Derbyshire’s Arbor Low ~ They Call It The Stonehenge Of The North

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Unlike Stonehenge a visit to Arbor Low does not include accompanying hosts of fellow enthusiasts, tacky gifts and bad coffee, nor the parting with large sums of money to go in (adult ticket £16.50). In consequence there are absolutely no facilities, no opening or closing times, and thus no need to pre-book to avoid the rush.

There is, however, an honesty box by the farm gate, and a requested fee of £1 per person. This is fine by me. The monument, though scheduled, is on private land. The farmer has to put up with the repeated nuisance of standing stones devotees, although on the September afternoon of our visit, takings suggested that scarcely a couple of dozen others had preceded us that day, and as we set off from the car there were only three people ahead of us on the track.

The only problem with Arbor Low is that once you’ve trekked through the farmyard and across the field to visit Derbyshire’s most important Neolithic henge (one’s head inevitably full of Stonehenge images, and lots of anticipation) it all looks decidedly flat when you get there, and so quite lacking in the upstanding drama of its more famous southern analogue. And while Arbor Low surely has considerable edge when it comes to setting (a thousand feet up on a limestone crest of the White Peak)  one wonders why the comparison has been implied at all. Isn’t Arbor Low its own special place?

I suppose, then, that mentioning the two sites in the same breath is really more about emphasising their prehistoric importance than suggesting any correspondence in physical scale or appearance. Arbor Low is anyway a much smaller circle. But it does have its own unique features, apart from the recumbent stones that is. These include a very impressive encircling ditch and an outer rampart with the added extra of a later Bronze Age round barrow built across its southerly bank. You can see it on the right of the next photograph.

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So now that I’ve raised the vision of Stonehenge with its great sarsen lintels, I want you to forget it, and think about digging. The time is some four and half thousand years ago. I am the foreman, and I am handing you an antler pick, and maybe a cattle bone shoulder-blade to use as a shovel. We have marked out a circle some 70 metres across, and now you have to start digging 3 metres down into the limestone bedrock, while shovelling up your spoil to create the outer bank.

After many, many, many man-, woman-, and child-hours you can step back and regard the massive earthwork thus created. The freshly dug limestone of the rampart will doubtless have an unearthly white-grey glow. It will be visible from miles around, despite a more wooded landscape than today. At sunrise and sunset it will look spectacular against the skyline, the bank much taller and with a sharper profile that the present remains. In other words, it cannot be mistaken for anything other than a highly prestigious, and momentous man-made structure – the visual shock equivalent of coming upon a designer high-rise in the middle of a wilderness. Or maybe Starship Enterprise.

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After all the digging you are left with a central oval platform around 50 metres across. Perhaps the limestone slabs are already located there, set up on end, and bedded, after much hefting and shunting, in the rocky ground. They could have been worked during the making of the ditch, or sourced from somewhere nearby. In any event, they would have involved considerable effort given your limited toolkit of stone, wood and bone.

From outside the earthwork – and because of the height of the outer bank, you cannot see either the stone circle, or to observe anything that is going on within. Stepping through the entrance to view the newly built monument is thus perhaps a deliberately contrived catch-your-breath moment: the scene before you covert, unnerving, awe-inspiring, drama-filled. If some ceremony is in progress – a narrative declaimed or sung, the outer bank will amplify the sounds in mysterious ways – echoing, resonant, other-worldly; it may be a place of loud whispers.

There will perhaps be no grass cover, just an exposed limestone arena. Around the oval platform you will see some forty standing stones.

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In the centre there is also some kind of sanctuary, a rectangular configuration of more standing stones. The barrow on the southern bank is not yet there. It will be another thousand years before this spot is used as a burial site – perhaps by strangers, perhaps by the distant descendants of  you henge builders. These newcomers have also built another barrow, Gib Hill, just across the field from Arbor Low. Here they raised their own tomb atop the long barrow built by your forebears, a monument that possibly long preceded the stone circle. And so although you can no longer remember the rites and customs of these ancestors, you do know that, like the great mediaeval cathedrals of Europe with their roots in Roman and Saxon times, this place was considered ‘sacred space’ for a millennium and more…

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And so back to reality and the flattened circle we see today. No one knows when the stones were laid low or why. There are other so-called recumbent stone circles in Britain. Sometimes some of the stones have also been buried. Superstitious dread could have much to do with it: an attempt to neutralise the stones’ power perhaps. There is also archaeological evidence in other contexts that suggests that the prehistoric occupants themselves have ritually ‘closed’ particular sites, perhaps prior to moving to a new centre of operations. There are other more practical reasons too: later farmers came along and simply re-used or moved the stones because they were ‘in the way’.

