You are currently browsing the monthly archive for October 2010.

Dozens of prehistoric sites on Dartmoor have been restored in a five-year project.

Good news always comes quietly, Dartmoor National Trust Authority, English Heritage and local volunteers have been helping to restore cairns on the very important prehistoric site of Dartmoor.  Such work is invaluable, many cairns, especially summit cairns, are vandalised often through ignorance by walkers, that this is being redressed is something to be rejoiced in on this cold Wednesday morning.

More than 30 Bronze Age cairns have now been taken off the English Heritage ‘at risk’ register as a result of the work. Some 49 of the summit cairns, dating back to 2,000 BC, were surveyed and 31 needed restoration. “These are scheduled ancient monuments so are very important,” said Andy Crabb, archaeologist at Dartmoor National Park Authority (DNPA). “They have the highest level of protection that we have in this country.

“The project has just come to an end, but plans are under way to restore more of Dartmoor’s 3,000 Bronze Age cairns – ancient burial mounds.     More here  from Devon BBC News.

by Nigel Swift

No-one took up my challenge in Beyond the mumbo jumbo – Part 1 to define the “common ground” where archaeology and metal detecting could comfortably co-exist.  Quelle surprise!

So far as I can find out, the only time that fabled land has ever manifested itself is in the form of Mumbo, Schroedinger’s jumbo, who has his tusks both conserved for the community and hacked off for personal gain at the same time…

Mumbo, Schrödinger’s Jumbo, turning pink with anticipation, waiting for British archaeologists to explain how he can both lose and retain his tusks….

One look at Mumbo brings it home what a whopper the British public has been told for the past thirteen years, over and over. In truth, you simply can’t conserve the resource for the community AND erode it away for personal gain at the same time however many thousands of times you say “we’re working together to achieve mutual respect and understanding”!  It’s bad enough to kid the public all this time that acceptable common ground exists (when simple logic shows it doesn’t) but it’s even worse to kid them that if  a minority (which you constantly imply is a majority) of ivory hunters say they’ll keep to the Code for Responsible Tusk Hunters then THAT is the acceptable “common ground”. It’s not. That’s a lie. However many ivory hunters are code-compliant Mumbo’s tusks will still eventually end up totally ripped off. As will the public. Denials anyone? Or must Mumbo turn scarlet?

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But so far as I can see a further charge must be laid at the door behind which the archaeological establishment stays silent: it is that actually, Archaeology has absolutely no business trying to find common ground with metal detecting anyway, for reasons I’ll lay out, and that the founders of PAS never intended that such a search should be undertaken.

PAS was set up to retrieve some voluntary benefits out of the metal detecting activity in the absence of proper legislative controls and constraints. Yes? So where does it say it was set up to promote or protect or expand or partner or endorse metal detecting or to find the mythical “acceptable common ground”. All of those things are subsequent distortions of PAS’s original intended purpose, ideas that have grown out of nothing but which happen to suit the preservation needs of both metal detectorists and PAS (but certainly not of the resource or the public).

An ideal starting point in illustrating why the very act of hunting for this non-existent snark is to consider this very recent remark by Paul Barford: “The problem with the CBA’s archaeology discussion list is that it is infested with artefact hunters.” Pretty harsh. And I can hear the angry reactions – devisive, elitist, and, as the Portable Antiquities Coping Scheme might say (and actually has previously), “unhelpful” to archaeological-detectorist relations. It’s certainly that alright….and yet, as I see it that IS the problem, not just with Britarch but with the whole portable antiquities debate, for the thing is, portable antiquities are not a matter for negotiation (or shouldn’t be). There are certainly two sides and Kneejerkery might suggest that in a bilateral dispute a negotiated settlement is called for.  But Kneejerkery needs to be correct, not politically correct. Consider the two sides:

  • Ten thousand detectorists – focussed, without a scintilla of scope for denial, on permanently acquiring for themselves what morally isn’t and shouldn’t be theirs,
  • and the country’s Archaeologists – professionally obligated, beyond any scope of denial or avoidance, to represent and defend the interests of the remaining sixty million people whose heritage it morally is and should be.

