The Modern Antiquarian. Stone Circles, Ancient Sites, Neolithic Monuments, Ancient Monuments, Prehistoric Sites, Megalithic MysteriesThe Modern Antiquarian

Miscellaneous Posts by tjj

Latest Posts

Avebury & the Marlborough Downs (Region)

I recently came across a collection of essays about Wiltshire by John Chandler called The Day Returns - Excursions in Wiltshire's History (published 1998). This one is from a previous publication called 'Life in the Bus Lane'. The bus in question no longer runs on the route described.

The Source of the Kennet
It is a crisp March Monday and we are sitting on a bus in Marlborough High Street facing the college, and waiting for 9.35. It is that time in the morning which is common to all small towns, when those who have to be there have arrived and are at work; those who don’t aren’t, or if they, they can still drift along the capacious street to find a parking space.
While we are waiting I should tell you one thing that any intending bus passenger must understand. Buses (and I mean the ordinary country buses which we all used before we bought cars) – buses like this do not take you from A to B. They take you from A to Z, via B, C and D, not to mention W, X, and Y. This bus may say it is going to Swindon, if we persevere with it and have plenty of time. But Swindon is merely a by-product of the journey.
Let’s face it. If anyone is desperate to go from Marlborough to Swindon and they have a car, they will be there in 15 minutes. This bus takes over an hour. And one reason for the discrepancy becomes apparent as soon as we set off. We are going the wrong way! Swindon is due north and we are heading west. We are, in fact, embarking on a trip to the source of the Kennet, and on the way we shall call on most of the sixteen villages which grew up alongside the meagre waters of its upper reaches.
First above Marlborough is Preshute, its church hiding beyond the trees of the college. But Preshute is really part of Marlborough. The first real upper Kennet village is Manton, and here we leave the main road to make acquaintance with the river itself. It is lively here, eager to resume its old job of splashing over the millwheel, a teeming artery of winter rain surging bankful among its meadows.
In front of us are some six miles of Kennet valley and seven more villages before we reach Avebury. We cross and re-cross the river to visit them all. This is the land of the sarsens, the alien stones, the Saracens. At Piggledene and Lockeridge Dene they masquerade as drab sheep and lie asleep in flocks. From West Kennet to Avebury they march along upright like soldiers. In the villages they have been tamed and squared to serve as walls - incomparable walls of mottled silver, pink, and greenish-grey. And in Fyfield churchyard lie the men of the Free family, who tamed them and squared them, and who died prematurely from their dust.
The bus climbs from Lockeridge to West Overton, and at the crest of the hill a fine view is revealed. In the foreground Overton church, dressed in sarsen, looks down on a field of village earthworks. To our left the view is to Tan Hill, the highest place in Wiltshire; to our right the barrows on Overton Hill mark the line of the Great Ridgeway. And between them, in the far distance, we glimpse the Lansdowne monument above Cherhill. The bus winds down into Overton, slowing for an old border collie who is sauntering deafly along the road.
Now to East Kennet, where I have often admired the sarsen garden walls. But only from upstairs on the bus is their secret revealed, that behind them is hidden a swimming pool. On sultry summer afternoons, I daydream, some bronzed bodies laze by the water, and reach discreetly for their towels when the double decker trundles by. But no time now for daydreaming. The Kennet’s proudest moment is about to be revealed. We are back on the main road and approaching Silbury Hill. After a wet February the river has collected every drop it can muster from its downland springs and streams, to form a silver moat around the hill. It is a spectacle purely for the locals which the Kennet never repeats for the summer tourist trade.
At Beckhampton Roundabout we must give up this self-indulgence, and do our duty at last and go to Swindon. The northward turn up to Avebury Trusloe is surprisingly hard work for a bus. I glance across to Adam and Eve, the two solitary sarsens behind the stables. But I am thinking of breakfast. I heard a man interviewed on the radio, a manufacturer I think, about marmalade. He was talking about customer’s preferences. “Thick cut marmalade”, he said, as if had just thought of it, “Is essentially a male preserve.”
Avebury’s present appearance owes a great deal to marmalade – far more than it owes to the National Trust. It was Scottish marmalade that enabled Alexander Keiller, heir to family business to indulge a passion for archaeological excavation, first in the twenties at Windmill Hill nearby, and then during the thirties in Avebury itself. He drew on his wealth to buy much of the village and as building within the circle became vacant he demolished them, displacing the villagers to new house at Avebury Trusloe. He excavated the ditch, re-erected the fallen stones, and established a museum which still exists. He died in 1955.
Beyond Avebury we settle into a different landscape. The bus is heading north now, so the Marlborough Downs are to our right. They have formed themselves into a steep escarpment which rises green to sky. Here and there ribbons of white climb the hill, remnants in sunless holloways of last week’s snow. Against the snow the grubby chalk horse on Hackpen is a miserable creature. To our left now there is no corresponding hillside, just undulating farmland which teeters to the edge of a second escarpment unseen from here, then suddenly down to the clay. Above Silbury the Kennet loses its vigour and has not the strength to form a valley. It has become seasonal, gratefully receiving whatever normally dry tributaries can offer, and flowing only after winter rain – a true winterbourne.

