Cup-and-Ring Stone / Tomb: OS Grid Reference – ST 5375 5417
Archaeology & History
Found amidst a large cluster of other neolithic and Bronze Age remains—with the amazing line of the Priddy henges just a few hundred yards to the southeast—this is one helluva rare relic this thing: a carved stone, with seeming cup-marks and engraved “feet” no less, which was found when dug out of a prehistoric tomb way down South. Obviously a buncha northern lads and lasses must’ve been on one helluva piss-up! (y’ never know…) Although the tomb — a round barrow by all accounts — was well-known and excavated in 1930, the carving was somehow not noticed by the archaeologists when they dug here! But it has to be said, at that period many archaeologists thought rock art to be insignificant and unworthy of study, so perhaps their ignorance stemmed from the academic myopia of the time.
But at least they gave a reasonable description of the tomb itself. It was due to be destroyed and the considerable mass of material from it was used for widening the nearby road!!! Thankfully, for some reason, “the chamber or cist was left in situ” under the ground. Leslie V. Grinsell (1957) takes up the tale:
“The barrow appeared to be about 100 feet in diameter and 3¾ feet high, but it had been spread and its height reduced by many ploughings. Excavation showed that the barrow, which was of the bowl type, was composed of fine mould throughout, and had never been enclosed by a ditch. In the centre of the barrow, there was a stone chamber or cist, the external dimensions of which were 5½ feet long, 4½ feet wide, and 2½ feet high. The floor, which was ‘crazy-paved’, was approximately on the ground-level. The cist was placed with its long axis SE-NW. The late Father Ethelbert Horne, who wrote the excavation report, stated that the south-eastern slab, which was inserted 6 inches deep into the floor, had the character of a ‘closing-slab’, and outside it were several packing stones. There was a large cover slab of Dolomitic Conglomerate. The small northwestern slab is of Carboniferous Limestone, and the south-eastern slab is of Liassic Chert, but the large south-western and north-eastern slabs are of sandstone derived from the vicinity. The essential characteristics of this structure are therefore that is was abnormally large for a stone cist, had a strong suspicion of a ‘closing slab’ (implying some kind of entrance?) at the south-eastern end, and was above ground level, with its floor on that level.
“On the floor of this chamber or cist, at the foot of the approximate centre of the south-western slab, was a heap of burnt human bones, free from any admixture of charcoal. As these bones had been broken small after being cremated, their determination was by no means easy. Prof E. Fawcett…expressed the belief that they may have comprised the remains of an adult and a young person.”
But it was in 1956 that the carvings were noticed on the cist remains — by Mr Grinsell and his friend, C.S. Taylor. At first they thought that some of the etchings were of human hands, but they later realised they were of human feet. Grinsell wrote:
“The Foot carvings: The feet shown are all single feet, no two forming a left-and-right pair of the same individual. Nos. 1,2 and 3, in a row, are large, medium and small; no.4 is oblique in form; no.5 is on a slightly recessed portion of the slab; and no.6 represents the foot of a child between about 3 and 4 years old. No.3 represents the foot of a child about 10-12 years of age. Nos. 1,2,4 and 5 appear to represent the feet of adults. No.7 is the symbol of uncertain meaning. All these foot carvings show rounded heels and toes, in contrast to those on the Calderstones which are nearly all rectangular. The toes are all splayed, and this carving is likely to be due partly to the nature of the stone and the tools with which they are carved, and partly to the fact that the feet represented are probably those of a people who did not wear shoes, or wore footwear that did not constrict the toes.
“The Cup-marks: There are nine (possibly ten) cup-marks; their diameter ranges between 0.9 inches and 1.9 inches, and their depth between 0.1 inch and 0.3 inches… They are on the average about twice as deep as the foot-carvings. The smallest cup-mark (no.17) is beside the smallest foot-carving; but there is no noticeable relationship between the other cup-marks and foot-carvings…”
An intriguing carved slab at the very least! We can say with some certainty that this old tomb was of considerable importance to the people who built and lived around it in the centuries that followed (ancestral spirits and all that). It may have been a tomb of an important tribal elder, shaman or queen — though we may never truly know. But one thing which local archaeologists and antiquarians need to keep their eyes open for when opening any more burial sites in and around this region, are other examples of rock art, for the rule tends to be: where there’s one carving, others are close by! So wherefore art the others…?
- Coles, J., Gestsdottir, H. & Minnitt, S., “A Bronze Age Decorated Cist from Pool Farm, West Harptree: New Analyses,” in Proceedings of the Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society, 144, 2000.
- Grinsell, Leslie V., “A Decorated Cist-Slab from Mendip,” in Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, volume 23, 1957.
© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian