Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Christmas Reading

For the last few days I have suffered with one of those interminable sick headaches that have plagued me through life, Christmas day I managed but in the evening I read Richard Jefferies -After London, Wild England, from cover to cover.
My feelings towards the book are mixed, I know his writing from Secret of My Heart and Life in the fields, the former book being an emotionally intense desire to reach the very essence of his soul, the latter a joyous hymn to the intricate wonders of nature.

But what of Wild England, following his mind for me is easy, so here he is constructing a fabled barbaric England from his own beloved landscape, the hero, or perhaps anti-hero, Felix is probably himself. The setting is an Iron age depiction of small territories dominated by overlords, this is not Wm Morris's utopian vision of News From Nowhere, in Jefferies book wild men haunt the forests and woods, slaves serve the illiterate noblemen, there are several castes of people. The shepherds in the hills, the gypsies, the barbaric men in the woods, and lastly small despotic kingdoms carefully guarding the remains of old iron tools, pieces of glass, fragments of manuscripts.
This is the fall of civilisation as seen from a nineteenth century viewpoint, It is a fall of the new industrial Victorian rise to power and domination. He centres this fall on London, for it is here that the worst has happened. Nature has taken over England, impenetrable forests, a great lake sits at its heart, stretching down from the City (which was once Oxford) though now it has a different name, right through the heart of the West country down to London. The lake is a beautiful place with forests down to its sweet waters but when it approaches the great city of London terrible things have happened.
A great sulphorous yellow mist hangs for miles across this last stretch of the Lake, to enter it is to court death. No animal or bird life lives, the waters are black and oily, vegetation rank and dying, great bubbles of noxious gas escape the waters every now and then. London has descended into an evil marsh land, sinking into the depths of its own sewers and basements. Felix enters this terrible landscape at one point and Jefferies eloquently describes how Felix walks across a ground black with a sooty deposit, the remains of long dead people. He touches buildings that crumble to dust, and a great sense of lassitude that is brought on by the foul air, makes him stumble and walk with his back bent.
But perhaps I should go back to the beginning of the story, I have described Felix as an anti-hero, he is the eldest son of a nobleman in Aquila, but he is no brave knight, he would rather read the few precious manuscripts that still exist, or draw his ideas for new fangled inventions. He is often bad tempered and because he is poor, miserable with his lot in life. He loves Aurora who lives in the kingdom of Thyma but he is not seen as a suitable suitor. At the beginning of the book he manages to construct a boat, for he wants to sail round the Lake, which is of course unmapped and discover its length and breadth.
The whole environment of the landscape is painted as hostile, wild dogs, there are three different types that have evolved that now haunt the woods, are liable to attack. Wild pigs and boars are also prolific in the woods and forests, and then there are the human dangers, the Bush men, who, happen to use poison on the tips of their weapons, his material for his fiction writing can be found in the books that he has read.
The Lake must centre on his beloved Coate, and its waters, and sailing on a boat there in his childhood. Here in the book he has changed Coate Waters to an uncharted large inland lake, fed by rivers, dotted with small islands and ringed with cliffs and beaches, in which he, our intrepid hero would sail around and explore. He has adventures on the way, meets with humiliations, but in the end he triumphs.
His braveness in sailing into the terrible territory of London earns him respect and leadership amongst the shepherds that live in the hills. He becomes their overlord, and can muster 8000 men to his service, but he refuses to be their leader, only asking of the tribal elders that he should be their leader in war should it happen. In the final chapter we see him heading back to Thyma to Aurora, for he has found a territory to settle in and build a tower, and the last words are of him setting out through the forest to bring her back.
My mixed feeling for the book comes from that which is brilliant in his description of the landscape and the different world he has conjured up, to perhaps some of the things that he draws upon which are rather imitations of other books. But overall the story is captivating and warrants a full reading from beginning to end to uncover a mind that rebelled against the society he lived within. A mind that constructed another world, not necessarily better, but a different world in which our hero could change some of the injustices and cruelty that abided there.

A poem by Jeremy Hooker - Landscape of the Daylight Moon

Jeremy Hooker is a great admirer of Richard Jefferies and has compiled some of his essays into a book which can be found at Green Books.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas Eve

Ransoms along the Cotswold Way

Two more days than it will all be over - thank goodness, everyone will rush out to the sales and life will return to normal. The year has turned the corner, and the days will slowly become light again. Flowers will return, emerging from under the dark soggy leaves. I cannot wait for the return of flowers, the last winter rose hangs forlornly on the trellis but soon there will primroses, ice cold snowdrops, the mauve crocuses with yellow hearts that have been spreading slowly over the years. Dark tips of tulips push up from the earth, hanging catkins from the hazel tree.
This last weekend has been cold, but with marvellous skies in the morning. Dawn, that spiritual time between dark and light is extraodinarily beautiful at this time of year. The great wide skies viewed from the Downs, is a slowly changing painting of colour and shape. The full moon on Saturday, illuminated by the rising sun, had a soft rose pink hue, so different from its cold white colour, it was almost a pale sister of the the sun. Both sun and moon figure together during the winter months, the sun never quite managing to push the moon out of the sky.
The skies this morning were a soft pink and blue smudged across as if somone had thrown a paintbrush of water down, underlined by gray horizontal clouds. From the west dark rain clouds obliterate the softer colours, and the marvellous half hour of the sky lit up by the rising orange sun will disappear, and gray cloudy conditions will prevail but this magical time can be stored in the mind for now.
Twice over the weekend I have seen the golden plovers leaving their night nesting ground, they rise as one, perfect timing makes their flight an aerobatic wonder, the sound of their wings as they fly overhead is a soft swoosh but you can just hear the sound of an individual wingbeat and the sweet solitary call of - who knows - perhaps their leader.
Propped on my window is a print of "The Uffington Parade" and I am reminded of hares and Wayland Smith and the White Horse that gallops across the hills away from his Manger. She might belong to the goddess Epona, a swift sure footed creature, symbol of power and freedom, the wild exhultation of the wind and the sweetly flowered pastures that she gallops over, summer in full riot, in the print the sun merges with the moon as does the night and day sky and stars float haphazardly over Silbury, the long linking Ridgeway melding the wondrous act of nature with long dead people who over the centuries have created this small piece of the Earth.

Bluebells in the hedgerow

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Dean Merewether's diary.

This is a tale of great archaeological explorations, or to put it more truthfully, how many barrows can you hole in one afternoon. Our nineteenth century vicars had a lot of time on their hands, after all God only calls them to work on Sunday, so being of the educated classes, with a bit of private money to boot, they amused themselves in various ways. Writing poetry is of course a leisured pastime, but being 'archaeologists', yes that is what he calls his fellow barrow-plunderers you can employ the 'rustics' to do the dirty work,whilst our Dean can come back in a few hours, and find the hidden secrets of the barrows.

