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Continuing our Bank Holiday Heritage Drive from Andover to Salisbury (ignoring the 200 mile round trip from London!) Yesterday we covered our visits to the Museum of the Iron Age and Bury Hill Camp. We now leave Bury Hill Camp behind, heading southwest toward Danebury…
I’d heard quite a bit about the entrance to Danebury. How ‘labyrinthine’ it is, how imposing, about how so many bodies had been found in the ditches there. But no-one told me about the uphill climb to get there! Ok, it’s probably not that bad for 99% of people, but when you’ve got dodgy knees, it seems a bit of a hike…
The entrance certainly is imposing. ‘Labyrinthine’ may be over-egging it a little these days, seeing how the pathway is neatly gravelled, allowing no opportunity to get lost as it leads you to the interior. But the banks certainly hide what’s inside. Imagining these with wooden palisades, as seen on the museum mock-up earlier, any visitor would be impressed at the implied power and wealth on display.
I elected to climb the provided staircase to the top of the bank for my permabulations, unlike others who had clearly decided to forge their own path, causing erosion in the process. It seems that even at a ‘type’ site such as Danebury, all the information boards, outreach and education just cannot get through to some people. As well as the erosion, I saw a fairly large fire pit within the hill fort, by the outer bank.
Once on top of the bank, the scale of the fortifications became readily apparent. Walking around the inner bank, it felt at times as though I had a drop of 100 feet or more into the middle ditch below, a real test of my vertigo, as the bank is also some 20-30 feet above the inside of the fort in places, with quite steep sides.
An information board at the entrance to the site suggests that there are at least 7 other hillforts intervisible with Danebury, but as the majority of the site is surrounded by trees, it’s difficult to discern which ones they could be. I also found, on preparing this text, that 500m to the northwest are remains of at least three much older (Neolithic) Longbarrows, mostly ploughed out, none now surviving to a height of more than 1 metre. There are other barrows of various dates to the east and south too. I should have researched more before leaving home as I saw nothing of these…
Traversing across the internal space of the fort, there is a definite ‘high spot’ in the ground, now largely covered by trees. The information board on-site tells us that square structures were found during excavation at this high point – “These buildings were presumably the shrines or temples of the community, and as such would be home to a group of druids” !
On this far side away from the enclosure entrance, I noticed a lot of small squarish holes were the ground had been turned over. Although I saw no evidence of droppings (other than from the sheep which were set to graze in the fort), these could have been done by rabbits, foxes or badgers, or may have a more sinister purpose…
But Tempus was Fugit’ing and I still had a lot to do, so made my way back through the neatly clipped exit and set off back down the hill to the car park for the next stage of our journey.
In fact, time was against us from now on. Our next scheduled stop was to have been at Figsbury Ring, but as I’ve been here before, I made an executive decision to skip it and move on.
I had come to Old Sarum, not to see the hill fort and all it contains (there is an admission charge payable, I did not have sufficient time left in the day to make this worthwhile), but to see something both newer and very much older than the hill fort at the same time. For here, in the car park some experimental archaeology is currently taking place which will have a profound effect on millions of people every year. It is here that the designs, materials and techniques for the Neolithic houses which will be erected at the new Stonehenge Visitor Centre are being worked upon.
Amazingly, as I entered the car park I spotted two old friends of mine that I’d not seen for some years. They were here with their children for an event within the fort later in the day, which was re-enacting a battle between Britons and Saxons, in which the children could take part (and which they thoroughly enjoyed!)
But the houses were what I’d come to see, and I must apologise here to the English Heritage volunteer, whose explanatory talk I interrupted when I arrived to my friends’ surprise.
There are three houses in total, two are essentially complete, one is still being worked upon. The two shown above are based upon post holes discovered in excavations at Durrington Walls, and the third is conjectured, being of a design that leaves little archaeological trace.
Of the two houses built on the post hole traces, different materials are being used on different parts of the houses to see how easy they are to work, how well they last, how efficent at heat retention etc they are. As you can see on the right above, different grasses and types of straw are being tried, in different laying patterns for the roofs. The house on the left has two different wall structures, one made of water, chalk and straw, the other a more traditional daub mix. Surprisingly, the daub wall has needed more ongoing maintenance and patching as it has dried out. Similar comparisons are undergoing trials on the house on the right.
One interesting point with these houses is that although the post arrangements are essentially rectanglar, the houses appear very rounded. This is due to the stresses placed by the weight of the roof causing the walls to ‘bow’ out, something which had not really been considered, or seen in this way before.
The third house is considered to be a possible earlier design, without substansive walls, but a roof that continues to floor level. As with the other house, despite windows the house is remarkable light inside, once your eyes adjust to the lower levels. Again different structuring techniques have been used on this house, as evidenced by the ridges and flat sections of the roof above, and the internal battening seen below.
Although the post hole houses have a series of smaller, internal post holes which have been interpreted as supports for a shelving arrangement, there are no such findings for the simpler buildings. I guess people in grass houses couldn’t stow tomes? (I’ll get me coat…)
But it will be very interesting to see which design elements from these experiments will be used in the final houses to be built at Stonehenge later this year.
Having seen as much as we could, it was time to grab a bite to eat, in the centre of Salisbury (which has extensive Heritage sites of its’ own, enough to fill several days’ visits but outside the remit of the Heritage Journal time period of interest) before heading back to the smoke of London. Whilst we could have driven via Amesbury and Stonehenge, this would have made our return home unfeasibly late, so we took the more direct route, retracing our steps up to Andover and home.
