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Crossing boundaries: a guest feature by Littlestone

Heritage Action has featured the question of votive offerings left at places like the Swallowhead Spring and West Kennet Long Barrow (Avebury) before

Offerings at the Swallowhead Spring. Image credit Moss

The leaving of ribbons, dolls, articles of clothing, crystals, t-lights, even food and drink, at such places is now generally frowned on and regarded by many as an unwelcome blot on the environment, or at the site of historic interest where they are left. There are, however, countries where the leaving of offerings in the form of ribbons, prayers written on paper which are then tied to the branches of trees or left at the base of stones, is commonplace and forms part of that country’s religion or cultural tradition. In Japan, massive ceremonial straw ropes (shimenawa) are often seen tied round the trunks of old or large trees and these form an intrinsic and deeply embedded aspect of the cultural makeup of the country. Often these trees are not on some secluded mountainside but are found in parks or city centres. Such is the reverence shown by the public towards the spirits that are thought to be, or to dwell within trees, rocks rivers and waterfalls, that it is not uncommon to see passers-by stop, put their hands together and bow respectfully to a tree or stone.


Sacred Japanese oak with shimenawa at the Imagumano Shinto Shrine, Kyoto

In modern Western societies there is a (perhaps) understandable reaction against the neo-pagan tradition of leaving offerings at springs and trees, but we should not look too unkindly on these practices as they seem to be tapping into a pre-Christian tradition and a deeply felt need to revere nature in its more ‘approachable’ manifestations such as trees, springs and stones. What is lacking in the West is a follow-up ceremony for such offerings. In other words there are few who bother to clean up after an offering has been left at a site. In Japan this problem does not generally arise because, when visiting the grave of a loved one for example, where it is not only customary to take along flowers and burn incense but also to take rice cakes, and perhaps a bottle of sake for the deceased, those offerings are not left behind but taken away after one’s respects to the deceased have been paid. In Japanese this concept is embodied in the wider concept known as kimochi dake itadakimasu. Roughly translated this means ‘I will take only the spirit of your kindness’ and is used for example when thanking (but politely refusing) an offer of help. In practice, no bottles of sake or parcels of rice cakes are left at the family grave; instead they are placed there for a short time while respects to the departed are paid and then they are packed up and taken home to be consumed by members of the deceased family. In other words, only the spirit of the offering is left behind.

The sentiments behind the nature-based Shinto practices of Japan, and the neo-pagan ceremonies of the West do seem to be broadly similar. What is different between the two cultures is the absence in the West of a ‘Rite of Disposal’ for offerings left at special or sacred places. In Japan there is a ceremony called Dondo Yaki. This is the annual and ritual burning of offerings left at sites throughout the year. To quote from the Let it Burn! blog –

“If you don’t burn the New Year’s decorations, it’s like holding on to the past. Moreover, holding on to the past is an act that doesn’t help you grow and mature as an individual. It’s a time to say good-bye to the old year and to any old, emotional attachments that might have held you back on a personal or professional level.”

Perhaps this is what the West needs for its ever-growing pagan tradition of leaving offerings at sacred sites – an annual burning celebration of the offerings, and worn out dreams, of one year and a clear statement heralding in the next.

Everybody must be aware, at this stage, of the calamitous crash of Ireland’s economy. While the whole world has wobbled, but stayed erect, this once golden state has fallen heavily and into a hole of its own excavation.

The much-praised ‘tiger’ economy and government funding-model would now seem to have been based, for the last number of years and largely, on constructing and swapping houses, for progressively greater amounts of cheap, borrowed money. New roads and motorways helped to bring new areas into the city hinterlands, areas that then ‘needed’ more houses, which then, obviously, needed more roads. People became, notionally, very wealthy, but only as long as a platform of confidence remained. Once interest rates rose and house prices dropped, this began to be pulled away.

According to the Irish Independent, more than 1800 archaeological sites were discovered and excavated, since 1993, as a result of this boom in motorway and road construction. Whatever your views on the morality of destruction of sites, for progress, or preservation only by record, this is a significant amount of knowledge that would not otherwise have been available at this point. Many astounding objects were unearthed, among them “one of the earliest images of man’s face on a ceramic bowl”, found while working on the N8, near Mitchelstown, Co. Cork. [His pronounced nose rather spoils a comparison to Gudea of Lagash (ruled 2144-2124 BCE).]