His rapacious nature in searching for the monuments round Avebury leave one slightly sick, at the thought of how one man could do so much damage, and of course he was'nt the only one. Perhaps we should be pleased that he managed to record some of his findings, though unfortunately not in a form to be readily identifable. Apparently whilst he was watching the Silbury excavation, he joined up with the rector of Yatesbury Mr.Money Kyrle

At Yatesbury, several barrows intact, but not for long, Merewether sent men to open two large barrows, sadly he did'nt find much in the barrows, though they seemed to be large with fir trees on top. Lots of animal bones, including hare.

Two barrows in Barrow field, at least 20 feet high until the farmer reduced them 15 years previously. Layer of black substance, also a cist (barrow 18) contained an unusual quantity of human bone. A cist with a coffin of a hollowed tree, and a piece of cleft wood had been placed over it.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Nineteen century Poetry on Barrows

Ashen Hill Barrows 'excavated' by Skinner

The following extract is taken from The Reverend Charles Woolls' Barrow Diggers (1839)
Sepulchrum Tumulus Signat

Triumphant Death on his pale horse,
Hath boundless power to slay,
With hunger, sword, or sad remorse,
Whate'er returns to clay.

But still all Nature pleads in strains,
Which touch the tender heart,
Oh! Spurn not, spurn not the remains,

Of those who've felt the dart!

A grave the Patriarchs demand,
As strangers for their race,
The pyramids in Egypt's land,
Proclaim a resting place.

A lofty mound of earth declares

Interred their slain with care
And who shall disregard their pains
Or funeral rites impair.

for sacred are those spots of ground,
Which to the dead we give,
At the last day the trump shall sound,
And their dry bones shall live.

A good article on barrows can be found at the following link;
And of course Reverend John Skinner also wrote dire poetry, he seems best remembered for a long and doleful poem called 'Beth Pennard or The British Chieftan's Grave'
John Thurnham's article Examinations of Barrows on the Downs of North Wiltshire 1853-1857, describe a barrow 5 miles from Devizes heading towards Beckhampton, for the particular barrow Skinner's poem is attributed to...
The feet beneath the verdant glade
by Bards a narrow cist is made
yet ample to contain
Those listless limbs, in speed and force
Which rival'd once the fleetest horse,
Light bounding o'er the plain.
Now filled the hallowed cup of clay
Withdrew from Cromlech's summit grey
Last night procured in locks of wool,
Filled it with care and filled it full,
Such beverage suits etherial sprite
Ere it ascends to realms of light.
Place it contiguous to the head
And o'er its mouth a covering spread.......
To a kind chief, who will revere
A chieftains relics buried here
One who with us delights to ken
The ancient works of Celtic man;
Who makes their labours by his own
Survive, when falls each magic stone,
or roaring midst the hills and groves,
View scenes which every Druid loves
The cup our benefactors hand...
The cup in question is a rather beautifully decorated beaker cup, and though Skinner sees is as a beverage to suit an 'ethieral sprite', could it not be that this chieftan is the forerunner of those males that frequent pubs today, taking with him his glass of good cheer or ale to the liminal world beyond. And may one ask,would there indeed have been ale in this 'otherworld'. Many bronze age barrows do have these 'beaker' cups, and hopefully a leg of pork was also added so that he would not go hungry on his journey.
And Now to the last of my victorian poets, William Lisle Bowles, vicar of Bremhill for the last 25 years of his life. Again he is cited as having written something on barrows, but to date I have'nt found this particular poem. As Bremhill is a short distance from Calne, and therefore Avebury, it would have been thought that he would have visited and written about such places. But obviously history is not one of his subjects, he did indeed write a lot of poetry, the following link will take you to his book,
but though a better poet than Skinner, skimming through all I came across was 'Hymn to Woden'. Some of these barrow poems are to be found in Colt Hoare's Ancient Wiltshire.
Working ones way through Victorian poetry, is often a dismal occupation, vicars are probably the worst; their sense of death and tragedy is strongly felt, and the mode of writing is somewhat pretentious. What stands out maybe, is how the books they read, classical allusions to Roman and Greek deities, tend to pass us by, but what is also interesting is the Druidical theme that stemmed from the 18th century. Stuart Piggott in his book The Druids is contemptuous of this 'new age' revival of the celtic religion, it is after all somewhat xenophobic, and to my mind the wilful eagerness to rob 'heathen' barrows of the 'treasures', that they may or may not have held, is a similar contempt for paganism.

Stonehenge barrows
Eight Ashen Hill barrows with the Nine barrows to the right of Moss

Lansdown Barrows

ref; Journals of a Somerset Rector 1803-1835 - John Skinner
Ancient Burial Mounds - L.V.Grinsell
The Druids - Stuart Piggott

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Reverend John Skinner

Many years ago I read extracts from the Journal of a Somerset Rector 1803-1834 by John Skinner and came away with the impression that he was a miserable bad tempered creature. Reading his diary again does little to alter my first understanding of him, but on reading the book again, I have at least come to see why he was so miserable.
He was vicar of Camerton from 1800 to 1839 during this period he wrote his journals and during this time had to face a great deal of personal sorrow through the deaths of his immediate family and also as vicar at Camerton the deaths of his parishioners.
The village of Camerton is also famed in the archaeology record as being the site of a Roman settlement, and also having been mined for coal since Roman times, in fact the 'everlasting flame' on the altar of Sulis at Bath was said to have been fuelled by coal from here. Skinner also had a theory that Camerton was Camulondinum as well. Yes, Skinner was an antiquarian, like Dean Merewether he would saunter out in summer, and with a few miners lay waste to any barrow that took his fancy. We decry this vandalism nowadays, but these 'heathen savages' whose bones occupied these barrows were to our nineteenth century religious zealots a great curiosity, perhaps at the back of their minds, a trickle of uncertainity had begun to emerge at their own faith in an invisible god....
At least their imagination ran riot as to thoughts of white robed Druids performing unspeakable ritual acts in the stone circles and they were fascinated by this 'other' world - like the later writers who were to collect folklore of the British scene, or to put it more simply the naive superstitious stories of giants and fairies that roamed England - our vicars were also absorbed by the paganism of earlier history, which in turn had drifted down through the centuries, paganism was still rife in the countryside.
Skinner was sensitive, nervous and irritable.. a cantakerous individual tormented by the social upheavals that were happening in the early nineteenth century. He had to contend with drunken miners in his own parish, 'fallen' women, and a poverty that we can scarcely comprehend today. This was no pretty quaint village with thatched cottages as depicted by later sentimental Victorians such as Allingham, this was life in the raw.
To put it in the words of Virginia Woolf who wrote an essay on the man,

"Behind him lay order and discipline and all the virtues of the heroic past, but directly he left his study he was faced with drunkenness and immorality; with indiscipline and irreligion; with Methodism and Roman Catholicism; with the Reform Bill and the Catholic Emancipation Act, with a mob clamouring for freedom, with the overthrow of all that was decent and established and right...."