I also seem to remember from my student field-trip days to Avebury stone circle in Wiltshire that one of the stones had been buried in mediaeval times to cover up a murder. When the stone was being restored to its upright position, beneath it was found the grisly remains of a surgeon-barber, identifiable by the tools of his trade that were still with him. More fanciful interpretations of this find could of course suggest the presumed continuing practice in pagan sacrificial offerings, i.e. the kind of activity that we modern folk so very much like to associate with all ancient stones.

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I suppose one of the most surprising things I discovered about Arbor Low is that there has been no archaeological exploration of this site since early Victorian times when the local antiquarian Thomas Bateman of Lomerdale Hall, and serial excavator of prehistoric barrows, tackled the place. It was he who discovered a human burial in the stone circle barrow and, during his Gib Hill excavation, uncovered a stone cist (a slab built tomb) in which the cremated human remains were placed along with an urn and offerings of meat and flint tools. And this, it seems, is all that is known.

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So many mysteries then, and no likely answers. Instead I’ll leave you with the words of Thomas Bateman and his description of Arbor Low from his Vestiges of the Antiquities of Derbyshire 1848:

…the solitude of the place and the boundless view of uncultivated country are such as to carry the observer back through a multitude of centuries, and make him believe that he sees the same view and the same state of things as existed in the days of the architects of this once holy fane.

 

copyright 2016 Tish Farrell

“the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns” ~ Or Is It?

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Every other Thursday we’ve taken to popping along Wenlock Edge to Church Stretton. This used to be Graham’s daily commute – eighteen miles of Shropshire hills, old quarries, small villages and neat farm fields. Oh yes, and the occasional deer. Just now the Edge woodlands along the road are a haze of blue bells and bursting greenery. We never fail to think how lucky we are to live in such a place.

The object of the excursion is to stock up on organic and other ethically produced foodstuffs at my sister Jo’s brilliant shop – Entertaining Elephants  (a name coined by the previous owners from Maurice ‘Where the Wild Things Are’   Sendak’s  Alligators All Around  alphabet book.

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With the shopping done, a few picnic items gathered together, and the weather apparently in spring-mode, we decided to head west around the southern end of the Long Mynd towards Bishops Castle and the Welsh Border, and so to the Bronze Age stone circle of Mitchell’s Fold.

The last time we were there was at least twelve years ago and it had been snowing (see header photo). I don’t remember what prompted us on that occasion to drive out to so remote a place in such bad weather. We weren’t even living in Shropshire at that time, but in the midst of Christmas visiting from Kent. I remember tramping up the icy track to the circle, and despite the bitter cold, being entranced. All of Wales spread before us. It was like standing on top of the world – a parallel universe of Celtic warriors, old gods, poets and shamans.

On Thursday our notions of spring proved deceptive. Once out of the valleys the wind was vicious. We huddled in the car on top of Stapeley Hill to eat the picnic since attempts to stand outside blew the food away. While doing this we observed and were observed by a passing police Range Rover, which carried on over the hill track on a route that was distinctly signed ‘no vehicles’ and disappeared into Wales.

Police car – what police car. There it was gone. Very odd.

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Having got ourselves this far, we determined not to give into wimpishness, and inappropriate clothing, and pressed through the gale to Mitchell’s Fold. Of course it was not ideal photographing conditions due to wind, haze, midday light and cold fingers.

An English Heritage information board had made an appearance since our last visit, although I thought its proximity to the circle rather insensitive. It anyway did not have a great deal to tell us, other than the monument is now believed to be at least 3,000 years old, and that the largest of the standing stones was once one of a pair, probably forming an impressive portal. I’m assuming that the presumed partner is the one you can see lying prone beside it. The stones are local dolerite.

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As stone circles go, it is no Stonehenge, but it does have the edge (in all senses) when it comes to setting:

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Looking back into Shropshire from the circle (and on maximum Lumix zoom) you can see the cairn-like summit of the Devil’s Chair on the ridge of hills known as Stiperstones, a wild terrain of old mine shafts, ghosts, satanic dread and legend:

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And then when I turned back to the stone circle, there was that strange lone figure loping through the stones. Here he is again (btw the title quote is from Shakespeare’s Hamlet ).

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It seemed like a good moment to leave, although not before agreeing that we would return in summer – with hopefully more warmth and some clearer skies.

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As ever, as we return to the car, Graham is in my shot. Here though he is providing a convenient marker for some ancient  medieval rig and furrow plough marks. You can just make out the light and dark stripes running  north-south in the cropped grass behind him. At least I’m assuming that this is Graham and not another traveller from the undiscovered country of Shakespeare’s imagined after-life. In places like Mitchell’s Fold you just never do know.

copyright 2016 Tish Farrell

P.S. For more on the earlier trip to Mitchell’s Fold see my long ago post Witch-catching in the Shropshire Wilds – also including the legend about the wicked witch Mitchell, who gave the place its name.

Even though she’s off on her travels again, and by way of wishing her the best of times, I’m linking this to Jo’s Monday Walk

 

 

The Winter Walker

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You can step back through time on Wenlock Edge. The trackways across the ridge-top have doubtless been trodden by itinerant traders since Stone Age times. In fact if I didn’t know that the lone figure on the path ahead of me was Graham, I might tell you that this is the shade of a six thousand year-old stone axe merchant, or a four thousand year-old Bronze Age smith. Or closer to our time, say two thousand two hundred years ago, it could be an Iron Age farmer trekking through the woods.

There are also traces of Roman farms either side the Edge, and from the Middle Ages until modern times the limestone from which the Edge is formed would have been quarried for building and for iron making, and also  burned in kilns to make lime mortar and fertilizer. And then there is the 400 million year geological history of the Edge itself – starting in times before fish had evolved, let alone mammals. (I won’t mention the four foot long giant water scorpions that lived back then).

But landscape as a portal to the past – it’s an intriguing notion.

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This week at Black & White Sunday Paula’s guest, Lisa Dorenfest, gives us the theme of ONE. Please go and see her stunning photo, and Paula’s own response to the challenge.

This was a good day: Great Zimbabwe

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I’ve posted this photo before, but then it was a very good day all those years ago in Africa. And it’s also good to remember days when I looked a lot younger. (Or maybe not).

As you can see, all was bathed in old-gold light at Great Zimbabwe. The air was dreamily soft – much like a September Indian Summer day in England when all is drowsing except for the buzzing of wasps and bees.

Surprisingly, we had the place to ourselves. There we were, utterly free to wander about, seeking out the spirits of this once thriving African city of cattle herders and gold traders.

I remember pressing my palms on the granite blocks of the Great Enclosure and feeling their warmth, and wondering, too, at the sheer height of the walls that had no mortar to hold them  fast for 700 years. Just imagine the skills needed to build walls like this, and think, too, how the white elite that once ruled Southern Rhodesia attributed this astonishing structure to Phoenicians, Ancient Egyptians, the Queen of Sheba, in fact to pretty much anyone who was not a member of the local Shona people who did construct it.

It was at times like these that I discovered that archaeology was not the benign, gently antiquarian discipline that I had spent three years of my life studying. No indeed. In certain quarters archaeological ‘evidence’ can be grossly perverted to sell false credentials to justify the rule of unjust rulers. I find it both sad and shameful that amongst such self-appointed elites even old stones can become the object of racist bigotry.

But wait. Such thoughts are spoiling the day, and there is still so much to see. There are  mysteries too. Why were these city walls raised up so high when there is no evidence that the entrance gateways were ever closed, or even defendable? What was the purpose of the extraordinary stone tower? Why was this place abandoned, left amid the granite hills as the people simply gathered their cattle and belongings and walked away?

