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Prehistory - Religious & Ceremonial B&W

Click to a larger version of Poulnabrone Dolmen, Co Clare: photo © Mick Sharp

Poulnabrone Dolmen, Co Clare: photo © Mick Sharp

The stone table of Poulnabrone rises dramatically from the ruins of its round cairn on the limestone pavement of the Burren. In the 4th millennium BC, when these portal dolmens were first being erected, this was good farming land rather than exposed sheets of limestone with profound cracks. This photograph was taken looking SE in 1977 before the 1986 repair and excavation work cleared out the burial chamber. The remains of over 20 people - men, women, children and a baby - were found along with pottery, worked flint and bone, stone beads and a polished stone axe. The bodies had been excarnated and disarticulated before being deposited as bones in the tomb, at other places cremation was the burial rite. With their massive capstones supported by tall entrance stones, Portal dolmens are amongst the earliest Neolithic tombs in the British Isles. In Ireland, western Wales and Cornwall they are found mainly on flat land at low altitudes near the coast and river valleys, but the distribution is different in the Cotswolds. Some of the chambers sit amongst the remains of a barrow or cairn, and a ramp of some sort around the uprights was probably employed to get the capstones in place. I’d like to think that low mounds protected the chambers but the soaring, sculptural slabs were left open to the sky, perhaps for use as platforms to expose the dead. Trees are bent and stunted by the prevailing winds, the scene looks bare as bones, but specialised plants thrive and flower deep in the limestone fissures.

Click to a larger version of The Whispering Knights, Oxfordshire: photo © Mick Sharp

The Whispering Knights, Oxfordshire: photo © Mick Sharp

At Rollright, in sight of the King’s Men stone circle, stand four upright slabs and the slipped capstone of a portal dolmen-type burial chamber, its contents and long barrow gone in the mists of time. Petrified conspirators, these captive hoar-stone knights stand accused of whispering treason against their king. The very same king who, lured and outwitted by a witch, was turned to stone (the nearby King Stone) along with his knights and men. But the legend continues: the Rollright Stones ‘will turn into flesh and blood once more’, the King will lead his warriors to victory over his enemies and ‘rule over all the land’. In the mid 1700s, William Stukeley described the country people for miles around being very fond of this story and taking ‘very ill’ any sign of doubt so that unbelievers were in danger of being stoned!

Click to a larger version of Gavrinis Passage Grave, Brittany: photo © Mick Sharp

Gavrinis Passage Grave, Brittany: photo © Mick Sharp

This hilltop mound, on the Island of Goats in the Gulf of Morbihan, once overlooked a fertile plain rich in riverine and marine resources. Although no finds of a funerary nature have been recorded from Gavrinis - it has been investigated many times since the early 1800s - its form is that of an early Neolithic chambered tomb with a long, stone-lined passage leading to a rectangular stone-lined chamber. The passage, the longest in Brittany, faces SE and contains alignments to the major southern moonrise and the midwinter sunrise which intersect beside a plain white quartz stone in the east wall. Newgrange in Ireland is similarly arranged to let the winter solstice sun pierce the passage and chamber, and they share other features and art motifs, especially the spiral which is not found in other Breton tombs. Twenty-three of the 29 side slabs are decorated, designs follow the angled faces of the stones, use natural cracks as part of the patterns and, in the chamber, each of the three pairs of wall slabs makes up one design. Some of the stones have earlier, more figurative carvings on their hidden faces; one in the chamber is a broken piece from a huge monolith once decorated with a handled axe, two oxen and an axe plough. It’s other two pieces have been identified incorporated into the tombs of Er-Vinglé, nearby, and la Table des Marchands at Locmariaquer a couple of miles (3km) away. In faint daylight supplemented by candles, the abstract patterns swirl, form, break and ripple across the stones like tattoos on a torso or shadows on the water: spirals, concentric curves, arcs or ‘boxed U’s’, squarish shield (buckler) or figurine shapes, vertical, horizontal and parallel lines, ‘fir-trees’, ‘serpents’, shepherds’ crooks, axe heads in the shape of polished jadeite ones found at Carnac, bows and arrowheads (chevrons) to go with them. In the half-light, the anthropomorphic menhirs, thought by some to represent a guardian mother goddess with swirling eyes and breasts, crowd forward. Fingerprints of the gods and the whorls of vortices formed in water and smoke mix with the sort of patterns created by sensory deprivation and disturbance of the optic nerve - close your eyes very tightly in the dark and wait. Art gallery, repository of sacred forms, lair of the earth spirit or Demiurge, temple, shrine, initiation chamber, energy accumulator, healing vault, regenerating womb - surely something more than a simple grave.