But there’s always next time!
All pictures © Alan S.
Another sunny Bank Holiday, another Heritage Drive!
Although the plan for the day only involved 4 sites in a distance of around 16 miles, the trip was a long one for us, involving a 200 mile round journey to get to those 16 miles, resulting in a trip that took over 12 hours in total and left us exhausted!
So it was that we headed around the M25 and onto the M3 at silly o’clock in the morning. Despite stopping for a relaxing and much needed breakfast, we still arrived a bit earlier than anticipated, and had to wait for the first scheduled stop, the Museum of the Iron Age in Andover, to open.
Museum of the Iron Age
To enter the Danebury exhibit proper, visitors must pass through a mock-up of the entrance at Danebury, as it’s thought to have been, with a timber facing to the rampart by the gate.
“The Central Wessex landscape around Danebury presents one of the densest concentrations of Iron Age sites in Europe, but there is much more besides”
so states the introductory map display at the museum, which is largely devoted to the finds from Danebury hill fort. Indeed, the map is a mass of red lines denoting field systems, settlements, hill forts and other indications of occupation from the Iron Age, all of which make current day Andover look quite insignificant as a population centre!
As you’d expect from a decent museum (and this is very decent, the volunteer staff were extremely friendly and helpful), there are numerous finds on display, with informative interpretation boards at every turn, covering the structure of the hillfort, defenses and armaments, everyday life in the fort – where over 5000 grain storage pits have been found – and death, with several burials and bones on display.
I certainly found the interpretation boards, dioramas and other displays were a great aid to the imagination, and they definitely enhanced my visit to Danebury later in the day.
It seems I’d also timed my visit to coincide with the start of a new ‘Lego Mania Trail‘ initiative, running from Thursday 28 March to Sunday 9 June. Several attractions across Hampshire are displaying scale Lego models of nearby Heritage attractions. Visit all those listed in the time specified and get a stamp on a form, and you can apparently be entered into a prize draw to win an iPad. I can’t speak for the other sites, but the Lego model of Danebury was certainly impressive, and it’s a great way to get the kids involved!
Bury Hill Camp
Just a few minutes drive from the museum, outside the southern environs of Andover (at Grid Ref SU346435) in Upper Clatford was the first site of the day, at Bury Hill. Although the land both inside and outside the hill fort is private, there is a footpath around the perimeter allowing glimpses of the bank and ditch.
The hill fort was constructed in two major stages, the first univallate bank and ditch enclosing 24 acres, and a later bivallate earthwork covering 11 acres on the south east of the earlier fort. Sadly the ditch is very overgrown in places, although a sense of the scale of the place can still be achieved.
Excavation here has revealed the interior of the fort is densely covered with pits, but very little grain or human bone has been recovered. What have been recovered are a number of horse trappings and remains. This suggests that the fort was used as stabling, for stud or training purposes, or maybe even trading of horses. Extensive remains of a settlement have been found a few hundred yards to the southeast of the hill fort, indicating that this place was important, but possibly not in the way that most hill forts are perceived.
Back on the main road, we headed southwest toward Danebury, easily signposted with those brown tourist signs.
to be continued….
All pictures © Alan S.
English Heritage are starting a free school bus scheme. They’ll provide up to £4 per pupil towards travel to many of their properties. It’s a great idea. However, from our point of view there’s one drawback – the list of eligible sites includes only about half a dozen prehistoric ones. Sadly, that’s consistent with how things are on the National curriculum and exactly nine years ago our colleague Tombo made a compelling plea for change in his article Reclaiming Prehistory.
He pointed out that at least three million years of ‘prehistory’ is skimmed over in only a handful of pages at the beginning of our history books and the space on any school timetable devoted to the study of pre-literate times is as nothing when compared to that spent teaching the written history of the Common Era. As Tristram Hunt has just asked in the Guardian – “How much information about Anne Boleyn can modern Britain really cope with?”
Here’s a small suggestion. Maybe EH could still help with travel costs to medieval priories and stately homes but make the subsidy conditional upon brief stops at one or two little-known prehistoric sites on the way?
On my recent visit to Cornwall, I managed to squeeze in a visit to a site I’ve only been to once before, but have never really seen. Caer Bran hillfort rests on a hill to the south of Sancreed Beacon, and when I last climbed up to the hillfort the area was shrouded in thick mist, which afforded me no overall view of the monument.
Luckily this time the weather was much clearer, though still very ‘damp’, and I was able to get a much better impression of the scale of the fort, which is around 120 or so metres in diameter.
Lake’s Parochial History of 1868 describes the hillfort thus:
“Caer Bran Castle, i.e. Brennus’s Castle, or the Crow castle, stands on the summit of a hill six furlongs and a half to the west of the church; it consists, or rather consisted, of three concentric circles, the greatest being about 240 feet in diameter, and still in some places 15 feet in height; it is composed of earth, and, as is usual in such cases, has a ditch on each side. The middle circle was built of stone, and was at least 12 feet in thickness; a large portion of the stone has been removed for building purposes. The innermost circle is about 30 feet in diameter, and was evidently a sort of citadel.”
The PastScape entry (see link below) mentions only two sets of ramparts, the inner one ‘now very mutilated’.
