Prehistory - Religious & Ceremonial

Click to a larger version of Clava Chambered Cairns, Inverness (Historic Scotland/NTS): photo © Mick Sharp

Clava Chambered Cairns, Inverness (Historic Scotland/NTS): photo © Mick Sharp

On a gravel terrace south of the River Nairn, at the heart of the Balnuaran of Clava complex of monuments, two circular passage graves with a rayed ring cairn between are arranged in a line running NE-SW. Seen from inside the chamber of the SW cairn the midwinter sun sets behind a nearby hill, from the NE chamber the sun appears to set on the SW cairn. The two entrance passages act as pinhole cameras to gather the sun’s rays on a stone at the rear of each chamber, or to illuminate a larger area of the rear wall if the light is diffused by cloud or rain. The almost identical passage graves, which would have been covered by corbelled stone roofs, were designed and built with care and symbolism: red stones and cupmarks indicate key points and viewing positions during the winter solstice sunset sequence, and the basal stones of the chambers, the kerbstones retaining the cairns and the uprights of the surrounding stone circles are all graded up in height to the tallest stones at the SW. Modern excavations have shown the cairns were constructed in one episode around 2000 BC on land which had been cleared by fire. Although the cairns resemble burial monuments only a few scraps of cremated human bone were discovered during the 1953 and later excavations as the primary deposits had already been removed. Undisturbed remains at other Clava-type cairns have been of a single inhumation, single cremations and, in one case, the cremated remains of a man and a woman. Unlike other types of passage grave, the Clava cairns were not used for communal burial and the relationship between the sparse contents of the tombs and the performance of the midwinter sunset is unclear. Did the ‘tombs’ and human remains honour the cycle of the sun and seasons, or was the repeating event ‘captured’ to confer status and a form of immortality on privileged individuals and the society to which they belonged.
Click to a larger version of Bryn Celli Ddu Passage Grave, Anglesey (Cadw): photo © Mick Sharp

Bryn Celli Ddu Passage Grave, Anglesey (Cadw): photo © Mick Sharp

Burnt and unburnt human bones were found inside the burial chamber where waits a guardian spirit in the form of a free-standing rounded pillar. The tomb appears to have been built over the ditch and deliberately damaged stone circle of an existing henge monument. Before covering it with a mound, the tomb builders created a ritual pit at the centre of the stone circle where there may have been a wooden post, standing stone or other feature. A fire had been lit in the pit and a burnt ear bone of an adult lay on its floor. It was sealed by a flat stone with a decorated stone laid flat beside it. The decorated stone’s abstract pattern of wavy lines and spirals on two faces and the top was originally designed to be viewed in the upright position. Does this reflect the peaceful evolution of a complex monument or the ‘killing’ and rededication of a centre of rival religious ideas? Ceremonies also took place outside the tomb entrance where there were hearths up against the retaining kerb on one side and a platform of quartz pebbles on the other. Further out from the threshold are the remains of a small, three-sided enclosure of stones and wattle surrounding an ox burial. Its open side faces a little more N of E than the passage and it may be aligned with the entrance through the earthworks of the henge or even date back to Mesolithic times.
Click to a larger version of Bryn Cader Faner Cairn, Gwynedd: photo © Mick Sharp

Bryn Cader Faner Cairn, Gwynedd: photo © Mick Sharp

A string of cloud appears to connect the circlet of stone rays to the whitened peaks of the Snowdon Range forming a dramatic backdrop to the NNW, across the Afon Dwyryd. The Bronze Age cairn has been carefully sited just below the crest of a grassy outcrop, tilting downhill to present its spectacular profile to those approaching from the SW, on the prehistoric trackway through the marshy upland valley. Of the 30 or so stones originally set leaning out from the body of the cairn only 15 remain, some of which have been reduced in length from their original 2m (6ft). The site was damaged by the army during World War Two and by treasure seekers in the 1800s when the central cist or grave was robbed. Even in its denuded state, Bryn Cader Faner is a wonderful example of a simple but striking design beautifully placed in the landscape.
Click to a larger version of Moel Goedog West Cairn, Gwynedd: photo © Mick Sharp