Of course, this construction work is now mostly gone and the company archaeologists who did the excavations are also now staring into the national void. Due to the downturn, less than 60 sites will be investigated this year, compared to 210 last year and to a peak of over 500 in 2007.

Loss of livelihood, or a slowdown in learning, is never welcome news, but perhaps one point of reflection is in order. It’s an obvious thing to say, but excavation process and techniques of information retrieval are only as effective as they can be at the present time. A period of calm will mean that future, improved methods will have a chance to become available. Hopefully nothing vital has been lost in the Irish rush.–blame-for-lack-of-excavations-1867611.html

The Spirit of Portland cover

Reviewed by Alex Langstone

I  recently received a review copy of a brand new book entitled The Spirit of Portland, by Dorset earth mysteries researcher Gary Biltcliffe. Gary has spent 30 years investigating earth mysteries, ancient civilisations and lost knowledge around the world, and for the last 10 years has spent time investigating the ancient secrets of the historic Isle of Portland. Portland forms the central part of the Jurassic Coast, a World Heritage Site on the Dorset and east Devon coastline.

For anyone interested in regional folklore and hidden history this book is very welcome. The author has thoroughly investigated the hidden side of Dorset’s Isle of Portland. Using long out of print and unpublished works by Clara King Warry, who wrote much about the folklore, mythology and archaeology of Portland during the first half of the 20th century, Gary has managed to piece together a forgotten history of the Isle. This paints a very different picture that most people may have of suburban Portland, which is justly famous for its fine quarried limestone and the proud maritime history of two world wars.

Weathered Megaliths 2

Above and below: are these weathered megaliths the remains of one of the many vanished stone circles on Portland?

Weathered Megaliths 1

Gary picks his way through the ancient megalithic sites, holy wells and geomantic landscapes of the area. This is particularly important as so many of Portland’s ancient archaeological sites have disappeared over the last couple of centuries due to the ever increasing encroachment of the limestone quarries. This is still affecting some sites, in particular the ancient and beautiful Culverwell holy well, a sacred healing well which has been in continual use for thousands of years. This well sits on the coast between Southwell and the Bill. Ancient stones line the well head, and a stream leads away towards the cliffs, where a waterfall crashes down to the sea.

Gary also discovers some of Portland’s ancient megaliths which are now incorporated into a stone wall. May they possibly be some of the ancient megaliths from the nearby site of the now vanished Saw Mill stone circle?


Above: the threatened Culverwell Holy Well at Portland, Dorset

Gradually the entire geomythic drama of the dramatic rocky peninsular is revealled through landscape geometry, ancient history, folklore and via some of the many old Portland families with their Masonic, occult and druidic secrets.

Links to ancient Phoenicia are discussed and the author makes many fabulous and intriguing discoveries including that of an unusual Semitic looking carved granite head which was dug up in a Portland garden. It was moved to the nearby museum after the garden owners found that locals were starting to bow in front it in a strange kind of Portlander ritual veneration!

Other legends are discussed including the giants of the island, and at the end of the book the author presents 5 sacred sites walking tours of the area which take in all of the sites discussed in the book.

The Spirit of Portland is a lavish production with many colour photographs, diagrams and maps. Though some may call to question some of the more outlandish claims made by the author, I for one can recommend this work as an important addition to achieving a better understanding of Britain’s ancient history, sacred sites and folklore.

The Spirit of Portland. 192 pages, with 90 colour plates. Published by Roving Press, 2009. Frampton, Dorset. Available from the publishers priced at £9.95. See the publisher’s website for more details –

See also the author’s website here:

All photographs by Gary Biltcliffe, used with kind permission.

This review was first published on the Spirit of Albion website.

Press Release from Susan McKeown;

The second Feis Teamhra: A Turn at Tara, which features performances by internationally-recognized Irish poets and musicians, will be held between 3 and 5 o’clock on August 30 2009 on the Hill of Tara. Those taking part are Michael Longley, Paul Muldoon, Susan McKeown, Laoise Kelly, and Aidan Brennan.

