Interlude ~ Sound principles?

We waited for a few minutes while our small group took pictures of the stones of Stonehenge. It is rare to be able to photograph the monument without hordes of people, but with the gates closed to the general public, calm descends. We were all waiting to be allowed within the circle of stones, but I wondered how many had realised that we had actually been within Stonehenge itself for quite some time.

The remains of the outer embanked ditch, situated outside the normal visitor path and often overlooked.

Over five thousand years ago, our ancestors created a circular ditch and embankment, some three hundred and sixty feet in diameter. It was dug out using antler picks, and yet, curiously, they buried animal bones, flint tools and antlers of a far greater age in the bottom of the ditch itself. These were not simply old things that they had cast away, they were placed there with care after being looked after for many years. Why such reverence? What did these animals represent for the diggers of the ditch? Were they perhaps invoking the guardianship of the clan’s Spirit Animals… or that of the Ancestors themselves? As the bones belonged to deer and oxen, perhaps they were attempting to ensure that the herds were kept safe and plentiful, and that their bounty would serve the clan’s needs.

It was not until the seventeenth century, that antiquarian John Aubrey discovered fifty-six pits, arranged around the inner edge of the ditch. These became known as the Aubrey Holes. In 1920, the early days of modern archaeology, William Hawley excavated over fifty thousand bone fragments, dumping them unceremoniously together into one of the Aubrey Holes, as being of no importance.

Scale model showing the embankment and ditch, within which the Aubrey Holes hold the bluestones. Image: Stuart France

The bones belonged to sixty three men, women and children, each of whom had been cremated and their remains interred with meticulous care. In 2013, Mike Parker Pearson and his team brought more rigorous modern methods to bear on the bones and the pits, finding that each pit may have held a bluestone, which they suggested may have been as a grave marker. I have to wonder at that…

The bluestones are not the huge trilithons, but substantial pillars of stone that now form the inner circle. They were famously quarried and carried to the spot from Wales, over a hundred and fifty miles away. This discovery meant that the first ‘stone circle’ at Stonehenge was possibly five hundred years earlier than had been thought. Not only that, but analysis of the bone fragments showed that most of those buried had lived most of their lives in Wales… not on the Plain around Stonehenge.

So, just who were these men, women and children whose calcined bones merited burial beneath a sacred stone, carried all the way across the country? Why would such stones be placed as simple ‘grave markers? Were the stones perhaps more intimately connected with the men and women who were buried beneath them?

We can only speculate and attempt to put ourselves in the minds and hearts of those who walked the land thousands of years ago. What if the dead had served the stones or the clan? Or both, considering how far they had travelled together. Was the burial a way of assigning a guardian to each stone and its properties… enshrining an Ancestor to act as intercedent and wisdom keeper, perhaps?

And why were the bluestones so special? What did they bring to the spirit of the place?

As we were finally allowed into the circle, I thought about the research that has been done on sound. The bluestones of Preseli have been tested, and ring like bells when struck. A scale model of the completed monument has been tested in an acoustic chamber, proving conclusively that sound made within the open-to-the-winds structure would have been amplified and acquired the resonance of an indoor amphitheatre. I have seen visual representations of soundwaves that look like the petroglyphs carved in ancient tombs… and I thought back to the experiments we have been drawn to do with sound and chant within the sacred places. Of ‘lighting up’ the stones of Bryn Celli Ddu after we had chanted and verbally renewed our dedication. Of potentially hitting the right note or vibration to ‘unlock’ the stones…

Long ago, the only enclosed spaces would have been the caves, which our earliest ancestors made their homes and sanctuaries. They would have learned to understand acoustics, simply by living there, listening to the echoes and distortions, perhaps even using such sounds to navigate the passageways.

