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News reached us last week that The Portman Hunt had been written to by the National Trust amid claims it’s horses and hounds damaged Hambledon Hill after the Hunt “left the recognised bridleway and came across the hill”. A National Trust volunteer was even quoted saying “They have now twice been guilty of blatant and wilful damage to a scheduled ancient monument. What, I wonder will it take to make them actually take real notice?”
Lest the National Trust or others are unaware, wilful damage of a scheduled Ancient Monument is a criminal offence in this country. So why on earth are the National Trust pussy footing around with letters when they should be straight onto the police? A quick internet search shows the hunt isn’t exactly a paradigm of virtue so its explanation that they merely “left the track to round up some dogs.” should be taken with a hefty pinch of salt.
After all its not even as if its a first offence on this site, photographic evidence of Portman Hunt members bombing about the hillfort on quad bikes exists from a previous time as you can see below.
Those of you with long memories will recall we highlighted a different hunt last year who decided riding multiple horses over a barrow was appropriate. A trend of disrespect and contempt?
It’s fair to say that every area has it’s fair share of ‘Hollywood’ or tourist archaeology sites – those must see monuments that aficionados such as us hunt down and visit on a fairly frequent basis. But it’s equally fair to say that those same sites are only the tip of the iceberg as far as sites worth a visit are concerned. And again, there are probably as many more sites again where there is nothing to be seen at all – all the archaeology is buried, or covered in dense undergrowth.
Once again, I’m visiting West Penwith in Cornwall, an area many would argue is one big Hollywood site. It’s difficult to travel down any of the lanes there without being within view of at least one prehistoric monument. And yet, after 15 years of visiting the area several times a year, I am continually surprised to find yet ‘one more site’ I’ve not previously visited. In the early days I relied upon the Modern Antiquarian and Megalithic Portal web sites to find my way around – both excellent resources in their own right. And the Defra Magic web site allows access to information on many Scheduled Monuments (and numerous other data layers). But more recently I have come to rely on the Cornwall Council Interactive Map for my jaunts to the southwest.
The site works in a similar way to the Defra Magic application, whereby different layers of data can be activated or deactivated as required. I usually start with a standard set of layers activated; Leisure: Rights of Way and Right to Roam land, and Historical: Sites and Monuments Records and Scheduled Monuments.
There are many more layers of possible interest to choose from, but even with this subset, when zoomed in the map gets very busy! Sadly, there’s no way to filter based upon era, but the prehistoric sites are designated by red markers which are easy to see. Clicking on the map on a specific point (or area) will pop up a key panel with links to additional information – for the sites we’re interested in these links usually point to the Heritage Environment Records (HER), held on the Heritage Gateway web site. If clicking on an area which may be covered by more than one item, e.g. a settlement site within a Right to Roam area crossed by a Right of Way, the Key panel will show the first item it finds, but other items will be indicated in the header bar (“1 of 3”). The items can then be scrolled through using the supplied back/forward buttons.
The system is very easy to use, though the amount of information presented can be a bit daunting at times! Of course, it would be equally simple to use the Heritage Gateway to perform a more precise search, but using the map enables you to see where the selected site sits in relation to other HER records in the immediate area (and those all-important rights of way!)
Using the Cornwall Interactive Map and the Heritage Gateway I now have a plan of sorts and a list of targets to visit for my upcoming trip, some of which will no doubt feature in forthcoming articles.
The Heritage Gateway is an excellent resource covering the whole country, and I’m sure other counties will have similar facilities to Cornwall to explore their own areas via mapping – if you know of any good examples, please let us know in the comments.
If I have one small criticism of the Heritage Gateway, it’s that despite the initiatives for Open Access Archaeology, it’s just not possible to link through to the source documentation and reports. Sometimes (especially for us non-academics), a citation is not enough.
Try this test. Go to Stonehenge and deliberately tread on a Marsh Fritillary caterpillar. You’ll risk prosecution. Now jump around on the stones and the same thing applies as that’s against the law too. Yet you and hundreds of others can do it with impunity on 21 June. Why? Because there are so many people packed into the monument it’s impossible to exercise control. EH’s PR Department must cringe every year, especially on 22 June when they release a press release saying everything went well but the photographs show they weren’t in control.
But maybe a change is coming. We hear EH’s Historic Properties Director “has grasped the PR opportunity of picnics and kite flying and happy family gatherings” (which were OUR suggestions, see here!) and coincidentally some Free Access campaigners are also calling for a daytime picnic adjacent to the stones and they’ve been invited to a “private meeting” to discuss it!
Could this be the moment when the problem is solved? Yes, providing EH says instead of, not as well as. There’s no point in expanding the celebrations into the daytime unless there’s an end to the worldwide negative PR created by nocturnal overcrowding inside the stones and the damage and disrespect it brings.