Moel Goedog West Cairn, Gwynedd: photo © Mick Sharp

Situated south-west of Bryn Cader Faner, beside the same Bronze Age trackway leading through the hills from Llanbedr to Trawsfynydd, this ring cairn is similarly blessed with wide northward views. A low stone bank, with regularly placed upright stones, surrounds a circular platform cut into the hillside. In use between 1700 and 1400 BC, the levelled interior was finished off with a layer of stones. Before that, several pits were dug at different times and deposits of charcoal and burnt human bone, some in pots, placed in them. Based on soil analysis, one deposit of bone fragments had been buried ‘near the coast’, before being dug up and reburied on this hillside. Several standing stones mark the trackway as it ascends from the south-west but this ring cairn is not immediately visible from that direction, it is its eastern twin on a ledge above the track which appears. Approaching from the opposite direction, the uphill cairn is hidden while the one below the track stands revealed.
Click to a larger version of Priddy Nine Barrows, Somerset: photo © Mick Sharp

Priddy Nine Barrows, Somerset: photo © Mick Sharp

In the second millennium BC, lead deposits in the Mendip Hills were exploited for use in bronze production, some of those controlling the trade grew rich and their cremated remains were buried in a line of round barrows resembling the path of a giant mole. Seven barrows run NW-SE across the summit of North Hill from where Glastonbury Tor can be seen. To the north are two barrows aligned N-S, north again is the Ashen Hill group of eight barrows, in an E-W row, containing human cremations in pits, urns and cists accompanied by objects of bronze, amber, pot and faience glass. North of them are the enigmatic Priddy Circles aligned NNE-SSW, four enclosures bounded by earthen banks with external ditches.
Click to a larger version of Cnip Round Cairn, Isle of Lewis: photo © Mick Sharp

Cnip Round Cairn, Isle of Lewis: photo © Mick Sharp

This Bronze Age cairn stands exposed to the ravages of wind and sea at the western end of Tràigh na Beirigh beach and dunes. Excavated in 1975 in response to serious erosion, the surrounding sands continue to be prone to blow-outs and several Viking burials have also been uncovered and excavated.
Click to a larger version of Gib Hill, Derbyshire: photo © Mick Sharp

Gib Hill, Derbyshire: photo © Mick Sharp

Seen from Arbor Low henge on a misty November afternoon, Gib Hill Bronze Age round barrow was the site of a gibbet erected in the 18th century to hang a man who had committed murder nearby. In 1848, knocking away the props supporting his exploratory tunnel at the base of the mound, Thomas Bateman was surprised by the collapse of a limestone burial cist from just below the summit. Tumbling with the debris came a cremation and a small pottery urn. The tumulus had been built on top of an oval mound containing four compacted piles of clay, mixed with hazel-wood and charcoal, arranged in a square on a surface of flints and ox bones. Bateman believed this initial, Neolithic phase of the monument was not sepulchral and its similarity to the core of Silbury Hill artificial mound is suggestive.
Click to a larger version of Ring of Brodgar (Brogar), Orkney Mainland (Historic Scotland): photo © Mick Sharp

Ring of Brodgar (Brogar), Orkney Mainland (Historic Scotland): photo © Mick Sharp

The “Temple of the Sun” is part of a remarkable complex of ceremonial monuments situated on a low-lying neck of land separating the lochs of Harray and Stenness. The usual Neolithic ingredients of earth and stone have been arranged with magnificent symmetry on a massive scale, set against distant hills and an immensity of sky. The water of the lochs mirror the sky and heighten the effect, but the sea level has risen since the monuments were built. Twenty-nine standing stones survive from an original sixty, equally spaced to form a true circle 103.7 metres (340 ft, 125 megalithic yards) diameter within a henge monument. Entrance causeways at NW and SE cross the rock-cut ditch which was 3.6m (12 ft) deep and 9m (30 ft) wide, and the now flattened outer bank was on a similar scale. Salt Knowe round barrow has not been excavated but is known to contain at least one cist, it is the most prominent of several burial mounds which cluster around this impressive circle-henge.
Click to a larger version of Mayburgh Henge, Cumbria (English Heritage): photo © Mick Sharp

