Friday, February 27, 2009


The top is encircled by a grassy bank which is all that remains of an iron-age fort. The walls of the fort were made of vitrified stone – rocks heated to such a high temperature that they melted and fused together. How such a high temperature was reached and why it was done are still a mystery to archaeologists. The summit is marked by a small cairn and has terrific views, especially over Perth and the Tay to the north, backed by the first hills of the Highlands. Slightly further round the summit edge is a curious flat stone slab with a deep hole carved into it, overlooking the M90 stretching away south towards the central belt

The name Moncrieffe comes from Moncrieffe Hill south-east of Perth made from hard ancient lava. The River Tay lies to the north and the River Earn to the south; they join just east of the hill.

The Celtic name Monad Croibhe (which is in fact Gaelic but the Pictish would have been similar ie. Old Welsh Minit) meaning Hill of the Tree. The Battle of Monad Croibhe is said to have been fought in 28AD between two Pictish armies. Moncrieffe Hill overlooks the sacred Pictish sites of Scone and Abernethy and the royal Pictish palace of Forteviot.

This area was granted to Sir Robert de Meyneris, Chamberlain of Scotland, in 1248 after which time one branch of that family took their name from the lands. The Moncrieffe badge displays an oak, that revered tree of ancient Celtic times.

Murchadh Monaidh Chraoibhe. Name change from Murchadh Garrioch.

Submitted as Murchadh Monagh Craebi, the submitter requested authenticity for 13th C Gaelic Scotland and desired an appropriate Gaelic form of the byname Moncrieff. Watson, The History of the Celtic Place-Names of Scotland, p. 400f says that "Moncrieff near Perth is considered to have been the scene of 'bellum Monid Chroibh,' 'the battle of Monad Croib,' 728 (AU)." The standardized form of Monad Croib appropriate for the 13th century is Monadh Craoibhe.

In Gaelic, locative bynames which are based on names of cities or towns are formed by putting the place name in the genitive case. The genitive case of Monadh Craoibhe is Monaidh Chraoibhe, pronounced roughly \MOH-nee KHREE-vuh\, where \KH\ is the sound of ch in Scottish loch. We have changed the name to Murchadh Monaidh Chraoibhe to meet his request for a Gaelic form of Moncrieff. However, we cannot make the name authentic for the 13th century as the only examples of locative bynames that we have in Scottish Gaelic are used by the Lord of the Isles and his predecessors, and by a petty king and some of his ancestors. These are not reliable examples of what normal people used as bynames. We do have examples of simple locative bynames in Irish Gaelic in the 13th century, so the byname is registerable.

His previous name, Murchadh Garrioch, is released.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Pitt Rivers and archaeology in England

Portrait of General Pitt Rivers.

Wor Barrow: 'The first long barrow scientifically excavated'. Wor barrow is one of a number of major Neolithic long barrows on Cranborne Chase. Pitt Rivers excavations here were arguably his most ambitious. They uncovered a rectangular wooden mortuary enclosure containing six burials. The complete excavation of this important site revealed that it had been a place of burial for the local population for thousands of years with later burials being placed around the monument from the Neolithic through to the Roman period.

Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers

Lieutenant-General Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers was born in 1827 in Yorkshire to a wealthy land-owning family. In 1841 he entered the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst and was commissioned into the Grenadier Guards in 1845. He fought for a short time in the Crimean War, and served in Malta, England, Canada and Ireland. He finally retired in 1882, at the age of 55, with the honorary rank of Lieutenant-General although he remained on the active list until 1896. Pitt Rivers married Alice Stanley in 1853, and had nine children. In 1880 Pitt Rivers unexpectedly inherited the Rivers estate and name from his great uncle. The country estate was a substantial one and he also received an annual income of a little under £20,000: for the remainder of his life he led the life of a wealthy landowner. In 1882 Pitt Rivers was appointed the first Inspector of Ancient Monuments and in 1881-2 he was President of the Anthropological Institute. He died in 1900, at the age of 73.

Pitt Rivers' interest in collecting archaeological and ethnographic objects came out of his early professional interests in the history of firearms. It is generally believed that Pitt Rivers did little field collecting but, in fact, he did obtain a few objects whilst on active service, during a tour of Europe, in Malta and during the Crimean War. Although he collected some artefacts whilst 'in the field', the vast majority of objects in his collection came from dealers, auction houses, and from fellow members of the Anthropological Institute (such as E.H. Man, John Petherick, Richard Burton and E. Belcher). It is difficult to estimate the overall size of Pitt River's collection. Some 20,000 objects were donated to the Pitt Rivers Museum in 1884, but there was also a sizeable collection of objects displayed at his personal museum in Farnham, Dorset after this date.