Looked at like that there is no valid reason for archaeologists as representatives of the people of Britain to negotiate with that six thousandth of the population that holds it has a moral right (“because we have a legal right, OK,  – duh!”) to take for themselves what everyone agrees is actually everyone’s. On whose authority would archaeologists do that? Under which mandate would they do that? By what thread of logic would they do that? In which conservation universe would they do that? In my view, none, none, none and none.

Of course, although PAS doesn’t (and can’t) claim a moral or intellectual reason, it does cite a practical reason for cozying up to those that it knows, with every fibre of its combined archaeological training and ethical framework, shouldn’t be doing what they are doing. It is to “stop them doing worse”. However, we’re entitled to examine what that actually means. After all, after thirteen years of persuasion it’s a plain fact that most detectorists don’t report to PAS and of the minority that do, most don’t report most of what they find. So reporting is very much a minority event, with details often minimal and extracted like molars, at great taxpayers’ expense. “Worse” is where we’re at already, and there’s every indication that the amount of voluntary reporting is starting to flat line and has reached as far as it is going to. This very much weakens the claimed motivation. In addition, whatever reporting is done is conducted exclusively by those detectorists that have come to a realisation that not doing so is morally wrong and/or jeopardises the hobby. This makes it hard to see how there’s much likelihood that reporting numbers will plummet if PAS comes out loud and clear (and honestly) and tells everyone, including (for heaven’s sake!) landowners, that non-reporting is unacceptable and anti-social and anyway the resource is finite. Will this group of  “responsible” reporting detectorists (the only ones that have shown any wish to affect the numbers, remember) react to this condemnation of the majority that are dragging their image down by suddenly becoming “irresponsible” non-recorders themselves?  The suggestion just doesn’t hold water, big-time. Boring old logic suggests that the macho threats about stopping reporting and the hobby going underground come from people who already don’t report, not from detectorists who DO report because they’ve perceived a social and personal advantage in so doing! If that’s right the threats are empty, yet PAS has based its whole strategy on the assumption the threat is real.

On such a basis of justification we now have PAS presenting a radically different stance on our behalf and at our expense than was apparent at the outset. Its original mandate, to simply pick up some of the data that was going down the drain until such time as a proper regulatory action could be taken, like in other countries, has been left behind and now, as is manifest to all, it under-criticises the worst, majority elements of metal detecting and over-praises and endorses the rest – and indeed praises itself!

And that last bit is actually pivotal in my view. Hardly a day goes by without PAS effectively claiming “we are a huge success” (how many government websites outside North Korea are set up to display a different adulatory message about themselves each time you log on?!) and of course, it can’t proclaim itself a huge success without saying metal detecting is an increasingly praiseworthy activity! It’s hardly front page news when a quango develops a penchant for producing decorative statistics purportedly showing it deserves immortality but the unfortunate thing in PAS’s case is that this propaganda of success involves saying how marvellous metal detecting increasingly is. It isn’t. Its erosion and net knowledge-loss (not net knowledge-gain) without good or social reason. Ask the world. Are the British more stupid or more clever than everyone else? No. It’s that we are the only country with a quasi autonomous non governmental organisation that has a vested interest in praising metal detecting.

Of course, I’m not naive and I know that my contentions as well as Paul Barford’s remark  sound shocking to many, cutting across as they do more than a decade of a particular apparent mindset in Britain. Yet I can’t pretend I am less confident because of that since I’m always aware that such statements would raise not an eyebrow elsewhere, illustrating just how far British opinion has diverged from world opinion on this issue. I have never lost much sleep over politically correct (or naive or calculating) outrage about such opinions since there are countless heritage professionals beyond these shores who see my views as entirely unremarkable. And anyway, for me the extreme ire of metal detectorists is not unadjacent to the fury of the man criticised for being found with his hand in the till. Never mind him taking offence, what about his offence of taking?!

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Of course, archaeologists may well feel it is appropriate to have metal detectorists and artefact hunters taking part in discussions on the Britarch list. However, if they are to act in the public interest and in step with their colleagues overseas they do need to recognise there has to be one exception, an area of discussion to which it ought not to be in their gift to grant access to artefact hunters, certainly not in any manner that might influence the outcome. That area is any substantive debate upon portable antiquities.

Why is that? Because it’s not rocket science to realise that whether on Britarch or anywhere else any such discussion ought to be exclusively for the moral owners of the resource and their representatives and should be conducted on the basis that there is a fundamental conviction on the part of all the participants that the resource is communally owned. Any other discussions, that allow participants that do not share that fundamental conviction simply make no sense since the agenda is no longer single and clear. Some of the participants have an agenda that is different and damaging to everyone else’s. They do not wish the public well. They wish themselves well, which is different, as may well be the resultant upshot of the discussions. The process thus becomes a negotiation. Concessions become thinkable (when there’s no need or justification). Pressure (through threats of lawbreaking or non-co-operation) becomes part of the process (see Britarch recently for the latest innocuous “word to the wise” delivered by a detectorist/detector retailer, this time against going too far in changing the Treasure Act, but following from a whole series of such instances!).

A mighty powerful, conclusive effect such pressures have. They amount to the deliberate creation of a situation in which the public’s representatives are not only negotiating but doing so under duress. Surely not? Surely yes. Remember “Don’t criticise us or we’ll stop reporting”, “Don’t tell us what to do or we’ll stop reporting”, “Don’t undertake surveys of nighthawking else we’ll stop reporting”, “Don’t let PAS dominate us else we’ll stop reporting” (and later: “Don’t reduce PAS’s funding else we’ll stop reporting”), “Don’t impose a Code of Responsible Detecting else we’ll stop reporting”, “Don’t discuss licensing us else we’ll stop reporting”, “Don’t ban inappropriate rallies else we’ll stop reporting”, “Don’t impose restrictions under stewardship schemes else we’ll stop reporting”, “Don’t tighten up EBay else we’ll stop reporting”, “Don’t ever, ever, ever short change us on the Treasure rewards else we’ll stop reporting”, “Don’t abate our Treasure rewards for not calling an archie out else we’ll stop reporting”, “Don’t talk of using some of our Treasure rewards to finance proper excavations of our findspots else we’ll stop reporting”, “Don’t write to farmers without us dictating what is to be said else we’ll stop reporting” …. and now… “Don’t extend the items covered by the Treasure Act beyond exactly what we say else we’ll stop reporting.” Rich, is it not, when the majority of detectorists….. don’t report!

Is it a bit like ummm blackmail?! No of course not. It would be unhelpful to say that. It’s just negotiation. Under duress. “Collective bargaining with a gun at your head” if you like. Fair’s fair, we have to defend our rights. Not blackmail. Not by history loving heroes whose hobby is a harmless hexpression of fundamental freedoms. We’re here to help, not hinder, honest. Let’s liaise some more for a few years.

As a direct result of this remarkably simple negotiating stance on the part of detectorists, UK (Heritage Holdings) Ltd has a cowed set of guardians acting on its behalf with no-one from PAS daring to utter a tenth of the concerns that Paul and I do – and that’s self-evidently not because they have much problem with what we say, only with the fact we say it! Much of the time PAS is all three wise monkeys when it comes to metal detecting. Thus, you may find PAS staff frequently gladhanding on detectorists forums (on the basis of “outreaching”) but rarely are they to be found on landowners’ ones. Or conservationists’ ones. Or Britarch! Are not landowners, conservationists and archaeologists the Public too, and in need of being outreached to? Could it be that PAS does not wish to have to be in a position of having to publicly say things that might help or side with landowners, conservationists or archaeologists but which might upset detectorists?

And then there are the glowing statements issued to the press…. And the years of delay in issuing a leaflet to landowners…. And this bizarre circumstance (sorry to repeat it from the previous article but it remains an unexplained mystery of Loch Nessian proportions: a search for “responsible metal detecting” (a slightly different term from the one in my previous article) gets you 15,300 Google hits whereas one for “irresponsible metal detecting” gets you 9!  I’m not so sad as to have checked but I’m willing to wager that a lot of the 15,300  “responsible” references were supplied by PAS and I know (because I have checked) that NONE of the 9 “irresponsible” references were supplied by PAS! Strange, is it not, for an organization that was specifically conceived, designed, set up and liberally financed by the taxpayer to convert, and ameliorate the damage caused by, “irresponsible metal detecting” to have never actually used the term?!

