Prehistory - Religious & Ceremonial

Click to a larger version of Down Tor Stone Circle and Row, Devon: photo © Jean Williamson

Down Tor Stone Circle and Row, Devon: photo © Jean Williamson

The warmer, drier conditions of the Bronze Age encouraged dense occupation and farming of the uplands before peat, bracken and gorse advanced with the deteriorating climate. Cairns, cists, stone circles, rows, avenues, hut circles, pounds and field systems are distinctive features of Dartmoor, along with the hardy ponies and cattle set to graze the turf and scrub. There are well over sixty rows on the moor, some running for more than a mile through valleys and over hills up to 1,600 feet above sea level. The longest covers over two miles, crosses two rivers, climbs some 300 feet and originally consisted of well over two thousand stones. The stones are local to the moor, usually granite and mostly small in size, but some reach 5-9 feet high and tall stones are often used at terminals or graded up in height towards a cairn, circle or cist. The ring of stones at the SW end of Down Tor row once surrounded an impressive burial cairn. The single row runs for some 1145 feet (349m) SW to the cairn-circle in a slight arc from a terminal stone at the NE set side-on to the row. Runs of fallen and toppled stones were re-erected in 1894 and it is not certain if the alternating of tall and short stones in some stretches is an original feature. Cattle suffering from unquenchable itches rub themselves repeatedly against the stones and churn up the friable peat. After prolonged bellowing matches, those to one side of the row feel they must blunder through the middle of it to be with cattle on the other, more desirable side.
Click to a larger version of Merrivale Stone Rows, Devon (English Heritage/Dartmoor National Park Authority): photo © Mick Sharp

Merrivale Stone Rows, Devon (English Heritage/Dartmoor National Park Authority): photo © Mick Sharp

Astronomical alignments have been claimed for the Dartmoor rows, but they seem mainly to have been arranged to suit the landscape. Tribal boundaries, processional ways, the apparatus of funeral games are other suggestions. Rows often lead uphill to a cairn which is seen, impressively, as a false crest. Burial may have been the prime reason for the construction of the rows or simply one element in a deceptively simple arrangement with a complexity of function and symbolism. A farmer at Merrivale once told me that stones in some of the rows increased in height westwards to guide the souls of the dead and lift them towards the setting sun - an idea which fits in well with some of Rudolf Steiner’s theories on sacred architecture. The two double rows at Merrivale are aligned roughly E-W but not exactly parallel to one another. Unusually, this southern double row has a small cairn-circle near its centre. The far, west, end is open and flanked by paired terminals of a pillar and slab, while its eastern end is blocked off by a triangular stone. Often described as an avenue, it is just possible to walk between the closely-set rows, but more as an act of penitence or piety than in pomp. A single row of stones approaches the avenue from the SW and there are two cairns, a standing stone, a stone circle, a cist with a massive capstone and a Bronze Age settlement close by.
Click to a larger version of Achavanich (Loch Stemster) Stone Setting, Caithness: photo © Mick Sharp

Achavanich (Loch Stemster) Stone Setting, Caithness: photo © Mick Sharp

Stonehenge has two horseshoe settings within its lintelled ring: the five mighty sarsen trilithons and nineteen smaller bluestones. Other U-shaped arrangements of ritual pits, timber posts or standing stones have been found within circles and henges, but this stone U is something rare and special to Caithness. The ruins of a similar site lie at Broubster and there are descriptions of a horseshoe, set between parallel rows of stones, being broken up for wall building at Latheronwheel in the late 1800s. Here at Loch Stemster, thirty-six stumps and small slabs under 2m high survive from over fifty. They were set side-on into a low mound of earth and stone possibly created by levelling the interior of the long U. This Bronze Age precinct, open to the south, is overlooked by a Neolithic chambered tomb on a knoll to the SE, while to the NE and east the remains of later burial cists part the turf. Was this a sacred space reserved for priests, gods or spirits of the ancestors? Did people gather to observe an event in the southern sky, watch funeral games and symbolic performances? Or was some darker spectacle enacted here, as in the ritual ball courts of the Maya, Toltecs and Aztecs where play could end in decapitation
Click to a larger version of Mid Clyth Stone Rows, Caithness (Historic Scotland): photo © Mick Sharp