For more of Great Zimbabwe’s history see my earlier post:

Abandoned: Great Zimbabwe

Great Zimbabwe general view

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copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

Today Was a Good Day

Pondering on what makes us human: that would be shopping, then?

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So what does make us human? What differentiates us from our closest relatives the great apes? These were some of the questions posed to us as students of Prehistory & Archaeology way back in the 1970s. Naturally, the philosophical framework of a course with such a title is going to be artefact-driven. Archaeologists deal in physical remains. Prehistory means there is no written record. Mostly all we are left with are bones, stones, post-holes, hearths, bits of wood (if we’re lucky), stains in the soil, and that prehistorian’s joy of joys – the rubbish pit and/or midden.

(After all, there is nothing so fascinating as poking through other people’s garbage – as long as it doesn’t smell too much. Just think what future archaeologists will make of our landfill sites, and what their contents will say about us. See WALL.E  the movie for starters.)

But back to that ‘what makes us human’ question.

In the early 1970s it was widely thought that the appearance of tools was a key criterion. Their construction suggested evolving cognition and the ability to forward plan. Tool-making further  presupposed the facility to walk upright, thus leaving hands free to access materials, and to fashion them for preconceived purposes.

For a time this seemed a useful marker, but then as palaeontologists delved ever further back through the remains of our pre-human ancestors (mostly in Africa’s Rift Valley) it became clear that even by 2.5 million years ago, pre-humans were making tools. The picture was further confused by the realisation that chimpanzees also make tools, albeit crudely fashioned ones – e.g. hammers to crack open nuts, or break into bee hives.

Large brain size was another criterion (judged back then on the basis of the cranial capacity of skull remains), this supposedly indicating a well developed intelligence. I’ve never liked this much, feeling it had a whiff of eugenics about it.  I also remember finding it perplexing to discover that Neanderthal brains were apparently larger than those of modern humans even though Neanderthals were supposed to be ‘inferior’.

None of this seemed to advance my understanding at that time, and besides, now we find that back in the Paleolithic, and  in two distinct phases hundreds of generations apart, humans of the northern hemisphere interbred with Neanderthals. The evidence is there in our genomes.

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I left Prehistory behind long ago. As a discipline, I felt it never would be capable of revealing the aspects of humanity that are truly important. And while inferences might be drawn (read: guesses made) about social, religious, political and economic systems from the fragmentary remains of ancient humans, archaeology alone cannot retrieve the all important drivers of human development, the intersecting sets of shared beliefs that create human culture.

After all, we do not know why Stonehenge was built, or what people actually did there, or who organised its building and the activities that took place within the great stone arcades. We never will know. But we can date associated remains, source materials, conjecture on construction techniques, work out how long the place was used, and then we can admire it as an astonishing edifice built by people with an apparently limited technology.

The physical remains,then, are indeed important, but what I really want to know is what was the intention of  its builders; what beliefs led to Stonehenge’s conception and realisation.

By now you may be wondering why this post includes scenes from Dubai, including the 9th century pot above. Here’s a clue from the bazaar:

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And another from the Gold Souk:

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And at the Dhow Harbour:

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And in the mall:

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Yes, you have guessed it. Trade is the clue. And so, having ruminated on archaeology’s limitations, I can say that one of the things it does do well is reveal ancient trading  patterns across the globe. In fact only last week it was announced that a study of sediments from a waterlogged 8,000 year-old Mesolithic (ostensibly hunter-gatherer) settlement in the English Channel contained introduced wheat grains that suggest trade with European farmers.

In this regard then, the movement of goods, the origins and spread of food species can be tracked across the millennia. We can thus surmise that even 8,000 years ago humanity was already out shopping, and that, down the ages, this would seem to be one shared behaviour pattern that is exclusively human. We all do it, and probably always have, because whatever territory was commanded on a day to day basis, it probably did  not provide for all its inhabitants’ wants and needs.

