Gough’s Barrow, Long Compton, Warwickshire

Archaeology & History

Only known drawing of Gough's Barrow

Only known drawing of Gough’s Barrow

In days of olde there were heathen sites around the edges of the beautiful Rollright Stones complex that have sadly fallen prey to the intensive agriculture of more modern ‘civilized’ times.  It’s become the way of things….. One site of importance in this geomythic  pantheon was the ‘Gough’s Barrow’—so named after a drawing was done of the site by Richard Gough, editor of the 1789 edition of Camden’s Britannia.  As far as I’m aware, it is the only one ever done of this monument.  The Oxford archaeologist George Lambrick (1988) saw “every reason to accept the position and details of the barrow”, upon which stood at least two large stones—one of which gained the description of a ‘druidical pillar.’

Stukeley's 1743 drawing

Stukeley’s 1743 drawing

The same barrow may have been recorded in one of drawings of the great William Stukeley, who visited the Rollright Stones in 1710 and then again in 1723.  On the left-side of the adjacent drawing you can see a denuded mound close to the edge of the picture, similar in shape and form to that drawn by Richard Gough.  It is probably the same tumulus or barrow.  Trial excavations at the site in 1983 looked for any remains of the old tomb, but nothing significant was uncovered.  Lambrick estimated that the site probably measured “about 18m wide and 20m long east-west,” and “was a megalithic barrow and was therefore probably Neolithic in origin.” 

References:

  1. Bennett, Paul & Chanter, James, The Complete Rollright Stones, forthcoming
  2. Bennett, Paul & Wilson, Tom, The Old Stones of Rollright and District, Cockley Press: Chipping Norton 1999.
  3. Burl, Aubrey, Great Stone Circles, Yale University Press 1999.
  4. Lambrick, George, The Rollright Stones, English Heritage 1988.
  5. Peters, Frances, “An Antiquarian Visit to the Rollright Stones,” in Wiltshire Archaeological & Natural History Magazine, volume 94, 2001.
  6. Stukeley, Willliam, Abury – A Temple to the British Druids, London 1743.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian

Gough's Barrow

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Gough\'s Barrow 51.975832, -1.572564 Gough\'s Barrow

Barrow Hill Stone, Chastleton, Oxfordshire

Standing Stone (destroyed):  OS Grid Reference – SP 257 282

Archaeology & History

We have found only one reference to this lost standing stone that could once be seen adjacent to the very well-preserved Chastleton Barrow Camp to the east of the village. In her scarce little work on the history of Chastleton House, Margaret Dickins (1900) told that,

“the oldest thing to be seen at Chastleton is the prehistoric stone, which till lately served as a field gate post on the Barrow Hill.”

This monolith was one in a series of megalithic sites in and around the village that have been destroyed due to the actions of ill-informed land-owners. In this case, the standing stone was in close association with the subsequent Iron Age encampment (this missing stone should not be confused with the nearby Goose Stones, greatly damaged).

References:

  1. Bennett, P. & Chanter, James, The Complete Rollright Stones, forthcoming
  2. Dickins, Margaret, Chastleton House, Walker: Stratford 1900.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian

Barrow Hill Stone

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Barrow Hill Stone 51.952111, -1.626768 Barrow Hill Stone

Whispering Knights, Rollright, Oxfordshire

Chambered Tomb:  OS Grid Reference – SP 29936 30841

Also Known as:

  1. Five Knights

Getting Here

William Stukeley's 1743 drawing
William Stukeley’s 1743 drawing

Follow the directions to reach the Rollrights stone circle, from Chipping Norton.  Walk past the entrance to the circle along the road for a coupla hundred yards, keeping your eyes peeled looking into the field on your right.  You’ll notice the large rocky mass of these Knights a hundred yards down in the field, which can be reached by a footpath running straight along the old hedge from the roadside straight to the collapsed tomb.

Archaeology & History

The Whispering Knights
The Whispering Knights

A brilliant site—albeit nowhere like how it once was—where I slept a few times when I lived in the old hut at the Rollright stone circle down the road.  A field-mouse lived here when I slept at the place and, hopefully, its ancestors still reside hereby (Rollright Trust’s poisons notwithstanding!).  On my first encounter with the little fella, I felt him running into my waist-side whilst laying, dozing in the old tomb.  He nudged into me—then again —and yet again; before I leaned over to see what was going on!  And the little mouse looked up at me, without a care in the world, as if to say, “What are you doing lying on my path!? Can I get past please?” (though I’d not had a bath for a good 3 months, so didn’t smell like any modern human, which I think explained his total lack of fear)

Laying there, I smiled at the little fella, who then decided to jump up the side of my waist and walk over the top of me to get to the other side!  He jumped down into the grasses and disappeared!  However, a few minutes later, I felt another tiny ‘thud’ at my side and looked down to see the same lovely mouse wanting to go back along his obviously traditional route – and looking up at me again, whiskers twitching inquisitively, realised I was still here; and so once again took it upon himself to climb over the scruffy smelly human-sort who was blocking his route!

