Prehistory - Religious & Ceremonial B&W

Click to a larger version of Silbury Hill, Wiltshire (English Heritage/National Trust): photo © Mick Sharp

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

Robert Southey’s ‘Green pyramid of the plains’ is the largest prehistoric artificial mound in Europe. Close to 31m (100ft) high from old ground surface to its truncated summit, the mound’s nine-sided base is around 150m (492ft) across and covers over 2ha (5 acres), nearly all of the chalk coming from the surrounding ditch and extension. An estimated 18 million man- woman- and child-hours went into its making and much time has been spent searching for burials, treasure, answers and, most recently by English Heritage, consolidating the previous excavations. Apart from a skeleton uncovered on the summit during 18th-century landscaping no burial has been located, but the mound is its own treasure with a mystery at its heart. It was begun around 3400BC on the cusp between the Neolithic and Bronze Age: built up in many phases starting with the stripping of turf and topsoil, ending with the final layers of chalk rubble and blocks. In the beginning, several small mounds made up of river gravel and other local materials - topsoil, clay, chalk, turf, moss, flints, freshwater shells, mistletoe, oak, hazel, ox bones, antler tines and rounded sarsen stones - sat within a circular ‘arena’ bounded by a low bank and external, causewayed ditch. Basket loads were added to the growing central mound which eventually overtook the bank, the ditch being back-filled and re-cut several times as the mound expanded. Perhaps the making of the hill became its main purpose, a display of immense technical skill and prolonged control over resources and labour - enthusiastic community project or enforced toil? It has at its core only those things characteristic of the rich and fertile Kennet valley from whose floor it grew. I like to think of it as a ‘harvest hill’, a symbol of mother earth and her bounty, but it also smacks of power, prestige and, possibly, conflicting beliefs. This view looks west over the course of the Winterbourne, a stream whose water comes and goes like modern ideas of prehistory.
Click to a larger version of Overton Hill Round Barrows, Wiltshire (National Trust): photo © Mick Sharp

Overton Hill Round Barrows, Wiltshire (National Trust): photo © Mick Sharp

Silbury Hill is clearly visible from Overton Hill as are the long barrows of East and West Kennet. The A4 snakes westwards over the hill, cutting through the prehistoric Ridgeway track and a group of round barrows situated on a false crest beside it. The ‘Seven Barrows’ are survivors from a cemetery of at least 15 Bronze Age mounds laid waste by agriculture and 18th- and 19th-century barrow digging. They contained single human cremations accompanied by such things as a pottery cup, bone pin or bronze dagger. To the left of the road is a fifth barrow and site of the Sanctuary, a complex monument linked to the Avebury henge and stone circles by the West Kennet Avenue processional way. Three or four phases of circular, timber-posted structures - perhaps a mortuary enclosure, mortuary house and roofed temple with an open central courtyard - were superseded by two concentric rings of large sarsen stones. The body of a young teenage girl had been fitted tightly into one of the holes as its stone was erected. A beaker pot had been placed by her knees, burnt animal bones cast across her body as she lay on her side, legs crossed, head to the south, hands across her face pointing east. The circumstances suggest a foundation sacrifice, a life taken to protect the stones and those who dared to build something new on ancient sacred ground. According to John Aubrey many of the stones still stood, or lay, on site in 1663, but by 1724 the last of them had been ‘carryed downwards towards W. Kennet and two-thirds of the temple plow’d up this winter’ by Farmer Green for what William Stukeley described as ‘the little dirty profit’.
Click to a larger version of Minninglow Hill, Derbyshire: photo © Mick Sharp

Minninglow Hill, Derbyshire: photo © Mick Sharp

With its distinctive crown of beech trees, Minninglow Hill is a well-known landmark, seen here lit by a watery sunset after a winter’s day of shrouding mist and rain. The Neolithic burial chambers of limestone slabs are impressive, but the remains much-disturbed and confusing. Several phases of burial, accumulating around a small central cairn and chamber (foreground), were merged to form a single multi-chambered monument with drystone-walled passages and revetment. At least five megalithic cists and chambers, four in this mound and one in a separate mound close by, were investigated by Thomas Bateman in the 1840s and ‘50s, but the Romano-British had been there first. Roman coins, Romano-British pottery and an intrusive extended human skeleton beside the primary chamber told a tale of robbery and re-use. Many barrows in Derbyshire were dug into in the Roman period: tomb robbing certainly took place, but the quantities of pot sherds, coins and other valuables in the mounds suggest secondary burial and votive offerings. ‘The Street’, a Roman road entering Buxton from the south-east, ran close to Minninglow and, based on other finds made by Bateman on the hilltop, it may have been the site of Romano-British funeral pyres. The main chambers and passages were so badly vandalised in the late 1970s they had to be filled with quarry waste to prevent further collapse.
Click to a larger version of Ri Cruin Cairn, Mid Argyll (Historic Scotland): photo © Mick Sharp