So here’s our fantasy picture of ordinary people, all equal stakeholders having fun celebrating solstice near to but not within the stones (which is something no-one can show is less likely to be traditional than what happens now). They could start at dawn if they wished – the sunrise view from outside is much better and the place is now thought to have been designed to facilitate that – and if they were outside the stones there’d be no huge expense, no massive security, no litter, no graffiti, no damage, no stone-standing, no climbing on them, no “personal alcohol allowance”, no ejections, no endless moaning, no faeces, no crazy calls for unrestricted access, no arrests and no embarrassment and humiliation for EH and Britain! Isn’t that better?
We visited the Coldrum Stones previously, about 3.5 years years ago, so it’s time for a revisit as part of our occasional A-Z series.
The best preserved of the Medway Megaliths, Coldrum is a Neolithic Longbarrow, one of several in this part of the country. Recent radiocarbon dating of at least 16 individuals buried within the chamber at Coldrum, has shown that this particular monument was probably constructed nearly 6,000 years ago. This date from Coldrum makes it one of the earliest known monuments in the British Isles. Similar dates have been suggested for the Early Neolithic Long Hall buildings found during excavations for the HS1 railway, at the White Horse Stone site, on the other side of the River Medway.
The Coldrum monument now sits on the edge of a deep lynchet down which some of the stones, including the capstone, have tumbled. A rectangular enclosure of sarsen stones sits behind the monument to the west. it is this enclosure which led to the early identification of Coldrum as a ‘stone circle’, later rebuffed by Petrie, among others.
Flinders Petrie and Benjamin Harrison surveyed the site prior to the first excavations at Coldrum being undertaken by F. J. Bennet and colleagues in 1910, though some pottery finds had been unearthed in 1856.
‘No sooner had I put my fork in, than I at once turned up some human bones, under only a few inches of soil’.
Five skulls, and bones of up to 22 individuals were excavated, along with pottery sherds, and a flint ‘saw’. The finds were split between the Royal College of Surgeons, and Maidstone Museum. Bennet’s excavations were written up and published in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. 43 (Jan. – Jun., 1913), pp. 76-85. and can be accessed via JSTOR.
Folklore has it that an underground tunnel existed between the stones and the local church, containing ‘treasure’, and it may be that attempts to find this tunnel in antiquity caused the escarpment to collapse, as Bennet makes reference to a ‘cave’ in the slope.
The name ‘Coldrum’ comes from a farm lodge which lay nearby to the south, but which is now demolished. Using the National Library of Scotland facility to search older OS maps, shows that on the 1870 survey, the Coldrum site is marked as the remains of a stone circle.
On the 1909 map, two further stone circles are marked in the vicinity of the lodge, but by the time of the 1936 survey, these have been demoted to ‘sarsen stones’ whilst the monument itself is now in the care of the National Trust, having been purchased by the Trust ten years ealrier. The site is now dedicated as a memorial to Benjamin Harrison of the Kent Archaeological Society, who spent much of his adult life looking for evidence of Kent’s earliest settlers.
An excellent review by Paul Ashbee of the various investigations at Coldrum can be found in Archaeologia Cantiana Vol. 118 1998, available for download from the Kent Archaeological Society archives (pdf link)
by Sandy Gerrard
The Planning Inspectorate in Wales has recently rejected an application to erect three wind turbines at Bedlinog on the edge of an area containing a large number of multi-period archaeological sites. Most significantly the main reason given for the decision is the impact the development would have had on the historic environment. Indeed this concern is eloquently expressed so: “the introduction of very large modern moving structures into a landscape which had not significantly changed since the pre-industrial age would cause significant and extensive harm.”
Hooray. The landscape that is going to be protected is very similar in character to the one at Mynydd y Betws. Essentially it is a multi-period palimpsest some of which is scheduled. There are however also some important differences:
> The nearest scheduled site would have been 570m from a turbine rather than the 72m at Mynydd y Betws
> Three turbines were proposed rather than fifteen.
> The turbines were to be built on enclosed land near to the moorland rather than on the moorland itself.
> The turbines were to be built to one side of the archaeology rather than in its midst.
When the Planning Inspectorate considered the Mynydd y Betws proposal, where the impact of the proposed scheme was considerably more intrusive and damaging to the historic environment than at Bedlinog they stated:
“The turbines would be large man made features of far greater scale than anything which currently exists. However they would be, if allowed, by their nature a temporary feature with a permission for 25 years.”
“the effect on the setting of those Monuments within the site, whether they are burial cairns or more recent upland farmsteads, would not be unacceptably harmful.”
Hopefully this radical change of heart means that in just a few short years and on the back of the lessons learnt at Mynydd y Betws the desecration of irreplaceable archaeological landscapes is no longer to be tolerated. Certainly this decision should help those fighting to safeguard our heritage and should be warmly welcomed by everyone with an interest in our uplands.