There may have been the need to share with other groups a particularly good source of flint for tool making. Inland and maritime communities would have met to exchange materials and foodstuffs. There would also have been the pressing need to find mates well outside the group of related family members. And there might have been a yearning for salt or, in season, for honey or for a particular fruit, all of which might have involved negotiation with outsiders. Fresh water sources might also have been at issue, or the need for extra hands for some seasonal hunting or farming pursuit. And so, for these reasons and more, we would have traded, bartered, exchanged, made treaties and contracts, formed alliances, given and received gifts. This was also probably how some us of ended up with Neanderthal DNA in our genomes.

From the historical record we also know that when it comes to dealing in resources and commodities, hostilities may be instigated, or suspended depending on those whose interests rule. Safe havens, forums, fairs, markets, shopping centres, bazaars, souks, malls are places we all recognise. In the past such gathering points would have also provided venues for song and dance, spiritual and ritual observance, political rallies, exchanges of information and specialised services, the telling of tales.

Dubai, these days, is one of the world’s shopping capitals, reinvesting its wealth from oil refining and trade in the ’shop till your drop’ model. It brings together the concepts of the marketplace and the caravanserai, but on a mega, upmarket 5* scale. Yet it also draws on ancient roots, and on actual trade routes that go back to at least 3,000 BCE. Back then copper and the pearls dived for off Dubai Creek were the stock in trade. Later, as commerce between the Mediterranean and the East began to thrive, dhow merchants made the most of Dubai Creek’s favourable geographical position. The trade continues, only now it is western cars, refrigerators and Coca Cola going east, while the spices, as they have for centuries, come west.

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Shopping then, provision and consumption, is, I suggest, what makes us uniquely human. And while I admit that this does not seem a particularly elevating pursuit for our time on this wonderful planet, it nonetheless engages pretty much all of us, from Manhattan bankers to Congo hunter-gatherers. Multifarious  mechanisms of exchange bind us in relationships of largely peaceable cooperation.  The squabbling over resources, and corporations’ drive to make profits at others’ expense threatens us and our planet. But either way, it is hard to see where this never-ending shopping spree will take us. Maybe we need to take a hard look at those landfill sites of ours, and consider what future archaeologists will have to say of us.  I’m not sure we will want to hear it.

 

copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

 

Inspired by Jennifer Nichole Wells and her One Word Photo Challenge: teal

 

DES RES ~ Nouveau Roman Anyone?

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I think I may have mentioned somewhere on this blog that, a few miles up the road from Wenlock, we have the remains of Wroxeter Roman City aka Viroconium aka Uriconium. In its day it was one of the largest urban settlements in Europe (AD 47 – AD 650). Most of it still lies under farm fields within the broad sweep of the River Severn, although the outlines of houses and roads have been eerily revealed in aerial photos and  LADAR surveys.

For centuries, too, farmers at their  ploughs have turned up marvellous Roman artefacts. Even now, if you walk the fields after harvest you can easily spot the polished terracotta shards of fine Samian pottery among the wheat stubble. Archaeological excavations have been on-going for decades. I dug there myself aeons ago, as an undergraduate archaeology student who needed to rack up some fieldwork  experience. The exposed remains are now in the care of English Heritage, and many of the finds are on display in the site’s small museum. More of the collection has been recently re-displayed at the county’s new Shrewsbury Museum.

But now we come to the Roman Villa in the photo – this ‘desirable town residence’. Its appearance here was prompted by Jo’s ‘restoration’ challenge. Strictly speaking, this is not so much a restoration as a  reconstruction. Although on the other hand, you could say that its builders did attempt to use only Roman construction methods – thus ensuring the restoration of long-lost skills. They did, however, have to apply for present day planning permission before they could start work.

And the whole project came about as part of a TV series on UK’s Channel 4 – Rome wasn’t built in a day. You can have virtual tour of the villa HERE

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Of the original city, there is not a great deal to see, although the remaining high-standing basilica wall is pretty impressive, and did feature rather splendidly in Simon Schama’s epic A History of Britain TV series. You can see the first episode in which it and the surrounding remains feature at 40 minutes in:

Simon Schama’s A History of Britain

 

One of the reasons why the physical remains of this large and long-lived city are so few is because the building stone was recycled through the ages. If you walk down the lane to Wroxeter Church you will find that Roman pillars have been used to make the gateposts. Doubtless much more of the Roman stonework found its way into the body of the original Anglo-Saxon, later Gothic church. The church is redundant now, and looking rather sad.