Pitt Rivers always believed in the collection of everyday objects as well as 'work of art' and this is reflected in his collection. Pitt Rivers described the intellectual framework for his collection and museum displays as:

The objects are arranged in sequence with a view to show ... the successive ideas by which the minds of men in a primitive condition of culture have progressed in the development of their arts from the simple to the complex, and from the homogeneous to the heterogeneous. ... Human ideas as represented by the various products of human industry, are capable of classification into genera, species and varieties in the same manner as the products of the vegetable animal kingdoms ... If, therefore we can obtain a sufficient number of objects to represent the succession of ideas, it will be found that they are capable of being arranged in museums upon a similar plan. [Pitt Rivers,1874:xi and xii]

Needless to say, attitudes to the objects and the intellectual basis upon which they are studied have changed since Pitt Rivers' collections were given to the University. Today the museum is still organised typologically but does not (and could not) show the supposed evolution of objects from the simple to the most complex.

Archaeology became very important to Pitt Rivers; he purchased archaeological items from dealers and sale rooms, but also carried out excavations of his own, principally in Ireland during his service there in the 1860s, and in England (London, Yorkshire, Sussex and his own estates in Dorset). He documented his archaeological work fully, causing detailed site plans to be prepared and wooden models to be made.

Pitt Rivers very soon exhausted the space available in his own house to show his collections. In 1873, he decided that his collection should be publicly exhibited and arranged with the South Kensington Museum to display around 10,000 objects at the Bethnal Green branch of that Museum. In 1878 his collection was moved to the South Kensington Museum. In 1880 he decided his collection should have a permanent home and eventually settled upon the University of Oxford. On 30 May 1882 the University accepted the offer of Pitt Rivers' collection; a three storey annexe, measuring approximately seventy by eighty-six feet, was built onto the eastern side of the University Museum (of Natural History) to house the collection. Henry Nottidge Moseley, Head of the Department of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy, was put in charge of the collection and Edward Burnett Tylor was appointed the first Lecturer in Anthropology in Britain. The University undertook to carry on Pitt Rivers' general method of arrangement of objects during his lifetime and agreed that "any changes in details ... shall be such only as are necessitated by the advance of knowledge". Although Pitt Rivers' original stipulations had suggested an on-going concern with his collection once it was given to Oxford, he did not display much interest in it, transferring that to his new museum in Farnham, Dorset.

Further Reading

Blackwood, Beatrice. 1970. The classification of artefacts in the Pitt Rivers Museum Oxford. Occasional Papers on Technology no 11 Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford

Bowden, Mark 1984 [reprinted 1990] General Pitt Rivers" the father of scientific archaeology Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum

... 1991. Pitt Rivers - The life and archaeological work of Lt. General Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers DCL FRS FSA . Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

Bradley, Richard 1983 'Archaeology, evolution and the public good: the intellectual development of General Pitt Rivers Archaeological Journal 140: 1-9

Chapman, William R. 1984. 'Pitt Rivers and his collection, 1874 - 1883: The chronicle of a gift horse' in Cranstone and Seidenberg 1984

.... 1985. 'Arranging Ethnology' in Objects and Others, History of Anthropology Series ed G. Stocking, University of Wisconsin Press

.... 1989. The organisational context in the history of archaeology - Pitt Rivers and other British archaeologists in the 1860s Antiquaries Journal 69 23-42

.... 1991. Like a Game of Dominoes: Augustus Pitt Rivers and the Typological Museum Idea' in S. Pearce Museum Economics and the Community vol 2 New Research in Museum Studies Athlone London

Cranstone, B.A.L. and S. Seidenberg. 1984. The General's Gift - A celebration of the Pitt Rivers Museum Centenary 1884-1984 . JASO Occasional Paper, Oxford, UK

Gray, H. St. G. 1905. 'A Memoir of Lt-General Pitt-Rivers' [sic] in Excavations in Cranborne Chase vol V. Somerset [privately published]

Oxford University Anthropological Society. 1953. Anthropology at Oxford: The Proceedings of the Five-hundredth meeting of the Oxford University Anthropological SocietyOxford

Petch, Alison 1996. 'Weapons and the 'Museum of Museums' Journal of Museum Ethnography , vol. 8 May 1996: 11 - 22

.... 1996. [editor] Collectors and Collecting Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford

.... 1997. The early history of Lieutenant-General Pitt Rivers's collection and the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford [PRM booklet]