Ri Cruin Cairn, Mid Argyll (Historic Scotland): photo © Mick Sharp

Many water-worn stones were gathered to make a high, round cairn and many have been taken away again to leave a low one. Over 20m (65ft) across, the cairn protected three burial cists, the nearest, with a long capping slab, contained a Bronze Age cremation. All three cists display woodworking techniques with well-fitted grooved and rebated slabs. The western end-slab of the southernmost cist (rear L) is decorated with the pecked carvings of seven flat, metal axes similar to those on the nearby Nether Largie North cist end-slab and capstone. The eastern slab, destroyed in a fire, was decorated with short pecked lines running at right angles to a longer pecked groove - perhaps a ‘beribboned halberd’ (combined spear and battle-axe), pole with streamers or a sailing ship of the dead.
Click to a larger version of Cnochan nan Gobhar Long Cairn, Isle of Skye: photo © Mick Sharp

Cnochan nan Gobhar Long Cairn, Isle of Skye: photo © Mick Sharp

The Goat’s Knowe is an unchambered oval cairn aligned NW-SE, situated above the Abhuinn Cille Mhaire river. In 1926 a Bronze Age cist containing a beaker and burnt human bones was found inserted into the top of this Neolithic pile. In woodland, mysterious, cloaked in luminous vegetation it is easy to see why such cairns were considered to be fairy mounds harbouring fabulous beasts. Such was the reputation of these mounds on Skye that it was almost impossible to obtain local labour to investigate them. Skye men who did were troubled by ghosts and nightmares, and in 1832 those who first descended into the burial chamber at Liveras, in the same parish as Cnocan nan Gobhar, were armed with pistols. They found a flint arrowhead and archer’s wrist guard along with charred skulls mingled with ashes. Flint arrowheads were thought to be thrown at their finders by concealed fairies, they ‘were treasured as charms against dangers and disease’ and rubbed ‘over wounds for their healing virtue.’ Although the short cist at Cnochan nan Gobhar contained cremated bones, there is a story of a ‘skeleton’ being removed, kept in the village for a while then thrown into the sea because it had haunted the people.
Click to a larger version of Cairnpapple Hill, West Lothian (Historic Scotland): photo © Mick Sharp

Cairnpapple Hill, West Lothian (Historic Scotland): photo © Mick Sharp

The occupant of this grave, reduced by time to a body stain, had been laid out on the rock floor with feet to the west (L). A broken pottery beaker lay at head and foot with a burnt, club-like object between them. A panel of carbonised oak, suggestive of a ritual mask, lay over the face indicated by tooth enamel. The grave was protected by a small cairn through which the foot-stone projected. It had been placed in the western half of an egg-shaped setting of 24 stones standing within the ditch and outer bank of a henge monument with entrances at north and south. Another Beaker burial lay crouched in a pit beside one of the eastern stones. The geometrical complexity of the stone egg, and the elevated site’s long, wide views, make it tempting to speculate about ‘astronomer priests’. The henge ditch enclosed a west-facing arc of Neolithic cremation deposits and a cove-like setting of three large stones. Techniques used by the henge builders suggest they were not local to the area and there are strong similarities with Arbor Low henge, set high in the Derbyshire hills. People using food vessel pots changed the site’s emphasis firmly from ritual to burial. The henge stones were pulled out and reused as the kerb for a new cairn which incorporated the Beaker cairn and marker-stone. The new central burial cist contained an inhumation with a food vessel and cupmarked stone, another to the east an unaccompanied cremation. In the later Bronze Age this cairn was doubled in size to 30m (100ft) across, and two cremation burials placed under inverted cinerary urns in the extension. Four rectangular graves dug in the pre-Roman Iron Age brought to a close 3000 years of ceremony and burial. The Ravenna Cosmography list of Roman place-names includes Medionemeton - the ‘Middle Sanctuary’ - a ‘Celtic’ sacred place situated in the Scottish Lowlands where the country was narrowest from ocean to ocean. With views east to the Bass Rock in the North Sea and west to the mountains of Arran, Cairnpapple seems to fit the bill.
Click to a larger version of Adam and Eve, Avebury, Wiltshire: photo © Mick Sharp