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And finally, I can’t leave you without showing off some more Roman treasures that may be found in Shrewsbury Museum’s Roman gallery. The finest object of all is a polished silver mirror, made in the Rhineland but found in Wroxeter forum’s courtyard. It dates from the AD 2oos. Its convex design, and the weight of the silver suggests it would have been held by a slave or servant so ‘my lady’ could admire her latest hair-do. Enjoy!

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Back of a convex silver mirror, circa 3rd century AD, Shrewsbury Museum.

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Restored section of Roman mosaic floor from Whitley Grange Roman Villa, near Shrewsbury.

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The Shrewsbury Hoard: over 9,000 coins dating from 280 AD to the following century. The coins were wrapped in cloth bags and buried in a big storage jar.

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copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

 

 

For more restored pieces go to: Jo’s guest challenge ‘restoration’. Also check in at Paula’s response at Lost in Translation Thursday’s Special

The People of the Birch Bark House

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We came upon this reconstructed Iroquois longhouse when visiting the Museum of Ontario Archaeology in London, Ontario. It stands next door to the museum, on the Lawson site, where the remains of a 500-year-old fortified Neutral Iroquois village were discovered in the 1920s. Since then over 30,000 artefacts have been recovered, along with traces of 19 long houses and a long section of palisade. It is thought that around 2,000 people once inhabited the five acre site.

The village sits up on a flat plateau above Medway River and Snake Creek in northwest London, a good defensible position with access to fresh water and fishing. From the late 1400s there seems to have been an increase in inter-tribal conflict, made worse later by the arrival of Europeans, who among other things, sought to control the fur trade. Around the 1650s the Neutral Iroquois were defeated and dispersed by the New York State Iroquois, leaving south western Ontario empty until the early 1700s when the Ojibway moved into the area.

The Iroquois called and call themselves Haudensaunee. (See the Haudensaunee Confederacy website for more about their culture). I read that this name translates as: ‘People of the longhouse’. It is a fitting name for a culture whose architecture so clearly defines their communal ethos.  Traditionally, longhouses were as long as there were extended family groups to occupy them – between 60 and 300 feet. The frame was made of bent saplings with a span around twenty feet wide and high. On either side the door, platforms ran the length of the house, with one family to every section. Every two families facing one another across the corridor shared one of many central hearths. The Lawson example, though, is apparently more typical of longhouses found in northern Ontario since it uses a covering of birch bark rather than elm that was used in the south west.

It was strange, but the Lawson longhouse felt very lonely. Perhaps it was because there was only one house on a site where there should have been several. Inside, too, there was a curious sense of abandonment, and this seemed odd for a reconstructed exhibit. There was no one else around on the day we visited, just the spring breezes in the surrounding scrubby woods. Even now, several years on, I can still feel the great sense of sadness that I experienced as I walked around the site. I had earlier been told at London’s Fanshawe Pioneer Village that before the European settlers arrived, south west Ontario was a land of monumental trees, and as soon as I heard this I began to regret their loss. It was also a land of peoples whose values and customs were often greatly misrepresented and wilfully eradicated by the newcomers. I felt the loss of them too, and also the sense that we had missed something very important by not understanding better how the ‘first people’ lived in the once majestic landscape, that is now so very cleared and broken in, and in many places, downright ugly with viral shopping malls, diners and freeways.

© 2015 Tish Farrell

Cee’s Black & White Photo Challenge: Wood

Far away in black and white in the Shropshire Hills

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These photos were taken at the Bronze Age stone circle of Mitchell’s Fold, up in the South Shropshire hills. It seems isolated now, but four thousand years ago there was much human activity in these uplands. There are the remains of field systems from this era as well as burial cairns and other stone monuments. In more recent times this stone circle has been associated with the legend of a wicked witch called Mitchell. She is reputed to be entrapped within the stones. You can read more of this story at Witch-catching in the Shropshire Wilds.

copyright 2014 Tish Farrell

 

With thanks to Cee for her brilliant challenges, and to Graham for the use of his photos.

