Woodhenge Circle (4), Durrington, Wiltshire

Round Barrow (destroyed):  OS Grid Reference — SU 1510 4330

Also Known as:

  1. Durrington 70

Archaeology & History

Cunnington’s sketch of the barrow remains

This was one of four ploughed-out round barrows (or ‘ring ditches’ in modern archaeo-jargon) that once existed immediately southeast of the well-known Woodhenge and was the closest of the four to the monument, being just 60 yards away. It was first noticed as a faint crop mark in an aerial survey photograph taken in 1926 of the fields hereby.  When it was investigated at ground level by Mr & Mrs Cunnington in August 1928, “no trace could be detected on the surface” of any extant monument—which they described as ‘Circle  IV’ in their superb survey.

The Cunnington’s (1929) account of the excavation they did here was pretty brief, telling:

“The soil was removed and the chalk brushed over that part of the area enclosed within firm lines.  Beyond a few shards of pottery in the soil, nothing whatever was found.  As the ditch was comparatively shallow and the filling-in was in patches dark in colour, with much ash and some burnt flints in it, a considerable length was dug out, as shown (in the sketch, above).  A few fragments of pottery similar to some of that from Woodhenge were found in and below the old turf line.

“The only find of interest was that of a piece of glass slag on the actual bottom of the ditch.  It is true it was at the shallowest point, but there was no evidence of disturbance.

“Conclusion — Like those of the other rings (Woodhenge Circles 1, and 3, PB) this ditch may have originally surrounded a Bronze Age burial, placed on the surface and covered with a mound, both of which were destroyed when the ground was levelled.”

References:

  1. Cunnington, M.E., Woodhenge, George Simpson: Devizes 1929.
  2. Royal Commission Historical Monuments, England, Stonehenge and its Environs, Edinburgh University Press 1979.
  3. Wainwright, G.J. & Longworth, Ian, Durrington Walls: Excavations 1966-1968, Society of Antiquaries: London 1971.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian

 

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  51.188728, -1.785316 Woodhenge C4

Woodhenge Circle (3), Durrington, Wiltshire

Round Barrow (destroyed):  OS Grid Reference — SU 1511 4327

Also Known as:

  1. Durrington 69

Archaeology & History

Cunningham’s sketch of Woodhenge-3 barrow

This was one of four ploughed-out round barrows (or ‘ring ditches’ in modern archaeo-jargon) that once existed immediately southeast of the well-known Woodhenge complex, constructed approximately 95 yards away.  As with others in this field, the site was first noticed as a faint crop mark in an aerial survey photograph taken in 1926.  When it was subsequently investigated at ground-level by Mr & Mrs Cunnington in August 1928, “no trace could be detected on the surface” of the monument in question—which they described as ‘Circle  III’ in their superb survey.

Very little was found in the Cunnington’s (1929) excavation, as their following brief account indicates:

“The soil was removed and the surface of the chalk brushed, over the whole of the area enclosed within this ditch.

“Only one small oval-shaped hole was found, near the edge of the ditch at “a” (above), 33in x 22in, and only 5in deep in the chalk; in it were a number of fragments of bones of a small ox and pig, a piece of burnt clay and a flint scraper weathered white.

“As there was nothing dateable in the circle it was not thought worth while to excavate more than a short section of the ditch.  Pottery comparable with that found at Woodhenge came from the old turf line and from the bottom of the ditch.

“Conclusion — Like those of the other circles (Woodhenge circles 1, 2 and 4, PB) it is probable that this ditch was originally made round a Bronze Age burial that had been placed on the surface, and that it was destroyed together with the covering mound when the ground was levelled.”

References:

  1. Cunnington, M.E., Woodhenge, George Simpson: Devizes 1929.
  2. Royal Commission Historical Monuments, England, Stonehenge and its Environs, Edinburgh University Press 1979.
  3. Wainwright, G.J. & Longworth, Ian, Durrington Walls: Excavations 1966-1968, Society of Antiquaries: London 1971.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian

 

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  51.188458, -1.785175 Woodhenge C3

Rolleston’s Barrow, Rushmore, Tollard Royal, Wiltshire

Tumulus:  OS Grid Reference – ST 95552 18233

Archaeology & History

Plan of Rollestons Barrow, 1880

In what today seems a barely visible tumulus, amidst the large cluster that could once be found upon the large estate grounds of Rushmore House, were once the overgrown ruins of an old tumulus.  It seems to have been rediscovered in the 19th century, when the legendary antiquarian, General Pitt-Rivers, moved onto the huge estate.  It was all but hidden even in his day, he told, but being “of such slight elevation that, like many others, it had never been noticed.”  It was the first of all the barrows they excavated on his Estate, and is to be found “near the house on the south side of the lower south coach road.”