Mayburgh Henge, Cumbria (English Heritage): photo © Mick Sharp

One-and-a-half million tons of easily-lifted stones were collected to create a monumental sacred arena with a 1.5-acre central space. The stone bank, still 4.5m (15 ft) high in places, was built over a marker ring of soil taken from the edge of the inner circle. The single entrance gap faces out to the east and, originally, it was flanked by four standing stones, one each placed at the inner and outer corners of the bank’s two terminals. The monolith near the centre of the henge is sole survivor of another rectangular setting of four stones. In the early 1700s the site was under cultivation, the stones being blasted with dynamite and removed. One of the men paid to carry out the work hanged himself and the other ‘turned lunatic’ according to William Stukeley who also reported that a bronze axe head was turned up while ploughing. A broken Cumbrian stone axe was discovered in the entrance in the 19th century. The finds, and its location at the mouth of a pass giving access to the Lake District, suggest the henge may have been used in connection with the late Neolithic trade in stone axes and continued in use into the early Bronze Age. The Irish style of henge without an inner ditch, and the rectangular settings of stones reminiscent of the four-poster stone ‘circles’ of central Scotland, also suggest the kind of wide contacts brought about by axe trading possibly combined with an element of ‘pilgrimage’. King Arthur’s Round Table immediately to the E of Mayburgh is another late Neolithic monument: a ‘classic’ henge with a bank, inner ditch and two entrances.
Click to a larger version of Avebury, Wiltshire (English Heritage/National Trust): photo © Mick Sharp

Avebury, Wiltshire (English Heritage/National Trust): photo © Mick Sharp

The henge at Avebury does have an inner ditch, ‘recently radiocarbon dated to around 2630-2470BC’. Originally 9m (30 ft) deep, it provided chalk for the massive bank - over 5m high, its circuit just under a mile - which surrounds it. Four causewayed entrances give access to the interior where stones of the Great Circle surround those of two earlier stone rings built before the bank and ditch were begun. The photo shows the NNW entrance where a third stone circle in the NW-SE row was begun, then dismantled - concrete obelisks next to the road mark where stones were planted then pulled out. The forty-ton slab of sarsen beside them (front left), is the Swindon, or Diamond, Stone, one of a pair flanking the causeway. Its even larger twin fell in the 18th century and was broken into pieces using wooden wedges. During the 14th century many of Avebury’s ‘pagan’ stones were felled and buried and sporadic land clearance continued in to the early 1700s when more were toppled and broken up with fire, water, hammers and wedges for use as building stone. At the time, William Stukeley lamented that ‘this stupendous fabric’ had ‘fallen a sacrifice to the wretched ignorance and avarice of a little village unluckily plac’d within it.’ A stone was buried in the 1920s, but in the 1930s Alexander Keiller and his team set about restoring one of the greatest prehistoric sacred complexes in Britain: buried stones of the circles, alignments and settings, and of the West Kennet Avenue leading away from the southern entrance, were located and re-erected, broken stones reassembled and empty stone holes marked by obelisks. Work continues and recently more stones and holes of the Beckhampton Avenue, leading from the henge’s WSW entrance, have been located.
Click to a larger version of Thornborough Central Henge, North Yorkshire: photo © Mick Sharp