Barrows across the wider Stonehenge landscape look like star systems… Image: Stuart France

The caverns would not merely have been a place of safety and refuge from the weather, they would also be the belly of the earth… a place in which you were held safe within the Mother. It was not until we began to build our homes and settlements that other such ‘inner spaces’ would be created. But you can imagine how magical the sound of inner space would be when you are out beneath the stars…

If sound were key to the bluestones, that would make sense… especially as they are not really blue; the dolerite stones look like the darkness of interstellar space scattered with swirling galaxies…

And yet, a short while later, as I stood between those bluestones once more… none of the ’mind stuff’, research or even logic mattered while Stuart chanted for me, quietly and unobtrusively, for healing. All I could feel were the waves of sound, wrapping around me and lighting my spine as we had once lit Bryn Celli Ddu…

Interlude ~ Before the Stones

The trouble with writing about somewhere like Stonehenge… somewhere that almost everyone recognises and feels they know something … is that most of us know nothing at all apart from the familiar form of the circle and trilithons.

We just accept that this is an ancient monument, built by people who were maybe not quite as savage as we generally think, for some strange ritual purpose… probably to do with the stars or planets. Or it was built by the Druids? And all the stones came from Wales… And that really is about all most of us know…and most of that is wrong or at least, woefully incomplete.

Stonehenge… the first part of the name is thought to come from the old word for ‘hanging stones’… or ‘stones suspended in air’. The ‘henge’ refers to an outer and circular earthen embankment with an internal ditch, such as the one around the great circle of Avebury, where we had been earlier that afternoon. At Stonehenge, however, the ditch is outside the embankment; just one of many of the anomalies of this site that make it quite unique. Time, feet and erosion have taken their toll on the henge, but the ditch and banks, overlooked by most, can still be seen on the outer edge of the monument field.

Then there are the misconceptions about its timeline… for the circle was built in phases on a site already held and made sacred by the many burials it contained. And then there is the sheer scale of the site… because you simply cannot ignore the number of other archaeological features that cluster around the circle, rippling out across the wider landscape to include many miles and the mindboggling possibility that the vast sites around both Stonehenge and Avebury were designed to work together. And, even when you stand within the circle, it looks something of a jumble to begin with until you begin teasing apart the layers of history. So where do you begin?

Showing just the major monuments immediately around Stonehenge. Image: © Martin J. F. Fowler

At Blick Mead, about a mile from the circle of Stonehenge, is a freshwater spring that neither fails nor freezes all year round. Not only would this water source have made the area useful for both people and animals… it was also a magical spot. And its magic remains to this day, suggesting a second reason why our ancestors chose to settle here. The water of the spring contains a rare algae, turning stones that have been in the water red within an hour or so of being exposed to air. Not surprising, then, that ten thousand years ago, towards the end of the Mesolithic period, when the hunter-gatherer culture of the Middle Stone Age was beginning to settle in one place instead of always following the herds, a settlement should have been built at Blick Mead.

We know from other sites across the country, such as Star Carr in North Yorkshire, that there was a sense of magic and ritual within the human community at that time. The ground conditions at Star Carr preserved unusual amounts of organic material, including a number of headdresses… antler frontlets, made from the horned skulls of red deer, artworks and ornaments. Some of these had been deliberately broken, which implies either gratitude or a sacrifice to some higher power. Which in turn suggests that reverence and spiritual beliefs were well-formed and ingrained.

Unsophisticated caveman?

We know too from sites such as Warren Field in Aberdeenshire, that these Mesolithic peoples were capable of constructing complex sites. Warren Field also dates back ten thousand years and its pits and a midwinter alignment within the landscape constitute an accurate lunar calendar.

The fact that these three sites alone, Stonehenge, Star Carr and Warren Field, are spread end to end across our country, tells us that there was more travel and interaction between areas and tribal groups than we might at first have thought… and thus a sharing of knowledge and techniques was possible that would rapidly disseminate ideas.

Studies run by the University of Buckingham conclude that the settlement at Blick Mead shaped Salisbury Plain to their needs over the course of several thousand years. Six thousand years ago, the trees were cleared across the Plain. A causewayed enclosure was built at Robin Hood’s Ball near Amesbury, just a few miles walk across the Plain. Long barrows began to appear too… and there are well over three hundred known barrows within just a two mile radius of the circle at Stonehenge… around eight hundred in all.

Timeline of major landscape features around Stonehenge.