While the Hill of Tara has become something of a contested spot, symbolizing for some less the sacred site where ancient Ireland crowned its kings than the desecrated site where modern Ireland gave in to crass consumerism and, as it were, drowned in things, the note the organizers hope to strike is not one of confrontation but celebration. It’s a celebration of the continuity of the linked traditions of Irish poetry and music, traditions that have almost certainly flourished here since at least 2000 BC.

Following an appearance last year by Seamus Heaney, the headlining poet this year is Michael Longley, the esteemed Belfast-based author who has always taken a particular interest not only in the flora and fauna of Ireland but its folklore and mythology. While he studied Classics at TCD, Michael Longley is capable of writing as movingly about Medbh and the Grey of Macha as about Menelaus and Mycenae. Among his many awards are the Whitbread Prize, the Hawthornden Prize, The Irish Times Literature Prize for Poetry, the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry and the T.S. Eliot Prize. The author of 8 full-length collections, his Collected Poems was published by Jonathan Cape in 2006.

Also reading poetry will be Paul Muldoon, the Armagh-born, US-based, winner of the 2003 Pulitzer Prize. While he has been vocal in the Campaign to Save Tara, Paul Muldoon will confine himself on this occasion to reading from some of his 10 full-length collections of poems.

The musical component of Feis Teamhra: A Turn at Tara is headlined by Susan McKeown, the Dublin-born, US-based, Grammy-winning singer-songwriter who has released more than 10 CDs. The passion and precision of her singing have led her to work with, among others, Natalie Merchant, Linda Thompson, Pete Seeger, Mary Margaret O’Hara, Billy Bragg, Arlo Guthrie, Andy Irvine, Flook, Lunasa, Johnny Cunningham, and the Klezmatics.

The other musicians featured this year at Feis Teamhra are Aidan Brennan and Laoise Kelly. Aidan Brennan is a virtuoso guitarist who has worked not only with Susan McKeown (Sweet Liberty, 2004), but Kevin Burke (Kevin Burke in Concert, 1999) and Loreena McKennitt (Book of Secrets, 1997, and Midwinter Night’s Dream, 2008.) Born in Dublin, Aidan Brennan now lives in County Laois. Laoise Kelly, generally considered to be the foremost Irish harper, was born in Mayo and lives there still. The Irish Times has described her as “a young harpist with the disposition of an iconoclast and the talent and technique of a virtuoso.” In addition to her own CD (Just Harp, 2000), Laoise Kelly has worked with Sharon Shannon, The Chieftains, Natalie MacMaster, Sinead O’Connor, Kate Bush and Bill Whelan.

Crossing boundaries: From our Far Eastern correspondent

A Tarim Basin mummy photographed by Aurel Stein circa 1910

Mummies, possibly of ‘Celtic’ origin and some 3,000 years old, have been unearthed in the Tarim Basin of western China for nearly 100 years. ‘Cherchen Man’ is just one of these but one of the most interesting. Cherchen Man  is tall, red haired and wears a red tunic and tartan leggings. His mummified body, along with others, are now kept in Urumqi City Museum in Xinjiang province. Perhaps even more interesting are the burial sites where Cherchen Man and his people are found – these bear signs of a Celtic influence and include standing stones similar to British dolmens as well as icons reminiscent of sheela-na-gigs.   More here
See also – Mallory, J. P.; Victor H. Mair (2000). The Tarim Mummies: Ancient China and the Mystery of the Earliest Peoples from the West. London: Thames & Hudson. ISBN 0500051011. 

A report by Graham Orriss.

Well, that was yet another successful and enjoyable Megameet!

Despite the greyness and drizzle, a fair few of you turned out at the Red Lion in Avebury for our annual get-together.

It was a great day – so good to catch up with a few old friends, and fantastic to meet a few new ones! It’s always a pleasure to see the looks on the faces of people who are seeing Avebury for the first time…

A musical interlude at the 2009 Megameet in The Red Lion at Avebury.

A musical interlude at the 2009 Megameet in The Red Lion at Avebury.