Thornborough Central Henge, North Yorkshire: photo © Mick Sharp

On a gravel terrace about half a mile NE of the River Ure, lie three mighty circular earthwork enclosures in a line NW-SE. Equally spaced at intervals of just over half a mile, they are almost identical in size and design: around 240m in diameter with an external bank outside a discontinuous ditch, both of which surround a massive bank, 18m wide and up to 9m high, which in turn encircles an inner ditch 15m wide and up to 2.6m deep. Both ditches are separated from this bank by a flat area or berm about 12m wide. Each henge has two entrances piercing the banks and ditches on the same axis as the monuments to the midwinter solstice sunrise in the SE. The entrances also frame the three stars of Orion’s Belt at their highest point and the rising of Sirius, the Dog Star, brightest star in our sky. The three earthworks are laid out on the ground as Orion’s Belt at its highest point would be seen reflected in a large pool of water - a mirror image of that in the sky. The henge banks were coated in local gypsum crystals making them brilliant landmarks in the sunshine and ghostly barriers at twilight to cut out the world and frame the heavens. The henges were constructed shortly after 3000 BC in an area already rich in ceremonial monuments including two cursus earthworks, a mortuary enclosure for exposing the dead and a round barrow containing selected human bones taken from bodies already decayed. The central henge was deliberately built over part of the southern cursus, a linear earthwork 44 m wide with parallel banks and ditches running for at least 1.1 km. Aligned NE-SW, its western rounded terminal pointed at a very distinct bend in the River Ure and would have framed the setting stars of Orion’s Belt around 3500-3000 BC; its eastern end pointed to the midsummer sunrise. Ceremonial use of this sacred terrace continued into the Early Bronze Age when round barrows were placed close to the henges and two double lines of pits were dug, the one west of the southern henge ran for over 350m. Cremations and inhumations were placed amongst the pit alignments and many of the holes had held large timber uprights which had been pulled out before they became rotten. Henges are often situated close to rivers and seem to have been associated with major Neolithic routes and the trading or exchange of goods. The River Ure provided a route-way between eastern Yorkshire, the central Pennines and Cumbria along which flints from the Wolds and stone axes from the Lake District were transported in opposite directions. A cache or ritual deposit of high quality, polished stone axes from Great Langdale was found in a marshy area immediately north of the henge complex. At three locations a little way down-river there is a single henge of almost identical design and layout to the Thornborough ones. There was obviously something very special about this area: a sacred complex where ‘commerce’ and ceremony mingled, a place where ‘pilgrims’ could see a significant piece of the night sky encompassed and mirrored on earth, and witness the sun and chosen stars wondrously appearing at their appointed times and stations. Now gravel is the lure, open-cast mining has approached and threatened to sweep away this earthbound constellation. The star rings themselves are now safe from further harm, but the future of their prehistoric landscape setting is in the balance.
Click to a larger version of Stonehenge, Wiltshire (English Heritage/National Trust): photo © Jean Williamson

Stonehenge, Wiltshire (English Heritage/National Trust): photo © Jean Williamson

Stonehenge also stands within a complex prehistoric landscape and important aspects of its past and immediate future are currently unresolved, although the 2012 Olympics have added urgency to long-standing proposals for new tourist facilities, access and presentation. At the heart of this remarkable monument, known principally for its ring of lintelled sarsen stones, lies a Neolithic henge (c 3000BC) with a circular bank of earth and chalk, an internal ring of pits, an outer ditch and the outlying Heel Stone. The 56 pits known as Aubrey Holes were thought to hold the posts of a timber house or setting, but are now considered to have held bluestones brought from the Preseli hills of west Wales. The holes also held cremated human bones, a burial rite practised within Stonehenge for over a millennium. The main alignment of the henge was NE to the most northerly rising point of the midwinter full moon, a position established by observing, and marking with stakes, the movements of the moon over three of its 18.61-year cycles. A child’s cremation and perforated stone mace-head lay in line with the major southern moonrise. The bluestones were rearranged, mighty sarsens brought in and the orientation and allegiance of the monument was skewed from moon to sun. By moving the NE entrance four degrees to the E, the Heel Stone, originally a midway marker between the major and minor rising points of the northern moon, almost lined up with the new entrance facing the midsummer sunrise. The axis of the unfinished bluestone rings was towards the midsummer sunrise, that of the trilithon horseshoe and lintelled ring to the midwinter setting sun, twin alignments echoed at the massive henge and seasonally occupied village of Durrington Walls two miles away. The dominant sarsens stand silhouetted by the dying light of their god while the moon rises temporarily triumphant.

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