Aberdeenshire 3

Today, after a lie in, we went for a walk at Burn o’Vat – a huge meltwater kettle hole left over from the glacial times that shaped most of the landscape in Scotland. Here we found that it wasn’t just a hole you could look into, but one you could walk into and examine from its bottom – very impressive!

Burn o'Vat

From there we took a walk around Lock Kinold – 4.25miles in total – past delightful little coves of water lillies and bullrushes, overlooking ancient lake villages, in the shadow of more recent Celtic Cross stones. A really lovely walk indeed.

Loch Kinold
Loch Kinold

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Lastly, on what was turning out to be a quiet day after Monday and Tuesday’s excursions, we paid a visit to the nearby Balronald Wood, where there is a recumbent stone circle with a (later) central cairn. This site is completely overgrown and uncared for, but clearly still visited by those who have respect for it.
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Click on any picture in these blog posts to see all the photos in the Aberdeenshire set on Flickr

Aberdeenshire 2

Crathes CastleToday’s excursion was simpler and more scenic. We headed first due east to Crathes Castle. This was the seat of the Burnett family from 1323, when Robert the Bruce gave them lands. According to one information sheet at the Castle, (though reported as ‘disputed’ on the web, e.g. Scotweb, who suggest they may have been French) the Burnetts were originally Anglo-Saxon nobles from Bedfordshire, displaced by William the Conqueror, and two branches of the family exiled themselves to Scotland, one branch ending up in Aberdeenshire. The Castle here now was built by Alexander Burnett in 1596, and its contents largely destroyed by a fire in 1966, at which point the then Laird gave the place to the National Trust for Scotland, who have restored it well, and filled it with lots of historical nik-naks to surround the scant remnants of Burnett family life that survive.

My principal interest in visiting, however, is that in the ‘Warren Field,’ a short walk down the hill from the Castle, in 2004, archaeologists found the footings of a huge Neolithic Timber Hall.

This came to my attention in July this year, when a National Trust news story arrived in my inbox revealing that further study of what had been excavated pointed to a Mesolithic Soli-Lunar Calendar in the same field. Yes – a Mesolithic Calendar, dating some five thousand years older than any time measuring device in the Middle East, to 8000BC in Aberdeenshire. This is quite Earth shattering news for the world of Archaeology, and the Birmingham University Archaeologists who did this work are to be congratulated on this ground breaking work. Follow the links for more information.

From Crathes, we took road to the coast for a light lunch in a seaside pub in Stonehaven Harbour – a lovely sleepy fishing village fond of its rugby.

stonehaven

Taking the scenic route home, we headed south-west first down to Fettercairn, and then back north-east up the Cairn o Mount road, getting an amazing view of Stonehaven from 1493ft above it!

cairnomount

Finally, on the home stretch, we stopped at Aboyne cemetry to walk up the path into the woods and visit the delightful little Aboyne Stone Circle – just five stones remaining of what looked like could have been 8 or even 10. This seemed of a much older lineage than the Early Bronze Age recumbent stone circles we saw yesterday, but sported, nonetheless, a fine fleshy-pink granite stone amongst its remaining stones. Lovely ambience, under the trees, a peaceful, magical place.

Aboyne Stone Circle

Click on any picture in these blog posts to see all the photos in the Aberdeenshire set on Flickr

Megalithic Megamix in Aberdeenshire

So here we are – my partner Colin and I – staying in a little cottage in Royal Deeside, exploring Aberdeenshire. As is my wont – and indeed much of the reasoning behind the choice of location – a good part of our holiday will be devoted to visiting ancient sites, and, after arriving late Saturday and having a lazy Sunday, today has been our first major excursion into the ancient landscape around us.

We devoted today to visiting the major recumbent stone circles in the area – so called because of the style of circle unique to North East Scotland, which incorporates a massive horizontal, or recumbent stone, flanked by two standing stones, and in which the rest of the stones taper in height gradually away from the recumbent stone to the shortest one directly opposite. The two flankers are also generally one tall and thin, the other short and fat, and – as today’s experience seemed to suggest – the masculine/feminine suggestion in these flankers was sometimes accentuated by the taller, thinner flanker looking decidedly phallic.

The first circle we visited, we didn’t realise until the end of the day, would be the one with the finest ambience, views, and overall ‘vistor experience’. Tomnaverie, near Tarland, proved to be not only one of the finest examples of recumbent stone circles that we visited today, but with by far the best feel to it.

Tomnaverie Stone Circle

The next we visited was Midmar Kirk, in the graveyard of a church built right next to it in the late 18th century.

Midmar Kirk Stone Circle

The best thing about this circle was the flesh pink granite penis stone – the Balblair Standing Stone – a short walk away from the circle hidden in a little wood.

Balblair Penis Stone

Then we visited Cullerlie Stone Circle – a fairly fine example of the style of circle, but yards from a working farmyard where farmers and tractors bustled about their business during our visit.

Cullerlie Stone Circle

Then Easter Aquhorthies, a very massive recumbent stone, but the whole circle wrapped in a 19th century kerb with a 20th century barbed wire fence a few feet beyond it. It was impossible to get any real perspective on the site, and the ambience was definitely not helped by the four old ladies sitting on the recumbent with their packed lunch. I made it quite clear that I thought they were distinctly lacking in respect for a historic monument, and – to their credit – they moved and got out of the way so we could take our pictures and try to gain some appraisal of the circle.

Easter Aquhorthies Stone Circle

Lastly, at Loanhead of Daviot, we found again the peace, space, a good view, and some of the ambience we had experienced at Tomnaverie, and would call this the 2nd best of the day.

Loanhead of Daviot Stone Cirlce

It remained only for us to make the trip across the harvested wheat field for a closer look at the much depleted and uncared for Balquhain Stone Circle, before beginning our journey back to our cottage in Ballater. The most impressive stone at Balquhain is of course the white quartz pillar!