He was a gorgeous little mouse and we got to know each other quite well over the unwashed springs and summers I slept here….. But anyway, that’s not what you folks are interested in hearing about!  Back to the archaeo-shit

The Whispering Knights is one of the main sites in the cluster known collectively as the Rollright Stones, which also comprises of the standing stone commonly called the King Stone, plus the King’s Men stone circle a coupla hundred yards down the road from the Knights.  They all sit atop of the ridge which separates the counties of Oxfordshire and Warwickshire along the edge of the prehistoric road known as the Jurassic Way. The sites are non-contemporaneous having been erected over a period of many centuries.  The Whispering- or Five Knights are by far the oldest part of the complex dating from a period never previously anticipated.  They comprise of four upright megaliths in close proximity, and a fifth fallen stone which is said to be the capstone on the original monument.  This stone alone weighs some 10 tons.

The general archaeological opinion is that the place is a ‘portal dolmen burial chamber’ of which the capstone has fallen.  The Oxford archaeologist George Lambrick (1988) postulated the stones to have been covered with a mound of earth, but any evidence supporting this has long since gone.

1920s postcard of the site
1920s postcard of the site
The Knights in 1995
The Knights in 1995

This great monument was initially thought by archaeologists to have been built sometime around 1800 BCE—a favourite date of academics for many an unexcavated site for many decades—until they turned their astute attention to the place in the 1980s.  And what they found was astonishing.  Well…astonishing for the archaeologists!  Affirming the local folk tradition that the Knights were the “oldest monuments in Oxfordshire,” the dates truly went back.  Way back!  Datable remains at the site gave results from between 3500 and 3800 BCE: two thousand years earlier than anyone had ever expected of them.

Although five stones remain of the site, when the great William Stukeley (1743) visited the Whispering Knights, he described six of them to be visible with the great stones here to be sat upon a tumulus, saying:

“Tis composed of six stones, one broader for the back part, two and two narrower for the sides, set square to the former; and above all, as a cover, a still larger. The opening is full west to the temple or Rowldrich.  It stands on a round tumulus, and has a fine prospect southwestward down the valley, where the head of the Evenlode runs.”

O.G.S. Crawford (1932) told us of a description which Sir Henry Dryden gave of the Knights in 1898, when he wrote:

“About 356 yards E from the (Rollright) circle and S of the road, is the dolmen about to be described, called the Five Whispering Knights.  It is in a ruinous state.  It now consists of four stones, upright, or nearly so, and one prostrate, all of coarse limestone…

  1. Height, 8ft 3ins (4ft by 2ft 6ins)
  2.     ”      , 7ft 3ins (3ft 6ins by 1ft 10ins)
  3.     ”      , 6ft 7ins (3ft 8ins by 1ft 4ins)
  4.     ”      , 5ft 4ins (4ft 9ins by 2ft)
  5. Capstone (then fallen), 8ft 4ins by 5ft 9ins, by 2ft 4ins

“The chamber appears to have been about 5 feet 6 inches W and E, and the same N and S.  If, as usual, there was an entrance, with or without a passage, it was probably to the ENE… There is not, so far as I know, any record of remains having been found in this dolmen.  In a small stone pit about 700 feet NE by E from the circle it is stated that 12 skulls were found in 1835.  In another stone pit near it was found in 1836 an urn and beads…”

1840 plan by Lukis & Dryden
1840 plan by Lukis & Dryden

During the last century, very little has really changed at the Knights.  The ring fencing surrounding the stones has kept it pretty much protected, despite it ruining all sense of healthy ambience.  But they have gained greater and greater attention the older they have got.  Archaeologists are not the only ones exploring the site.  Fascinated astronomers, engineers and architects have been and seemingly uncovered other mythic ingredients here.

When the legendary Alexander Thom came here, he used the archaeological data that was being espoused at the time, which said the Knights and the Rollright stones had both been built around 1750 to 1800 BC.  With these dates as his guide, he found that someone standing at the centre of the Rollright circle, on the morning of the equinoxes—March 21 and September 21—the sun would rise right above the Whispering Knights.  And the effect, he thought, was a notable one: with the light from the rising sun going straight through a hole in one of the stones in the circle as it rose up behind the Knights.  It would have looked both spectacular and eerie in the rising mists of first light, like a laser cutting through the still morning air… However, although Thom’s measurements were very accurate, the archaeologists had got their dates wrong.  Very wrong!  For the Whispering Knights were about 1500 years older than the stone circle—and so the alignments Thom pronounced, based on the archaeologist’s erroneous proclamations, were also incorrect.

There may be other alignments connected to the Rollright complex.  In a survey of the site as part of the Dragon Project experiments conducted here in June 1980, Leslie Banks and Christopher Stanley flew over the place and found, adjacent to the Whispering Knights, a quite distinct “trace of two dark green parallel lines in a field of ripening corn” running northwest to the roadside.  To this day nobody quite understands the nature of this enigmatic alignment:

“In the absence of excavation we can only speculate,” said Stanley.  “But the most likely explanation is that it is what archaeologists refer to as a Cursus.  Cursuses are thought to be prehistoric religious processional ways.”