Cee’s Black & White and Far Away Challenge

Stone-smitten ~ Saxons awestruck by ancient spa

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It’s silly, I know, but I tend to think that valuing heritage is a rather modern concept, very British – probably kicking off in the eighteenth century with all those landowners filling their bosky domains and deer parks with Grecian grottoes and Roman temples, and Lord Elgin using diplomatic privilege to ‘save’/ make off with the Parthenon’s marbles. So years ago, when I first discovered this Saxon poem in Penguin Classics’ The Earliest English Poems,  I was both amazed and captivated.

Even in its fragmentary, fire-damaged state, and some thirteen hundred years after it was written, the words come powering through.  It has been well translated of course by Michael Alexander. In his introduction he says he believes it to be a description of  the ruined Roman spa city of  Bath – Aquae Sulis (Somerset, England), and written some 300 years after the Romans left Britain. I’m posting it as a source of inspiration for all poets writing in English. All those alliterative compound nouns – showershields and gravesgrasp – don’t they just hit the mark!

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The Ruin

Well-wrought this wall: Wierds broke it.

The stronghold burst…

Snapped rooftrees, towers fallen, the work of Giants, the stonesmiths mouldereth.

Rime scoureth gatetowers

rime on mortar.

Shattered the showershields, roofs ruined,

age under-ate them.

And the wielders and wrights?

Earthgrip holds them – gone, long gone,

fast in gravesgrasp while fifty fathers

and sons have passed.

Wall stood,

grey lichen, red stone, kings fell often,

stood under storms, high arch crashed –

stands yet the wallstone, hacked by weapons,

by files grim-ground…

…shone the old skilled work

…sank to loam-crust.

Mood quickened mind, and a man of wit,

cunning in rings, bound bravely the wallbase

with iron, a wonder.

Bright were the buildings, halls where springs ran,

high, horngabled, much throng-noise;

these many meadhalls men filled

with loud cheerfulness: Wierd changed that.

Came days of pestilence, on all sides men fell dead,

death fetched off the flower of the people;

where they stood to fight, waste places

and on the acropolis, ruins.

Hosts who would build again

shrank to the earth. Therefore are these courts dreary

and that red arch twisteth tiles,

wryeth from roof-ridges, reacheth groundwards…

Broken blocks…

There once many a man

mood-glad, goldbright, of gleams garnished,

flushed with wine-pride, flashing war-gear,

gazed on wrought gemstones, on gold, on silver,

on wealth held and hoarded, on light-filled amber,

on this bright burg of broad dominion.

Stood stone houses; wide streams welled

hot from the source, and a wall all caught

in its bright bosom, that the baths were

hot at the hall’s hearth; that was fitting…

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Thence hot streams, loosed, ran over hoar stone

unto the ring-tank…

….It is a kingly thing

…city….

Copyright Michael Alexander 1966

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You can buy an e-pub copy at this link:

The Earliest English Poems Penguin Classics 

The Earliest English Poems

Anglo-Saxon poetry was produced between 700 and 1000 AD for an audience that delighted in technical accomplishment, and the durable works of Old English verse spring from the source of the English language.

Michael Alexander has translated the best of the Old English poetry into modern English and into a verse form that retains the qualities of Anglo-Saxon metre and alliteration. Included in this selection are the ‘heroic poems’ such as Widsith, Deor, Brunanburh and Maldon, and passages from Beowulf; some of the famous ‘riddles’ from The Exeter Book; all the ‘elegies’, including The Ruin, The Wanderer, The Seafarer, The Wife’s Complaint and The Husband’s Message, in which the virtu of Old English is found in its purest and most concentrated form; together with the great Christian poem The Dream of the Rood.

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Of Monumental Mysteries

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”   L P Hartley The Go-Between      

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So what’s the mystery here? No, not that strange woman in a Welsh felted hat doing tai chi. (Actually,  I think I may be in the process of ‘grasping the sparrow’s tail’ Yang-style long form. I’ve rather forgotten).  I remember, though, the icy winter’s day, and the absolute stillness, and the hazy blue views of Wales over the border from my Shropshire homeland, and the feeling that this circle of ancient stones was a special place; that it stirred in me the sense that doing tai chi here would be a good thing.