So, in 1880, he got some of the estate lads to help him and Rolleston start a dig into the old tomb – and they weren’t to be disappointed.  It wasn’t anything special, but it was the first amongst many hereby.  In Pitt-River’s (1888) massive tome on the prehistory of the region, he told us:

“This was the first barrow opened at Rushmore, on the 10th August, 1880. Professor Rolleston and the Rev. H. Winwood were present at the opening. The elevation was so slight that it had hitherto escaped notice.  In the centre, 1 foot 6 inches beneath the crest, a layer of charcoal and ashes, 9 feet by 6 feet, was found containing a burnt body.  The body appears to have been burnt on the spot, and not gathered up after cremation, but a mound raised over the funereal pile.  A few fragments of bronze, probably the remains of some implement which had corroded or been burnt, were found in the ashes, and in the body of the barrow two flint scrapers, a well-formed flint borer, and a boat-shaped flint…were found (see illustration above, PB).  A few scattered fragments of pottery found in the barrow were of a superior and harder baked quality than is usual in barrows.  No trace of a ditch was found around the barrow, but towards the north of the centre, a depression—EE on plan—which might, or might not, have been a grave, but filled with mould and without remains, was discovered.  The barrow is undoubtedly of the Bronze Age, and is interesting on account of it being the last at the opening of which Professor Rolleston assisted shortly before his death.”

As a result of this, he decided to name to barrow after his old friend and also planted a beech tree on top of the barrow in remembrance of him.

References:

  1. Pitt-Rivers, A.H.L.F., Excavations in Cranborne Chase, near Rushmore – volume 2, Harrison & Sons: London 1888.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

 

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  50.963501, -2.064711 Rolleston\'s Barrow

Old Pleck Barrow, Rushmore, Tollard Royal, Wiltshire

Tumulus (destroyed):  OS Grid Reference — ST 95459 17548

Old Pleck on 1889 OS-map

Archaeology & History

This long-lost burial mound was one in a large group of prehistoric tombs that were explored in the 19th century by the legendary antiquarian, General Pitt-Rivers. It had already been destroyed before the General came to live on his Rushmore estate in southern Wiltshire, but thankfully, his diligence as an inquirer prevailed and he was able to recover at least something of the old site.  Shown on the 1889 OS-map of the area (despite already having been destroyed), in Pitt-River’s (1888) extensive writings he told how, in the scattered woodlands hereby, was

Pitt-Rivers 1888 site-map
Old Pleck Barrow urn

a collection of large barrows near the South Lodge.  They were covered with a thick grove of hazel and other underwood.  One of the barrows—marked by a dotted circle (see sketch-map, left, PB)—had been destroyed before my arrival at Rushmore in 1880.  The earth of the barrow had been removed and a good urn found in it, which had been broken and scattered, but I was fortunate enough to recover one of the fragments which had been preserved by the estate carpenter.

From a sketch that was made of the urn remnant, Pitt-Rivers told how “the character of its ornamentation” resembled that on another urn found in one of the nearby tumuli.

References:

  1. Pitt-Rivers, A.H.L.F., Excavations in Cranborne Chase, near Rushmore – volume 2, Harrison & Sons: London 1888.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian 

 

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  50.957341, -2.066026 Old Pleck Barrow

Beckhampton Penning, Avebury, Wiltshire

Stone Circle (destroyed):  OS Grid Reference – SU 0986 6713

Archaeology & History

Smith’s plan of the site

This all-but-destroyed megalithic ring is all-but-unknown in most of the archaeological gazetteers — including even Burl’s (2000) magnum opus!  But we know it was there.  And according to the Avebury authority Pete Glastonbury , there “are a couple or three small stones buried on the hill but nothing else to see.”  Which is a pity, as the site sounds like it was something to behold in bygone times.  Although it seems to have been described initially by the legendary druidical antiquarian, William Stukeley, a more lengthy description followed in the 19th century by the reverend A.C. Smith (1885), when he and a friend took it upon themselves to cut back some of the turf that was covering a number of stones — and they weren’t to be disappointed!

The site itself appears to have stood right on the southern boundary line of Avebury parish, meaning that the site could have been named and cited on any early boundary perambulation records that might exist of the parish. (do any of you Wiltshire folk have access to any such old records?)  But if there are no such early accounts, the earliest record we’ll have to stick with is good old Mr Stukeley (1743), who only gave it a passing mention, saying:

“Upon the heath south of Silbury was a very large oblong work like a long barrow, made only of stones pitch’d in the ground; no tumulus.  Mr Smith before-mentioned told me his cousin took the stones away (then) fourteen years ago, to make mere (boundary, PB) stones withal.  I take it to have been an Archdruid’s, tho’ humble, yet magnificent; being 350 feet or 200 cubits long.”