Thus, it is my firm contention that part of the price for having the “wrong sort of participants in the portable antiquities debate” is the silencing of the “right sort of participants” (such as PAS and archaeologists in general).

The dichotomy between the right (and valid) participants in the debate and the wrong (and invalid) ones was expressed by Macrinus, a contributor to Paul Barford’s blog. He said he was an archaeologist but I suspect he was also a carpenter for I’ve never seen a nail hit on the head so perfectly:

There are many pressures on archaeologists and curators in the UK – political, economic, professional and peer group. Not all of us can be outspoken. Many of us have to smile politely to the detectorist who is bragging about his/her latest find, knowing that it is yet another item ripped out of context. Our jobs depend on it (and no, I am not employed by the PAS. I am publicly-funded though). Many detectorists do understand and do care, but there are equally many who have a ‘red-neck’ approach to authority of any sort – and regard archaeologists as being the epitome of authoritarianism. We get in the way of them wanting to do whatever they think is the right (and, by default, whatever they think is right has to be right. There is no dissent) – we are the nasty ‘socialists’, claiming that everyone owns this stuff, they are the ‘neo-con’ freedom fighters. I am not sure we will ever see a coalition of those two camps”.

Well Macrinus, I think it’s a total certainty that we will never see “a coalition of those two camps”. That’s the elephant in the room.

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“What happens to the public’s heritage is a matter to be decided exclusively by the public (or their representatives)” is in my view a truism so stunningly obvious that the mere rumour that others are having a say in the decision ought to take the public’s breath away, if they but knew such a thing was happening.

But they don’t know for the most part – how could they? Their main source of information ought to be PAS, but PAS acts in about as brave a way as an Italian tobacconist straight after a visit from “friends”. That leaves only one other source of information, the detectorist at the farm gate… It’s a stunning reality that all metal detecting in Britain is entirely at the behest or otherwise of landowners. It’s an even more startling and unacceptable reality that by far the most frequent advice that the landowners get on the subject comes from a random bloke at his door that is mad keen to get on their fields.

Most people, after 40 years of metal detecting and thirteen of PAS, think it’s all “OK” since OK is the only message they’ve ever heard. No, scrub that. Not OK, positively beneficial. Helpful to history, profitable, a branch of archaeology, harmless, heroic even. That’s doubly tragic because not only is the message untrue it also conflicts with the sense of natural justice that is inherent in people – when they haven’t been deliberately misled. Left to themselves people actually feel that heritage, particularly what pops up out of the ground, is owned by all and isn’t up for grabs or exploitation or annexation or conversion into negotiable currency by a minority.

Sometimes, it’s hard to love metal detectorists. (I hear a muffled gasp of agreement from deep in the bowels of the BM!) I’ve given up trying in the case of the non-reporting ones and quite a few of the others who refuse to condemn them, but at least I don’t have to grit my teeth like poor Macrinus (and a silent majority of archaeologists?) while having to “smile politely to the detectorist who is bragging about his/her latest find, knowing that it is yet another item ripped out of context.”

Things aren’t right when “the system” prevents archaeologists from expressing what is wrong to both the perpetrators and the victims. It is hardly necessary to quote Burke, “For evil to triumph it is enough only that good men do nothing” since everyone knows it is true (even though he never said it!)

More pertinent would be to quote another contributor to the Barford Blog who deconstructed the detectorists’ justificatory mantra “if it’s everyone’s it’s mine” rather well, describing it as

the old mistake of believing that something that belongs to everyone is open to being seized by anybody when they please– whereas the fact that it belongs to everyone precisely means that it’s off limits, and under the stewardship of institutions that represent society”

What say you PAS? Is he mad? Is he wrong to say that if it’s everyone’s it’s off limits and needs to be under the stewardship of institutions that represent society (institutions that say, very clearly, what is and isn’t acceptable rather than pulling their punches) not exploited and randomly eroded under some sort of grotesque “partnership” arrangement? What would your founders say? Did they want you to cope with the fact no laws had been applied until laws are applied? Or did they want you to act and speak as if no laws were needed?

