessibility of the fogou. When most fogous were built the only access was through the creep and whilst it is an easy enough task to crawl through if you are young, fit and not claustrophobic, an elderly or infirm person would find it difficult. The second point against this theory is the lack of an exit strategy. It would be an easy enough task for any would be raiders to smoke out the people hiding in these passages, there are no air vents and no other way out. The third and final nail in the coffin relates to the overall position of these structures within the landscape, many are situated within easy distance of well defended site such at Carn Euny with the hillfort of Caer Bran only a short distance uphill.
Storage – for many archaeologists this is the prevailing theory. Comparisons are often made to souterrains found in Brittany, Scotland and Ireland which did have a more utilitarian purpose and are often of very different dates. However, Ian Cooke suggests that the fogou is not an imported concept, they “…represent a continuation of long established local megalithic traditions.” (Antiquities of West Cornwall 3 Carn Euny Village and Fogou).
In Cornwall there is a tradition of building places of storage, these are called ‘crows’ or ‘hulls’. A crow is a small stone hovel used to store tools, fuel and in some cases livestock. They are often built into the side of a field hedge or bank and most are at best two centuries old. A hull is a chamber dug out of the ground and faced with stone; often there will be a lintelled doorway to prevent collapse. They are found close to settlements and were used to store perishable foods. These structures were common from around fourteenth or fifteenth century.
However, the argument against the use of fogous as a place of storage considers how damp and airless they are (a visit to any fogou requires a pair waterproof shoes at anytime of the year). Research has shown that the only foodstuffs suitable to storing in this environment are beer and dairy produce. There is also the accessibility issue, clambering down the creep with a barrel of beer is not the most efficient means of storing your excess foodstuffs. It is possible that the fogou did change in use over time, the later opening up of the fogou during its last phase at Carn Euny would have made it a better option for the storing of foodstuffs.
A secondary argument also looks at the effort required to build the fogou and as mentioned before, at the time of construction it would have been the only stone building in the settlement. Both suggest that the fogou was a socially important structure, which leads us the final possible explanation.
Ritual – some archaeologists tend to shy away from using ‘ritual’ to describe a sites function. This is a backlash from criticism in the 80s and 90s when archaeologists were accused of using ‘ritual’ as a definition when nothing else fitted. The term was certainly bandied about…even so, the idea of the fogou as a place of ritual does need to be examined because interpretations as places of storage or refuge are at this point unsatisfactory.
Ian Cooke has spent a substantial amount of time recording and analysing fogous throughout Cornwall. For him and many others involved in earth mysteries fogous were definitely places of ritual. Cooke found that all but two were ‘symbolically’ aligned to the rising midsummer sun and the two that weren’t were aligned on the setting of the midsummer sun. He says symbolically as at the time no light would have entered the passages. The importance of midsummer needs no explanation here. Some archaeologists have questioned these alignments but have noted the monumental nature of the fogou, drawing analogies with a medieval church within a settlement of less substantial structures (P. Herring 1994 CA Journal 33).
Cooke also noted how “…the majority of fogous, where sufficient remains can be traced, have the northern end of their long curved passage aligned north-east to correspond with the prevailing direction taken by the subterranean mineral lodes…” Drawing a connection between the tin trade and the construction of the fogous, perhaps it is not unsurprising then when we here of small finds of fused tin found inside the passages and in the backfill of the creep such as at Carn Euny.
“…the rationale behind building fogous was the need to provide a place of contact between the plunderers of the earth and the dieites believed to control the fertility of the land and the mineral wealth beneath it, and that these places were used for the performance of rituals related to the pagan religion of Iron Age West Cornwall in which a Sun God and Earth Mother Goddess formed the central element.” (Ian Cooke The Mother and the Sun 1993).
It has also been suggested fogous may have been a place where important rituals took place which relate to transformation such as when a child becomes an adult or during death. The dark places of the world have always represented an otherworldliness to human beings, even to this day, caves are regarded as special places.
The more sceptical who argue against a ritual function point out, “by and large fogous lack obvious design features or contexts that make them stand out as undoubted ritual structures,” (P. Rose ‘Shadows in the Imagination: Encounters with caves in Cornwall CA Journal 2000/1). The argument follows that because we have been unable to identify any elements within Celtic belief that may be associated with the fogou then a ritual function is unlikely.
However lets briefly consider what we do know, it is fairly well understood that the people of the Celtic Iron Age attributed all aspects of the world around them with a spirit of some kind and that ‘no activity however trivial would have been entered into without some thought for the attitudes of those who inhabited the other world’ (B Cunliffe Facing the Ocean 1995). Surely this would have extended to the extraction of tin and other metals from the ground.
“As tin extraction is an activity that is unique to Cornwall, particularly west Cornwall, is it not possible that the fogou is a unique regional response to this,” (TM Rowe Cornwall in Prehistory 2005). The continuing fertility of the land and its mineral wealth would have been important concerns in this period.
All of the folk stories which surround fogous can be traced back to one of three themes.
It’s the location of hidden treasure.
They have impossibly long passages.
Associated with demons, witches, giants and other ‘dangerous’ creatures.
Thus, Piskey’s Hall was long thought to contain fairy treasure, at Boleigh there was a belief that the passage ran for many miles under the Penwith landscape and at Pendeen Vau there is a tale of a young woman dressed in white and carrying a red rose appearing at the mouth of the fogou on Christmas day. It is said if you see her you will die within the year.
There were giants at the fogous of Lower Boscaswell and Higher Bodinar and at Boleigh it is said that the Penwith witches were in the habit of meeting the Devil here.
It is not difficult to see how such stories might begin. Treasure seekers have for centuries dug holes in curious mounds in search of riches, the mound covering a fogou would have been no different. Should you ever visit a fogou without a torch (not recommended, by the way) the passage will seem to go on forever, it often feels as if time has stood still and the passage is never ending. As for demons, giants, witches and ladies in white foretelling your death, well, the ever active imagination of the human species may well be responsible.
Or, perhaps local folklore can give us hints about the fogou, as it is with a game of Chinese whispers, folk memory can distort ancient knowledge of a place as time goes by and other influences intervene. Stories of lost treasure might relate to knowledge of precious mineral lodes; the fear of the never ending passage may be just an extension of the fogou representing the underworld; the association of the devil and witches perhaps an attempt in early Christian fervour to discourage people away from ancient places of worship. For those who follow the path of the Goddess today, the role of the witch in the past is a manifestation of the Goddess, hence the persecution (put very simply).
So are we any closer in solving this archaeological mystery? In short, no. Like so much when we are dealing with a time so very distant from our own it is difficult to make assumptions about sites such as fogous when the evidence is so sparse. It has been suggested in order to get a much clearer idea of the function a detailed excavation of a fogou undisturbed since time of abandonment would be ideal.
Even so, solving this mystery is left to the individual, only he or she can decide how these places were used and that is why fogous are special places – they are different things for different folks.
NB when visiting a fogou please take a torch and if you don’t like spiders, don’t look up…really, do not look up!
Not a comprehensive list of links but a starting point for further investigation.