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Ok, it’s an old joke, but at least it makes a change from the usual Stonehenge/Avebury/NT tropes at this time of year…

I recently watched a shockingly atrocious, but never-the-less entertaining, American pseudo-archaeology program called What On Earth. The description for the latest series reads as follows:

“Thousands of advanced satellites and drones orbit Earth, invisible to us yet scanning every inch of our planet. They capture our world in unprecedented detail, revealing areas that until now have remained a mystery. In an all new season of WHAT ON EARTH, experts look to this state-of-the-art imaging technology to discover bizarre phenomena and strange mysteries including an inaccessible cave of bones on an island off the coast of Africa, a bizarre concrete structure sitting off the coast of the Baltic sea, and a crater in Mexico with extra-terrestrial connections.”

One of the subjects of this particular episode (S09E01) was the – strangely never named in the program – Chun Castle, an Iron Age hill fort in Penwith, Cornwall. 

Built during the Iron Age, in the third century BC, it is over 2000 years later than the nearby neolithic quoit. Although it is in a ruined state, its size is still impressive.  The fort is 85m in diameter, and consists of a central area, surrounded by two concentric granite walls with external ditches. The outer ditch was 6.1m wide, and the outer wall is now 2.1m high, but may originally have been 3.0m high. The inner wall (now mostly destroyed) was some 4.6m to 6.7m thick, and could originally have been some 6.1m high. There were originally some Iron Age huts in the inner area, though no trace of these now remain. 

Possible reconstruction of Chun Castle by Craig Weatherhill

Claims made in the program included the fact that it was built in ancient times to protect the cliff-top tin mines and engine houses (built in the 18th century!) nearby, on behalf of, yes, you guessed it – King Arthur!! An American archaeologist ‘investigated’ the site, and stumbled across what “the Germans (what do they have to do with Cornwall?) call a Hunebed – a burial tomb”. Why not call it a quoit, the local name for such dolmens? More nonsense was spouted about pagan ceremonies for the dead taking part at the quoit, with ceremonies for the living possibly being held in the nearby henge (the castle site). The late local historian Craig Weatherhill who dearly loved this site must be spinning in his grave at this piffle!

Whilst this is all patently nonsense, and Professor Mark Horton should be ashamed of being associated with the program, I must admit to wondering if there could indeed be any credence in the idea of Chun Castle being built on an earlier henge site. I know that a few years ago Sir Barry Cunliffe was involved in negotiations to investigate the monument with an archaeological excavation. Sadly, funding could not be obtained for the dig at that time and so we must wait until a future time for such questions to be definitively answered.

In our previous article on Ancient Sites Depicted on Stamps, we asked if anyone knew of any British sites depicted on stamps from elsewhere around the world. Further research on this topic has exposed an entire genre of postage stamps around the world depicting ancient sites, from Britain and elsewhere. 

Firstly, let’s look at Stonehenge, the ‘iconic British monument’. The stamp released in Great Britain in 2005, as part of the World Heritage issue was also released in other countries at the same time, specifically Australia.

Much earlier, in 1991, Bhutan issued its own Stonehenge stamp for collectors, this time hedging their bets for international sales by also including some Disney characters!

A search on the Colnet philatelic collector’s database for ‘Stonehenge’ displays a number of stamps from around the world showing the monument, from many African nations, and even as far away as Japan in 2015.

Similar searches on the same database for terms such as ‘megalith’, ‘dolmen’  or ‘neolithic’ can bring up some surprises. As you would expect, Malta has issued many stamps with neolithic sites featured on them.

Why not try your own search terms, and let us know what you can find?

On the 14th March 2016 a new web resource was publicly announced on these pages, the Stone Rows of Great Britain website. 

The idea for the new site came after a series of articles by Dr Sandy Gerrard here on the Journal, and we feel fully justified in congratulating him on the occasion of the site’s 5th birthday, on a job very well done!

The StoneRows site was created following a series of articles concerning the Bancbryn row in Wales, which was partially destroyed to make way for a wind farm, the authorities at that time refusing to recognise the row’s potential Neolithic origins. It became obvious to Dr Gerrard that very little work had been done to definitively identify such sites, and he set out to rectify this.

Bancbryn: One of the more obvious shifts in orientation

In the five years since the site’s birth, Dr Gerrard has personally visited and surveyed almost all of the known rows in the UK. As a result of this ‘boots on the ground’ research the website has expanded significantly and now not only provides a gazetteer with details of every recorded row in the UK, but also contains a number of statistical analyses and research articles on typology, topography and other aspects of the known rows, whether extant or destroyed/lost.

Such is the status of the site, it is now used as a primary reference point in some area’s Heritage Environment Records (HER), and will be referenced in on-site signage. The site continues to be updated to include the latest available information and research results.

Happy Birthday StoneRows!!

