The World of Stonehenge

I took a trip down to London to see the British Museum’s The World of Stonehenge exhibition. It was wonderful to see items that I’d read about over the years all gathered into one place and beautifully displayed. If prehistory is your thing, I’d definitely recommend a visit. here’s a few images to whet your appetite.

Prehistoric Postcards

A few years ago I bought an album of old french postcards themed around prehistoric monuments and natural rock features.

This sparked a short obsession with prehistoric postcards. I bought most of them from ebay and boot sales, setting myself the challenge of paying no more than a pound or two for each card. The obsession burned itself out after a year or two so and I decided to put the collection online for anyone to use. I uploaded about a third of the cards and then kind of lost interest. I’ll return to it one day and finish the job.

If this sort of thing interests you, the collection can be found here

Wandering in the shadow of the sacred hill

My friend Graeme Chappell and I decided to have a wander around Thompson’s Rigg. We followed the Old Wife’s Way from Horcum, dropping down along Newgate Brow into the valley below.

We crossed the fields to take a look at the standing stones at the foot of Blakey Topping. These stones have been interpreted as a possible ruined stone circle.

After spending some time at the stones we walked onto Thompson’s Rigg. The Rigg is only a mile long. Its flanks slope down into the valleys of the Grain Beck to the East and Crosscliff Beck to the west. The moor is surrounded on three sides by higher ground and gently slopes to the south, where it narrows to form a valley which eventually leads to Langdale End and Howden Hill, a hill very similar in appearance to Blakey Topping.

About a third of the way along the Rigg the trackways bends, at this point, running diagonally to the trackway, is a cross ridge boundary. The boundary is a banked structure that bisects the full width of the moor and is topped, in parts, with large stones. The official scheduling for the area states that, Although this boundary forms part of the post-medieval field boundary system in the area, it is considered to incorporate elements of an earlier construction which had origins in the prehistoric period, contemporary with the cairnfield. source

In his book Early Man in North East Yorkshire Frank Elgee wrote, A wall of upright stones crosses the Rigg between the farm and the barrows, he also includes the boundary on his map of the area

It is curious that despite the earthwork being mentioned in the official scheduling of the area and despite it defining the the northern limit of the cairnfield and barrows and its close resemblance to other moorland cross ridge boundaries, this significant structure does not appear in either Don Spratt’s 1993 or Blaise Vyner’s 1995 inventories of the cross ridge boundaries of the North York Moors.

South of the large boundary earthwork we started to encounter many cairns, most are in deep heather and difficult to define, at least one of this group appears to be a large ruined barrow.

We continued south, traipsing through the deep heather to a grassy area containing a beautiful Platform Cairn. Platform Cairns are rare on the North York Moors, they are defined as, A roughly circular monument featuring a low, more or less level platform of stones surrounded or retained by a low stone kerb. Some may feature a small central open area, thus resembling a ring cairn. Source.

There is a large stone and hollow in the middle of the cairn implying a possible ruined cist, it is evident that this cairn had been excavated in the past. Graeme reminded me that we were only seven miles from Pickering, once home to James Ruddock.

James Ruddock was a nineteenth century commercial barrow digger. Between 1849 and his death in 1859 he opened many of our moorland mounds in search of finds to sell to the gentleman collectors of his time. His main client was the antiquary Thomas Bateman, he also opened barrows for Samuel Anderson of Whitby.

Unfortunately Ruddock did not always keep precise notes regarding the locations of his diggings, many of his finds have ended up in our museums with vague labels such as, from a mound 6 miles north of Pickering.

Moving further south we encountered this lovely, fairly well-defined ring cairn.

On the south eastern flanks of the Rigg is a group of hollow ways, these are not considered to be prehistoric.

At the southern end of the Rigg is this orthostatic wall which contains many large stones, some of which appear to be buried into the ground. If the wall contained unburied stones it would be classed as a boulder wall. The walling is definitely not prehistoric but may contain stones from an earlier feature.

Not far from the walling is this three foot high standing stone, located within an area of low banks and cairns at the southern end of the Rigg.

Blakey Topping and Thompson’s Rigg are well worth a visit, There is a wealth of prehistoric remains to be seen within a relatively small area. The area is owned by the National Trust and is not managed for grouse so has a mixture of habitats, we saw plenty of birds including Skylarks, Snipes and what I think were a large flock of Fieldfares.

If you visit this lovely place, what you’ll undoubtably notice is that wherever you are on the moor, Blakey Topping is the dominant landscape feature. Graeme and I agreed that this beautiful hill probably had a deep significance to the original inhabitants of this area. A sacred hill? perhaps even a sacred landscape?

Resources

Early Man in North East Yorkshire. Frank Elgee. 1930

Orthostatic Field Walls on the North York Moors. D A Spratt. YAJ Vol. 60. 1988

Linear Earthworks of the Tabular Hills, Northeast Yorkshire. D A Spratt. 1989

Prehistoric and Roman Archaeology of North-East Yorkshire edited by D A Spratt. 1993

CBA Research Report 101: Moorland Monuments’ in The Brides Of Place: Cross-Ridge Boundaries Reviewed, B Vyner. 1995

OS Map – The National Library of Scotland

Postscript

To illustrate Graeme’s comments

Boulby Alum Quarries

I needed to unravel a few knots and put some ground under my boots. I was undecided as to where to go…time for the coin. A flip of the coin as to whether it would be moorland or coastal, a second flip to decide on a old favourite on a new site. The outcome, coastal/new.