30 years ago a highly placed archaeologist said of metal detecting “The sum of this activity has been to damage the unwritten story of our past while satisfying one individual’s greed for the possession (or sale) of an object from the past.” Today (after a further thirty years of damage to the unwritten story of our past) we are asked to believe that because PAS has been set up and a minority of detectorists reports a minority of finds to the PAS database his words are no longer true. Unfortunately they are. I don’t believe the reverse message should be hammered into the public’s consciousness, day after day and year after year merely because PAS wants to exist. But then, I’m only a member of the public so it doesn’t matter what I think.

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More Heritage Action views on metal detecting and artefact collecting __________________________________________________________

by Gordon Kingston, Heritage Action

According to Frank McDonald, of the Irish Times, a large earthwork – 23 m in extent and about 4m high – has been identified, at Crewbane, on part of the eastern route for the proposed Slane bypass. Early speculation is that it forms a section of the western defence of the medieval royal fortress at Knowth. The archaeologists involved in the discovery; Joe Fenwick, Gerard Dowling and Roseanne Schot (of the Brú na Bóinne Research Project), had been commissioned to survey the area by former Irish Attorney General, John Rogers, a prominent objector to the proposal.

On foot of this survey, Mr. Fenwick has written to an Bórd Pleanála with his concerns; “It is apparent that the Crewbane souterrain (found in 2007) is not an isolated archaeological monument in the landscape, but one element in a complex of archaeological features situated on and around this prominent ridge overlooking the river Boyne. These include a second and possibly third potential souterrain, a substantial linear embankment, a circular enclosure [of] 40m in diameter [a possible ring fort], a relict field system and associated open settlement of possible medieval or early modern date… It is likely, however, that had this complex been known at the time the world heritage site perimeter was being drafted, its influence would have extended its perimeter somewhat further to the west and northwest.”

He concedes that any alternative, western route would be equally problematic from an archaeological point of view, but suggests that a viable solution might be to completely ban HGVs from the town and, instead of a bypass, to redirect traffic flow through an east-west corridor to the north. And thus towards the existing motorways; the M1 and M3.

This whole issue is problematic. While it’s difficult to argue against a bypass proposal that could save lives, so many roads have been built in Ireland already. Would it not be better, as Joe Fenwick suggests, to work with what has previously been constructed (at great expense and, occasionally, with controversy)? Traffic flow is a nightmare to guide, or to anticipate, anyway, because it’s dependent to such a degree on human behaviour, or rather, a number of different types of it. The NRA, for instance, have proposed tolling existing roads and links – like the Jack Lynch Tunnel in Cork – to help pay for more projects. Who’s to say that this bridge, in turn, wouldn’t attract a toll? It’d be a juicy enough prospect. Would all those HGVs continue to use it then?  

There’s a very funny scene in ‘Father Ted’. You’ll probably know it. It’s the one where Ted tries to hammer a small dent out of a car and, by all his compensatory tapping, reduces the vehicle to a wreck – it’s like that tale of the man who keeps slicing bits off the legs of his stool, to stop it wobbling, and eventually ends up sitting on the floor. In the week that it was announced that we, in Ireland, have one of the ten worst “ecological footprints” in the world, you’d have to wonder how much we’ve lost in our ‘process‘. Is the earthwork at Crewbane now fated to be another Lismullin; or another in a line of Lismullins, stretching, from case to case, into the future? To what eventual purpose? Will each ‘solved’ problem just pop up somewhere else instead? And how much will we have left under us at the end of it all?

http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/ireland/2010/1012/1224280878318.html
 
These lines were written in another time and about another time, long before that again;

“…While, as a youth with practised spear
Through jostling crowds bears off the ring,
Boyne from their shoulders caught the bier
And proudly bore away the king.

At morning, on the grassy marge
Of Rossnaree, the corpse was found,
And shepherds at their early charge
Entomb’d it in the peaceful ground.