Skinner's archaelogical exploits have drifted across my path the last few years, the most famous of course being Stoney Littleton Barrow, but also nearer to my home the Charmy Downs Bronze Age Barrows, now destroyed by a first World War airfield, the barrows followed a linear path on top of the Downs. Also Skinner excavated (or dug down) the Ashen Hill barrows, a linear group of 8 barrows, very near to the group of the Priddy Nine Barrows, in fact these two groups make up a bronze age cemetery, not too far from the famous Priddy Circles.

All these eight barrows were investigated by the Reverend John Skinner in 1815, and all barrows produced one or more cremations. Some of these contained Early Bronze age urns and were covered with stone slabs (similar to Lansdown barrows cemetery). Three barrows had bronze daggers, one in a wooden sheaf. One barrow contained a rich burial which included beads and other objects of amber (maybe faience) and a miniature incense cup. from Ann Woodward - British Barrows........

There is a poignant passage in his journals regarding the Mendips, and it has to do with the death of his favourite daughter Laura at fourteen years old in May 1820. A few months later after her death he had ridden up to the Mendips in a solitary manner, and in his diary had written the following passage;
"I could not help thinking how differently this morning was to be spent by myself, an obscure imdividual, on the desolate heights of Mendip, and the Queen of these realms in the midst of her judges in the most splendid metropolis in the world. Yet when half the number of years have rolled away which these tumuli have witnessed how will every memorial, every trace, be forgotten of the agitation which now fills every breast; all the busy heads and aching hearts will be as quiet as those of the savage chieftains which have so long occupied these hillocks"
But there were happier times in his life, and in 1822 he describes riding out with a party of friends to Stanton Drew Circles;...
"When the country in the vicinity was covered with wood, and the white robed Druid stood in solemn silence, each one by his stone of power in the centre of this gloomy recess, the scene of course was more impressive"
The full horrors of death was an experience that he had to contend with as a vicar, as mentioned earlier. He lost his brother and two sisters to consumption in 1810, his wife must have also caught the infection for she was to become ill as well, in 1811 she gave birth to a daughter who died three monthslater of consumption. Then in 1812 his wife died. All this happened in a matter of short time, later on in life, after the death of Laura again to consumption, his son Joseph was also to die of the same illness.
In the village itself, death was commonplace, the coal mines were dangerous, men and children were occasionally killed by falling rock. Drunkeness was also a killer, a woman died horribly by falling on the fire in her home. Men fell down shafts inebriated, and on one occasion a man walking through a hedge into what he thought of as a field, in actual fact plunged down into a quarry. Age and poverty were also great killers, the two linking together, no social service to put food on the table or clothes on their backs of the poor, they must in the end succumb to a miserable death, sometimes in the poor house, sometime under a hedge or a barn.
Skinner mental health seemed to deteriorate after 1839, his journals became less interesting, and one day in October, armed with a pistol he strode out of his house and shot himself in a nearby beech wood. The Coroner's verdict gives some idea of the state of his mind; According to one source Skinner seems to have shot himeself in despair of his son's illness, again consumption, perhaps he could not face this death of his third child.
"The Rev. gentleman's health had been declining for sometime and his mind had latterly been very much affected. On Friday morning, in a state of derangement, he shot himself through the head with a pistol, and was dead in an instant."
Roman high status stone coffin found on Boscombe Down

Friday, December 14, 2007

Winter Poems

Both the following Irish poems are taken from Grigson's The Cherry Tree, I make no apology for repeating Finn's words, his sparse words conjure up a word picture more accurately than many a modern poet, though the poem was probably written a thousand years ago. Like the unknown Saxon who wrote of the ruined Roman walls of Bath, language that is finely tuned strikes to the heart of its subject....

...Sad are the birds of every meadow-plain
(except the ravens that feed on crimson blood)
at the clamour of fierce winter;
it is rough, black, dark, misty.
Dogs are vicious in cracking bones;
the iron pot is put on the fire
after the dark black day.

The Words of Finn
My words for you;
Stag ruts and bells,
Winter pours down,
Summer has gone.
Wind's high and cold,
Low is the sun,
Briefer its run.
Runs the sea strong.
Turns red the fern,
Broken its form.
Habit is hearing
The wild goose's song.
Season of ice,
Wings of the birds
Caught by the cold.
These are my words.
From the Old Irish
Scél lemm dúib:
dordaid dam,
snigid gaim,
ro-fáith sam;

gáeth ard úar,
ísel grían
gair a rith
ruirthech rían;

ro-rúad rath,
ro-cleth cruth,
ro-gab gnáth
giugrann guth;

ro-gab úacht
etti én
aigre re
é mo scél.

It is interesting to see the original Irish and the english translation,, which is a 'near' translation not an equivalent. Language is first and foremost a spoken medium, a storytelling occasion filled with the drama of the words, celtic and saxon bards would use the darkened halls lit only by firelight and candles to convey the strong impressionistic flavour of winter and its rawness.
Belling is descriptive of the noise of the animal, and it occurs in a Celtic tale told of a giant of a man with one eye and only one foot. He is probably a local god modelled on Cernunnos, the stag-headed god.
The story goes that Cynos approaches this giant of a man and asks him "what power he had over the animals". The giant replies 'I will show you little man' upon which he strikes a stag a mighty blow till it gave out a might belling, and in answer to its belling wild animals came till they were as numerous as the stars, a rather beautiful analogy as the animals gathered around.
The giant tells the animals not to graze and and then they 'bowed down their heads and did him obeisance, even as humble servants would do to their lord' These stories were already being interwoven with the christian stories, the myths stranding together.

The Peaked Red One or The Man in the Tree;

There is one more celtic story to tell, this again features Finn, who was walking through a wood one day and happened to spy a man sitting at the top of a tree. A blackbird on his right shoulder, and in his left hand a bronze vessel filled with water, in which swam a skittish trout, and a stag at the bottom of the tree. The man would crack a nut, half of which he ate himself the other half he gave to the blackbird. Then he would take an apple out of the bronze vessel, half of which he ate himself the other half he threw to the stag below. Then he would take a sip of the water in the vessel, as did the stag and the blackbird - they would all drink together.
The followers of Finn asked who this disguised hooded man was. Ann Ross speculates that this 'nurturer of animals' could be attributed to Cernunnos again or the romano-celtic god Vosegus, who has some of the attributes of the man in the tree.

and Grigson's own words on winter...
"and tonight, indoors, in winter, our bodies are idle, and our minds best at work; which is the great pleasure of the winter-time"
ref; Ann Ross - Pagan Celtic Britain
Geoffrey Grigson - The Cherry Tree

Two Verses from Thomas Hardy - To the Moon

'Have you much wondered, Moon,
On your rounds,
Self wrapt, beyond Earth's bounds?'
'Yea, I have wondered, often wondered
At the sounds
Reaching me of the human tune
On my rounds'
'What do you think of it Moon,
As you go?'
Is life much, or no?'
'O, I think of it, often think of it
As a show
God ought surely to shut up soon,
As I go'.
Taken from Geoffrey Grigson - The Cherry Tree

Monday walk

Early morning

As I have a slightly different routine on monday for walking the dog, I walk nearer home up the slopes of the Lansdown. My walk takes me through several fields to Primrose Hill Wood, a newly established 25 acre wood situated midway between Beckford Tower and Weston.
On saturday I had driven to Braythwaite in freezing weather, a hawk had been sitting hunched and cold on a wire, normally he can be seen hovering with that perfect precision in the wind holding a perfect balance between earth and sky. Half a minute later two great buzzards swooped over the car, the feathered tips of their wings marking their great wingspan. I felt their hunger in the cold morning as they scouted for food. But Monday's weather was misty as we set up the hill.

