Monday, 17 June 2019

Crickley Hill

Crickley Hill, just south of Cheltenham in Gloucestershire, was occupied for 5000 years between the Mesolithic period and the Anglo-Saxon period. It was at the intersection of an important routeway leading south across the Cotswold Hills from Gloucester, and some archaeologists believe the famous bluestones were brought this way on their journey from the Preseli Mountains to Stonehenge. It is also one of the earliest known battlefields, with evidence of prehistoric warfare in the 4th millennium BC.
Crickley Hill is on the northern edge of the Cotswolds, with the vast plains of Cheltenham and Gloucester stretching beyond. Its stunning views would have given good information to the early hunters on the whereabouts of herds, or in later times, the whereabouts of approaching enemies. Its very steep slopes were a key part of the fortifications of later eras, but in the earlier, more peaceful times, the dramatic landscape seems to have been chosen for its own sake.

Several Mesolithic huts were built on the hill around 4500BC, and a series of pits were dug on the highest point of the hill. Pits were usually used for offerings, but nothing has been found in these. They may have contained plants, fruits, woodwork or other biodegradable items.

The view north across the Vale of Cheltenham

A causewayed enclosure was dug in the early Neolithic period, around 3700BC. This comprised a low, circular stone bank, dug from a ditch immediately outside, with a wooden palisade inside it incorporating several entrances. These enclosures were common and seem to be gathering places for feasting, trading, exchanging livestock and affirming community relations. In common with other places, Crickley’s enclosure was levelled and the palisades burnt several times before being rebuilt. It seems as if the memory and spirit of the gathering was sealed back into the soil on each occasion.

A shrine was built on the western end of the promontory. This spot is hidden from the rest of the site by a natural dip in the slope and only the sweeping view across the vale is visible from it. It’s interesting how the alignment focuses on a small hill in the near distance, the only obvious natural feature in the vale. Many of these sites have a focus on other landscape features.

The location of the stone circle, focusing on a hill in the near distance.

Crickley Hill was the site of a largescale battle around 3500BC. Hundreds of arrowheads have been found, clustering on the main entrances. This is the earliest evidence of largescale violence in Britain. The site was then abandoned but the shrine was eventually rebuilt. A stone slab was laid over the original structure, surrounded by a small stone circle, and a 100m mound of soil was raised leading to it. Stone slabs all along its length covered items such as animal bones. Eventually the stone slab was smashed and the circle of uprights pushed over, a clear destruction of its power. But people kept an uneasy respect for the site: objects such as brooches were buried in the mound well into the Roman period.

         The remains of the Iron Age rampart

Crickley Hill was reoccupied in the Iron Age, around 600BC, and a large defensive ditch and bank was dug around the settlement, still visible today. Not long after, the wall was torn down, brushwood piled against the timbers and the site incinerated in a fire intense enough to turn the limestone walls to quicklime. Another new settlement a hundred years later was also destroyed.

An Anglo-Saxon village built on the site around AD420 was also burnt on at least two occasions, and then people abandoned it for good. It became rough grazing and woodland as it remains today. Now its unspoilt woodland and hundreds of wildflowers are of as much importance as its history.

Monday, 10 June 2019


Lindisfarne, or Holy Island, lies in the North Sea near Berwick upon Tweed in Northumberland. It can be reached by a mile-long walk across the causeway at low tide, or for the more dedicated visitors, posts mark the pilgrims’ route across the mudflats.

Walking across the open expanse of mudflat, surrounded by flocks of foraging wading birds whose piping calls are the only sound in this seemingly vast emptiness, with the sea unseen in the distance until it turns and rushes back across the mudflats, is a profound experience and certainly illustrates why the island was considered special.

The island’s recorded history is mainly linked to the Christians who settled here in the 7th century, but it was considered sacred before this point. Its oldest name, Medcaut, probably derives from the Latin Medicata Insula or ‘Healing Island’. Lindisfarne is a Celtic name: Farne means land and Lindis is the name of the river which flows across the mudflats at low tide.

St Cuthbert’s Isle, just off Lindisfarne. The cross marks the former altar of the chapel known as St Cuthbert in the Sea.

