Prehistory - Religious & Ceremonial B&W

Click to a larger version of The King Stone, Warwickshire: photo © Mick Sharp

The King Stone, Warwickshire: photo © Mick Sharp

This rearing pillar of oolitic limestone has been tested by time. Confined and contorted, flanks chipped away by Welsh drovers and English soldiers seeking powerful amulets. Erected as a Neolithic signpost or outlier to the King’s Men stone circle to the SW, he became a marker-stone for the Bronze Age cremations which cluster around him. The adjacent natural long mound, named the Archdruid’s Barrow by William Stukeley, brought about the King’s downfall. Challenged by a witch to become King of England if he could see the village of Long Compton by taking seven strides, his view was unexpectedly blocked. The contest lost, he and his men were turned to hoar stones and the witch became ‘an eldern tree.’ It was here that the blossoming elder was cut on Midsummer Eve, and the young men and maidens would meet ‘to make merry with cakes and ale’. An old countrywoman told Sir Arthur Evans that she used to see fairies emerge from a hole and dance on top of the mound. There is said to be a cave under the King and that he goes down the hill to drink from the stream at midnight. The Whispering Knights burial chamber nearby was used as an oracle by young women, others danced naked around the King’s Men circle hoping to divine the name of their future husband. Women trying for a child rubbed their naked breasts against the stones and the stones themselves came to life and danced at midnight. Witches met at the circle and at least one cruel satanic ritual has been enacted there in modern times. At the meeting of routes from Wales to the Midlands, and from southern England to the north-east, straddling the Cotswold ridgeway and the Warwickshire/Oxfordshire border, the Rollright
Click to a larger version of The Rollright Stones (King’s Men), Oxfordshire: photo © Mick Sharp

The Rollright Stones (King’s Men), Oxfordshire: photo © Mick Sharp

‘Corroded like worm-eaten wood by the harsh jaws of time’ is how William Stukeley described the King’s Men in 1743. Traditionally impossible to count accurately, estimates of the original number of stones have varied from the low 20s to the current view of around 100. Set touching in a perfect circle, they formed a ‘wall’ with an entrance gap at the SE marked by a pair of extra portals. Such is their reputation for unexplained phenomena - ‘strange lights, spontaneous paranormal events and electromagnetic energy effects’ - that they were investigated by members of The Dragon Project set up to examine geophysical forces at ancient sites. Their results were tantalizing. At certain times of the year, and under ephemeral conditions, the stones emitted magnetic pulses, regular ultrasonic clicking and infra-red radiation just outside our modern human registers. Diffuse light was seen to form inside the circle and a seven-ring spiral of magnetic energy was picked up by dowsing and magnetometer survey. The stones appeared to be having an effect on, or had been placed in response to, natural variations in radiation which led to the idea that stone circles could act as refuges from cosmic radiation. This sounds rather inconclusive, as do all those descriptions of people experiencing ‘clicks’, ‘tingles’, ‘shocks’, ‘pushes’ and the like from stones. But add it to growing evidence of visible electromagnetic energy effects being created by earth faults and movements, recent laboratory experiments creating a wide variety of hallucinations by putting faint pulses of magnetic energy directly into the brain, and research suggesting that humans have two sensory systems - one conscious, the other a form of fast, instinctive ‘blindsight’ - and it adds up to something at least worth considering.
Click to a larger version of Nine Stone Close Stone Circle, Derbyshire: photo © Mick Sharp

Nine Stone Close Stone Circle, Derbyshire: photo © Mick Sharp

The Grey Ladies are reputed to dance at midnight and, sometimes, at midday. The semicircle of four stones emerging from the mist on Harthill Moor gives a clue to the damage done: seven of the nine were still standing in 1847, one of them was taken to serve as a gatepost nearby, two have been re-erected. According to analysis by John Barnatt, this location ‘was obviously chosen with great care, for it creates a beautiful symbolic arrangement which combined the sun, moon and landscapes.’ Symbolic alignments from stones to landscape features on near horizons marked the sun’s solstice and equinox rising points, gaps between stones were used to indicate maximum rising and setting points of the moon. The primary alignment of the site is to Robin Hood’s Stride, a gritstone outcrop topped by twin pillar-like formations. Looking SSW from the circle, the midsummer full moon, setting at its maximum point south, would touch the outcrop top left and drop below the left-hand pillar. Its top half would then be visible crossing the gap to disappear completely behind the right-hand pillar for a few seconds before finally setting 5 degrees to the west (R). The differing relationship between outcrop and setting trajectory could have been ‘used to study the moon’s eclipse variation’, but the sheer drama of it all would probably have been enough for most observers.
Click to a larger version of Easter Aquhorthies Recumbent Stone Circle, Aberdeenshire (Historic Scotland): photo © Mick Sharp

Easter Aquhorthies Recumbent Stone Circle, Aberdeenshire (Historic Scotland): photo © Mick Sharp

