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Stone circles are found all over the British Isles, singly (e.g. Avebury, Castlerigg, Swinside, The Rollrights) or in small groups (e.g. The Hurlers, Stanton Drew, the Tregeseal Circles or the circles at Lamorna). Often, one or more circles in a group may no longer be extant, but documentary evidence or other clues provide information as to the existence of the group.

When circles are grouped in this way, the individual circles are usually quite close to each other. However, there is one group of circles, in Devon, which are not necessarily intervisible but definitely can be considered as ‘grouped’. This group has been dubbed the ‘Sacred Crescent’ and sits to the northeast of the high ground of Dartmoor.

Seven circles are marked in red on the map above – Grey Wethers is a double circle, but in 2015, an eighth circle marked in blue was identified southwest of Sittaford Tor which extends the arc. Aubrey Burl reported the circles as ‘standing at intervals of a fairly consistent 2 kilometres’. As can be seen above, the level of consistency can be debated but the nature of the arc is undeniable.

Of course, the question to be asked is whether the placement of these circles is deliberate or random. The arc pattern contains 8 circles, of some 15 in the Dartmoor area – not counting cairn circles etc. This high proportion suggests ‘intelligent design’, but as many of the circles are not intervisible it’s difficult to imagine how the pattern could have been produced.

If any of our readers are intimately familiar with the area, it would be interesting to know if there are any candidate ‘clues’ as to other possible circles in the arc, either between the existing circles or extending either end of the pattern. Such clues could recumbent stones, appropriate clear level areas or even documentary evidence – a pattern of monuments, of which no trace exists, was once recorded close to the nearby Spinster’s Rock dolmen.

Did you know that the Boskednan Nine Maidens circle in Cornwall is the subject of an opera, written early in the 20th century? The opera is “Iernin”, the tragic story of a woman of the Small People. The opera in three acts is set against the backdrop of a soon-to-be occupied Cornwall and the struggle of its leader and people to retain their independence from the Saxon overlords. Read the rest of this entry »

Fact

Tinkinswood burial chamber, in South Wales, was built nearly 6000 years ago. The capstone, at around 40 tons weighs almost as much as a fully-laden 18-wheeler articulated lorry! The basic design of the site classifies it as one of the Cotwold-Severn group of burial chambers.

It was first excavated in 1914 by John Ward, Keeper of Archaeology at the National Museum of Wales, when over 900 human bones were discovered – it is estimated these were the remains of between 40-50 people. The vast majority of the bones had been broken, but the mix of ages and sex suggests use of the site by the entire community over an extended period.

The Tinkinswood of today is very different to that prior to the excavation, as extensive ‘restoration’ work was carried out at that time:

  • a brick-built supporting pillar was inserted into the chamber
  • the courtyard supporting walls were rebuilt, using a distinctive, and not at all authentic, ‘herringbone’ pattern to the brickwork.
  • the rectangular mound and external revetment wall have been trimmed and generally ‘prettied up’, allowing easier interpretation of the site by visitors.
  • the entire site would have originally been covered by an earthen mound so that no stones other than the courtyard entrance would have been visible.

Tink4

In 2011, a local community project undertook a further excavation to learn more about the monument and it’s setting. Their project blog makes interesting reading for those interested in more information about this fascinating site!

Fact

Show anyone a picture of the British Archaeology Trust’s logo for RESCUE (seen below), and ask them to describe it, and 9 times out of ten the answer will be along the lines of “Stonehenge on a bulldozer”. And of course, that’s what the logo depicts, but being totally pedantic, it actually depicts just the stones of Stonehenge. The ‘henge‘ part tends to get forgotten. Why is that?

Probably because henges are among the least understood of the monuments left behind by our ancient ancestors, and are often not very visually stimulating, consisting of a circular bank, and inner ditch with one or more entrance causeways.

Logo: RESCUE, the British Archaeology Trust

Logo: RESCUE, the British Archaeology Trust

In fact, stone settings associated with henges are often very much in the minority. Stonehenge we’ve already mentioned of course, and Avebury (where the henge component of the monument is on a much larger scale) is similarly well known. A henge such as the Stripple Stones in Cornwall is much less well known and not nearly as accessible! Beyond that it becomes difficult to extend the list of henges with stones in the south. Knowlton Henge in Dorset is famous for its stones, but that’s because they are in the form of a Norman Church, set within the henge boundaries!

Knowlton Church and Henge © Alan S.

Knowlton Church and Henge © Alan S.

In the Midlands, the best known example of a henge with stones is probably Arbor Low in Derbyshire, where all of the stones are fallen, thus resembling a clock-face when viewed from above, as in the satellite image below, taken from Google Maps. Much further north, the Ring of Brodgar is well known, but again it is not considered a true henge by some, due to the complete lack of an external bank outside the rock-cut ditch. By comparison, the Thornborough Henges, a set of three large henges in Yorkshire, are completely stone free and meet the official definition well.

ArborLowSatView

Arbor Low henge, as seen on Google maps satellite view. © Google inc.