.... 1998. [editor] Collectors and Collecting Volume 2 Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford

.... 1998. 'Cataloguing the Pitt Rivers Museum founding collection'. Journal of Museum Ethnography

.... 1998. ''Man as he was and Man as he is': General Pitt Rivers' collections' Journal of the History of Collections 10 no. 1 (1998) pp 75 - 85 Oxford University Press

.... 1999 Cataloguing the Pitt Rivers Museum founding collection. Journal of Museum Ethnography 11 1999 pp 95 - 104

.... 2000 Coote, Jeremy; Chantal Knowles, Nicolette Meister, and Alison Petch 'Computerizing the Forster ('Cook'), Arawe, and Founding Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum', Pacific Arts , nos. 19/20 (July), pp. 48-80.

.... 2002. ' Assembling and Arranging: Pitt Rivers' collections from 1850 to now' in 'Collectors: Expressions of Self and Othe r Occasional Papers Series: Horniman Museum and Museu Antropologico of the University of Coimbra

.... 2003 'Documentation in the Pitt Rivers Museum' Journal of Museum Ethnography , No. 15 pp 109-114

Pitt Rivers, Augustus Henry Lane Fox. 'Primitive Warfare. Parts I - III'. JRUSI 11 [1867] 612-43 and JRUSI 12 [1868] 399-439 and JRUSI 13 [1868] 509-39 [repeated in 'The Evolution of Culture']

.... 'On the principles of classification adopted in the arrangement of his anthropological collection now exhibited in the Bethnal Green Museum.' JAI 4 [1874] 293-308

.... 1874. Catalogue of the Anthropological Collection lent by Colonel Lane Fox for exhibition in the Bethnal Green branch of the South Kensington Museum June 1874 Parts I and II . London, Science and Art Department of the Committee of Council on Education HMSO [Re-issued 1879]

.... 1906 [ed. J.L. Myers, introduction by Henry Balfour] The Evolution of Culture and other essays Clarendon Press Oxford UK

Thompson, M.W. 1976 Catalogue of the correspondence and papers of Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt -Rivers (1827 - 1900) Royal Commission on Historical MSS List 76/75

... 1977. General Pitt Rivers: Evolution and Archaeology in the Nineteenth Century. Moonraker Press, Bradford-on-Avon UK

Thompson, M. and C. Renfrew. 1999. 'The catalogues of the Pitt-Rivers Museum, Farnham, Dorset' Antiquity 73 pp 377 - 392

Tylor, E.B. Dictionary of National Biography entry for Pitt Rivers

By Alison Petch

August 2005

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


This is one of the classic examples of a dual-court tomb. It is situated in a slight hollow one field in from the tidal mudflats around Jackdaw Island on the southern shore of Strangford Lough. The cairn is trapezoidal in plan and is orientated north-east/south-west, with the wider end facing south-west. It is revetted with a drystone wall of shale slabs and outside this again is a unique ‘buttress’ of shale and red soil. The ‘court’ façade at the south-west end is comparatively shallow, or flat, and only a selection of the façade stones survives, including just one jambstone. Behind this is a four-chambered gallery. The north-eastern ‘court area’ is rather more concave and it too gives onto a 10-m long gallery of four regularly sized, roughly paved chambers. In this case the end chamber has an in situ corbel stone revealing something about the original method of roofing. The site was excavated by Pat Collins in 1952, six years after its discovery.

The burial assemblage was really quite remarkable. Only the inner two chambers of the north-eastern gallery were empty; instead of burials there was a fire pit and evidence of intense burning. The remains of about 34 people were found in the remaining chambers, comprising men, women, and children. They were either inhumed, partially burnt, or fully cremated. The majority of inhumations were of women and children and these burials were disarticulated and occasionally collected into groups, such as the selection of small long bones, a jaw fragment, and a pig’s jaw arranged in the second chamber of the south-western gallery. This is clear indication of exhumation or excarnation. There were also animal bones, including the earliest evidence of horse. Throughout these deposits were sherds of pottery and lithics. The pottery assemblage included round-bottomed, plain and carinated bowls, decorated Goodlands-style sherds, and some Carrowkeel ware. The burial deposits were sealed beneath a packing of soil and stones and it has been suggested that the remains represent one episode of collective burial. A Bowl Tradition pot was also found and represents secondary funerary activity.

