When it comes to photographing prehistoric stone circles, you need the right kind of light, preferably a dramatic dawn or sunset or a good frost. And this clearly wasn’t any of these, but the best I could do on dull, dank December morning. The whole thing was definitely improved by the arrival of the sweet little girl in her tangerine wellies.
Anyway, here it is – Cornwall’s smallest prehistoric stone circle. It is just over thirty feet across (10-11 metres) and is at least 4,000 years old. It sits most domestically behind farm cottages and among a few sheep in the small village of Duloe. There are eight stones, some estimated to weigh around 12 tons, and they were probably chosen because of their high quartz content, which gives them an otherworldly bloom even in this poor light. In any event, they had to be manhandled from the nearest source, at least one mile away.
The first historical reference to them was in 1329 CE, when they are mentioned in a record relating to the farm called Stonetown (still existing with that name), on whose land they stand.
In 1801 they were discovered again, although at that time the stones were all lying flat and there was a hedge growing through the middle, with a field on one side and an orchard on the other.
Many stone circles in Britain have recumbent stones, (e.g. see my post on Arbor Low in Derbyshire) and it is usually not known at what stage the stones were laid flat, or in what circumstances. Certainly there is archaeological evidence of prehistoric people themselves ritually ‘closing’ a monument or burial site when it is no longer needed. In more recent times superstitious dread, and/or Christian repugnance at old ‘pagan’ ways prompted people to bury standing stones or lay them down. All of which is to say, everything to do with stone circles is pretty much shrouded in mystery and conjecture.
At Duloe though, there was an interesting and tangible discovery. In 1861, during efforts to restore the circle and raise the stones, a workman put his pick through a Bronze Age burial urn containing human bones. It had been placed at the foot of the largest stone which was also broken during the restoration work, and is still lying on the ground in two pieces. The urn and its contents have since been lost.
But it is this find that provides 2,000 BCE date for the site. However, the circle itself may well pre-date this. As has been shown with recent work at Stonehenge, the world’s most famous prehistoric circle, the stones there were erected in the late Neolithic (c.4,500 BCE) and not in the Bronze Age as originally conjectured, although there are many Bronze Age burials in the vicinity. It also appears that before the Stonehenge stones, there were earlier wooden pillars on the site and these belonged to the Mesolithic period circa 8,500-7,000 BCE when people were still hunter gatherers.
In other words, throughout human existence, a site that has once held, or is perceived to have held ritual significance will often be re-used by succeeding inhabitants across many centuries, and by people of quite different ethnicity and religious viewpoints. So we find Roman temples in earlier Iron Age hillforts, or medieval churches built atop Neolithic chambered tombs.
We cannot divine what these stone circles truly meant to the people who constructed them. But we can surmise that the monumental effort involved implies life and death importance. There are political implications too, both in the conception of the work and in its realisation. Even the building of a small circle like Duloe would have required considerable organisation of people-power. But if these circles have no stories to tell us, they do at least reflect an era when humanity had a very different relationship with the natural and cosmic world than we do today, and that alone might give us some pause for thought.
Thursday’s Special Paula’s August ‘pick a word’ prompts include fortified, chic, submerged, embodiment, prehistoric. I think I might claim submerged here too, since the meaning and means of construction of this site are well and truly buried.
copyright 2018 Tish Farrell