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“Here,” he said, “Mr Lovel, is a truly remarkable spot.”
“It commands a fine view,” said his companion, looking around him.
“True, but it is not for the prospect I brought you hither; so you see nothing else remarkable? – nothing on the surface of the ground?”
“Why, yes; I do see something like a ditch, indistinctly marked.”
“Indistinctly! – pardon me, sir, but the indistinctness must be in your powers of vision – nothing can be more plainly traced – a proper agger or vallum, with its corresponding ditch or fossa. Indistinctly! why Heaven help you . . .”
From Sir Walter Scott, The Antiquary, quoted in Stuart Piggott, Ruins in a Landscape (1976).
“THERE is a village amongst the Wiltshire Downs lying in a hollow below broad green pastures and chalky hills. It has but one long street and a few straggling cottages and grey farmhouses amongst gardens and trees–happy and homelike as an oasis in the desert to the traveller who first looks upon them from the heights; and near it and within it stand smooth stones, giant in size, and deep and mysterious in their meaning, the relics of a heathen worship; and high grassy banks, upon which children play, and along which labourers plod, without a thought of the history pictured before their eyes, mark the precincts of those ancient temples.
Image © Chris Brooks, Heritage Action
In the centre of the village is the Rectory (Vicarage), not looking towards the street, but fronting a pleasant garden and green fields, across which was a path leading to a vast mound said to be the work of human hands. Marvellous it is even as the mystic stones that tell of the creed of the generations gone by; and solemn and peaceful are the blue mists that rest upon it in the early morning, veiling its outlines as the shadows of the past. I have lingered at the garden gate day after day, gazing upon the old circular hill, and hearing no sound to break the stillness of the air, until I could have fancied that peace–the peace of a world which has never echoed to the sound of a human voice–the peace of the spirits who rest in hope, was lingering amidst that quiet village.”
From Experience of Life (1852) by Elizabeth Sewell
A broad green track runs for many a long, long mile across the downs, now following the ridges, now winding past at the foot of a grassy slope, then stretching away through a cornfield and fallow. It is distinct from the wagon-tracks which cross it here and there, for these are local only, and, if traced up, land the wayfarer presently in a maze of fields, or end abruptly in the rickyard of a lone farmhouse. It is distinct from the hard roads of modern construction which also at wide intervals cross its course, dusty and glaringly white in the sunshine… With varying width, from twenty to fifty yards, it runs like a green ribbon… a width that allows a flock of sheep to travel easily side by side.
Richard Jefferies (1848-1887)
English Heritage’s 2008 ‘conservation’ project at Silbury. Image credit Heritage Action
“Clumsy treasure hunting,” Sir Richmond said. “They bore into Silbury Hill and expect to find a mummified chief or something sensational of that sort, and they don’t, and they report nothing. They haven’t sifted finely enough; they haven’t thought subtly enough. These walls of earth ought to tell what these people ate, what clothes they wore, what woods they used. Was this a sheep land then as it is now, or a cattle land? Were these hills covered by forests? I don’t know. These archaeologists don’t know. Or if they do they haven’t told me, which is just as bad. I don’t believe they know.”
From The Secret Places of the Heart (1922) by H G Wells.
On every hand lies cromlech, camp, circle, hut and tumulus of the unwritten years. They are confused 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 skeletons 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 tympanum with ambiguous 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 weight 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…
Edward Thomas (1878-1917)
With apologies - a brief step sideways to improve the view…
As part of the conclusion to my recent article about the Irish Green Party, I used two aphorisms from Friedrich Nietzsche’s ‘Human, All Too Human’ - to provide, I hoped, some insight into why it may have behaved as it did in government. This source (for those of you not fully immersed in the book-list) was written at the time of Nietzsche’s dismissal of both ‘Wagnerism’ and romanticism and contains the first bracing hints of what would inevitably become the ‘mature’ philosophy; turbulent, complex. From Marion Faber’s introduction to the 2004 Penguin edition;
“’Human, All Too Human’ is not only a break with Nietzsche’s philosophical past: this pivotal work also reveals the beginnings of several of the concepts that are crucial to his later philosophy. His notion of the will to power (Hello, Minister Gormley) is here in embryo, as is his transcendence of conventional Christian morality.”
The insight here is always piercing, sometimes shocking and the style is clear, concise and, as you’ll see below, readable and often beautiful (with acknowledgement to the translator);
“586. The hour-hand of life.
Life consists of rare, isolated moments of the greatest significance, and of innumerably many intervals, during which at best the silhouettes of those moments hover about us. Love, springtime, every beautiful melody, mountains, the moon, the sea – all these speak completely to the heart but once, if in fact they ever do get a chance to speak completely. For many men do not have those moments at all, and are themselves intervals and intermissions in the symphony of real life.”
And from Albert Camus;
“A man’s work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.”