We brought a friend along who has just become interested in standing stones, and arrived at Avebury via The Avenue. I think it’s safe to say there was an awed silence, as he saw stone after stone appear out of the window… He absolutely loved the place, and can’t wait to get back! He was made extremely welcome by all who were there, as was my other friend, who is a frequent visitor to Avebury but had never attended a Megameet previously.

It was so nice to see people of all ages – from toddler to pensioner (sorry folks!) – all chattering excitedly about new finds, other sites and other friends that couldn’t make it but sent their best wishes.

I honestly believe that not one person who was there for the Megameet went away disappointed. It’s always a shame to not be able to spend more time with everyone, but there is always next time… Everybody who attended, without exception, was an absolute delight to chat and spend time with.

The overwhelming outcome was that we should do it all again sooner rather than later, so we’re hoping to have another one before the year’s out, and maybe organise two Megameets for 2010!

See you then!

by Gordon Kingston, Heritage Action

I’ve just finished reading the latest news, on the unholy mess that is the M3. Just when you thought that the story couldn’t get any more farcical, something else pops up.

At least the good citizens of Meath can sleep safe in their homes. The road that they were apparently clamouring for, because they were sold those over-priced, over-zoned, under-serviced ‘country houses’ that, yes, you have to drive from, will definitely make a profit for Eurolink. It has been revealed that, if the number of road users falls below a ‘minimum traffic level’, then the taxpayer will have to step in and make good the difference.

Who, tell me, signed off on that one? Couldn’t they even flog a chunk of our national heritage, for scrap, without ending up paying someone to take it? The first time such a guarantee has been made and again, yes, you can also guarantee that someone is laughing all the way to what was once a bank.

You’d have to ask, at this stage, if anyone is actually going to use the cursed thing? That’s the situation that they seem to be contemplating. The high tolls and a new rail link, from Navan to the city, are going to bleed traffic away from the motorway. In fact, you’d be wondering why they built it at all. Except, of course, to keep the good citizens and voters, of Meath, safe in their ’goldmines’, singing the right tune come election time and the boys with big pockets and the land in the right places providing the chorus.

I know, I know. The damage is done anyway. There’s just something in me, maybe genetic, that thinks that if you stomp down the path killing every insect that happens to stray under your feet, you should, at a ‘minimum level‘, make sure that you’re going somewhere. At least let there be a point to it. It was never right, but this just makes it insane. What a waste.

As Paul Barford says in his blog: “The “partnership” between British archaeologists and the country’s band of takers of the past continues to do its damage abroad. On the 7th July this year in what appears to be a coordinated action, the metal detectorists of France banded together and sent a synchronised packet of questions to Frédéric Mitterrand, the French Minister of Culture and Transport. They want a “pact” like the Brits have, they want “respect”.

Strange… that people that have been defying the law should be asking for acceptance and respect. Whence comes their encouragement? Clearly they are inspired by Britain, nowhere else, where their Anglo Saxon pals are legalised, praised, paid for finds and called (by the British Culture Minister) “unsung heritage heroes”.

Well, Thatcherism and “grab-wot-yer-can-as-it’s-everyone’s” seems to hold no more charm for the French thinking classes in matters of history than it does in anything else. In France, like in Ireland, archaeologists regard resource conservation as their primary duty and see no reason to compromise on that because someone “really really enjoys digging it up M8”. In France there is no PAS to paint metal detecting to the government and public as somehow positive in order to ensure its own continued funding. And in France the Minister of Culture is not driven to sacrifice the resource in order to pursue his own inclusive social agenda relating to certain elements of society. Oh no. Minister of Culture Mitterrand is not ex-Minister of Culture David Lammy. See his answer and his assessment of the British system delivered to the National Assembly with no nonsense and (to our ears) infinitely refreshing Gallic panache:
“If these measures have in fact permitted the number of declarations of the discovery of metallic archaeological objects to increase, they have in no way allowed a reduction in the number of attacks on the heritage caused by the use of metal detectors. All the same, they allow a more exact measurement of these attacks”

The Portable Antiquities Scheme will be holding a pan European conference shortly – to explore how its ideas are great and can be exported to Europe we hear. Minister Mitterand has not been invited. Nor anyone from France. And so Britain persists in harming its history and pretending otherwise for how else can PAS justify itself? The process is well known and is called Quango creep.