Not every body warranted a barrow burial, but many of those who were so buried were interred with rich and beautiful things. This gives an idea if the importance of the area in spiritual or ancestral terms. As each of the ancestors were lain in earth, perhaps their spirits added to the cumulative wisdom of the land and its people. Perhaps the presence of the dead rendered the living fit for the priesthood. Perhaps, after millennia of association, it was from the community at Blick Mead that the idea sprang to raise a forest of stone beneath the stars…

Interlude: Looking Back…

The mere idea of “saving the ‘best’ till last” was feeling all too prophetic. Especially as ‘best’ is debatable anyway.’ Most iconic, perhaps, best known worldwide, most unusual… but just ‘best’ is  too subjective. From the magic of mountain-girt Castlerigg, to the intimacy of Barbrook, where ancestral voices still whisper, each circle has its own feel and character. Perhaps Stonehenge is the Westminster Abbey of stone circles… but it is in the quiet chapels of the tiny parish churches where the prayers of centuries are most often felt.

Where we ought to have been recently, on the Orkney Islands, we might have touched something similar, something older, for there are theories that the Megalithic culture spread from those isles… or perhaps they too were just another stepping stone back towards an even more ancient vision.

But we were here and now. It had been a long day. I had already driven for hours and would have hours more to drive before we were home. I was ill, struggling and, had we had any sense whatsoever, we would not have even considered such a trip under the circumstances.

But then, sense does not come into it when you are called… and there had been far too many synchronicities for us to think otherwise. Even the group who would finally be allowed within the circle was less than half its usual permitted number; it was a mere handful of strangers, therefore, spread across two buses, who would be free to wander within the stones of Stonehenge.

“I saw you at the stones wrapped in wings,” had said my healer-friend, so I had worn my favourite scarf, surprised it was warm enough to be without a decent shawl at this time of year and evening. I would have liked to walk to the great stones, each step carrying me one step closer to both past and future across the long-sacred earth. A pilgrimage, of sorts and a homage to memories of my own long-ago. But the ravens walked with me as I lagged behind, failing to keep up, even on the short path from the bus.

I was not at all in the frame of mind that I should have been. I think, most of all, I was afraid that the circle would have closed down… that it would no longer feel ‘right’ after so much attention by so many people…many of whom are simply gawping at something they will tick off their tour list as having ‘done’. Were my memories of the place, of the feel of it, anywhere near accurate… or any reflection of what was left, now the site was under corporate protection?

I desperately wanted Stuart to be able to feel some trace of what I had known when the stones stood free to the wind and to the worship. Not how they had felt from outside when last I had brought someone here, milling around the edges with thousands of others…

Our guide and guardian, a storyteller, took us to the edge of the grass, allowing us a few minutes to take people-less photographs of the circle before we went inside. And as soon as my feet touched the forbidden green beyond the barriers, seeing all the faces emerge from the stones, I knew my fears were groundless.

The circle opened its heart to welcome me back… and ‘welcoming’ was exactly the feeling Stuart reported later, with a good deal of surprise. It was not what he had expected from the place at all. It is hard to find words that describe it… as if each of the different types of stone… the sarsens, bluestones, gneiss and many others… all sing a different note, but no matter how beautifully they harmonise, their song needs to pass through the human heart in order to be heard, felt and lived. So it was with tears of gratitude streaming… and probably a very silly grin… that we finally entered the circle of stones.


Full Circle: Long Meg

Our final site of the day was to be one of the most astonishing circles we have visited. It is not the biggest, nor are the stones themselves the largest, but it has a ‘feel’ unlike any other. Castlerigg, which we would visit on our final day of the workshop, may rightly be accounted one of the most beautiful of circles, but what Long Meg and her Daughters lack in aesthetics, they more than make up for in sheer presence.

On our very first visit, the light had been going and the winter dusk had been bitterly cold. We thought we knew what to expect…after all, we had seen enough photographs of the place. I had even a vague memory of having been taken there as a child. Yet, we had rounded the corner and been ambushed by the stones. Getting out of the car, we had literally bounced with excitement, like children at Christmas. The site was more, far more, than we had expected.

For a start, the narrow farm track that is signposted for the ‘Druid Circle’ gives no warning when you are about to arrive. It does not stop at the edge of an enclosure or parking space… it carries on, straight through the circle, skirting stones that divide the track at one point. When we arrived with our party for the workshop, our passenger too felt that ‘psychic shock’ and was, moments later, out of the car and bouncing up and down like an excited child.

