The Old Stones of the North Exhibition

Circumstances have prevented me from visiting our joint exhibition, so this week we took a trip over to Grasmere to have a look. I was impressed with the way that the Heaton Cooper Studio has presented our work. The exhibition runs until the 29th May.

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

The Old Stones Exhibition March 2022

My friend Tony Galuidi asked me if I’d be interested in a joint exhibition, I agreed and here it is. If you like big old prehistoric stones and you happen to find yourself in Cumbria, pop in and have a look.

Size matters…Yorkshire Megaliths & Cumbria’s Prehistoric Monuments

I recently saw this wonderful illustration of Yorkshire Megaliths. I contacted the author, Adam Morgan Ibbotson, and he kindly sent me a copy.

I was rather chuffed, Adam wrote one of my favourite books of 2021, Cumbria’s Prehistoric Monuments. It’s a lovely book, comprehensive, very readable with beautiful photographs, maps and illustrations. If prehistory and big old stones are your thing, you’ll love this. You can buy it here

Aubrey Burl

Last week I learned that Harry Aubrey Woodruff Burl had passed away at the age of 93.

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Sometime in the mid 1980’s I discovered a book in a second hand bookshop called The Stone Circles of the British Isles by Aubrey Burl. I bought it, read it and re-read it, it changed my world.

burl stone circles

Prior to finding Burl’s book, I had an interest in all things ancient and had visited quite a few prehistoric sites. My views were shaped by the writings of Janet & Colin Bord, John Michell and other writers of the alternative archaeology community. Burl’s book propelled me into the world of Prehistoric Archaeology and set me on a path that I am still happily travelling.

Burl’s field guide, A Guide to the Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany, is a must for anyone interested in the subject. My dog-eared copy has travelled the length and breadth of Britain with me. It has led me over fields, across bogs and empty moors, walking in his steps, seeking out the megalithic remains of our islands.

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Burl was my entry into the world of prehistory, once discovered my bookshelves soon started to fill not only with his works but books by Daniels, Hawkes, Bradley, Waterhouse, Thom, Barnatt and Piggott to name a few.

Daniels

Burl also taught me to look back to the work of the early antiquarians such as Aubrey, Stukeley, Camden, Ferguson and Borlase. I also sought out the work of more recent researchers, people who marked the transition from Antiquarianism into modern Archaeology such as Fred Cole, Sir James Simpson, Canon Greenwell, Collingwood Bruce and Frank Elgee.

Easter_Aquhorthies_stone_circle,_Fred._Coles_1900

When travelling to a previously unvisited area, I always consult Burl and mark my maps accordingly. I’ve explored Brittany using his Megalithic Brittany book as my guide, on my first trip to Avebury I used his itinerary to discover the stones, he has never let me down. Aubrey Burl was my teacher and my guide and I am sad that he is no longer with us.

It has been hard pleasure to see so many fine circles in Western Europe. They are one family, now dispersed, a megalithic confusion of parents, children, nieces and nephews, in-laws, second cousins, even some dubious offspring at the furthest edge of acceptability…They fascinate and perplex. Enjoy them.

A Guide to the Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Britanny. A Burl 1995

Leaving Eden – Moor Divock

 I’ve been exploring this moor for many years.

MD

The Kopstone, gatekeeper of the moor. Looking towards Shap with the Howgills in the distance. The low escarpment on the upper left of the picture is Knipe Scar with its  limestone stone circle, part of a chain of at least a dozen intervisible prehistoric monuments in the Lowther valley from Oddendale in the south to the Leacet circle in the north.

 

There is a loose alignment of monuments running across the moor, walking between this large pair of stones leads you towards the cairn circle known as Moor Divock 4

Map

MD4

MD

Stan Beckensall believes that the roughly circular area, below the arrow in the picture, is an eroded cup and ring motif. I have stared at this stone many times and in many lights, the eye of faith is required.

MD

Moving west, this embanked alignment of  large upright stones has previously been interpreted as the remains of a circle.

Autumnal colour

Continuing west, an avenue of small, paired stones leads you across the moor towards the White Raise Cairn

MD Arriving at White Raise the western landscape opens out,  the builders of the mound chose well when they selected this spot. The large white limestone block in the centre of the picture is thought to have served as a cover for the cist.

MD

The cist

White Raise illust

Onwards across the moor following the route of the Roman Road which deviates towards the circle indicating that this route existed long before the Romans arrived on our shores

OS Map Pub 1920

 When the Bronze Age people erected the monuments on the moor, the Cockpit may have already been regarded as an ancient monument.