Click to a larger version of Les Pierres Plates Passage Grave, Brittany: photo © Mick Sharp

Les Pierres Plates Passage Grave, Brittany: photo © Mick Sharp

The ‘flat stones’ form an allée-coudée or angled passage grave with a terminal chamber at the NW, an entrance at the south and a side chamber on the inside bend where the short S-N passage turns into a longer SE-NW one. The tomb reclines amongst dunes, its entrance facing the sea kept company by a standing stone decorated with cups. The height and width of the passage increase towards the terminal chamber, from where this photograph was taken looking back towards the bend. The site was dug in 1811 using twenty soldiers ‘without result’ and excavated again in the early 1890s when it was restored. The art has been described many times - it is badly weathered but interesting. At least 14 of the uprights are decorated and there may have been more slabs prior to restoration. Some of the capstones bear cupmarks, early drawings show them decorated as well. Most of the designs are of the buckler, shield, figurine, idol type: a rectangular frame with an in-curved or projecting top and a central vertical line dividing the ‘body’ into two panels decorated with pairs of cups, breasts or U-shapes. The figure top left has been chalked in to create inaccurate ‘eyebrows’ and top boss. The next-but-one stone along has also been chalked, it shows a longer, double-framed rectangle with twelve pairs of lines angled up from the meridian. Sometimes called a fir-tree pattern, in this context it looks like a snazzy waistcoat roughly mirroring our twelve pairs of ribs.

Click to a larger version of Mané Lud Passage Grave, Brittany: photo © Mick Sharp

Mané Lud Passage Grave, Brittany: photo © Mick Sharp

The passage and chamber of Mané Lud lie enveloped in the western end of a huge rectangular ‘Carnac Culture’ tumulus which has its own circular cairn and corbelled burial chamber. Within the east end of the long ‘Mound of Ashes’ lay an arc of upright stones, five of them topped by horse-skulls. At Tumulus St-Michel (Carnac-Ville) an earlier passage grave was also incorporated into a massive ‘Carnac Mound’ with burial chamber and cists, burnt human bones, ox-bones and offerings of stone axes and beads. Finds from under the paving inside Mané Lud passage grave included strips of sheet gold, a fibrolite axe, barbed and tanged arrowheads, decorated pottery sherds, burnt bones, charcoal and a clay spindlewhorl. Five stones of the chamber, and three of the passage adjacent to the chamber, are decorated, seven of them feature the ‘yoke’ motif. This stone, on the south side of the passage features only yokes: 12 complete, plus half of one and a fragment. They are amongst the earliest carvings found in Breton tombs and called yokes (French ‘joug’) simply for convenience; the motif is not considered to be ‘a representation of a yoke.’ When I took this photograph in the 1970s, it was popular to think of them as water symbols or bows, but they could be stylized ox-heads with horns or bird-shapes to signify flight. Viewed as profiles they could indicate navels, cupmarks, baskets, pots or axe-plough furrows. A good deal of imagination has been put into the study of Breton tomb art symbols and the list goes on. Somewhat similar signs have been used to signify summer in an old Germanic time system and the moon’s south node in astronomy and astrology.

Click to a larger version of Stoney Littleton Long Barrow, Bath & NE Somerset (English Heritage): photo © Mick Sharp

Stoney Littleton Long Barrow, Bath & NE Somerset (English Heritage): photo © Mick Sharp