The short winter’s day was drawing to a close and we would be in the circle at sundown. Unlike our last visit, equipped with cameras, the fading light would not linger and we lost no time in sending our party out to explore and attune with the stones.

Captured from Google Earth

The circle is huge, the sixth largest in Northern Europe, and not really a circle at all. It is an oval, formed from the geometric form of the vesica, and some three hundred and forty feet across its longest axis. Although legends say that it is bad luck to try and count the stones, the usual count puts them at fifty nine stones still in situ out of the seventy original stones. The whole thing was once surrounded by a low embankment, which may have been white-faced with gypsum, allowing it to glow.

Long Meg herself is the solitary standing stone who watches over her ‘daughters’, which are the stones of this Bronze Age circle. Legend says a coven of witches were put to sleep and petrified by a Scottish wizard named Michael Scot. His surname may indicate his origin north of the border, but Michael harks back to the Saint of that name who is so often shown with the dragon held quiescent on the point of his lance. The dragon power of old Albion, associated with the leys, was seen as pagan and therefore ‘evil’ by nascent Christianity and knowledge of its ways driven underground. Perhaps the dragons, like the stones, merely sleep…

The circle was built as part of the megalithic tradition which began around five and a half thousand years ago. The exact date of the circle and the surrounding enclosures and embankments is uncertain and its precise purpose is unknown, though much can be deduced. For a people who, like our ancestors, constructed interrelated sites across vast swathes of the landscape, it is probable that there is a relationship between this site and others in the area, including Little Meg, two fields away, and the henges we had visited. Not far away is the sacred landscape and Avenue at Shap… and you have to wonder if, as at Avebury and Stonehenge, these features formed part of a greater plan…and if so, did it echo the map of the heavens as our ancestors once saw it?

There are larger stones in circles across the country, but the stones are far from small. The four quarter-stones are not local and are quartz-bearing. Most circles are built from a single type of stone, perhaps with a quartz-bearing stone, or even an entire boulder of quartz, such as we had seen at Boscawen-Un. Here, however, Long Meg herself is a column of red sandstone that sparkles in the sunlight and which, with the quartz-rocks, differs from the rest of the circle. The technology of stone as it was known to our ancestors may be lost to us, but we have echoes in the use of crystal for both healing and communications technologies. Their choices of stone were not only deliberate but significant.

The arrangement of the stones suggests a calendrical function that would work by standing outside the circle and sighting across to the quartz stones. Long Meg herself, standing outside the circle, is part of a Samhain alignment with a portal stone and one of the quartz rocks.

Long Meg is a magnificent presence. Standing twelve feet tall, she is ‘tattooed’ with concentric circles and her uppermost surface is notched in the manner we have so often seen. This may be simple erosion, as is often averred, or the weather may have exaggerated an existing feature, but whenever we see this kind of notch we are struck by its similarity to the sight on an old-fashioned firearm. And this, we believe, was its function.

Between anecdotal observations and the mathematical precision survey work such as that conducted by Professor Thom’s, a good many astronomical alignments have been proposed and observed, indicating alignments at solstice and equinox and particularly with Deneb, the brightest star in the constellation Cygnus. Deneb heads the Northern Cross in the heavens and, along with Vega and Altair, is one of the three stars known as the Summer Triangle that was used for navigation right up until the twentieth century, helping pilots find their way home. There are physical alignments within the landscape too and while the entrance to the circle frames the hills, their form is shadowed in he contours of the stones.

As the day drew to its end, we gathered around Long Meg, focussing our minds and breathing. Closing our eyes, we once more sounded our ‘words of truth’, this time giving voice to the vowels which are the flowing seeds of sound. It is odd, but the voice changes when you work in this way; sound emerges unrecognisable from your throat as if illuminating hidden corners of your being. The words ‘breath of Creation’ passed through my mind, listening to the anonymous voices joined in unplanned harmony.