Two and  half kilometres south of the village of Shap, emerging from a railway embankment lie the six remaining stones of Kemp Howe circle. Described in 1769 as a ‘large circle’, the monument was cut through in 1844 by the building of the railway. 

Kemp Howe circle, courtesy of Bing Maps

One really does have to wonder at the mindset of the engineers at that time! There has been a suggestion that some original stones may still lie under the embankment, but I feel this is unlikely as the granite blocks could well have been used for building rather than just being buried. But then why leave the others out in the open? A mystery to be solved in the distant future, courtesy of a 21st century Dr Beeching perhaps?

The stones are composed of a lovely pink granite, local to the area, but none of the stones are what could be called ‘upright’. There are many smaller boulders around the large stones, whether these are packing stones or detritus from the building of the railway is not clear. The stones form an arc some 25m width, giving an idea of the original size of the circle.

Angie Lake on the Megalithic Portal identified one of the remaining stones as mimicking a distant peak to the NW, which may or may not be a significant alignment from the circle.

Kemp Howe circle denotes the southern limit of the Shap Avenue – an alignment of stones, many of which have been removed or destroyed over the years,  covering a distance of nearly 3km which includes the impressive Goggleby Stone and the Thunderstone.

A view from the Kemp Howe circle looking north was sketched in 1775 by Lady Lowther, wife of the Earl of Lonsdale. There is a good description of the circle and avenue in the Transactions of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society (PDF) which suggests there was an even larger circle a short distance to the north – of which nothing now remains.

Next time, we’ll visit one of the ‘Hollywood’ sites of the region (of which there are many, it has to be said!)

Prior to Queen Elizabeth II ascending the throne in 1953, commemorative issue stamps were few and far between. Until then, such issues were limited to major events such as royal or postal anniversaries. This was to remain the case until the early 1960s, when the scope for commemoratives was widened somewhat to include other anniversaries, art festivals and major international business conferences or trade treaties. The first ‘non-event’ commemorative stamps were issued in 1966, with artistic views of British Landscapes, including views of Hassocks in Sussex, Antrim NI, Harlech Castle in Wales and the Caingorm mountains in Scotland. 

On the 29th April 1968, a set of four stamps was released, depicting British Bridges, including the first ancient site to appear on a British stamp, Tarr Steps in Exmoor.

Although the frequency of commemorative sets increased, it was to be 22 years before another ancient site appeared. Strangely placed in a set released on 16th October 1990 celebrating Astronomy, Stonehenge made its first appearance.

The following year sets of definitive stamps were issued in a set of four archaeology-themed booklets, depicting Sir Arthur Evans at Knossos, Howard Carter at Tutankhamen’s Tomb,  Sir Austen Layard in Assyria and Flinders Petrie at Giza.

June 1993 saw the first Roman-themed stamps issued, with portraits depicting Claudius, Hadrian, the Goddess Roma and a mosaic of Christ.

Ten years later, for the 250th anniversary of the British Museum in 2003, another set of portraits were issued which included the Sutton Hoo helmet.

April 2005 saw the release of the World Heritage set of stamps, which included three ancient British sites; Hadrian’s Wall, Stonehenge and neolithic Orkney.

In 2011 and 2012, two sets were issued featuring a UK A-Z which included Glastonbury Tor and Roman Bath.

Tarr Steps made a re-appearance in the March 2015 Bridges set.

The Ancient Britain set released in January 2017 included not only objects such as the Starr Carr antlers and the Battersea Shield, but also sites including Skara Brae, Maiden Castle and Avebury.

In June of last year, another set depicting Roman Britain was issued, the most recent release within our sphere of interest. This time the sites of Dover Lighthouse, Caerleon amphitheatre and Hadrian’s Wall (again) were included.

So over the years, it can be seen that Ancient Britain has been well represented on the stamps of Great Britain, with Tarr Steps, Hadrian’s Wall and Stonehenge all appearing more than once. Sadly, there are no stamps within our interest scheduled for this year, although folklorists have an Arthurian-themed set to look forward to.

Who, or what would you like to see on a British Archaeology set of stamps, if one were to be produced in future? Have you seen any examples of British sites on stamps from elsewhere in the world? Please leave a comment and let us know!

Located just yards from the M6 it’s difficult to understand just how this double circle survived the motorway construction works. In 1844 the circle was in danger from construction of the Lancaster and Carlisle Railway line, but this never came to fruition as a different route was chosen. Just a couple of miles north of Shap on the other side of the motorway, Gunnerkeld is relatively remote and peaceful despite the traffic nearby, and lies on private ground. Permission must be sought to visit.