For those of us whose hearts were once filled by a monument. Is it any wonder that we are prepared to fight for our selves, or for what could become yours?
by Gordon Kingston, Heritage Action
I was looking for a book the other night, when I chanced upon one that I hadn’t read in a long time; ‘The Little Prince‘, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. It’s a child’s book, in the sense that it’s a book about the world, as seen like a child. Reading it as an adult, the book seems achingly sad, but, then again, another adult might have a different perception of it. Years ago, I read it and had to put it away from me, because it was almost too much to bear. These lines, from a poem by Yeats; ’The Host of the Air’, describe the same feeling;
But he heard high up in the air
A piper piping away,
And never was piping so sad,
And never was piping so gay.
Anyway, to get to the point. The world, as seen like a child - to see exactly the same thing, but in a different way. In the very beginning of the book the airman describes his attempts, at the age of six, to make grown-ups see that his drawing was of a boa-constrictor digesting an elephant, and not of a hat. What are we always ranting about on here? Modern hands plucking unnecessarily at the works of ancients’ minds. Or, heedless, letting the same dreams crumble back to dirt.
You may look, perhaps, and instead see fortune, or jobs and progress, or some easily recordable information about the past, or nothing at all.
Did the developers at Bremore, for example, or the road builders at Tara, see the grass and the hills and the brushed touches of ancient life and death, or did they see a useful site? If they saw the latter, why were we so surprised that they never noticed the former, except as an obstruction? Only by regularly pointing out the boa-constrictor can we hope to make people see that it is not a hat.
“There will be more to come after us“; is really the point and how much will be left for them to look at?
“The stars mean different things to different people. For some they are nothing more than twinkling lights in the sky. For travellers they are guides. For scholars they are food for thought. For my businessman they are wealth. But for everyone the stars are silent. Except from now on just for you…”
This morning (March 17th) I received my Spring 2010 issue of Archaeology Ireland and, in the foreword, the editor Tom Condit makes pointed reference to the recently published ‘Condition and Management Survey of the Archaeological Resource in Northern Ireland’, a report that received a detailed pre-publication summary in their pages last year. Although I have covered this ground previously and in some detail, it’s worth quoting some of the findings again, in the context of Tom Condit’s remarks;
“The report’s own summary indicates a bleak outlook for the survival of sites and monuments.
- Only 7% of the sites and monuments were found to be complete or substantially complete.
- 26% of sites had been damaged within the five years before the commencement of the survey.
- The sites in the poorest condition and with the worst rates of survival were located on arable land, in areas of improved grassland and within urban areas.
- 90% of sites in State care, Scheduled sites and those subject to agri-environment agreements were found to have survived well.
- Uncontrolled, new built development, heavy grazing and grassland improvement were identified as the most destructive activities.
- Sites located in unimproved grassland, in wetlands and in woodlands survived better.
Such findings should ring warning bells and demand an urgent response…
…Unfortunately, sites and monuments cannot be shifted with such ease and, unlike the humble ice cube, our outdoor archaeological heritage can never be replaced.”
There will be more to come after us and how much will be left for them to look at?
Yesterday (March 22nd), I saw this website mentioned on another forum (Great work, by the way). I’ve taken the liberty of quoting an extract here;
“In recent weeks I have encountered three cases in which Standing Stones listed in the Waterford Archaeological Inventory of 1999 appear to be no longer present in their location. At two of the sites visited it appears that modern development was the reason for their absence and particularly in one location where it seems the stone must have got in the way of a new housing development.
Sadly, it appears that this is how 21st century Ireland is beginning to perceive our ancient monuments, seemingly regarding what may look like an ordinary stone, to be just an unnecessary obstruction to progress. Regrettably, there has been little thought given to those who erected these wonderful antiquities and placed so much importance and significance on them.
For centuries, farmers have worked alongside these standing stones and have always respected their presence on their lands. Perhaps, today’s modern generation being so pre -occupied with wealth and materialism have chosen to disregard their significance. Also, because of the modest size and stature of these monuments, they seem all the more vulnerable. Another contributing factor could be that a number of these monoliths have been thought of as just ” Scratching Posts” for livestock.
Hopefully, Prehistoric Waterford and similar websites, through documenting and recording of monuments, can help develop an appreciation and ultimately a respect for our ancient antiquities.”
Only by regularly pointing out the boa constrictor can we hope to make people see that it is not a hat.
For many of us wandering on moors and hills we have our own private moments as we contemplate the stones, barrows and circles, they are tantalisingly unrevealing of their past history, so that we are forced to make some sort of response to them. For others it is the vast skyscape and the loneliness of the landscape that surrounds these enigmatic monuments that strikes a chord. We are reminded that death is part of the pattern for us all. The Edward Thomas passage below is a hymn to the beauty of the natural world and to a history that has wound itself round the stones in myths trying to capture the elusive truth of it all.
“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 skeletons 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 ambiguous 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 weight 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….
Taken from the South Country by Edward Thomas
The Stone circle of Beisgawen is in actual fact Boscawen -Un