As with many of the alignments described here, the jury is still out on this one!

Folklore

The folklore here is prodigious!  The prime story of the neolithic tomb of the Whispering Knights tells that originally they were in fact a group of traitors who moved away from a King and his army in ages past, and who were plotting against him, when the great Witch of Rollright (a southern version of the great cailleach, found in more northern counties, Scotland and Ireland) turned them all to stone (this tale is intimately bound up with the King’s Men stone circle and the associated King’s Stone).

Another tale tells how the King Stone and the Whispering Knights venture, at midnight, less than half a mile south to drink from a spring in the small woodland at Little Rollright Spinney, although it is difficult to ascertain precisely which of the two springs the stones are supposed to visit.  In some accounts, the stones reputedly drink from the well every night, but others tell that they only go there at certain times of the year, or on saint’s days.  When Arthur Evans (1895) wrote of these tales he described there being a “gap in the bushes… through which they go down to the water,” but the terrain has altered since his day.

Other accounts imbuing the stones with life tell how they only ‘awaken’ when disturbed by humans.  A story well-known to local people is that of when the Knights had its capstone removed one day by a farmer who used it to build a bridge across the stream at Little Rollright. As Evans told us,

“it took a score of horses to drag it down the hill, for at first it would not move, and they had to strain and strain to get it along till every bit of the harness was broken.   At last they got it to the brook by Rollright Farm, and with great difficulty laid it across to serve as a bridge. But every night the stone turned over back again and was found in the morning lying on the grass.”

Three nights of this led the farmer to think he should replace the stone which, so the fable goes, took only one horse to move it back uphill and into position.  A variation of the same tale was told by T.H. Ravenhill, who wrote:

“The Lord of the Manor of Little Rollright desired to possess the King’s Stone in order to bridge Little Rollright brook. So he dug it up and tried to cart it away, but found that he had not enough horses. He hitched on more, and yet more, and still he found that he could not move the stone. Finally he succeeded and hauled the stone away to the Manor House. The same night he was alarmed by strange sounds about the house, which he attributed to the presence of the King’s Stone, and decided, therefore, to replace it on its mound.  No sooner had he harnessed the first horse to the cart than it galloped away up hill with ease, taking with it the stone, which leapt to position on reaching its resting place.”

There are still more variations that are worth mentioning. One from 1876,

“said that a miller in Long Compton, thinking the stone would be useful in damming the water of his mill, carried it away and used it for that purpose, but he found that whatever water was dammed up in the day disappeared in the night, and thinking it was done by the witches (at Long Compton) and that they would punish him for his impertinence in removing the stone, he took it back again; and, though it required three horses to take it to Long Compton, one easily brought it back.”

In yet another version, the stone was wanted by a local farmer for his outhouse.  In taking it downhill, the horses that pulled his wagon died and the vehicle itself was irreparably damaged.  It got even worse for the poor chap: his crops failed, his family were taken ill and his cattle died.  Eventually when all but his last horse remained, he made another cart and it pulled the stone back uphill with ease.  Thereafter, so the tale goes, all his adversities stopped and he lived a normal life.  In one version of this tale, the great monolith was said to have been taken north-north-west down to the stream at The Hollows, Long Compton.  Tales such as these are, once more, found throughout the world.

The truth of these stories was seemingly unquestionable to some local people in the 19th century,

“one man going as far as to say that there were those now living who had spoken to men who had helped to bring the stone down and up again.”

In William Stukeley’s day, one Farmer Baker was so troubled by his actions that he couldn’t rest until he returned the old stone.

The doyen of the early geodelic sciences or Earth Mysteries movement, John Michell, suggested how the legends of megaliths moving of their own accord harked back to ancient days when the people of those times were more attuned to the terrestrial magnetic flows of the Earth.

The Whispering Knights were also a place where “young girls of the neighbourhood (use it as) a kind of primitive oracle.”  One local told Arthur Evans that around barley harvest the young women of the district visited the Five Knights to listen to them whisper.  One at a time they would rest their ears against the strange shapes of stone and, if fortune and conditions were right, they would hear the future told.  This mass of animistic lore is very revealing indeed, telling us much about the way our peasant ancestors viewed the living world around them. (Eliade 1958)

In more recent times, the site has been explored by dowsers and ley hunters, who claim to have found a veritable bags of fascinating lost material around the Knights.  Although originally ‘leys’ were described by Alfred Watkins as quite acceptable prehistoric trackways linking site to site to site, in recent years the original theory has been ignored and superceded with a host of almost incredulous fluctuations.  Leys these days can run just about anywhere – and do!

