The Devil’s Humps & The Devil’s Jumps

Bronze Age 2500 -> 700 BC

A devilish double bill this time featuring two easily confused Bronze Age barrow cemeteries in Sussex: the Devil’s Humps at Stoughton and the Devil’s Jumps at Treyford.  In no particular order…

img_4420The Devils’ Humps (aka the King’s Graves) comprise two bell barrows and two ditched bowl barrows and are situated on the edge of the Kingley Vale nature reserve.  I parked at the car park at the bottom of Stoughton Down on the outskirts of the village and took the steep climb up the hill following a very pleasant 4.5 mile walk downloaded from iFootpath.com.

At the brow of the hill the barrows are the dominant feature and there are fabulous views of the South Downs to either side with Chichester Cathedral easily visible to the south with Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight beyond.  I visited on a Bank Holiday Monday and, unsurprisingly, there were large numbers of people up there taking in the views and clambering over the barrows.  I reflected that this has probably been the case at certain times for millennia and the ancient trackway that traverses the barrows is further testament to the barrows’enduring role and place within the landscape.

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The Devil’s Humps, Stoughton, West Sussex

The archaeology bit

The two bowl barrows of the Devil’s Humps were investigated in 1853 and one of them was excavated at this time (although this was apparently not the first time), revealing burnt bones resting on burnt earth, a whetstone, a horse’s tooth, pottery sherds and stag horns, all of which are now in the British Museum. The bowl barrows measure 24 metres and 28 metres in diameter and around 3 metres high. One of the two bell barrows was excavated by Grinsell in 1933 and the finds – a flint scraper and some pottery sherds  – are held in Lewes Museum.  The bell barrows’ diameters are 21 metres and 23.5 metres respectively and they are also both 3 metres high. They each have surrounding berms measuring  around 3.5 meters and surviving ditches 3.5 metres wide and half a metre deep (https://historicengland.org.uk).

Here’s a nice piece of drone footage by Dom Escott showing the barrows to good effect: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tveCoPLrjlI

I encountered the Devil’s Jumps while walking a section of the South Downs Way with the wonderful Elizabeth Bennett. We parked in the National Trust car park on Harting Down and headed off up the hill and over the Downs in the general direction of Cocking, which is a decent 7-mile walk away. The Jumps are somewhere in the middle of the route and appear with no warning, a proud and impressive group of barrows that suddenly appears on the south face of Treyford Hill as you emerge from the trackway through the densely wooded interior of the hill top.

The interpretation sign describes the Devil’s Jumps as “the best example of a Bronze Age barrow cemetery on the South Downs”. The cemetery was excavated also in 1853 and cremated bone was recovered from within the ground surface between two of the mounds although no human remains were found in the smaller, outlying barrows. The cemetery, which is linear and runs north-east/south-west is aligned with sunset on Midsummer Day, although these days the trees spoil the effect a little. There are five bell barrows ranging in size of central diameter from 20-26 metres, with central berms of 3 or 4 m wide, ditches up to 6m wide, with overall mound diameters of 37-45 m and heights of 2.7-5.3 m; the bowl barrows survive as low earthworks (https://historicengland.org.uk).

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The Devil’s Jumps, Treyford, West Sussex

The Devil’s Jumps are managed by the Murray Downland Trust. For a great perspective of the barrow cemetery here is some aerial footage of the Jumps from alembic.tv.

Confusingly, there is another place called the Devil’s Jumps (or Devil’s Three Jumps) up the road at Churt in Surrey; however, these are naturally occurring hillocks, not barrows.

Folklore

It is said that the Devil once amused himself by jumping between the Humps and the Jumps and, in the process, disturbed Thor from his slumber. Thor was not best pleased  but the Devil just laughed at him, further provoking Thor’s anger to the extent that he threw a large rock or hammer (the accounts vary) at the Devil who made his leave, although his jumps remained. Sussex has a number of other Devil-themed landscape features including Devil’s Dyke, Devil’s Bog, Devil’s Book, the Devil’s Ditch and the Devil’s Road so, it seems, he has traditionally been much in evidence in the county. Apparently, should you wish to meet said demon, this can be achieved by running round the Devil’s Humps seven times. The Humps, also known as the King’s Graves, are said to be the tombs of Viking leaders buried in 894 with the adjacent yew wood marking the battlefield site. Furthermore it is said that the Vikings, or perhaps druids, haunt these woods and that the trees come to life and wander about. Looking at some of them I can quite believe it.img_4442

Refreshments

In Stoughton there is a pub called the Hare and Hounds, which I didn’t visit, but it looked very pleasing from the outside and comes highly recommended by these people who also mention that the pub stocks five real ales (something the pub’s own website, oddly, doesn’t mention). After my visit to the Devil’s, Humps instead I went to the tea shop in the nearby village of Compton and had a very pleasant coffee and cake.