The spiral impression of an ammonite fossil decorates the entrance to this house of the dead. Facing SE at the high, broad end of a trapezoidal long mound the portal stones mark the threshold between the outer world of the forecourt and the inner world of the tomb. An antechamber and long passage, with three pairs of opposed side chambers along its length, lead to a terminal chamber at the NW. Heaps of bones representing many individuals were found in the chambers and it is clear skulls and bones were moved in and out of the vaults for use or display in the forecourt and elsewhere. As de-fleshed and disarticulated bones were often deposited, the dead may have been exposed on platforms in the forecourt, in the antechamber or spanning the threshold. Forensic examination of remains from Neolithic tombs suggest bodies were in various stages of decay and some skeletons show signs of having being pulled, or cut, apart when ligaments and connective tissues were still in place. In other cases complete bodies were manoeuvred through constricted entrances, down low, narrow passages, over sill stones and round tight corners like rescuers threading an unconscious potholer through stone intestines. Bodies show signs of having been tied in flexed positions, pulled and pushed - perhaps on animal skins - or bundled up in material. Some were given temporary burial in soil before being transferred to the chambers and others may have been ‘stored in a box, wrapped in blankets’ or carried on family travels in some way. In the hill villages of Tibet, the recently dead lie in their beds attended by family and friends while monks pray and read instructions from the Tibetan Book of the Dead. A work designed to help the living deal with the ‘psychic force left behind by a dead person’ and to guide them through the ‘bardo’ or gap between death and rebirth. The bodies are handled and turned, they become drier, lighter and more malleable - after 49 days of readings and attendance they are folded up and carried from the house for cremation.

Click to a larger version of West Kennet Long Barrow, Wiltshire (English Heritage): photo © Mick Sharp

West Kennet Long Barrow, Wiltshire (English Heritage): photo © Mick Sharp

This remarkable monument was excavated and restored in the 1950s. The two large sarsen slabs, and a third broken one beyond, at the centre of the E end of the long mound mark the final act in its Neolithic ritual life. Possibly erected as a monument to tribal history and land ownership, this museum of earth and stone held the memories, bones and other sacred relics of the society which built it. After acting as a charnel house, the passage and burial chambers were filled with chalk rubble and soil containing funerary offerings and then, finally, sealed to the world. An irregular façade of stones ran in a line N-S across the broad end of the mound with a concave forecourt in the centre leading into the passage. In the final days of ritual use a ‘false entrance’ of two portal stones was erected to extend the line of the passage into the forecourt. The remaining space was filled with sarsen boulders and three massive slabs positioned to extend the line of the façade across the front of the forecourt. Was this to protect the charged atmosphere of the tomb from disturbance in uncertain times or had the people grown fearful of the power of the ancestors and their own creation?

Click to a larger version of Carn Liath Chambered Cairn, Isle of Skye: photo © Mick Sharp

Carn Liath Chambered Cairn, Isle of Skye: photo © Mick Sharp

Boulders and split blocks were used as a peristalith to contain this Hebridean square cairn. Situated on the Trotternish peninsula, on a ridge between the drained, inland loch of Chaluim Chille (St Columba) and the west coast, the Grey Cairn surveys the ‘good rough grazing’ afforded by a quickly draining basalt plateau. The square is aligned NNW-SSE with small horn-like projections at the corners - the photo shows the best preserved example at the NW. Unfortunately the southern side of the cairn has been mutilated: an impressive drystone wall runs directly over the capstone of the single chamber and the entrance façade and passage have been scrambled. Hebridean tombs are found on the Outer Isles, Skye and adjacent mainland, their entrances mainly face between S and E and they tend to be sited with reference to a contemporary settlement or area of pasture. On Skye, their distribution is coastal with a preference for the areas of basalt.

Click to a larger version of Rubh’an Dunain Chambered Cairn, Isle of Skye: photo © Mick Sharp

Rubh’an Dunain Chambered Cairn, Isle of Skye: photo © Mick Sharp

Rubh’an Dunain is also a Hebridean tomb but it has a more usual round cairn. In a wild situation at the SW tip of Skye, it is at the end of a peninsula beyond Glenbrittle and under the watchful gaze of the brooding Cuillin Hills. Although remote, the area has been occupied - the land farmed, the sea harvested - during most periods up to the middle of the 19th century, the remains of an Iron Age fort and ruined blackhouses still to be seen nearby. It was excavated by Sir Lindsay and Mrs Scott in 1931 and 1932. No local labour was forthcoming and they improvised stone-moving equipment from driftwood. The circular cairn was retained by alternating orthostats (uprights) and panels of drystone walling. The façade on the SE was of similar construction, its stones decreasing in height away from the stones flanking the low entrance. The height of the roof increases as the burial chamber is approached through a vestibule and antechamber. The polygonal chamber is also of ‘post and panel’ construction, its portal stones impressive, the extra height welcome after the restricted passage. A foundation offering of human and animal bone had been placed at the foot of one of the uprights and the chamber contained burials of both Neolithic and Bronze Age people, along with animal and bird bones, pottery from both periods, flints, quartz and an archer’s wrist-guard. Ferns and foxgloves now inhabit the chamber which provided me with this view and a welcome refuge one windswept day.