One writer who tells about the leys around Whispering Knights is Lawrence Main. (1997) He dowsed and found a ley running south to the famous White Horse at Uffington.  Roy Cooper (1979) was the first person to write about this alignment and extended it further north to the impressive and legendary Brailles Hill. That one seems reasonable.  However,

“Other leys I dowsed,” said Main, “Linked the King Stone, the stone circle, and the Whispering Knights with each other; the King Stone with Banbury Cross; the Whispering Knights with Hook Norton church; and the stone circle with the churches at Todenham and Stretton-on-Fosse.”

Another dowsing ley hunter is Dennis Wheatley (not The Devil Rides Out dood).  He wrote a couple of short works on his lengthy experiments at the Rollright stones and reported how he found a

“tangential aerial energy course…across the country (which) latches on to a solitary standing stone, six miles south, known as the Hawk Stone.”

Perhaps of greater importance here is that Wheatley also discovered how,

“all of the Rollright ring’s stones engage in aerial energetic cross-talk with the King Stone producing a triangulation of energy lines.”

This cross-talk of Wheatley’s involves more than seventy energy lines running between the circle and the King’s Stone.  He tells us that a greater “aerial cross-talk” also occurs between the circle and the Knights; and “a lesser energetic triangulation” runs between the King and the Knights.

Along similar lines are the findings of the dowser Reginald Smith. (1980) Beneath the Whispering Knights he claimed to have found,

“a concealed spring which runs underground to the northwest and may betoken a consecrated site; but 100 feet to the east there seems to be another blind spring with issue to the northeast.”

…to be continued…

References:

  1. Bennett, Paul & Wilson, Tom, The Old Stones of Rollright and District, Cockley Press: London 1999.
  2. Burl, Aubrey, Great Stone Circles, Yale University Press: New York & London 1999.
  3. Cooper, Roy, ‘Some Oxfordshire Leys,’ in The Ley Hunter 86, 1979.
  4. Crawford, O.G.S., Long Barrows of the Cotswolds, John Bellows: Oxford 1932.
  5. Devereux, Paul, Places of Power, Blandford: London 1990.
  6. Devereux, Paul, The Sacred Place, Cassell: London 2000.
  7. Eliade, Mircea, Patterns in Comparative Religion, Sheed & Ward: London 1958.
  8. Evans, Arthur J., ‘The Rollright Stones and their Folklore (3 parts),’ in Folklore Journal, 1895.
  9. Gelling, Margaret, The Place-Names of Oxfordshire – volume 2, Cambridge University Press 1971.
  10. Graves, Tom, Dowsing: Techniques and Applications, Turnstone: London 1976.
  11. Grinsell, Leslie V., The Ancient Burial Mounds of England, Methuen: London 1936.
  12. Lambrick, George, The Rollright Stones: The Archaeology and Folklore of the Stones and their Surroundings, Oxford Archaeology Review 1983. (Reprinted and updated in 1988.)
  13. Main, Lawrence, Walks in Mysterious Oxfordshire, Sigma: Wilmslow 1997.
  14. Ravenhill, T.H., The Rollright Stones and the Men Who Erected Them, Little Rollright 1926.
  15. Robins, Don, Circles of Silence, Souvenir Press: London 1985.
  16. Smith, Reginald A., ‘Archaeological Dowsing,’ in Graves, Tom (ed.), Dowsing and Archaeology (Turnstone: Wellingborough 1980).
  17. Stanley, Christopher C., ‘A Rollright Processional Way?’ in The Ley Hunter 90, 1981.
  18. Stuart, Sheila, Lifting the Latch, Oxford University Press 1987.
  19. Stukeley, William, Abury: A Temple of the British Druids, London 1743.
  20. Thom, Alexander, Megalithic Sites in Britain, Oxford University Press 1967.
  21. Wheatley, Dennis, The Rollright Ring, Braden Press: Swindon n.d. (c.1990)

Links

  1. The Whispering Knights on The Megalithic Portal

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian

Whispering Knights

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Whispering Knights 51.975249, -1.565603 Whispering Knights

Benson Cursus, Benson, Oxfordshire

Cursus Monument:  OS Grid Reference – SU 624 910 to SU 629 919

Also Known as:

  1. Crowmarsh Cursus

Archaeology & History

Major Allen’s 1933 photo

Any remains of this once sacred site are now beneath the airport between Benson and Ewelme, a couple of miles northeast of Wallingford, on the eastern side of the River Thames.  A great pity.  It was one of the early cursus monuments discovered as a result of Major G.W. Allen’s many aerial surveys in southern England — as shown in his photo here  — and subsequently described in Mr Leeds’ (1934) Antiquaries Journal article.  A cluster of cursus monuments were built in this part of England in neolithic times, and Roy Loveday (2006) includes the Benson Cursus as an ingredient within the ‘sacred landscape’ region of what he calls “the Dorchester-on-Thames complex.”  The Benson Cursus and surrounding regional monuments,

“in fact possesses features that would declare it as an inter-regional sanctuary if encountered in an historical setting; namely, intensity of monument construction, longevity of respect, addition of later exotic monuments with far-flung parallels, large numbers of burials, and placement in a landscape structured, partly at least, by other monuments.  These elements recur from Delphi to Uppsala, and from Pachacarmaca to Mecca, at sites that Mircea Eliade (sic) has termed hierophanies — locations where the otherworld of gods and ancestors communicate with the living.”