The pub nearest to the Devil’s Jumps is one of my all time favourites: the Royal Oak at Hooksway. A proper walkers’ pub that serves good wholesome food and a decent selection of often local ales in a cosy, welcoming atmosphere. It even has a resident ghost.

Further reading

Franks, A.W. (1854) Sussex Archaeological Collection, Vol. 7, 53-54

Grinsell, L.V. (1934) Sussex Barrows in Sussex Archaeological Collections Vol. 75, 247

Simpson, J. 2002 (2nd edn) The Folklore of Sussex. London: The History Press

https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1008372

https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1010760

http://murraydownlandtrust.blogspot.co.uk/2013/12/the-devils-jumps-and-humps.html

http://www.sussexarch.org.uk/saaf/devil.html

http://www.sussexfolktalecentre.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/folklore-map-prototype4.pdf

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The Bramdean Circle of Stones

Nineteenth century (with more ancient leanings)

Circle of stones, Bramdean

Circle of stones, Bramdean

In the summer, due to the copious vegetation, it is easy to drive along the A272 through Bramdean in Hampshire towards East Meon without noticing the circle of stones just behind a bus shelter on the left-hand side of the road; in the winter however it is far more prominent – and rather unexpected.  Just before the bus shelter is a small crossroads and it is possible to park alongside the stones on the side of the lane.  The diminutive stone circle includes two remaining dolmen/trilithon-type formations from a possible original five. Additionally, on the opposite side of the road, is a large flint mound. Both monuments convey a sense of the ancient past but certainly to someone with archaeological leanings the circle in particular feels somewhat more recent in its construction. The first time I saw it I remember thinking what a wonderful thing for the local people to have constructed next to the bus shelter…but why?

 

The archaeology bit

Having absent-mindedly wondered about the circle since I had first noticed it on one of my various trips to Winchester, I happened to stop for a drink in a pub called The Fox (more of which later), situated a little way before the stones on the A272 on the edge of Bramdean village. On the wall behind the table where I sat – it must have been fate! – was a picture frame containing some black and white magazine cuttings about the stones. They appear to come from the Country Life magazine letters page and comprise some photographs of the stones and two letters, the first from a gentleman (not disgusted) from Tunbridge Wells who likens the stones to a ‘Stonehenge effect at Port Talbot’ that appeared in a previous issue.  Unfortunately there are no dates on the correspondence but I wonder if the Port Talbot reference in question is the ‘Foamhenge’ constructed in 2010 at Margam Country Park for the filming of the Dr Who episode The Pandorica Opens in which Matt Smith battled Cybermen in the series finale?

Mound of stones at Brockwood with headstone on the left. Circle of stones pictured on the other side of the road.

The other letter in the frame is from J.A.C. Greenwood of Rogate in Hampshire, the great-great nephew of Colonel George Greenwood of Brockwood (formerly Brookwood) House, a large property down the lane on the other side of the crossroads where the circle is, past the flint mound. Mr Greenwood writes that his great-great uncle erected both monuments and the mound is the burial place of his favourite horse.  He was a very distinguished horseman, recognised by Queen Victoria, and wrote a book called Hints on Horsemanship in 1839. However, there is a headstone on the mound that reads: ‘HERE LIES COL. R MEINERTZHAGEN’S HORSE MELKSHAM BURIED UNDER THESE STONES WHO DIED AT THIS PLACE IN 1910’. Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen was, by all accounts, a colourful character, apparently a passionate ornithologist, general science buff, some time spy and assassin. Curiously however he was born in 1878, three years after Colonel Greenwood’s death and Melksham the horse obviously could not have been connected to Colonel Greenwood if the inscription on the headstone is accurate.

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Circle of stones at Bramdean

As regards the circle of stones, J.A.C. Greenwood says there are two possible explanations of the Colonel’s motivation for building the it in 1845 or thereabouts:

“One…is that he wished to see how long it would be before they were regarded as relics of the ancient past – this is commonly said of them today. The alternative is that they were a demonstration of the power of his tree-lifter”.