The hill fort, which dates to the Iron Age but has much later mining remains within it, is easily accessed via a concreted track south from the Sancreed-Grumbla road at OS Grid Ref SW409295. The hillfort also contains three Bronze Age ring cairns, which pre-date the fort. Though the hill is a bit steep in places, it’s a steady climb to the summit, and I reached the pathway leading off to the left to the fort in less than 15 minutes from the road.
Approaching from the northwest, the ramparts are open for the old mining track that leads through the monument, and I was saddened to see that much of the westerly ditch was quite flooded. On the northern side the ramparts are very well defined, though there is some evidence of animal burrowing activity, possibly rabbits. This activity was mirrored on the southeastern side, but the damage was much more in evidence – although I’m a city boy, I’d guess at badgers from the size of the burrows. From the southwest, the old mining track loops away to the south and west across toward the village of Brane.
The name ‘Bran’ means Raven or Crow, and it would be easy to speculate that the hillfort is named after the same Rialobran (Royal Raven) commemorated on the Men Scryfa, some 4 miles to the north.
Other nearby monuments:
Some 75 yards or so to the east of the hillfort is a small enclosure, noted on PastScape as a pound, with a small mound at its centre. There was some thought at one time that this may be a henge, but this idea is now dismissed. There is no public access to the enclosure that I could see. The area is rich in prehistoric monuments, with the Carn Euny settlement and holy wells to the southwest, Sancreed Beacon to the northeast and Sancreed holy well to the east. Further afield is the Goldherring settlement to the south, Bartine Castle to the west and Brane chambered cairn further to the southwest. On a clear day, the hillfort provides a good all-round view to most parts of the West Penwith peninsula.
Exactly a year ago today we published this plea made by Heritage Action Founder Member Jamie Stone on a forum. We think it’s worth repeating – every year if necessary. How about saying something similar on your front page English Heritage?
“It doesn’t matter if it’s a digger destroying a stone row, a quarrying company destroying unique evidence of temporary camps around a henge, modern poems placed over a prehistoric landscape, a farmer allowing livestock to slowly destroy cairns or ploughing flat a round barrow, thousands of people stealing our heritage knowledge in the name of a hobby every weekend, landowners driving 4x4s across chambered tombs, tenant farmers flattening henges, 1000s of people denuding Avebury’s banks by not keeping to paths, unused roads being built over unique archaeology, 100s of people leaving tealights and garbage in barrows or one solitary person clambering to the top of a dolmen.
Don’t tell me it causes no damage. It doesn’t matter that in the greater scheme of things it’s practically irrelevant, because as the people that actually give a damn we should be setting the highest possible standard when we visit a site. We must do that because frankly, most people don’t know, they simply don’t realise.”
by Sandy Gerrard
In March last year 18 questions relating to the archaeological situation on Mynydd y Betws were asked. During May the answers provided by Cadw were published here. I also asked my local Assembly member (Mr Rhodri Glyn Thomas) to ask the Dyfed Archaeological Trust (DAT) the same questions and he kindly did this on my behalf. Having had no response in October I asked Carmarthenshire County Council for a copy of the DAT response and this was passed to both Mr Thomas and myself shortly afterwards. A commentary on the DAT response was then produced and sent to Carmarthenshire County Council. This series of articles present DAT’s responses in black and my own comments upon them in green. See part 1 of the series here, and part 2 here.
C/ It is worth pointing out the extent of the archaeological work that has been undertaken. It has involved:
A desk based assessment in 2005 Overlooked for example the historic coal industry remains and the stone alignment which is apparently clearly visible on aerial photographs consulted as part of this exercise. Much has been made of the fact that the stone alignment has only been visible since a fire removed the “dense vegetation”. This is untrue as there are photographs of the feature in records held by the DAT. These photographs should have been consulted as part of the planning process and the feature therefore identified at an early stage in the process.
A field survey in 2005 Also overlooked the historic coal remains, hollow way and bank with ditch
Field visits by Trust and Cadw staff for a number of projects DAT officer claimed for a short time at our meeting that the stone alignment was in Neath Port Talbot and clearly demonstrated on several occasions that he had had no idea where he was.
An extensive augur survey to identify peats and/or prehistoric horizons, carried out to the Standard and Guidance of the Institute for Archaeologists (IfA), our national governing body.
43 trial trenches (on the access roads and turbine bases), carried out to the Standard and Guidance of the Institute for Archaeologists (IfA). According to the Evaluation report “A total of 40 trenches was excavated across the development site”. Have DAT even read the report as they do not seem to know how many trenches were actually excavated?
an extensive archaeological watching brief, carried out to the Standard and Guidance of the Institute for Archaeologists (IfA). Areas shown in the Preliminary Statement as having benefited from a watching brief were being removed by machinery with no archaeological supervision on 16th January 2012.
Full excavation of the stone alignment where the new access road and spur to Turbine 16 impacted on it, carried out to the Standard and Guidance of the Institute for Archaeologists (IfA).
Preparation of a preliminary statement on the stone alignment, carried out to the Standard and Guidance of the Institute for Archaeologists (IfA). Is it normal practise not to include photographs of an excavation that is being reported upon within the format of a report that does include drawings and other photographs? Can’t think of any excavation reports that include photographs of the surrounding archaeology, but none of the excavation itself.
To be done-final reporting.