View towards Kelston Round Hill

Moss in a renactment of last week when he lost a ball down a drain at the end of a track, managed to do it once more to his absolute astonishment, he gazed somewhat disbelievingly into the drain that now holds two of his unretrievable balls.A stick though will be found and his walk will bounce along in its normal way. The path through the fields is well used by walkers and MOD people who work at the old Foxhill outpost along the top of the Lansdown.

Coming up to Primrose Wood you are met by a steel gate fitted into the deer fence that surrounds the wood, there are many deer that live up on the slopes of the Lansdown, the land is not heavily farmed and they range quite freely.
The trees in the wood are now 10 to 12 foot high, and are growing strongly. There has been a 'suburban' hand in the choice and planting of shrubs and trees, a formality that jars one's expectation of a proper wood.

Moss by cotoneaster bush in Primrose Hill Wood

The trust has hung up notices asking for wild plants for insect life such as butterflies. Hemp agrimony I have in the garden and also Dames Violet, or Hesperis Matronalis to give it a more stately name, so next spring I will leave some there. The leaves are off the trees, except for the bright golden yellow of the larch firs, it is just a tracery of branches everywhere with the strong red wands of dogwood shrubs lining the path.
Primrose Wood is part of the linking corridor of woods that are part of the national reforesting scheme, Shiner's Wood under Kelston Hill is another newly planted wood, it will take many years before they achieve maturity and then decline with decaying grace as the old woods do that cling to steep escarpments.
On the way back I meet a dogwalking friend, and as we go through an old iron post gate on the path, he points out deer hair. Apparently last week a frightened deer had tried to force its ways through the 6 inch bars and had of course got jammed. The RSPCA came and hooded the little creature and then with a car jack forced the iron bars wide releasing the trapped animal.

The above shot is of the Lansdown, but there was once a barrow lurking just under the ridge on Flock Down somewhere, excavated in the 1960s by boys from the Royal School.

Monday, December 10, 2007


The photograph below shows the various horizons to Silbury from East Kennet longbarrow, The Sanctuary, The Longstones Barrow, Beckhampton and West Kennet longbarrow; copied from his drawings in Symbolic Landscapes - Paul Devereux..

The West Kennet longbarrow sightline of Silbury has to be viewed from the far end of the barrow.....

Walking down from East Kennet longbarrow, and according to my photo the sightline just touches the ledge.

Overton bronze age barrow; the top of Silbury glimpsed through the trees

Silbury seen from The Sanctuary, again a sightline can be discerned.

A view of Silbury from The Ridgeway

Silbury from Avebury Truesloe - a beautiful sightline - but was it meant?
Its in the last of the photographs that an uncomfortable truth is revealed, the fact is that it would have easier to build Silbury on the flat ground here, at Avebury Truesloe but the Avebury people chose otherwise. They chose to build near the foot of Waden Hill, near to where the river curves round to join the spring at Swallowhead. It would seem that they were focussing on water, this was the central hub for the mound. True as Devereux points out that Silbury links up with all the major monuments in the area from this point except of course for the great stone circle, (though of course even here the mound can be viewed from the Obelisk site.) but the emphasis is surely on water.
The truth is we do not know the final height of the mound, it could easily have been higher, and levelled at a later date by the Saxons. The same goes for the ledge that Devereux uses in his thesis, this also could have been dug out by the Saxons as fortifications.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

A Game of Henge - Stonehenge

A Game of Henge - Stonehenge

Phillip Gross

A game of Henge, my masters?
The pieces are set. We lost the box
with instructions years ago.

Do you see Hangman? Or
Clock Patience? Building bricks
the gods grew out of? Dominoes?

It's your move. You're in the ring
of the hills, of the stones, of the walls
of your skull. You want to go?

You want out? Good - that's
the game. Whichever way you turn
are doors. Choose. Step through, so...

And whichever world you stumble into
will be different from all the others, only
what they might have been,
you'll never know.
Why choose this poem to celebrate the end of the government's scheme to create a tunnel through the Stonehenge landscape? Maybe because the players in a different game - the government, the archaeologists, the planners, the locals and the protestors are a bit like the chess pieces on the board. They move about, sometimes one side wins and then the balance is reversed by an unexpected move. The unexpected move is of course in the case of the Stonehenge fiasco, money, it will cost too much, its as simple as that, no high minded right action, the act of expanding the road system around this fragile landscape is given a terse few words, which encompass the words "environmentally sensitive", they forgot 'archaeologically sensitive', as I fear the archaeologists did as well.
Still the battle is partly won, as Chris Woodford of Save Stonehenge made clear in a statement last week....
No-one with any sense wanted a tunnel, a flyover, a dual carriageway, and two whacking great interchanges here"
The Stonehenge landscape is a great deal more than the ring of stones that lie at its centre, its importance as a 'sacred' landscape, the great bronze age barrow cemeteries testify to this, should be taken into account; it is a palimpset, layered thickly with the footprints of generations of prehistoric people that have travelled to this place in honour of some long forgotten historic 'sense of place'. Today we do the same, though in truth, without the religious tag, but out of curiosity. Let us hope that when individuals 'play the game' at least they see that the goal of winning must be firmly on the side of Stonehenge set in a landscape that does it justice.
Of course the poem alludes to a disappeared world which we are unable to enter, locked "in the walls of your skull" we imagine past histories, construct elaborate theories. But there are no gods on high to whisper the secrets of Stonehenge.....

Stonehenge Today

Collecting theories

The Ridge with a line of rocks (teeth) protruding

Thumbing through my Flick'r account looking at photos last week, I came across the following comment which had been posted a few days ago. The photo is of a ridge with rocks protruding that reminded me of teeth, and absentmindly I had tagged it that it reminded me of Denke G. His theory of Stonehenge, or at least his dentist ancestor theories of the 17th century is another of those speculations that is worth collecting.I question his statement that ring ouzels and snow buntings are common migrants to Wales, but there again his Stonehenge theory is also very questionable.