John Chandler ends his passage (which I haven't reproduced in its entirety) with a quote from Richard Jefferies’ book ‘The Story of my Heart’ and the observation “Such a man would never have understood a bus timetable.”

‘It is eternity now. I am in the midst of it. It is about me in the sunshine; I am in it, as the butterfly floats in the light laden air. Nothing has to come; it is now. Now is eternity; now is the immortal life …. For artificial purpose time is mutually agreed on, but there is really no such thing. The shadow goes on upon the dial. The index moves round upon the clock, and what is the difference, none whatever. If the clock had been never set going, what would have been the difference? There may be time for the clock, the clock may make time for itself: there is none for me' (Richard Jefferies)

Alta Rock Art (Cup and Ring Marks / Rock Art)

Robert Macfarlane's excellent book 'Underland' has a chapter on Red Dancers. In the opening passages he talks about the rarity of northern latitude painted cave art but goes to makes specific mention of the astonishing concentration of work in Alta, northern Norway.
"The main reason for this scarcity of painted art at higher latitudes is that much of this landscape was buried under glaciers until the end of the last Ice Age. 20,000 years ago, when the seventeen-foot long red aurochs was being painted in the Hall of the Bulls at Lascaux, in what is now the Dordogne, all of Scandinavia and most of Britain and Ireland was still glaciated. As the ice slowly retreated, it left behind a shattered landscape scoured of life. Northwards human colonization of this barren terrain happened only slowly.
Geology also has a role to play in the rarity of surviving northern-latitude painted cave art. Cave chambers form the most secure gallery sites for such art, and such chambers form most naturally in limestone: Lascaux, Chauvet, Altamira, - all of the most celebrated prehistoric art works were made in and on limestone. Limestone has the added curatorial power of often running a film of transparent calcium carbonate over wall paintings, which then sets and acts as a preservative varnish mitigating degradation of the pigments. Northern Europe is sparser in limestone than Spain and France, though, and richer in igneous and metamorphic rocks. Where caves or overhangs form in such rock types, they do so by the erosive forces of ice or sea water and as such tend to be shallower and rougher-sided. Their interiors lack the inviting canvasses of water-smoothed limestone. A jagged granite cavity does not offer the same pictorial possibilities as a limestone chamber pillared with stalactites. Artic-latitude prehistoric rock does exist in Europe, including the astonishing concentration of work at Alta in far northern Norway, where more than 6,000 images – predominantly petroglyphs – depicting reindeers, bears, humans, hunting scenes and the aurora borealis where made between c. 7,000 and 2,000 years ago on glacier-polished rock. But painted art – far more vulnerable to damage and weathering than incised imagery – is scant."

Chauvet Cave (Cave / Rock Shelter)

Extract taken from a superb novel by Edward Docx 'Let Go My Hand'.