This is a comprehensive catalogue of the archaeological work that has been undertaken to date and in our estimation meets the planning requirements of Welsh Government and Carmarthenshire County Council.
If failing to carry out a search for earthworks within a development area in a landscape known to contain nationally important archaeological earthworks meets the planning requirements then perhaps these requirements should be re-visited.
D/ Finally, notwithstanding the above catalogue, it was this Trust’s view, and that of Cadw, that the application should have been refused on historic environment grounds. This Trust recommend refusal for this application on the basis that the area was not included in Tan 8, that no assessment had been carried out on the impact of the proposal on the historic landscape (even though we produced a brief to assist this work) and that the reporting as presented by the applicant’s contracting archaeologists (Cambrian Archaeological Projects) had consistently undervalued the scheduled and non-scheduled ancient monuments and their settings. It was therefore partly due to the inadequacy of the presented information that we raised our objections. Subsequently on-site recording and reporting have been carried out to our satisfaction.
In 1917 the Royal Commission published a report describing the Bancbryn coal workings as late C18 or early C19. In 2012 CAT produced a report stating that they were C20 indeed suggesting elsewhere that they were created in 1926. We are being asked to believe that the Royal Commission recorded the coal workings some nine years before they were created. It would be helpful if someone from the Dyfed Archaeological Trust could explain how this is possible and why they are satisfied with this explanation that is clearly wrong.
For previous and subsequent articles put Mynydd Y Betws in our Search Box.
By Graham Orris
This is the first in a series of articles on how to find “hard to find” sites.
My wife and I have been regular visitors to Cornwall for over a decade now, and have explored some areas in great depth, while other areas remain uncharted for us.
A site that particularly appealed to us was the so-called “Bosporthennis Beehive Hut” – a seemingly well-hidden mysterious gem of a site which has, by all accounts, eluded many people. I must admit the appeal of seeing this with our own eyes was heightened by the fact that not many people could find it!
It took us 3 attempts on 3 separate visits to find it, but when we did, the route we took was astoundingly simple.
Attempt number 1 was a non-starter due to my own terrible map-reading “skills”, and had us ending up in Bodrifty. Ahem.
Attempt number 2 found us looking at a footpath from the Nine Stones of Boskednan stone circle (approx OS map ref SW435351). The path took us from the circle down the side of the hill (in a very roughly North-Easterly direction) toward a cottage marked on the OS map as “Brook Cottage”. As we approached the end of the road, a friendly resident appeared and very happily pointed us in the right direction for the continuation of the footpath through a field and over a style. The path on the other side of the style was completely overgrown with ferns that must have been over 7ft tall! We pushed our way gingerly through, but decided it was a non-starter as we simply could not see where we were heading. Cue the end of attempt number 2!
Attempt number 3 was an altogether different approach. We found a footpath which starts beside the Treen – Newmill road (approx OS map ref SW437373). Basically, if you have an OS map you should simply follow the footpath, across fields and through styles (you can generally see the next style/footpath sign from the one you’re at) and in around 25 minutes’ time you will see the beehive hut! It’s not hidden, it’s just… there! (Approx OS map ref SW437360) The feeling of actually finding it after several aborted attempts was amazing. But having seen how easy it is to find, it was also annoying that we’d not found it sooner!
The walk is fairly even, and not too strenuous (if a little muddy), although not wheelchair-friendly and *possibly* navigable with only the sturdiest of pushchairs (with plenty of carrying) if taking young ‘uns. The overall walk is around one and a half miles and took us about 25 minutes at a fairly leisurely pace.
This is largely from memory, so please forgive any inaccuracies. If in doubt, just keep an eye out for the footpath signs on the styles or gates and you shouldn’t go wrong:
Starting at the road, enter the field by the footpath sign (approx OS map ref SW437373) heading SSE(ish)
Continue straight ahead to the next style at the far end then straight ahead again to the style in the far corner
Follow the wall along to the next style in the corner, now heading almost due South
Go straight ahead for the next 3 fields, curving slightly SSE toward the corner of the wall that juts out
Head roughly due South again for the next 2 or 3 fields until you reach a road/path that takes you over a stream
Follow the stream for about 2 fields until you find the footpath sign again
Head straight through the field to the far corner
In the next field, curve around to the next gate in the SE wall
Again, curve around to the SW, through the next gate, then due South
A short distance past this gate to the SW and you will see the Beehive Hut at the far end of the field.
Due to the amount of fields/styles/gates you go through it sounds a lot more complicated than it actually is. Some fields are very small and therefore I may have missed some out! If anyone manages to use these directions to find the site, please let me know. And please do let me know of any inaccuracies!
A guest post by Philip I. Powell. First published at
http://www.facebook.com/megalithicmonuments.ireland, reproduced with permission.
TOORMORE WEDGE TOMB
RMP No. CO148-001
A colleague, on a recent visit to a wedge tomb in west Cork, was shocked to find it being used as an out-house, containing trash bins, old rubbish and strewn with litter. I find this totally unacceptable, to see such callous disregard for a national monument and deeply concerned about what we really think about our national heritage. Is it that, unless it is given national attention via the state & independent media networks, we actually don’t care! Or are we saying that certain monuments deserve protection and others are perhaps not worthy of such protection.