Loveday’s 2006 plan
Benson Cursus plan (after Barclay & Lambrick)

It’s good to know that the correct paradigms are at last emerging from those archaeocentric minds!

In Mr Loveday’s (2006) plan of the cursus, no entrances could be found into the monument apart from a small section along the northeastern length of the structure (left).  From its southernmost point, this giant monument runs along a SSW-NNE alignment — one echoed in other nearby cursuses — for 1192 yards (1090m) and is 71 yards (65m) across, covering 7.3 hectares in all.  No internal structures were noted anywhere within the monument.

…to be continued…

References:

  1. Barclay, A., Lambrick, G., Moore, J. & Robinson, M., Lines in the Landscape, OAU: Oxford 2003.
  2. Benson, D. & Miles, D., The Upper Thames Valley: An Archaeological Survey of the River Gravels, Oxford Archaeology Unit 1974.
  3. Eliade, Mircea, The Sacred and the Profane, Harcourt, Brace & World: New York 1959.
  4. Leeds, E.T., “Rectangular Enclosures of the Bronze Age in the Upper Thames Valley, in Antiquaries Journal, 14:4, 1934.
  5. Loveday, Roy, Inscribed Across the Landscape, Tempus: Stroud 2006.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian

Benson cursus

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Benson cursus 51.618573, -1.095573 Benson cursus

Woodhenge, Dorchester, Oxfordshire

Timber Circle (destroyed):  OS Grid Reference – SU 5775 9513

Also Known as:

  1. Dorchester 3
  2. NMR NUMBER: SU 59 NE 53
  3. Site no. 371.21.1

Archaeology & History

Dorchester's Woodhenge in the cursus
Dorchester’s Woodhenge in the cursus

Although ascribed as a wooden ‘henge’ by archaeologist Jean Cook, the site is more accurately a simple timber circle.  Cook (1985) described this little-known “Wood Henge” monument, as she called it, sat inside the lower southeastern end of the impressive Dorchester Cursus monument.  The site was obviously of some ritual importance, for a variety of reasons.  It was excavated in 1981 and,

“it consisted of a ring of large pits enclosing an area some 18m in diameter.  The site was situated along the central axis of the (Dorchester) cursus, presumably influenced by the alignment.  The pits, which varied in size, had each contained a wooden post, in three instances consisting of an entire trunk of an oak tree.  All the posts were burnt in situ, presumably during some form of destruction ceremony.”

Groundplan of site

When Alex Gibson came here a few years afterwards to re-examine the site, his work and that of Richard Bradley (1988) also found the place to have been an elliptical ‘ring’ of once-upright timber posts.  Although Gibson (1998) later gave a confused version of where the site actually was (wrong grid-refs), his brief description gave us an outline of what was once here:

“An oval of 12 postholes containing the carbonized remains of 13 posts which had been burnt prior to the placing of cremations in the upper fills of the postholes.  The SW posthole contained the remains of two posts in the same socket.  There is a possible entranceway, marked by a wider gap between posts, in the NW.”

But this last line appears to be pure speculation. I’ve not read the longer archaeological accounts of this ‘wood henge’ and adjacent sites (Bradley & Chambers, 1988; Gibson 1992), which should give greater details about the site as a whole.  The Pastscape site gives the following information:

“A pit circle comprising a sub-circular arrangement of 12 pits was excavated in the early 1980s in advance of work on the Dorchester by-pass. The site lay within the Dorchester Cursus (SU 59 NE 5), circa 400 metres northwest of its southeastern terminal. The long axis of the pit circle was the same as that of the cursus. Each of the pits had held a timber upright, and some if not all had been burnt in situ. An air photograph of the site had suggested the presence of a central pit but this feature proved to be a natural pocket of sand. Six deposits of cremated bone came from various post pipes. Other finds included a handful of potsherds, one possibly of Early Bronze Age date, some animal bone fragments, and a few flints. Radiocarbon dates from cremated bone and charcoal centred on the mid 3rd millennium BC, with one slightly later.”

References:

  1. Bradley, R. & Chambers, R., “A New Study of the Cursus Complex at Dorchester-on-Thames, in Oxford Journal of Archaeology, volume 7, 1988.
  2. Cook, Jean, “The Earliest Evidence,” in Dorchester through the Ages, Oxford University 1985.
  3. Cook, Jean & Rowley, Trevor (eds.), Dorchester through the Ages, Oxford University 1985.
  4. Gibson, Alex, “Possible Timber Circles at Dorchester-on-Thames,” in Oxford Journal of Archaeology, volume 11, 1992.
  5. Gibson, Alex, Stonehenge and Timber Circles, Tempus: Stroud 1998.
  6. Pennick, Nigel & Devereux, Paul, Lines on the Landscape, Hale: London 1989.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian

Woodhenge

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Woodhenge 51.652067, -1.166262 Woodhenge

Castle Hill, Little Wittenham, Oxfordshire

Hillfort:  OS Grid Reference – SU 5696 9244

Also Known as:

  1. Sinodun Camp
  2. Wittenham Clumps

Getting Here

Either reach this from Dorchester’s Dyke Hills by crossing the bridge over the Thames at its southwestern side and walk thru the village and up the fields to the wooded rise on your left; or simply get take the road between Brightwell-cum-Sotwell to the delightful village of Little Wittenham and, on your right-hand side, notes the unmissable clump of trees and rise in the fields on your right.  That’s the place!