WHite quartz pillar at Balquhain Stone Circle

The Maiden StoneThe day would not have been complete, in the Valley of the Don, without a visit to at least one of the several Pictish symbol stones, displaying the now lost symbolic language of this 7th century Christian people. Nor, without a picture or two of the imposing Bennachie mountain – literally the ‘breast mountain’ – that overlooks the entire valley, and which is visible from most of the circles we visited.Bennachie

Finally, the day was only complete with a tea – or martini – at the delightful Kildrummy Castle Hotel, after a gentle walk in the lovely gardens for which the ruins of the 13th century English conqueror’s castle forms a picturesque backdrop.

Kildrummy Castle from the Gardens
Colin enjoying a martini at Kildrummy Castle Hotel bar

Click on any picture in these blog posts to see all the photos in the Aberdeenshire set on Flickr

Outer Hebrides ’13

The William Wallace Room, Flodigarry Hotel, Skye

In the Spring of 2013 Colin and I went to the Outer Hebrides.  As in the past, I elected to drive to Skye first, and we stayed overnight at the Flodigarry Hotel on the northern tip of the isle.

 

 

The Isle of Flodigarry, Skye

We were lucky enough to get upgraded to their premier room, overlooking Flodigarry Island in the bay below the hotel, and this is where I proposed, and we became engaged.

 

Vatersay, Great Bernera, Lewis

The following morning we crossed from Uig to Stornoway, arriving on Lewis midday.  We stayed in Valasay – the same cottage I had stayed in in 2006, where you have to cross ‘a bridge over the Atlantic’ to get from Lewis to the isle of Great Bernera, to get to the cottage – and spent a few days exploring Callanais (my third visit here), and the Butt of Lewis on the very northern tip of the isle – the windiest place in the UK.

Callanais Standing Stones, Lewis
Piobull Fhinn Stone Circle on North Uist

Then we drove south through Harris, from Leverburgh to Berneray, across the causeways to North Uist, where we stopped to visit its magnificent Stone Circle at Pioball Fhinn.   The causeways then continue across to the little isles of Benbecula, of Grimsay, and on to South Uist, where at the Hebridean Jewellery shop and workshop we got our engagement rings (which say ‘Gu brath’ [‘For Ever’] in Gaelic script).

Rings from Iochdar, South Uist, with Celtic knotwork, and insciprtion ‘Gu Brath’ meaning ‘Forever’
Cottage on Barra, on the outskirts of Castlebay

Finally, we took the ferry across to the Isle of Barra where we stayed in a cottage for a week, visiting the isle of Vatersay to the south, exploring the local archaeology, and of course taking the boat out to the castle in Castlebay.

Kisimal Castle, Castlebay, Barra

Sailing back to Oban, finally, the fortnight came to an end with the drive home from there.

The Moors – Sept 2012

The North Yorks Moors are, it must be said, completely covered in the traces of our prehistoric ancestors. Although obviously the traces in the lowlands have not fared anywhere near as well as those on the heights around Britain – particularly since the advent of agribusiness in the late 20th century – it seems also true to say that there was something special, for our ancestors, about the uplands – especially when certain high peaks could be seen for miles around, and monuments set with sightlines to those peaks. There are several such ‘sacred hills’ in the North Yorks moors (Roseberry Topping and Freebrough Hill especially), and you can see at least one of them from all the various neolithic monuments, from circles to cairns, and the Bronze Age barrows that followed them.

In a few days it is not possible to capture much of this heritage, only to attempt to take in a representative sample. My sample, additionally, included only those sites which I could access in an hour or so’s walk – there and back – so I certainly missed some sites which are deeper into the interior. Nonetheless, I think I managed to see some interesting monuments, including High Bridestones and the nearby Beacon Howe, Ramsdale Stone Circle, and the Brow Moor Monument and associated rock art features. I also stopped off at Whitby Abbey, Helmsley Castle, and on my way back home, The Twelve Apostles Stone Circle on Ilkley Moor.

High Bridestones is a much distressed monument, comprising a number of standing and recumbent stones, and it is frankly unclear whether this is a stone circle and/or a stone row, although I have seen it described as both online. To my eye, there were only the three stones, in a row, that were standing, but one seemed to have sufficient large recumbent stones nearby to potentially have been a circle. There are also – reputedly – the Low Bridestones nearby, but I couldn’t find them, unless, indeed, what I had found were High and Low Bridestones and they were closer together than it seems on the map. This was a tricky business, working out quite what I was looking at!

High Bridestones

Beacon Howe The nearby Beacon Howe, with a single stone standing at its summit and two at its foot, offered astounding views across the moors, and one wonders what (probably) Bronze Age chief lay buried here, overlooking the more ancient site of the Bridestones. The later Bronze Age monuments, celebrating as they seem to more individual burials, clearly mark a break from the seemingly more communal mortuary practices of the past, whilst at the same time gaining some of their sanctity through association with – by direct sightline – the older Neolithic monuments. This is perhaps at its clearest at Stonehenge, where a great number of individual Bronze Age burial mounds surround and overlook the older monuments. But it is also clear up here on the North Yorks Moors.

Brow Moor Monument Further east, overlooking Robin Hood’s Bay and Ravenscarr, is Brow Moor, the focus of Smith and Walker’s book on Rock Art, and the Stoupe Brow Trail usefully takes one from a little carpark all around the moor visiting each mound and several of the earth-fast rock art stones. I was blessed with glorious sunshine for this walk and easily found the Brow Moor monument – carefully reburied since its excavation save for the single standing stone, and the single recumbent stone opposite, that were visible beforehand. This Neolithic mound with inward-facing rock art stones provides, according to Smith and Walker, a link to what they suggest may have been a trail from Millin Bay on the east coast of northern Ireland, via the Isle of Man, Morecombe Bay and the Aire Gap, to Flamborough Head and beyond to Scandinavia. The three-tiered cosmology of sky, earth, and underworld (familiar in ancient Peru and Australia, let alone Northern Europe) represented at sites along this trail through rock art, present a really interesting theory.