 

MDThe Cockpit was probably the first stone circle I ever visited.

Cockpit

MD

Looking west across the moor from the Cockpit to White Raise and the Pennines beyond. Thinking about the journey home.

Sources

The Prehistoric Remains on Moordivock near Ullswater by M. Waistell Taylor. TCWAAS 001. 1886

The Stone Circles of Cumbria by John Waterhouse. Phillimore & Co. 1985

Map extract Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

The Old Stones

Old Stones

I recently bought a copy of a new book called The Old Stones. The Book describes itself as ‘A Field Guide to the Megalithic sites of Britain and Ireland’ and ‘the most comprehensive and democratically selected list of prehistoric sites that has ever been put in a book like this.’ The book is a collaborative work and utilises the knowledge and experience of the users of the Megalithic Portal website.

I have been visiting prehistoric sites around Britain and Europe for over 30 years but I don’t consider myself experienced enough to give a qualified opinion on the national coverage of the book so I’ll focus on the treatment of North Yorkshire and Cumbria.

The gazetteer covers the major monuments of the Yorkshire Wolds, the Ure-Swale Plateau and a couple of Pennine sites. Sadly only two North York Moors sites have made it into the book, Nab Ridge and The High and Low Bridestones. Both of these are lovely sites although it could be argued that the Low Bridestones are merely a group of fairly underwhelming low walls. There is no mention of  any of the impressive moorland standing stones or burial monuments. Even the nationally important prehistoric rock art site of Fylingdales Moor with its 200+ carved rocks and monuments, fails to get a mention.

The book then travels westwards to Cumbria and manages to capture many significant Cumbrian sites. Surprisingly the Greycroft and Elva Plain circles fail to get a mention. After Cumbria the book back-tracks east to Barningham Moor, then jumps 60 miles north to Northumberland.

The book promotes itself as a field guide, this is only part true, in eastern Cumbria it would be a handy book to keep in your car but in the case of the North York Moors and the Northern Pennines it would be of little use. It is also quite a heavy book to be toting around in your rucksack. My final gripe, the regional guides section at the end of the book fails to list any guides covering Northern England, Wales, most of Scotland and all of the island of Ireland. That said, it does list many useful many online resources.

Putting together a book of this size and scope was always going to be a massive task. There are over 1000 sites listed in the book and it is admirable that such an endeavour has even been attempted. Despite my criticisms, I am enjoying reading the book and would recommend it to anyone who is interested in the Prehistoric sites of our islands. It is well laid out, easy to read and has full colour photographs and maps. There a forward by Mike Parker Pearson, an lovely piece discussing Prehistoric Landscapes by Vicci Cummins. There are a number of excellent articles scattered throughout the book on topics ranging from the Top 10 Urban Prehistory Sites to Archaeoacoustics.

This book serves to remind us of the sheer range and quantity of prehistoric monuments that exist in our islands. It is a fitting tribute to the hard work and devotion to recording these sites by Andy Burnham and the members of the Megalithic Portal website.

Buy it here

Monument Podcast

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David Parker contacted me a few months ago and asked if we could meet up and have a chat about the Devil’s Arrows for a podcast he was putting together. I met up with David who is a lovely bloke, full of knowledge and enthusiasm. David has now released his podcast, the second in a series.

David’s website is here 

During our chat I said a couple of things that weren’t 100% accurate so here’s a few corrections

  • The paper on the alignment of Henges is by Roy, not Ron, Loveday
  • I was way out on the height of the bank at Mayburgh Henge, 15 feet is probably a more accurate estimate.
  • The Bronze Age monument at Street House was a round barrow not a long cairn. The long cairn was part of the final stage of the Neolithic monument.

A Southern Excursion

Excursion – A movement of something along a path or through an angle

Avebury

This is an amazing collection of monuments, all of them excessive in size. There is a colossal earthwork enclosure with four entrances; the largest stone circle in western Europe surrounding the remains of the fifth and seventh biggest rings; and the remnants of two Coves, a holed stone and two avenues. Aubrey Burl. 1995

Even the most Gothic of poetry could not evoke the impact that this colossus has upon any mind sensitive to the lingerings of prehistory…As long ago as 1289 the earthwork was called Waleditch, Old English weala-dic, ‘the dyke of the Britons’. Aubrey Burl. 2000

Avebury postcard

Avebury Postcard. Reconstruction by Alan Sorrell. Dept. of the Environment 1958

GrotesqueThe monument we see today was excavated and reconstructed by Alexander Keiller during the late 1930’s.  A number of the stones, including the one pictured above, were reassembled using the remaining fragments.