Nearly 150 years later Reverend Smith gave us a more detailed account, and ground-plan, describing the place as,

“a stone circle, of considerable dimensions, though imperfect and formed of very small sarsens, but which I believe to have been in some way connected with Abury.  Though it appears to have been mentioned by Stukeley one hundred and fifty years ago, it had been long since buried, and completely forgotten till I was fortunate enough to discover it by digging in the year 1877.  I was led to the discovery by the suspicious look of certain stones which, though scattered in no regular form, appeared as if they might have once stood erect, in some sort of order, on the segment of a large circle.  I had often stopped to examine them as I wandered over that part of the downs; till at last previous suspicions ripened into conviction, as closer observation revealed sundry other stones just showing above the ground, and there also seemed to be faint indications of a trench, all pointing, with more or less accuracy, to the supposed circle.  Not to dwell upon the details of the investigation, which, however, were of singular interest to me, the result was that (with the permission of both owner and occupier of the land, and assisted by Mr William Long), I probed the ground in every direction, and uncovered the turf wherever a stone was found: and on our first day’s work we unearthed no less than twenty-two sarsen stones, all forming part of the circle, and lying from two to twelve inches below the surface.  These stones were all of small size, some of them very small, but that they were placed by the hand of man in the positions they now occupy, in many cases nearly touching one another, and that they formed part of a large circle or oblong, admits, I think, of no doubt.  I say part of a circle, because, though the northern, southern and eastern segments are tolerably well defined, I could find scarcely a single stone on what should be the western segment to complete the circle.  That the area thus enclosed is not insignificant will appear from the diameter (in length, or from north to south, 261 feet; and in breadth, or from east to west, 216 feet).  Again, its position (due south of Silbury, and within full view of it, as well as the Sanctuary on Overton Hill, and with Abury immediately behind Silbury, due north of it, from which also Silbury is equidistant) seems to intimate that it may have had some connection with the great temple.”

A ley running through the circle (image courtesy Paul Devereux)

Smith then proceeded to query the nature of the monument, commenting on how Sir John Lubbock and members of the British Archaeological Association were intrigued by the remains, but a little perplexed and unable “to form any opinion” as to the exact nature of the site.  But this didn’t stop mythographer and historian Michael Dames (1977) who, in his classic Avebury Cycle, suggested that the site “marked the navel of the landscape goddess” in the region.

The site didn’t go unnoticed in Devereux and Thomson’s (1979) classic Ley Hunter’s Companion, where it plays an important point along a ley that runs north-south for 13 miles between Bincknoll Castle at the north, to Marden Henge at the south.  Such an alignment had been noted much earlier by other archaeologists and historians.

The site does look strange for a stone circle in Smith’s ground-plan and has more the hallmarks of a type of enclosure or settlement of some sort.  It certainly wouldn’t be out of place, design-wise, as a prehistoric settlement in our more northern climes.  However, without further data it seems we may never know the true nature of this old stone site…

References:

  1. Dames, Michael, The Avebury Cycle, Thames & Hudson: London 1977.
  2. Devereux, Paul & Thomson, Ian, The Ley Hunter’s Companion, Thames & Hudson: London 1979.
  3. Glastonbury, Pete, “Silbury ‘stone circle’ Query,” private comm., March 6, 2011.
  4. Smith, A.C., A Guide to the British and Roman Antiquities of the North Wiltshire Downs, Wiltshire Archaeological & Natural History Society 1885.
  5. Stukeley, William, Abury, A Temple of the British Druids, W. Innys & R. Manby: London 1743.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian

Beckhampton Penning

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Beckhampton Penning 51.403151, -1.859587 Beckhampton Penning

Martinsell Hill, Oare, Pewsey, Wiltshire

Hillfort:  OS Grid Reference – SU 1764 6396

Also Known as:

  1. Martin’s Hill

Archaeology & History

Martinsell Hill on 1888 map
Martinsell Hill on 1888 map

The second highest of Wiltshire’s prehistoric camps or hillforts, Martinsell Hill was described as early as the 13th century as ‘Mattelsore’ and was known in local dialect and literary forms as variants around the word mattels, until the 16th century, when the title became altered in literature and for the first time became known as ‘Martinshall’ (and variants thereof), which has stuck ever since.  As the etymologists Gover, Mawer & Stenton (1939) proclaimed,

“the first element (mattels, PB) must be associated with the old english name for the camp which stands on top of it: the Mætelmesburg of the Pewsey charter” —

A.C. Smith’s old map

Which the authors think derived from “Mætelmesora, i.e., ‘Mæþelhelm’s bank'”, being the name of a tribal leader or elder who gave his name to the hill upon which the fort was built.  Margaret Gelling echoes the sentiment in her Place-Names in the Landscape, but we must keep in mind that such derivation is still a quite speculative etymology and one which doesn’t seem to be able to be proven (as yet!).