There is an interesting collection of field monuments, of all periods, in the immediate vicinity, including two round cairns to the east and a standing stone near Castleward to the south-east (all privately owned). There is another concentration of prehistoric monuments around Lough Money, about 5 km to the south-west, including, to the south of the Lough, Ballyalton Court tomb itself.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Bigbury Wood Hillfort

Caesar left detailed instructions for his requirements for the second expedition to Britain in the spring. The 600 transports were to be of shallow draft, and thus easier to and beach, but to contain stores and animals they had to be broader. The vessels were thus rather ungainly and difficult to manage; but to compensate for this Caesar was probably advised to equip them with sails and oars. The fighting force he assembled was a large one consisting of five legions and 2000 cavalry; although it was a major expedition it is difficult to appreciate whether Caesar was intent on conquest or merely punishing the hostile tribes or opening Britain up to trade. It was by now evident that there were no suitable havens on the south-east coast of Kent, only the gently shelving beaches. But this time, in the face of such a formidable armada, the Britons did not oppose the landing, so that the Roman forces were able to disembark without difficulty. This time the ships were not beached, but left riding at anchor.

With typical audacity, Caesar marched his legions 12 miles inland, in the dark of the early morning, to a river, which may have been the River Stour near Canterbury. The Britons must have been taken aback at the sudden appearance of the Romans and they retired to a fortified position. Caesar then gives us a brief description of a British hill-fort. ‘A place well fortified by nature and strengthened by artifice, built doubtless for their own tribal wars, all the entrances were blocked by felled trees packed closely together’ (v 9). There is a hillfort which may have been the one he attacked three miles west of Canterbury in Bigbury Wood at Hambledown. It is a roughly rectangular enclosure constructed round the 200-foot contour. The site has been much disturbed by old gravel workings, during the course of which many iron objects, mainly tools and farm implements, have been found, as one might expect from a peasant community. While these modest defences were quite adequate to keep out raiding bands from nearby tribes, they presented no problem for the disciplined professional legionaries trained in such storming attacks. The Seventh Legion quickly built a ramp against the rampart and formed a testudo (tortoise) by holding their shields over their heads to protect themselves from missiles, and hacked their way into the fortress, driving the Britons out and through the woods. The whole action had taken the best part of a day, and Caesar needed time to build his own fortified camp, so he did not take up the pursuit until the following morning. But he was forced to abandon any thought of a speedy advance which would have found the Britons in a state of disarray, with the news of a storm which had wrecked his fleet. So, once more, he had underrated the fearful and sudden powers of the elements.


Sunday, February 8, 2009


The most successful way to thwart the Vikings was to build fortifications; even the Great Army was incapable of taking strongly held defences. However, this required the mobilization of manpower and the overcoming of local apathy. Charles the Bald concentrated on blocking the Seine, which led to the heart of his kingdom. In 862, he began work on a fortified bridge at Pont de l'Arche near Pîtres, consisting of a wooden superstructure and bridgehead forts of wood and stone. In 865, Vikings were still able to reach Paris, so Charles went to Pîtres with workmen 'to complete the fortifications, so that the Northmen might never again be able to sail up the Seine'. Yet in 868 'he measured out the fort into sections ...and assigned responsibility for them to various men of his realm', and the next year men were detailed 'to complete and then guard the fort' (Annals of St Bertin). The work seems finally to have been completed by 873. This was part of a campaign of fortification. In 864, Charles ordered that men too poor to campaign were to work on and garrison fortifications, and in 865 bridges were rebuilt to block access to the Oise and Marne. The monastery of St Denis near Paris was walled in 869, and a fortified bridge was built at Paris. He also ordered the restoration of walls at Tours, Le Mans, and Orleans in 869, and a bridge was built at Pont-de-Ce to block the Loire. Before Charles went to Italy in 877 he showed continuing concern by issuing instructions for garrisons and the inspection of defences. However, in 885 the Great Army sailed up the Seine to Paris. Since the death of Charles in 877, royal power had declined, and Pont de l'Arche was probably no longer garrisoned. At Paris, effective resistance was led by the local commanders abbot Gauzlin and count Odo. During the 88Os, defences were constructed throughout the area between the Seine and Rhine, but now it was on local rather than royal initiative.