All recorded archaeological monuments are protected under the National Monuments Acts 1930-2004 and this applies to every single one of them and not just the high profile monuments such as Newgrange, Poulnabrone, the Hill of Tara and many, many others. It is for that reason that each monument is entered in the Record of Monuments and Places (RMP) as established under Section 12 of the National Monuments (Amendment) Act 1994. A unique identifying number is assigned to each monument and place in the record and, as such, gives it legal, statutory protection. When the owner or occupier of a property, proposes to carry out, or to cause, or to permit the carrying out of any work at or in relation to a Recorded Monument, they are required to give notice in writing to the Minister 2 months before commencing that work. This is to facilitate the NMS (National Monuments Service) time consider the proposed works and how best to protect the monument in question. Breach of these requirements is an offence. It is also an offence under the National Monuments Acts to dig or excavate anywhere near such monuments without a licence.
It should be a personal privilege to have any such monument on your property and not some sort of burden and yet some regard it as an inconvenience, which infringes on their lives. I, for one, would love nothing more than to have that privilege or as some may see it, that inconvenience. Our heritage and our national monuments are not just for the here and now. They and it are for the generations that follow us, not just on our island but for the whole world. This island of ours is one of the richest places on earth for prehistoric archaeology and is regarded by eminent archaeologists worldwide, as a haven for the study of the development of human society from the early Neolithic period to the late Iron Age and beyond.
The NMS is reliant on landowners and the general public, to help it fulfill its role in the protection and preservation of our national monuments & our archaeological heritage.
If you wish to report possible damage to a monument please contact the National Monuments Service by phoning 01 8882000 or e-mailing email@example.com as soon as possible. Thank you folks.
An interesting English Heritage document, Heritage Crime Research: The Size of the Problem seeks to evaluate the damage caused by various crimes and in our particular sphere of interest (scheduled monuments and other designated historic sites) simple antisocial behaviour is the single most common heritage crime. Illegal detecting and off-roading are also problems but metal theft is less common than it is with other types of heritage assets.
However, viewing damage through the narrow prism of heritage crime can distort the reality and none of the crimes quoted in that research document cause anything like as much damage as is caused legally by agriculture, as highlighted in another English Heritage document from 2003 – Ripping up History.
Modern ploughing has done more damage in six decades than traditional agriculture did in the preceding six centuries. Among the sites being actively ploughed are nearly 3000 scheduled monuments, sites recognised as being of national importance to our heritage.
“We are, quite literally, ripping up our history.
Farmers are not at fault.They have done what society has asked them to do and past agricultural policy has dictated. However, if this important inheritance is to be better protected in future, it is essential that government, archaeologists and farmers now work together to find a new and more sensitive approach.
Over 10,000 wetland monuments are estimated to have suffered damage in the last 50 years …….. An estimated 94% of East Midlands ridge and furrow has been destroyed …….. Ploughing is damaging over 100 Anglo-Saxon cemeteries in Norfolk and Suffolk …….. Fewer than 10 out of 1200 burial mounds in Essex now survive as earthworks …….. Over a quarter of the nationally important scheduled monuments in the Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site are under damaging arable cultivation.“
At that time EH suggested 3 key actions were needed: an expansion of Environmental Stewardship schemes, further protection legislation and further policies to lessen the amount of grassland over protected archaeology being turned over to arable cultivation. That was almost ten years ago and some progress towards those aims has been made, particularly a big expansion of the Stewardship schemes (70% of agricultural land is now in schemes). However, perhaps the best hope for greater protection in the next few years will come from something that wasn’t specified back then: the Government is to move towards paying farmers to adopt “min til” (minimum tillage) – the low impact farming system that replaces ploughing.
English Heritage’s “Heritage Cycle”, published in their Research Strategy for Prehistory, neatly illustrates how awareness of heritage leads to care for heritage….
In the same document they quote the words of the All Party Parliamentary Archaeology Group that noted that prehistory doesn’t feature in the English school national curriculum and that “the UK is the only European state to neglect prehistory in this way” and that “Prehistory should be part of all national curricula“. We couldn’t agree more and it reminded us of what we think is a classic essay written for us by our member Tombo in 2004 soon after Heritage Action was formed. It’s worth publishing once again …
A heartfelt plea for “the myth of barbarism” to be lifted from our prehistory and for our ancient places to be given the care they deserve.
The stone circle of Tomnaverie, in Aberdeenshire, is a powerful symbol of the unhappy situation facing Britain’s rich prehistoric heritage. The builders of this majestic megalithic ring chose to position it like a crown on the head of the hill for which it is named: Tomnaverie, meaning ‘The Mound of the Fairies’. Yet despite the commanding location, the awe-inspiring views over the surrounding landscape and the impressive character of the stones themselves, Tomnaverie is the scene of an appalling tragedy.
As the twentieth century progressed, the Mound of the Fairies was slowly quarried away. Today, the quarrying has claimed so much of the hillside that the cliff-edges begin at the very limits of the stone circle itself, which can now only be reached by what one visitor described as “an ever-diminishing causeway of rock” (Julian Cope, The Modern Antiquarian). Many of the stones were deliberately thrown down (although now re-erected), at an unknown date, still others removed, and even those that remain are scarred and chipped.