Click to a larger version of Camster Round Cairn, Caithness (Historic Scotland): photo © Mick Sharp

Camster Round Cairn, Caithness (Historic Scotland): photo © Mick Sharp

Companion to Camster Long cairn, Camster Round stands on a slight eminence amidst the peat and grass of flat, wet moorland in the Flow Country. After the crawl and crouch of the 20-ft-long (6m) entrance passage, the soaring flagstones of the inner chamber lift the spirits. The passage faces ESE and gradually increases in height and width to an antechamber only half the height of the burial vault. A layer of black earth, charcoal, ashes and many fragments of human bones lay on the floor with unburnt human bones on top - the remains of at least three or four individuals. With them lay a few animal bones, flint tools and pottery decorated by fingertips and goose-quills. The whole length of the passage had been deliberately filled to the roof with stones: about halfway down, two bodies had been seated on the cold, damp ground, the blocking stones tightly packed around them.

Click to a larger version of Quoyness Chambered Cairn, Sanday, Orkney (Historic Scotland): photo © Mick Sharp

Quoyness Chambered Cairn, Sanday, Orkney (Historic Scotland): photo © Mick Sharp

Neolithic dead were also waiting in the passage and drystone vaults of Quoyness: skulls and decayed bones in the blocking of the outer passage, skulls and leg-bones in four of the six side cells, and the longbones of at least ten adults and four children in a stone-lined cist dug in the floor of the main chamber whose in-stepped walls rise for 13ft (4m). Chamber and cells are held within a complex cairn of three distinct stages standing on a more extensive, irregular oval platform. The inner cairn is pear-shaped, the next - flush with the outer end of the entrance passage - more oval. When the outer passage was blocked with stones and bones, a final casing was added to the cairn to seal and hide the entrance which faces SE to the sea. Quoyness stands beside the rocky shore on the remote but fertile peninsula of Els Ness which is also dotted with the mounds and cairns of the Bronze Age dead.

Click to a larger version of Maes Howe Chambered Cairn, Orkney Mainland (Historic Scotland): photo © Mick Sharp

Maes Howe Chambered Cairn, Orkney Mainland (Historic Scotland): photo © Mick Sharp

A respectful bow allows access along the passage formed of roughly coursed blocks combined with megalithic slabs up to 18ft (5.5m) long. The passage is furnished with door-checks and a moveable blocking stone stored in a recess. More symbolic than secure, the block would have allowed access for the slim and nimble over its top and it may have acted in a similar way to the slot above the passage at Newgrange (Ireland) which directed the light of the midwinter rising sun. Maes Howe’s passage is aligned SW to the midwinter setting sunset, and kinked to allow only sunshine around the winter solstice to penetrate the chamber. The symmetry and very high quality of the stonework of the 15ft square chamber are striking. Its square corbelled vault also rose to around 15ft and each corner has a buttress faced with a tapering monolith. In the middle of the three walls facing the passage are entrances to rectangular burial compartments raised above the chamber floor - below each lay its blocking stone. Apart from a human skull fragment, and bones and teeth of a horse, no finds were found in the 1861 excavations. Vikings had broken into the chamber through the roof several times in the 12th century. Their runic inscriptions speak of a great treasure taken away from the Howe, known to the Norse as Orkhaugr. Radiocarbon dates from the tomb’s encircling bank suggest some remodelling in the ninth century AD: it is just possible that ‘treasure’ had accompanied an early Viking-age burial placed in the Neolithic tomb. In the winter of 1152-3, Earl Harald sought refuge in the empty chamber during a snowstorm. According to the Orkneyinga Saga, the experience was so terrible that two of his men were turned insane - perhaps they saw the Hogboy or Haugbuie, Norse for the Ghost of the Tomb.

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