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From Layamon’s poem, Brut, of 1215, describing Stonehenge 
Image credit Heritage Action

From “Duloe” by Harry Guest
Image credit Heritage Action

West Kennet Long Barrow
Image credit Willow

These barrows of the century-darkened dead,-
Memorials of oblivion, these turfed tombs
Of muttering ancestries whose fires, once red,
Now burn for me beyond mysterious glooms;
I pass them day by day while daylight fills
My sense of sight on these time-haunted hills.
 

Could I but watch those burials that began
Whole history – flint and bronze and iron beginnings,
When under this wide Wiltshire sky crude man
Warred with his world and augered our world-winnings!
Could I but enter that unholpen brain,
Cabined and comfortless and insecure,
That ruled some settlement on Salisbury Plain
And offered blood to blind primeval powers,-
Dim Caliban whose doom was to endure
Earth’s ignorant nullity made strange with flowers.

Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967)

The Menin by Paul Nash (1889-1946)

An ‘umble presentation milords, ladies and gentlemen by Littlestone.

’twas the night before solstice
when all through the land
not a stone stood standing not one to be found.
The Druids and bards had all done their best
but greedy developers made sure of the rest.

Ancient stones were fired and set into walls
while some lay silent under churches and halls.
Ditches were filled and banks cut down
and barrows were ploughed without even a frown.

Once where the sun had shifted and shone
now shadowy memories of stones long gone.
Cold banks and ditches and barren wet holes
were all that remained of the megaliths’ souls.

Trucks now thundered through circles once clear
while builders and quarrymen smashed without fear.
’twas like seeing an oak cut down in its prime
the terrible things done to our stones at that time.

Then came a cry for the wise-ones to stand
against the destruction of stones in our land.
A gathering of minds at info@heritageaction.org.uk
came to the rescue and into the fray!

Yeah!

There were Swifts, Wallies and Norfolks and others untold
standing firm against wreckers evil and bold.
There were big stones and little stones all having their say
but one in particular stood proud that day.

Squonk! was his name standing true and sound
and declaring to those both here and around
that ‘henges’ and ditches and banks to be sure
are part of our heritage and our hearts and much more!

Yeah!

LS (with apologies to Clement C Moore).

NB I first became interested in our prehistoric heritage through The Stones Mailing List, hosted by Chris Tweed (Squonk) and encouraged into lively debate there by people such as Andy Norfolk and Wally. Sadly the The Stones Mailing List is no more but thanks, still, to Chris and former contributors to his List – to them a Happy Winter Solstice, and warm season greetings to all who care about our prehistoric heritage from me and everyone else on the Heritage Action team. Yeah!

by Nigel Swift

A metal detecting poem has just been published in a detecting newsletter. It is called “Years pass by” and was written by “Old Git John”. Although I had better not reproduce it, it can be accessed here.

In essence it portrays metal detectorists as people who are honouring a duty that they “owe” to our ancestors to “learn” and “share” and “pass on” the knowledge of them – which sounds good, in fact it sounds heroic. Trouble is, it simply doesn’t reflect any sort of reality, it merely projects an image of metal detecting and artefact hunting that those who are involved in them would like the public to see – and who knows, perhaps it is how many metal detectorists actually see themselves. But the truth is, most detectorists, demonstrably, simply don’t do all those things – and in fact, in mostly not sharing and mostly not passing on and in almost invariably removing selected artefacts while disregarding all the others and the whole context, they mostly destroy in situ most of the knowledge of our ancestors that they come across.

That’s why elsewhere, despite them rationalising it otherwise, they are mostly prohibited from doing what they do here in the way they do it here. And why English Heritage has laid out guidelines (“Our Portable Past“) on how professional metal detecting surveys ought to be carried out (and on what limited occasions they are justified) – not through meanness or elitism or professional jealousy but simply to maximise the amount of knowledge of our ancestors that can be recovered (now and in the future), that we can learn” and “share” and “pass on”.

So, Old Git John, I disagree with you. Your portrayal of the detectorist-as-hero, preserver of the past, is essentially a false claim, without substance in most cases. If your methods and practices did not involve net loss of the past there would be no need for archaeologists to develop detailed methodology and stringent ethical constraints would there? They could all just join you in the fields and look for and dig out bits of metal rather than whole pictures of the past, and thus fulfill a duty to preserve the past to the optimum degree. No sir, if our ancestors could speak they would certainly not regard most metal detectorists as doing right by their memory, they would see you as primarily robbing them of much of their right to be remembered – exactly the opposite of what you claim.  