King Oswald, who came to the Northumbrian throne in AD634, had converted to Christianity and arranged for a team of monks to come from Iona to convert his people. They built their monastery on Lindisfarne. Soon afterwards Oswald and his bishop, Aidan, died and the church was burnt by marauders.

A shepherd named Cuthbert had a vision of Aidan telling him to continue the bishop’s work. Cuthbert trained as a monk and began to preach. The conversion of the Northumbrians to Christianity is credited to his work. He eventually retreated to a small island off Lindisfarne where he lived in solitude for many years, and he was eventually buried in Lindisfarne’s church. The famous Lindisfarne Gospels, an illuminated manuscript containing the four gospels, was written here at this time.

Page from Lindisfarne's illuminated Gospel of St Matthew. 

Almost two centuries after Cuthbert’s death, when Vikings attacked the island, the monks abandoned the site and Cuthbert’s body was carried on the long journey to Durham where it was laid in the cathedral along with the monastery’s other sacred relics. Many places in Northumberland are linked to that journey, including St Cuthbert's Cave in the Kyloe Hills.
Following the Norman Conquest, the priory was rebuilt in typical Norman grandeur and remained a large and influential site until its closure in 1537 following Henry VIII’s Reformation.

The Norman priory, which replaced an older building in the 12th century.

Tuesday, 4 June 2019

Silbury Hill

Silbury Hill, a mile south of Avebury in Wiltshire, is one of Britain’s most enigmatic monuments. It is an artificial chalk mound, 31m in height and around 140m in diameter, built in a curve of the spring-fed River Kennet. It was built in the early Bronze Age, between 2400BC and 2300BC.

Tradition says it was the burial mound of King Sil (pronounced Zel) who was buried on horseback in golden armour. Other local lore says it was formed when the Devil dropped a sack of earth with which he had intended to bury Marlborough, foiled in his intent by the Avebury priests.

Despite eager exploration, no evidence of Sil or his gold has been found, but in the 18th century, a body was found buried in the top of the mound, complete with a horse bit. This probably dates to the Medieval period when the top was levelled and fortified.

              Silbury from Waden Hill

Excavation has found Silbury to be far more complex than previously imagined. First, a gravel mound was raised, around a metre high and 10m in diameter. This was covered by turf and soil with a wooden retaining wall, then marsh-soil, chalk and gravel. The mound was now 5m high and 34m in diameter.

At least two other small mounds were incorporated into it. One contained yew berries, sloes, hazel shells and brambles: woodland soil which seems to have come from some distance away. The area around Silbury was open grassland grazed by farm animals. Sarsen stones were seeded through the mound ‘like raisins in a cake’.

The mound was soon expanded. Chalk was dug from a surrounding circular ditch and built over the mound. This ditch was 6m deep, 6m wide and 100m in diameter. As soon as it was dug, it was backfilled and redug further out, presumably linked to the new layer of chalk added to the mound. This happened five times.

Digging a ditch of those proportions with antler picks would take months of back-breaking labour, and raises questions of the mindset of these people. Why immediately destroy their achievement and start again? Assuming the labourers were working through free choice –there is no evidence of slavery at this time – they must have shared some common vision that lauded what to us seems entirely pointless work. Many monuments were continually remodelled, Stonehenge an obvious example, and it seems the process of construction was more important than the finished product. Perhaps the growing mound reflected the community’s growing spiritual or real-world prospects, so every remodelling was a celebration.

Silbury Hill is often thought to be unique, but another smaller mound at nearby Marlborough, long thought to be natural, has recently been proven to be human-made. Another mound, now entirely destroyed, was built in Marden Henge near Salisbury Plain. All three are situated in the curve of a river, on low-lying and probably very wet ground. Silbury is known for its springs, which flowed much more freely in the past, and would have filled the huge ditch with an unbroken sheen of water. The springwater is naturally warm and steams on a cold day, so the mound appears to be rising from the mist. Did the mounds represent the birth of the world, rising from the mists and the primeval waters, as features in so many mythologies? We shall probably never know.

Monday, 27 May 2019

Cuween Chambered Tomb

This is a tomb near Kirkwall on the north coast of Mainland Orkney, built by Neolithic farmers around 3000BC.

Dozens of tombs were built around Orkney and each was probably linked to a small community who farmed the immediate area. There was a small Neolithic settlement at the foot of Cuween Hill. Unlike the chambered tombs of southern Britain such as Belas Knap and Wayland's Smithy, Orkney’s tombs were often in use for a thousand or more years and may contain several hundred bodies.