It is described thus in the Heritage Environment Records (HER):

Gunnerkeld concentric stone circle is located 200m south-west of Gunnerwell Farm on the top of a slight ridge. The monument includes an outer circle measuring c.30m north-south by 24m east-west of 19 large granite stones, three of which are upright and just over 1m tall. There is an entrance on the northern side of the outer circle between two of these large stones. Within the outer circle is an inner circle measuring c.18m north-south by 16m east-west of 31 granite stones. This inner circle forms the kerb of an earth and stone cairn up to 1m high. Limited antiquarian excavation of the central cairn located a stone cist.

The name may have Old Norse connections – ‘keld’ denotes a water source or spring and Gunnar is a known name, so ‘Gunnar’s Spring’. There is a small stream nearby, and there was a large Viking influence in the area in the mid to late Medieval period.

The vast majority of the stones in the outer circle are prostrate, and Dymond (1880) gave his opinion on these: 

The question arises, with respect to the prostrate stones. Were they originally erect, and have they been overthrown ? I have no hesitation in expressing my belief that they were never set up on end ; and, if so, these rings are of a type differing, perhaps of set purpose, from the true peristalith. 

The stones in the circles are a mix of red granite and limestone, and are all considered to be local glacial erratics in origin. Although notoriously difficult to date, Burl (1976) has assigned a likely construction date of c2900-2500BC to the Gunnerkeld circles. Waterhouse (1985) suggests that the inner circle may indicate a later reuse of an earlier circle for sepulchral use. The design at Gunnerkeld bears some resemblance to the Oddendale circle, some 3 miles to the south, whilst the dimensional ratios are very similar to those employed at Castlerigg.

We begin our look at the Cumbrian circles with one just across the border in Lancashire, that holds sad memories for me personally. 

Some 5km south of Ulverston, and just 0.5km from the coast, on the SE side of Birkrigg Common lies the Druid’s Circle. There are fine views from within the circle across Morecombe Bay.

The ‘circle’ is unusual in that it consists of two roughly concentric stone rings. The inner ring is some 8.5m across, and is made up of 12 stones. None of the stones are higher than 1m above ground level. The outer circle with a diameter of around 24m is much less distinct, composed of around 20 much smaller stones.

Excavations in 1911 identified that the area within the outer circle was paved with cobbles. Within the inner circle was a  second paved area, buried below the first.

Druid’s Circle plan, after Burl.

I visited this circle twice in 2005. The monument is easily accessible from the road, a fact which spoiled my first visit, around Midsummer. A family had set up camp, within the circle. Their van was parked within the outer circle along with their tent, and their family belongings were spread across the inner circle. Needless to say I didn’t stay, and in my naïveté failed to inform the authorities of the desecration. On my second visit in the October, the circle was clear, but there was a large bare patch in the centre with evidence of fire damage. Needless to say, the activities witnessed on both these occasions are highly irresponsible, and as the area is a scheduled monument, almost certainly illegal. 


We first published this article in 2019 but since English Heritage hasn’t yet taken the bait we thought we’d repeat it. You can never embarrass them too much!.

 


 

TWO Stonehenge webcams to be set up?

English Heritage has placed a webcam in the centre of Stonehenge! As a result, as they say: “Celestial sun-seekers can now enjoy a personal Stonehenge sunrise all year round”. Bravo!

Also, they’re putting a second one at the very place Turner painted his iconic panorama of the stones within their landscape and beneath an enormous sky, to compensate for the fact that vista will be hidden forever from travellers by the short tunnel scheme.

Ed: That last bit is a lie. Did you really think a body blinded by its own pompous, elitist certainty would want to compensate tens of millions of ordinary people for the loss of the iconic Turner vista? Plus, putting a webcam where Turner stood would involve admitting they’re supporting the loss of an immensely precious and irreplacable cultural asset, and you’ll never, ever hear English Heritage, Historic England or The National Trust confessing to that.

 


 

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Not a view worth bothering about, eh?

 

(We also have something to say about a webcam needing to be provided by that other public engagement pretender, The National Trust. Watch this space later on this week.)

 

Way back in the mists of time (2005!) I took a week’s holiday in the Lake District, and had my eyes opened to the plethora of prehistoric sites still remaining there. Of these, there are probably more stone circles than any other major monument type – over 50 (including cairn circles) have been recorded although I saw only a small proportion of those on my travels.

Screenshot courtesy of the Megalithic Portal

These circles date from the Neolithic through to the Bronze age, a period of over 1500 years. Generally speaking, the larger the circle and the larger the stones included, the earlier it is likely to be.

In 2011, we ran a short series here on the Journal, a ‘Focus on: Cornish Stone Circles’. Ten years on, a look at stone circles in other areas is well overdue, and so we shall be looking in the coming weeks at some of the stone circles of Cumbria, Lancashire and Westmorland that were visited during that trip sixteen years ago.

As well as our usual culprits for source material: the Megalithic Portal, the Modern Antiquarian and the Heritage Gateway, we’ll be using the following books for background material:

Stayed tuned…

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