Archaeology & History

Major Allen’s 1932 photo

To be found on the southern side of the River Thames, across from the huge Dyke Hills camp, this prominent enclosed hillfort was thought to be a place where the tribal peoples of differing groups converged — the Dubonni, the Catuvellauni, and Atrebates peoples.  And to this day it remains impressive.  Long thought to have been merely the province of Iron Age settlers, in more recent years it has shown to have had a longer and richer history than academics previously dare write about.  In Jean Cook’s (1985) fine work on the archaeology of the region, she described the typical narrative Castle Hill elicited from professionals until only a few years back, saying:

“The hillfort on Wittenham Clumps covers approximately 4 hectares (c. 10 acres) and comprises a single ditch and rampart.  It commands superb views northwards up the Thames valley and to the south and west across the Vale of White Horse to the Berkshire Downs, where a series of similar hillforts follows the line of an ancient route — the Ridgeway.  The fort has never been excavated, although frequent past ploughings have produced Iron Age and early Saxon sherds as well as Romano-British pottery.  However, to the south of the hillfort…a well-stratified Iron Age settlement was found.  It seems probable on the basis of other excavated sites that the fort was permanently occupied.  It would have developed as  a regional administrative and political centre, with specialist craftsmen and traders and would have performed some of the same functions as a medieval market town.”

Although Cook’s latter remarks should be addressed with caution (market economics was far from the mythic perspectives of Iron Age people), this great site was of obvious importance.  But later excavations at the site in 2002-03 showed that the site had in fact been used by neolithic people and, around the tops, flints and other remains were found that took human activity here back into mesolithic times, with some finds dated around 6000 BC!  More surprisingly (to archaeologists anyway) was that Castle Hill continued to be used way into medieval times!

Thankfully much of this place is still pretty well-preserved and is well worth exploring to historians, pagans and walkers.

…to be continued…

References:

  1. Cook, Jean, “Before the Roman Conquest,” in Dorchester through the Ages, Oxford University 1985.
  2. Cook, Jean & Rowley, Trevor (eds.), Dorchester through the Ages, Oxford University 1985.

Links:

  1. An Interim Summary Report on Excavations at Castle Hill, Wittenham Clumps

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian

Castle Hill

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Castle Hill 51.627848, -1.178521 Castle Hill

Dyke Hills, Dorchester, Oxfordshire

Settlement:  OS Grid Reference – SU 5735 9364

Also Known as:

  1. Dorchester Dykes
  2. Dorchester Fort

Getting Here

Easy to find.  From Dorchester town centre, take the road at the bottom of town where the church is and walk along to the end where a footpath takes you into the field.  Once here you’ll note a rise in the land at the end, stretching away to the west and the River Thames.  That’s your Dyke Hills!

Archaeology & History

Plan of Dyke Hills (after Cook, 1985)

This site is another example of the considerable neglect shown to the prehistoric archaeological remains in and around the Dorchester region, despite Jean Cook (1985) describing the place as “a site of major local, regional and national importance.”  Which is a pity, as the site here was once huge and it seems that much could have been learned from here.  (you’ve gotta ask: do those doods who allegedly work for English Heritage care more for the ancient sites, or the money their organization gets?)

Lane-Fox’s 1870 survey

It would seem that the majority of the site was Iron Age in nature, with snifflings of Bronze Age remains scattered here and there. The primary position of the massive dykes and construction of internal domestic structures immediately below (south) of the dykes, was hemmed in on all sides by the surrounding River Thames and one of its tributaries, giving the place an excellent position in terms of food, plus shelter and protection from any intrusive tribes or hungry winter animals.

The first excavation at the huge dykes that define the northern edge of this ‘monument’ was done in 1870 by the renowned General Pitt-Rivers, then later Colonel Lane-Fox (at the time the Secretary of London’s Ethnological Society), as they were very concerned about the damage that was being inflicted upon the site, when the local landowner allowed sections of the banking to be “reduced for cultivation.”  An article in the Saturday Review magazine on July 2, 1870, told of these concerns and what was written — as Jean Cook so rightly tells — “has a depressingly modern ring to it”:

