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Archaeoastronomy is all about the connection between ancient sites and astronomical features. Many such connections have been proposed, whether likely, possible or implausible but so far as we know no-one has yet suggested the ancients were clever enough to deliberately use a site for viewing a transit of Venus…..
Still, on 6th June several astronomers from the Peak District Dark Skies Project will be on hand from 4:30am with telescopes and special glasses to allow members of the public to view the transit of Venus from the summit of the Mam Tor “Mother Hill” which is enclosed by Bronze Age earthworks.
You have to wonder, has the transit ever been observed from there before? Or a number of times?!
Jeremy Deller’s much admired Bouncy Stonehenge, currently in Glasgow and shortly to be in London, wasn’t the first of its type. See here - The Poulnabrone Bouncy Dolmen , a touring public artwork by Jim Ricks launched in August 2010.
“I consider it an identical concept,” Ricks told the Guardian. “In terms of the description of the work, they are incredibly similar,” admitted Deller but he said that the idea for a bouncy Stonehenge had long pre-dated Ricks’s Dolmen. “The Olympics people got really nervous in case Jim decided to sue us,” he added. Fortunately though Ricks isn’t minded to – “Jeremy is a lovely man, and I have no reason to doubt his story” he said.
So cordial are their relations that it seems likely they’ll stage something that you won’t see every day – a megalithic bounce-off! Deller hopes that his “Sacrilege” will travel to Northern Ireland as part of its Cultural Olympiad tour. If it does, he will invite Jim Ricks to bring his Poulnabrone Bouncy Dolmen over the border to visit. (Rumours that Elvis and Lord Lucan will be present are yet to be confirmed!)
For the past 5 years, the Cornish Ancient Sites Protection Network (CASPN) have held a Pathways to the Past weekend consisting of a series of walks and talks around and within the West Penwith area. This year is the 6th year for this event, and I was fortunate in my holiday timing to be able to attend one of the walks last Saturday afternoon, May 26th.
The walk was entitled ‘Sacred sites and Settlements’, and was led by local archaeologist David Giddings. We met (some 53 souls!) at Lanyon Farm for the start of the walk, and after financials and some H&S issues were dealt with, we set off along the road for a short distance before entering the fields to the south. We were fortunate in that the weather was fine (heatwave!) and the ground was dry, making progress much easier. Although, with 50-plus people there were inevitable delays waiting for stragglers at the various stopping points.
The first stop was at West Lanyon Quoit, not often visited as it’s on private property and not visible from the road. Once everyone had caught up, David gave an erudite summation of its known history, and pointed out that the capstone, which is leaning against the single remaining upright, would actually have been on the far side of the upright from where it now is. Looking at the site, this is contrary to what you would expect!
Close by to the quoit, in the corner of the field are the remains of a medieval long house, which may have been the original farmhouse owned by the Lanyon family. Again, a detailed explanation was given for what could be seen at the site, including details of how livestock kept in the lower (downhill) part of the house would have been used as an early form of central heating!
We then retraced our steps back to the road, and continued on to Lanyon Quoit, one of the most famous landmarks on the peninsula, being so close to the road and easily visible when passing. Despite almost everyone present being fully ‘au fait’ with the quoit and its known facts, David again entertained us all by going through them, and pointing out that the story of a man on horseback being able to pass under the quoit before its collapse in the early 1800s must have been a very short man on a shetland pony! The work done to truncate one of the taller uprights as part of the 1824 restoration can be quite plainly seen and felt, as the indentations from where the stone was cut down by drilling are still evident.
At this juncture, and possibly for comic effect (?) David temporarily ‘lost the path’ to our next target, Bosiliack Barrow, although the barrow could be plainly seen from Lanyon if you knew where to look. Once convened at the barrow, which was excavated 28 years ago (publication of the excavation is due ‘soon’) and is of the Scillonian type which are found only on Scilly and in Penwith, various discussions took place as to possible uses. Although a funerary urn had been found in the chamber, it is thought that it was not used for ‘burials’ as would be expected. An alignment with the solstice sunrise was noted for the chamber itself. The chamber is offset from the centre of the cairn but why this should be is not known.
