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Miscellaneous Posts by Dunstan

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Silbaby (Artificial Mound)

I'd like to add my amateur opinion to the debate.

Like everyone else, I was quite excited by the idea of a newly discovered monument in the Avebury area. Having visited it though, I am convinced that it is purely a natural feature, formed by the Roman road cutting off a spur at the end of Waden Hill.

The roundness of the hill is unusual, as is the fact that the angle of its slope matches that of Silbury. However, both can be explained by its location.

The hill is on the edge of the flood plain of the River Kennet, as can be seen by the very flat ground at its base. This means that it has been eroded by the river over many, many years. This has had the effect of shortening the gradual slope of Waden Hill - the long tail of the hill has been washed away.

Any large scale erosion brought about by floodwater would cause a cliff of chalk to form, but this would fairly soon settle down into a slope. All soils have a natural angle at which they settle. This is called their 'angle of repose'. You can see this in action by pouring sugar onto a table - internal friction means that the pile will always settle into a slope of the same angle.

It so happens that the angle of slope of Silbury Hill is pretty close to the natural angle of repose of chalk soil. This is discussed in the English Heritage report on Silbury ('Silbury Hill', February 2005) which says that "Professor Chandler... considered the slope stability of the Hill and [noted that] it was close to the angle of repose".

In other words, whether due to design or because of erosion over the years, the slope of Silbury Hill is similar to that of a naturally eroded chalk cliff. That the slope of Silbaby is almost the same is no accident – it too follows the natural angle of repose for chalk – but due to the natural processes of erosion and slope formation rather than by the hand of man.

A similar angle of slope can be seen on the tree-lined banks of the Kennet by the Swallowhead spring, where the hill coming down from the West Kennet long barrow has been cut away by the stream.

Stukeley's print showing a 'barrow cut through by the Romans' is a bit of a red herring. Stukeley was clearly referring to a disc barrow – a small, banked Bronze Age mound – and not to a large hill. His engraving of the 'Avebury Serpent' shows this disc barrow clearly, together with the relationship between the Roman road and the tail of Waden Hill.

Overall, I'm sorry, but I'd say that Silbaby was a natural feature. Unusual, intriguing, and definitely worth protecting, but natural nonetheless.

On the other hand, I can't explain the alignment between Silbury, Silbaby and the Sanctuary…

Barclodiad-y-Gawres (Chambered Cairn)

The 'magic stew' at Barclodiad y Gawres has been widely accepted as an example of neolithic ritual.

I think that there is room for re-interpretation here.

The stew, for those who are unfamiliar, was identified by the excavators from small fragments of bones found mixed with the charcoal of a fire in the centre of the chamber. These included bones from wrasse, whiting, eel, frog, toad, natterjack, grass snake, mouse and hare. Since this mixture seems hardly edible it has been interpreted (in the typical archaeological way) as having a ritual purpose.

There is however another possible explanation, and a very down to earth one at that. The original excavators of the tomb, T. G. E. Powell and Glyn Daniel, noted that the bone fragments were consistent in size and type with the stomach contents of an otter. However, since it would be unusual for an otter to have all these bones in its stomach at one time, and then somehow regurgitate them in the chamber, they rejected this idea and hypothesised that the bones came from a stew instead, being small enough to sink to the bottom of the pot.

I agree that it would be strange for an otter to have eaten all these species in one go, but if the deposit had accumulated over time then it makes perfect sense. The bones are consistent with those found at an otter's 'spraint' (dung) site.

See for an example of bones found in otter spraints.

Coastal otters tend to live in crevices in rocks, and like all mustelids they mark their territory with regular 'latrines'. It is feasible that an otter made its home in the chamber at some point in its 5,000 year history, and left its spraint in a particular place on the floor. This would explain the mixture of small bones, any of which could be in the diet of a coastal otter.

Incidentally, otters can still be found within 10 miles of the chamber, so this is not so far-fetched as it sounds. For that matter, people seem to use the site as a latrine even today!

So there you have it. Either a strange 'magical stew' or the more prosaic dung pile of an otter. The matter rests on how the excavation evidence is interpreted.

For those who would like to investigate further, Rhosneigr library has a copy of the original excavation report (as well as many other local history books) and is only a few miles up the road from Barclodiad y Gawres.

The Swastika Stone (Cup and Ring Marks / Rock Art)

Is the Swastika Stone really prehistoric?

The Swastika Stone is always held up to be the classic example of Bronze Age rock art in Britain, but is it really that old?

Whilst there is strong evidence for the use of the swastika symbol in general going back to the Neolithic, I'd make a case that the fylfot design of the Ilkley Moor Swastika Stone is mediaeval in date.

In a small church on Anglesey I recently came across a 13th Century gravestone with a carved image that is virtually identical to the Swastika Stone. I've attached a picture here.

Rock art is notoriously difficult to date, unless it is overlain with other datable material to give it context. Most dating is done on stylistic grounds. Since the fylfot design appears in a firmly dated mediaeval context on Anglesey, I'd argue that it is a mediaeval design. This means that a mediaeval date for the Swastika Stone is entirely possible, even probable. The chance of the design persisting almost unchanged across 2,500 years and from one side of the country to the other can be discounted.

I'm happy to be challenged on this, but in the absence of any positive evidence I would not regard the Swastika Stone as ancient.

Lain Wen Farm Inscribed Stone

This is a Dark Age christian memorial stone from around the 6th century CE. The RCAHMW gives the inscription as 'CUNOGUSI HIC IACIT' [Latin for 'Cunogusus lies here']. The letters are still fairly easy to make out.

There is a rumour that the stone has a cup mark on one side, making it a re-used prehistoric menhir, but I couldn't find it.

Apparently the name Cunogusus is preserved in the name of the nearest village, Pencarnisiog, which if true would be a wonderful example of continuity over the last twelve centuries.

Mynydd Bach (Aberffraw) (Round Cairn)

Frances Lynch, in 'Prehistoric Anglesey' calls this site Mynydd Bach, after the name of the headland it stands on. It was excavated at the same time as Barclodiad-y-Gawres, but little was found, and it has been tentatively dated to the Beaker period. It's a lovely little cairn, and in its own quietly understated way is more atmospheric than its more famous neighbour.
I'm a gentleman adventurer and an antiquarian of the old school.

I'll only post if I feel I can add something new to the site. All my opinions are my own, but as Colt Hoare might have said - "I speak from facts, not theories".

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