The tree-lifter was the Colonel’s invention for transplanting trees up to 30 feet in height with their ball of earth intact, a feat the apparatus apparently made possible for a single individual to do at a rate of one tree per day. The somewhat aptly-named Colonel Greenwood was very enthusiastic about the importance of trees to the landscape and wrote a book in 1844 called The Tree-lifter, Or a new method of transplanting forest trees, which is available online via Internet Archive (link below). Colonel Greenwood is said to have excavated local archaeological sites and was a keen geologist referred to as ‘the father of subaerialism’, ascribing the greater inequalities in the earth’s surface to atmospheric influences. He published a further book in 1857 entitled Rain and Rivers. It was said in his obituary that “had he fallen amongst geologists in early life, instead of amongst ‘thoroughbreds’, he would doubtless have occupied a leading place among men of science”. This seems rather a pity but I’m glad the monument lives on. Incidentally, the colonel is buried nearby at All Saints church, Hinton Ampner, his grave stone a recumbent sarsen which stands out pleasingly amongst all the more traditional ones.

Refreshments

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The Fox at Bramdean

We partook of a pint of Timothy Taylor’s Landlord in The Fox, a welcoming, dog-friendly country pub, recently under new management. I don’t see Landlord anywhere near as often as I would like but always choose it given the chance. It has won more awards than any other beer and deservedly so. The barman in The Fox remarked that he’d only put it on the night before and it was already overtaking Doom Bar as the punters’ beer of choice.

Further reading

http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00369226008735792?journalCode=rsgj19#.VOnFMPmsUYE

http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayFulltext?type=1&fid=5236076&jid=GEO&volumeId=3&issueId=04&aid=5236072

http://www.hampshire-history.com/colonel-meinertzhagen/

https://archive.org/stream/treelifterorane00greegoog#page/n11/mode/2up

http://www.thefoxbramdean.co.uk/

 

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The Dwarfie Stane

?Neolithic 4000 -> 1800 BC

Hoy

Beautiful Hoy

The Dwarfie Stane is an enigmatic rock-cut tomb located on the beautiful island of Hoy in the Orkney Islands.  Hoy is the second largest of the islands at 57 square miles and has a wonderfully unspoilt feel to it.  The north and west of the island are hilly and reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands and the landscape quite takes your breath away when you first encounter it, particularly on a sunny day when the light and colours look quite magical, as they did on the day I visited.  Hoy, meaning ‘High Island’ from the old Norse ‘Haey’, is reached by ferry from Houton on the mainland.  A short drive, taking in Betty Corrigall’s grave en route (see link below), brings you to a small, signposted area of off -road parking and across the road a short walk through the heather, much of it boarded, brings you to a large and conspicuous lump of sandstone.

 

The archaeology bit

The Dwarfie Stane

The Dwarfie Stane

The sandstone block measures 8.5 metres long by 4 metres wide and 2 metres high. It is potentially the only example in Britain of a rock-cut tomb.  I say ‘potentially’ because its actual origin and purpose is much debated, although the Historic Scotland interpretation sign in situ favours its Neolithic credentials. Unfortunately, there are no reported finds from the site and no excavation has been recorded. Typologically it resembles examples elsewhere in Europe of Late Neolithic rock-cut tombs, such as those in Portugal and Sardinia.  Equally though it is thought it could perhaps result from Bronze Age endeavours, and another possibility is that it was a much later Christian hermit’s retreat.  Location-wise it would seem to suit all of the above as it is situated alone within a valley amongst imposing hills and beneath a large rocky outcrop known as the Dwarfie Hammars. Its size and stony form stand out within the surrounding expanse of heathland and the Dwarfie Stane would have been easy to locate and impressive within the landscape in prehistoric times, as it is now.  Equally, its isolation would have served a hermit well.

Side chamber with 'pillow'

Side chamber with ‘pillow’

Whatever the original purpose of the chamber, it comprises an entranceway measuring around 1 metre square off which there are two chambers, one one either side. The one on the right-hand side notably contains a built-in stone ‘pillow’ resembling those seen in saints’ beds in Northern Italy.  It is not known whether all the features of the Dwarfie Stane are contemporary and it has been suggested that the ‘pillow’ was the work of a 19th century stonemason and geologist called Hugh Miller who carved his initials in the right-hand cell during a visit. There is also a large slab of sandstone outside the entrance which previously blocked it and indeed there are records of the tomb having been sealed in the 16th century. Of course, we can’t be sure when it was first blocked or how many episodes of sealing and unsealing there may have been over the centuries or millennia. It is certainly a sizeable block of stone though and moving it would not have been something undertaken lightly (as it were).