I once took a holiday in Avebury, staying in the Keiller Room at the Red Lion pub allowed me to spend a couple of chilly November evenings and frosty mornings walking alone amongst the stones. I recently returned, sadly the Red Lion no longer takes guests.

The stones and the surrounding landscape have informed the work of Barbara Hepworth, John Piper, Paul Nash and many other artists.

The church, unlike the pub, sits outside of the henge. When siting the original church, it must have seemed futile to try and christianise a pagan monument of such magnitude. The Saxon baptismal font is thought to depict a bishop trampling on a pair of dragons.

Many of the stones were thrown down and buried by christians during the fourteenth century.  The stones were once again attacked during the mid-seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, many stones were smashed for buildings.

Herepath, the power of the name compelled me to walk along it to the Ridgeway.

At home, on the North York moors, my eyes are often cast downwards onto the margins of the path looking for flints. Here the track is made of flint, I felt quite overwhelmed.

I had set myself the challenge of finding a single, specific, stone amongst the sarsen drifts (Grey Wethers) of Fyfield Down.  Julian Cope calls this area The Mother’s Jam.

Polissoir – A block of coarse stone, sometimes as an earthfast boulder or natural outcrop, used for grinding and polishing stone tools.

The bowl and grooves of the sarsen polissoir are as smooth as marble. A potential polissoir has been found built into the fabric of the nearby West Kennet Long Barrow with another incorporated into the Stone Circle at Avebury.

Singing at Delling’s Door.

The Ridgeway, one notable landscape Archaeologist believes that it may have first been established as a trackway at the end of the last ice age.

Heading south along the Ridgeway, the summit of Silbury Hill reveals itself.

Silbury Hill is the largest man made mound in Europe.

The Barrow Cemetery on Overton Hill is crossed by the remains of a Roman Road.

 The Sanctuary is located where the Ridgeway meets the modern A4. The monument consisted of two concentric rings of standing stones, it was destroyed in the 18th century ‘to gain a little dirty profit’ (Wm. Stukeley 1724). Concrete posts mark the locations of the stones

The stones of the West Kennet Avenue led me back to Avebury.

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Sources

A Guide to the Stone Circles of Britain Ireland & Brittany. Aubrey Burl. 1995

The Stone Circles of Britain Ireland & Brittany. Aubrey Burl. 2000

Shap Granite

This tale begins approximately five hundred million years ago when the north of Scotland was attached to a continent called Laurentia. The rest of Britain was joined to a continent called Eastern Avalonia. Scandanavia was part of a continent called Baltica.

Tectonic forces caused these three continents to move towards each other, the collision resulted in the loss of a huge ocean, the Lapetus, and the creation of a mountain range, on the scale of the Himalayas. This event, during which the north of Scotland became joined the rest of Britain, was called the Caledonian Orogeny and lasted about one hundred million years.

Orogenesis – The birth of mountains.

The mountain range that was formed during the Caledonian Orogeny has long since been eroded away but the rocks that were formed during this period remain, one of which is Cumbrian Shap Granite.

Shap granite is described by geologists as a coarse grained granite, formed by the cooling of a large body of igneous rock, called a pluton, which was intruded into the pre-existing Cumbrian rocks. Shap granite is very distinctive and easily identified by the large crystals (phenocrysts) of pink orthoclase feldspar contained within its matrix.

Shap Granite, Albert Rd Middlesbrough

Shap Granite, Albert Rd Middlesbrough

The granite intrusion is limited to an eight square kilometres area on the Fells, a couple of miles to the south of the village of Shap.

shap map

There are two rocks called Shap granite, pink granite and blue granite. Pink granite is a true granite, it is an igneous rock which originates from a large reservoir or Batholith, deep within the earth’s crust. Blue granite is a metamorphic rock known as Hornfels. The Hornfels was formed when the native rock around the granite intrusion was altered by temperature and pressure. The zone of altered rock around the intrusion is known as a Metamorphic Aureole.