In England, Alfred's contemporary biographer Asser wrote of 'the cities and towns he restored, and the others he constructed where there had been none before'. The Burghill Hidage, an early tenth-century document, lists thirty West Saxon burhs (fortresses) and the number of hides (a measure of land for assessing taxes and dues) attached to each to provide manpower. Each hide was to send one man with responsibility for four feet of rampart, and where the walls survive their length often corresponds closely to the allotted garrison. Although changes had occurred by the early tenth century, there is little doubt that the system originated in the 880s. The burhs had several functions. They were refuges for the local population, their garrisons ensured the Vikings could not seize them, and men from the burhs were a mobile reserve which could be used against raiders, as in 893. They had various origins: reused Roman walls, earthworks from the Iron Age and later, and new foundations. Some were small forts close to existing sites, but others like Wallingford were founded as new towns with planned layouts. The Burghill Hidage arrangements required the mobilization of 27,000 men - perhaps one-fifth of the adult male population of Wessex. Unsurprisingly, there was some apathy in face of such a demand: in 892, the Great Army overran a half-made burh (probably the lost Eorpeburnan in East Sussex) which contained an incomplete garrison. Yet generally the system worked. Whereas in the 870s the Great Army seized existing forts at will, from 884, when it vainly besieged Rochester, it was unable to penetrate the heart of Wessex.

Saturday, February 7, 2009


The passage grave of Bryn Celli Ddu, Anglesey. A buried stone circle and decorated stone behind the burial chamber suggest that the latter may once have been free-standing, before it was enclosed in a kerbed cairn of stones. An ox burial was found in a small pit in front of the tomb entrance.

Bryn Celli Ddu is a prehistoric site on the Welsh island of Anglesey located near Llanddaniel Fab. Its name is difficult to translate directly but means either 'the mound in the dark grove' or possibly 'the mound in the grove of the deity'. It was plundered in 1699 and archaeologically excavated between 1928 and 1929.

During the Neolithic period a stone circle and henge stood at the site. An area of burnt material containing a small human bone from the ear, covered with a flat stone, was recovered.

The stones were removed in the early Bronze Age when an archetypal passage grave was built over the top of the centre of the henge. A carved stone with a twisting, serpentine design stood in the burial chamber. It has since been moved to the National Museum of Wales and replaced with a replica standing outside. An earth barrow covering the grave is a twentieth century restoration; the original was probably much bigger.

Norman Lockyer, who in 1906 published the first systematic study of megalithic astronomy, had argued that Bryn Celli Ddu marked the summer solstice. This was ridiculed at the time, but recent research by Steve Burrow, curator of Neolithic archaeology at Amgueddfa Cymru (National Museum of Wales) has proven his theory to be true. This alignment links Bryn Celli Ddu to a handful of other sites, including Maes Howe and Newgrange, both of which point to the midwinter solstice. It has also been suggested that a feature similar to the 'lightbox' at Newgrange may be matched at Bryn Celli Ddu (Pitts, 2006).

A row of five postholes previously thought to have been contemporary with the tomb (c. 3000 BC) have recently been proven to be much earlier. Early results from a radiocarbon programme date pine charcoal from two of the pits to the Mesolithic (Pitts, 2006).



Thursday, February 5, 2009


The end of the Viking age was marked by the conversion of the Vikings to Christianity and the assertion of royal power over unruly subjects. By the eleventh century Denmark and Norway were conventional kingdoms much like others in Western Europe. The growing power of the kings can be seen in this massive fortress in Denmark built by Cnut, who was also king of England.

It was not until the end of the tenth century that Viking armies attacked England again. This time they were not individuals or groups of raiders acting on their own initiative but organized armies, led at first by Olaf Tryggvason of Norway and later by Svein and his son Cnut, kings of Denmark. They all hoped to use the wealth of England to establish their authority in their home kingdoms and indeed Cnut ended by making England, not his native Denmark, the real centre of power. In 991 Olaf defeated the East Anglians under the ealdorman Byhrtnoth at Maldon in Essex, a defeat commemorated in one of the greatest AngloSaxon poems. Olaf's triumph enabled him to return to Norway with a massive 22,000 pounds of silver and establish himself as king (and build, as we have seen, the great ship, Long Serpent). Other rulers saw the easy pickings which were to be had from England under the feeble rule of Ethelred, nicknamed the 'Unready' (which actually means badly advised).

The new enemy was Svein Forkbeard of Denmark, who had first raided England as an ally of Olaf of Norway. He attacked again in 1007, at first merely taking Danegeld and then returning home. By 1013, however, he seems to have decided on a policy of the conquest of the whole kingdom. In this he was aided by many Anglo-Saxons, who felt that his strong rule would be preferable to the chaos they were currently enduring. Svein died in 1013 and was succeeded by Cnut who had himself crowned and who turned out to be one of England's greatest kings. But by this time he and his men could hardly be described as Vikings. Rather, he was a Christian monarch with a strong army, a chancery and all the trappings of settled government: the Viking age was over.