Compare and contrast our good friend George. Out in the fields all weathers. Finding new rock art. Adding to everyone’s history….. and no question of damaging it. No question of concealing it. No question of taking it home. Or laying claim to it, God help us! Or selling it. Or being given a reward. Or having to be begged and flattered and pursued and educated at great expense for ten years to report it.

It’s time Britain handed over care of its buried heritage to people that gave a damn. To George maybe. Or the Irish. Or the French.

by Gordon Kingston, Heritage Action.

Bachwen, Gwynedd.

Bachwen, Gwynedd.

During a recent holiday, in North Wales, I took myself away from the family for a couple of hours and visited the portal dolmen, called Bachwen, in Clynnog. While there, I noticed a pale-pink and badly crushed carcass of a crab, that something, a gull perhaps, had placed on the capstone. Then, alive and below the stone, stuck to a loose wisp of sheep’s wool and the sea-green lichen of the door, was a snail. The two creatures, or the state symbolised by each, seemed to be in juxtaposition, a reversal of the expected placement at a tomb; life now inside and death out.

A human perspective, of course. Our own lives would seem interminable, immortal even, godlike, to such as these and non-human life very much carries on, even in the grave. As does our use of symbols to represent our expectations and fears, our adjustments to the fact of our own mortality. 

Some of the earliest, solid attempts at such representation, or consideration, perhaps re-creation, of the forces of existence, may still be with us, in the form of these Early Neolithic structures. As William O’Brien (2002, 160) suggests, while discussing a different, yet similarly homogenous set of  Irish monuments and their effect on the later mythological landscape; “ Clearly, these stone monuments are inherently symbolic and so should reflect in some fundamental way the central beliefs of the religious practice concerned. These beliefs are materialised in the architecture and orientation of these monuments, and in their use-history. While the design of these monuments has functional possibilities (to receive offerings, to hold burials, to congregate people), the consistency of its execution over a wide geographical area suggests a deeper religious significance.” 

Or, if you can imagine the words of Mircea Eliade (1958, 216) to apply to the complete dolmen, rather than a single stone; “ A rock or a pebble would be the object of reverent devotion because it represented or imitated something, because it came from somewhere. Its sacred value is always due to that something or somewhere, never to its own actual existence… Their role was generally more magical than religious. Invested with certain sacred powers as a result of their origin or their shape, they were not adored, but made use of.”

The landscape setting and structural features, of this particular class of monument, have recently been investigated by Tatjana Kytmannow, who discovered the majority to be aligned along a valley, parallel or reverse-parallel to a small stream, facing either its source, a confluence or, occasionally, a pronounced bend; “… the presence of a small stream, nearly always parallel to the tomb, and the avoidance of the highest point in the vicinity in 100% of the cases, are strong indications that the precise siting was an integral part of the belief system. Slope direction and tomb orientation are preferably east, the location is in most cases in a sheltered valley and high altitudes are avoided .” (2008, 189)

The dolmen would have been surrounded, but not covered, by a cairn and the fully exposed capstone raised to slope from front to rear, either by being wedge-shaped, as here at Clynnog, or by having a lower back stone than portals, or door stone.

It has been suggested (Richards 2004, 76; Scarre 2007, 73) that the purpose of these monuments may not have been, as O’Brien also allows, in a different context above, to serve functionally after their completion, as a sepulchre for example, but instead to rest in the act of building and “raising a mythical or sacred stone from the earth into the air.” Alasdair Whittle (2004, 86) extends this argument to contend that the raising of the stones “may have had a more general metaphorical or mythical significance”, allowing their visual similarity, in several cases, to the slope of nearby mountains, but also proposing, as Eliade hints at above, that “they could be seen as a version of creation, in which the earth was raised to the sky, or an account of how sky and earth were once joined.”

Allowing Colin Richards’s contention that the stone itself was sacred and its raising was the purpose of the monument, you would have to wonder why so many sacred stones were wedge-shaped or, failing that, had to be tilted to the rear to give the same impression. Whittle’s idea does seem to fit more comfortably. He implies that the stone was sacred as a symbol, rather than in itself, but then he also comes up against the difficulty of the tilt. Imitable mountain sides are not present in the vicinity of all portal tombs and an earth raised to the sky should not always lean, lopsided, unless a very specific cosmology demanded it . Mythology, as Whittle himself reasons and ragged cloth that it is, may be one possible way to provide an answer.