The final stop of the day was at the Bosiliack Settlement, scene of a recent excavation. The settlement consisted of up to 17 or so Bronze Age round houses, the outlines of several of which are quite clear on the ground. There was extensive banter concerning lynchets, which I gather are a pet subject of David’s. Many of his audience were regulars and were aware of his passion for the subject. Indeed, after being left to browse around the extent of the village, several of us moved up the hill to see the lynchets for ourselves. Considering the length of time they have been in place, it’s amazing the evidence still exists so plainly.
It was interesting to consider what life must have been like in those days, and how the position of the settlement had an effect on the landscape which we see today. The water source of the stream at the bottom of the hill, the huts with their attached cultivation areas and the lynchets higher up, with what could be described as the bossman’s hut at the very top of the hill.
But all good things come to an end, and it was time to descend the hill back to Lanyon Farm, where several attendees managed to obtain a cream tea, before the Tea Rooms closed for the day.
All in all, a very enjoyable and educational walk. If you’re in the area next time, make sure to book yourself a place. The walk I attended cost £3 but was free for CASPN and FOCAS members, for which membership was available on the day.
All photos © AlanS, taken on the day.
A Guest Article by Brian Edwards
In the spirit of the BBC’s ‘The Unbelievable Truth’, a game show that attempts to convey truths undetected amidst a fantastic story:
This week an Olympic torch convoy filed past Silbury Hill without stopping, another in a long line of snubs that can be traced back to 1649.
Silbury Hill was the area’s premier landmark in the late Sixteenth century, prior that is to the focus being shifted onto sarsen standing stones in the vicinity – following John Aubrey’s famous encounter with Avebury in 1649.
Charles II suddenly spotting Silbury Hill from horseback when exiting Avebury after a guided tour in 1663, highlights that Aubrey and the other antiquaries present that day had no intention of bringing the mound to the king’s attention. The antiquaries evidently didn’t want the mound to retain star billing over the newly discovered sarsen stone ‘cathedral’!
They needn’t have worried, when a burial wasn’t found at the very centre of the Silbury Hill in 1776, the mound was deemed to be only a satellite monument to the henge and stone circle.
Another snub followed in the twentieth century: when buying up much of Avebury in the inter-war period, the marmalade financed archaeologist Alexander Keiller didn’t purchase Silbury Hill – a snub in itself, but more significantly the mound was further marginalised by the henge-centric interpretation of Keiller’s rebuilt Avebury at his new museum in a stable block.
Silbury Hill remains the most unique jewel of many jewels in the Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site crown, but heads continue to be turned by those precious stones. How else do we explain why the world’s largest chalk built prehistoric monument is less prestigiously known as Europe’s largest prehistoric man-made mound?
On the other hand, the Olympic torch didn’t visit Avebury either!
Did you spot the truths?
More news on the sentencing of Roger Penny, the landowner who allowed the partial destuction of one of the Priddy Henges. After he pleaded guilty at the Magistrates hearing in April to permitting the execution of works affecting a scheduled monument, Mr Penny was sent to Taunton Crown Court for sentencing as the Magistrate’s sentencing powers were too limited given the nature of the offence. He was due in Crown Court on the 18th May but sentencing has now been adjourned until the 6th July.
Mr Penny has offered to return the land to the care of English Heritage or make any reparations as may be required. At the very least he should pay to rebuild the henge to its previous state. English Heritage should also take him up on the offer of taking this henge into state care and open it up for public access.
The Magistrates Court can impose a maximum fine of £5000 whereas the Crown Court can impose an unlimited fine or up to two years imprisonment.