Cuween comprises five dark, damp chambers leading out from a central chamber. This is reached by a long, low passage entered at a crawl. Some of the chambers are level with the central chamber; others are raised; others have a flagstone divider. The arrangement seems entirely organic with no overall grand design. This is the case with many of the tombs, which each have a unique layout. Perhaps the builders worked entirely through intuition or with the help of spirit guides who, while in a trance state, ‘drew’ the tomb into this world.

Cuween was excavated a century ago and was found to contain the bones of eight people and 24 dog skulls. The small number of human bones suggests the tomb was periodically cleared of bones, or perhaps emptied at the end of its use-life. The presence of dogs is unique, although other tombs contained animal bones such as red deer, otters or sea eagles, and may indicate a community totem or spirit guide. Dogs are commonly seen as guardians of the underworld or as guides for the dead. The dogs were collie-sized and resembled a grey wolf.

The view from the cairn across the farmland and the sea

Cuween probably derives from ‘kewing’, meaning cattle pasture. Due to the short growing season at this northern latitude, cattle have always formed the basis of Orkney’s agriculture. In more recent folklore it was known as the Fairy Knowe.

The tomb was cut out of the bedrock and roofed with flagstones then covered with earth. From a distance it blends into the hillside in this respect resembles the southern tombs. Its purpose was to form a bond with the land, and its influence spread over the farmland below it.

Most of the Orkney tombs face out to sea. The sea was a provider and nurturer as much as the land, and it makes sense for the guardian influence of the ancestors to extend across the water. It may also reflect the journey of the souls of the deceased.

Like many of the tombs, Cuween had been carefully sealed up. This generally seems to have happened around 2500BC, when Orkney’s Neolithic culture dramatically ended. The tombs gradually became the haunt of fairies and ghosts, left undisturbed for fear of violent repercussions from angry ghosts.

Monday, 20 May 2019

Belas Knap

Belas Knap is a long barrow near Winchcombe in Gloucestershire. It was built in the early Neolithic period and is of similar style to dozens of other barrows found across the Cotswolds and the Severn valley.

The barrow is situated on a wide, rolling hillside, with a wide view in three directions and a steep, wooded scarp dropping sharply on the eastern side. This was probably wooded in the Neolithic period and so would have obscured the only prominent view of the barrow. From all other directions, the barrow quickly blends into the ground. Like Wayland's Smithy long barrow, Belas Knap was not intended to be a visible statement, but conversely the barrow itself has a sweeping view of the landscape. They seem to be about blending with the earth, returning the ancestors and their skills to the earth, as well as legitimising their continuing presence on this tract of land. They reflect heritage and belonging.

            Belas Knap from the east.

                View south from the barrow.

The barrow is aligned to the north. This is unusual: most long barrows face roughly east. Four burial chambers were set into its length and the main forecourt with its stone fa├žade was actually a false entrance. It’s believed the chambers were built separately as individual burial mounds, then later incorporated into a huge barrow. Many barrows including Wayland’s Smithy were originally smaller structures which were extended into huge mounds a century or two later. Even earlier than the chambers was a circular arrangement of stones lying near the centre of the current mound.

The barrow was crudely excavated in the 19th century and restored to its current condition in the 1920s. It was originally 60m long and 25m wide but its edges have now been trimmed due to erosion, agriculture and excavation. Thirty eight bodies were found, dating from 3700BC-3600BC.

Behind the slabs of the false entrance were the bones of one man and five children, along with flints and horse and pig bones. The western side chamber, lined with sarsens and drystone walling, contained fourteen bodies including a woman with fatal head injuries. The southern chamber, now almost entirely destroyed, contained one body. The south-eastern chamber, which is much lower and has to be entered on one’s belly, contained four bodies. The north-eastern chamber which is lined with sarsens contained twelve bodies.

The chambers were repeatedly visited and opened and sealed, probably used for rites such as marriage, blessing the land and blessing births as well as for burial. Then, like many long barrows, the chambers were eventually sealed for good. This often seems to coincide with the arrival of bronze in Britain around 2500BC.

                  The north-east chamber.