The Dwarfie Stane & Dwarfie Hammars behind

The Dwarfie Stane with the Dwarfie Hammars behind

If the Neolithic origins are given credence it would have been a hugely impressive feat to have hollowed it out with nothing but stone and antler tools. A supporting view for a Neolithic origin of the stone comes from Audrey Henshall who in the 1950s and 60s, in conjunction with Hampshire-born Professor Stuart Piggott (mentioned in my previous entry on Petersfield Heath), conducted an extensive survey of the chambered tombs of Scotland. She described the Dwarfie Stane as ‘the ultimate devolution within the Bookan sub-group of Orkney-Cromarty chambered cairns, rather than evidence for direct contact with the Mediterranean, where similar tombs exist’.

Historic graffiti

Over the years many people must have visited the Dwarfie Stane for one reason or another. As well as Mr Miller the stonemason, another known visitor was Major W Mounsey, a former British spy in Afghanistan and Persia, who spent a couple of days and nights there and left his mark in the form of Persian graffiti that can be seen to this day saying, ‘I have sat two nights and so learnt patience’ along with his name in Latin. The stone is even mentioned in Walter Scott’s novel The Pirate.

More recently, the Dwarfie Stane has been included in a study of the acoustics of Neolithic monuments by Dr Aaron Watson and the Monumental Creative Heritage Interpretation team with some interesting results. People listening on the roof of the stone perceived the stone itself to be shaking at some sound frequencies generated within but it is thought this was illusory. Furthermore, loud sounds produced outside the stone echoed ‘like thunder’ in the surrounding landscape. These findings open up fascinating possibilities for how such experiences may have been understood and exploited in the Neolithic and their role within their surroundings. More information on the project can be found via the link below.

Folklore

Legend has it that two giants were imprisoned in the Dwarfie Stane by a third one who wanted to be master of the island of Hoy. However one of the imprisoned giants ate his way out (and in fact the roof has been repaired with concrete, it is thought following a break-in rather than break-out) thus foiling the third giant’s plan. The name Dwarfie Stane has parallels with ‘dwarf stones’ in Iceland and Norway.

Further reading

http://www.caithness.org/caithnessfieldclub/bulletins/1977/april/scottishtombs.htm

http://www.historic-scotland.gov.uk/propertydetail.htm?PropID=PL_113

http://www.hoyorkney.com/VisitHoy/betty_corrigall.html

http://www.monumental.uk.com/site/research/proj/acoustics/dwarfie/html

http://www.orkneyjar.com/history/tombs/dwarfiestane/

canmore.rcahms.gov.uk/en/site/1597/details/hoy+dwarfie+stane/

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Wideford Hill

Neolithic 4000 -> 1800 BC

The chambered cairn on Wideford Hill is situated a little way outside Kirkwall on the Orkney mainland, just off the Old Finstown Road. It is clearly signposted and easy to find, particularly if you have your resident Orcadian brother with you, as I did (he regularly walks his dog past the cairn; even more enviably the other place they walk is the Ring of Brodgar).

Entry hatch

Entry hatch

The cairn is a distinctive sight as the original earthen covering was removed when the cairn was taken into the care of the state in the 1900s, exposing its stonework terraces. There is a nice Historic Scotland interpretation board outside and also a sign pointing out the entry hatch along with a box usefully containing a torch to take with you as there is no lighting inside other than the daylight from the open hatch. Descent is via a metal staircase down 2.7 m to the floor.  The space is rather restricted although this has the advantage of making it difficult to fall as you are fairly wedged-in as you climb down.

The archaeology bit

Inside looking up (with graffiti)

Wideford chambered cairn consists of a  main chamber measuring 3 m by 1.5 m at ground level (although this narrows as it goes upwards) with three side chambers.  Its form and construction make Wideford, in effect, a mini-Maeshowe and both monuments were built at around the same time, c.3000 BC and, along with a further eight cairns in Orkney form the so-called Maeshowe-type. Wideford was excavated in 1849 when it was found to contain only rubble representing deliberate, perhaps ritualistic, end-of-use infill along with some animal bones and teeth which are now thought to have resulted from more recent mammal incursion. It is probable that Wideford was capped with clay as a form of weatherproofing.  Interestingly, it also contains a chimney-like structure which was likely to have been the conduit for the infill and it has also been suggested that, prior to this final act of deposition taking place, it may have functioned as a ‘light slot’ for communicating with the dead. Further reading about this, Wideford cairn and Orkney archaeology generally can be found on the excellent Orkneyjar website (link below).