We can see nothing – absolutely nothing. So black is the darkness that I swear I can hear the shape of the walls, taste the taste stone, smell the water that has passed through from the Earth from above.
‘Now’, he says. ‘Now look with your eyes. Friends, look!’
Gradually, gradually, a light grows. Like a hallucination. Like a red shape behind our eyelids. So that we think we’re mad. Or reborn from the womb. But it widens and it spreads so that the opposite wall starts to shape itself, the light growing sharper and brighter, sharper and brighter. We see ochre hand prints; the human mark. We see strange red patterns and dots; human signs. We begin to see the outlines of animals – the beasts. The human mind, the human imagination, the human signature. And now the light starts flood the wall and we see that these animals crouch and creep and crawl this way and that all around us – lions, hyenas, panthers, cave bears. The light brightens still further. There is an owl daubed in white paint. We sense the finger that smeared the surface of the wall on that day thirty thousand years ago. There is rhino notched and scored in black. We see the artist has chosen a certain place on the wall where the shape of the rock serves his purposes. We see a heavy-haunched bison painted in sweeping flowing lines. We sense the human being standing back and admiring his artistry in a flicker of his torchlight. We see the curved flourish of the antlers of a reindeer. We see head after head of black-drawn horses, each on the other’s shoulder, as if caught in the instant of the herd’s fierce gallop, their black eyes somehow still alive.
We are silent. Dad’s voice is full of wonder: ‘I’ve wanted to see this all my life’, he says.
I get this feeling the opposite of sickness – the feeling that these paintings are being sucked inside me and that they will somehow live there for ever and ornament my soul.
‘This is it,’ Dad says. ‘The beginning’. His voice has the hushed tone of long yearning met – as though he has been trying to get to this moment ever since he was born. As though now that he apprehends the beginning, he might understand the ending. ‘This is the best we can know it, boys. The dawn of a distinctly human kind of consciousness.

The Ridgeway (Ancient Trackway)

The Crow Down hoard consists of five gold items designed for personal adornment. Three of these are plain undecorated bracelets and two are more elaborately designed armlets. They date to the Bronze Age, around 1200 BC and they are the only prehistoric gold items found in Berkshire.

The more elaborate items demonstrate the skill of craftsmen at this time.
Found in Lambourn during a metal-detecting rally, the hoard was declared Treasure in 2005 and acquired by West Berkshire Museum with grant aid.

Objects of high status, including gold items of this type, would have been highly sought after. Their distribution shows trade links across northern Europe. Whilst it is not clear where these objects were made, the gold was probably sourced from Ireland.
Not far from the find spot is the Ridgeway, now recognised as a strategic route from prehistoric times onwards.

Avebury & the Marlborough Downs (Region)

A small tribute to the 49 bus between Swindon- Avebury-Devizes.

The 49 bus route from Swindon to Devizes via Avebury is my favourite bus journey. For quite a few years I only really went as far as Avebury, having joined the now defunct internet forum set up to discuss all aspects of Avebury. A disparate collection of people though we were, we often arranged ‘meets’ at Avebury, immersing ourselves in the WHS landscape. All good things come to an end and the Avebury Forum eventually folded but even now there is nothing better on a breezy day than a walk along the Avenue to Waden Hill - climbing up to see Silbury against the cloudscape of the day.
These days life has moved on and I now have a regular commitment in Devizes so make the return journey at least once a week, always sitting upstairs. When the bus climbs the hill out of Wroughton just south of Swindon, the landscape opens out into downland; on we go past the Hackpen White Horse at Broad Hinton. Sheep grazing, a buzzard or two sitting motionless in a ploughed field, very occasionally lapwings or fieldfares. Sometimes the downs are covered in layers of mist which is always beautiful to see. Then through Avebury, always people wandering about regardless of the weather – always a different view, depending on which side of the bus I sit. On past Silbury sitting enigmatic as always in the landscape, past the Adam and Eve stones and the Beckhampton long barrow. Then a long stretch of straight road between Beckhampton and Bishop Cannings. Bronze Age round barrows strung out at various points on either side of the road (a couple in the garden of a farmhouse). I believe there is also a long barrow out there somewhere though I’ve never been able to identify it. Travelling upstairs on the 49 bus is a great way to see a truly unique archaeological landscape and to see the way modern day farming practices intersect with it.