Rock Art on earth-fast stone on Brow Moor

Ramsdale Stone Circle, on Fylingdales Moor, provided not only an easy walk from a little carpark by the road (welcome on the same day as the much longer around Brow Moor) but amazing views across to Brow Moor itself, and north towards what may indeed have been Roseberry Topping in the distance. Eerily, there were the remains of a sheep’s skull, broken into many pieces, strewn around one of these three standing stones, adding atmosphere to the place!

Ramsdale Stone Circle with Brow Moor in the distance

Whitby Abbey Whilst in the North Yorks Moors, of course, it would have been churlish not to visit, in addition to Rievaulx, and see first hand that classic view of Hammer horror movies: Whitby Abbey, where there is also an excellent little museum, and fine views over this little seaside town. The finest view though, is from the summit of Blue Bank at the very eastern edge of the moor, near Beacon Howe and the Bridestones, from where one can see the whole bay – and indeed the Abbey itself.

View over Whitby from the summit of Blue Bank

wood panelling in Helmsley Castle Being in Helmsley for the week – I couldn’t leave without a visit to its castle, and enjoyed the surprise of surviving 16th century wood panelling in the one remaining complete building of this medieval stronghold. I confess though it was quite satisfying to see how the great tower that was the visible symbol of Norman overlordship – looming over Helmsley’s market square – was felled by the Parliamentarians who destroyed this Royalist stronghold in 1644.

remains of the east tower of Helmsley Castle

fresh vegetables at The Star Inn Vegetable garden at the back of the Star Inn It remained but to delight – on the last night in Helmsley – in the truly brilliant gastronomy available at The Star Inn in Harome, 2 miles away, where much of what one is served is grown out the back. This was a really fantastic meal – truly fine dining with the freshest of ingredients!

Leaving my little one-bed self-catering cottage early on the last day, I took a detour on the road home to stop off on the edge of Ilkley Moor, for one last moorland walk up to the Twelve Apostles stone circle, a delightful (restored) circle of twelve small standing stones, with possibly the finest 360 panoramic vista of any circle I’ve ever seen – especially on what felt like the most glorious weather of the whole of 2012!
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To view all the photos from this holiday visit Flickr

North Yorkshire, Sept 2012

This summer’s tourism is more generally Neolithic than specifically Megalithic, and closer to home than Spring’s sojourn to the Mediterranean. I am in North Yorkshire – staying in a little cottage in Helmsley – and have hippy rock musician Julian Cope’s ‘Modern Antiquarian’ (1998) with me, along with Teeside Archaeological Society’s Brian Smith and Alan Walker’s excellent ‘Rock Art & Ritual’ (2008) all about the unique Neolithic Rock Art of the North Yorks Moors, and Durham Archaeology Professor Chris Scarre’s ‘Megalithic Monuments of Britain and Ireland’ (2007) for more general reference. I also have OS Landranger Maps 94, 99, 100, and 101, and GoogleMaps and the OS Maps on my iPhone4S, along with its compass and excellent camera!

The first visit – being in Helmsley – was of course to walk the couple of miles up the Cleveland Way to the picturesque ruins of Rievaulx Abbey, Britain’s first Cistercian institution, from 1132 CE.

Rievaulx Abbey ruins from the Cleveland Way

A truly idyllic valley, it is little wonder that some six centuries later, the 17th century Fred Goodwin, Charles Dunscombe, upon acquiring the Helmsley estate (complete with ruined Norman castle at Helmsley as well as the ruined Abbey) should decide, not only to build the rather over-the-top Dunscombe Park country house, but to splash out on the then avant garde new-fangled ‘natural’ landscape garden known as Rievaulx Terrace, with its Tuscan and Ionic Temples, and its multiple vistas looking down onto the ruins of the Abbey. A really lovely place, this – you can imagine the late 17th/early 18th century posh-types promenading along here and taking Sunday lunch – apparently twice a year – in the Ionic Temple, built in Roman style but with Greek mythological stories painted on the ceiling. Its a giant fridge magnet proving to all who care to visit that Charles Dunscombe – commoner made good through the (then relatively) new wonders of modern banking – had been on the Grand Tour and seen where the Classics came from. His son married into blue blood and the family added a title to their conspicuous wealth.

Stunningly beautiful Regency earthworks - with neo-Ionic Temple

But of course the main reasons to be in North Yorkshire are Neolithic: specifically the two sacred landscapes to the West and to the Southeast of the Moors, and the numerous sites – and in particular the rock art – up on the heights of the Moors themselves.