Denke says;
Composed of hard Ordovician shale and mudstone compressed into slates with scattered fragments of rhyolite and dolerite - the famous bluestone that forms the inner ring of German dentist, historian and antiquarian Dr. Garry W. Denke's (1622-1699) great white shark teeth of Stonehenge - the Preseli Hills are the highest hills in Pembroke.The crag of Carn Menyn is the source of the Stonehenge pillars and nearby Bedd Arthur is the Preseli's own, rather unusual, eye-shaped stone circle.
There's a memorial to Welsh language poet Waldo Williams at Mynachlogddu. If you're lucky to get clear weather, you'll be able to see north to the Lleyn peninsula and west to the hills of Co. Wicklow in Ireland.
Keep your eyes peeled on the hill though as the bird life, particularly in the winter months, can be remarkable with living clouds of starlings congregating to roost there.Also look out for hunting buzzards and sparrowhawks. In the spring ring ouzel and snow bunting are common migrants.
Much of the upland is boggy and, as a result, very acidic so you can find rare acid tolerant plants like fir clubmoss, liverwort, ferns and orchids with insects like the marsh fritillary butterfly and the southern damselfly. Heather carpets the drier heathland in late summer look out for buzzards, kestrels, curlews, ravens and skylarks.
A very nice photo, thank you much.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Richard Jefferies - Life in the Fields

Wellow brook

A hymn to summer days

as I walked over the weekend in driving rain and wind, I remembered reading in Jefferies essays about the "harp of the earth" the natural sounds of the world around. Listening to the wind through the different branches of trees is something we should all do, even as it whistles in a storm and the rain beats down....

All the procession of living and growing things passes. The grass stands up taller and still taller, the sheaths open, and the stalk arises, the pollen clings till the breeze sweeps it. The bees rush past, and the resolute wasps; the humble-bees, whose weight swings them along. About the oaks and maples the brown chafers swarm; and the fern-owls at dusk,and the blackbirds and jays by day, cannot reduce their legions while they last. Yellow butterflies, and white, broad red admirals, and sweet blues; think of the kingdom of flowers which is theirs! Heavy moths burring at the edge of the copse; green, and red, and gold flies: gnats, like smoke, around the tree-tops; midges so thick over the brook, as if you could haul a netful; tiny leaping creatures in the grass; bronze beetles across the path; blue dragonflies pondering on cool leaves of water-plantain. Blue jays flitting, a magpie drooping across from elm to elm; young rooks that have escaped the hostile shot blundering up into the branches; missel thrushes leading their fledglings, already strong on the wing, from field to field. An egg here on the sward dropped by a starling; a red ladybird creeping, tortoise-like, up a green fern frond.Finches undulating through the air, shooting themselves with closed wings, and linnets happy with their young.

Golden dandelion discs--gold and orange--of a hue more beautiful, I think, than the higher and more visible buttercup. A blackbird, gleaming,so black is he, splashing in the runlet of water across the gateway. A ruddy kingfisher swiftly drawing himself as you might draw a stroke witha pencil, over the surface of the yellow buttercups, and away above the hedge. Hart's-tongue fern, thick with green, so green as to be thick with its colour, deep in the ditch under the shady hazel boughs. White meadow-sweet lifting its tiny florets, and black-flowered sedges. You must push through the reed grass to find the sword-flags; the stout willow-herbs will not be trampled down, but resist the foot like underwood. Pink lychnis flowers behind the withy stoles, and little black moorhens swim away, as you gather it, after their mother, who has dived under the water-grass, and broken the smooth surface of the duckweed.Yellow loosestrife is rising, thick comfrey stands at the very edge; the sandpipers run where the shore is free from bushes. Back by the underwood the prickly and repellent brambles will presently present us with fruit.For the squirrels the nuts are forming, green beech mast is there--green wedges under the spray; up in the oaks the small knots, like bark rolled up in a dot, will be acorns. Purple vetches along the mounds, yellow lotus where the grass is shorter, and orchis succeeds to orchis. As Iwrite them, so these things come--not set in gradation, but like the broadcast flowers in the mowing-grass.

Now follows the gorse, and the pink rest-harrow, and the sweet lady's-bedstraw, set as it were in the midst of a little thorn-bush. The broad repetition of the yellow clover is not to be written; acre upon acre, and not one spot of green, as if all the green had been planed away, leaving only the flowers to which the bees come by the thousand from far and near. But one white campion stands in the midst of the lake of yellow. The field is scented as though a hundred hives of honey had been emptied on it. Along the mound by it the bluebells are seeding, the hedge has been cut and the ground is strewn with twigs. Among those seeding bluebells and dry twigs and mosses I think a titlark has his nest, as he stays all day there and in the oak over. The pale clear yellow of charlock, sharp and clear, promises the finches bushels of seed for their young. Under the scarlet of the poppies the larks run, and then for change of colour soar into the blue. Creamy honeysuckle on the hedge around the cornfield, buds of wild rose everywhere, but no sweet petal yet. Yonder, where the wheat can climb no higher up the slope, are the purple heath-bells, thyme and flitting stonechats.

The lone barn shut off by acres of barley is noisy with sparrows. It is their city, and there is a nest in every crevice, almost under every tile. Sometimes the partridges run between the ricks, and when the bats come out of the roof, leverets play in the waggon-track. At even a fern-owl beats by, passing close to the eaves whence the moths issue. On the narrow waggon-track which descends along a coombe and is worn in chalk, the heat pours down by day as if an invisible lens in the atmosphere focussed the sun's rays. Strong woody knapweed endures it, so does toadflax and pale blue scabious, and wild mignonette. The very sun of Spain burns and burns and ripens the wheat on the edge of the coombe,and will only let the spring moisten a yard or two around it; but there a few rushes have sprung, and in the water itself brooklime with blue flowers grows so thickly that nothing but a bird could find space to drink. So down again from this sun of Spain to woody coverts where the wild hops are blocking every avenue, and green-flowered bryony would fain climb to the trees; where grey-flecked ivy winds spirally about the red rugged bark of pines, where burdocks fight for the footpath, and teazle-heads look over the low hedges. Brake-fern rises five feet high; in some way woodpeckers are associated with brake, and there seem more of them where it flourishes. Ifyou count the depth and strength of its roots in the loamy sand, add the thickness of its flattened stem, and the width of its branching fronds, you may say that it comes near to be a little tree. Beneath where the ponds are bushy mare's-tails grow, and on the moist banks jointed pewterwort;


Ladies bedstraw on Stoney Littleton

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Silbury Hill

The link below will take you to William Long's article on Abury, and Silbury. The fascinating thing about these nineteen century articles, is that they mirror the same interest in old stones that we have today. And it is a sobering thought that though we may laugh at their Victorian findings based on the knowledge of that century, it is as well to remember the same may happen to us from the 22nd century, our knowledge is just as scant.,M1

Two points are of interest, the first is that Merewether mentioned that there were stones around the monument of Silbury. Long refutes this, saying that he was mistaken, and that had Merewether lived he would have amended this. On reading Dean Merewether's diary, what he actually said was that he had heard from others that there had been stones round Silbury, hearsay in other words. Given the extensive roman settlement round Silbury, the stones (if any) would probably have been removed.
The second point is the recent finds in Silbury of small sarsens, though one did in actual fact need two men to lift it. Our barrow-robbing Dean Merewether in his diary has words on this as well, his diary is both informative and a record of what he saw of the excavation and he says this of the primary mound when it was reached by the earlier tunnel...