As previously reported, a project is underway at the National Maritime Museum in Falmouth, Cornwall, to reconstruct a Bronze Age log boat. The remains of three Bronze Age ships were discovered at North Ferriby on the Humber foreshore between 1937 and 1963, and design of these are being used to devise the current boat, which could be as much as 50+ feet long when completed.
The construction, which is still in it’s early stages, can be viewed by visitors to the museum. Currently, two large (3 ton) English Oak trunks are being sculpted, using nothing more than bronze axes, to form the keel of the boat. Sculpted, because the design requires various ‘blocks’ to remain attached within the body of the boat.
The block of wood on which they’re standing above, will be only 4 inches thick when completed Once the keel’s two halves are completed, a further large tree (8 tons of wood!) will be used to form the planking for the sides of the boat. The whole will be secured with flexible yew stems, and caulked with other vegetation.
Of the 14 tons total of wood, it is estimated that around 9 tons will be waste – though in the Bronze Age such a term would not be used. The chippings and off cuts would be used as fuel for fires, and possibly for insulation or packing.
As part of the exhibition about Bronze Age seafarers, the master copy of the Nebra Disk is also on show, the connection being that it is thought that panned gold, from Carnon Downs near to Falmouth, was used in it’s construction along with Cornish Tin.
The exhibit, which through until September, is well worth a visit, if only to provide some encouragement to the volunteers doing all the hard labour!
In a speech titled “Next Steps – England’s Heritage” Dr Simon Thurley, Chief Executive of English Heritage, yesterday set out the organisation’s plans for the year ahead. You can read about it here
Given the massive funding cuts it’s hard not to anticipate that a lot of the steps will be backwards, although Dr Thurley tried to sound optimistic:
“We all hope that, despite the grave state of the economy, 2012, the year of the Diamond Jubilee and the Olympic and Paralympic Games, will be one of renewal and optimism. It will certainly be one in which our history and heritage will be brought to the fore.”
We all hope that but without funding it’s hard to be confident. Still, the presentation highlighted various bits of good news and this one, already announced, is particularly pleasing:
“The Government has awarded £2.7 million over three years to English Heritage to help schools use local heritage to deliver the curriculum and bring history to life both in and out of the classroom. The Heritage Schools project will ensure that children visit and acquire an understanding of local heritage sites.”
For the bad news (and there has to be a lot of it when so many millions of pounds of funding have been lost) you have to read between the lines or elsewhere. This, two tweet by Dr Thurley yesterday, struck us as probably very bad news, albeit put in a neutral way:
“Our new listing regime will make space for us to do more strategic listing in the future.”
“Meanwhile we will be much more selective in spot listing, only going for things at risk, outstanding or identified as priority.”
At a time when Outreach seems to be contracting it’s nice to come across an organisation dedicated to extending it. Archaeology for Schools (see their website here) grew out of a University of Chester undergraduate project to bring proper academically focussed British archaeology into schools. It now operates as a North West based not-for-profit heritage company supplying a whole range of outreach services.
Their core activity is supplying archaeologically-focussed workshops, seminars and talks to schools (including arranging “visits from archaeologists, Egyptologists, Roman Soldiers and Viking Warriors”!) and conducting outdoor activities exploring the historic environment around local schools. They have also provided a public outreach show at the Museum of Liverpool including a series of ‘time-line tours’ as well as something for younger museum-goers called The Dead Good Show (we want to go to that!)
We like their “outreach ethos”: “Outreach should be much more than experts talking and the public listening” and even more their message about archaeology:
“It is much more than just excavation. In fact, digging is an expensive, labour intensive undertaking that requires experience and professionalism if it is to be completed properly. The strength of archaeology lies in its diversity, and activites such as landscape surveys, fieldwalking, map research and place-name studies are all ways people can get involved with archaeology without getting their hands dirty!”
Finally, we like what they say about themselves: “Forgot to mention: we are a not-for-profit Community Interest Company…. we do heritage, because we love heritage!”
How good is that? More power to their elbows!
Update: Here’s a dead good trailer