Thornborough Henge 1 - north, Camp WoodThe sacred landscape to the West is the plateau of land between the Rivers Ure and Swale, roughly between Northallerton in the north and Ripon in the South. Cope’s book tells the story well and I refer the reader to his account for more detail. [I also refer you to the Friends of Thornborough website – in particular to news of a fresh application to quarry up to the edge of the site!] My own visit focussed upon two sites – the Thornborough Henges in the north, and the Devil’s Arrows in the south. Both these sites have survived the ravages of time only barely. As Scarre asserts, henges are Late Neolithic (3rd millenium BCE) cousins of cursus monuments, stone and timber circles, and stone rows, where the high bank is usually outside the ditch (unlike Stonehenge, which is both a henge and a stone circle, and where the bank is inside the ditch). Henge, therefore, is not the best word, frankly, but we’re stuck with it. These monuments are not numerous, possibly because they are quite easily ploughed out of existence by farmers who’d rather not plough round them.
Thornborough Henge 2 - central
The three Thornborough Henges are in a row, roughly Northwest to Southeast, and the best preserved is the one that is forested over – called Camp Wood. The next best is the central monument, whose outer bank has collapsed in several places, but which still rises here and there to a good height. The cursus monument – probably earlier than the henge – that runs across the southern edge of the central henge, is all but indistinguishable from the modern landscape – I think the single track tarmaced road probably runs along it. The southernmost henge is inaccessible unless you’re happy to walk through a field full of young bulls, or walk around it until you find one of the small breaks in the hedge where there is a white tube covering the top line of barbed wire where you can climb over. It is very depleted by the ravages of time.
Thornborough Henge 3 - south The incessant beeping of trucks at the gravel pit described by Cope in the 1990s is no more – indeed the gravel pits are now reclaimed as a nature reserve a little way down Moor Lane that includes a useful car park where you can leave your car before exploring the three monuments. Visiting all three is a must – you get a clear idea of the depth of the ditch and height of the bank (and width of the top of the bank) in Camp Wood, and, without the tree cover, a good idea of the scale and grandeur of the henges in the central monument. From the southern henge, you can look north back across the tops of the highest surviving ridges of the bank around the central monument to the trees of Camp Wood in the north and get a real feel for how the three monuments may have worked together in the past, with a Processional Way of some kind linking the three, no doubt, though no sign beyond field boundaries remains of such a Way, that I could ascertain.

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View of central and northern wooded henge from southern Thornborough Henge

Satisfied with my visit to the henges – a good two hours of clambering that made me grateful for my boots and long trousers, despite the heat of the late summer – I made next for Boroughbridge, a small town a short way down the A1(M) from Thornborough. As Cope describes so vividly, this dead-straight Roman road completely cuts through this landscape, and in its modern motorway form cuts one off from the surrounding landscape too, as you drive from junction to junction. But there is worse to come. Arriving at Boroughbridge you discover just how completely an ancient sacred monument can be disrespected in the modern era. The three Devil’s Arrows – a row of three supremely tall monuments of grit stone, scored by rainwater in great deep scratches from summit to base – are separated by the road, which cuts through them right next to the northernmost, and tallest, stone. The other side of the road, behind a tall hedge, the two remaining stones are completely inaccessible in the midst of a large field of cabbages. Heartbreakingly desolate, this ancient sacred site is quite desecrated, and after the briefest of visits I pressed on, eager to leave the place as soon as possible. Very sad.

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The sacred landscape to the Southeast of the Moors has, I’m sorry to say, faired only a little better. The centrepiece is the largest monolith in Britain, the Rudston Monolith, erected on a natural mound c2000 BCE, and rising over 26ft in height, today capped with iron to stop it eroding. Around it stands the graveyard of a Norman church – Rudston’s All Saints Parish Church. Yet in the landscape of four thousand years ago there are no less than four cursus monuments – including the 2.5mile long Argham Cursus – that meet here at Rudston, along the little rivulet the Gypsey Race. Nearby are a number of ancient Howes – the finest outside of Wiltshire – including Willy Howe, where amidst the bracken and undergrowth of the tree covered mound I found a ‘Whiteleafed’ thorn tree, and added a strip of my handkerchief as a little offering to the tree, the Howe, and the landscape around. It was truly heartening to see that this Howe is not only visited, but clearly frequented by other Pagan-minded people who partake in one of the most ancient of customs – the making of Whiteleafed trees.

Willy Howe

This concluded my visits to the two sacred Neolithic landscapes around the Moors. I couldn’t resist, however, whilst here, a few miles of the Wolds Way, and a glimpse of the Iron Age earthworks that comprise Camp Dale. Heavily agricultural now, the area is difficult to access beyond the bounds of the path, and the Camp itself inaccessible, but the earthworks remain, nonetheless, impressive! Tomorrow – the Moors themselves!

Earthworks at Camp Dale, from the Wolds Way

Corsica, May 2012, part two

Statue-menhir at Capula Wednesday was my trip through the heart of Corsica, taking in the Bronze Age sites of Cucuruzzu and Capula: the former rather dull, in all honesty, the latter re-occupied in the Middle Ages by Count Bianco, who ruled the whole of southern Corsica from here, leaving barely any trace of the earlier Bronze Age site save a single statue-menhir now reconstituted and erected at the entrance.

Mesolithic Corsica The Prehistoric Museum at Levie was well worth it – a regional museum with artefacts from Cucuruzzu and Capula and other sites around the south of the island, including the Dame de Bonifacio – a 35yr old disabled woman from 10000BCE. It became really clear here how the islands of Corsica and Sardinia were once one massive lump of granite – originally part of the Pyrenees – which had moved gradually across the western Mediterranean only reaching its current location as recently at 9500BCE – a blink of an eye in geological time. To repeat from the last post, not only all the obsidian found on Corsica came from Sardinia, where the main obsidian mine for much of Europe is found; there aren’t any metal ores on Corsica either, so all the bronze – all the swords and daggers on the statue-menhirs – came from Sardinia, too.

Col de Bavella From Levie the drive up through Zonza takes you past the Col de Bavella, the immense peak of the southern part of the island, like a punk haircut in ancient stone, riven by the ravages of time and erosion into the weirdest of shapes: the ‘Quarry’ at Filitosa but on an epic scale! The drive down the east of the island from there gives continuous glimpses of the most lovely of beaches, before the road turns inland again toward Porto Vecchio. Wishing to avoid this most touristy of towns, I climbed up to the mountaintop of Casteddu d’Araghju (quite a climb in the afternoon heat, I can tell you) to the Bronze Age Nuraghic-like ruins there, before heading back across country to Sartene, through the smaller villages back up to Levie and back down the winding road to my little gite.