A while ago I was reading about the Boulby Alum Quarries, I’d never visited the place, I did once try to get there via the the Loftus quarries but failed. I had read that Boulby was one of the best examples of its kind in the country, so that was that, Boulby was the place.

I walked along the Cleveland way to Rockhole, looking for a path into the quarry. All I could find was the trace of a track heading towards Rockhole Hill. I followed the track which got fainter and fainter and took me deep into the quarry. The vegetation got higher and thicker and the track eventually petered-out completely at a large pile of droppings. I’d been following a rabbit track which had led me into a deep thicket of gorse and brambles. I looked for a way forward but couldn’t seen anything that resembled a path.

I had a choice, try and push forward through the quarry or retrace my steps back up to the main footpath and start again. I decided to push on and look for another path. I thought that if I could skirt around Rockhole hill towards the cliff edge I would come across a path, a simple enough plan. The problem was that the foot of the hill and the quarry floor is covered in chest-high rosebay willowherb, bracken, gorse, brambles and boulders, there are also a number of small, steep-sided beck channels concealed beneath the vegetation. The flanks of the hill are steep but less treacherous, they are covered with deep heather and large, impenetrable patches of gorse and brambles. It took me about half and hour of constant scrambling and slipping to cover the short distance to the cliff edge.

Much to my relief, my efforts eventually led to an overgrown track that looked as though it was heading towards the main quarry and alum works. After that it was fairly plain sailing, there were still patches of gorse and brambles to get around but the ground was fairly level and the surrounding vegetation was fairly low.

Moving along the track I began to noticed low walls, the remains of a building, a stone-covered culvert and two beautiful circular stone-lined tanks. The production of Alum started here in the mid 1600s, the Rockhole quarries and structures are the oldest part of the site.

I continued to walk north into the later sections of the works and suddenly found myself standing in the quarry, an amphitheatre of alum, ruins of massive stone walls and heaps of alum shale, facing the sea and backed by the massive sandstone cliffs, a wonderful sight.

The cliffs are never static, large blocks litter the site, some bearing fossils.

Walking around the ruins, the mind starts to wander. It is easy to forget that this was a place of industry and imagine that these are the remnants of a cliff-edge citadel whose myths are still waiting to be discovered.

These cliffs are the highest point on the east coast of our island. The land above the quarry has been occupied for thousands of years, its soils contains the evidence of the district’s earliest house. Archaeologist Steve Sherlock has also found evidence of prehistoric salt production and jet working on the land behind the clifftop, evidence of early industry, albeit on a small scale. Our prehistoric ancestors performed rituals and buried their dead on these clifftops. It is also the location of the famous Saxon Princess burial.

I left the quarries and followed the path that runs between Rockhole Hill and the cliff edge. The track is becoming overgrown, an indication that this site doesn’t see many visitors. A couple of short sections of the path have eroded away, this is not a place for anyone who is nervous of walking along a cliff edge. The track leads back to the Cleveland Way via a couple of lovely tiny woods, shoehorned into the short valleys running down to the cliff tops.

If you are going to visit the quarries I would advise that you avoid following the track down into the Rockhole Quarry, my legs are covered in small cuts, pin-cushioned by brambles and gorse and it took a fair bit of effort to escape the quarry. The cliffs along this part of the coast can be unstable, the track around Rockhole Hill is difficult to find but definitely the one to take, however it is not without danger and should be approached with great caution.

Secrets released in floating egg

Northumberland Rings

We took a drive up to Northumberland to visit the most northerly English Stone Circle, Duddo aka The Singing Stones aka The Women.

Whilst in the area we dropped in at a couple of Prehistoric Rock Art sites. First stop was Roughting Linn where ate our lunch down besides the lovely waterfall. We then walked through the bluebell-clad ramparts of the ancient promontory fort to the large outcrop in the woods. The Fell Sandstone outcrop is covered in Prehistoric rock carvings and is the largest carved rock in Britain. The most of the carvings have been placed around the edges of the outcrop and have been compared to Irish Passage Grave Art.

This part of Northumberland is littered with Prehistoric Rock Art sites, most have wonderful views over the nearby fertile valleys. Many sites are intervisible with each other, quite a few also have nearby earthworks which have been interpreted as Iron Age in date. The carvings themselves are thought to be Neolithic/Early Bronze Age in date, the relationship between the carvings and the earthworks is not fully understood but it does indicate that these sites had a degree of continuity lasting for a considerable period of time.

We headed over to Weetwood Moor to check-out the carvings on the outcrops there before moving on to Chattonpark hill and the wonderful Ketley Crags, a Prehistoric Rock Shelter, its floor covered in deep cup and ring carvings.

Solstice: Duddo

On such a night the hills dissolved

And re-assembled in a shifting mist,

Numb with moonlight’s touch.

We learnt that silence was not hostile,

Took upon ourselves its deepest strength

Waiting for dawn’s layered sun.

A moon that placed

As crow’s shout cracked the sky

Fled from the triggered bird-song

Hesitant, then loud.

Before our eyes, a second birth,

A new-created universe,

Green and blue and gold.

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Fluted stones whose shape had shifted

With emitted heat

From bearded barley heads,

Buried to the hips,

Reclaimed their circle and identity,

Introspective, Janus-headed,

Guarding and inviting

As the sun’s diurnal course

Played a slow game

With shadow shapes

Time and time and time again.

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Solstice: Duddo by Stan Beckensall from Northumberland Power of Place. 2001

Map and Lidar images by permission of the National Library of Scotland