A tranquil spot: a hopeful sound
Comes from the ever youthful stream,
And still on daisied mead and mound
The dawn delays with tendered beam.

Round Cormac Spring renews her buds:
In march perpetual by his side,
Down come the earth-fresh April floods,
And up the sea-fresh salmon glide;

And life and time rejoicing run
From age to age their wonted way;
But still he wait’s the risen Sun’
For still ‘tis only dawning day.”

– from Samuel Ferguson’s ‘The Burial of King Cormac’

 
Silbury, Wiltshire
Image credit Moss
 
There is categorically no access onto the monument. Heritage Action strongly supports English Heritage in its efforts to keep people from climbing it. There is a good, well-maintained car park close to the monument and a very short walk from there to the Silbury viewing area where there are several information boards.
 
Administrative authority: English Heritage
Heritage Action Cared for Rating **** (out of 5).
 
Suggested improvements: More and better signs instructing visitors not to breach the perimeter fence or to climb the monument.

See original story here

by Nigel Swift

From Wellington Evening Post, New Zealand, 14 October 1899  (111 years ago today!):

 
In response to this offer the Chancellor of the Exchequer said the price was “absolutely impossible for any purchaser to consider” (familiar or what?!) and thus it fell to Sir Edmund to save or spoil the monument. Whether he was a good guy or the reverse depends on your point of view.
 

He certainly didn’t like (or was he prudent regarding?) mass tourism to the site. Writing to Henry Medlicott on 31 December 1900 he said “The attendance at Stonehenge is already largely increased, and when the … railway is opened … I fear that the class of visitor will be very different to what it was in former years. (What) would (you) advise for preservation and protection to meet these very altered circumstances?”

Plebs, eh?

Anyway, in 1901 he put a fence up to protect it and imposed an admission charge of a shilling. The Amesbury locals protested – as did Sir John Lubbock, Flinders Petrie and the National Trust who saw it as an unwarrantable act of enclosure (sounds familiar again?) but he won a court case against the protestors. Stonehenge had never been “common land” – only in people’s hearts and minds (and that issue is familiar yet again!)

Was imposing control of the monument good or bad? A couple of generations later Mrs Thatcher thought it was good but there were those who disagreed, and still do. One thing that WAS good though. According to the guide book of the time (written by Lady Antrobus) the barrier was “composed of the lightest barbed wire of a neutral tint and absolutely invisible from a distance.” (Well, that’s not rocket science or expensive, is it? So how come, 110 years later….. well, you write and ask!)

Still, fencing off the People’s monument caused a row alright. And then letting modern archaeology cut it’s teeth there so comprehensively didn’t help. In 1901 Lord Antrobus paid for the re-erection of “the leaning stone” and shoring works to others but then in the next four years a further 123 digs or interventions were allowed, some good, some very damaging, prompting Richard Le Gallienne to say of Sir Edmund in his Travels in England that he bids fair to divide the honours of iconoclasm with the Reverend Francis Gastrell, [who] it will be remembered, razed Shakespeare’s New Place to the ground because he was so pestered with pious callers.

Not that Sir Edmund appeared to be too worried about what people said, for in 1905 he joined the Ancient Order of Druids (as did Winston Churchill a bit later) and he let them celebrate at Stonehenge amicably for some years. I say amicably, but who could quarrel with them when it became known, as it did, that many of them arrived wearing false beards! Good or bad? Good, definitely. You can never have too many false beards at Stonehenge.

Unfortunately, as Druidry moved into a more radical, countercultural style under the new leadership of George MacGregor Reid, relations between the druids and Sir Edmund deteriorated from 1912 onwards. Various sectors of the druids were disinclined to pay an admission fee (more familiar stuff!) and refused to comply with a request from Antrobus that they should pay £2,500 for restoration work on the monument (maybe they should. “Our temple” is maybe a claim that has financial implications for any group that wishes to be recognised as qualifying for charitable status as a religion! )

The upshot was that he banned them from entering for the next solstice and several after that, and George MacGregor Reid called down “the curse of Almighty God and of his Spirit Messengers” on Sir Edward – who promptly upped and died soon afterwards – of “natural causes” (yeah, right!). But before he went, in 1915, he put Stonehenge and thirty surrounding acres up for auction in Salisbury and it was bought for £6,600 by CH Chubb who presented it to the nation three years later and received a knighthood in return.

