Of Men Turned To Stone And A Cup Of Gold

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We were spending a few days in south-east Cornwall last week and, in between downpours, we managed a trip up to Bodmin Moor to visit The Hurlers. This unique prehistoric site comprises three stone circles set out in a row, and dating from the Late Neolithic or Early Bronze Age. This would make them around 4,000 years old. It is impossible to capture the full complex without aid of  hot air balloon or hang glider, so here are some piecemeal shots. Also the light, as you can see, was pretty poor.

The local explanation for the origin of these stones is that they are petrified men – turned to stone in punishment for playing hurling on a Sunday. (Cornish hurling is an ancient team game played with a silver ball. See the link for more details. And no, I don’t think that is an ancient hurler on the skyline).

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The circles are 33, 42 and 35 metres in diameter (108, 138  and 115 feet respectively), and none have all their stones intact. The central circle is the best preserved with 14 standing stones and 14 marker stones. This circle and the one to the north of it align with the huge Bronze Age Rillaton Barrow, visible on the skyline to the north-east. It was here that one of the British Museum’s most precious treasures, the Rillaton Gold Cup was discovered during excavations in 1837. At that time it was passed as treasure trove to King William IV and so remained in the royal household. It was only a hundred years later, after the death of George V in 1936 that its full historical significance was recognised. HRH had apparently been using it as a receptacle for his shirt and collar studs.

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Photo: Creative Commons      Rillaton Gold Cup circa 1700 BC

 

Thursdays’ Special: Traces of the Past – Please visit Paula to see her dramatic view of San Geremia church in Venice, plus other bloggers’ posts of relics of times past.

Disconnected Sunday: Plane…Sheep…Cloud…And Then…?

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I was attracted by the sheep doing an ovine impression of Landseer’s Monarch of the Glen –  as spotted last week during our short break in the Derbyshire Peak District. Its posing place of choice is Hordron Edge, below Moscar Moor and Stanage Edge. We were walking up here on what he-who-is-usually-the-team-leader suspected would turn out to be a Tish-type wild goose chase. In short we, or rather I was in pursuit of a Bronze Age Stone Circle, otherwise known as the Seven Stones despite the fact that there are apparently eleven stones in the circle, and three more besides nearby.

I should admit straight off that I’m not renowned for my accurate map-reading, and so once we’d passed the sheep, walked for ages in surprisingly hot sunshine for late September, and then found ourselves on a path which kept wending onwards and upwards with absolutely no sign of a megalithic monument anywhere on the sky-line where I was expecting it, even I began to think I’d misread the map, and that we were definitely on a wild goose chase. Worse still, we’d left the lunch picnic in the car, so there wasn’t even the possibility of making the best of a bad job. And it was just the day for a moorland picnic too, not a state of affairs you can rely on in England’s uplands whatever the time of year.

‘We’ll just go to the next bend’ – I said – ‘so we can see over the brow of the hill’. But as always happens in such situations, we never came to the bend’s end. In fact the path began to rise very steeply. Then we noticed that exposed here and there beneath the turf were signs of a stone-paved trackway. Very puzzling in this middle of nowhere, but at least it suggested that we were headed somewhere. (I surmised later that it must be the relic of an old packhorse road up to Stanage Edge whither the locals once went quarrying to make millstones and grind stones).

And so as we pushed on, drawn on by the stone road, and quite unexpectedly Moscar Moor and Stanage lay before us. It is an awe-inspiring landscape, and so it is scarcely surprising that this whole area is rich in prehistoric cairns, circles, and settlement remains.

Also, by now I could see that my map-reading had been spot on, although the stone circle really took some finding in the heather.

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So I hope you weren’t expecting Stonehenge. Because here it is – the Seven Stones Circle of Hordron Edge, probably dating from around four thousand years ago.

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The tallest stone is the one seen here in the foreground, and is about 1 metre high. It stands on the south west edge of the 16 metre circle, and has been dubbed the Fairy Stone. You can see it on the far right in the middle ground of the next photo. P1050638

Its particular significance is taken to be its relationship to the two conical hill tops, Win Hill on the left and Lose Hill on the right, the top of the stone possibly mirroring the landscape features. Peak District archaeologist John Barnatt has apparently observed that at the traditional start of winter and spring, the times of age-old festivals, the setting sun appears to roll down Win Hill.

Perhaps the placement of stone had something to do with the gathering of sun-power? Or the marking of the seasons in relation to the farming calendar? We can never know. All we can be sure of is that these monuments were important to the people who created them – gathering places for discourse, rituals, trade, or all of these. More recent local folklore has its say too – hence the naming of the Fairy Stone, and tales of strange lights being seen around about it.

And what do these monuments say to me? Well the main thing is that we should never underestimate the capacities of our ancient antecedents. Also that we should never equate current technological whizz-kidery with intellectual superiority. These people  of the past  knew how to make a life in this challenging territory – a life charged with meaning and a deep sense of their place in the landscape. I feel too, we have lost much of our ancestors’ capacity for poetry and metaphor – the exchange between fellow humans that relied almost exclusively on language – the songs sung, the tales unfolded, the riddles set, the nuances of double and treble meanings.

But before I get too carried away with highfalutin notions, we decide that lunch is now too far away for comfort. We retrace our steps down the old stone trackway. It perhaps does date from much more recent medieval times. I’ve been unable to find out anything about it, although there is medieval packhorse road along the top of Stanage Edge.

As I descend the steep hill on a sunny Indian Summer day I wonder what it must have been like to urge pack horses up this route in a blizzard, the wind slicing under your cape, threatening to snatch your bonnet, the biting cold, the darkness. Just imagine…

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copyright  2016 Tish Farrell

Hordron Edge Circle
Bronze Age Stone Circle
East of Ashopton, Derbyshire  OS Map Ref SK21528685
OS Maps – Landranger 110 (Sheffield & Huddersfield), Explorer OL1 (The Peak District – Dark Peak Area)

A Mysterious Four-Thousand-Year-Old Circle

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This is Cornwall’s smallest stone circle, captured here on a dreary December afternoon in the village of Duloe. It dates from around 2,000 B.C.  a relic of the British Bronze Age.

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In fact the 8 large stones that comprise the monument are set out in more of an ovoid than a circle, the diameter varying between 10 and 11 metres. But they are also roughly aligned with the compass points, which instantly has everyone thinking all sorts of things about the possible purpose of the structure.

The first historical, if indirect, reference to the circle, occurred in 1329 A.D. in a record that mentions the farm of Stonetown on whose land the stones stand. Its official antiquarian discovery, however, was in 1801, at which time the stones were prone, and the circle bisected by a hedge.

During restoration work in 1861, and the removal of the hedge, workmen stumbled on a Bronze Age funerary urn in the centre of the circle. Unfortunately the urn and the cremated human contents have since been lost, but it thus seems likely, given its small size, that the monument was intended only as an elaborate grave, rather than constructed for any other ritual purposes.

All the same, the enterprise involved some considerable labour. It’s been estimated that thirty or more people would have been needed to move stones up to 12 tons in weight. They are quartzite-rich with elements of ankerite, and the nearest source of such rock is at least a mile from the site.

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And so there it stands, a domestic-scale stone circle complete with neighbouring cottages, sheep and power lines. Families out with dogs and infants wander briefly round the stones before continuing their walk. They look bemused, as if expecting more. But the stones give nothing away. They have no stories to impart. They simply are.

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copyright 2016 Tish Farrell

 

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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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