Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Circles and Standing Stones: part 2

He was in a kind of gallery walled and roofed with blocks of stone.... At intervals along the walls there were openings that led into small rooms filled with bones....

Nhiall, the hero of Journey to Aprilioth, is trapped in West Kennet Long Barrow, Wiltshire's largest and most famous neolithic chambered tomb.. The mound is spectacular-- a vast wedge-shaped hummock stretching nearly three hundred and fifty feet along the crest of the hill, with a seventy-five foot sarsen-stone facade.

The tomb itself occupies only about an eighth of the total length, which raises an obvious question: if they were only going to use the first forty feet, why did they make the mound so long?

Nineteenth century antiquarian Sir Richard Colt Hoare speculated that West Kennet was the mass grave of a slaughtered army. Finding no evidence to support this theory, he threw up his hands in despair, declaring himself "utterly at a loss to determine the purpose of such gigantic mounds of earth".

The underground passage is built of huge up-ended boulders capped with slabs of undressed stone. Modern glass bricks set into the roof provide a little murky light. The two pairs of side chambers were in use as tombs for over a thousand years, and remains of over forty bodies have been recovered. Nearly all the adults had arthritis-- telling us something about the British climate in 2500 B.C.
In one of my English photographs I'm standing outside West Kennet Long Barrow, gazing across a bare field at the vast conical shape of Silbury Hill. My expression is faintly puzzled. Silbury Hill was built somewhere around 2750 B.C.--the largest man-made earth mound in Europe-- and it's been puzzling visitors ever since.

One hundred and thirty feet high and covering more than five acres, it looks as though somebody very important indeed must be buried underneath it. According to local legend it's the tomb of King Sil, who was interred on horseback in golden armour at the centre of the mound. Others maintain that the hill is the site of a magic circle so powerful that it had to be buried--rather like radioactive waste-- under twelve and a half million cubic feet of chalk-rubble. The fact is, that although people have sinking vertical shafts and driving tunnels into Silbury Hill since the mid-l700's, they've have uncovered nothing more revealing than some antler fragments and a Viking bridle bit.

New-age thinking sees the entire British landscape, with its fascinating clutter of tombs and mounds and cumuli and henges, as an enormous image of the earth-goddess. Silbury Hill's splendidly suggestive shape (in aerial photos you can clearly see the nipple on top) lends weight to this argument. But then shouldn't there be two of them? One can only suppose that government funding ran out.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Circles and Standing Stones

Megaliths have been in the news lately, with the unearthing of a large Neolithic settlement where the builders of Stonehenge may have lived. For centuries the mysterious Wiltshire monuments have been a source of puzzlement and fascination for tourists, archaeologists and writers, and they figure prominently in my “Grey Isles” Bronze Age trilogy. Some years ago, on a holiday trip to Britain, I mapped out a course that retraced the steps of my characters across the Wessex landscape of four thousand years ago.

The Grey Wethers

Cresting a ridge, Naeri saw beneath her a vast saucer-shaped depression strewn with a multitude of grey sarsen boulders. Half-embedded in turf, they looked from this height like a great flock of grazing sheep. (The Sarsen Witch)

That was my hero’s first sight of the Grey Wethers--and from a distance, thrusting up out of the short dry grass, they do look remarkably like sheep. The indefatigable early Brits who built Stonehenge hauled these massive blocks -- the shattered remains of the chalkland's sandstone cap-- all the way from the downs above Marlborough to their present site on Salisbury Plain.

We took the A4 to Fyfield village, following the guidebook's instuctions to park our car "off the main road by a barn on the side road leading to the church"; and immediately got lost. The local vicar, clearly used to doubling as an information kiosk, put his head out of the vicarage window and steered us along a footpath beside the A4. Just out of town we found an unobtrusive National Trust sign marking the Piggledene valley, which stretches north towards Fyfield Down National Nature Reserve.

Richard Symonds, writing in his diary in 1644, described the area around Fyfield as "a place so full of grey pibble stone of great bignes as is not usually seene." "In this parish," he went on, "they lye so thick as you may go upon them all the way." The locals called these peculiar grey boulders “Saracen Stones" --- Saracen meaning heathen and suspicious.

We climbed over a stile, and wandered along the floor of the valley among scrub trees and thickly scattered stones. Little has changed here in the last four millennia. We were quite alone, apart from a flock of rather surly sheep. The valley of the Grey Wethers is less frequented by tourists than other, more spectacular megalithic sites. The sheep, who seemed irked at our intrusion, surged irritably to and fro.

Of the vast tract of sarsen boulders described by Richard Symonds, only a small protected area remains. Most of the stones were hauled away by nineteenth century masons to make roads and gateposts in the Fyfield area.

I picked up a small curiously shaped stone, just the right size to fit comfortably into my hand. My husband eyed me apprehensively. "I think they have rules against carting off the scenery," he said.

…to be continued

Monday, March 19, 2007

Stonehenge Revisited

My bronze age historical fantasy novel The Sarsen Witch, the third book in the "Grey Isles" series, will be back in print this coming fall. Shortlisted for an Aurora Award in 1990, it's a tale of earth-magic, megaliths and high adventure in the world of the Wessex war-chieftains.

This new edition of The Sarsen Witch will be released by the Juno Books imprint of Wildside Press in September 2007.