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