"I therefore directed that a chamber be cut at right angles with the tunnel on the right hand, following the dip of the primary heap. In this many sarsen stones were discovered, some of them placed with their concave surface downwards, favouring the line of the heap, as is seen frequently in small barrows; and casing, as it were the mound. On the top of some of these were observed fragments of bones, and small sticks, as of bushes, and I am strongly disposed to think of mistletoe and two or three pieces of the ribs either of the ox or red deer, in a sound and unusually compact state, and also the tine of an antler in good state.......
This having been worked as far as seemed necessary, another cutting was commenced on the opposite side, and following the curve of the heaping up of the central cone. In all of these the sarsen stones were similarly disposed

Similar 'edging or kerbing stones' are found elsewhere, Charmy Down barrows excavated in the 1960s show similar kerbing.

The third point, this time made by William Long, is a brief reference to what seems to be a 'druid's barrow' on the opposite side of the road to Silbury, this could in actual fact be Silbaby,
as seen as a small double circle underneath the Roman road just to the east of Silbury on the following plate;

Reading Stukeley's words on this, and to be quite honest there is some confusion as to which druid's barrow he meant, or at least at what point a barrow was subsequently 'run over' by a roman road, but it seems that the roman road from Beckhampton to Devizes is the one he meant, where the 'crown' of a barrow is excavated into.
It does'nt really answer whether Silbaby was or is a barrow but it gives credence to the fact that the romans were quite capable of digging into a barrow should it be in the way.

Chapter 6 William Stukeley - Abury;

Beckhampton/Devizes Road; For this road is not finished though mentioned in Anton.It. only chalked out as we may properly say. Moreover the workmen for readiness have par'd off above of a sepulchral barrow on the right hand, of a very finely turne'd bell-like form, to make use of the earth....
...I could well enough discern from which point the roman workmen carry'd this way, by observing the discontinuity of their little pits, on account of the m,aterials they took from the large barrow viz Cunetio, Marlborough, to Verlucio Hedington and so to Bath....

Merewether's tunnel, though in reality it was others that dug and supervised it; the following is his account in his diary of the first digging of the tunnel;

The first 75 feet were cut through the natural and compact bed of chalk - the structure of the original hill; but at that distance the upper line of the tunnel cut into the surface of the original hill, which was clearly marked by the vegetable mould, and upon that by a layer of bluish clay about 2 inches thick, very soft and tenacious, which represented evidently the decayed and compressed turf and grass of the former surface of the hill; above this was the brownish earthy, chalky rubble, the artificial component of the mound differing from that nearer to the centre.....

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Travelling to Whitby

Whitby Abbey

Listening on the radio early this morning to a programme about Whitby and its Gothic image reminded me that I had been at the gothic festival there last year. My daughter migrated to Whitby several years ago after having fallen in love with the place, and she now lives with her family in a tall terraced house overlooking the harbour and Whitby Abbey.
Occasionally I take the long train journey down there, an adventure in itself, starting at Bath Spa station. Next cold Bristol platform waiting for the Newcastle train which will take about five hours to reach York. It plods slowly through the countryside, the welsh hills are soon left behind, Cheltenham a quick stop, past the Malverns and then into the black hole of Birmingham station. It looks like a hell on earth, dark, concreted, with people moving bleakly around. Here the train gets full, they squeeze past with vast amounts of luggage that will not fit in the central areas. Should a reserved seat already have an intruder in it, there will be the comedy of the reclamation of said seat, and a lot of shuffling around as people try to find other seats. Business people will sit, laptop placed on the little table, doing important things, mobile phones will ring and other peoples lives will be enacted publicly.
But now we are all settled; out of the suburbs of Birmingham and heading through the Midland plain, here the fields still show the rig and furrow of the medieval period and the scenery is on the whole boring... Now we are in the gritstone country of Derbyshire, the train has followed the rivers up from Birmingham, and in winter the fields are often flooded through the Midlands, the rivers themselves are murky brown flecked white with foam, rubbish caught up in trailing branches. Sheffield, Doncaster and then over the Vale of York to arrive in York station.
Here, my journey may take the route of a two hour bus ride over the Yorkshire Moors.
This is a Postman Pat's Yorkshire, up and down dale, over tiny bridges with becks tumbling down over the rocks. We visit each and every village, picking up people with shopping, sometimes with dogs, sometimes with children. Past the brooding menace of the 'watching eye on the world' at Fylingthorpe, its square tapered monolithic shape reminds one of a great pyramid stuck in the centre of the moors.


There is no brightly coloured protestors bus in the layby, they seem to have departed these bleak brown moors.
Tumulus can be seen dotted around amongst the heather, rocks lace their way through, water leaks from the earth through the soft velvet patches of green grass, nibbled short by the sheep that nonchalantly hang about the tiny roads. But there is one place I would visit on these moors if I had my faithful companion with me, and that would be Holcrum Hole, a vast ampitheatre hollowed out of the moor as if some gigantic meterorite had landed from outer space.. It entices you to walk down into this other world, the experience of standing in a giant cup surruounded by hills.
Down off the moors the bus goes, the sea is in the distance, we fold down through a stream of villages and then arrive in Whitby.
Whitby is a fishing town, but to my nose it smells of chips, full too bursting point in summer with tourists winding their way through narrow streets. It is a northern holiday resort, a vast confectionery of northern people, children and dogs. Shops have enough tat on offer to last you a lifetime, fish shops let out a pungent smell, candyfloss and amusement arcades, chips to be skewered on plastic forks whilst sat out on the esplanade. It is a rollicking english scene, and if you go in November the added drama of the Goths. They parade their splendour up and down the streets, dark nights- Halloween, ghosts, black dogs, 199 steps and of course Dracula, to take that sip from a white throat - here we have good old pagan England gathering in a historic setting to have a festival.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Stars in the bluestones

Constable - Stonehenge

Stars captured in the bluestones at Stonehenge, that is what Timothy Darvill speculates upon in the above article in Current Archaeology.

"the Carn Menyn summit is especially striking, forming an envelope of gateways, places of transition around the summit, whose fingers of shattered dolorite form a dramatic skyline to the peak, resembling the natural stone portals to some kind of peak sanctuary. In lectures Tim teases his audience with possible explanations, asking ‘is this perhaps the abode of the gods, or the birthplace of the ancestors?’".

In this paragraph he sees the jagged rocks of Carn Menyn as a place of 'transition' moving through space into another world, ancestral maybe, the rocks reflecting the bones of the dead to be carried afar and then 'renewed'.

Here is an outcrop of rock on Carn Meyn, covered in lichens that had grown over the centuries, protruding from this rock was white fledspar, a good candidate for stars in the sky. Could the blue of the stone reflect such crystals, turning them into a starry night, somehow this seems a somewhat romanticised view, is'nt it enough for the gleaming white crystals to have held their own magic.

the effect probably only comes from newly quarried stone, when the stone
is a soft dark blue, "a rockbound equivalent of the stars of the night sky, a Milky Way trapped in stone?" its a nice image, it blows away the cobwebs of ones mind caught up in countless strands of speculation, and focuses an image of starry bound stones. If this be so, a great deal of blood and sweat must have gone in transporting them down to the plains of Wiltshire, but as ever there could be a modicum of truth there, for to look at the horseshoe shape of Bedd Arthur,

is to be reminded of the horseshoe of the inner settings at Stonehenge.

Moss brooding with great insight on the scenery around him, for once he sat for a long time without wanting to move on, there again given a dogs brain he could just have been tired out, at least he got to drink from one of the 'magical' springs.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Windmill Hill

Windmill Hill causewayed enclosure is one of those 'first' places in archaeology, it has a pottery type named after it, it is the first evidence of settlement in the Avebury complex and so by right has a venerated role in the landscape.
I must have walked up to it in February of this year, from Avebury, past the church, over the bridge at Avebury Truesloe and then down the lane past the expensive cottages. Up the track with Moss, meeting a rider leading a horse, and then through the gate into this site. Its unprepossessing appearance is a first response, the barrows in the centre mark it out, but it ditches and banks are small. Looking at the recent book that has come out, and I note that Keiller who excavated some of the bank and ditches, restored them after the excavation was finished. In one photograph there are great piles of snowy white chalk spoil heaped in the background, and it is well to remember that what you see, may not necessarily be as it was. The same can be said of the barrows, one is supposed to have had a windmill on it, hence the name, they to have been much degraded, probably by farming.
Yet forgetting these petty criticisms, the photos that he took of the bones, mostly animal, at the bottom of the ditches, are a sharp reminder of past lives. There is a skeleton of a man lying casually on the original ground level beneath the bank. Another of a childs skeleton. Dog bones, oxen, some pig and sheep/goat are also to be found......

Two of the barrows in the centre

Ditch round barrow

Strange stone probably from excavations of ditches

bank and ditch with sheep

Monday, November 12, 2007

Edward Thomas - Spirit of Place - Cornwall

The following are short extracts from The South Country written by Edward Thomas when he travelled in Cornwall. His prose has the magical touch of Jefferies, and Thomas did indeed write a biography of Jefferies. Strangely when I was looking for a piece of writing for today, Rememberance Sunday, I was looking for Siegfried Sassoon's bleak poetry on war, but listening to some evocative music on the radio by Butterworth "The Banks of Green Willow" it struck me that what so many soldiers died for in the Great War was this marvellous expression of love and empathy for a countryside full of summer flowers and a history that stretched back in time.Thomas writes about the bronze age barrows that are strung along the cliff tops looking outward to sea, his prehistory is somewhat muddled, Beowulf is alluded to, and a lovely extract on a stone circle evokes druids the inscription upon the chair of the Bards of Beisgawen was 'Nothing is that is not for ever and ever'. Poetical licence must be granted in lieu of the truth, the factual accounting of today which drags the mind away from lilting prose should be set aside...

On the barrows themselves, which are either isolated or in a group of two or three, grow thistle and gorse. They command mile upon mile of cliff and sea. In their sight the great headland run out to sea and sinking seem to rise again a few miles out in a sheer island, so that they resemble couchant beasts with backs under water but heads and haunches upreared .......

....and near by the blue sea, slightly roughened as by a harrow, sleeps calm but foamy among cinder-covered isles; donkeys graze on the brown turf, larks rise and fall and curlews go by; a cuckoo sings amongst the deserted mines. But the barrows are most noble on the high heather and grass. The lonely turf is full of lilace scabious flowers and crimson knapweed among the solid mounds of gorse. The brown-green-grey of the dry summer grass reveals myriads of the flowers of the thyme, of stonecrop yellow and white, of pearly eyebright, of golden lady's fingers, and the white or grey clover with its purest and earthest of all fragrances

On every hand lies cromlech, camp, circle, hut and tumulus of the unwritten years. They are confused and and mingled with the natural litter of a barren land. It is a silent Bedlam of history, a senseless cemetery or museum, amidst which we walk as animals must do when they see those valleys full of skeleton where their kind are said to go punctually to die. There are enough of the dead; they outnumber the living, and there those trite truths burst with life and drum upon the typpanum with ambigous fatal voices. At the end of this many barrowed moor, yet not in it, there is a solitary circle of grey stones, where the cry of the past is less vociferous, less bewildering, than on the moor itself, but more intense. Nineteen tall, grey stones stand round a taller, pointed one that is heavily bowed, amidst long grass and bracken and furze. A track passes close by, but does not enter the circle; the grass is unbent except by the wieght of its bloom. It bears a name that connects it with the assembling and rivalry of the bards of Britain. Here, under the sky, they met, leaning upon the stones, tall fair men of peace, but half warriors, whose songs could change ploughshares into sword. Here they met, and the growth of the grass, the perfection of the stones(except that one stoops as with age), and the silence, suggest that since the last bard left it, in robe of blue or white or green - the colours of sky and cloud and grass upon this fair day - the circle has been unmolested, and the law obeyed which forbade any but a bard to enter it........And the inscription on the chair of the bards of Beisgawen was "nothing is that is not for ever and ever" - these things and the blue sky, the white, cloudy hall of the sun, and the green bough and grass, hallowed the ancient stones, and clearer than any vision of tall bards in the morning of the world was the tranquil delight of being thus ' teased out of time' in the presence of this ancientness,....

The Stone circle of Beisgawen is in actual fact Boscawen -Un

The Banks of Green Willows.....

Thursday, November 8, 2007

A Dark Afternoon.

By my computer a candle burns, its soft yellow flame illuminating the circle of its light. Its an anachronism really, the gray technology of a computer against its warmth and comfort. But as the day grew dark this afternoon when strong winds and rain came from the north, it is a taliesman against the bleakness of winter. Leaves danced and flew up to the sky in the wind, soon their golden colours will disappear as they crumble into brown dust, a last dance at the dying of the year but the gold of the leaves, the gold of the sun, are also echoed elsewhere. In the fruit bowl, yellow bananas from sunnier climes, small clementines brightly orange, apples from the garden streaked red and gold, all languish in the large earthen clay bowl. In the kitchen a large orange pumpkin also adds sparkle to this dark day. The sun captured in fruit and vegetables, the yellow wheat seed fed to the hens is another reminder of summer and its bounty. Perhaps we should welcome these dark days so sharply contrasted against the brightness of summer suns, it is a time for introspection, a thinking time, a time of dreaming...

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

A brown ringed snail

When out walking on the Lansdown, I often come across groups of these little snails clinging to stalks or blades of grass. They cluster in the early morning sun, high above the wet turf. There is something vulnerable about them, light enough to cling to grass stalks, they seem a reminder of an ancient past.
I had spied such snails around the Kennet at Silbury. The river was in full flood, and wading through the water on the path I had noticed snails clinging to the blades of grass. At the time I thought it was because they were trying to escape the flood water, and I remembered all the snail shells that had been trapped inside Silbury, generations of them stretching right back to when it had been built.
These small innocous creatures, would also have been round in prehistory to delight the children with the pattern of the shells; perhaps they made necklaces out of them, or chalked on the stone their weird round shapes.
It is a humbling experience when reading all the daft theories that people come up with regarding prehistory, to remember these little shells and their quiet constant presence in the cyclical nature of time.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Natural Sacred Places

The idea that natural places are sacred is well written about. Richard Bradley in An Archaeology of Natural Places, describes the Saami of Lapland making their long annual migration trek after the reindeer. As they followed the migrational route, strange anthromorphic rock formations, and springs would mark their stopping places and the narration of the landscape would take place. So as the Saami followed the beasts, striking images in the landscape would become part of the mythology of their lives, and because we are 'knowing' as humans the landscape would take on a particular storytelling.

How we view the the landscape is a very subjective experience Paul Deverex describes it thus;

Although we abstractly 'know' that any one of us is just an individual locus of consciousness wandering around in unstructured, unbounded space, the actual, embodied experience we have is that we are at the centre, with the world arranged in diminishing distances from us in all directions"..

. This 'centredness' that Devereux describes lies within all of us, it is just that modern humans have forgotten how to use their intuition, the metaphysical has become something to be derided - we can't see it, therefore it is'nt there..... But of course it is there, a great well spring, that rises burbling to the top of the mind, so that when we stop and take in the natural world around us, or when we view an ancient monument it triggers deep subconscious feelings of rememberance but perhaps also loss for a time past that may seem to be utopian.

"humans being are oriented in relation to the world as it is understood rather than as it is revealed by empirical science" Culture and Identity - J.Thomas.

So it it on this basis that we must interpret what we see in the sacred spaces of the landscape, it is in the returning to one spot that our ancestors slowly ritualised their beliefs and ancestor worship, these beliefs would change, for nothing is static, life is always on the move just like thought, but the landscapes though altered by created structures would hold within its 'being' shape and form, a home place, sometimes peopled by gods, but in earlier times the very land was the goddess figure, nurturing and suckling her progeny.
Longbarrows echo the natural world, sometimes seen as caves in which the dead are brought to be buried, their megaliths reflect a belief system.
Presceli Mountains in Pembrokeshire is a good example of how the landscape has been transcribed into sacred space. Firstly one is aware of the marriage of sky and land, a vast encompassing space highlighted by the ridge of rocks called Carn Meini. On a dull day there is absolute bleakness in this sparse land but the sun can render the world into a sparkling array of colours, the dullness of the rocks can sit beneath the bluest of skies and the grass will transform into its myriad colours. The rocks themselves, vertical and jagged, have a powerful presence in the landscape, this was why they were venerated, piercing through the land like some giant montrosity they are vibrant with their own life. Such energy would have been respected by the prehistoric people as they settled the land around. Strangely the small circle of Gawrs Fawr with its tiny megaliths does not reflect this, but walk from the circle, along a presumed avenue towards the two single megaliths and you will note that you are being led to the view of Carn Meini. If you examine the landscape around this outcrop you will notice that there are natural small cairns resembling longbarrows, and even on the ridge there is a long line of protruding stones that imitates an avenue.

Communicating with stones, Anthromorphism and Finnish Rock Art

Carn Meini natural outcrop, with 'stone' river curving at the bottom. Second photo of natural 'longbarrow' carn/cairn


The drama of stones at Avebury;

2) Man made Sacred Landscape
 Looking at the Avebury complex what becomes obvious is that the great circle itself and the two smaller circles are all redolent of an ancient symbolism that we are unable to translate. Vague flashes of intuition will link our minds to the stones purpose, and a theory will be written trying to explain an individual response, but the whole complex patterning with its overlap of time periods will on the whole be unfathomable. Some would argue and 'so be it', the mystery is always more tantalising than the truth and this is as it should be. Avebury may never have had a natural sacred landscape, like Stonehenge it sits in a plain and was settled because of its environment. What we understand today is part of the monumentalisation of the landscape, the bringing together of ideas, religion and beliefs in prehistory. It can be likened to the designers of the 18th century gardens, Inigo Jones and Repton, humans are imposing their vision on the landscape.

Reading Burl, the archaeologist in Prehistoric Avebury, and he gloomly confronts us with people whose bones are riddled with disease and can show signs of malnutrition, he does not see the builders as a splendiferous race of humans, but probably survivalists trying to make the best of a harsh environment. Measured against our western society he has a point, but I suspect that even though neolithic people had a much shorter life style they could also find happiness, festival and the sheer joy of life that we find today. That their stones were tied up with fertility, the sun and moon and beliefs in a spirit world are how we interpret them today, but one thing that is very striking about all these stones is there impressive bulk and strangely contorted shapes.
Stones that were dragged from Fyfield Down were chosen for their grand and impressive natures, they symbolised in the mind the vague chaos of animistic beliefs, the dark and cruel world that beset all humans that travel through life, but the stones were also chosen to represent fertility imagery, for it is in the fertility of the soil, plants, animals and humans that regeneration takes place and the continuous cycle of existence goes on.

One of the great stones left on Fyfield Down

The fallen 'Fisher' Stone by the track from the Ridgeway

The enigmatic Cove Stones - the female stone is calculated at over 100 tons

Ghostly stones dancing in front of the church

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Anima Mundi

Silbury has been in the news lately mainly for the reason of the work that is being conducted in repairing and filling the tunnels that have been dug out by various antiquarians and archaeologists. Being a short term news story, the journalists have had a great source of drama and sensation... plus because Silbury draws so much attention to its mysterious reason for being built, speculation runs riot..
So why title this piece anima mundi, maybe because one of the theories is that it would have been erected to house the souls of the dead. Now animus mundi comes from a saying of Plato...

The soul of the world, a pure ethereal spirit which was proclaimed by some ancient philosophers to be diffused throughout all nature.

This lovely conceit would sit on Silbury's shoulders well, though some would argue that Plato and souls came after she was built. But the idea of Silbury housing the souls of the dead through the medium of sarsen stones is intriguing, whether it is true or not remains in the minds of the people who built her. But to be the soul of the world, a captured essence reminds one of Pandora's Box waiting to leash its chaos. Silbury on the other hand blends in the natural world easily having water at her feet, and if you were to look at Tibetan myths, Silbury as a mountain would be the male god and the water that curves round its base would be female...

Tomorrow is All Saints Day, but the day after is All Souls Day, Hallowmass, it is the day when the spirit world is able to cross the thin veil between life and death. This pagan festival is celebrated through Samhain, a celtic festival, and will be interpreted all over the world in different forms. People will go to worship their ancestors, food will be taken to cemeteries, sweets will be shaped into skulls and bones, and people will acknowledge the dead.

Around Silbury activities will also take place, little ceremonies, candles and dressing up, todays pagans trying to capture the essence of the past, hopefully the souls of the dead that lurk inside this great mound will not join in the ceremonies for they will have known a more fearful past...