Mid Clyth Stone Rows, Caithness (Historic Scotland): photo © Mick Sharp

Justifiably know as the Hill o’ Many Stanes, this south-facing slope, with views to the sea horizon, is covered by about two hundred small stones. Arranged in at least twenty-two rows, they form a fan-shape running downhill from north to south. Roughly six hundred stones made up the original symmetrical pattern, a grid which could have been used for stellar and lunar observations - especially the maximum moonrises of winter and summer - in the Bronze Age. Local tradition says each stone marks a warrior of the Keiths or Gunns, cut down in a clan battle and buried in rows by the victorious Gunns.
Click to a larger version of Ballochroy Standing Stones, Kintyre: photo © Mick Sharp

Ballochroy Standing Stones, Kintyre: photo © Mick Sharp

A line running SW (left) through the Ballochroy stones to a megalithic cist, indicates the setting point of the midwinter sun over Cara Island, an event which would have been hidden when the cist was covered by its large cairn. The flat face of the central slab is aligned NW to Corra Beinn on the island of Jura nearly twenty miles away. In the years around 18000 BC, the rim of the midsummer setting sun would have taken about three minutes to run down the right-hand slope when viewed along the slab. At the same time, the midsummer full moon would have been seen rising in the opposite direction. Things are different now, the solstice sun sinks into the graceful curve between the Paps of Jura on the left and the smaller peak of Corra Beinn on the right. In June 1987 a submarine lay at anchor in the view, and in 1995 the Islay ferry enlivened the solstitial scene.
Click to a larger version of Temple Wood Standing Stones, Mid Argyll: photo © Mick Sharp

Temple Wood Standing Stones, Mid Argyll: photo © Mick Sharp

In a private field in the Kilmartin Valley, some 300 metres SE of the Temple Wood stone circle, there is an X-shaped setting of five stones. The central monolith, decorated with over forty cup-marks, at least three surrounded by partial rings, is taller than the stones of the two pairs set equidistant to the ENE and WSW. Another setting of low stones lies between the central stone and southern pair. Professor Alexander Thom suggested that the X had been laid out as a lunar observatory with sight lines, running through combinations of the stones and stone circle, to notches in surrounding hills indicating significant points on the moon’s 18.61 year cycle.
Click to a larger version of Achnabreck Rock Carvings, Mid Argyll (Historic Scotland): photo © Mick Sharp

Achnabreck Rock Carvings, Mid Argyll (Historic Scotland): photo © Mick Sharp

One of the most extensive displays of prehistoric carving in Britain can be found spread over three sloping rock sheets at Achnabreck above the Kilmartin Valley. At the top of the northern outcrop is a cup with double ring and tail and a rare example of a ‘horned’ spiral overlying the rock’s naturally scored and furrowed countenance. The valley is rich in fertility and ceremonial monuments including rock art, standing stones, stone circles and a linear cemetery of burial cairns. One possible function of the carvings is to inform and guide travellers to, and through, valuable territories and ceremonial complexes, using a widely established but fluid set of images with overlapping meanings depending on context. Perhaps a mix of religious symbols and world-view concepts acting as signposts, milestones, information panels, marks of ownership, codes of conduct and rules of engagement. Survey work by Richard Bradley and others has shown that the ‘major petroglyphs in Mid Argyll focus on two of the entrances to the low-lying area around Kilmartin’ and that, starting from around 15 km away, carvings increase in complexity and extent as the valley is approached. This tendency seems to be true for other areas in Britain with cup-and-ring and related carvings located to mark boundaries and ‘thresholds’, indicate established routes and offer wide views over river valleys, occupied areas and the next set of carvings.
Click to a larger version of Rocky Valley Carvings, Cornwall (National Trust): photo © Jean Williamson