“…the fortress at Dorchester and the fortress on Sinodun (Castle Hill) are among the most speaking monuments of the earliest history of our island, and till lately they were among its most perfect monuments.  But it is a grievous truth that while we are writing, the dykes at Dorchester are being levelled.  Hitherto the neighbourhood ground has been grazed and the harmless sheep is no foe to history; but it has lately occurred to the owner of the ground hat a few shillings more of yearly profit might be gained by turning pasture land into arable; and to such a sordid motive as this these precious antiquities are at this very moment being sacrificed.  At least a third of the dyke has already been lowered, and will gradually be utterly destroyed beneath the yearly passage of ruin’s merciless plough share.  Such wanton destruction naturally aroused the indignation of men of taste and knowledge, especially in the neighbouring University.  A vigourous appeal to the owner to stay his hand was made by some of the most eminent Oxford residents, and an attempt was made to call public attention to the subject by describing the state of the case in various newspapers…”

Lane-Fox’s 1872 photo

But the digging into the dykes continued.  For some time at least — until Colonel Lane-Fox himself went to the see the landowner and “persuaded” him to stop what he was doing.  A method we should always keep in mind ourselves…

The modern state of the Dyke Hills is summarised once again in Jean Cook’s (1985) fine survey of the region, where she wrote:

“This great enclosure, known to archaeologists as an oppidum, covered 46 hectares (c. 114 acres) and as defended by a massive double bank and ditch to the north and to the east.  The southern and western boundaries have all but disappeared, but can be traced in lines of modern field boundaries beyond which the Thames forms a natural boundary.  The interior is (now) empty, but cropmarks reveal that it is full of enclosures, pits and circular houses aligned along a regular pattern of internal roads.  Although there has been no scientific excavation within Dyke Hills, ploughing of the site has produced one of the densest concentrations of Iron Age coins in Britain.”

It would appear that this site was of considerable importance for local tribes and would have been home to powerful chiefs and impressive-looking shamans!  The large Castle Hill site immediately across the river would have had obvious links to this once-omportant prehistoric settlement.

References:

  1. Cook, Jean, “Before the Roman Conquest,” in Dorchester through the Ages, Oxford University 1985.
  2. Cook, Jean & Rowley, Trevor (eds.), Dorchester through the Ages, Oxford University 1985.
  3. Williams, Geoffrey, The Iron Age Hillforts of England, Horace Books 1993.

 © Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian

Dyke Hills settlement

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Dyke Hills settlement 51.638652, -1.173026 Dyke Hills settlement

Big Rings Henge, Dorchester, Oxfordshire

Henge (destroyed):  OS Grid Reference – SU 572 953

Archaeology & History

Very close to the once impressive Dorchester Cursus, this double-ringed prehistoric monument can no longer be seen thanks to the self-righteous arrogance of modern industrialists who care little for the ancestral monuments of the British people, destroying all traces of the site — an activity which, in this case, astonishingly started in more ancient times, as Jean Cook (1985) told: “The banks and the ditches had been levelled through agricultural activity, possibly in the Iron Age”!

Big Rings ground-plan
1938 photo of the Big Rings, by Major George Allen

The destruction of this environment continues to this day, destroying many important archaeological remains with little care.  Thankfully we we’ve got a good account of the site due to the archaeological excavations of R.J.C. Atkinson (1951) and his team in the late-1940s, from whom Cook and just about everyone else gets most of their data regarding the site.

The Big Rings Henge was probably built sometime in the middle of the second millenium BC.  It was an important prehistoric ritual site and, most likely, had some relevance to the adjacent cursus monument.  A number of important mortuary and ritual sites were also built close to the site over a period of nearly two thousand years, showing the importance this landscape had to our ancestors.

Jean Cook (1985) described the Big Rings henge as follows:

“The ditches, of which there were two, had opposed entrances on the NNW and SSE.  They were about 7.6m wide and 1.8m deep with flat bottoms.  Originally there seems to have been a broad low bank on the inner side of each ditch.  The southern entrance incorporated an existing monument, consisting of a ring ditch which enclosed a large four-post setting and contained a cremation and a stone axe.  Just outside the north entrance was a round barrow, containing a central oval burial pit which produced a crouched inhumation, together with a well-preserved beaker, two small copper or bronze knives and a rectangular wrist-guard of greenstone.  The Big Rings ditches themselves contained pottery belonging to the middle or late Beaker period.  Although the area within the ditches was trenched, there was no evidence of internal timber structures.”

References:

  1. Atkinson, R.J.C., “The Henge Monuments of Great Britain,” in Atkinson, Piggott & Sandars’ Excavations at Dorchester, Oxon (Department of Antiquities: Oxford 1951).
  2. Atkinson, R.J.C., Piggott, C.M. & Sandars, N.K., Excavations at Dorchester, Oxon, Department of Antiquities: Oxford 1951.
  3. Cook, Jean, “The Earliest Evidence,” in Dorchester through the Ages, Oxford University 1985.
  4. Harding, A.F., Henge Monuments and Related Sites of Great Britain, BAR 175: Oxford 1987.
  5. Harding, Jan, The Henge Monuments of the British Isles, Tempus: Stroud 2003.
  6. Wainwright, Geoffrey J., The Henge Monuments: Ceremony and Society in Prehistoric Britain, Thames & Hudson: London 1989.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian

Big Rings henge

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Big Rings henge 51.653924, -1.173294 Big Rings henge

Banbury Cross, Oxfordshire

Cross:  OS Grid Reference – SP 45323 40397

Also Known as:

  1. High Cross
  2. Market Cross

Archaeology & History

Banbury Cross (after Ronald Goodearl, 1973)
Banbury Cross (after Ronald Goodearl, 1973)

The original stone monolith that stood here has long since been destroyed (by christians arguing amongst themselves) and the ornate edifice that we see today was erected in 1859 to commemorate the marriage of Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter, Victoria Adelaide Mary Louisa, to Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia.  Standing more than 52 feet tall, it is of a neo-Gothic design and is one of the tallest crosses in the country.  Originally there were going to be six carved statues cut into the niches of the cross, but this was later reduced to three.

First mentioned in place-name records from 1478, the original stone cross was itself very prominent, rising some 20 feet tall and sitting upon a square base of eight steps.  It was described by John Leland in his Itinerary when he visited the town sometime between 1535 and 1545, who said:

“At the west part of the street…is a large area, having a goodly cross with many degrees (steps) about it.  In this area is kept every Thursday a very celebrated market.”

The old cross was also a site where public notices and proclamations were dispensed to local people and seems to have been an old meeting place.  Whether it had a prehistoric predecessor isn’t known.

Folklore

The nursery rhyme we’ve all recited when we were kids and growing-up, has much of its origins around this ornate edifice and in the 20th century was thought to have its origins in pre-christian practices hereby, but this is questionable.  The rhyme, to those who don’t know it, goes:

Ride a cock-horse to Banbury Cross,
To see a fine lady upon a white horse,
With rings on her fingers and bells on her toes,
She shall have music wherever she goes.

As Kirsten Ayles (1973) told:

“This rhyme was first recorded in 1784, but it probably originated much earlier.  The Banbury Cross mentioned was destroyed at the turn of the 16th century by the Puritan inhabitants of Banbury.  It has been suggested that “bells on her toes” points to the fifteenth century, when a bell was worn on the long tapering shoe of each shoe.  It has (also) been thought that the “fine lady” was Queen Elizabeth I, or Lady Godiva.”

Another option identifying the “fine lady” in the rhyme is perhaps a member of the Fiennes family, ancestors of Lord Saye and Sele who owns nearby Broughton Castle.

References:

  1. Ayles, Kirsten, “A Short History of Nursery Rhymes,” in This England, 6:3, Autumn 1973.
  2. Gelling, Margaret, The Place-Names of Oxfordshire (2 volumes), Cambridge University Press 1954.
  3. Vallance, Aymer, Old Crosses and Lychgates, Batsford: London 1920.

Acknowledgements:

To Ronald Goodearl, for use of his 1973 photograph of the Banbury Cross.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian 

Banbury Cross

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Banbury Cross 52.060141, -1.340331 Banbury Cross

Salford Cross Cup-Marks, Oxfordshire

Cup-Marked Stone:  OS Grid Reference – SP 28644 28058

Getting Here

Pretty simple this one.  From Chipping Norton, head west on the A44 for a coupla miles till you hit the lovely Salford village.  The church stands out, so head for it and, as you walk towards the building, watch for the small stone cross in front of you.

Archaeology & History

Salford Cross cup-markings

This is curious.  Very curious!  We might expect to find cup-markings occasionally on some of the cross-bases or other early christian monuments in northern England and Scotland, but to find them in the heart of a small Oxfordshire village where the tradition of cup-marked stones is unknown, was something of a surprise when Tom Wilson and I (1999) found it, to say the least!  But this is what we’re looking at here.

Salford Cross remains

On the remains of an old medieval cross, whose broken shaft has seen better days,  as the photo shows — and as a personal viewing shows even clearer — there are 3 simple cup-markings etched on one side of the cross-base in Salford churchyard.   The cups certainly aint natural, but then also they don’t have the archaic looks of the prehistoric carvings from Yorkshire to Scotland.  It would be good if we had a more extensive history of the cross monument itself, perhaps saying precisely where the stones which make it up came from, but local records tell us nothing it seems.  If we could ascertain that parts of it were made up of some remains taken from some local prehistoric ‘pagan’ tomb (and a number of tombs have been found in and around this area), then some sense could be thrown upon its position here.  But until we can ascertain more about the history of the cross, the three clear cup-markings on the cross-base remain somewhat of a mystery.

Folklore

Lovers of ley lore will be intrigued to find this carved cross-base is on a very accurate ley linking the King Stone, Rollright stone circle, Little Rollright church (where a standing stone can be found in the walling just before it), the Salford Cross and the site of another cross on the hill outside the village.

References:

  1. Bennett, Paul & Wilson, Tom, The Old Stones of Rollright and District, Cockley: London 1999.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian

Salford cupmarks

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Salford cupmarks 51.950298, -1.584634 Salford cupmarks