As we ended our day, the light failed and the clouds broke, allowing a final glimpse of the sun setting behind Long Meg. Wishing I had not left the camera in the car, I reached for my phone, just to mark the moment. The stones were alive, glad, I felt, for our presence and glowing faintly in the twilight as the sky itself offered us a final gift.

Going west – Carreg Coetan Arthur

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This was the third dolmen we had visited in three days whose name tied it to the legendary King Arthur…and three times three is a magical number. It is certainly a magical site and quite unexpected as you walk between the gaily painted bungalows of the little coastal town of Newport.  A gate opens into a green oasis, bounded and shadowed by high hedges, cool in the midday sun, where you come face to face with the oddest little dolmen. My first thought was just as odd…that it reminded me of Ani, the way she sits with the front paws together, demure and expectant, yet somehow regal and ready to pounce in joyous abandon… there was that kind of ‘feel’ to the place.  Very much alive.

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Like most of these sites that were once houses of the dead, the overriding impression is not one of melancholy, but of warmth and gladness. You can understand it on a bright, summer’s day, but I don’t know why it should be so in the depths of winter or in pouring rain…yet so it is. There is no sense of the macabre in walking where the bones of our ancestors once lay, no sadness or ghoulish tremor; just a sense of gentle peace and reverence, which says more about our ancestors’ attitude to death, perhaps, than anything we might deduce from the formal study of the past. It is as if they already knew that Life cannot die…only the forms that hold it for a short while can fade and pass, returning their elements to the earth to fuel the cycle of becoming.

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We don’t really know how old these sites are. The scientific process of dating them takes into account both the style and method of construction, comparing them to other dated sites, along with any artefacts that are found during excavation. Anything that can be used for radiocarbon dating, or one of the other modern methods, is a bonus. Even so, such methods can only tell when the artefact dates from, not the site itself, unless its position allows archaeologists to deduce that the find must have been in place before a site was built over it. There have been finds of bone, Grooved and Beaker ware on a platform beside the cromlech and there are other, smaller boulders half buried, part of an unknown construction. Carreg Coetan Arthur has been dated to around 4,700 years old. The nature of the finds suggest that bodies were never buried here, but that only defleshed bones were brought to the site.

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We call them tombs, yet I have to wonder if our modern definition really fits the use for which they were designed. That bones were laid in such places, there is no doubt…many have been found, mainly longbones and skulls, neatly arranged by type rather than by person. The bones of many individuals, over decades and centuries, laid in places that seem also to have been used for the rituals that sustain life. To the modern mind, life and death are to be kept separate and our tombs a place to bury the past, not include it in our celebrations. I prefer the older view, that recognises what has gone before as a necessary part of what is.

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 The first impression of the cromlech is that it is small compared to many others, but that is due rather to the design than the stones themselves. The capstone, deep and bulky, is over thirteen feet long and even now I could walk underneath it. The internal space was once much higher. Centuries of local ploughing raised the ground level considerably and the uprights would have once stood around three feet higher than they do today, creating a tall and elegant form. Even so, to see the great capstone poised upon the uprights is impressive enough. Especially when, on closer inspection, you realise that it is not balanced upon the four uprights at all… but is held, incredibly, upon the points of only two. Wales 040

The two supporting orthostats sit beautifully into deliberately hollowed niches in the capstone. Can you imagine the mastery required to enable such a weight of stone to be so perfectly  balanced? The surrounding countryside is now largely obscured by modern buildings, but the contours  of the capstone are said to shadow the contours of nearby Mynydd Carningli, which we were set to climb that afternoon. Not only that, but the site marks the point from which some interesting and precise solar and lunar alignments have been noted, for both midwinter and midsummer. Such precision cannot be accidental and suggests a sophistication in the observation and reproduction of cosmic cycles that we recognise in the superlative artistry of Egypt yet often overlook in the earthier but powerful presence of stone in our own landscape.

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For the second time we gathered beneath the capstone to share the words of the Gorsedd Prayer, honouring what has gone before, what is and what is yet to come. The human story is but a drop in the ocean of universal time, but it is our story, from beginning to end and the further back we reach through our history, the more we see the commonalities, rather than the differences and barriers we have created between ourselves. Perhaps by looking into the past, we may learn how to face our future.

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