Holm of Papa Westray (Chambered Tomb)

This passage taken from Amy Liptrot’s book The Outrun – is an account of her trip to the Holm of Papay with the farmer who is delivering a ram over to his sheep on the Holm. Amy herself was spending winter on Papay.

“There are no signs that the Holm has ever been inhabited yet it is where the ancient people brought their dead. There are three chambered tombs, the biggest of which, the South Cairn, well excavated and maintained, is now looked after by Historic Scotland. Due to its inaccessibility, it is Historic Scotland’s least visited site.
I see the cairn every day from Rose cottage and it is strange now to be standing on top of it, the low sun casting my shadow over the island. I lift a metal hatch and descend a ladder into the mound. I use the torch left for visitors to crawl through the long passageway and look into the ten small cells or enclosures leading off. There are carvings of what look like eyebrows on the stone similar to the ‘eyes’ of the Westray Wife.
A friend tells me that the cairn is - like the tomb of Maeshowe on the Orkney Mainland - aligned with the midwinter sun. At Maeshowe, on the solstice and a few days on either side, on the rare cloudless days at that time of year, the setting sun will shine directly down the entrance corridor. Webcams are set up there and one midwinter afternoon I watch over the internet as the golden light hits the end wall.
I had a reckless idea to get farmer Neil or fisherman Douglas to take me out to the Holm one day around midwinter and leave me overnight - for both sunset and sunrise - so I could investigate and find out if there is any sun alignment. I thought I was brave and had no superstitions to stop me spending a night in the tomb but now, after just a few minutes down there, I want to get out: it is cold, damp, dark and scary. There is no way I’m going to spend a night there.”

Stonehenge (Circle henge)

Entry taken from "A Complete and Universal DICTIONARY of the English Language" by Revd. James Barclay - dated 1812.

STONEHENGE, a remarkable monument of antiquity situated on Salisbury Plain. It stands on the summit of a hill, which rises with a very gentle ascent; and consists of stones of enormous size, placed upon one another in a circular form: many of which are really stupendous, and cannot fail of filling the beholder with surprise and admiration. All the stones added together make just 140. One, at the upper end which is fallen down and broken in half, measures, according to Dr. Hales, 25 feet in length, 7 in breadth, and, at a medium, 3 and a half in thickness. The stones are supposed to have been brought from the Grey Weathers, upon Marlborough Downs, but the difficulty in bringing them hither, and especially in laying them one upon another, is inconceivable, as no mechanical powers now known are sufficient to raise those that lie across to their present extraordinary situation. It is supposed to have been a temple belonging to the Antient (sic) Druids. Stonehenge is 2 miles W. of Amesbury, and 6 N.N.W. of Salisbury.

Cadbury Castle (South Cadbury) (Hillfort)

" ... But I should at once declare my position on all matters Arthurian. I would be bitterly disappointed if it was proved - which looks unlikely - that there was a historical Arthur. One of the great triumphs of the English literary imagination is that the cathedral of prose which is the Arthurian cycle was built up over centuries on empty ground.
Even so, on arriving at Cadbury Castle I could see why such sober heads as Leslie Alcock, who had excavated here in the 1960s, should have succumbed to its charm: the ring of trees around the banked hill; the approach up through them along a hollow way; the emergence onto a plateau commanding views across to the Somerset Levels and Glastonbury. Moreover it was close to the River Cam, and had the villages of West Camel and Queen Camel just to the west, so encouraging the identification with 'Camelot'.
When Alcock excavated here, he established that the hill-fort was built in the Bronze Age, with later Iron Age usage, and that it was substantially enlarged and occupied just after the Roman withdrawal from Britain in the fifth century - much more so than other comparable hill-forts. The fifth century was precisely when Arthur was supposed to have emerged to lead the British against the Anglo-Saxons.
With great good luck, Alcock discovered a 'Great Hall' from this period, measuring some sixty-five feet long; good luck, in that his team of archaeologists allowed themselves only a relatively small part of the plateau to excavate, so to find anything was providential. Perhaps it was this that tipped Alcock over the edge into making the identification with King Arthur, which brought Cadbury Castle to world wide attention at a time, the late 1960s, when a generation were searching for a lost and future king. It cost him a great deal of respect from his peers, who questioned the historicity of Arthur. There are no contemporary accounts of his reign and the first chronicle describing his deeds dates from 600 years later - but then argued Alcock, there are hardly any fifth-century contemporary accounts in the first place..."