Tomnaverie – see how insanely close to the stones the quarry is – during excavation. (Credit Peter Donaldson)
Kemp Howe stone circle, in Cumbria, similarly symbolises the wider context of its tragedy. This ring of beautiful, almost luminescent, pink-coloured stones are brutally bisected by a railway line, slightly over half of the circle completely obliterated beneath the embankment. It is a bizarre experience, to watch commuter-filled carriages hurtling at top speed through this battered beauty. The destruction could have been avoided altogether had the tracks only been laid a handful of yards away. It is as though the railway’s planners and builders did not even notice the circle’s presence.
Britain and Ireland are filled with places of this sort, where the monuments that meant so much to the people of the ancient world have been treated as nothing more than obstacles in the path of the modern world’s progress. Indeed, this website is entirely devoted to raising awareness of ancient sites that are, at this very moment, in danger of falling victim to similar circumstances. At least these places, unlike Tomnaverie, Kemp Howe and many other locations, can still be saved from damage and degradation, if we act now.
It is the purpose of this essay to enquire into the reasons why Britain’s ancient heritage so often faces these threats of wanton and unnecessary destruction. With so many prehistoric monuments at risk the main thrust of Heritage Action’s activities must, of necessity, be to deal with the problem symptomatically, tackling head-on specific threats to specific monuments. Yet it is also important that awareness is raised as to the underlying causes of the malaise, in the hope that the destruction might, in the future, be prevented from arising in the first place.
The myth of history
Humans and their ancestors (people who walked upright and gradually developed culture) have walked the earth for over three million years, yet I write these words in the year 2004. We number our years with reference to the birth of Jesus, dividing the past into BC, or Before Christ, and AD, or Anno Domini (Latin for In The Year Of Our Lord). Even when the more politically-correct terminology of CE and BCE (Common Era and Before The Common Era, respectively) is adopted, the division of the past into two portions remains, and with it the implication that one era, and by far the shorter one at that, is more significant than the other.
The original adoption of this method of numbering the years was very clearly an attempt to deliberately mislead. The nascent church, in a spirit of propagandist fervour, wished to imply that the times before the coming of Christianity were long ages of error, that the pre-Christian world was at best misguided, at worst actually evil. Even now that the church has lost much of its political and cultural power in Britain, our numbering of the years insidiously perpetuates its disregarding of the greater part of our past. A powerful but subtle deception endures.
A road slices through one end of Tregiffian Burial Chamber in Cornwall. (Credit Jane Tomlinson)
We similarly polarise the past every time we speak of ‘history’, a word which has ‘prehistory’ implicit in it. The word ‘history’ is derived from the same root as ‘story’, and in Middle English no distinction was made between the two. Whenever we mention ‘history’, we subtly imply that ‘prehistory’ was the time before the story began, of lesser importance than the story itself. It is interesting to note that in scholarly books about Britain’s past, the word ‘history’ usually refers to roughly the last two thousand years, just like Anno Domini or Common Era.
It might be argued that the influence of the church lingers on in the scholarly study of history. Academic knowledge, like that which is handed on in the history department of a modern university, is built up like the edifice of an ornate building, over many generations of scholars, each adding to the work of the last. Because Britain’s earliest native historians were monks, like Gildas or Bede, there may be some merit in the view that history’s academic architecture rests upon Christian foundations that exert a fundamentally Christian influence on the entire structure.
Yet this can only be the beginning of the story, because most contemporary historians have no overtly Christian axe to grind. Moreover, they try to cultivate a keen awareness of the biases inherent in all historical sources, particularly those that were so obviously created within the context of a rigidly religious world-view. The Christian foundations of our scholarly edifice may exert some degree of malign influence on our understanding of the past, but they are by no means the sole cause of the dismissal that is implied by the terminology of ‘history’ and ‘prehistory’.
The written word
The foremost definition of the word ‘history’ given in the Oxford English Dictionary is “continuous methodical record of public events”. Implicit in this definition is the notion that history is, by its very nature, a written phenomenon. After all, how else is a ‘continuous methodical record’ to be kept? Most of the sources from which historians learn about the past are written, because the written word can establish the facts of history with an apparent certainty that no other medium offers. Writing preserves the stories of history in the words of those who actually witnessed them.
Although the Ogham, Runic and Greek alphabets were not unknown in prehistoric Britain, they were not at all widely used. Before the arrival of the Romans, in 43 CE, the written sources that usually inform the study of history simply did not exist here. There is a sense, then, in which the term ‘prehistory’ simply refers to the time before the ‘continuous methodical record of public events’ began. Although this shows ‘prehistory’ to be a far less sinister term than ‘Before Christ’, it does not alter the fact that it rings in most ears as a dismissal: ‘before the story started’.
The Leys of Marlee Stone Circle, near Blairgowrie. How easy it would’ve been for the road to avoid the circle! (Credit Andy Sweet)
The ‘methodical record of public events’ might only have begun with writing, but the story of our collective past is far deeper and older. Indeed, most historians would be the first to acknowledge this, and also to point out that much can be known of the times before writing. Yet our culture’s dismissal of the pre-literate past is undeniable. The space on any school timetable devoted to the study of pre-literate times is as nothing when compared to that spent teaching the written history of the Common Era. Most children leave school without ever hearing the name Silbury.
It might be argued that this is as it should be, that it is entirely right that at least three million years of ‘prehistory’ should be skimmed over in only a handful of pages at the beginning of our history books, that the last two thousand years of ‘history’ are more relevant to our situation today. But then a convincing argument can also be made for the lessons of ‘prehistory’ having more relevance to the modern world than those which ‘history’ offers. Who is to decide which has more merit, and why must the decision be made? Would it not be better to fully inform our children of the entire past?