I have written before about Mitchell’s Fold Bronze Age stone circle,  and you can find the witchy legend associated with it  HERE.  Historically speaking, little is known about the stones  beyond the fact that they were raised some 4,000 years ago. The surviving fifteen stones form a rough circle, although there may have once been as many as thirty. The tallest survivor is said to have originally been one of a pair, and so formed some kind of gateway or threshold at the circle’s edge.

These henges are, on the whole, unfathomable. There is no knowing how the people, who toiled to build them, made use of them, or what their precise significance was in their daily lives. The elevated location of Mitchell’s Fold, with its sweeping vistas, suggests to us a sacred function. There are also possibilities that the stones’ particular alignment served as some kind of calendar, marking solar and lunar events. And, for more prosaic purposes, in a world without maps and SatNav, prominently sited megaliths may also have provided travellers with landmarks to keep them on course through the upland wilds. The Bronze Age was, after all, a time of intinerant smiths and artisans who covered great distances to trade their goods and services.

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This is borne out by the fact that not far from Mitchell’s Fold, just over the Welsh border in Powys,  is the Cwm Mawr Bronze Age axe factory. The distinctive looking axe-hammers that were made here have been found across Wales and England, their discovery demonstrating an extensive trading network. Nor is this henge an isolated monument in the immediate landscape. There are numerous cairns and two further stone circles nearby. This seemingly remote place, then, was very busy some four millennia ago.

As a Prehistory undergraduate, also in times long past, I spent three years in Sheffield University lecture theatres looking at images of barrows, chambered tombs, henges, hillforts, cist burials, urn cremations and other ancestral relics. This being the era of slide projection, the photographs were often shown upside down and back to front; it became a standing (or otherwise) joke, looking at remains from an inverted position. The fact is though, however you looked at them, their intrinsic meaning  could  not be divined. All that might be said is that these mysterious constructions were of immense importance to our forebears. We know this because of the great effort involved in their making; these were people who, by our standards, had very limited technology.

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And so here is another example of megalithic mystery. This is the late Stone Age (Neolithic) Lligwy burial chamber on Anglesey in Wales. Excavation in 1908-9 uncovered the remains of 15-30 people, along with pottery that provided the dating evidence. It is estimated that the capstone weights 25 tonnes. This is truly mind-boggling. How did people without cranes lift this monstrosity onto the supporting stones? How  many people did it take? Wasn’t the population in prehistory supposed to be small?

Of course experimental archaeology has demonstrated that much may be achieved with the cunning use of tree trunk rollers and various simple pulley devices combined with muscle power. But even so,  the Lligwy burial chamber is surely  a triumph of human will  over an absence of hydraulic lifting gear. In this era people had only stone tools.

So yes, the past is a foreign country, and people did do things differently there, and in ways we cannot possibly know. And if I learned anything from three years of studying Prehistory and Archaeology it was not to judge people by their limited toolkit. These people were as intelligent as we are, maybe more so, since there was a greater need to apply it at all times.

Our current understanding of these  monuments may be fragmentary, wrong-headed even, but shouldn’t this be all the more reason to keep these ancient places safe? At this present time in England our heritage is daily under threat from a government that wishes to build its way out of  recession.  Worse still, current laws allow developers to take local authorities to judicial review  if their  planning applications are refused.

To avoid  incurring huge costs to the public in legal representation, local authorities are now being pushed to grant planning permission in close proximity to unique monuments.  At present, in Shropshire, the setting of  2 major sites  is under threat: Old Oswestry Iron Age hillfort, and the post-Roman Offa’s Dyke. Why this is happening is of course absolutely no mystery at all.  The past has cachet. It is a highly sellable ‘commodity’. Let’s sell it off, why don’t we?

© 2014 Tish Farrell

Related:

Valuing the Past: How  much for Old Oswestry Hillfort?

Open to Offa’s: yet another piece of Shropshire’s heritage at risk  in The Heritage Journal  along with many other excellent articles

 

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