Just to remind you. On Sunday 14th September you have a choice:
You can pay £13.90 to slowly circumnavigate Stonehenge at a respectful distance with thousands of others in a scene reminiscent of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow but less cheerful…
Or you can pay just a pound to walk right inside the much more complete, much more atmospheric Rollright stones and then sit down next to them for a picnic of quails eggs and truffles (maybe) and a chinwag and book-swap with a bunch of fellow megalith enthusiasts.
Tough choice. Up to you. And whilst Stonehenge is the focal point of a World Heritage Site, don’t forget that the Rollrights also has a wealth of prehistoric sites within easy reach.
Please be at Stonehenge or our Rollrights picnic about midday.
Before the days of English Heritage, Cadw and the like, many scheduled ancient monuments across the UK came under the remit and protection of ‘the man from the ministry’ – the Ministry of Works.
In an early version of today’s ubiquitous information boards, signs were erected at many sites, giving often very brief information, but warning that the site was under protection, and that any damage would be punishable by law. These signs were often made of long-lasting cast iron, and many can still be seen today around the country.
In a celebration of these old signs, Sue Greaney, an English Heritage Historian, has recently launched a new Facebook Group, the “Ministry of Works Signage Appreciation Society“, with a view to collecting as many photos of the surviving signs, and their latter day replacements as possible.
The group is open for anyone to join and contribute photos or reminicenses. We would encourage all those interested in the history of our ancient scheduled monuments to join in.
by Katharine Range
Castlerigg Stone Circle, near Keswick in Cumbria, is one of the most beautiful stone circles in Britain. It stands on a superb natural plateau commanding a panoramic 360 degree view over the surrounding fells. The slightly oval-shaped ring is among the earliest raised in Britain; about 3000 BC during the Neolithic period. To give a bit of context, this was slightly after the construction date of Newgrange in Ireland, thought to be about 3200 BC and about the same time as the earliest phase of Stonehenge; several hundred years prior to the structure we know today. Cumbria is rich in the stone circle department, having some 50 in number which range from the dramatic, large circles, such as Castlerigg at just over 32 metres, to the diminutive Castlehowe Scar at just 7 metres. There are 38 stones in a circle approximately 30 metres in diameter. Within the ring is a rectangle of a further 10 standing stones. The tallest stone is 2.3 metres high. They are all un-hewn boulders, although some have fallen in the 5000 years since they were raised. It has been estimated there were originally around 41 stones, so Castlerigg is relatively well preserved when compared with other circles in the British Isles.
Castlerigg Stone Circle was one of the first sites to be covered under the Ancient Monuments Protection Act in 1888 and in 1913 it was acquired by the National Trust through the efforts of Canon Rawnsley. The circle was first brought to public notice in 1725 by the antiquarian William Stukeley, who recorded that the circle was “very entire, consisting of 50 stones, some very large.” But in 1849, in his Guide To The Lakes, Jonathan Otley reported the current 38 stones. The original purpose of the site is unknown. It could have been used as a trading post. Three stone axes have been discovered inside the circle. In the Neolithic period axes were made from volcanic stone quarried in the fells. Current thinking has linked Castlerigg with the Neolithic Langdale Axe industry in the nearby Langdale fells: the circle may have been a meeting place where these axes were traded or exchanged. Ritually deposited stone axes have been found all over Britain, suggesting that their uses went far beyond their practical capabilities. Exchange or trading of stone axes may not have been possible without first taking part in a ritual or ceremony.
Other possible uses include a meeting place for tribal gatherings, a site for religious ceremonies and rituals or even an astronomical observatory. It is important to archaeo astronomers who have noted that the sunrise during the Autumn equinox appears over the top of Threlkeld Knott, a hill 3.5 km to the east. Some stones in the circle have been aligned with the midwinter sunrise and various lunar positions.
Excavations in the inner ring in 1882 provided very little in the way of archaeological finds, although quantities of charcoal were discovered. What subsequently happened to the samples of charcoal is unknown, other than they are now likely to be lost or, if not, too contaminated to be worth modern scientific analysis. Nevertheless, Dover’s excavation is the only one to have been carried out at Castlerigg. A wide space to the Northern end of the circle, framed by two large stones may have served as an entrance to the site. In the early 20th century, a single outlying stone was erected by a farmer approximately 90m to the south west of Castlerigg. This stone has many linear ‘scars’ along its side from being repeatedly struck by a plough, suggesting that it was once buried below the surface and also why the farmer dug it up. It is not possible to say whether this stone was originally part of the circle, or just a naturally deposited boulder.