The multitudinous books on the subject of pre-literate Britain demonstrate that abundant enough material could be found to rectify this imbalance in the nation’s education. The absence of writing does not mean that we do not know enough of those times to describe them to our children in far fuller detail than the oversimplified and distorted outline which is currently on offer in our schools. There is an abundance of evidence from which we can learn of pre-literate times, the numerous monuments that Heritage Action exists to protect foremost in this cultural legacy.
The myth of civilisation
There is a tacit assumption, in our culture, that civilisation is altogether a good thing. Our leaders speak of Western societies as “the civilised world” sharing “civilised values”, referring to their enemies as “the enemies of civilisation”. It is considered high praise to be referred to as ‘very civilised’, and conversely a grave insult to be told that your behaviour is ‘uncivilised’. Civilised, to most people, is synonymous with words like cultured, polite and intelligent. Uncivilised, conversely, is popularly identified with terms such as barbaric, thuggish and ignorant.
The latest edition of the Oxford English Dictionary defines civilisation as “an advanced stage or system of human social development”. The word originates in the Latin civis, meaning ‘city dweller’, which is also the ancestor of our word ‘city’. Despite the dictionary’s vagueness as to the exact nature of this “advanced stage or system”, it is safe to say that the defining characteristic of civilisation is urban life. Cities, so the story goes, are only possible in societies where people’s social skills are sufficiently highly evolved to enable them to live peacefully with large numbers of other people.
The Broad Stone, Dorset. Once part of a stone circle, not quite destroyed but forgotten in the wake of the A35. (Credit Jamie Stone)
The word civilisation, then, implies that the people of non-urban societies are under-developed, immature, uncooperative and anti-social. Indeed, the Romans originally began to refer to themselves as civis out of a smug sense of cultural superiority. It was a word they used to set themselves apart from those who they looked down on as primitive, the ‘barbarians’ who they believed to be too socially backward to live in cities. Civilisation is truly a xenophobic word, both born of and perpetuating a divisive us-and-them mentality.
The British empire in India attempted to disguise its true purpose, the acquisition of land, natural resources and power, with high-sounding talk of a “civilising mission”. Its missionaries made the same claim in Africa, as did the conquistadors in South America, and a legion of other servants of Empire all over the world. The concept of civilisation first came to Britain in exactly the same way: as Roman imperial propaganda designed to denigrate and disregard the ‘savage’ pre-Roman world by implying that the invaders had saved us from barbarism.
The relevance of this to our culture’s dismissal of the pre-literate, prehistoric past is clear. Historians believe civilisation to have arrived in Britain at the same time as both writing and history: with the Roman invasion. Indeed, the 1994 Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary defines civilisation as “the stage of cultural development at which writing and the keeping of written records is attained “. It seems more than coincidental that our ‘civilised’ society should undervalue its pre-literate past. Those times are also said to be before civilisation, when people are believed to have been brutal and barbaric.
The myth of barbarism
The Roman dismissal of Britain’s pre-Roman past became entrenched ever more deeply in our culture by long centuries of Christianity and persists to this day. It is still the popularly-held belief that the people of pre-Roman Britain were in some way subhuman, animalistic, ape-like (although there’s nothing wrong with being an animal or an ape). Within a few years of the Roman invasion, the social climbers amongst the indigenous population were dressing in Roman clothes, living in Roman-style houses and learning Latin. ‘Roman’ quickly became synonymous with ‘fashionable’.
Barbarism is said to be the absence of civilisation, and the 1949 Oxford English Dictionary defines civilise as “bring out of barbarism”. It derives, via the Latin barbaria (which refers to a country of barbarians), from the Greek word barbaros, meaning ‘foreign, strange, ignorant’. Etymological dictionaries suggest that its ‘bar-bar’ sound was likely to have originated as a mocking imitation of the ‘unintelligible’ speech of foreigners. There is, then, no need for shame in the face of our ‘barbarian’ past: the word barbarian is every bit as xenophobic as civilisation.
A cairn near the famous Callanish on the Isle of Lewis – cut in half by a road. (Credit Andy Sweet)
The slanders that are heaped upon the ‘barbarian’ need to be recognised as the racist slurs that they are. The absence of cities in pre-Roman Britain does not mean that people were anti-social or uncooperative, just as the presence of cities does not demonstrate their ability to live together in perfect harmony. Silbury Hill, described in full elsewhere on this website, is but one spectacular fruit of mass cooperation in pre-urban Britain, whilst the ruthless empire-building of the city-dwelling Romans can hardly be described as either cooperative or sociable.
The absence of civilisation, barbarism, is popularly thought to imply a higher level of violence than that which is found amongst ‘civilised’ people. To modern ears, the word ‘barbarian’ conjures images of muscle-bound, small-brained, sword-wielding savages. Yet there is no evidence at all to suggest that the presence of cities makes a society either more or less violent. Pre-urban Britain was sometimes a violent place, just as it can be today, but then the city-dwelling Romans, with their love of war, crucifixion and the amphitheatre, can hardly be described as a pacifist people.