Adam and Eve, Avebury, Wiltshire: photo © Mick Sharp

Adam and Eve seem inclined to one another but they are not true partners. Slender Eve is the only stone remaining standing from the Beckhampton Avenue, two rows of paired stones running SW from Avebury henge as the West Kennet Avenue runs SE to the Sanctuary on Overton Hill. Eve’s pair was among those burnt and broken up around 1720, others were buried and have recently been located. Slabby Adam, along with three companions known from antiquarian references and recent excavation of their pits, was set in ‘a compact circle’ acting as a full stop at the west end of the avenue. Known as the Devil’s Quoits in the 17th and early 18th centuries, William Stukeley named them a ‘Cove’, a term now applied to other open box-like settings of three or four stones found at henges and stone circles including Arbor Low, Cairnpapple Hill, Stanton Drew, Stenness and Avebury itself. Estimated at 63 tonnes, Adam was first erected around the middle of the third millennium BC, 150 rounded sarsen stones packed into the pit holding his base. A human burial with a Beaker pot was made at his foot around 2200BC. Adam fell in 1911 without the aid of apple, Eve or serpent, lay down for a couple of years and was then made to stand up again.
Click to a larger version of Stonehenge, Wiltshire (English Heritage/National Trust): photo © Mick Sharp

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

Mute but expressive, this sarsen stone in the outer circle has something to tell us of its history. Hauled from its natural home on the Marlborough Downs, its hard sandstone was pounded to shape with mauls, smoothed with a variety of rubbing stones, erected in a circle with its siblings and capped with a ring of lintels using carpentry techniques, projections on the uprights fitting into sockets on the lintels. Timber circles preceded stone at many sites and it may be that woodworkers were simply running short of mature trees or turned to something more durable for a lasting effect. At Stonehenge, the earliest circle inside the henge was thought to be timber but now looks as though it was made of bluestones brought from quarries in the Preseli hills (Pembrokeshire) and reused several times in later phases of the monument. Cremation burial played a key role at Stonehenge and perhaps, here at least, stone came to represent the ever-present dead while timber was retained for the dwellings of the living. Possibly connected with this is Tim Darvill’s idea that the bluestones were considered to have special qualities which would have made Stonehenge a mix of healing sanctuary, pilgrimage site and house of the dead. Investigations at the related henge and village of Durrington Walls suggest large numbers of people were temporarily accommodated and catered for close to Stonehenge over key periods such as midwinter. Was Stonehenge run ‘commercially’, as a power trip or some kind of altruistic holy place? Egyptian-style ruling dynasty and hereditary priests using forced labour, members of an international religious community or volunteers from a Utopian commune - certainly someone succeeded in producing something enduringly monumental, something truly set in stone.
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

At the circle-henge sites of Brodgar and Stenness, situated on a neck of low-lying land between the lochs of Harray and Stenness, signs of stone management and social organisation are also still to be seen and wondered at. The Neolithic villages contemporary with these ceremonial sites are built of Orkney flagstone, but the layout and design of the square-shaped houses with box beds and central hearths are compellingly similar to those of wood, wattle, daub and chalk cob built a little later at Durrington Walls near Stonehenge. At Barnhouse village, adjacent to the Standing Stones of Stenness, at least six ‘family’ houses were home to up to seven people each and there was a large ceremonial or meeting-house where cooking and feasting took place on a large scale. A fire of ritual purification burned on the threshold slab, and the house was aligned such that for one hour each midwinter day’s morning a direct beam of sunlight entered the doorway to illuminate a large slab covering a cist beside the central hearth. Signs of ritual brewing and feasting taking place within the Stenness henge and stone circle have also been discovered. Was it all egalitarian fun under the vast canopy of the night sky or were these circle-henges cleverly devised and closely controlled performance areas for the few to be watched by the many? Maybe a happy combination of astronomical ritual or sacred theatre after which the audience/crowd rushed the inner sanctum for a picnic
Click to a larger version of Callanish (Calanais) Stone Circle, Isle of Lewis (Historic Scotland): photo © Mick Sharp