It is very wrong, in my view, that the public should be given the impression that, for instance, the succession of recent rallies near Durobrivae in Cambridgeshire so bitterly opposed by the local archaeologists, which has netted the Yorkshire organiser many tens of thousands of pounds from thousands of attendees, have been about “learning” and “sharing” and “passing on” knowledge or anything remotely resembling it. So where ARE those objects now? In a permanent archive to be studied, or gone without trace to thousands of ephemeral private assemblages? And what about what they left behind in the fields? Is there still an archaeological  record to be studied and revealed in future or a gaping gap where our ancestors used to be? The answer is beyond dispute and bardic boasts won’t wash.

 Incidentally, Old Git John, you aren’t the only old git that has written poetry about metal detecting and the ethical realities of it.  Some of us have been doing it for many years. Here’s one that expresses the likely feelings not of a member of a loudly self-praising here-today-gone-tomorrow acquisitive hobby but of a member of a profoundly more important group of stakeholders in metal detecting and artefact hunting – our ancestors – who, other than where selfishness prevails, are here to stay:

The quiet man of metal detecting.

Here I lie, no longer flesh or even dust.
Yet here I lie, in signs that tell
That once there was a man
Like you. Who lived and laughed.

I am no less than you, for having gone,
Nor are my rights the less.
I am a man like you and ask
Only that my life is not denied.

Yet here you dig, in blind and selfish haste,
Smashing every clue but one
Because it glints a little
And feeds your avaricious taste.

Now, that is all I am,
That bling within your grubby palm.
What now? What will you do
To save me from oblivion?

Take it home in secret? Make it shine?
Show it to your mates with swelling pride?
Claim a right to hoard a husk of history
As if to say that history is yours not mine?

__________________________________________________________

More Heritage Action views on metal detecting and artefact collecting

__________________________________________________________

 

 
Salisbury Plain by John Piper
 
BLOWS the wind to-day, and the sun and the rain are flying,
Blows the wind on the moors to-day and now,
Where about the graves of the martyrs the whaups are crying,
My heart remembers how!

Grey recumbent tombs of the dead in desert places.
Standing stones on the vacant wine-red moor,
Hills of sheep, and the homes of silent, vanquished races,
And winds austere and pure:

Be it granted to me to behold you again in dying,
Hills of home! And to hear again the call;
Hear about the graves of the martyrs the peewees crying,
And hear no more at all.

Vailima

Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894)

 

The stones are great
And magic power they have
Men that are sick
Fare to that stone
And they wash that stone
And with that water bathe away their sickness

 

Indeed the stones are great, and certainly have had the power to capture the imagination of poets and artists through the centuries.

On the 21 September 2005, when we first started the anthology of Megalithic Poems, a colleague warned that we’d be hard pressed to find even half a dozen on the theme of the megalithic structures and prehistoric sites of Britain, Ireland and the European continent. Five years on and there are now some 300 poems on the blog, and an equal number of drawings, paintings, prints or photographs to accompany them.

The poems stretch over a period of some eight hundred years; from Laymon’s poem, Brut (above), of 1215 describing Stonehenge, to poems written only a few months ago. What does this tell us? Well, perhaps that not only have these structures inspired poets like Blake and Wordsworth (as well as artists such as Constable and Turner) down through the ages but also that this marvellous, mysterious megalithic heritage of ours continues to inspire us even today.

At a time when so much of our heritage is at risk through development and mismanagement (Tara in Ireland for example, even Stonehenge and Avebury) perhaps these poems, and the images that accompany them, will continue to inspire those who would take time out from busy lives to visit and ponder upon this often overlooked aspect of our heritage. Not only that, hopefully this anthology will also act as a warning that these places, built by our forefathers millennia ago, are in constant need of our care and attention lest, after thousands of years having, “…brav’d the continual assaults of weather…” (William Stukeley) they are finally lost for all time through the greed, ignorance and insensitivity of the 21st century.

Since September 2005 we’ve added many more poems and images on the megalithic theme in the hope that they’ll become a useful resource for those interested in the poetry, art and the history of our megalithic past – none of which would appear on the blog without the remarkable efforts and creativity of those who have written about megaliths or portrayed them in their work – not forgetting of course those who originally conceived and built these amazing structures! To everyone, a very big thank you. We hope you will find as much pleasure browsing through the anthology as we have taken in compiling it.