From Bonifacio, Club Med in the foreground, Sardinia in the background Thursday, like Tuesday, was a quieter day for relaxation, but I did take in the lovely seaside town of Bonifacio in the early evening, stopping at the delightful Terrasses d’Aragon restaurant, where the food was every bit as good as the view, (despite the complaints of fussy eaters on Trip Advisor) and I was able to marvel at the short strait that divides Corsica and Sardinia – perhaps a teensy bit wider than the Menai Straits, and certainly too wide for a bridge, but much much closer than France is to Britain, which of course was also a walkable landmass at the same time, when mesolithic hunters peopled Europe.

Today – Friday – I have seen the megalithic site that makes the holiday, for me. Filitosa, as my last post I think made clear, was far too ‘interpreted’ for me. Today, after visiting the small alignment of Stantari, the slightly larger grouping/alignment of Renaghju, and the ‘poster boy’ dolmen of Corsica: Fontanaccia, all thankfully left fairly well alone, (albeit along a well signed, well fenced tourist walk), I struggled across fields up and down a long and winding dirt path with no signage – unsure I was even going the right way, though trusting the excitement in my heart – to the barely touched, mostly recumbent, weed strangled Alignements de Pagliaju.

Stantari Stantari had (at least) two of the later, Bronze Age (c2000BCE here) statue-menhirs, with their proud phallic heads and stony faced looks, standing slightly taller and narrower than their rough hewn neighbours. This made me think, strangely, of the Celtic Crosses in the Hebrides, which I had always thought were probably remodelled standing stones, the new religion recycling the monuments of the old. Here it was again – though in this case c3000BCE monuments remodelled in c2000-1800BCE. There seems some disagreement on the web about whether all of the menhirs in this particular alignment are statue-menhirs or just the two. To my eye, there were only the two, amongst rough-hewn others. But as the whole site was fenced off with barbed wire it was impossible to get close enough to really tell.

Ranaghju Renaghju, not fenced off, about 5mins walk down the path, was definitely all rough hewn – supporting my feeling that the statue-menhirs were later remodellings at Stantari. There seemed to be a number of alignments with nearby hilltops, in particular with the characteristic Corsican rocky outcrops shaped by erosion into weird and wonderful and eerie faces, animals, and rock-spirits. The alignments were however either very complex or the re-erection of stones quite haphazard.

Dolmen de Fontanaccia Third in the circuit was the Dolmen de Fontanaccia, pictures of which I have seen everywhere in Corsica – hence me dubbing it the ‘poster boy’ of Corsican prehistory, alongside the most representational of the Filitosan statue-menhirs. All three of these sites, I have to admit, rather lacked atmosphere – that wonderful quality of megalithic sites that captures the imagination. They were all somehow too manicured, albeit far from being over-interpreted like Filitosa. Perhaps I am spoiled by the wonderful Historic Scotland, English Heritage, and National Trust, in the UK, who all do their utmost to protect, conserve, tastefully and almost imperceptibly renovate, and generally if possible leave well alone (with notable exceptions, of course….)

Alignements de Pagliaju But then finally, some 20mins or so further down the road, and situated on private land, with just a short little drive off the main road, blocked off with granite blocks, leaving parking space for only one car between the main road and the blocks, all under a rusting and defaced sign saying ‘Palaggiu’, I began the 15minute walk up into the wilderness, past an empty ruined hilltop farmhouse, with only the odd collection of rocks shaped into an arrow to guide my path (very tasteful I thought), leading finally to a completely rusted sign with an arrow scratched onto it pointing off the main track to what I had gleaned from the map was the site of the Alignements de Pagliaju.

Alignements de Pagliaju with Col de Bavella in the distance The atmosphere here was truly amazing. The stones fair sizzled in the midday heat (as I did!) and for all that many of them were recumbent, those that still stood made clear how the original site seemed to have been laid out. I could discern something of a ‘T’ shape, with the top bar longer than the pillar, if you get me. The pillar seemed aligned with the very far distant peak of the Col de Bavella. There were so many stones in the central main alignment – I would guess originally a double row of stones, similar to that at Callanish – but as most were fallen, tumbled amongst the gorse and weeds, it was difficult to tell if there weren’t here and there single or small groups of stones between the rows, too. The stones in the ‘pillar’ of the ‘T’ were so tumbled, all recumbent in the dust, it was not possible from a short visit such as this to tell if they had even been in a row, though they certainly seemed to extend away from the main lines of stones in a perpendicular direction, roughly in line with the far distant mountain tops.

Cairn with cup-and-ring marks at Alignements de Pagliaju Over to one end was a group of massive granite blocks (such a frequent sight here) which I could climb to get something of an overview. Behind the blocks, seemingly at the entrance to the site, were the remains of a cairn, I don’t know whether contemporary or later than the alignments, that seemed to include internal cup-and-ring marks.

I spent over an hour here, in the baking heat, wandering amongst these enigmatic stones, thankful to the owner for leaving well alone and making it quite hard to reach, alone with the ancients.

Palaghju panorama

Megalithic Tourism: Orkney and Corsica May 2012

It’s turning out to be quite a month for megalithic tourism!

Skara Brae I am blogging today from Corsica, that island in the Mediterranean to the north of Sardinia, with Italy to the east (to which Sardinia belongs) and France to the north, (to which Corsica belongs.) Both islands have indigenous languages older than Italian and French, and the road signs in both are bilingual. But the Sardinians speak several languages, and here in Corsica French is definitely uppermost.  The islands were of course one large island, until the retreat of the last ice age and rise of sea level circa 8000 BC.