The hillfort and its remains were described in some detail in the second volume of Colt Hoare’s classic Ancient Wiltshire (1819: 107), where he wrote:

“Martin’s Hill or Martinshal Hill is in North Wilts what Long Knoll near Maiden Bradley is in South Wilts, ‘collis longe spectabilis’.  This elevated point commands a most advantageous prospect of the rich vale that separates the northern and southern districts of our county, , and is rendered interesting to the antiquary by an extensive earthenwork that crowns the summit of the hill.  Its form resembles an oblong square on all sides, except towards the east, where it bends inward in order to humour the natural shape of the hill.  Its area, which is in tillage, comprehends thirty-one acres; and as several entrances have been made through the ramparts for the convenience of agriculture, it is difficult to ascertain on which side were the original approaches to the camp.  This hill, in its formation, presents a peculiarity rather contrary to the usual system of nature, by rising in height towards the east, where a bold and tremendous precipice of smooth turf shelves down from the summit to the base of the hill.  This eminence is more remarkable for the rich and extensive prospect which it affords than for the plan of its entrenchments, which consists of a single vallum and fosse.  Not having discovered by digging any certain marks of ancient populations within its area, I am inclined to think that it may be considered as an asylum to which the Britons, who were very numerous in its environs, sent their families and herds in times of danger: the single vallum and ditch prove its British origin, and the great extent of its area seems to warrant this conjecture.”

Hippisley Cox’s ground-plan

This aint a bad assumption for a fella who wrote this 200 years ago without the aid of excavation or modern archaeocentric analysis.  But we can see that Hoare was utilizing that dying virtue of common sense here, and find that much of what he said remains the echoed narrative of modern archaeologists who, I believe, still aint done a detailed excavation on the site themselves. (weird for down South!)  Later in the 19th century, when the reverend A.C. Smith (1885) visited and wrote about the hillfort, he added little to Hoare’s earlier words.  And the descriptive narrative of the site remained roughly the same (Massingham’s intriguing ascriptions aside!) even after a small excavation was undertaken in 1907, which found very little.  Hippisley Cox (1927) passed this way in his fine travelogue of ancient roads and trackways in Wessex, describing the enclosed top of this hill as

“the site of a complete neolithic settlement, including dew-ponds, a cattle compound, a flint quarry, lynchetts, dicthes of defence and deep cattle tracks formed by much going and coming of beasts from the valley.”

He may have been right!  In more recent times Geoffrey Williams (1993) describes the Martinsell hillfort, which again only gives slightly more info than Colt Hoare’s 1819 narrative.  The site covers 32 acres in size, is roughly rectangular in form, measuring roughly 330 yards (302m) across east to west, and 480 yards (439m) north to south.   There appears to be at least one entrance on its northeastern edge.

Folklore

What seems to be a survival of prechristian sun lore is found in one or two of the events that used to happen upon and around Martinsell.  A number of local history books give varying descriptions of the events here, but Devereux and Thomson (1979) condense the information nicely, telling us that

“The camp seems to have been a focus for curious Palm Sunday ‘games’ in past centuries, one of which involved a line of boys standing at intervals  from the base to the summit of the hill.  Using hockey sticks, they then proceeded to knock a ball in succession up the hill to the top.  Another activity was the throwing of oranges down the hill slopes with boys going headlong after them.  Evene more strangely, local youths used to slither down the escarpment on horses skulls.”

Mythographer and writer Michael Dames (1977) thought that such festive activities on and around the hill related to remnants of ancient goddess worship here.

Ley line running from Martinsell (image courtesy Paul Devereux)

In Paul Devereux & Ian Thomson’s (1979) ley hunter’s guide, the Martinsell Hill site stands at the beginning of a ley, which then runs northwest for more than seven miles, eventually ending at the well known causewayed enclosure of Windmill Hill — but not before passing by the Avebury stone circle and several prehistoric tombs on route.  This ley is a simple alignment between sites (as the ‘discover’ of leys, Alfred Watkins described them) and has nothing to do with the modern contrivance of energy lines.

…to be continued…

References:

  1. Bradley, A.G., Round about Wiltshire, Methuen: London 1948.
  2. Dames, Michael, The Avebury Cycle, Thames & Hudson: London 1977.
  3. Devereux, Paul & Thomson, Ian, The Ley Hunter’s Companion, Thames & Hudson: London 1979.
  4. Gomme, Alice B., “Folklore Scraps from Several Localities,” in Folklore Journal, 20:1, 1909.
  5. Gover, J.E.B., Mawer, A. & Stenton, F.M., The Place-Names of Wiltshire, Cambridge University Press 1939.
  6. Harding, D.W., The Iron Age in Lowland Britain, RKP: London 1974.
  7. Hoare, Richard Colt, The Ancient History of North Wiltshire, Lackington, Hughes, Mavor & Jones: London 1819.
  8. Massingham, H.J., Downland Man, Jonathan Cape: London 1926.
  9. Partidge, T.B., “Wiltshire Folklore,” in Folklore Journal, 26:2, 1915.
  10. Smith, A.C., A Guide to the British and Roman Antiquities of the North Wiltshire Downs, Wiltshire Archaeological & Natural History Society 1885.
  11. Williams, Geoffrey, The Iron Age Hillforts of England, Horace Books 1993.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian

Martinsell Hill

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Martinsell Hill 51.373837, -1.752543 Martinsell Hill

Broad Stones, Clatford, Wiltshire

Stone Circle (destroyed):  OS Grid Reference – SU 161 684

Also Known as:

  1. Clatford Stone Circle

Archaeology & History

John Aubrey’s early drawing (soz about the crap quality)

Also known as the Clatford Circle, it was described by both of the old pioneers, John Aubrey and William Stukeley: Aubrey saying the monument could be found “in a lane leading from Kennet to Marlborough… (consisting) of eight huge large stones, roughly hewn… in a circle, which never could be by chance.”  Will Stukeley reckoned that four other stones close by, “may possibly have been the beginning of an avenue.”  We might never know for sure.

The local Avebury authority, Pete Glastonbury, showed us a spot which he thinks may have been the where the circle stood, and where a couple of decent-looking stones lay by the side of the track that could have once been a part of this circle.  It looked as good a contender as anything else.  Has all trace of this monument truly been destroyed?

References:

  1. Burl, Aubrey, Prehistoric Avebury, Yale University Press 2002.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian

Clatford stone circle

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Clatford stone circle 51.414836, -1.769241 Clatford stone circle

Devil’s Den, Clatford, Wiltshire

Cromlech:  OS Grid Reference – SU 15209 69651

Also Known as:

  1. Devils Den
  2. Dillion Dene

Getting Here

Devil’s Den, Wiltshire

When Pete Glastonbury brought us here, we walked east out of the Avebury stone circle and up the Wessex Ridgeway track.  When you hit the “crossroads” at the top of the rise a mile along, go across the stile into the grasslands for a few hundred yards till you hit the obviously-named “Gallops” racecourse-looking stretch.  Walk down for a few hundred yards till you hit a footpath on your left that takes you across and down grasslands that takes you slowly into the valley bottom.  You’re damn close!

Otherwise (and I aint done this route!), walk up the footpath straight north from Clatford village, up the small valley for about 1km.  You’ll eventually see this great stone heap in the field on your left!

Archaeology & History

I was brought here one fine day last year in the company of PeteG (our guide for the day), Geoff, June and Mikki Potts.  Twas a fine foray exploring the various prehistoric sites on the lands east of Avebury — but it was my very first venture to this site, the Devil’s Den — and a grand one it was indeed!  Standing close to the small valley bottom a couple of miles east of the great stone circle, this megalithic monument is thought to be neolithic in origin.

When H.J. Massingham (1926) came here, the day and spirit of the place must have felt fine, as he described,

“its three uprights and capstone stand forlornly in the midst of an alien sea of ploughland swinging its umber ripples to the foot of a stone isle, drifted nearly four thousand years from the happy potencies of its past.”

And, on many good times here no doubt, for many people, such feelings still hold…

A.C. Smith’s Devil’s Den
Colt Hoare’s Devil’s Den

It was described by the President for the Council of British Archaeology, Paul Thomas (1976), “as a setting of four sarsen uprights with a capstone”, whereby four uprights have not been noticed here since very early times.  Not sure how old he was though!  Today the very large capstone weighing upwards of 20 tons rests gently upon just two very bulky upright monoliths.  A third is laid amidst the great tomb , overgrown and sleepy, touching one of the two uprights….

The cromlech itself seems to have once been part of a lengthy mound that was covered in earth, “about 230ft long and 120ft broad, now virtually removed by ploughing.”  On top of the great capstone are at least two cup-markings: one of them with a possible oval-shaped line carved out onto the edge of the rock (similar to the C-shaped carving on the nearby Fyfield Down cup-marked stone), but this needs looking at in various lights so we can ascertain whether it has a geological or artificial origin.

Stukeley’s Devil’s Den

Suggested by Edwin Kempson (1953) and also by Aubrey Burl (2002) and other dialect and place-name students to have originally been called Dillion Dene — “the boundary marker in the valley” — this collapsed chambered tomb has had many literary visitors, from William Stukeley onwards.  When the reverend Smith wrote his great tome in 1885, he gave an assessment of those who came before him, saying:

“This is a noble specimen of the Kistvaen: it stands erect in its original position, only denuded of the mound of earth which, I venture to say (on the authority of the Rev. W.C. Lukis and others best acquainted with these remains) at one time invariably covered them: and this massive erection of ponderous stones is known as the ‘Devil’s Den’, and offers an exceedingly fine specimen of the kistvaen to those who have not made the acquaintance of these ancient sepulchres in other counties.  It is not only perfect in condition, but of very grand dimensions; moreover, it is well known to everybody who takes the slightest interest in Wiltshire antiquities… Stukeley says very little of this kistvaen, though he gives several plates of it (in Abury Described), his only remark being: “An eminent work of this sort in Clatford Bottom, between Abury and Marlborough.”  Sir R. Hoare (in Ancient Wiltshire, North) is more enthusiastic, he says: “From Marlborough I proceed along the turnpike road  as far as the Swan public house in the parish of Clatford, and then diverge into the fields on the right, where, in a retired valley amongst the hills, is a most beautiful and well-preserved kistvaen, vulgarly call’d the ‘Devil’s Den.’  It has been erroneously described as a cromlech.  From the elevated ground on which this stone monument is placed, it is evident that it was intended as a aprt annexed to the sepulchral mound, and erected probably at the east end of it, according to the usual custom of primitive times.””