There are many more, much smaller henges to be found the length and breadth of Britain, many investigated to a greater or lesser extent, many known only from cropmarks identified via aerial or satellite photography. Sadly, many of these lesser henges are often ploughed out, almost to oblivion, such at the Weston Hill henge, near Baldock in Hertfordshire.

Finally, as the QI page on henges reminds us:

Oddly enough, though, the word ‘henge’ is a back-formation from ‘Stonehenge’, coined by Thomas Kendrick, later Keeper of British Antiquities at the British Museum, in 1932. The name derives from the Anglo-Saxon for ‘stone’ and ‘gallows’, implying that they thought it to be a place of execution (of course Stonehenge was already many centuries old in Anglo-Saxon times).

Oh, and the Mirror? Looking at the brief definition of a henge given above, it actually excludes Stonehenge from being defined as a true henge as there, the bank is on the inside, making it a ‘reversed-henge’! …and don’t get me started on how many of the examples on the Clonehenge web site omit the henge altogether!!

Further Links:

Fact

When it comes to folklore memes at ancient sites, there are several stories which occur again and again around the country. But at most sites, these stories are singular. Stanton Drew in Somerset is a little bit different. A complex of features, known collectively as ‘The Weddings’ including the second largest stone circle in England, two further circles, an avenue, cove and nearby quoit (or remains of one) all add up to a rich vein, not only of a archaeology, but also associated folklore.

The Great Circle, looking South © Alan S.

The Great Circle, looking South © Alan S.

To the north of the three circles is Hautville’s Quoit. All that now remains is an unremarkable piece of a capstone by a hedge, which was once reputed to weigh up to 30 tons, but which has been broken up over the years for road building material. The stone was said to have been cast down off the nearby Maes Knoll, an Iron Age hillfort to the North, by the giant Sir John Hautville in bygone days. A feature known as the Tump, in the hillfort is supposedly made of earth dumped from the spade of another giant, who forgot why he was carrying it.

To the south west is the Cove, three large stones, one of which is fallen. These are supposedly the petrified remains of a bride, groom and preacher, turned to stone after their wedding celebrations continued overnight into the Sabbath.

The Cove, looking east toward Stanton Drew church. &Copy; Alan S.

The Cove, looking east toward Stanton Drew church. © Alan S.

Between these two are three stone circles; a small one to the southwest near to the Cove, the Great Circle consisting mainly of recumbent stones, and a northeastern circle. The stones in these circles are reputedly the wedding guests similarly petrified for dancing on the Sabbath, the musicians making up the Avenue in the  northeast sharing a similar fate.

And finally, any attempts to count the stones on site are fraught with danger as a dire (but unspecified) fate apparently awaits anyone who is successful in this endeavour.

Given the location, with the River Chew to the north, and the local church being a short distance away in the soutwest, the only commonly recurrent theme that appears to be missing here is the one where the stones  go down to the river to take a drink. Maybe the dancers just weren’t thirsty?

But does any other site have such a range of folklore attached to it?

FactIt is well known that the vast majority of stone circles in the British Isles are not actually circles. In fact, there are very few that are truly ‘circular’ in the sense of having a regular, circular ground plan. The shapes can vary from circular, through regular ovals to ovoid, to flattened version of any of these. But there is one form of stone circle that doesn’t fit into any of these categories, that of the ‘Four Poster’.

Goatstones © Chris Collyer  - http://www.stone-circles.org.uk

Goatstones © Chris Collyer – http://www.stone-circles.org.uk

Four Poster ‘circles’, as their name suggests usually consist of just four uprights, laid on the plan of a circle, sometimes with a fifth recumbent stone. The majority of this type can be found in Scotland, though there are several examples throughout England and some in Ireland. The stones in a true Four Poster are generally placed at the cardinal compass points. Those that have been dated were constructed in the Bronze Age. The English Heritage Monument Class definition describes them thus:

A four-poster stone circle is a rectangular or sub-rectangular setting of four or five stones which are, or were once, upright. The corner stones of the rectangle are usually placed on the perimeter of a good circle, aligned on the cardinal points and are graded in height. The rectangle varies considerably in size from 13m squred to 345m squared. Four-poster stone circles may be recognised in the field as ruined standing structures or from antiquarian sketches. Other components which may be present are cupmarks on one or more of the stones, outlying standing stones, and a mound or cairn within the stone setting.

Four-poster stone circles vary considerably in size, the area enclosed by the rectangle varying from 13m squared to 345m squared. Some appear to have been laid out as a rectangle, others as a circle and some as both. It is the circumferential siting of the stones of four-posters that justifies the otherwise paradoxical use of “circle” for what appears to be a square or rectangle.

Possible examples in Ireland can be found described under ‘Labbamolaga’ and ‘Lettergorman’ on the Irish Megaliths web site.  There are also various entries on the Modern Antiquarian and Megalithic Portal web sites describing many of the Scottish circles, many of which are extant in Perthshire. Aubrey Burl, in his book “The Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland, and Brittany” is convinced that the Irish versions of the four-poster model have their design origins in Scotland. The dates for the examples in Perthshire are somewhat earlier than those in SW Ireland, bearing out the possible migration south of the building tradition for this type of ‘stone circle’.