Anyway – before I tell you about my (solo) travels in Corsica, I must tell you what I was up to last weekend! For the May full-moon weekend, I drove to Orkney. [I’ll post some more pics here soon – WordPress is having trouble with pictures at present – a problem with the new server, I’m sorry to say – so these links to Flickr will have to suffice for now : Orkney Pics on Flickr]

It’s a nine-and-a-half hour drive from Manchester to Thurso, the little town on the very north coast of Scotland from where one takes the ferry to Orkney. Fortunately, after a busy week, I had with me trusted old friend and fellow traveller on various megalithic excursions (including the Isles of Scilly), Alan Slee, to share the driving. Leaving central Manchester at 7.30am, stopping for coffee once late morning and for lunch at the House of Bruar (an excellent and recommended stopover), we arrived in Thurso at about 6pm and stayed over at the Royal Hotel. It can’t be said that Thurso is a particularly thriving town, or that its 3* hotel was especially well appointed. The Station Hotel offered the better menu, and we supped there – the Cullen Skink being particularly good!

The 8.45am ferry from Stromness Harbour to Scrabster on mainland Orkney rolled rather threateningly in high seas for the first 30 of the 90 minute journey, but was soon in more settled waters and landed us safely where we could at last drive out of the ro-ro and onto the island, and head for our cottage for the weekend. I have rented a good number of self-catering cottages in the UK, some old, some new, some large, some small, but I have to say this one was one of the very best, ever: warm, cosy, a superbly well kitted out kitchen, lovely bathrooms – all in all an excellent place: Unigar cottages – highly recommended. Exhausted from our epic journey of Thursday, we achieved little more than shopping on Friday, stopping off at Rennibister Earth House on the way – appropriately enough a neolithic store house – and scrumping for mussels and limpets on a beach of the Bay of Firth to soak in salt water overnight for a seafood soup the following day.

Ring of Brodgar The truly ‘epic’ day, however, was Saturday, when we took in the Heart of the Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site, comprising the Ring of Brodgar, the Stones of Stenness, Maeshowe Burial Chamber, and the neolithic village of Skara Brae. We rose early and went straight to the Ring of the Brodgar, arriving first before any other tourists, and were fortunate enough to have the site to ourselves. Once sporting 60 stones, this is quite simply one of the most impressive stone circles I have ever seen (and I’ve seen a few!) The central area is covered in heather and the signs clearly require visitors to keep to the path around the perimeter within the circle of stones. But the stones themselves are all so individual, so fascinating, that there is plenty to immerse oneself in without the desire to venture into the centre. The weathering of thousands of years is all too apparent on many of the stones, but the sense of mystery and awe seemed accentuated by the inclement weather that soon blew in from the Atlantic, bringing at one point a shower of hail to cloud up the lenses on our cameras. We completed the circuit just in time before the next tourists arrived at the circle, and as we left, gathered a few marsh marigolds to add to our lunchtime salad – a foraging delicacy plentiful in these parts.

From the Ring it is but a few moments drive down the Ness of Brodgar, past the site of the excavations where a Neolithic Temple – some say a kind of Neolithic Hogwarts – is being unearthed. The archaeological site is only open for tours during digging, for six weeks each summer, so all we could glimpse was the black plastic sheeting covering proceedings. What may have transpired in this temple, further excavation may yet give tantalising hints at. Leaving it for another year, we continued across the Ness to the Watchstone, and on across the bridge (reputedly in place for thousands of years) to the Stones of Stenness.

Stones of Stenness The Stones of Stenness is an amazing circle. Once twelve stones – (one has to wonder whether there might be some sexagesimal significance to the 60 stones of the Ring of the Brodgar and the 12 of the later Stones of Stenness?) – there is an aura of majesty around the tall and imposing stones that the Ring, with its smaller and more weathered stones, somehow lacked. The Stones of Stenness feels more like a grand chapel for the mighty, compared to the cathedral-for-all at the Ring of Brodgar. Behind it, at the Barnhouse ‘village’ site, one feels rather in the lodgings of a priesthood that ministered at Stenness, like the cells of an abbey, and one can almost envisage grand ceremonies undertaken by the elect at Stenness for vast geo-political strategems, by the monkish inhabitants of Barnhouse, alongside more prosaic public ceremonials for the masses undertaken at the Ring of Brodgar. In between, secret preparations and initiations in the Temple of the Ness prepared the priesthood for their labours.

Such imaginings are perhaps merely fanciful, yet in truth even the interpretations of the most knowledgeable of archaeologists are often little better. I rely a great deal upon the careful work of archaeologists but confess I rarely take their ideas of what life and ritual were like thousands of years ago without a good helping of salt. It is only a decade or so since even the idea of archaeo-astronomy – the alignment of Neolithic sites with solar and lunar risings and settings at various times of the year – became anything less than New Age rubbish as far as professional archaeologists were concerned. It is now broadly accepted orthodoxy across Europe. Stellar alignments of course remain very hard to gauge, as the night sky moves inexorably with the precession of the equinoxes, and what may have been true in 1500BC is yards off today. But – complex though their movements are – the sun and moon rise and set today pretty much exactly where they did 5000 years ago – give or take a few inches – and at Maeshowe, in particular, the Winter Solstice still lights up the inside of the chamber with startling accuracy. This chamber, built with four standing stones at its corners, and three more, shorter, stubby ones each immediately below the openings in the sides of the chamber allowing access to sub chambers, and all completed with the most amazing and enduring masonry in between, is quite literally the most accomplished feat of Neolithic masonry I have ever seen. Certainly more accomplished than Newgrange, for all the marvels of its corbelled roof, which I visited in 1996. Certainly more accomplished than the temples of Malta, where I visited in 2008, for all their gigantic size. Certainly squarer and more precise than the chambered tombs of Jersey (Apr 2009) and of the Isles of Scilly (Aug 2009). I was really quite stunned. This was masonry on a par with the Egyptians (March 2007): and they were later. And there is no evidence of any burial in this chambered cairn – only some tale of human and horse bones that were mysteriously ‘lost’ by the Victorian antiquarian who ‘found’ them in the cairn. The mystery of what this place was really for, remains.

Skara Brae Finally then, to cap an already amazing day, to the village where the people who worshipped at these great temples actually lived: Skara Brae. The wonder of this place is not so much in the finery of its furnishings, the layout of its dwellings…. all these seem, somehow, so natural, so thoroughly familiar. The wonder is that they have been dated to 3100BC. That’s contemporary with the temples on Malta – complete with strikingly similar stone dressers! The wonder is that they have survived at all. The reason? On Orkney, already by the time of the Neolithic people who began farming here in the late 4th millenium BCE, there were no trees here. Mesolithic man had long ago cut them all down. So the village – like the temples – was made out of stone.

Yesterday, in Corsica, at Filitosa, [see the pics on Flickr here Corsica pics on Flickr] I discovered another of these extraordinary archaeological/environmental cross-overs. Remember the Bronze Age warriors of the 2nd millenium BCE whose little metal statuettes are so common on Sardinia (Apr 2011), the island to the south where the Nuraghe were built? Well it seems that here on Corsica, where not only the absence of any obsidian meant it had to have been imported from the southern island, (from where most of Europe’s Neolithic obsidian haled) but also the lack of any metal ores, meant that the statuary of Corsica had to be in done not in bronze, like their southern cousins did, but in stone. So here, in Corsica, almost unique in all of Europe, one can witness the phenomenon of the statue-menhir – megalithic menhirs that, in the Bronze Age, were carved in the likeness of fierce warriors, brandishing swords and daggers – the latter undoubtedly imported from the neighbouring island to the south.

The weekend in Orkney ended on the Sunday, with a visit to the southernmost island of the Orkney archipelago (all one great island in Neolithic times, as were the Isles of Scilly, and islands of Corsica and Sardinia), South Ronaldsay, accessible over a series of causeways that link it, via a couple of small islets, to the mainland of Orkney, and, on its southernmost coast, the Tomb of the Eagles – a chambered cairn entered through a very low passage on a large skateboard. The roof was completely new, concrete, yet the aura of the place didn’t suffer too much from this reconstruction, and the skulls in one of the chambers set the place off as a truly eerie burial chamber, quite unlike the experience at Maeshowe. It must be said, however, that the private management of this site was not a patch on the professionalism of Historic Scotland at the World Heritage Site. Monday, all day, I drove, and drove, and drove….

Then on the following Sunday, an aeroplane, landing at Ajaccio, and a hire car down to a little gite near Sartene – not a patch on Unigar but sufficient for my needs, and Monday, the crown-jewel of Corsica’s prehistoric monuments, Filitosa – an extraordinary experience indeed.

Fliltosa Filitosa is a large and fascinating complex. There is evidence of several thousand years of occupation here, from the Mesolithic, through the Neolithic and Megalithic, and on into the Bronze Age. The rough-hewn menhirs familiar to the rest of Europe, and contemporary with the megalithic era in Malta (Mar 2008), and Portugal (July 2007), are in evidence, but much more striking are the later, Bronze Age statue-menhirs, carved menhirs that resemble both huge stone phalli and statues of warriors. two of the five tall statue-menhirs at Filitosa To my eye both are implied by the artists who created these amazing works of prehistoric art, between three and four thousand years ago. The warriors they represent, resplendent in their armour, with their daggers and swords, wear helmets every bit as phallic as they look, and the statues are monuments to the virility of the warriors and to the fertility of their power. There is only oblique mention of the phallic symbology in the guidebook, in this Catholic country, but reference is inescapable.

Central Monument at Filitosa The interpretive work undertaken by the landowner and the Corsican authorities has resulted in some slightly deceptive placements. The six small statue-menhirs on the central monument are the broken upper-halves of once taller statues-menhirs that were incorporated into the spherical dome-like structure built over the top of the end of the spur by Nuraghic-era people occupying the site later than the creators of the statue-menhirs. The Western monument, below the Central Monument, is very Nuraghic indeed, bringing my trip last year to Sardinia strongly to mind. The grouping of the five tall statue-menhirs by the tree below the spur is clearly recent rather than historic. In truth what is visible now is (necessarily) a melange of several different periods of occupation overlain with late-20th century interpretation and reconstruction. By far the worst part of this muddle, however, is the placement of small plastic installations emitting quite horrid ‘mood-music’ here and there around the bluff, in between narrative descriptions. These, along with the regular, taller, metallic ‘interpretation stations’ with buttons for different languages – which unfortunately do not offer an ‘off’ button – turn this central area of the site into a kind of outdoor museum, neither one nor the other, and the French commentary interspersed with the ‘mood-music’ is the permanent default. This I must say I found most off-putting, and it was only at the platform, under the tree above the group of five tall statue-menhirs, that, hands on the stone, with only the whisper of the gentle breeze in my ears, I could in any sense ‘feel’ any of the majesty of the place.

Face in the rock of the Quarry Climbing further up to what they have termed the Quarry, to my eye the most striking sight was the clear face within the rock – far more interesting than the so called ‘dinosaur’ to the rear of the rock formation. Here, indeed, it seemed the Goddess of Stone and Earth looked out across the entire site, with her eerie headdress and staring eye.

The Bronze Age hut foundations, perhaps the dwellings of the carvers of the statue-menhirs, were fenced off, and hard to see – quite a contrast with the Barnhouse or Skara Brae – and clearly insufficiently ‘mysterious’ for the curators of this tourist attraction. I have to say, in the end, that the overlay of interpretation at this site to a certain extent spoiled the experience, certainly when viewed in contrast to sites elsewhere where the interpretation is strictly separate from the site, and relatively unobtrusive, though the reconstructions undertaken by archaeologists are everywhere evident: even the Stones of Stenness had been re-erected from recumbency within the last hundred years.

Nonetheless, the site is well worth the visit, if only to see, and feel the majesty of the extraordinary art-work of the Bronze Age statuary.