Littlestone

A guest feature by Littlestone
 
 
The Silbury spoil showing (left) one of the more recent tunnel timbers
 
Above and following, some of the detritus removed from Silbury during English Heritage’s ‘conservation project’ of the monument between 2007-2008. Detritus, more of which sadly still lies within the monument along with other 20th and 21st century ‘additions’. Will it ever be possible to look upon this ancient site with impartial eyes, knowing what modern rubbish now lies within – rubbish in the form of thousands of plastic sacks, metal tunnel struts and sensors? Well, perhaps not, but thanks to Heritage Action and concerned individuals elsewhere, the monument does not, at least, now harbour a time capsule (an idea promoted by English Heritage and supported by others who should have known better) and an idea which, by extension would have lead to the monument being re-opened at some time in the future thereby contradicting English Heritage’s assertion that the monument would never again be opened!
 
 
An older timber, perhaps from one of the earlier tunnels into Silbury
 

The poem in the Urn

Suggested by the opening
made in Silbury Hill,
Aug 3rd 1849

Bones of our wild forefathers, O forgive,

If now we pierce the chambers of your rest,
And open your dark pillows to the eye
Of the irreverent Day! Hark, as we move,
Runs no stern whisper through the narrow vault?
Flickers no shape across our torch-light pale,
With backward beckoning arm? No, all is still.
O that it were not! O that sound or sign,
Vision, or legend, or the eagle glance
Of science, could call back thy history lost,
Green Pyramid of the plains, from far-ebbed Time!
O that the winds which kiss thy flowery turf
Could utter how they first beheld thee rise;
When in his toil the jealous Savage paused,
Drew deep his chest, pushed back his yellow hair,
And scanned the growing hill with reverent gaze, –
Or haply, how they gave their fitful pipe
To join the chant prolonged o’er warriors cold. –
Or how the Druid’s mystic robe they swelled;
Or from thy blackened brow on wailing wing
The solemn sacrificial ashes bore,
To strew them where now smiles the yellow corn,
Or where the peasant treads the Churchward path.
 

Emmeline Fisher (1825-1864)

Emmeline Fisher published a book of verse in 1856 but she is perhaps best remembered today for the poem she wrote on the opening of Dean Merewether’s 1849 tunnel into Silbury. The poem, along with other items, was placed in a ceramic urn and left at the end of the Merewether tunnel where it lay undisturbed for some 160 years. The urn was finally unearthed by Richard Atkinson during his and the BBC’s ‘activities’ at Silbury at the end of the 1960s. Emmie’s poem (above) was placed in an envelope with the following inscription, on the obverse, in the same hand (hers?) as the poem itself –

 
Lines on the Opening of
Silbury Hill, written by
Miss Emmeline Fisher,
Daughter of The Reverend William
Fisher, Canon of Salisbury and
Rector of Poulshot in Wiltshire
August 1849.
 
 

After some 160 years Emmeline Fisher’s poem, with its apology to our forefathers who built Silbury, stands as the only half-decent thing ever to have been placed within the structure by modern hands. Thankfully, even Emmie’s poem is no longer there, though sadly many of the Atkinson/BBC’s corroding iron tunnel work struts of the late 1960s (not to mention English Heritage’s thousands of plastic sacks of the early 21st century) still are.

 
 
Metal struts from the Atkinson/BBC 1960s tunnel

 
 
Coming up to midnight
Friday, 2005.
Car loaded, water and a sandwich in the fridge for the journey down tomorrow.
Leaving Essex a little after 4am.
Lock the doors, climb into the cockpit.
First stop Mum and Dad at the back of Pewsey churchyard
safe now in their circle and mine.
Fresh flowers and a solstice smile to them and all that went before.
 

Then gently into the Vale of Pewsey.
Windows down, wind blowing a year’s worries away.
Skylarks and the still heady smell of elderflower.
And before the people gather there
a quiet stroll around my favourite Avebury stones and secret bank
still mist-surrounded and expectant.

*

Happy Summer Solstice to one and all from Heritage Action

The Cove in 1723 by William Stukeley

A video interpretation showing some of the changes that The Cove, at Avebury, has undergone since first being illustrated by William Stukeley in the 18th century. The video includes two 18th century illustrations of The Cove by Stukeley, three early 20th century photographs, as well as several recent photographs. The video is set to a soundtrack of Bach’s Goldberg Variations played by the pianist Murray Perahia, and includes a poem inspired by the much loved, and sadly missed, contributor to The Modern Antiquarian, Treaclechops.
 
 
The Cove today. Image credit Littlestone
 
 
There’s a silence here
a silence that lifts and suppresses
all at once
 

Lures life into a comfort
then leaves it limp
like a frozen drop of transience
on a quiet winter branch
that might

or might not
spring back to life again

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