Sunday, 17 February 2008

Stoned Again

It’s been another busy week and I’m beginning to feel that writing every day will take some degree of focus and commitment. There just seems to be too much to do without having to sit down afterwards and write about it.

One major contributory factor is that the trailer is equipped with a Freeview receiving TV. During our three-year posting to Keswick, we had to suffer the ignominy of having only four channels to watch. No satellite; no freeview; not even channel 5! All that changed once we arrive in the South and could get a decent TV reception. Since then, I must confess to having wasted a huge amount of time flitting from one channel to another, searching vainly for something worth the wait. The only thing we’ve found (and it is almost good enough to compensate for everything) is Scrubs. Brilliant. Soon, I hope, I will have overcome the unfulfilled thirst for TV entertainment and get back to the basics of reading and writing.

On Wednesday (a beautiful, sunny day, full of the promise of Spring), after fulfilling the domestic duties of doing the laundry and getting a new gas cylinder, we took a trip out from Bath to have a look at a couple more Neolithic sites. The first was the stone circles of Stanton Drew. There are three circles, the Great Circle being the third largest in the country at over 300’ across. Some of the bigger stones stand about 10’ high. A seemingly random scattering of stones link the Great Circle with the smaller North East Circle about 150’ away. To the West of this is a short stone-lined avenue, and a third small circle lies a little way to the South East. To finish the collection, a trio of very large stones called the Cove, stand a short way off in the grounds of the local pub (closed in the afternoons!). Local legend says that the avenue stones are the fiddlers and the circle stones are the bodies of dancers at a wedding feast, petrified by the devil for dancing on the sabbath. The two standing stones of the Cove are the bride and groom with the third fallen stone being the drunken vicar. The penalties for having a good time on a Sunday were a little harsh in my view. The scale of the circles, the fact that there are three of them so close, and the size of the stones themselves all combine to make a very impressive sight. I found it difficult, however, to sink into the atmosphere – there was a fork-lift truck pottering about in a nearby builders yard, and the stones seem to be an incongruity in a landscape of farm yards, barbed-wire fences and telegraph poles.

It was getting late in the day, but we headed off (despite the Landrover reverting to its old problem of self-dipping mirrors and an immovable driver's seat) to have a look at the long barrow of Stoney Littleton. We arrived at dusk, so the short walk up the hill was taken at a stiff pace. Despite the failing light, the small but perfectly formed barrow set on a remote plateau was a stunning sight.

Despite being only about 100’ long and 8’ high at its summit, the barrow is by far the most atmospheric megalithic site I have visited. An impressive doorway opens into a passage nearly 50’ long, with six small chambers opening off it. I struggled along the low tunnel, not much more than three or four feet high, trying not to get my new jeans dirty. I stopped at the end and tried to catch my breath. The failing light filtering through the doorway, combined with the utter silence, gave me a feeling of complete peace. I sat in the darkness for a few moments before I began to feel a little spooked by the place and hurried back out. Perhaps visiting a deeply spiritual place at dusk was a little too much to ask of myself.

Having visited these awesome places, I’ve begun to wonder what can have happened to the people living with the stones to make them feel it was acceptable to dig them up, cart them off and build walls out of them. Most of the country’s megalithic sites would have been unknown to all but a few local villages until a chap called William Stukeley visited and wrote about them in the mid 18th century. Less than a year after Stukeley’s visit, a farmer called Green was responsible for the virtually complete destruction of one of Avebury’s circles. There must have been legends and folklore for every megalithic site. They must have been incorporated into everyday local life despite being thousands of years old. It is easy now to see the intrinsic value of the these places, but how can a person in the past have felt it was “ok” to desecrate their history. Am I making sense here? We know so little about the people who made these monuments, but it is vitally important that we lovingly preserve everything they have left to us. Otherwise we are nothing but vandals.


John Henry Bull said...

Stukeley, Dartmoor, you, and that farmer called Green have got me thinking.

You can't walk on some bits of Dartmoor without falling over stone circles, rows, hut circles and enclosures that have been there since the Iron Age and before. Makes you think that they were maybe ubiquitous in the rest of the country too, and that what we see now is the tip of a vandalised iceberg.

It should be possible to calculate roughly how many, say, stone circles and other megaliths there were before farmers came along and nicked the stones for walls and buildings. Tractors had a big impact in the early 20th century before the NT, the national parks, English Heritage etc raised our awareness, but given that farmers have had horses for centuries it wouldn't have been that difficult. On the demand side, add in all the walls you need for the Feudal system of agriculture, and the relentless population growth since medieval times, and you have a full-scale historical wrecking crew.

So, making rather conservative assumptions that (1) the rate of destruction has been roughly constant since 1500 BC (by which time all the stone circles etc had been built) and (2) 25% of the sites that we know about (thanks to Stukeley and later records) have been damaged or destroyed by farmers in the last 250 years (I'll be looking into this second assumption), that equates a halving of the number of megalithic monuments every 500 years.

This equates, in 1500 CE, to 128x the number of megalithic monuments we see today. For stone rows (mostly made of small stones), hut circles, enclosures and earth henges, the number would be many times more.

In other words, at least in the western side of the Isles, you'd be tripping over them wherever you went. Seems reasonable to me, especially as you still trip over them all over Anglesey and the Avebury area.

John Henry Bull said...

Forgot to add another destructive factor: the dismantling and suppression of Celtic/Pagan culture by the spread of Christianity.

Look what happened to maypole dancing, for instance: suppressed by church and state to the point of near-eradication by 1700.

stevo25 said...

amazing blog and one I'll add to my favorites. I found this after reading the Mark Walton article in Car magazine and would like to say how jealous i am! Being in the midst of a messy divorce I would love to run away and do what you have done!
Re stone circles etc just wait until you get to Ireland. You must visit Newgrange be good and fill us all in with the trials and tribulations of Airstream life