Browne's Hill, Co. Carlow, facing the portals and door stone.

Browne's Hill, Co. Carlow, facing the portals and door stone.

“…it is the man who is terrorized by his sense of personal weakness who becomes concerned with divinity …the artist among primitive peoples was anything but a commentator. He was a maker of gods that had animate life, that had intrinsic meaning.” (Newman 1990, 93)

Terror due to powerlessness in the face of the inevitable, the triple absolutes of death, nature and the elements. This is what would have been universal, but what of the symbols to shape it?
Common to many ancient world-views was a preoccupation with the sacred mountain, a link, or prop, which holds up the sky, or marks the entrance to the world of the dead. If anything, then this may be the key to the symbolism of the capstone. Not the earth raised to the sky, but a symbol of the sky, only held by the tips of mountains from crushing back into the earth. Particularly evident in tripartite views of the world, that is, the division into heaven, earth and the underworld, hints of this conception come even earlier, in the likes of Kur, for example, in Neolithic Sumer. This abode of the dead, whose name signifies both ’mountain’ and ’foreign land’, was to be found “at the foot of a distant mountain in the highland beyond the northeastern borders of Sumer.” (Johnston ed., 2004, 478)

Even closer counterparts to the two portals, if they are to be considered representations of supporting mountains, were to be found in the Late Bronze Age of Ugarit (Syria-Canaan), where the underworld; ‘ars (earth), ruled by the god Mot, was located “beneath two mountains at the edge of earth”. Like the Jewish Sheol and here emphasising the tripartite structure at a single, mythical location, Mot was referred to in terms of insatiable consumption of life and flesh, having “one lip to earth, one lip to heaven… a tongue to the stars!” (Johnston ed. 2004, 479)

In Mesopotamian legend, Gilgamesh wanders then to the end of the earth, to two such mountains, after the death of Enkidu and his fright at the realisation of his own mortality (The Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet IX (George trans., 1999, 71)):

“To Mashu’s twin mountains he came,
Which daily guard the rising [sun,]
Whose tops [support] the fabric of heaven,
Whose base reaches down to the Netherworld.

There were scorpion-men guarding its gate,
Whose terror was dread, whose glance was death,
Whose radiance was fearful, overwhelming the mountains –
At sunrise and sunset they guarded the sun.”

The early Greeks thought that the heavens were a disc, also supported and in perpetuity, by the condemned Titan, Atlas (Collins, 2004, 63). Or, in the words of Herodotus (Book 4, 184 (Waterfield trans. 1998, 297)); the “narrow round mountain called Mount Atlas …is said to be so tall that clouds hide its peaks from sight throughout the year, winter and summer. The local inhabitants (who are called Atlantes after the mountain) say that it is a pillar supporting the sky.”

The Egyptians regarded the sky as either a bird, a cow, a flat plane, supported by pillars, or the goddess Nut balanced, like the dolmen here at Clynnog, with its four relatively equal supports, on her feet and hands. (Collins, 2004, 62)

Even as in Norse creation mythology, as Ellis Davidson (1964, 27) relates; “From Ymir’s skull they made the dome of the sky, placing a dwarf to support it at each of the four corners and to hold it high above the earth.”

This is the point where the ragged cloth is stretched out. To accept these commonalities as conceptions also, in the British Isles of the Early Neolithic, would be to see our dolmen as possible representation of cosmos. To subsequently apply Richards’ contention, that the greater purpose lay in the construction rather than the use of a completed structure, would be to conclude that each such building process would have involved a repeat of the mythological creation.

The greater the sizes of the capstones, the closer re-creation would have been to the actual scale of creation, up to a size at which they would have become impossible to lift fully from the ground. Heaven and Earth separated and held apart, in awe, from unity. The mountains, as supports, touching and forming a bridge between each.

Browne's Hill, Co. Carlow, from the side.

Browne's Hill, Co. Carlow, from the side.


August 2009

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