Barrows were often respected for millennia after their closure, although their stones crumbled and collapsed and trees and shrubs obscured them. Belas Knap means ‘beautiful hilltop’. As this seems to refer to the barrow itself rather than the hillside, it is perhaps a name of uneasy respect given by later, more superstitious people to a haunted and feared place. Many ancient sites were avoided as haunts of fairies or dwarfs, later still the work of the devil. This may derive from people unwittingly uncovering the bones of long-dead people, or perhaps it is a long-remembered folk memory of the fearful rites once conducted here.

Monday, 13 May 2019

Lydney Roman Temple

This Roman temple is on a precipitous hill in Lydney in Gloucestershire, overlooking the western bank of the River Severn. Rivers were Britain’s arteries in both a material and spiritual sense, and this site, overlooking the waters which dominate the view today and would have been even more spectacular in historic times when the river was a lot closer, was of strategic importance until the Medieval period.

The view from the Iron Age embankment towards the Roman site, with the River Severn in the distance.

The Roman buildings were built on the remains of an Iron Age hill fort, the latter dating to around 100BC. Both Celts and Romans extensively mined the hill for iron ore until the elaborate temple complex was built around 360AD. Its Roman name was Nemetobala, meaning ‘hill sanctuary’.

The temple was dedicated to Nodens, a Celtic God associated with healing, hunting, the river and fishing. Nodens has no other mention in the ancient world. This is probably unsurprising as in Celtic culture, as well as many other cultures worldwide, the true names of revered beings were rarely known and almost never spoken. Disguised names abounded.

Nodens has been linked to the Irish Nuada and the Welsh Lludd, and was probably associated with the healing God Asclepius by the Romans who respected and assimilated many foreign deities into their culture. Asclepius likely means ‘dog-man’, and several plaques and figurines of dogs have been found in the temple. Dogs were often kept in temples and would lick wounds to aid healing. This would have worked: enzymes in saliva are strongly antibacterial.

                           The Roman baths.

Near the temple was a bath house, probably for ritual use, and a long building comprising a series of rooms probably used as dormitories, dreams being powerful and prophetic and interpreted onsite by diviners. A mansio or guest house illustrates the importance of this site which attracted wealthy pilgrims from far and wide.

The temple was in use long after the collapse of the Roman Empire, after which the Iron Age ramparts were repaired and extended. Sometime during the 5th or 6th century, it was burned down and the roof and walls collapsed inwards, preserving its elaborate votive offerings and mosaic floors for posterity.

The remains of the ancient buildings remained visible for centuries and like many Roman sites the hill, now known as Dwarf Hill, was avoided as the haunt of fairies or dwarfs.

Monday, 6 May 2019

Old Bewick Hillfort

The escarpment which flanks the hillfort, looking across the vale to the Cheviot Hills.

Old Bewick Hillfort is on a steep hill near the Cheviot Hills in Northumberland. It comprises two stone-walled structures of circular banks and ditches, side by side, built against the steep hillside to the south. Little remains of them today but they can easily be seen as circles of green and brown. Bracken is very fussy about growing on the remnants of historic sites, and these patterns are often the first clue to their presence. Several hut circles can be seen.

It is described as a fort but was a relatively small settlement, perhaps for one or two families, although the effort needed to create the walls and ditches perhaps suggests another purpose. It may have had religious significance.

The fort dates to the Iron Age but the site was of significance long before this time. Several Bronze Age cairns were built nearby, and excavation has revealed pottery urns, a necklace of jet and shale, and another necklace of amber. These were prestigious items and suggests the graves of wealthy or important people. The site was venerated long after the Bronze Age.

Cup-and-ring marked rock, prominent in the moorland.

The site is also significant for its cup-and-ring marked rocks. Northumberland is famous for these stones, which are found on many hillsides with substantial views, and those at Old Bewick were the first to be recognised as of ancient origin, rather than the work of an idle shepherd. They are thought to originate in the late Neolithic or early Bronze Age.

They resemble art found in Neolithic passage graves such as Newgrange in Ireland and Pierrowall in Orkney, and engraved slabs have also been found in Bronze Age burials in Northumberland.

Each carving is unique and uses the contours of the rock to enhance its art. They are certainly of great symbolic importance, but their meaning remains entirely unclear.