Heroic memories and ideals lived on and we will leave the Vikings with the heroic image of Cnut's fleet setting out for England:

The king Cnut, bidding his mother and brother farewell, again sought the bounds of the encircling shore where he had gathered a brilliant show of two hundred ships. Indeed there was so great a supply of arms that a single one of those ships could have furnished weapons in the greatest abundance if all the rest had lacked them. For there were so many types of shields that you would have thought that the hosts of all nations were at hand. Further, there was such elegant decoration on the keels that to the dazzled eyes of observers viewing from a distance, they seemed to be made of flame rather than of wood. For if at any time the sun mingled with them the radiance of its beams, here would flash the glitter of armour, there the fire of the hanging shields; burning gold on the prows, gleaming silver in the varied decorations of the vessels ... What adversary could gaze upon the lions, terrible in the glitter of their gold, upon the men of metal, menacing with their gilded brows, upon the dragons flaming with refined gold, upon the bulls threatening slaughter, their horns gleaming with gold - all these on the ships - and not feel dread and fear in the face of a king with so great a fighting force? Moreover, in this great armada, none among them was a slave, none a freed-man, none of low birth, none enfeebled by age. All were noble, all strong in the power of maturity, all fully trained in any type of warfare, all of such fleetness that they despised the speed of cavalry.

This was perhaps the high point of the seaborne armies that had conquered and ravaged much of western Europe for two centuries; but their weaknesses were to be cruelly exposed by the mailed Norman knights at Hastings in 1066.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009


Carreg Samson (also known as Longhouse Cromlech), a Neolithic burial chamber built 5,000 years ago.

Ancient Ireland, indeed! I was reared by her bedside

The rune and the chant, evil eye and averted head

Fomorian fierceness of family and local feud.

Gaunt figures of fear and of friendliness,

For years they trespassed on my dreams,

Until once, in a standing circle of stones,

I felt their shadows pass

Into that dark permanence of ancient forms.

John Montague,

‘Like dolmens round my childhood…’

Doorways of stone leading nowhere stand in fields and pastures, on rocky hills and in verdant valleys, throughout Celtic lands. The Breton word for these structures is dolmen, meaning “table of stone,” although one would have to be a GIANT to eat off most dolmens; contemporary archaeologists prefer the term portal tomb, while in Wales the same structures are called cromlechs (from words meaning “bent” and “flat stone”). These distinctive and memorable structures are also called DRUID altars, but they were built thousands of years before the Celts and their priests arrived in the land.

Perhaps as many as 6,000 years have passed since the stone uprights were capped with their huge crossbeams, yet the engineering of these mysterious prehistoric people was so exact that hundreds of these structures are still standing today. Indications of burials have been found in recesses under dolmens, leading archaeologists to call them tombs, but burials were few in comparison to the population. Those whose remains (sometimes cremated elsewhere) rest beneath the dolmens may have been victims of HUMAN SACRIFICE, or they may have been people of high status who were considered worthy of a distinguished burial. But this does not mean that the placement and building of dolmens may not have had purposes other than the funereal; similar structures found in the Canadian arctic serve both as geographical markers and as shamanic doorways to another world.

The Celts, arriving long after the dolmens were built, created many tales about them. In Ireland the stone structures are called “beds of DIARMAIT and GRÁINNE,” for the eloping couple were said to have slept together on a different one each night, as they fled her furious intended husband, FIONN MAC CUMHAILL. This legend connects the dolmens to FERTILITY and sexuality, as does the frequent folklore that claims the stones either cause sterility and barrenness, or that they increase the likelihood of conception. Such lore may encode pre-Celtic understandings of these pre-Celtic monuments, may be Celtic in origin, or may represent Christian interpolations into Celtic legend.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009


Hell Stone

See how the tall stones lean together,
how each one kisses the capstone,
how the glorious body is laid within
accoutred and accompanied by wealth.

Watch how the boulders and flat stones
are heaped up, how earth is tamped down
to make the hollow hill where a king sleeps.
When I see the green mound I will recall this.

But I dreamt it naked, saw it stripped bare,
the kissing stones a sieve for the wind,
the hill’s womb empty; and in the dream
I knew myself too to be unremembered.

Paul Hyland

from Art of the Impossible (Bloodaxe Books, 2004)

The Hellstone on Portesham Hill is an impressive dolmen, restored in 1866 after the capstone had fallen some six years earlier. The Dorset historian, Rev. John Hutchins writes in his ‘History and Antiquities of the County of Dorset’, “The common people call it Hell stone, and have a tradition that the devil flung it from Portland Pike, a north point of that island full in view, as he was diverting himself at quoits.”