Nuraghe

Palmavera Nuraghe, Alghero, Sardinia
Visited a Nuragic tower and settlement today – Palmavera.  Fascinating.  In occupation roughly 1500BC to 900BC.  There are all the hallmarks of the typical Sardinian Nuragic tower, surrounded by huts.  This is a Class II example, with a double central tower rather than the simpler single tower, or the more complex (Class III) multiple tower examples – most of which are in the south.  As usual I have acquired a rather academic archaeological book in advance to read up on the culture in advance, as well as purchasing, today, the book on the site available at the ticket office. The guides seem to assume that the towers were the dwelling places of chiefs, surrounded by the lesser people in their huts.  Even in the article criticising previous attempts to suggest colonisation from the Eastern meditteranean must have been the origin of such comlpex architecture, supporting instead the idea of a developed local megalithic culture, the assumption remains that these towers are the dwellings of chiefs.  Yet everywhere, unexplained, and glossed over, there are miniature models of these towers.  In the huge round ‘meeting hut’ here at Palmavera, (as found elsewhere), where there is a bench all the way round the inside of this largest of all the huts, and a central pedestal, the item on the pedestal, the focus of the meeting, is a model of the tower – yes the one that is just outside this meeting hut.  In all the archaeological digs, little hand-held or window-sill size models of the tower are found from the period.  It strikes me, I have to say, that one hypothesis archaeologists might do well to investigate would be that these towers were not dwelling places at all – at least not of the living!  It strikes me that these towers were ceremonial places, and if utensils have been found there then they may have been offerings, or there may have been feasts in these towers.  Inside, the conical corbelled roof reminded me of Newgrange.

After Palmavera, I cycled on to Anghelu Ruju, an older – pre-Nuragic necropolis with more than twenty tombs, and evidence of multiple burials from the end of the Mesolithic right through the early Neolithic and up to the Nuragic period.  They were hollowed out from what seemed like a limestone shelf, eerie, ancient, sometimes square, sometimes circular, covering many centuries of use and reuse.  In one, there was a doorway at the end of the entrance passage, flanked clearly by crescent-moon like bulls-horn reliefs.  It was a very potent image of the deepest past, and struck me that perhaps these dark, enclosed spaces where the spirits dwelled might indeed, in the Nuragic, have become the heart of the new-style settlements : no longer perhaps specifically burial sites, but the dwelling places of spirits whose cults had begun in the necropolises.  Idle speculation perhaps.  Amateur archaeology, certainly.  But what delightful weather to do it in 🙂

Interesting Update:
See this for some news on the Nuragic culture!

Alghero Limoncello

Interesting day.  Got pulled over last December and fined for speeding on the M60. Had to surrender my licence to be amended and reissued.  Only rememebered on the plane that I hadn’t received the replacement yet – four months later!  So I’m not able to hire the car I reserved with Hertz, and, after a brief warning chat with the Tourist Info point here in Alghero about daring to speak to the Italian police, I am clearly grounded in Alghero, reliant on the scant bus services.  Ah well.  Lots of excellent food and wine shops and an opportunity to cook a pasta di frutti di mare. Yum! Sauteed the polpo (octopus) until tender while I ate the fresh local aspargus – lightly steamed – with garlic butter.  *licks lips*

After dinner I heard a band outside the window of my little studio apartment in the old town and leant out the window to see what was going on.  It was a parade of some sort – with candles, and therefore probably religious. I put my coat on to go downstairs and follow.  The procession, led by the band, included a tall effigy draped in a black cloak – it had to be the Madonna – and was followed by what was clearly mostly local people with a few tourists at the edges.  I joined the locals, and followed them down through the winding streets of the old town and eventually into the church.  I followed two young lads, taller than all their elderly relatives, but seemingly just as devout, right up until they joined some of their peers in a side chapel of the church – I guessed they were teenagers who had been choirboys.

I stood off to one side in the shadows at the side of the church, as the main congregation clustered around the effigy of the Madonna, resplendant in a magnificent cloak, but somehow not that dissimilar from a shop-window dummy in a white dress and black cloak.  As the Latin and the Italian chants around me played themselves out, I thought about Italy as the home of the Roman Catholic Church, of the pride of the Italians in leading a billion or more christians around the world.  I thought of the golden idols that Moses threw down and how he might view the worship of this shop-window dummy of the Madonna.

As the ceremony came to a close I turned, but before leaving picked up a tea-light at one of the many candle-stations and lit it, tracing the pentacle with my finger on my forehead, and saying a little prayer to the (local Sardinian) Goddess, knowing that She was here, thousands of years in the making, regardless of what the priests might say in a language long dead, of a man who died thousands of miles away…

I returned to my little studio, stopping off on the way to buy a bottle of Limoncello, and as it chilled in the freezer, enjoyed the single MonteCristo I bought at the same time, delighting in the joy of being stuck in a little town on a little island in the Med, with nothing to do.  What luxury!

BTW: Despite Sardinia being the home of Tiscali (its President is Tiscali’s CEO or smthg) there is no WiFi anywhere in Alghero, and only 90s style pay-for-10mins access to the internet on slow-as-tractors ancient XP machines in photocopy shops.  So blogging is going to be strictly an iPhone affair. And what a bloody pallaver that is!  Text is easy, but an image???!! Running my own installation of WordPress on my own server, (and I’m not sure that that is the problem, just saying) I cannot add (using my iphone) an image to WordPress from my iPhone (it requires Flash) or, via the URL option, from my me.com gallery OR my flickr gallery (just get a red X – presumably these galleries require signup of some kind.)  Where to put a free access photo then?  Couldn’t FTP anywhere it on international data connection.  Stumped.  So much for Web 2.0!!!

02 fortunately can’t charge me more than £35 for data roaming – up to 50Mb.  Good job considering how many pics of my dinner I’ver sent from my iPhone to various so-called Web2 spaces.  So if I go quiet – you’ll know why!  Any advice welcome!!