In more recent years, Terence Meaden (1999) has suggested that the Devil’s Den may actually have been a simple cromlech and never had any covering mound of earth.  In his Secrets of the Avebury Stones he described how,

“The vertical megaliths must have been set up firmly first and then, quite possibly, a mound was raised outside and between them.  A very long ramp could have been built next, along which the capstone was dragged until it lay on top of the vertical monoliths, after which both mound and ramp would be removed as far as possible.  Such an operation, if correct, would explain why the stones of Devil’s Den now stand on an obviously artificial eminence; and why the much-spread remains of a long mound oriented NW-SE, about 70 metres (230 feet) long and 40 metres (130 feet) broad, were seen and described by Passmore in 1922.  One should not necessarily assume that the stones are the remains of a chambered long barrow, although they might be.”

And you’ve gotta say that unless we have hardcore evidence to the contrary, his summary is quite possible.  However, it seems here that Meaden has simply utilised this logic to enable him to posit another reason — a “good one” he calls it — for this suggestion, i.e.,

“its capstone seems to have profiles of heads carved upon two, perhaps three of its sides; suggesting that, if the art was meant to be seen, the capstone was never covered with earth.”

Devils Den on 1889 map
Devils Den on 1889 map

Unfortunately however, these possible “carved heads” on the sides of the capstone more typify Rorscharch responses to natural geological shapes scattering rocks all over the planet.  Up North, if we were to attempt this sorta suggestion, we’d have millions of such carved heads popping up all over the place.  It’s a nice idea, but somewhat unlikely.

Folklore

The old dowser Guy Underwood (1977) was renowned for locating water lines* in and around many of England’s prehistoric sites, and the same pattern was recorded here.  He told that the Devil’s Den marked the site of a blind spring “of exceptional importance.”  He continued:

“The Devil’s Den dolmen marks the source of a multiple water line which forms a maze, marked by stones, about 200 yards to the northwest.  It terminates at a well, where two tracks cross about a mile further west.  This site is likely to have had special sanctity and would be interesting to excavate.”

Whilst the importance of water was understandable in ancient days, some other folklore attributes derive from quite different ingredients.  The common theme of “immovability” is found here, as described by reverend Smith (1885) again who, amidst other peculiarities, told the following:

“There are various traditions connected with it. I was told some years since, by an old man hoeing turnips near, that if anybody mounted to the top of it, he might shake it in one particular part. I do not know whether this is the case or not, though it is not unusual where the capstone is upheld by only three supporters. But another labourer whom I once interrogated informed me that nobody could ever pull off the capstone; that many had tried to do so without success; and that on one occasion twelve white oxen were provided with new harness, and set to pull it off, but the harness all fell to pieces immediately! As my informant evidently thought very seriously of this, and considered it the work of enchantment, I found it was not a matter for trifling to his honest but superstitious mind; and he remained perfectly unconvinced by all the arguments with which I tried to shake his credulity.”

References:

  1. Burl, Aubrey, Prehistoric Avebury, Yale University Press 2002.
  2. Goddard, E., “The Devil’s Den, Manton, Wiltshire,” in The Antiquaries Journal, volume 2, no.1, January 1922.
  3. Gomme, Alice B., ‘Folklore Scraps from Several Localities’, in Folklore, 20:1, 1909.
  4. Grinsell, Leslie V., Folklore of Prehistoric Sites in Britain, David & Charles: London 1976.
  5. Kempson, E.G.H., “The Devil’s Den,” in Wiltshire Archaeology & Natural History Magazine, 55, 1953.
  6. Massingham, H.J., Downland Man, Jonathan Cape: London 1926.
  7. Meaden, Terence, The Secrets of the Avebury Stones, Souvenir Press: London 1999.
  8. Smith, A.C., A Guide to the British and Roman Antiquities of the North Wiltshire Downs, Wiltshire Archaeological & Natural History Society 1885.
  9. Thomas, Nicholas, Guide to Prehistoric England, Batsford: London 1976.
  10. Underwood, Guy, The Pattern of the Past, Abacus: London 1977.
  11. Wright, Joseph, English Dialect Dictionary – volume 2, Henry Frowde: London 1898.

* Those people who allege they can dowse will always find water in their first few months, if not years, of sensitivity.  There is a pattern nowadays of people using dowsing tools and, when the rods cross (or whichever accessory they get their reactions from), they allege they are connecting with unknown energies, ley lines and other such items; but this is simply incorrect. The primary dowsing response is water (life-blood) and it takes much practice over long periods of time to even begin isolating leys or other occult phenomena.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian

Devil's Den

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Devil\'s Den 51.425671, -1.782650 Devil\'s Den

Merlin’s Mount, Marlborough, Wiltshire

Tumulus:  OS Grid Reference – SU 1836 6867

Also Known as:

  1. Marlborough Mount
  2. Merlin’s Barrow
  3. Merlin’s Mound

Getting Here

Pretty simple.  Get to the chapel in front of Marlborough College, and look at the stepped hill in the grounds thereof (with a big hole cut into the top where a water tower once stood).  That’s it!  Please be aware that this monument is on college ground, so it might be worthwhile telephoning them if you wanna wander upon the hill.

Archaeology & History

Merlin’s Mount (from Colt-Hoare’s Ancient Wiltshire)

This curious rounded, pyramidal hill is thought by some to have given the town of Marlborough its very name.  Described in Domesday as ‘Merleberge’, which is reckoned to derive from “the hill or barrow of Maerla”: Maerla in this case being a lost olde English name, said in local folklore and tradition to have been our old heathen magickian, Merlin, of Arthurian fame and legend.  Long ago his bones were laid to rest here and this great ‘tomb’ built over him.  We might never know…

The exact nature and date of this mound has yet to be satisfactorily explained.  Commonly ascribed as Norman in origin (based mainly on the notion that it wasn’t mentioned before Domesday and there being motte and bailey ruins here), the finding of Roman remains near its base then led some to think they had built the hill; but when “antler picks used by its prehistoric builders were unearthed in the late nineteenth century and again in 1912 when a trench was cut for the flue of a new engine-house chimney” (Burl 2002), the dates for its origin went a lot further back!

One of the earlier commentators on this archaeological curiosity was Sir Richard Colt-Hoare (1812) in the days when much more of this and other sites were visible in the landscape, saying:

“The Mount within the gardens of the Castle Inn is a remarkable earthwork: it is a huge pile of earth, and inferior in proportions only to Silbury Hill.  Each is situated on the River Kennet; the one near its source, the other near its margin; and I have no doubt but that in ancient times each had some corresponding connection with each other.”

A sentiment echoed by our modern megalithic scholar, Aubrey Burl. (2002)  But as Burl points out, the distance between Silbury and Merlin’s Mount would have been measured not in distance by those who constructed these giant mounds, but in time.  And the focus of our ancestors here in relation to these two great artificial mounds, would not be esteemed as much by engineering or measurement — for both mounds are gigantic — but a wholly mythic one.  Colt-Hoare continued:

“This mound has been so mutilated, as well as lowered in its height, that it is impossible to calculate an exact measurement of either its circumference or height; but as nearly as we could guess with our chains, we found the base to be about 1000 feet in circumference, and the diameter of the summit 100 feet.”

A piece of Merlin’s Mount!

When the reverend A.C. Smith (1885) described Merlin’s Mount — or ‘Marlborough Hill’ as he preferred it named — more than seventy years later as, “an artificial tumulus which deserves careful examination”, it seems little further investigation had been done.  And despite Smith’s wish for such care and attention, even today no detailed archaeological investigation has been undertaken.  Astonishing!  This fascinating-looking pyramidal “barrow” was thought by several early writers to have been constructed along similar architectural designs as that of Silbury Hill.  In Massingham’s (1926) fascinating Egyptian-origin hypothesis, he tells us the following:

“Merlin’s Mount encompasses only an acre-and-a-half of ground in comparison with Silbury’s five-and-a-half, and reaches a trifle more than half its height (60 feet).  In every other respect the twain are alike.  Both were raised at the foot of a gentle slope, both were made of chalk resting on a thin layer of clay, both were trenched around the bases, and in both were buried the antlered picks of the builders.  Both were built near the banks of the (River) Kennet within five miles of one and other.”

It certainly is impressive!  When Michala Potts and I came here last year in the fine company of Pete Glastonbury and others, we were somewhat in awe of the fact that so little has been said of this site in modern archaeological terms.  Indeed, the fact that the jury is still out as to the age of its construction we found quite surprising at the time.  Though another quick reading of Mr Burl’s Avebury work, combining the Roman finds and the antler picks here, makes him think that “a prehistoric origin for the mound likely.”

The name of Marlborough itself has been given a number of interpretations, most notably the attempt to derive it from the great shaman-poet Merlin.  But on a down-to-earth peasant level we find, in John Aubrey’s Monumenta Britannica there’s a note in the margin concerning the ‘marl’ element in the place-name that was told to him by a local man called Edward Leigh, which said,

“Marga, marle, we use instead of dung to manure our ground. It (Marlborough) lieth near a chalky hill, which our ancestors knew.  They borrowed this name ‘chaulk’ of the Latin, calx, named marle.”