Lettergorman (North), County Cork. © AlanS

Lettergorman (North), County Cork. © AlanS

So, the answer to the question in the title: “When is a stone circle not a stone circle?” would appear to be “When it’s a square!”

FactThere have been many tales told down through the ages of dogs, usually black or darkly coloured, haunting ancient places – often on ancient pathways – as harbingers of death. But it’s another kind of dog, a greyhound, or more probably a Grey Hound (or wolf?) that concerns us today.

There are several dolmens across Wales, remnants of ancient burial chambers, which are known by names which roughly translate to the “Lair of the Grey Hound”, the “Grey Bitch’s Lair” or other variants along the same lines.

N. Wales: Lletty'r Filiast on the Great Orme. © Alan S.

N. Wales: Lletty’r Filiast on the Great Orme. © Alan S.

Lletty’r Filiast on the Great Orme at Llandudno, Gwal-y-Filiast (St Lythans) near Barry, Twlc y Filiast at Llanglydwen, Carmarthenshire and Gwal-y-Filiast (Dolwilym) at Narberth in Pembrokeshire are all examples of these names.

S. Wales: Gwal-y-Filiast at St Lythans. © Alan S.

S. Wales: Gwal-y-Filiast at St Lythans. © Alan S.

But where do these names originate?

The dog is the oldest domestic animal, traceable to the paleolithic, since when dogs have enjoyed a peculiarly close relationship with humans, sharing their hearths at night and guarding the home, working during the day as sheepdogs or hunters. This close symbiotic relationship with people is reflected in the early literature where dogs seem to have clear connections with the Otherworld.

Greyhounds are specifically mentioned in the early Welsh literature: they formed some of the many gifts presented to Pwyll by Arawn, lord of the Otherworld, in the First Branch of the Mabinogi. Two greyhounds accompany Culhwch, when he sets out in all his splendour to visit his cousin Arthur, in ‘Culhwch and Olwen.’

(quotes taken from Bob Trubshaw: “Black Dogs, Guardians of the corpse ways”)

There are folk tales in Ireland of heroes which show evidence of the importance of hounds in Celtic culture. One of the most popular Irish heroes, Fionn MacCumhal, had an aunt, (or possibly sister?) Tuiren, who was transformed in the Otherworld to a hound bitch and gave birth to pups. Her sons subsequently remained in that form, serving as loyal companions to their cousin.

One has to wonder if these names survive as a racial memory of some kind of ancient ‘Greyfriars Bobby‘ hunting dog, hanging around it’s master’s final resting place, or whether the burial chambers (which would have contained possibly dismembered body parts) attracted wild animals, including wolves, looking for a possibly easy meal? Or is it simply that the structures now resemble what we might consider “kennels”, somewhere for the beasts to settle down for the night, sheltered from the worst of the weather?

A modern dog kennel.

A modern dog kennel.

If any linguists/etymologists can ‘shed’ any light (sorry!), we’d be interested to hear from you in the comments.

FactWelcome to a new occasional series of Fascinating “Facts”, in which we’ll endeavour to  present short snippets of history, folklore and news about Britain’s prehistoric heritage sites. Each article will be brief and to the point, and we’ll be looking to our readership (that’s YOU!) to provide some insight into a site that may be local to where you live or work, or that you’ve had some connection with in the past. Please get in touch with your own Fascinating “Facts” and we’ll publish them here.  So without further ado, the first Fascinating “Fact” concerns:

Zennor Quoit, Cornwall

This chamber tomb, having stood for thousands of years on a hilltop overlooking the parish of Zennor on West Penwith’s north coast road, was threatened with destruction in 1861. A local farmer proposed to convert the monument into a cattle–shed by removing one of the uprights and drilling a hole in the sloping capstone.

Zennor Quoit in 1769, drawn by WIlliam Borlase.  Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Zennor Quoit in 1769, drawn by WIlliam Borlase. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Luckily, the plan was disapproved of by the villagers of Zennor (an early case of NIMBYism?) and the local vicar, William Borlase – a great grandson of Dr. William Borlase the antiquarian – offered the farmer an incentive of five shillings (25p in today’s money, though worth considerable more then) to build it elsewhere. The farmer had already started on construction of the barn, and three stone posts which he’d erected can still be seen today, next to the quoit. Traces of drill–holes can also still be seen in the capstone.

A poem commemorating the incident, “Zennor Quoit Preserved”, written by local postman Charles Taylor Stephens can be found in Issue 10 (pg 73) of the Transactions of the Cornwall Archaeological Society.

Zennor Quoit today. © Jane Tomlinson

Zennor Quoit today. © Jane Tomlinson

Who knows what the site would have looked like today if William Borlase hadn’t stepped in on behalf of the villagers?

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