Would you trust these three not to close the hatch?

Wideford Hill is also notable as the location of one of three Neolithic habitation sites recently investigated by Professor Colin Richards of Manchester University and Dr Richard Jones of Glasgow University.  Settlement at Wideford has been traced back to the Early Neolithic period and evidence has been found here of timber roundhouses with central scoop hearths.

It has been noted that the entrance passage of the cairn on Wideford Hill faces the nearby cairn on Cuween Hill; a similar observation has also been made regarding Taversoe Tuick cairn on Rousay and the cairn on Gairsay, as well as the cairns of Eday Church and the Holm of Huip. It is suggested that these alignments may indicate a ‘community of the dead’ or perhaps symbolise claims to the land (Garnham, 2004). This certainly seems feasible when you consider the monumental landscape of the Orcadian Neolithic farmers but, as with many aspects of prehistory, there are many and varied possible explanations for apparent patterns and observations in the archaeological record and it is unlikely a definitive explanation will ever be arrived at – which is what makes it so endlessly fascinating!

Folklore

Wideford Hill chambered cairn

Orkney abounds with folklore and it is believed that much of that which has been passed down through the ages survives as a combination of Norse beliefs merged with those of the earlier inhabitants of these mystical isles.  ‘Hogboons’ or ‘mound dwellers’ were the spirits of the dead believed to inhabit the ancient mounds.  They were thought to provide a protective presence and hence dwellings have long been built alongside these prehistoric monuments. Offerings were made by inhabitants of farming settlements to appease their resident ‘mound-dwellers’ and comprised such things as milk from the first cow that calved or the first beer that was brewed and these were poured over the mound. Such beliefs continued into the 19th century and beyond.

Refreshments

After my somewhat gusty and soggy underfoot walk across the heather-clad hill to Wideford Cairn I partook of a coffee at my brother’s house just down the road. However, later in the day I sampled a Raven Ale or two from the Orkney Brewery. This 3.8% quaffable bitter is refreshingly palatable and comes highly recommended.

Further reading

Garner, T. 2004 Lines on the Landscape, Circles from the Sky Stroud: Tempus

http://www.orkneyjar.com/history/tombs/wideford/index.html

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Whitehill Barrows

Late Neolithic 3000 -> 2000 BC

Bronze Age 2000 -> 700 BC

Just down the road from me in Hampshire is the parish of Whitehill which also encompasses the Army town of Bordon, both not far from Woolmer Forest, a former Mediaeval hunting forest bordering West Sussex and now part of the South Downs National Park. Within the military and residential density of the Bordon and Whitehill environs are a number of Late Neolithic/Bronze Age remains which have, perhaps miraculously, survived to the present day.  The location of my visit was the Whitehill village hall, which is easy to find off the A325, postcode GU35 9BW.

Rather conveniently, the two barrows I went to look at are located within the village hall car park itself.  You really can’t miss them and how wonderful to have these ancient earthworks in such a public place in the hub of the community.  They have, of course, been there for several thousand years while the village hall itself dates back only to 1919 in its first incarnation as an Army hut.  It was demolished in the 1940s and the barrows were left in peace again until 1974 when the second hall was built; and this was replaced with the current building in 1987.

There is an interpretation board on the side wall of the hall which, although positioned frustratingly high up, gives a decent summary of the Whitehill barrows and Bronze Age barrows in general and includes a nice reconstruction illustration by Time Team’s Victor Ambrus.  The sign was installed last year as a result of a collaboration between the local heritage society and Hampshire County Council.

The archaeology bit

Barrow at Whitehill

Barrow at Whitehill Village Hall

The two round barrows at Whitehill village hall are by no means isolated examples of these monuments in the area.  For a start there is another one by the radio mast in the Army’s adjacent Hogmoor Inclosure (‘inclosure’ being the archaic spelling of ‘enclosure’, so little used now that it looks wrong). The interpretation board however says that this third barrow is very eroded and therefore I didn’t bother taking a look at it.  Also in Whitehill though is a round barrow cemetery on the crest of a ridge 200 metres south-west of Woolmer Cottages comprising eleven bowl barrows, ten of which are in linear alignment.  They are all closely spaced and include two adjoining pairs, one at each end of the ridge. They are all roughly circular or oval in shape and range from 9 to 26 metres in diameter and 0.6 to 2 metres high.  Some have unfortunately suffered much damage as a result of the modern excavation of military dugouts.