Movements of the moon can be used to chart the turning year, to indicate ‘broad seasonal changes’, the correct times for rituals and activities in the farming round, to stay in touch with cosmic order and the rightness of things. Nine Stone Close circle was positioned in relationship to the moon and a striking natural outcrop, in Aberdeenshire in the 3rd millennium BC people built their own structures to frame the southern moon’s maximum rising or setting. At over 100 sites with elevated southerly views a large recumbent slab, flanked by tall uprights and carefully propped so its upper surface was level, was placed on the southern arc of a stone circle. Easter Aquhorthies is an almost perfect circle with nine stones graded up in height to the flankers. They are arranged in opposing pairs with the single lowest stone at NNE opposite the recumbent placed at the SSW to receive the setting moon when viewed from the centre of the circle. The recumbent is of deep reddish granite with streaks of quartz, the flankers of grey granite, the circle stones of ‘rough pinkish porphyry’ plus one of ‘glowing red jasper’. This use of colour and texture is noticeable at many of the sites along with the placing of cupmarks and quartzite to symbolize the moon and her milky white light.
Click to a larger version of Sunhoney Recumbent Stone Circle, Aberdeenshire: photo © Mick Sharp

Sunhoney Recumbent Stone Circle, Aberdeenshire: photo © Mick Sharp

The recumbent at Sunhoney is aligned on the point at which the maximum ‘moonrise is first visible above the hills to the south’. The recumbent has broken and slumped but still retains its power, 31 cupmarks clustering where the moon appeared to rest. The nine circle stones and flankers are of reddish granite or gneiss, the recumbent of grey, fine-grained granite. As at many monuments of its class, the emphasis at Sunhoney eventually changed from ceremonial to funerary, the open centre once used for observations, ritual fires and dedicatory cremations became the site of a low ring cairn covering the remains of a funeral pyre - a memorial to one rather than a monument for the community? Rooks call in the ring of trees and the site is rumoured to be the haunt of black magicians, but one May evening, in the sensible company of the dogs from the farm, Sunhoney seemed a wholesome place.
Click to a larger version of Temple Wood Stone Circle, Mid Argyll (Historic Scotland): photo © Mick Sharp

Temple Wood Stone Circle, Mid Argyll (Historic Scotland): photo © Mick Sharp

This burial monument became known as Temple Wood when trees were planted around it in the 19th century. In the late 1700s a hoard of coins was found near the centre of the cairn. An almost perfect circle of 22 stones formed an enclosure some 12m (40ft) across. Over a long period burials were made within and around the circle and the design of the monument changed: it has been reconstructed in its final phase when a large cairn covered most of the earlier features. Two small cairns outside the circle covered cists containing inhumation burials, one accompanied by a Beaker, flint scraper and three very fine barbed and tanged arrowheads. The other held only the tooth of a four-to-six-year old child; both burials had disappeared but were indicated by phosphate analysis of the soil. A cist under a small cairn at the centre of the circle had been opened and robbed, only a few fragments of cremated bone left behind. Two of the circle stones are decorated, one with a double spiral pecked over two adjacent faces, the other with concentric circles. The open ring of monoliths was converted to a closed ring by inserting extra uprights into the spaces, and the large cairn constructed to cover the smaller ones. Immediately NE is a second, smaller stone circle of at least five stones plus one at the centre. Dated to around 3000BC, it is Neolithic and one of the earliest in Scotland. It replaced a circle of at least six timber posts around a central one. What shifts in ownership, belief and ritual all these changes represent is hard to say, but around 1800BC the larger circle may have been used in conjunction with standing stones to the SE to track the moon.
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 is decorated with over 40 cupmarks, at least three surrounded by partial rings, some with tails like comets. It is taller than the stones of the two pairs set equidistant to its ENE (rear L) and WSW. Professor Alexander Thom suggested that the setting had been laid out as a lunar observatory with sight lines, running through combinations of the stones to notches in surrounding hills, indicating significant points on the moon’s 18.61-year cycle. The southerly pair of stones is aligned NW towards Temple Wood stone circle and a hill-notch beyond in which the moon would have set at its most northerly declination. Looking along the setting to the SW, the moon at its most southerly declination would have set over Bellanoch Hill. Carvings, cupmarks in particular, do seem to be associated with ‘astronomical’ sites but their use is more symbolic or broadly indicative rather than the precise star maps that some people would like them to be.
Click to a larger version of High Banks Rock Carvings, Galloway: photo © Mick Sharp

High Banks Rock Carvings, Galloway: photo © Mick Sharp

One of the most striking groups of prehistoric rock art in Galloway can be found on a 30-meter-long (98ft) sheet of dark coarse-grained sandstone near Kirkcudbright. There are several other groups in the vicinity and many more were quarried away in the 1830s. Looking like the skin of some alien creature or a seething microbial scene, simple cups throng around a larger, central one with widely spaced outer rings. Bees around a hive, raindrops in water around a ripple, the faithful around a temple, huts around the village meeting-house, rings and stars around a planet, satellite burials around a round barrow. Hollows to hold or make holy water and healing draughts, receptacles for sacrificial blood, crucibles for casting soft metals, stone lamps to light up like the heavens, milk-cups for the fairy folk, earth navels, the Centre where ‘absolute reality exists’, the territory of the sacred.
Click to a larger version of Hanging Stones Rock Carvings, West Yorkshire: photo © Mick Sharp