There is a legend that it is impossible to count the stones of Castlerigg; that each attempt will result in a different answer. However as with most legends, there is a small kernel of truth here. Over the years, smaller stones have “appeared” next to the larger ones.This is due to erosion of the soil around the stones through time and visitation by we humans. These stones seem to be “packing” stones, used to support the large stones when the circle was erected and would have been buried originally.
Another story involves one well-documented sighting of a strange light phenomena. In 1919, a Mr. T. Singleton and a companion watched as white orbs travelled slowly over the stones. Strange lights are a recurring theme at many ancient sites all over the world and may well have been one of the reasons our ancestors built monuments in specific places. Although there is plenty of speculation, it is thought to be most probable that they are caused by natural processes related to fault lines.
It has been noted that many of the stones of Castlerigg seem to reflect features in the surrounding hills, as though the landscape site is an interplay between the sacred space and the landscape beyond. Although open to criticism, it seems as though there are many features at Castlerigg that still have to be examined in the context of how ancient man would have experienced the site.
I have to remind myself, somewhat enviously, that ancient man was so much more in tune and aware of what was around him in nature. Even though he could master it, he was still part of it. Today most of us have no concept of that, caught up as we are as to whether we remembered to “check in” on Facebook while visiting Starbucks or Castlerigg. When I visit somewhere as breathtaking as Castlerigg, I am humbled. And this for me, is the heart of why these sites should be protected and cared for as most precious.
We recently praised plans for a new Heritage Trail in Didcot. Well, its appears that we were too quick off the mark, and all is not quite what it seems when it comes to preserving Didcot’s heritage.
According to a report on the BBC web site, planning permission has been granted for a new road which will cut through the site of a Bronze Age pond barrow – one of the features to be included in the planned trail. A spokeperson for the developers Taylor Wimpey said that “archaeology has already been cleared from the area”, with no apparent understanding that the site itself may have significance whether the archaeology is removed or not – and how exactly do you ‘remove’ a pond barrow? Where has it been removed to? For ‘cleared’, should we read ‘destroyed’?
Local campaigner Karen Waggot pointed out the hypocrisy of the developers, stating “Just a few weeks after saying they support the history trail, developers are building over historic sites”. Campaigners and a local District Councillor are hoping that revised plans may be submitted by the developers, providing a green space to indicate the barrow’s l;ocation, but given that permission for the road has already been granted, it seems these hopes are somewhat slim.
Concerning the proposed Heritage Trail, Taylor Wimpey said “The artefacts and records from the site are now being analysed. When this process is completed a synopsis of the results will be displayed on an information board… which will form part of a history trail for the benefit of the whole community.”
Sadly, we doubt that a board which effectively says ‘look what we ripped up and took away!’ is going be of much benefit to future generations…
The latest in our A-Z series once again comes from Katherine Range, with our thanks.
Bleasdale Circle, located near the small village of Bleasdale in North Lancashire, is an early Bronze Age (2200-1700 B.C.) timber henge. It is, no doubt intentionally, located in the center of Edmarsh, a peat moss area which is situated between two headstreams of the River Brock. These streams in turn are situated at the feet of Fair Snape Fell to the northwest and Bleasdale Fell to the southwest. There is evidence of an early tribal community that lived and died here on the fells of Bleasdale as indicated by the recent discovery of other prehistoric sites nearby. And this is too precise a location not to indicate purposeful placement by the peoples that built the henge. Bleasdale is a name which is derived from the Old Norse for ‘blesa’ which means blaze or light spot, according to W.R.Mitchell in his book “Bowland and Pendle Hill”
Discovered in 1898 and extensively excavated in the 1930s, the henge site covers an area of about 50m by 40m enclosed by a penannular ditch which was lined with birch poles laid flat in the bottom. Inside is a smaller, inner circle about 17m by 20m. This was made up of 11 timber posts, the locations of which are now denoted by squat concrete posts. A causeway to the east was marked by further timbered posts and led to the edge of the larger, ditched enclosure. In the center of the henge is a small burial mound about 3 feet high at its center. Inside a small, stone-lined cist were found two highly decorated pottery urns of the Pennine type which would have held the ashes of the dead. One of the urns also had a smaller pottery cup inside of it. According to John and Philip Dixon in “Journeys Through Brigantia”, these urns could be among the oldest of this type found in Britain. The post circle and barrow seem to be of similar age, while the larger enclosure could be of a later date.
Looking east from the internal ring, we can see an alignment with a notch on the horizon. Folklore holds that this is where the mid-winter sun rises though no proof apparently exists at this current time. Within the larger enclosure, between the two circles, there is evidence of 3 or 4 small dwellings. At some stage though, these were destroyed by fire and have left virtually nothing except burnt patches in the soil. These would have been earthen structures likely of earth and dung. In my mind, this gives a lot of credence to the theory that ancestors’ dwellings were converted into ritual structures and revered by their descendants. It’s an intriguing thought that the ancestors would “live” among their clan through successive generations.