Rocky Valley Carvings, Cornwall (National Trust): photo © Jean Williamson

The carvings around the Kilmartin Valley fit comfortably into a Neolithic and Bronze Age ceremonial landscape, but the two labyrinth patterns adorning a vertical rock face near Tintagel are harder to place. In south-west Scotland, and some other parts of Britain, a correspondence has been noticed between Bronze Age rock art and sources of gold and copper. Metal ores abound in Cornwall but these carvings are isolated examples in a landscape better known for its Early Christian monuments and saints such as St Nectan. This type of maze pattern, known as the Game of Troy, has connections with the lair of the Cretan Minotaur and was illustrated on coins issued by Knossos. It has also been found amongst Bronze Age rock art in the Italian Alps and Galicia, carved on a stone at Hollywood in Ireland, scratched on a wall at Pompeii and incised on an Etruscan jar as part of a procession with horses and riders. The Etruscan maze bears the name TRUIA in mirror-writing, a Troia being a fast, intricate weaving display of galloping horsemen as described by Virgil in his account of the funeral games held in honour of Anchises. From early beginnings and Classical fame, the one-path type of labyrinth became a Christian symbol for the journey of life with a spiritual truth at its heart. It is also the old Hopi Indian symbol ‘mother and child’ or ‘mother earth’. The Rocky Valley labyrinths have become a modern shrine reflecting many beliefs and traditions: New Age, pagan, ‘Celtic’ Christian, Native American shamanism and, if offerings are to be believed, the cult of the gingerbread man. A French dowser told me that the lower left carving illustrated was the most powerful, a human mark with accumulated ‘radiation’ (energy) - it certainly bore the most signs of touching and rubbing.
Available as a giclée print - see Jean's prints in our 'Prints and Cards' section
Click to a larger version of The Swastika Stone, West Yorkshire: photo © Mick Sharp

The Swastika Stone, West Yorkshire: photo © Mick Sharp

A groove weaves in and out of nine cupmarks to form four anti-clockwise curving arms. The hollows form a five by five cross and one arm has an attached reversed question mark with a cup at its centre. The curved arms and basic cross make this rather different from the more familiar swastika, an equal-armed cross with each arm continued at a right angle. An ancient symbol of the sky and the sun’s movement, good fortune and well being, it was used in Hindu rituals and misused in clockwise form by the German Nazi Party. The ‘relative sophistication’ and ‘stylistic affinities with Celtic art’ suggest that this carving is later than the Bronze Age rock art which dots the moors around Ilkley, but it is very hard to be sure. There are unusual and ‘unique’ motifs amongst the local cup-and-rings and this carving is situated on a high outcrop with wide views overlooking the Wharfe Valley - a classic site for complex Bronze Age art. This design is very similar to some twenty ‘Celtic Rose’ carvings in Italy dated to around 750 BC and three in Sweden of later date. So, it could be contemporary with its cup-and ring cousins, a development or introduction of the later Bronze Age or connected with the ritual life of the Iron Age Celts or Romano-Britons. Classic angular swastikas were used on ‘pottery and ornaments found at Troy and Mycenae’, on ritual axe models from Switzerland and on Roman mosaics such as that at Lullingstone villa in Kent. Ilkley church stands on the site of a Roman fort, and Celtic stone heads and an altar dedicated to Verbeia, goddess of the River Wharfe, have been found in the area.
Click to a larger version of Uffington White Horse, Oxfordshire (English Heritage/National Trust): photo © Mick Sharp

Uffington White Horse, Oxfordshire (English Heritage/National Trust): photo © Mick Sharp