Thus it was saved for the Nation forever, theoretically, (although soon afterwards the War Office did want to dismantle it as a hazard to aviation, and some of the digs that were carried out were catastrophic and its guardians nearly built a dirty great tunnel under it 90 years later!) And when I say “for the nation” that’s not quite accurate because the last time it was checked 72% of visitors to Stonehenge were from oversees and more than 50% were American so the way it’s treated is rather more than a national disgrace it’s a world one, as those visitors will very readily tell you if you canvass them.

So all in all, Sir Edmund Antrobus, good or bad for Stonehenge? Good on balance IMO. After all, he stood up to the plate and was prepared to make an effort to protect it when the government wouldn’t  (exactly like they won’t now), and although he restricted “the people” from having a free run over their monument he prevented the worst excesses of that freedom. People didn’t dance on the lintels in his lifetime. Or build burger shacks next to it.

by Albert Resonox, Heritage Action

In Cannon St. London, set in a small alcove in a wall behind a piece of iron railing sits a block of white stone going largely unnoticed by the daily troupe of workers who pass it everyday.

The London Stone behind its Victorian grill
Image credit AlanS>

Sometimes tourists will stop to photograph it, whether or not they are aware of the many legends behind this unremarkable piece of stone, is neither here nor there, for they sense it has some significance to London’s history and indeed it has, for many years it was a symbol of London itself… originally being set into the wall of St. Swithins church it remained unscathed after said church was bombed in WWII before being moved to its present site.

This stone has many names, the most popular being The London Stone and its purpose has, over many centuries, been subject to much speculation and each different theory has only served to create an aura of mystique which has hidden the truth from us for all of these centuries.

Some legends call it The Brutus Stone, after Brutus an exiled son of Troy who left his adoptive home in Italy after being told in a vision to sail to a land ruled by giants, where he must set up a colony called New Troy. His travels took him to Albion where he defeated the ruling giants, and had the country renamed Britain in his honour and the first stone he set foot upon was revered and cut out to be the altar piece of a temple dedicated to Diana in what is now London. There is a stone marked in Totnes, Devon which commemorates this landing. However it is more probable that Brutus actually alighted in what is now Cornwall, as there were frequent visitors there being a centre for the tin and copper trade. The young Jesus was also said to be a frequent visitor to Cornwall; no doubt there are claims and counter-claims of the authenticity of these tales, depending on who you ask, but without any actual proof… we will never know for sure!

The Brutus Stone
Wikimedia Commons

Some say that the locals sacked the temple and razed it to the ground but this sacred stone was carried to safety by Brutus’ loyal supporters and the hiding place was uncovered during building work but the workmen being of a superstitious nature were afraid to move this stone and it remains in situ to this very day.

Another legend naming it as The Druid Stone claims that this stone was the grave marker on the mound/tumulus over which the White Tower (Tower Of London) was built, this was said to be the grave of a mighty and revered Druid warrior or perhaps even Brutus. This mound was known as Bryn Gwn, possibly meaning White Mound and was said to stand long before Romans invaded, let alone Normans. Oddly enough Romans and Saxons had never built over this land, preferring to build around it, why the stone was moved in the construction of The White Tower has never been explained as it would have been a handy ready-made building block, perhaps it was re-sited to appease the populace who surely would have objected strongly to their holy of holies being built over.

The stone has also been called The Roman Stone and the theory being that it was a marker to indicate the exact centre of Roman London, personally I have never heard of the Romans doing this in any other city but perhaps it was indeed a widespread practice or as some claim merely a central point to measure the distance to all other cities.

With echoes of the Brutus legend, it has also been claimed that this stone was the one on which a young Jesus first placed “those feet in ancient times” on these isles on what is said to be the first of his many visits here as a boy and the stone was taken and used as the altarpiece of an early Christian church… no doubt after Jesus’ posthumous fame had become a phenomena. As with the Brutus tales it is often claimed that this alighting also took place in Cornwall.