Hanging Stones Rock Carvings, West Yorkshire: photo © Mick Sharp

Rain fills the grooves and hollows of this unusual design on the edge of Hangingstones Ridge, and masks the view NW to Ilkley and the Wharfe Valley beyond. Rombalds Moor was an area of intense prehistoric activity and it is still littered with carved stones and outcrops. Bronze Age petroglyphs in Britain tend to be near to the coast, so it is rare to find such an important and varied concentration of carvings so far inland. Modern visitors have thoughtlessly added their unworthy efforts to some of these listed ancient monuments, but prehistoric people also used to add to, carve over or obliterate earlier designs. Theirs was not casual, impulsive graffiti, long hours with flint chisels, wooden mallets, stone and antler picks, rounded stones and grinding grit were required to execute this perplexing design.
Click to a larger version of Ormaig Rock Carvings, Mid Argyll: photo © Mick Sharp

Ormaig Rock Carvings, Mid Argyll: photo © Mick Sharp

To the SE of Loch Craignish, on sloping moorland with wide views of the sea, an area of schist is covered with over 250 cupmarks plus rings, tails, rosettes and other designs. I don’t understand the carvings here any more than I do the Hanging Stones, but I do have a much stronger instinctive connection with them and they lift my spirits. I feel that many of the prehistoric art motifs had their origins in the observation of natural growth patterns and the flow of unknown forces revealed in water, mist and smoke. Dowsing can produce vivid designs from underground water and geomagnetic flows, magnetic material will rearrange metal flecks on a smooth surface, sound vibrations can do the same in liquids and with flour or sand spread on a copper sheet or a tight membrane like a drum. These modal phenomena, or Cymatics, allow vivid patterns to be ‘drawn’ with the pitch and vibration combinations of musical notes, and some believe they can be used to reset the body’s ‘natural resonant frequency’ unbalanced by illness or trauma. Entoptic images formed within the eye by non-visual stimulation of the optic nerve add another set of motifs as do sensory deprivation and lack of food and water, naturally achieved trance states and the taking of hallucinogenic substances. With cosmic order playing out every night in the sky above them and invisible forces constantly made manifest, prehistoric people had plenty to inspire them to create: dreams, spirit voices, the fickle power of nature, cosmic rhythms, the persuasive flow of breath and speech, the force of life itself. Natural basins and cracks in the rocks are often incorporated into the designs, and shamans in trance have experienced sensations of travelling down a tunnel-vortex and of being able to enter and leave solid rock through natural fissures.
Click to a larger version of The Devil’s Arrows, North Yorkshire: photo © Mick Sharp

The Devil’s Arrows, North Yorkshire: photo © Mick Sharp

Three tall monoliths of undressed millstone grit, brought seven miles from near Knaresborough, stand in a rough line N-S. They are pitted and deeply scored, the vertical grooves mainly the result of weathering since they were erected, but existing surface imperfections may have played some part in the choice of stone. Alfred Watkins (“The Old Straight Track”, 1925), believed the grooves to be artificial, one of the signs that they were marker stones on a ley, or line of earth energy, part sacred paths, part practical system of way-marked tracks which criss-crossed the country. They do seem to be indicating the way to a ford across the River Ure about half a mile to the N. There may have been another two smaller stones originally, there was certainly a fourth one in the row in the 1500s according to John Leland. In the early 20th century Sir Norman Lockyer considered them to be an avenue for sun worship, and legend tells us they are a volley shot by the Devil from How Hill some 8 miles (13km) to the W - he was aiming for Aldborough a mile to the ESE whose inhabitants had annoyed him. It would seem that Satan, along with assorted giants, Adam and King Arthur, was very successful at finding work for idle hands to do as his Apronfuls, Bridges, Chairs, Dens, Dykes, Gardens, Jumps, Pulpits, Punchbowls, Quoits and Stones cover the land. He may have become depressed by all this mischief, as legend also claims he hanged himself from the tallest stone. With him out of the way, perhaps it is time to rename them the Acupuncturist’s Needles which would fit in well with ideas of megaliths being stone needles, inserted to mark and regulate energy flows through the body of Mother Earth.
Click to a larger version of St Duzec Menhir, Brittany: photo © Mick Sharp

St Duzec Menhir, Brittany: photo © Mick Sharp

For people on the Côte-du-Nord in the 17th century the Devil was very much alive. In 1674, when a chapel was built nearby, this pagan Neolithic stone was elaborately Christianized by the insertion of a stone cross and Crucifixion, and the carving and painting of its southern face. The granite, deeply grooved and navelled on the north, is adorned with signs of Christ’s Passion on the south. There used to be a painting of Christ on the Cross below the carvings but time has almost erased it. Time used to be measured and maintained by means of the moon and sun who were variously associated with death and resurrection, birth and fertility. Time itself seemed to be regenerated as the sun and the moon - after three worrying days of darkness - seemed to regenerate themselves. At the top of the southern face, just below the inserted Crucifixion, a figure of the Blessed Virgin Mary stands proud: to her left is a carving of the sun with twelve rays and a human face, to her right, the moon.

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