Taken from: The Green Road Into The Trees - A Walk Through England by Hugh Thomson

Kingston Russell (Stone Circle)

"Set back inland from Abbotsbury, and a brisk walk up the coast path, was the Kingston Russell stone circle, a place so off the map that even Aubrey Burl didn't list it in his authoritative gazetteer, Rings of Stone.
In a corner of a farmer's field, the stones lay a little forlorn. There were seventeen of them, arranged in a careful, elliptical shape mirrored by other stone circles along the Atlantic coast. They had been there some 5,000 years.
The stones had all fallen over. English Heritage, who nominally administered the site, hadn't put up so much as a board to inform visitors what they were looking at. While I was there, three couples passed at intervals, heading for the coast path. They would not have noticed the circle if I hadn't pointed it out.
Yet the stones had a majesty, and much that came from their position. The slight rise in the land meant that there was a clear sight line to the round hills of Beacon Knap and other similar knolls heading west along the coast. I was accustomed to the prehistoric love of mimicry, the circle reflecting the shape of the hills beyond.
Making the landscape yours, stamping ownership on the land by showing that you too can shape it, is a primal human instinct. The power of the sacred landscape, and in this case of the sea as well, can be refracted by a sense of placement, of concentration. There was a feeling at the stone circle of great deliberation - that this was precisely the right place for these stones"

Extract from "The Green Road into the Trees - a walk through England" by Hugh Thomson.

Grim's Ditch (Dyke)

The Dyke to me back to an older heritage than the Saxon world; it was built by the Celts of the Iron Age in about 300BC, for reasons that, if archaeologists are honest, remain mysterious - to the point that there has been some argument as to whether it was for southerners to keep northerners out, or vice versa. To my lay eyes it seemed probable that it was designed to keep the north out, with the ditch on that side of the embankment; but more crucial for me was the acceptance of a mystery. I was used in Latin America to ancient earthworks whose purpose or meaning remained resolutely obscure, and I liked that. Keats's idea of 'negative capability', that we should be humble in the face of what we do not understand, does not always sit well in the world of archaeology, where forcibly expressed hypotheses and the denigration of rival theories are the norm.

Perhaps because we understand so little about it, you never hear Grim's Dyke mentioned in the same breath as Offa's Dyke on the Welsh border. Yet it was also a substantial achievement and wherever traces of it remain, as they do on the high horse country below Wantage and even around Watford and suburban London, it is a reminder of how insistently north and south were divided in this country, a fatal fault line that ultimately allowed the Normans to conquer the Anglo-Saxon world.

Taken from "The Green Road Into The Trees" by Hugh Thomson

Barbury Castle (Hillfort)

Yesterday I discovered the sarsen stone memorial to Richard Jefferies and Alfred Williams. In a field on the left as you go uphill towards Barbury Castle - just as you reach a sign saying Barbury 100yds ahead.

A lovely pitted four-sided sarsen which stands approximately three metres above the ground (though probably much larger). There are plaques attached to two sides of the stone:

Richard Jefferies
"It is eternity now.
I am in the midst of it, it is about me in the sunshine."

Alfred Williams
"Still to find and still to follow
Joy in every hill and hollow
Company in Solitude"

Manton Down (Long Barrow)

"Discarded long barrow, Manton Down, as dumped in 1996 - the end (or just another phase?) of a long story of abuse of a chambered long barrow which was a Scheduled Ancient Monument supposedly protected by law; but it made the big mistake of being in the way of agricultural land improvement in the 1950s and has subsequently been totally destroyed. This presumably final resting is about a quarter mile (c.400m) from the place where these stones were built into a tomb some 6000 years ago, a tomb which was respected by prehistoric farmers when cultivating their fields 2000-3000 years later. And 3000 years later again - progress? What progress?"