There is a further round barrow cemetery on a ridge in nearby Woolmer Forest, overlooking Woolmer Pond.  Here five barrows are closely spaced together along a sandy ridge with a further one 80 metres to the east.  Then there are three bowl barrows at the end of another ridge in Woolmer Forest, overlooking Brimstone Inclosure and Queen’s Bank spaced over a 110 metre alignment, three more bowl barrows on a ridge running alongside the A3, and another one overlooking Woolmer Down and Weavers Down. Furthermore there are three disc barrows on another sandy ridge on Woolmer Down.

In addition to the barrows themselves, several Bronze Age hoards have been found in the locality.  One, at the Brimstone Inclosure, comprised arm rings, torcs and a palstave.  Another from Woolmer Pond contained rings, torcs, and an axe. And then there is the Hogmoor Hoard, now held in the British Museum due to its national importance, which constitutes swords, sheaths, spearheads and rings.  Hoards throughout prehistory may have been buried with a view to later retrieval or perhaps as votive offerings so an association between these hoards and the barrows themselves would be an interesting consideration.

Barrow at Whitehill

Barrow at Whitehill Village Hall

So it appears there was much activity in the Whitehill/Woolmer Forest area during the late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age. As discussed in my earlier blog about the barrow complex at Petersfield Heath, the function of barrows during prehistory is unlikely to be straightforward and probably involves being a focal point for a number of social activities and concerns such as burial, worship, feasting or territory marking, for example.

The Woolmer Forest Heritage Society is the local organisation which champions the significant archaeology of the area.  Although I saw several tanks drive past during my short visit today, the Army is in fact in the process of withdrawing from Bordon and this will be completed by the end of 2015 after which an eco-town development of potentially thousands of houses will take its place.  As the society acknowledges, it will be vital to ensure that the heritage planning guidelines are adhered to throughout the substantial construction programme in order to safeguard the archaeology of the area.

Refreshments

I didn’t go in today but, handily, there is a pub just over the road from Whitehill village hall called The Roadmaker (previously the Prince of Wales and it dates back to the 18th century).  Amongst all the uninspiring lagers and draft cider the only real ale mentioned on its website is at least a jolly good one: Butcombe Bitter from the West Country, 4% and very palatable.

Further reading

https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/publications/iha-prehistoric-barrows-burial-mounds/prehistoricbarrowsandburialmounds.pdf

http://www.woolmerforest.org.uk/subjects/about.php

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Dolmen des Fades

Neolithic 3500 BC -> 2000 BC

As I was in France I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity of paying a visit to at least one prehistoric site in the area (it would have been more had it not been for my reluctant teenage companions).  Dolmen des Fades or (Dolmen Pepieux-Minervois) is located in the Pyrenees-Orientales department within the beautiful Languedoc-Roussillon region of France.  The nearest village is Pepieux which is situated between the cities of Carcassonne and Narbonne.  The dolmen is surprisingly easy to find, not far south of the D52 just off the D168 west of Siran and itemised on Google Maps.  11700 Pepieux, France.

The landscape of the Aude valley approaching the dolmen is flat and wide and then, quite unexpectedly, a pine-clad hillock appears and it becomes clear that this is where the monument is located.  In this area dominated by Mediaeval remains megalithic monuments are often ignored and, despite their classified status, they are not guaranteed a mention in guidebooks or even a signpost to highlight their location. Fortunately, in this case, there is a sign saying ‘Dolmen’ on the D168 pointing to the little track to the base of the hillock from which you can see the dolmen nestling enticingly amongst the trees on top.  There are two further signs here, one pointing left that says ‘Point Information’ and one to a path on the right saying ‘Dolmen’.  The Point Information is a replica dolmen cut into the bank, which I thought was a really nice touch. Unfortunately, though, the walls inside are completely bare and therefore the only information currently available to visitors is the sign giving the name of monument and its date of construction and another, slightly more verbose, laminated sign attached to a tree.  I hope this is only a temporary situation and that the wall space will soon be utilised to its full potential as I feel, with a little imagination, it could become a fantastic interpretation tool and really bring the visitor experience to life.  My translation of the sign on the tree is summarised in the archaeology bit below.  Meanwhile there is, I understand, a sign in Pepieux giving a little more contextual information about the site and also a reconstruction of the dolmen itself in the centre of a roundabout, but this is obviously only of benefit to visitors who, unlike me, go to the village rather than just to the site itself.