Shap Granite, Albert Rd Middlesbrough

Shap Granite, Albert Rd Middlesbrough

Both the pink and blue granites are exploited for commercial purposes. Pink granite when cut and polished is used as an attractive and extremely durable building stone. With the coming of the railways it became a popular architectural stone with the Victorians and has, and still is, been used as a decorative stone on buildings throughout Britain. Blue granite is usually crushed and used as aggregate for concrete or as hard-wearing road chippings.

Shap Granite - Middlesbrough Station

Shap Granite – Middlesbrough Station

Five to six thousand years ago, the first farmers arrived in Eastern Cumbria. The main rock type on the low moors and valleys around the Shap area is Carboniferous Limestone. The land around Shap is fertile and well drained, an ideal place for the pastoralists and their animals to settle. Once communities became established they marked the land with their stone and earth ceremonial monuments.

The valleys and moors around Shap are littered with pink granite boulders, this was not lost on our ancestors and the majority of the stone monuments in the local area are built almost entirely of Shap granite boulders. The most obvious reason for this is availability but I believe that our ancestors may have placed a spiritual value on the distinctive granite boulders. The large feldspar crystals in the granite are the colour of flesh, The texture and colour of weathered limestone can resemble bone.

A few stone circles they have a single limestone boulder or in the case of the Oddendale Concentric circle, two stones, one in the outer ring and another between the two rings. Some, but not all, of the of the regions monuments are intervisible, forming a long chain of ritual monuments along the Lowther and Eden valleys.

Large single erratics are known as Thunder Stones; No one knows the origin of the name other than a general belief that these stones were cast down to earth by the gods or a race of giants.

One of many Thunder Stones

Oddendale – One of many Thunder Stones

Eastern Cumbria is particularly rich in prehistoric monuments; the village of Shap was once the location of one of the most impressive monuments in Northern mainland Britain, the Shap Avenues. Little remains of this monument but by looking at the archaeological remains and antiquarian accounts we can build up a picture of what it looked like. A few years ago a good friend and I researched the Shap monuments, an account of our research and fieldwork can be found here Shap MA Blog

Stone Circles Map

The reasons why Shap and the North of Britain are littered with granite boulders probably alluded our ancestors. Up until the beginning of the nineteenth century, the occurrence of these stones was used as evidence of a catastrophic flood event as described in the bible. This theory, diluvianism, remained unchallenged until 1840 when a young Swiss naturalist called Louis Agassiz brought a new theory to Britain based upon his observations on the movements of Glaciers in the Alpine regions.

Agassiz toured Northern England with the Reverend William Buckland, Professor of Geology at Oxford University. Their theory of glaciation and the glacial transportation of material was not readily accepted by the scientific establishment of the day but further evidence-based studies gradually gained support and glacial theory was accepted.

Dromonby Shap Granite Erratic

Dromonby Shap Granite Erratic

These ice transported boulders became know as glacial erratics, to further the study of glaciation during the nineteenth century local naturalist groups were enlisted throughout the North of England and Scotland to help. These groups often formed Boulder committees who engaged in fieldwork, logging locations and rock types of erratics throughout the Northern Britain. This information along with the study of landforms was then be used to build maps tracking the movements of the ancient ice sheets and glaciers.

Many Shap granite boulders have been found in the Tees Valley, some have even been given names, the Bulmer Stone in Darlington and the Great Stone in Deepdale. Others have been used as curiosities on village greens and parks. There is even an account of a group of boulders beneath the sea, close to the mouth of the River Tees.

Erratics apart, Teesside has another link with the Shap area. Behind the village is a large Limestone quarry; attached to the quarry is an industrial site that processes the limestone. The site was formerly owned by British Steel and is currently operated by Tata Steel. Limestone is an essential ingredient in the production of iron and steel, it acts as a flux, removing impurities from the molten iron and helping slag to form. The basic recipe to create one ton of iron is; two tons of iron ore plus one ton of coke plus half a ton of limestone.

Iron Hill & Hardendale Quarry

Iron Hill South & Hardendale Limestone Quarry

The recent decline in the iron and steel industry in Scotland and the North of England has led to a collapse in the market for flux-grade limestone and the closure of many quarries. The Hardendale quarry is now closed and the limestone plant at Shap is currently up for sale.

Kemp Howe

Kemp Howe and the Tata Limestone Works

The Shap area is a place that continues to draw me back. The terrain is soft, the landscape is dense in history, the vistas are open and the skies can be endless. My genius loci exists amongst the stone circles and limestone pavements on the rolling uplands of Shap.

White Hag Limestone Pavement

White Hag Limestone Pavement