The idea that pre-literate, barbarian Britain lacked both intelligence and culture because it lacked writing is another popular misconception. Even Caesar wrote with some degree of awe about the sophisticated education of Britain’s Druids, who each memorised a rich oral tradition in its entirety during their twenty years of training. He remarked: “they consider it improper to entrust their studies to writing… [in case] the student should rely on the written word and neglect the exercise of his memory”. Writing was used only for mundane, usually financial, matters.
Britain is filled with prehistoric monuments whose builders could only have been intelligent, thoughtful, patient, inspired, skilful, cooperative and knowledgeable, amongst many other admirable qualities. The sheer scale of monuments like Silbury, Avebury, Stonehenge, Stanton Drew, The Ring of Brodgar and Callanish demonstrate, to begin with, that their builders were materially secure and optimistic about their future. Those who are engaged in a struggle for survival cannot devote the labour of so many to monument-construction without starving to death, their works left unfinished.
The builders of ancient monuments had a highly sophisticated sense of aesthetics. The beauty of their constructions enthrals us to this day, delighting the painter, poet, photographer, musician and film-maker alike. More than being beautiful in their own right, however, the positioning of these monuments reveals an exquisite sensitivity to the aesthetics of landscape. The Castlerigg stone circle, for instance, stands at the centre of a vast, natural amphitheatre, majestic hills towering in a stately ring around it, utterly spectacular scenery that attracts hundreds of visitors every summer’s day.
Other sites reveal the locations from which landscape features take on human forms. At the Callanish standing stones, for example, on the Hebridean Isle of Lewis, the hills on the horizon conspire to form the shape of a recumbent female figure, who has long been known locally as the Cailleach na Monteach (‘hag of the moors’, who is also known as Sleeping Beauty). The various monuments of the Callanish complex all reveal different aspects of Sleeping Beauty’s character: from one stone circle she appears to be pregnant, for instance, whilst at another site she is cradled between two hills like a tiny baby.
‘Sleeping Beauty’ on the horizon nearly fills this picture. Her head is on the right – she’s lying on her back. Nose, breasts, pubic mound, and legs all clearly defined. (Credit: Tim Clark)
Once every nineteen years, as seen from the main avenue at Callanish, the Moon rises out of Sleeping Beauty’s heart and dances eastward along the horizon, barely rising into the sky at all. It sets just short of the main Callanish circle itself, but reappears a moment later through a notch in the horizon, the pale light shivering out from the very centre of the ring. The Moon is a notoriously erratic celestial object, and this spectacular drama can only be made to unfold from a very particular location. Careful scientific observation and an inspired artistic eye were both essential to the positioning of Callanish.
Further examples of this sort of monumental art and science abound, from the Cumbrian stones known as the Giant’s Grave, which reveal a sleeping giant in hills called Black Combe, to Stonehenge’s famous alignment on the midsummer sunrise. These places are far too numerous to detail fully here, and I recommend Julian Cope’s The Modern Antiquarian to those wishing to learn more of them. Suffice it to say that the legacy of the megalith-builders reveals them to have been skilled artists, astronomers, mathematicians, engineers and much more.
Why has the ring of Tomnaverie been all but ruined by quarrying that could have taken place elsewhere? Why have the railway tracks at Kemp Howe obliterated over half of the stone circle, when the destruction could have been avoided by laying them a few yards away? Why has Silbury Hill been in danger of collapse for nearly four years now, as I write these words, when the damage could have been repaired? Why are the Thornborough Henges in imminent danger of suffering the same senseless fate as Tomnaverie?
Kemp Howe Stone Circle – some of its stones are believed to still be under the railway embankment
Our prehistoric heritage is desperately undervalued. If it were Canterbury Cathedral, and not Silbury Hill, that were at risk of collapse then the structure would have been made sound long ago. The comparison is very relevant: Silbury has a clear historical importance in terms of both national and world heritage, and is of central significance to the spirituality of many thousands of people in both modern Britain and the world at large, as it was in the ancient past. In the face of such unequal treatment our culture’s undervaluing of its prehistoric heritage is hard to deny.
This essay has argued that the many dangers facing Britain’s ancient monuments, and also much of the damage already done, are symptomatic of a wider problem in our understanding of the past. I have attempted to give what I see as the reasons for the tragic disregarding of the greater part of our past. I have pointed out what I believe to be prejudices in the way our culture views the people of prehistory. I have traced what I see as the historical causes of these prejudices, arguing that they originated in the Roman empire and were perpetuated and deeply embedded in our culture by the Christian church.
I am by no means the first to suggest this, and these arguments have been gradually taking root in our cultural consciousness over recent years, awareness spreading with the popular books and television programmes by authors like Julian Cope (The Modern Antiquarian) and Francis Pryor (Britain BC). A re-evaluation of our past may be underway, and it is possible that soon the judgemental measuring up of prehistoric Britain’s culture using the distorted Roman standard of civilisation will be ended. In the mean-time prejudices persist, and we who care must take all the action that we can to protect our past.
Out there on the heath, hidden from the city-centres, our precious ancient heritage stands forgotten, ignored and, all too often, endangered. It is our heritage, and it belongs to us all. If it is to be saved then awareness and action are the duties of each and every one of us. Are we to sit indoors whilst the quarrymen and road-builders draw up their plans, unaware of our loss even when we are robbed? Will we always write off the majority of human beings to have ever lived as uncivilised barbarians? Are we to be dispossessed, or educated and empowered?
The rest is up to you.
Tombo – May 2004