Text under a photo of the destroyed barrow in "An English Countryside Explored - The Land of Lettice Sweetapple" by Peter Fowler and Ian Blackwell

Bagendon Earthworks (Ancient Village / Settlement / Misc. Earthwork)

Taken from

Bagendon Settlement near Cirencester
Head south on the A429 (Fosse Way) to Cirencester. Follow the Bypass to the A435 (Cheltenham Road). Head north and Bagendon is signposted on the left. The Iron Age banks and ditches are widespread but are most visible along Cutham Lane and Welsh Way.
In historical terms, Cirencester's heritage is impressive. As Corinium it was the second largest town in Roman Britain with a military base, a large forum, basilica and an amphitheatre. But just north of the town lay the likely remains of a tribal capital older than Cirencester. Bagendon was home to a Celtic people called the Dobunni whose territory was centred on what are now the western counties of England including Gloucestershire and northern Somerset. About half a mile east and south east of the village is a system of scattered Iron Age ditches sometimes called the Bagendon Dykes built in about AD20. In total the Dubonni enclosed about 200 acres here and there's evidence that within its walls they constructed stone-floored, half-timbered huts with thatched roofs and even a mint for the production of silver and bronze coins. They were relatively sophisticated with a system of livestock farming on the Cotswold hills (cattle, sheep and pigs) as well as an established trade in imported pottery and jewellery from the continent.
Modern Bagendon is an archetypal Cotwold village with many attractive stone dwellings and a thatched cottage beside the small parish church. Excavations took place in the village in the mid 1950s and again in 1980-81. To experience more about the area, history lovers should head for the Corinium Museum in Park Street, Cirencester. The award-winning attraction is home to one of the largest collections of Romano-British antiquities in Great Britain and holds more than one million items in total. Admission is charged and opening times vary, so you're advised to check before visiting.

Stonehenge (Circle henge)

In partnership with English Heritage as part of the BBC's 'Ancient Britons' series the Stonehenge Road Show arrived at Swindon's Outlet Village on 23/2/11. Naturally aimed at children (half-term) it was a pleasure to observe. Yes, there was a 'life-size' inflatable trilithon (nothing to offend anyone though), a couple of experimental archaeologists dressed in sheepskin and a display of artefacts - antler picks, fragments of bluestone and sarsen, flint tools and sarsen mauls. David Dawson, director of the Wiltshire Heritage Museum, was manning the display and encouraging the kids to touch and handle them.
I didn't stay too long but long enough to see a group of kids (one of them in a Superman outfit) pulling a large fake sarsen along on wooden rollers.
Great fun for them I should think.

More here, a report from the Swindon Advertiser

Tower Hill (Ancient Village / Settlement / Misc. Earthwork)

I received my order from Oxbow books today of the Oxford Archaeology book "Uffington White Horse and its landscape". Looks great; chapter 8 is specifically about Tower Hill which lies 4 km south of White Horse Hill at the northern end of the chalk ridge south of Wayland's Smithy and the Ridgeway. It lies withing a triangle formed by three Iron age forts - Uffington Castle, Hardwell Camp and Alfred's Castle.

"In March 1993 a local schoolteacher, Mrs Liz Philips found a dozen bronze axes and other objects while walking her dog along a farm track which ran up through a ploughed field at the northern end of the ridge known as Tower Hill ..."

She reported her find to the landowner, the Ashmolean Museum and the Wantage Museum and the site was subsequently visited by Oxfordshire County Archaeologist, Paul Smith. The hoard also includes a socketed bronze axe found by a member of the public, also in 1993 (reported to Oxfordshire County Museum Service).

Authors of the Uffington book are David Miles, Simon Palmer. Gary Lock, Chris Gosden and Anne Marie Cromarty.
Passionate about:
Nature; stone circles and all ancient sites that involve walking through unspoilt countryside/being near the sea; islands around the the British Isles, especially those with ancient monuments.

My TMA Content: