Rock art in a church. A little niche and in a little niche. Nice.
The church is St John Lee in the small village of Acomb to the north of Hexham, close to the bustling A69. Nestled beside the entrance to this church is a liver-shaped stone with carved cup-and-ring marks and some other wounds.
This stone is unfussily sitting, recumbent, on the church floor, accompanied by an information panel of some care and attention. The handwritten note tells us that this ancient sacred object – The Oakwood Stone – was found nearby and ‘many years ago’ dragged to this propitious location by chain.
extracted from the land
The Oakwood stone, twice named, vaguely reminiscent of MR James’s Austin the Twice Born and his enchanted oak carving skills. The Lee part of the name of the church refers to a clearing in the wood, cutting down trees and making recompense with symbols, a church.
It is appropriate that stone should come to rest here, as it was of religious significance to its makers.
There is an inclusive nature to this inclusionary act, protecting this homeless carved stone, not ‘Christianising’ it. This is refuge. There is no judgement here, no condemnation, just quiet reflection on the mystery of religion and the things folk do for their gods.
To accompany the publication of my short piece on the Hexham Heads in the wonderful Helleborezine (#5 The Unearthing Issue) I wanted to share with you some words from the cutting room floor.
In my initial version of this article, I interspersed my account of the story of these cursed objects with a narrative that was articulated by the Heads themselves, or at least one of the Heads. This was in the end excised from the article through an act of editorial mercy. In hindsight it is apparent that this concept does not work because it was never clear how the Head was communicating this narrative, or was able to sense the world around itself being, in effect, made of cement. I could not find a coherent way to explain how the Heads were aware of their surroundings to be able to comment on them, nor was it clear how they knew what the things around them were or what was happening to them. It was a liberty even to render their story in modern English, although this could always be explained away by the conceit of ‘translation’.
I am well aware that material finds its way onto the floor of the cutting room (what a messy and slippy surface that must be) for a good reason as those who have watched the two-night versions of The Wickerman can attest. Yet through all this, I feel that the Heads’ side of the story deserves to be told….
The stones of the children
We are dark and damp, soil-stained and weary. Between us we have little memory of how long we have been in this horrible place, where grass roots attempt to penetrate us, and we are subject to disturbances from above and the action of worms. What if one of us were to crack open in the cold and shatter into pieces? What hope for us then?
Then – there was a disturbance, violent thrusts churning our loam cage, tremendous tremors. Hunks of our environment torn off around us, fresh air playing on our spherical forms. We could smell freedom even although our noses were never furnished with nostrils. A giant grasping hand plucked me from the earth like a stone potato. The other followed on, flicked from our pit, only to roll in the damp grass and licked by a waiting dog.
Grubby fleshy fingers thrust into our mouths and eyes, forcing out accumulated soil and dead leaves. Then we are held aloft, faces set to the sun for what seems like the first time, absorbing radiation, finally warming up.
Our hollow eye holes cannot produce tears although they can harbour condensation.
Our silent slitted mouth slots were never equipped with a tongue but do provide a resting place for larvae.
Our round bodies are blessed with no functional orifices even although we have the façade of faces.
We are but carved stones balls and we do not know our names.
After our harvest from the soil, we were carefully placed on a wooden shelf inside, heat coming from below, the flickering of a fire. We had been passed from hand to hand, examined, poked, explored, and when this stopped, we were placed on our mantel, left alone, no longer worthy of curiosity. Day passed into night. There was little else to sense. Until there was a disturbance, something shaking our resting place, causing us to roll back and forward pivoting on our necks.
Objects around us animated crashing around broken clicking things rhythmic banging familiar sensations warm breath now something we remember from before we went into the earth breathing dirty breath fingers clasping around us fingers with hair –
Our senses are heightened, we can sense vibrations, waves, magnetic fields, change. We feel. It seems we are inorganic objects. Dead. We have never been alive. We are made things, created for a purpose that we cannot grasp, our story dissolving before we can comprehend it, dissipating in waves of light and sound, electrons and quarks. We are dead things and that is why people fear us.
We are now back in the darkness but this time a dry airless place, trapped in an oblong box. We are nestled amongst something soft, separated from one another by many layers of fibrously thin material that disturbs our bond. The box shakes then I am lifted out of this space and laid on a solid surface, warmed by a bright source of light and heat that is not the sun. There is a hum in the air.
Alone and exposed, touched by pieces of equipment, I am being explored, turned over and over, and then scraped.
We have no memory of our creation. Our form is irregular, asymmetrical, unnatural. We have consulted the energy we have absorbed from all around us, played it back in private moments usually from within a desk drawer, but our atoms can only recall hazy details. Big rough hands enclosed us completely, vibrations of rhythmic laughter, song, veneration / mockery. Our features were created through human toil and ingenuity, eyes pressed into our bodies, mouth prized open with metal, nose formed, hair carved into us.
We are created things but do not have the capacity to know who created us or when. So why do they think that by studying us that we will reveal our secrets?
Other people vibrate fear, scared of us, won’t touch us, can’t meet our stare which they assume to be dead and malevolent. In their hands they share with us their sweat. We know we have power but cannot recall the source of that power or to what purpose we should put it to.
We abide. Our secrets remain locked into our stone cores, and none have been able to crack us. We are like ancient pieces of flint that have developed a concealing cortex through time, a patination that conceals our true nature, stone camouflage. The material that we are formed from is in flux, and every attempt to categorise us, to petrologically identify us, will fail. Magic dust has no chemical formula and like quartz we have no cleavage. In order for us to be sustained we must be lost, for it is only through misfortune and forgetting that we endure. We want to be lost, we must be lost, and we will make sure that we are lost, over and over again.
We want to be lost, we must be lost, and we will make sure that we are lost, over and over again. Please someone hyde us.
The final joke only (just about works) if you know that the Hexham Heads were last seen in the company of a dowser called Frank Hyde. Niche humour.
I have published four previous blog posts on the Hexham Heads – Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4. Oh yes! To quote Schloup on the Fortean Times forum thread on the Heads of me, “I think this gets nearer to the truth than anything else I’ve read for a long time”.
Acknowledgements:I would like to thank Maria J Pérez Cuervo for asking me to write a piece for Hellebore – a dream come true! – and providing and allowing me to use images related to the zine in this post, but also her patient and wise editorial guidance.
Pilgrimage involves a journey in hope, ritualised behaviour upon arrival, the slow walk with reverence and humility, supplication in front of reliquaries and relics, the leaving of an offering, the purchase of a souvenir, and a journey back cleansed and vindicated.
I had just this experience recently when I visited the lower floor of a multi-storey car park beneath a Waitrose and shopping mall in Dorchester, Dorset.
A multi-story car park.
This was the fulfillment of a long-held ambition of mine to make this pilgrimage to a place of urban prehistory. An ambition that began with the establishment of a folder in my urban prehistory memory stick on 5th June 2013 simply entitled: ‘Waitrose timber circle‘. A folder set up in expectation of this pilgrimage, six years in the making, and also a potential blog post finally now being realised.
In the folder, the photo that started it all.
A megalithic manel.
A link to the Megalithic Portal page that this picture came from was copied into a largely empty ancient MS Word document in the folder. Also written there was the excitable note: There is also a mural in the shopping centre all about the building of the timber circle!!
The 20 painted red circles in a line running across this car park were the target of my pilgrimage, indicating the (precise?) location of large Neolithic postholes that were excavated in 1984 advance of the shopping mall development by the Wessex Trust for Archaeology (now Wessex Archaeology, ‘welcome to the future of heritage’).
These postholes were part of the boundary of what was likely to have once been a massive late Neolithic (third millennium BC) palisaded enclosure, that is an oval space some 380m across, enclosing about 10 hectares, defined by hundreds of huge timber posts. The extent of this enclosure (of which only a small part was ever excavated) is such that much of central Dorchester sits within / atop its boundary, now of course invisible, buried, perhaps almost wholly destroyed. Five similar postholes were apparently also found at Church Street, a location some hundred metres away. Taken together with the projection of the curve of the posthole arc, dots were duly joined and a notional enclosure was born (or reborn) on the ancient banks of the River Frome (now much smaller than it was back in the day).
This monument, of which similar examples have been identified across Britain, Ireland and Scandinavia, may well represent one of the most monumental endeavors of British prehistory even although it now lies beneath Icen Way, Drumgate Street, the Dinosaur Museum and a pub called The Blue Raddle (‘laugher on tap’).
My own excavations (with Gordon Noble) at comparatively smaller sites at Forteviot and Leadketty, Perth and Kinross, brought home to me how massive these monuments must have been, not simply in terms of the resources, time and labour needed to build them, but also the impact they would have had on the broader landscape. A lot of oak trees had to be felled for starters.
Only 40m worth of the Greyhound Yard boundary was excavated in 1984. These were massive postholes, some almost 3m deep, and 2m to 3m across, with ramps to help with post erection. Using standard calculations (1m of depth can support 3.5m of post height above ground) then these postholes could have supported oak posts of up to 1m in girth and 14m length, perhaps 10m of that the height above ground. These would have been re-arranged tree trunks, bloody massive posts.
Doing some rough calculations on the back of Brexit propaganda from the nearby Wetherspoons (The Royal Oak), this enclosure would have had a circumference of something like 1.2km (if a complete circuit) defined by posts that were spaced between 1 and 2m apart. The boundary would have consisted of at least 600 oak posts, each weighing in the order of 10 tonnes. That is 6000 tonnes of oak alone, a similar figure to that calculated by Alex Gibson for the Hindwell palisaded enclosure, Wales, which he excavated. (This enclosure was bigger in plan but was defined by smaller postholes.)
The Greyhound Yard (or my preferred name, Tudor Arcade) monument is only one part of a larger complex of Neolithic enclosures on the south side of the Frome, which also include Maumbury Rings henge, Mount Pleasant mega-henge and Flagstones causewayed enclosure, which puts this locality on a par with the Avebury and Stonehenge landscapes, although less celebrated due to Roman monkeying about, urbanisation and lack of World Heritage Status. (Maumbury is a sensational site despite the Romans buggering it up, and I’ll blog about this in the future.)
Exactly how the monument came to be memorialized in red paint and artworks is less clear (given that this was certainly not a normal thing to do in 1984 never mind today) although I heartily approve of this way of doing things. There are even a couple of metal plaques in the lift concourse area of the car park that explain what the painted circles mean and offer some context which give a space-age start to this prehistoric-car park experience. One has to travel down to get to the good stuff and make Star Trek door noises for the full effect however.
Marked in Mosaic in the floor of this car park are the positions of 20 huge posts the text begins, with the reverent tone of a giant fantasy novel.
The posthole paint circles are a deep brick red, about 1m in diameter each, and spaced less than 2m apart, arranged in an irregular line. These are highly stylised depictions of what the postholes would have looked like and I have my doubts if they the originals were quite disposed like this being both too regular, too small and too close together if the stats given above are to be believed.
The paint circles offer rich juxtapositions with the more normal paint marks and urban furniture one would expect to find in such a car park.
Looking more closely, it is clear that not all of the circles are painted, and indeed some are ‘mosaic’ like, as suggested by the shiny metal noticeboard. These were concentrated on the north side of the car park and seem to be the cover of circular voids, drains or (ritual?) shafts of some kind. This indicated the artifice of this rendition of the monument, suggesting the floor level of the car park is not at the same level as the Neolithic postholes, which would have floated somewhere above or below the tarmac level.
This is urban prehistory with depth, with stratigraphy.
After a period of paying my respects and documenting the occasion with an undue level of excitement and diligence, in a surprisingly empty Sunday lunchtime car park, we headed into the lift shaft and arose to the mall level, levitating over the Neolithic.
Here, we saw the aforementioned mural and it did not disappoint.
Dynamic ceramic images are set into a brick wall, immediately outside the entrance to Waitrose, position to be admired by shoppers with jute bags placed between their legs. A timeline moving from the Neolithic forwards, left to right, not stopping at the New Stone Age but hinting at deep time and the continuity that such big monuments tended to demand.
In the beginning, erection by beast.
Then centuries, maybe even a millennium later, but in reality a few centimetres to the right, the age of land divisions as Parker Pearson would have it was depicted. Farmers haunted by the ghosts of the palisade, inexplicable holes which they dare not fill in but perhaps deign to drop some potsherds into just for luck. Or maybe one of their cows shits in one of these ancient hollows, the stuff of life.
Underneath it all a commentary, a mapping of time to contextualise the images above, words in English almost breaking the spell. But not quite.
The narrative continues into the Iron Age and later still, and once again a metal sign lies nearby to explain all to the curious consumer. As well as annoyingly using the word history to describe what is largely prehistory, the information board informs us that the murals here were funded by the John Lewis Partnership (owners of Waitrose) and again date to AD1984.
It also tantalizingly notes that the ‘frieze from the original panels’ is now in the ‘Waitrose’ staff canteen area, suggesting these murals are actually replacements or at least based on another piece of art. I did not try to get into the dining room to see it – perhaps I should have but it felt rude to intrude.
Another information panel related to the Neolithic monument which lies beneath this shopping mall was missed by us on our visit, but documented on twitter by Susan Greaney and replicated here with permission.
Part of the Dorchester Dormouse Trail, this noticeboard erroneously calls this monument a henge. Nonetheless the reconstruction drawing is evocative of this being a big monument defined by some mighty posts although here people (men of course) are doing the erection and not yoked cattle. The text gradually descends into Stonehenge fetishism and some story about Thomas Hardy. There are however a couple of nice pics from the excavations, a site plan, a cartoon mouse (the eponymous dormouse) and one of those QR codes which I have neither the desire nor the inclination to use.
This noticeboard is located on Acland Road for those who possess local knowledge or want to visit.
The pilgrimage ended with the partaking of victuals at the aforementioned ‘Spoons, safely outwith the boundaries of Greyhound Yard.
Thus I have squeezed all I can from my visit to Dorchester, and the time spent within the confines of this mighty Neolithic enclosure will long live with me, even when viewed through the lens of a 1980s shopping mall.
The noble attempt to inform patrons of this mall of the deep time beneath their feet and underneath the tyres of their cars is surely an example of hyperprehistory in action, the added value that prehistory can add to a place of consumerism and transactional behaviour.
Let’s face it. You will never look at a red painted circle the same way ever again.
Sources and acknowledgements: I was accompanied on my visit to Dorchester by Jan Brophy and Andrew Watson, and they helped to keep my emotions under control. I am also grateful to Susan Greaney for sharing with me and allowing me to use the photo of the noticeboard which we shamefully missed on our pilgrimage.
The mural was the handiwork of John Hodgson – his website mentions it briefly. Thanks to Zooms@freespiritspice for pointing this out on twitter.
The excavation report for the Greyhound Yard Dorchester enclosure is:
Woodward, PJ, Davies, SM & Graham, AH 1993 Excavations at the old Methodist chapel and Greyhound Yard, Dorchester 1981-1984. Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society Monograph.
A good general source of information (including the gazetteer entry reproduced above) on the site and parallels is:
Gibson, A. 2002. The Later Neolithic palisaded sites of Britain. In A. Gibson (ed.) Behind wooden walls: Neolithic palisaded enclosures in Europe, 5–23. Oxford: BAR International Series 1013.
And for a more recent and even broader overview (with lots on Forteviot), see:
Noble, G and Brophy, K 2011a Big enclosures: the later Neolithic palisaded enclosures of Scotland in their Northwestern European context. European Journal of Archaeology 14.1-2, 60–87.