Resembling the dragon-like horses on Belgic coins, this chalk hill figure has been described as a tribal emblem and cult animal representing the Celtic goddess Epona. Others have seen it as Saxon, connected with Hengest, or the myths of the god Woden (Odin), or a celebration of Alfred’s victory against the Norse at the battle of Ashdown in 871 AD. The dowser Guy Underwood believed the shape was based on lines of force created by underground water, the eye marking a ‘blind spring’ from which streams radiate. To the south-west lies the hillfort of Uffington Castle, begun in the seventh century BC. Between them, close to the horse, sit the remains of a Neolithic long mound - used again in the Roman period for cremations and inhumations, including bodies decapitated after death - and a Bronze Age round barrow reused for Saxon burials. Roman coins and other material scattered inside the fort may reflect its later use as a fairground or shrine site, a massive post-hole at the highest point of the interior conjuring the torc-wearing timber images of continental sacred enclosures. Optical dating, a technique indicating when soil was last exposed to sunlight, suggests that the dragon trenches were first dug in the Late Bronze Age, around 3000 years ago - after the barrows but before the fort. The optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) dates range from 1380BC to 550BC. Whatever the true date, the figure is typical of ‘Celtic’ iconography - powerful, vigorous, stylized, abstract - representing essence and ideal, in recognizable shorthand, rather than everyday reality. Below, to the north, lies the flat-topped mound of Dragon Hill where St George is said to have slain the worm of paganism. Beside it is the Manger, a steep coombe down the slopes of which cheeses were rolled. Also known as the Ring Pit, it is one of several sites in the area believed to have fed the imagination of J R R Tolkien - a repeatedly used sacred place and a landscape full of legends.
Click to a larger version of Clochmaben Stone, Dumfries and Galloway: photo © Mick Sharp

Clochmaben Stone, Dumfries and Galloway: photo © Mick Sharp

This massive glacial erratic, and its smaller companion hidden in the hedge, once formed part of a large Neolithic stone circle overlooking an important crossing-place of the Solway Firth. A long established place of assembly, by Celtic times it may have become the ‘Locus Maponi’ mentioned in Roman sources: the tribal meeting-place and cult centre of the people of the deity Mabon, the ‘divine youth’ equated with the Roman god Maponus/Apollo. The location, by a crossing-place at the confluence of three rivers and overlooking a dangerous estuary marking a tribal boundary, is typical of the Celts who were drawn to transitional places.
Click to a larger version of Llyn Cerrig Bach, Anglesey: photo © Mick Sharp

Llyn Cerrig Bach, Anglesey: photo © Mick Sharp

In AD 60, Suetonius Paulinus, the Roman governor of Britain, invaded the island of Mona which was, according to Tacitus, a sanctuary for fugitives and feeding the native resistance. He also writes of the island’s savage cults which enjoined participants ‘to drench their altars with the blood of prisoners, and to find the will of the gods by consulting the entrails of human beings’. After a terrifying battle on the Anglesey shore, during which Druids were calling down terrible curses and women dressed in the style of the Furies - black robes, streaming hair, flaming torches - flitted between the ranks, the Romans sought out and destroyed the island’s sacred groves. Caesar described the Gauls, after victory in battle, sacrificing any living thing captured and collecting all the booty as offerings to be put in sacred precincts. Strabo says that sacred pools were also used. For two hundred years or more, up to Suetonius’ invasion, deliberately damaged pieces of military metalwork were thrown from a causeway into the marsh at Llyn Cerrig Bach. Cauldron pieces, slave chains and many chariot fittings and wheels were also offered to the gods of this place. Wheels were used as solar symbols in the Celtic world and placed in water to ‘Taranis the Thunderer’, a sky horseman-warrior with dominion over death. The offerings here came from several different parts of Britain with an especial link to the Belgic tribes of southern England - were some of these talismans, already ancient, brought by refugees seeking to stay the Romans with the aid of Druids, a powerful war-god and a place of great sanctity?

Follow me on: Facebook Jean Williamson.