The archaeology bit

Despite their comparatively low profile in the region there are actually more than two thousand megalithic monuments in Languedoc-Roussillon, more than in the whole of the United Kingdom. The Dolmen des Fades is the biggest passage tomb in the whole of southern France.  It is 24 metres long, the extent of its earthen mound measuring 35 metres, and has a maximum height of 2.5 metres.  The passage (or couloir) measures 12 metres long in total and encompasses a 6 metre anteroom with massive facing pillars on either side lengthwise, alternating with dry stone walling, and culminates in an end chamber terminated by thick stone slabs.  The antechamber is topped by the original, surviving capstone which weighs a hefty 25-30 tonnes.  It is made of limestone which was probably sourced and hence transported from three kilometres away while the rest of the structure comprises red and grey sandstone which would have been available in the locality. The portal slabs on either side of the antechamber have large, skilfully cut-through semi-ovoid holes within them forming striking doorways between the chambers.

The dolmen was built between 3500 and 2000 BC during the late Neolithic by the Veraza people who inhabited the region and there is evidence of its use having continued through the Chalcolithic (Copper) Age and into the early Bronze Age. Human remains, pottery and carved stone have apparently been found there.

According to the aforementioned laminated sign, in the early twentieth century the dolmen was originally visible only as the capstone and partially exposed supporting pillars.  In 1946 Odette and Jean Taffanel, a pair of local antiquarians, conducted excavations which revealed the rest of the structure of the passage tomb.  Between 1962 and 1965 a rescue operation was conducted under the direction of Jean Guilaine, currently an honorary professor of archaeology at the College of France, primarily to make safe the capstone, and twenty five years later further reconstruction work was undertaken, again under the direction of Professor Guilaine, to bring the dolmen closer to its original form,  which is as we see it today.

Folklore

The Dolmen des Fades is also variously known as the Dolmen du Coteau de Fees and the Dolmen des Fees, all essentially meaning ‘The Dolmen of the Fairies’. Indeed the hillock itself is known as Moural de Fado meaning ‘The Fairies’ Hillock’.  It is easy to see why this impressive, ancient structure on a little lone hill in a valley would inspire beliefs about fairies and magical things.  Talking of which, there were a few large, cocoon-type creations on sticks with stone weights attached to them lying around beside the dolmen. It turns out these form a land art installation called Stone Moon created by Ma Thevenin, a local visual artist, as part of a heritage initiative in the area which includes several other sites. The opening evening earlier this month, at which the cocoons were suspended above the dolmen and illuminated, included a guided tour by the curator from the nearby Olonzac Archaeological Museum, an acoustic musical performance and, bien sur, was rounded off with a wine tasting.

Further reading

Marc, Bruno 2000 Dolmens et menhirs en Languedoc et Roussillon, Nouvelle Presses du Languedoc (out of print)

Sicard, Germain 1966 The Prehistoric Aude: monumnets and discoveries, caves, dolmens, menhirs, Republished Editions Belisane

http://www.cathares.org/pepieux-minervois-intro.html

http://ma.thevenin.over-blog.com/

http://www.marie-pepieux.fr/dolmen.html

http://www.midi-france.info/list_dolmens.htm

 

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A Prehistoric A-Z: Castlerigg

The Heritage Journal

by Katharine Range

Castlerigg © Copyright Clive Hirst and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence. Castlerigg © Copyright Clive Hirst and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence.

Castlerigg Stone Circle, near Keswick in Cumbria, is one of the most beautiful stone circles in Britain. It stands on a superb natural plateau commanding a panoramic 360 degree view over the surrounding fells. The slightly oval-shaped ring is among the earliest raised in Britain; about 3000 BC during the Neolithic period. To give a bit of context, this was slightly after the construction date of Newgrange in Ireland, thought to be about 3200 BC and about the same time as the earliest phase of Stonehenge; several hundred years prior to the structure we know today. Cumbria is rich in the stone circle department, having some 50 in number which range from the dramatic, large circles, such as Castlerigg at just over 32 metres, to the diminutive Castlehowe Scar at just 7 metres. There…

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