Finding stones near Bristol a place in history
The exciting new find by 'amateur' archaeologists of the long barrow under The Cove, at Stanton Drew.
Ask anyone in Bristol to name an ancient stone circle, and 90 per cent of people will probably say Stonehenge. A few of the wider-read sorts might mention Avebury. But remarkably, few will say the words Stanton Drew.
While Wiltshire's two landmark sites are known worldwide, Bristol's own major neolithic stone circle goes largely unnoticed.
But all that might be about to change, thanks to a team of enthusiastic amateur archaeologists who have discovered some intriguing new evidence that suggests the Stanton Drew site, near Chew Magna, may actually be 1,000 years older than historians had previously thought.
The discovery has been made by geophysics enthusiast John Oswin and amateur archaeologist John Richards, both from the Bath and Camerton archaeological society, who have been working with a team of volunteers under the guidance of Richard Sermon, Bath and North-East Somerset Archaeological Officer.
The two Johns have spent the last six months studying the results of their survey of the site in the summer, and they believe that long before the mystical stone circles were erected on the site around 2,500BC, there was an impressive "long barrow" burial chamber on the land.
I find a windswept John Oswin wandering thoughtfully around the area of the ancient monument known as The Cove. Separated from the main circles by the village church, this set of three ancient standing stones is nestled at the back of a pub car park.
"This is where we believe the long barrow would have been," says John, a former defence industry sonar expert at Filton who has taken a fancy for geophysical archaeology as a retirement hobby.
"I use a machine called a resistance meter," he explains. "It looks like a walking frame with a small computer attached. But actually, it is using scanning technology to create a picture of any archaeology that might be beneath the surface. Unlike traditional digging, this allows us to see what's below the surface in a non-invasive manner. Most people know about geophysics these days from watching Time Team on the television.
"Many neolithic stone circles are built on or near the site of an even more ancient long barrow – a large burial chamber. There is one, for example, at Stonehenge.
"But nobody had realised there was one here before because, although geophysicists had used this kind of equipment to scan the ground beneath the main stone circles, nobody had ever thought to come and scan this area known as The Cove.
"I first discovered there was a very large structure buried beneath the ground here back in the summer," John recalls. "I had been scanning all day, and then moved next door into the Druid's Arms to download my material on to a computer over a pint.
"When I saw the shape of a long barrow appearing on the screen my mouth just dropped open. It was one of those eyes-on-stalks moments, because I knew the civilisation that built stone circles came a thousand years after the civilisation that built long barrows.
"This would probably mean the stone circles had been specially built on a site that was already of sacred significance – a resting place of their distant ancestors.
"The neolithic – stone age – people who would have built the long barrow would have left the bodies of their dead to decay on the surface, before moving the bones down into the chamber – but only when they had been picked clean by birds or the flesh had rotted away.
"We believe they would then have brought the bones of their forefathers out for sacred rituals on special occasions. It's not that different to modern day Catholics parading the bodies of saints through towns for feast days.
"But by the time people came to build the stone circles here a thousand years later, this would all have been distant folklore – as distant to them as the Norman Conquest is to us."
To find out more about the significance of the find, I meet up with the project leader, John Richards, at his office at Bristol University – where he works as an IT manager.
"For me, archaeology is a hobby, but it's something I'm passionate about," he says, as he brings up the scan images on his computer screen.
"We were lucky to be given the chance to scan the ground at Stanton Drew, because access is often restricted by English Heritage, which maintains the monument.
"But we were approached as a society last year by Richard Sermon, the archaeological officer for the council. He wondered if we could give a demonstration of our geo-phys equipment to the public as part of a Festival of British Archaeology event.
"We said, yes we'd love to do it, but if we do, perhaps you could arrange something for us? Within a few weeks Richard had managed to get permission for us to survey the Stanton Drew site.
"It was exciting to get the chance to do the survey, so you can imagine how thrilled we were to find something as significant as a long barrow."
Since unveiling their find in archaeological publications recently, the two Johns have received congratulations from professional archaeologists all over the country, many of whom were keen to find out more about their data.
"We're hoping that this will be just the start of the story," John Richards says.
"We're hoping to get permission to go back on the site to do some more survey work this summer, and if we can get permission from the church and the pub landlord, we would like to scan the churchyard and the pub garden too, because we suspect the long barrow might extend on to their land – which would make this more than 20 metres in length.
"In other words, this would have been a very distinctive sacred landmark in the area 5,000 years ago."
Posted by moss
28th February 2010ce
Edited 30th September 2010ce