Easily reached along either of 2 permissive paths both leading off from the right of way footpath which runs from the minor road running between Portesham and Winterbourne Steepleton (at about half a mile north of Portesham - park in layby) and the Hardy Monument. The first is near the road and signposted, the second is 400 yards further on and easily missed!

The massive stones of this inaccurately rebuilt monument make it no less impressive. It consists of 9 uprights up to 6' high and 2' thick supporting a 20 ton, 10' x 8' x 2' thick capstone forming a 9' x 5' x 5' chamber. This stands at the SE end of a mound formerly 88' long and up to 40' wide more or less aligned along the directions of the mid-winter solstice sunrise and summer solstice sunset.


Hell Stone BBC Video


"Dolmen" originates from the expression taol maen, which means "stone table" in Breton, and was first used archaeologically by Théophile Corret de la Tour d'Auvergne. The etymology of the German Hünenbett or Hünengrab and Dutch Hunebed all evoke the image of giants building the structures. Of other Celtic languages, "cromlech" derives from Welsh and "quoit" is commonly used in Cornwall. Anta is the term used in Portugal, and dös in Sweden.

Monday, February 2, 2009


Balfarg Henge and Bilbirnie Stone circle now sit in the midst of a housing estate separated by the A92, which runs through the site. Although not the most atmospheric of locations the site is worth a visit, it must have been an important ceremonial site during the Neolithic period.

The Henge, which was thoroughly excavated from 1977 - 1978 during road widening, dates from around 3200BC, and was built in two phases.

In the first phase the ditch and the bank were constructed, these have long since weathered away. Wooden posts were erected in 6 concentric rings within the henge, some of which were around 4 metres tall.

In the second phase beginning around 2800BC, the wooden posts were replaced by stone megaliths, in two concentric rings. The site then became a place of burial for later generations, a large slab in the centre covered the burial of a young man along with some personal effects. This may have been covered with a mound, long since denuded.

Although not a site for solitary meditation on the meaning of prehistoric ritual the site is impressive none the less.


Sunday, February 1, 2009


The extent to which the landscape was being farmed and the efficiency of agricultural practices may be measured by the degree of freedom with which settlements drifted. The growth of population and commensurate expansion of settlement is reflected in the increasingly varied soil environments settled through the Anglo-Saxon period. The archaeological evidence suggests that settlements drifted, whether for demographic, agricultural or other reasons, from an initial point and that there was a more severe pattern of relocation that took place between AD 650–750. This occurred at the same time that there was a major dislocation in building traditions (Marshall and Marshall 1993:400). Successive stages of drift can be identified in many settlements that were then abandoned; resettlement may have occurred in the vicinity but not sufficiently close to be detected in the same way as the earlier drift. It may be that settlement patterns began to be more stable, in part, because of the development of land ownership with established property boundaries (Hamerow 1991). The earliest surviving land charters, documents indicating title to property and defining its boundaries, date from the seventh century indicating that some such change was taking place. The pagan Anglo-Saxon cemeteries are much easier to date because of the larger number of artefacts found in them as grave-goods. However, they are a poor indicator of the extent of shifting settlement because there was an inherent conservatism in the location of cemeteries, a desire to continue to place the dead among the ancestors. So while settlements drifted around an original nucleus the cemetery often remained in use. However, very few cemeteries remained in use throughout the period, and those that did tend to be the large examples in mid- and eastern England that may have had a centralised function and were therefore not subject to the effects of settlement drift. There may of course be special reasons for the development of new cemeteries that are distinct from the factors provoking settlement shift but it must be in part a related issue.

The instability of the rural economy may in part be dependent on the effects of climatic change. A global climatic cataclysm began in AD 536 [1] that was to last for about ten years. A thick cloud of dust that blocked out the sun’s heat and light is likely to have been caused by the impact of an asteroid of medium size (Baillie 1994) and resulted in the failure of crops. In the 540s plague swept through Europe. Bede describes how in the 670s the South Saxons were saved ‘from a cruel and horrible extinction as a result of their conversion to Christianity by Wilfrid: Tor no rain had fallen in the province for three years prior to his arrival, and a terrible famine had ensued which reduced many to an awful death’ (Colgrave and Mynors 1969: IV 13). Extreme fluctuations in climate are more likely to have a detectable effect on settlement patterns than gradual changes. There is evidence for a minor advance in European glaciers during the period AD 700–900 (Denton and Karlén 1973). Tooley has demonstrated that there was a period of climatic extremes in addition to a complex marine transgression sequence at this time. Sea-levels rose to a maximum of +1.2 m above sea-level in c. AD 150, falling during the following 500 years to a minimum altitude of +0.4 m above sealevel by c. 650 (Tooley 1978:182–92). Specific examples of the effects of such transgressions have been noted in studies of settlement patterns in coastal and estuarine regions (Hallam 1961; Hawkes 1968; Thompson 1980). The extent of climatic change and its actual effect on human communities is difficult to define but there remain a number of definite possibilities.

With an assumed growing population in early Anglo-Saxon England there would have been increasing pressure on rural resources, especially by the second half of the seventh century. With the development of urban centres and religious foundations greater demand would have been placed on the hinterland. The predictable result would have been an intensification of agriculture and changes in the nature of landholding and ownership. A reflection of this may be the final relocation of settlements on to more fertile and productive soils and the changes in cereal crops being cultivated. An agricultural surplus would have been required to support the development of urban centres which in turn encouraged craft specialisation. In this way the move to more fertile soils may have been made to improve productivity per person and increase output for similar or less effort.

[1] Holocene impact events have been proposed by the dendrochronologist Mike Baillie as a possible cause of several brief (typically 5-10 year) climatic downturns recorded in ancient tree ring patterns. In his book 'Exodus to Arthur: Catastrophic encounters with comets,' he highlights four such events and suggests that these might have been caused by the dust veils thrown up by the impact of cometary debris.

Catastrophe: An Investigation into the Origins of the Modern World (1999)

It was a catastrophe without precedent in recorded history: for months on end, starting in A.D. 535, a strange, dusky haze robbed much of the earth of normal sunlight. Crops failed in Asia and the Middle East as global weather patterns radically altered. Bubonic plague, exploding out of Africa, wiped out entire populations in Europe. Flood and drought brought ancient cultures to the brink of collapse. In a matter of decades, the old order died and a new world-essentially the modern world as we know it today-began to emerge. In this fascinating, groundbreaking, totally accessible book, archaeological journalist David Keys dramatically reconstructs the global chain of revolutions that began in the catastrophe of A.D. 535, then offers a definitive explanation of how and why this cataclysm occurred on that momentous day centuries ago. The Roman Empire, the greatest power in Europe and the Middle East for centuries, lost half its territory in the century following the catastrophe. During the exact same period, the ancient southern Chinese state, weakened by economic turmoil, succumbed to invaders from the north, and a single unified China was born.

David Keys is archaeology correspondent for the London daily paper, The Independent, frequent television commentator on archeological matters and author of the controversial book, Catastrophe: An Investigation into the Origins of the Modern World (1999). He has visited over 1,000 archaeological sites in 60 countries. He was featured as one of the main interview subjects, in the 2000 pilot to the PBS series, Secrets of the Dead, giving insight into subject of the climatic catastrophe, which is the subject of his book.

Keys's book

Keys's thesis in Catastrophe is that a global climatic catastrophe in A.D. 535-536 - a massive volcanic eruption sundering Java from Sumatra - was the decisive factor that transformed the Ancient World into the Medieval Era. Ancient chroniclers recorded a disaster in that year that blotted out the sun for months, causing famine, droughts, floods, storms and bubonic plague. Keys uses tree-ring samples, analysis of lake deposits and ice cores, as well as contemporaneous documents to bolster his speculative thesis. In his scenario, the ensuing disasters precipitated the disintegration of the Byzantine Empire, beset by Slav, Mongol and Persian invaders propelled from their disrupted homelands. The Sixth Century collapse of Arabian civilization under pressure from floods and crop failure created an apocalyptic atmosphere that set the stage for Islam's emergence. In Mexico, the cataclysm supposedly triggered the collapse of Teotihuacán; in Anatolia, it helped the Turks establish what eventually became the Ottoman Empire; while in China, the ensuing half-century of political and social chaos led to a reunified nation. Keys stokes anxieties about future cataclysms by finishing with a roundup of trouble spots that could conceivably wreak planetary havoc.


Critics have accused Keys of oversimplifying history with a "single chain of causality". He has been charged with reassembling history to fit his thesis, "relentlessly overworking its explanatory power in a manner reminiscent of Velikovsky's theory that a comet collided with the earth in 1500 BC" (Publishers Weekly). Nevertheless, Keys worked his treatise with the advice of dozens of academic consultants. Writing in The New York Times Book Review, Malcolm W. Browne insists that "...this book must be taken seriously, if only as a reminder that survival in a world threatened by real dangers hangs by a very slender thread."