Callanish (Calanais) Stone Circle, Isle of Lewis (Historic Scotland): photo © Mick Sharp

The best known of a group of around 20 megalithic monuments at the head of East Loch Roag, Callanish I is justly famous for its mighty, off-centre monolith and miniature passage grave surrounded by an ellipse of vivid slabs which appear to shift and glow in rain or shine. Stone rows radiate WSW, S, ENE and two head just east of true north to form an avenue with a central alignment to the major rising of the northern moon and major setting of the southern moon. This far north (latitude 58 degrees) the moon at the major southern standstill of its 18.61-year cycle has only a few hours between rising in the SSE and setting in the SSW. A full moon at this time struggles to break free of the earth, it seems to roll along the horizon before it sets and can appear to have set then blaze again in the cleft of a valley. When viewed from the avenue, the ‘set’ full moon reappears at the foot of the monolith and a figure standing on the adjacent passage grave is seen to be ‘in the moon’. As well as a line to the moon, Callanish incorporates major alignments to the equinoctial sunsets (W row) and the rising of the Pleiades (E row) which would have been accurate in the earlier half of the second millennium BC. In the 1st century BC, Diodorus Siculus (of Sicily) wrote of Hyperboreans living on an island beyond the North Wind where the moon is very close to the earth. They had a spherical temple where every nineteen years the god ‘dances continuously the night through from vernal equinox to rising of the Pleiades.....’
Click to a larger version of Yellowmead Cairn Circles, Devon: photo © Mick Sharp

Yellowmead Cairn Circles, Devon: photo © Mick Sharp

The fallen stones of this unusual monument were restored in 1921 after emerging from the smoke and ashes of heather-burning. The four concentric rings of small, dark stones may have surrounded a central barrow or cairn, the inner ring acting as a retaining kerb, or the outer ring may have been the kerb to a much larger mound which covered the stones. Bronze Age burial monuments come in many shapes and sizes, so it is just possible that Yellowmead was a platform cairn: a low pavement with projecting/protruding concentric rings and an open centre. The inner space is 6m (20ft) across bounded by closely-set stones, the outer ring some 20m with larger, more widely spaced uprights. Other stones outside the circles suggest that several stone rows led up to the circles from the Yellowmead Burn. This presumed Beaker burial monument is often described as ‘unique’ or ‘unparalleled’ on Dartmoor but a similar arrangement, albeit on a less grand scale, can be seen at Shovel Down where two double rows converge at a cairn-circle with four concentric rings. This rather sombre photograph was taken in October 1987: after a Dartmoor day of unremitting rain the evening was spent drying out clothes and equipment in a welcome B&B.
Click to a larger version of Brenig Platform Cairn, Denbighshire: photo © Mick Sharp

Brenig Platform Cairn, Denbighshire: photo © Mick Sharp

Two small valleys were flooded in the early 1970s to make Llyn Brenig reservoir. Frances Lynch, along with other archaeologists and volunteers, was able to examine over 50 sites in the area, some of which were reconstructed to create an archaeological trail. This Bronze Age platform cairn was first built to cover the burial of an adult and child within a domestic occupation surface. Their cremated bones were placed in an urn beneath a large stone in the southern (far) side of the cairn. At this stage the centre was open, the ring-cairn’s inner edge retained by small upright stones. A second cremation burial was made in the open area, at the centre of which stood a large timber - flagpole, maypole, totem pole? The centre was then filled in to produce a flat platform hiding the upright stones, and a deposit of charcoal was placed in an urn in a pit under a small, semicircular cairn built onto the NE (near) edge of the platform. Although the reconstructed surface is rather uneven, this raised floor with a central post-hole lends itself to the idea of circular movement. Sir Cyril Fox found broad, circular bands of well-trodden ground within some of the burial monuments described in his 1959 book “Life and Death in the Bronze Age”. He was persuaded by the evidence that a type of circle dance formed part of the cremation rituals along with sacred fires and the scattering of charcoal: feet repeatedly passed over newly-filled graves and ‘clouds of charcoal-dust enveloped the performers’.

Follow me on: Facebook Jean Williamson.