Follow the same directions to reach the Polisher Stone at the top-end of Overton Down as it meets Fyfield Down. From here, walk down the slope for 100 yards or so where you’ll notice, just above the long grassy level, a line of ancient walling running nearly east to west. It’s very close to the yellow marker in the attached aerial image shot to the right. If you walk along this line of walling you’ll find it.
Archaeology & History
As I’ve only been here once, and briefly — under the guidance of the Avebury expert Pete Glastonbury — my bearings on this site may need revising. There are two distinct sections of walling here: one has been excavated by Peter Fowler and his team; the other hasn’t. (correct me if I’m wrong Pete) And in Fowler’s (2000) fine survey of this area he does not describe this very distinct holed-stone in the line of walling, or adjacent “linear ditch F4”, as it was called. But then, many archaeologists don’t tend to find items such as these of any interest (unless their education stretches to other arenas, which isn’t usually the case). But the stone seems to be in a section of walling that isn’t in their survey; standing out in aerial imagery as a less well-defined, but still obvious line of walling that is closer to the fence, 70-80 yards north, with a decidedly Iron-Age look about it!
But, precision aside! — as you can see in the photos, the holed stone here isn’t very tall — less than 2 feet high; though we don’t know how deep the stone is set into the ground. This spot is on my “must visit again” list for the next time we’re down here!
There’s nowt specific to this stone, nor line of walling, nor settlement (as far as I know), but it seems right to mention the fact that in British and European folklore and peasant traditions, that holed stones just like the one found here have always been imbued with aspects of fertility — for obvious reasons. Others like this have also acquired portentous abilities; whilst others have become places where deeds and bonds were struck, with the stone playing ‘witness’ to promises made.
Fowler, Peter, Landscape Plotted and Pierced: Landscape History and Local Archaeology in Fyfield and Overton, Wiltshire, Society of Antiquaries: London 2000.
We were fortunate & taken here by the renowned local megalith authority, Pete Glastonbury – but without Pete’s help you might be ambling here & there for quite a while. It’s on the eastern side of The Ridgeway, down the slope past the stone known as The Polisher, across the flatland sea of many rocks until it begins rising again a few hundred yards east. Where a long straight embankment rises up a few feet (a boundary line), the rock’s just a few yards above it. Walk around!
Archaeology & History
Archaeologist A.D. Lacaille (1962) appears to have been the first person to have written about this little-known site, describing it as being “between the south-western corner of Totterdown Wood and Delling Cottage.” Here is what he described as,
“a cluster of unmistakably artificial and mostly well-preserved cup-markings on the smooth south-easterly sloping surface of a recumbent sarsen.”
And from the photos accompanying Lacaille’s article, it obviously looked a decent carving as well — and so it has transpired. Lacaille (1963) briefly mentioned the carving again a year later in his lengthier essay on the nearby Polisher Stone up the slope a few hundred yards away. But then Wiltshire’s only known cup-marked stone was all-but ignored by archaeologists and left in the literary wilderness until, years later when rock art became a fad in such circles, regional archaeologists Pete Fowler & Ian Blackwell (1998) described the carving as “a cluster of several round depressions…each about two inches across”; though incorrectly ascribed it as the “southernmost example” of cup-marked stones outside of Cornwall.¹ Another rock-art student known as Mr Hobson, following his excursion to the site with the regional authority Pete Glastonbury, wrote:
“The cups themselves are very smoothed out, and fit the bill from the drawing. The horseshoe is very evident, as is the ‘slug’ mark, possibly a half-finished groove from one of the cups near the horseshoe. There are also some angular, yet serpentine (?) grooves at turf level on the south side of the stone. These look like they might be enhanced natural marks in places.”
The rock itself isn’t in its original position, having been moved from another point very close by (probably only yards away). It is sited on the edge of an old boundary line — which made me wonder whether the ‘U’- or ‘C’-shaped ingredient in the carving was a later addition, perhaps of one of the old land-owners hereabouts. The cups however, seem typical of the thousands that we find in northern Britain.
The isolation of this carving is rather anomalous. Others should be in the area but archaeo-records are silent (though the majority of Wessex archaeologists are academically illiterate when it comes to identifying such carvings). The carving may simply be the product of nomadic northerners, showing what their tribes do ‘up North’, so to speak. However, considering the tough nature of southern sarsen stones, it’d have taken ages to etch just this one stone. You can visualise it quite easily: southern tribal folk looking on, somewhat perplexed, as a northern traveller tried to convey what they etch on their stones in the northern lands, only to struggle like hell with cup-marks they’d do with ease on the softer rocks of their homelands. Wessex tribes-folk may have watched, seen the trouble their traveller had over such inane and (perhaps) meaningless carvings, and didn’t see the mythic point s/he was trying to convey…
Or maybe not!
The lesson with rock-art tends to be simple: where there’s one carving, others are nearby. The rule aint 100% of course — but when we were here the other day I was wanting to dart here, there and everywhere to check the many thousands of outcrop rocks that scatter this entire area. Us rock-art nuts tend to do things like that. It’s a madness that afflicts…
There were one or two stones with ‘possible’ single cup-markings on them, but I wasn’t going to start adding them to any catalogues. They were far too questionable. I was wanting something a bit more decent than that. And then, when Mikki, June, Pete, Geoff and I got to the collapsed long barrow known as the Devil’s Den a few hundred yards further down this rock-strewn sea of a valley, there was something with a bit more potential that we came across…
In recent years this cup-marked stone has already attracted imaginative notions, with little foundation. Archaeologists Fowler & Blackwell (1998), in their otherwise fine book, think this carving was related to goddess worship, describing how,
“On Dillion Down…the Great Mother’s help was permanently invoked by patiently indenting a special stone with symbols of her potency.”
Adding that this “was a new idea brought in from the North, and Fyfield was the only place to have such a stone.” Weird! I could’ve sworn there were plenty of other rocks between here and there!
Fowler, Peter J., Landscape Plotted and Pieced: Landscape History and Local Archaeology in Fyfield and Overton, Society of Antiquaries London 2000.
Fowler, Peter & Blackwell, Ian, The Landscape of Lettice Sweetapple, Tempus: Stroud 1998.
Lacaille, A.D., ‘A Cup-Marked Sarsen near Marlborough, Wiltshire,’ in Archaeological Newsletter 7:6, 1962.
¹ Along with the cup-markings atop of Devil’s Den a few hundred yards to the south, across in Somerset we had the Pool Farm example; there are a number of examples in Dorset, including the Badbury Rings carving; plus others in Devon, etc.