More recently Margaret Gelling (1984) thought that the name of this hill or mound “is variously interpreted as a plant-name or a personal name.”  Which for some brings us back to Merlin!  We might never know…

References:

  1. Best, J., “The Marlborough Mound,” in A. Whittle’s Sacred Mound, Holy Rings (Oxford 1997).
  2. Burl, Aubrey, Prehistoric Avebury, Yale University Press 2002.
  3. Field, David, Brown, Graham & Crockett, Andrew, “The Marlborough Mound Revisited,” in Wiltshire Archaeologial & Natural History Magazine, 94, 2001.
  4. Gelling, Margaret, Place-Names in the Landscape, Phoenix: London 1984.
  5. Hoare, Richard Colt, The Ancient History of South Wiltshire and the Ancient History of North Wiltshire, London 1812.
  6. Massingham, H.J., Downland Man, Jonathon Cape: London 1926.
  7. Smith, A.C., Guide to the British and Roman Antiquities of the North Wiltshire Downs, WANHS 1885.

Links:

  1. Merlin’s Mount on Press TV

Acknowledgements:

With many thanks to Pete Glastonbury and Brian Edwards for their hints and corrections.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian

Merlin's Mount

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Merlin\'s Mount 51.416627, -1.737211 Merlin\'s Mount

Lesser Cursus, Larkhill, Wiltshire

Cursus Monument:  OS Grid Reference – SU 1056 4350

Also Known as:

  1. Small Cursus
  2. Stonehenge Smaller Cursus

Archaeology & History

James Fergusson’s drawing of both cursus monuments

Just like its much larger companion, the Stonehenge Cursus earthwork a short distance to the south, this Lesser or Small Cursus is generally deemed by archaeologists to “speak of a clear religious or ritual aspect to this patch of downland that…reaches back generations before the first Stonehenge was built.” (Pitts 2001)  The monument was aligned roughly east-west, showing possible relationships with the rising and setting of both sun and moon. (though I wouldn’t get too carried away with that misself…)

When Fergusson (1872) described this and its larger cursus companion a few hundred yards away, he thought they may have been dug to mark out lines of battle in prehistoric times, denouncing the horse-racing course hypothesis that was still in vogue at the time.  His theory drew evidence from the numerous prehistoric tombs scattering this area of Salisbury Plain, but seemed more influenced by notions of prehistoric barbarism and warfare than ideas relating to a cult of the dead — which was yet to reach it heights in the archaeological minds of Victorian England.  But, like other cursus monuments all over the British Isles, this one also seemed to have a distinct relationship with monuments of the dead: for at its western extremity (until being ploughed out of existence) was a large round barrow, catalogued as the “Winterbourne 35” tomb.  Tim Darvill (2006) tells its wider tale:

“Levelled by ploughing between 1934 and 1954, the Lesser Cursus was investigated in 1983 as part of the Stonehenge Environs Project… Three trenches were cut into different parts of this large monument, showing that there were at least two main phases to its construction.  Phase 1 comprised a slightly trapezoidal enclosure 200m by 60m, whose ditch may have been recut more than once and in part at least deliberately back-filled.  In Phase 2 this early enclosure was remodelled by elongating the whole structure eastwards by another 200m.  This extension comprised only two parallel side ditches, making the whole thing about 400m long with a rectilinear enclosure at the west end with entrances in its northeast and southeast corners giving access into a second rectilinear space, in this case open to the east.”

Lesser Cursus aerial view
Ground-plan of the Lesser Cursus (after Richards 1990)

The entire structure had finds dating from the periods between 3650-2900 BC; and the aerial imagery showing an oval-shaped structure near the eastern end was confirmed by geophysical surveys — though precisely what this is has yet to be ascertained.

It seems likely that this and other cursus monuments were, to a very great degree, not only related to mortuary practices but — as their development occurred at the same time as the destruction of Britain’s great forests began — to be monuments to the gods themselves.  This seems very evident at a couple of cursus monuments where animal deposits were made in some of the great mounds at their terminii, where archaeologists had previously assumed— incorrectly — the mounds to have been human burial mounds.  More about this in due course…

References:

  1. Darvill, Tim, Stonehenge: The Biography of a Landscape, Tempus: Stroud 2006.
  2. Devereux, Paul, The Haunted Land, Piatkus: London 2001.
  3. Fergusson, James, Rude Stone Monuments in all Countries, John Murray: London 1872.
  4. Loveday, Roy, Inscribed Across the Landscape, Tempus: Stroud 2006.
  5. North, John, Stonehenge, Harper-Collins: London 1997.
  6. Pitts, Mike, Hengeworld, Arrow: London 2001.
  7. Richards, Julian, The Stonehenge Environs Project, English Heritage: London 1990.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian

Lesser Cursus

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Lesser Cursus 51.190700, -1.850138 Lesser Cursus