One post Roman legend claims that the area around Bryn Gwn was used as a site where young warriors would be sent to test their mettle in combat and try to pull a sword from this stone. This mighty sword had been placed there by magic only to be removed by the true ruler of these isles. A young serf managed to perform this task and thus became Arthur (The Once And Future King) yet examination of the stone shows no signs of having been the sheath for a mystical sword but I suppose it wouldn’t if it was placed there by arcane arts. A strange tradition was once that every new king had to strike the stone with his sword as a symbol of his sovereignty, a residue of Arturian legend perhaps?

Yet another name was The Helios Stone and it was said to have originally stood on the peak of what is now known as Primrose Hill where it was worshipped on sacred days in the druidical calendar. Oddly enough the Heel Stones in Stonehenge are so called because of their association with the sun (Helios) and not podiatry.

There was said to have been a druid temple dedicated to sun worship in what is now the graveyard of St. Pancras Church, that land itself was said to have been granted to nuns after they were told (in July) that they could have any land on which snow fell overnight; long story shortened… the weather obliged and the church was built… so obviously it has always been deemed a place of mystery, nice to visit if ever you are passing and a haven from the bustle of Marylebone. The centre piece of the altar has a stone inset which is claimed to be the symbol of Pancras, brought here by his mother and is said to radiate warmth, though I didn’t experience any stone heat numerous others claim to have.

Reporting in the Observer today Robin McKie writes –

“Severe restrictions on scientists’ freedom to study bones and skulls from ancient graves are putting archaeological research in Britain at risk, according to experts. The growing dispute relates to controversial legislation introduced by the Ministry of Justice in 2008, which decreed that all human remains found during digs in Britain must be reburied within two years. The decision means that scientists have insufficient time to carry out proper studies of any pieces of ancient skeleton they find. Key information about British history will be lost as a result.

“Scientists are already facing the prospect of having to rebury a horde of human bone fragments, the remains of more than 50 individuals, that were excavated in 2008 at a site known as Aubrey Hole 7, which is part of the Stonehenge Riverside Project.”

More here – http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2010/oct/10/burial-grave-mike-pitts-stonehenge

Congratulations to Dr. Mark Clinton, chair of the antiquities committee of An Taisce, and to all his colleagues in Annagassan, Co.Louth. He and his team have uncovered the remains of what may be the lost Viking fortress, or longphort, of Linn Duchaill. According to Eamonn Kelly, the National Museum’s keeper of antiquities; “the significance of it is immense. It will be up there with all the major Viking sites in Europe.” 

As Dr. Clinton puts it; “In 841 the Vikings over-wintered for the first time instead of raiding and leaving. The annals said they over-wintered here and in Dublin and this location was elusive. Until now.”

That it has been found at all is due to long and painstaking fieldwalking by a couple of people and to their courage in pushing an eventual site-hunch to obtain funding. Consequent excavation, of just three small trenches, has unearthed over 200 objects in 3 weeks; including ship rivets, pieces of silver, a spindle whorl and a brooch pin – even part of a human skull (within the defensive ditch). Did axes swing that day, at Linn Duchaill?;

“My mother said
I would be bought
A boat with fine oars,
Set off with Vikings,
Stand up on the prow,
Command the precious craft,
Then enter port,
Kill a man and another.” – from Egil’s Saga

Radiocarbon dates from the “massive” ditch, built across an inlet on a river, are pending, but there seems little doubt about its identification as; “the main fortification of the Viking fortress“. And thankfully, because no development is involved in this case, the structure won’t disappear again into the written word. According to Dr. Clinton, all finds; “will be conserved and analysed and a full report of the findings published”.

More articles about this excavation can be found here:

http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/ireland/2010/0917/1224279093813.html

http://www.dundalkdemocrat.ie/dundalknews/More-discoveries-lie-ahead-at.6543273.jp

With regard to the growing Viking presence, it’s also worth noting Stephen Oppenheimer’s estimate (‘The Origins of the British’ 2007, 462) – that (historic) Norwegian and Danish intrusion into the DNA of the British Isles’ population could be by as much as 5.5%.

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